Tag Archives: Katherine Mansfield

Tuesday Poem: “Train Ride to Menton” or “Villa Isabella” from Belvedere’s Paw

Julie Manet with Cat, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1887)

Julie Manet with Cat, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1887)

With the release today of my latest “Z-single” — a Wellington-based short story called “Belvedere’s Paw” — I thought I’d post an excerpt which could perhaps work as a prose poem in itself. I say this because I recall first composing this passage as a poem, during a train ride from Paris to Menton some years ago, the muse leaning far out the train’s door, summer wind in hair.

The scene occurs near the end of the story. A cat named Isabelle (called “Belle” for short) is being transported from Wellington, New Zealand, to Menton, France — thus creating a kind of symbolic link with Katherine Mansfield. A small miracle within the story has allowed the cat’s owner, a mother named Sky Blossom, to visit her young daughter in France after many years of separation. It’s a momentous journey for them, but the travel itself is presented from the cat’s point of view:

“Train Ride to Menton” or “Villa Isabella”

Isabelle – whose ancestry goes back to Lord Southhamptom, the well-known “silver-gray tabby” of the 1890s who won twenty-nine cat shows in Wakefield, England – wasn’t accustomed to so much movement.

The serpent roads of Wellington, the shaking and swinging, the roaring, vibrating, interminable flight, the moving walkways and trams, the escalators, lifts and stairs, the potholes and cobblestones of Paris, and for the last several hours, in the train, she’d felt herself falling sideways – everything, the hills and forests with their cabbage-growths of villages and church towers, the sprinkler’s long white worms of water leaping across the artichoke fields, and later (we’re in the South of France now, reader), the pale pink and yellow buildings with the orange tiled roofs and the blue-shuttered windows bearded with potted flowers and hanging clothes, the rock-walled roads and ravines, the lantana and honeysuckle, cascading bluebells and palm trees and stairways everywhere, and through the gaps, flashes of the mint-blue Mediterranean – all of it zipping by at a tremendous speed and cocking Isabelle’s ears backward, fixing her teal-blue face in a flinch.

Villa Isola Bella

The actual Villa Isola Bella in Menton where Katherine Mansfield once lived (click to enlarge).

But now, at last, having arrived at the Menton station and climbing a short but steep distance to the perched portico of a three-story villa, the earth relaxed; the train and a leaf-blower and the perpetual mouse-squeal of her cage’s handle grew quiet; the two-day pandemonium of scents – car exhaust and diesel fumes, detergents, the dog-droppings and dog-spray of Paris, her wintergreen-smelling blanket, lemon-scented tissues, not to mention the sour fragrance of her own vomit which had dried in the front corner of her carry-crate – gave way to aromas of sweet honeysuckle, shady lawns, chestnut and fig and sea broth. A motherly breeze searched her fur for fleas. The shrubs were afizz with little blue butterflies. And the balusters were squat and yellow and inviting her to rub against them. She would grow to like this place, similar to Wellington in its verticality, but warmer, lazier, and wondrously insect-infested. In fact, the locals would so closely associate the villa with its cat, that the house itself became known as Villa Isabella.

_____
Today’s poem is posted as part of the Tuesday Poets, a blog founded by New Zealand poets, but which includes poets from around the world.

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“The Suicide Attempt”

Fraternity boys

That curious American species, boyus fraternatica, engaged in a feeding ritual: ‘…dismissing / Kamal as yet another ‘rusher’, or ‘pledge’, / six frat-boys clamor to the ledge.’

A suicidal Kamal, the hero of our story, is now standing atop the railing at the very end of the Santa Monica Pier, the sound of the Pacific Ocean through the mist below…

He doesn’t leap as much as lean, eyes closed,
an inch or two ahead. But unopposed
by body or earth, he doesn’t stop. A young,
slight girl, with corndog, sees him fall. A kissing
couple hear the woeful splash. Among
the bystanders some lads are reminiscing
of drunken days when they were forcibly wrung
of all their dignity; and thus dismissing
Kamal as yet another ‘rusher’, or ‘pledge’,
six frat-boys clamor to the ledge.

