Dipping into The Goose Bath

Apologies for my long absence. I took some time off and traveled to New Zealand – as many of you know – and then returned to some truly awful jet lag. I’ve been reading; I’ve been writing. I’ve missed you and I hope you missed me.

One of my favorite travel activities involves locating a bookstore in every town I visit. Some people buy postcards; I buy books. And I bought several books of poetry during my trip.

The Goose BathFirst up: The Goose Bath poems by Janet Frame. I must admit that before March, I was woefully ignorant about the poets from New Zealand. Indeed, I had not even heard of Janet Frame, who is perhaps the most famous New Zealand poet. Jane Campion’s film Angel at My Table is based upon Frame’s autobiography.

I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version of her life. Frame was born in Dunedin on the South Island in 1924. She lost her two sisters to drowning when she was young, and she made a number of suicide attempts – mostly feigned. She was in and out of mental institutions and was about to be lobotomized when one of her doctors heard that she had just won the Hubert Church Award for her book of short stories. They canceled the operation. She went on to write novels, poetry, short stories and her three-volume autobiography.

In 1983, she was granted the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) and by the late 90s was considered a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Frame died in 2004 at age 74 of leukemia. In 2006, Random House/Vintage released The Goose Bath, a collection of previously unpublished work. 

It is from The Goose Bath poems (edited by Pamela Gordon, Denis Harold and Bill Manhire) that I am reading these days.

“I Do Not Want To Listen”
by Janet Frame

I do not want to listen
I refuse to listen
to the geometric noises
of black and white

My big colorful mouth
has enough to eat thank you
without tasting
a plain triangle or two.

Yes, I know rain-
drops are as heavy
and colourless as stones
and fall tropically

rain-bashing what
scurries
without obvious form
and certainly without hope

to the defining
shelter of a microscope.
And I’ve heard
of stick insects and figures

and striped beds
in the sky and rows
of disembodied black
and white flowers yet

poor as rainbows are
against the pressure
and purity
of no-colour

I must fight and fight
with my red and yellow head
even after I am dead, to stay
my own way, my own way.

The darkness is quite clear in her poetry, especially in early work like “I Do Not Want To Listen.” But I’ve only read a small portion of the collection, so I have not yet formed a solid opinion. I am delighted by her wordplay, though, as in “I Visited”:

“I Visited”
by Janet Frame

I visited
the angels and stars and stones;
also, adjectival poets, preferably original.
There was an air of restlessness
an inability to subside, a state of being at attention,
at worst, at war with the immediately beating heart and breathing lung.
I looked then in the word-chambers, the packed warehouses by the sea,
the decently kept but always decaying places where nouns and their
representative images lay together on high shelves
among abbreviations and longlost quotations. I listened.
Water lapped at the crumbling walls; it was a place 
for murder, piracy; salt hunger seeped between the shelves;
it was time to write. Now or never. The now unbearable,
the never a complete denial of memory:
I was not, I never have been.

Next up: poetry written while Frame was living in London, Europe and America. Stay tuned. Also, if you want to pick up your own copy of The Goose Bath, you may have to order online.

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Flora

Anticipating
the trip, I take
a mental tour
of an unseen landscape.
Fact:
84% of New Zealand flora
are endemic. Isolated
among volcanoes,
like an artist sketching
impossible petals,
the filaments and sepals
emerged and twined, transformed
into pōhutukawa,
the kiwi Christmas tree,
colonizer of lava fields;
rewarewa, the honeysuckle,
its nectar sweet and smokey;
and Tane Mahuta, oldest
and largest kauri tree,
stretching skyward even
before the first Maori set
foot upon the soil.

Las Olas

Liquid, dark and bitter,
the edges like brown foam,
but sweet, too, breaks like surf
on my taste buds.

On the bottom, gritty remnants
of sugar coat the cup and
my lips; he leans across
the table to lick them clean.

Brown rice and beans spill
from my plate, but I do not
notice; all I can feel are
the waves.