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NZ Poetryetc Feature - JAMES NORCLIFFE


Alison Croggon <[log in to unmask]>


Poetryetc provides a venue for a dialogue relating to poetry and poetics <[log in to unmask]>


Fri, 9 Aug 2002 19:50:55 +1000





text/plain (345 lines)

(With thanks to David Howard, who helped me out of the cheesecake - A)



look out from Rabbit Island
see the scallop basket
slipping water like
a half-filled groyne

see beyond the sandhills
the mast of a beached
scow unnaturally
still in the half-light

if you drop your fan
its shell-like clatter
will spill out and split
like a spoilt secret

so listen to the cowrie
put its porcelain labia
to your ear and there
is its intimate whisper

slip the white flesh
into your mouth
the orange cowl, too
close your mouth; swallow

glance up at the clouds
you might say the sky
is your slippery oyster

you might say love
is about to unfasten its
mother-of-pearl buttons

you could say
there is a dark front
coming in from the south
and it will probably rain

you should then draw
your cape about you
to tell the world
you are a pilgrim

with your heart
on your sleeve
a scallop shell
at your breast


les haricots ne sont pas sales

[the origin of Zydeco]

he claimed he had played in a wild zydeco band
back in high school in Monticello Texas

but nobody believed him: he had no rhythm
he was all clean beans & fastidious tendrils

& no mean machine either with thighs to slap
but elongated & stringy with a fiddler's neck

& nor was he creole but he did have the clipped
drawl that knew it all & the superior smile

that was aware that the Great Khan had conquered
the west because his cohorts could ride no hands

& there he would stand on the grass his ear cocked
for hooves drumming across the frozen steppes

& he'd be riding too pumping his wild accordion
oblivious to all the arrows black in the sky like rain

Tchaikovsky enters a new and darker period of his life

In his dream there is
a long avenue of yew trees.
They spike the late summer
evening like a succession
of sharp black grace notes.

An orange sun setting behind him
stretches his jagged shadow
on the rack of the pathway
and causes the pink pastilles
to glow with waxy promises.

Such pretty poison can
scarcely be borne. Crow fruit,
raven fruit: not to be thought
about were it not for the
shadow and shudder of wings.

At the end of the pathway
Darkness sighs and carefully
buttons his black greatcoat,
stubs out his last corona
and reaches for his hat.

'I'm going now,' he whispers.
'Close the door behind me.'


shakers at Nova

perched on wrought iron somewhere between
the past & the future four shot glasses on the table
green with Ireland or cream with Brazil

just for the moment the Lord of the Dance
is presiding elsewhere not north where the waters
are rising but south where there is music still

& here we are wrought caught somewhere between
that north and south toasting life gravely
& finitude & infinitude & all that is between

outside in the darkness rain is shining
like a foil curtain & the door opens & closes
with people coming & going after wine or caffeine

theatregoers swirl about fanning themselves
with programmes while Seamus the waiter
the mischief maker appears and disappears

when we look elsewhere this way the other way
Seamus fills the shaker with Ireland with Brazil
with brown flood water & derry green guitars

Seamus the trickster rogueish & brogueish
shines like a coffee spoon dissolves like a sugar cube
shoots like a shot glass sparkling with stars

so we drink to the stillness we drink to the movement
we drink to eternity & to the moment
we drink to hemispheres yet to explore

as the suggestion of music ticks like a metronome
slippery faraway Seamus an eel in the river
laughs at our lying & fills the shaker once more


how to talk to a peacock

he will not want to know
about the harsh whistle of oxygen
the gasp beneath the plastic face mask

he cannot anticipate things beyond
the immediate strut flounce and flourish
so if you don't mind
keep it light
keep it iridescent
don't mention the blood

the wail of distant ambulances
is an unnecessary distraction
he would prefer the deep silence
of black waters studded with lilies
their mute admiration

but if you must mention stethoscopes
(or calipers or scalpels)
just speak of them as
bright shiny objects
of things perhaps
with their own beauty
although not the beauty
of the fabulous eye

in his fan tail
(at which you must gasp)
of perfect feathers


fish salad at Latinos

it was a careful balancing act:
the empty wine glass
a fulcrum for the fork
the knife and the lateral spoon

the piazza had been full
first of hatred salsa-sharp
and pungent and then of
cheers for the Praetorian Guard

you smile and with your finger
you set the fork rocking
on its fragile axis and it tilts
between hate and bombast

it seems for the moment
that we do have a choice
so I take it reach forward
to still the movement

but still the memory crawls
on bleeding knees through
hacked hair and cobblestones
and the laughter at the next table

can do nothing to conceal
the pendulous breasts sagging
in the dust and mortification
the shredded shirt and spittle

until the waiter brings the bowl
of fish blanched by lemon juice
then as he pours the soothing wine
you smile as if at something almost

forgotten before replacing
the fork and knife retrieving
your spoon and dipping it
deep into the clarity of your soup


the seahorses at Portobello

you can see that the octopus
has had very bad tidings
it is a fevered anenome
in a jetstream of petals
folding and unfolding
in a gulping rhythm
of grey and worried pink

with more equanimity
the seahorses hold up
their translucent chests
their mouths puckered
in a grandmother's kiss
bloodlessly proud
and quaintly vertical
they rock against the odds

they are the nodding uncles
of rectitude with their wobbly
gait and monitory shake
and their fern-frond tails roll
and unroll with slow deliberation

their world is a cylinder
of golden sand and starfish
of yellow weed swaying
in a stream of platitudes

in a never-ending bubble
after bubble of good advice


love in the jam-maker's mansion

all in all it seemed love was the best option
in a time of drought with the people
praying for rain and the lakes shrinking
to scabs though the glossy leaves of citrus
shone through gusts of dust and grapefruit
glowed with the promise of marmalade

in the dry wind in the sound of flax clapping
in a tinkle of glass bells it seemed best to open
the window to let the floral curtain billow
and blossom let the large bed be our orchard
dangling with flesh and drooping with juice
drupes fat with summer and lemon-light

all fructose and pectin-ready to set slowly
in polished bottles with elegant labels
the sort you find in the saffron-scented
shops of the purveyers of fine comestibles
conserved preserved for rainy seasons
jellied golden and sealed with red wax

later in a new morning we will walk
hand in hand down the creaking stairs
past the wide-eyed girls in white pinafores
the men in grey waistcoats to the green
portico and the stillness of a deserted lawn
a broken fountain and parched distant hills


Bio Note:

James Norcliffe, b Greymouth 1946, lives in Christchurch but has spent
extended periods in China and Brunei Darussalam. He has published novels
for children,  a collection of short stories The Chinese Interpreter and
three collections of poetry the most recent being Letters to Dr Dee
(Hazard Press) and A Kind of Kingdom  (Victoria University Press). A new
collection Rat Tickling  is forthcoming from Sudden Valley Press. He was
the 2000 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago.

His work has appeared in journals worldwide, including  Australia where
he has been published in among others, Poetry Australia, Southerly,
Siglo, Island, Overland, Linq, Imago , Verandah and Ulitarra. He is
represented in a number of New Zealand anthologies including the Oxford
Book of NZ Poetry in English, the Oxford Book of NZ Love Poems, and
Essential NZ Poems. Forthcoming work will appear in Porcupine, Pearl,
Verse, and the New Delta Review  (all USA).

He is currently short fiction editor for Takahe Magazine.

Alison Croggon
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