They cheer and hoot. I cannot look! I’ll pen
but never read this book!

                                                            ‘He didn’t know when
to stop. The pier was shorter than his walk,’
they joke.

                      Their laughter makes me think Kamal’s
much better drowned. For even I am shocked
by how these modern day Neanderthals
are acting now. I’d much prefer to talk
of other things, to change the scene, install
these rhymes with Imogene, than to observe
those frat-boy flies unzipped, the curve

of piss, the way, like fishermen with dinky
liquid rods – and somewhere in that inky
sea below are thrashing fish – the way
they lean far back to maximize the distance
of their furthest drop of arching spray.
A poet’s not a sociologist hence
need not only write histoire vérité.
And if I disregard the foul existence
of fools, that choice is mine! How much is solved
when fish – not men – are more evolved!

Financial advisor and television personality, Suze Orman

Financial advisor and television personality, Suze Orman

Besides, look over there; beneath that tall,
myopic, inquisitive lamp which seems in thrall
of those below it (stooping emphatically).
A modish lady stands. She hands her phone
to an assistant; then, pragmatically,
her black computer bag with monotone
command – ‘Hold this’ – and then, dramatically,
she hops and bends until a heel is thrown
aside. The other, too. Not far, however;
enough to hint: An urgent endeavor.

Those ‘Peep-Toe’ pumps had cost her eighty dollars
at Sears. She straightens out the boucle collar
on her low-neck jacket, smoothes her brown
Tahari knee-length skirt and proudly weaves
her way straight through the crowd that’s gathered round.
So poised, so strong – as one who will receive
a large bouquet and beauty pageant’s crown.
She deftly, grandly climbs the rail, perceives
the eyes examining her body, her clothes,
then turns, looks down and plugs her nose.

She’s confident, oh yes. Why shouldn’t she be?
She’s read that book, Extreme Prosperity,
by Suzie Mormon. She’s also read Success
for Dummies
, How to Always Do What’s Right;
Go Girl, Live Your Wildest Dreams!; Express
Nirvana
; Getting All You Want, and quite
a few others. She’s fit, oh yes. The Belly-Press™
has kept her tummy tight. And every night
before the telly, she does karate, pilates,
and Yoga with the Glamouratti.

Buns of Steel

Buns of Steel

Her buns are made of steel. Why shouldn’t they be?
She owns the ‘Buns of Steel’ on DVD.
Although, in truth, she’s always wanted to buy
that Rump Reducer™ – just $389 plus tax –
which even Halle Berry uses – and my!
The bod that Halle’s got! It’s black; but acts
and talks and looks all white! Which must be why
(she thinks) her booty’s slim, and why no real blacks
win Oscars; and why (she thinks) a girl like me
must seize each opportunity

to stand above the rest, to visualize
the goal, then rush to it and claim her prize.
‘You may have wings, but if you lack the will,
you’ll only end up watching others fly,’
as Tyra says – or is it Dr. Phil?
(A footnote from your poet: I saw that guy
on TV once! A lunatic! He’ll kill
himself one day. A gun. That’s how he’ll die.
But back now to our lady perched upon
her lethal ledge – or wait! She’s gone!)

Beyonce Knowles

‘…imagine what the great Beyonce would do…’

She’s leapt! All will, no wings. All rash volition.
A ratite (flightless fowl) with seagull ambitions.
All crash and splash and detonating chill,
and then the sudden thought: Those books, the gym,
the seminars had failed to teach that skill
which one most needs in oceans: How to swim.
She’d never learned! What good was it? What bill
(or dunning notice) could it pay? Her limbs
are toned to wear a swimsuit – but where’s the rule
bikinis are for swimming pools?

She runs in churning place while trying to
imagine what the great Beyonce would do
in such a fix if she couldn’t swim. (She’d sink,
that’s what). No way! I can’t die now! A ‘Power
Agent’ does not die! I’m on the brink
of ‘Agent of the Year’ (which would allow her
to begin a franchise, Sable Inc.,
and make the top commission which, somehow, her
colleagues, Sables all, for many years
have earned themselves, or so she hears).

