MICHAEL HARLOW has published six books of poetry, most recently
Giotto’s Elephant, which was a finalist in the national
Book Awards in 1991. He has also published short prose in various
literary periodicals and anthologies. The Katherine Mansfield Fellow
to Menton, France in 1986, he was in 1991 the New Zealand-Australia
Literary Exchange Fellow. He has written a short film, Heavy Traffic
in the Dark, in collaboration with film-maker Stephanie Donald.
Most recently, working with the NZ-Suisse composer Kit Powell, he
wrote the libretto for a Performance work, The Tower of Babel,
which was presented at the International Arts Festival in St Petersburg,
Russia in 1995. He was an editor at Landfall magazine for
some 10 years, and edited the Caxton Press New Poetry series. At present,
he lives and works in Central Otago as a writer and Jungian Analytical
Psychotherapist. He has just completed a new book of poems and short
prose texts, Cassandra’s Daughter.
Harlow comments: ‘From where . . . does the poem spring? Such
a mysterious question; any answer seems almost always just as mysterious.
It’s “okay not to know”, but sometimes there are
traces, tracks of a poem’s beginnings, usually for me a place
called “inside the alphabet” – that is, inside the
language: a word (or words) – once you get it down – that
wants other words to sidle up, or fly to it; a phrase that sits in
the ear, a line-of-thought you’ve read or heard somewhere that
sometimes clamours for attention. There’s a great, rich word-hoard
out there in the world, and in our inner-world, of course, that we’ve
been collecting ever since whenever; and keeping close (you could
even say “intimate”) company with it is, I think, one
way of being inside the alphabet. And so it was with “Cremation
Blues” that began with “Creation” Blues: I’d
been listening to some Blues music, and around the same time reading
a book about the early death of one of Darwin’s daughters, and
so began to think more about a friend’s death some years ago
and the cremation ceremony (lots of musical helloes and goodbyes).
And in thinking about my friend’s death, and Darwin’s
loss, and the inevitable process of life and death – and naturally
enough my own place in the queue – the words/phrase (or something
like it to begin with) took shape and sound – uh huh, “it’s
death of course that makes life so liveable” (thank you, Darwin,
and my friend). And when I jotted it down in my notebook, the word
“loveable” wanted to get in there alongside “liveable”.
And since I don’t mind trusting the language (and of course
the unconscious), it did; and not so curiously, I guess, so did “Creation”.
And that was the beginning notebook entry that eventually gave shape
and sound to the poem, which probably went through a dozen or so rewrites.
Note: the “widow’s spoon” emigrated from quite
another notebook jotting when my friend’s “ex-wife”/widow
appeared in the poem at graveside and said what she said (or so I
imagined) about the “simple justice of eating”. Sometimes
(if you give them an opportunity) words do fly to each other with,
almost, astonishing ease.’