And what’s this flabby beast which now has caught her
in its paws! It feels her up, this water,
a shameless, crude, sustained frottage. It sticks
– or tries to stick – a clammy tongue between
her tight-pressed lips. Where is the groin to kick?
The eyes to gouge? This strangely cold, serene
assailant lewdly steals another lick
while dodging blows, unmindful of the scene
its captive causes. Her lame attempts to ‘tread’
would better suit a mill instead.

by Adelphi Studios Ltd, copied by  Emery Walker Ltd, half-plate glass copy negative, 1913

Katherine Mansfield wrote in her diary: ‘Risk! Risk anything!’

And yet this violation of her right
to take a breath of air, or curse, or fight,
or even yell for her assistant, Chantelle,
is not acceptable to someone so
determined – every minute! – to excel
despite life’s drag, its constant undertow.
‘Risk!’ wrote Mansfield – but here the parallel
between these women ends, for as you know,
dear Mansfield’s father was quite well-connected
and Katherine’s ‘risk’ was well protected.

__________
See the complete index of episodes from Kamal, Book One

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To Loneliness! — Stanzas 103 to 108

Frank Sargeson's home in Takapuna, New Zealand (water-stained walls not clearly visible in this photo)

The writer Frank Sargeson's home in Takapuna, New Zealand (water-stained walls not clearly visible in this photo)

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Second

In which our narrator muses about what it means to be a writer in New Zealand . . .

103.

A brief aside: I’m hungry and tired.
The following lines may have to wait
for me to fill a dinner plate.
For that, however, money’s required.
This place I write, this shameful shed
informs us where good writers are led.
To loneliness! And water-stained walls!
Woe is he whom Literature calls!
Why must our country’s minstrelsy
exist in crippling poverty?
Is it, as Kipling said, some debt
which traps us? Have we not paid it yet?59

104.

Of course we’ve written honorable cheques,
each signed by a distinguished name
– by Katherine, Witi, Hulme, Frame
and others. And some, to be direct,
by cranks and frauds. (One name’s enough
to stain our credit – rhymes with ‘bluff’);60
But though we’re often praised and thanked,
well, are these payments ever banked?
Are writers like Sargeson and Stead61
in Kipling’s homeland ever read?
And even our Peter-the-Great’s new throne
was built on fiction Tolkien loaned.

105.

I sometimes wonder, dear country – perhaps
we’re richer than we know; a kind
of native gold as yet un-mined
and not displayed on any maps
but which, in fact, might dwell below
our very noses. I surely owe
this thought to someone: Two years ago,
while coming back from Mexico
(a meeting with Vicente Fox)62
a series of light-fingered shocks
from potholes picked my taxi’s glove
compartment’s lock; and gave a shove;

Former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox

Former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox

106.

and out spilled notebooks on my lap.
I’m not a snoop. My eyes, however,
are less mannered; and go wherever
bidden. So in the notebook’s trap
they fell – my full attention snared
by what those scribbled pages bared;
in English and in Hindi, too;
a jumble of words – with some crossed-through
and others circled – but clear and careful
lines of verse composed. Not prayerful
hymns, but brilliant, witty, graphic
ballads penned in Auckland’s traffic!

107.

Some lines I stored in memory.
Heroic couplets, all, like Homer;
and like that bard’s great hero-roamer,
his poems dealt with Odyssey.
I mean – his struggle to return
to where his thoughts and dreams most yearn;
to earn a living, to work, to drive
all day, but never to arrive
at what he called his ‘Destined Nation’.
And now and then in his narration,
his ‘meter’ sang – I mean the one
that tells the fare when it is done.

108.

(A pun, of course. Yet how it quickens
a poet’s heart to think of meters
charging fares to all our readers!
Perhaps we’d be inclined, like Dickens,
to generate more words, and faster;63
to be less poet, more webmaster.
If how I dined depended on
how fast or far my lexicon
propelled you, reader, I’d press
the pedal to the floor, digress
more often, and worry less about
how faithfully I kept my route.)


59 See footnote 2.

60 This editor was able to identify only one New Zealand author whose name rhymes with ‘bluff’. Because of the disparaging context of the reference, however, this editor prefers to let readers reach their own conclusions.

61 C.K. Stead (born 1932), New Zealand writer of talent. When I wrote to him requesting a meeting to discuss the publication of Zireaux’s work, Stead replied that he’d be interested in meeting Zireaux himself: ‘I’m always interested in meeting fellow writers – especially Kiwi writers who’ve achieved some international recognition. I’m not interested in meeting a publisher, thank you.’

62 Vicente Fox Quesada (born 1942), a handsome, slimly mustached man, was elected President of Mexico in 2000.

63 The idea that Charles Dickens was paid by the word – and hence his prolixity – is something of a myth (what publisher would be so foolish?). In truth, Dickens wrote in monthly installments, which forced him to write quickly while generating enough suspense to ensure sales of the next installment.

__________

And now and then in his narration,  his ‘meter’ sang – I mean the one  that tells the fare when it is done.

'And now and then in his narration, / his 'meter' sang – I mean the one / that tells the fare when it is done.'

Zireaux’s comments on these stanzas
Although a digression from our story, “The Taxi Driver’s Poem” — which will appear next week — pierces the very island-navel of Res Publica, Book One.

Nobody likes a poem with a message; but then again, nobody likes a poem that nobody dislikes. I utterly abhor any form of writing school or club, political party or religious fanaticism; but at the same time, in real life, there are few membership opportunities I’m able to refuse. Standing in the doorway of our elegant Georgian-styled foyer, the poor Jehovah’s Witnesses seem almost disappointed at the ease of my conversion. Eternal heaven? I’m in. Really? Absolutely.

In New Zealand I joined the National party first, the Maori party second, then the Greens, the United Front, ACT, the Labour party, in precisely that order. I’m a “Labral” in Australia and a proud Tea-Party Republicrat in the USA — and if I’m asked nicely enough to join the “Intelligent Designers” or the “Climate Change Skeptics,” or swear allegiance to the Flat Earth Society, I will do so without hesitation.

And so it is, in Res Publica, that I so willingly shake the hand of Thematic Interpretation. Nice to meet you. Sure I’ll tell you what it all means. I’ve written a poem about the interplay, or interrelationship, between isolation and immigration. The lacunae between culture, so to speak. Yes, my books are about exile and loneliness, and you’re absolutely right, the foreign-born taxi driver symbolizes what it means to be an artist. The taxi, like Res Publica, is a kind of island, really — an island that belongs to you, that you can control, but that is never completely your own.

Of course I’ll say it, why wouldn’t I?

The taxi driver is me.

 

Read from the beginning of Res Publica | Listen to the audio version (read by Stuart Devenie) | Buy a signed copy of the book

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NZ Poetry Day: Lines from Res Publica, Book One

Frank Sargeson's Home in Takapuna (water-stained walls not clearly visible in this photo)

The narrator in this scene is hiding out at writer Frank Sargeson’s bach in Takapuna, on Auckland’s North Shore. As he writes his epic story, he takes a moment to contemplate New Zealand’s literature.

Lines from Res Publica, Book One

To loneliness! And water-stained walls!
Woe is he whom literature calls!
This place I write, this shameful shed,
informs us where good writers are led.
Why must our country’s minstrelsy
exist in crippling poverty?
Is it, as Kipling said, some debt
which traps us?1 Have we not paid it yet?

Of course, we’ve written honorable cheques,
each signed by a distinguished name
— by Katherine, Witi, Hulme, Frame
and others. And some, to be direct,
by cranks and frauds. (One name’s enough
to stain our credit — rhymes with “bluff”);
But though we’re often praised and thanked,
well, are these payments ever banked?
Are writers like Sargeson and Stead
in Kipling’s homeland ever read?
And even our Peter-the-Great’s new throne
was built on fiction Tolkien loaned.

I sometimes wonder, dear country — perhaps
we’re richer than we know; a kind
of native gold as yet un-mined
and not displayed on any maps
but which, in fact might dwell below

Pahutakawa Tree, photograph by Steven Pinker

Pahutakawa Tree, photograph by Steven Pinker

our very noses. The planet knows
your thickly oozing golden light,
your sails and whales and sea birds in flight,
your Wearable Arts2 and well-carved boats,
and surely if we took a vote,
why all the trees would love to wear
your bright red bows in their summer hair.

You are…a triple-seeded pod
of land in fruitless, boundless blue.
You don’t do what the others do.
You’re young, and thus, a leader of
our hearts, a spirit that we love
— the way you shrewdly shirk the ships
who lewdly whisper, ‘Apocalypse’
into your pretty ear. You set
the world’s best example — and yet

a side of you (all sheep and farm)
could use a lyric ornament
to earn the long-due compliment
of English patrons. (How fast such charm
transforms the debt extractor
into an instant benefactor).
Despite your beauty, it takes a jewel
to end a creditor’s pursual.
Now here’s my point (for too much drivel
makes narration’s compass swivel):
As unadorned as you appear,
your jewels might exist right here.

Right here, in our own hemisphere,
a Nobel Laureate could in fact be
working in an Auckland taxi.
Right here, a modern day Kabir3
could well be writing you a Wonder
of the World! And what a blunder
— to leave it unappreciated.
For beauty unseen is uncreated.

Keisha Castle-Hughes

Keisha Castle-Hughes performing in the film Whale Rider, based on the book by New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera

But beauty bejeweled is beauty matured!
Just look at Keisha Castle-Hughes.
‘Twas Oscar’s gild that made her lose
her youth — and, too, her fame assured.
Or look at Van Gogh. Who noticed his flowers
until they were noticed by wealthier powers?

We know the times a writer sits
and draws a blank and stares into
the void and hemorrhages life. While all
our readers are flushed, engorged, enthralled
with life; and well-employed, competing
for mates, earning money, eating
fine foods, lifting weights and buying
whatever the ads suggest, complying
to fashions, courting with cars (beating
out the latest dents; cheating
on odometers), getting pissed
as hell in bars — O what a list

of rituals which you can practice
while we, poor poets, grow fresh boils
on our bums and know our toil’s
dragging us — or no, in fact is
causing all of life to shift
like soil around a man whose swift
descent in marshy earth is only
hastened by his kicks. The lonely
struggle for words. The kicking, the flailing
of thought. Each frantic gasp inhaling
still more thickened mud. Suffice
to say, we know the writer’s price.

Yet still we write! And hope for fees
when it is we, who (by the word!)
must pay in days and loves deferred,
in limbs, by god — we amputees
with life itself our severed fare,
our minds confined to wheelchairs;
or rather, more immobilized,
more like a patient paralyzed
and spread across the stars to hear
the happy banter in the sphere
below — O tantalizing noise! —
and know we miss life’s simplest joys.
_________________
Footnotes:
1Kipling’s story, “My Lady of Wairakei,” in which Kipling makes this point, first appeared in the
New Zealand Herald on January 30, 1892.
2Part fashion show, part creative dress-up competition, Wearable Arts began in 1987, in the South Island city of Nelson. Today it’s recognized as an international artistic event.
3Fifteenth century Indian spiritual philosopher and writer, famous for his pithy, poetic epigrams about the beauty of a simple life. Here’s an example of his work (translation by Robert Bly,
Kabir: Ecstatic Poems, Beacon Press):

There is nothing but water in the holy pools.
I know, I have been swimming in them.
All the gods sculpted of wood or ivory can’t say a word
I know, I have been crying out to them.
The sacred Books of the east are nothing but words.
I looked through their covers one day sideways.
What Kabir talks of is only what he has lived through.
If you have not lived through something it is not true.

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