new zealand electronic poetry centre

Paula Green


Set Thy House in Order

From Writing Home to Her Mother and Father: Fabrizia Ramondino's Althénopis and Clara Sereni's Casalinghitudine.’ PhD thesis. University of Auckland, 2004. (Tracing Paper 50-69)

Ritorno dal Nord This mother would be the real mother over and against the gelid domain, all gooseflesh and teeth chattering, her occlusion the repressed mother of patriarchal love.   Oh ice-bound lips.   Oh congealed tongue.   In this wintrily account, where the body her body was a mute character, a warm breath is now gathering together love and hate, desire and anger.   Returned daughter.   Returned mother.   Indeed all of this to give priority to some kind of affiliation.   Consanguinity.   She will not repeat the monstrosities of paternal fictions her numb lips his humect place of origins, her hoar tongue his epicurean trope for silence.   No, she is returning to hunger, away from his dead of winter, to take up the questions of herself, in eastings and southings, whereabouts hereat, to offer extensions of herself, in writing her experience of contradiction.   Yes, there are these loves in her, quite harrowing.   There are these attachments in her, quite obtuse.   She is returning from the one-sided metaphor of confinement to exist in and beyond language.   She too will become her own mother.   Inamorate with the words that overgo the father’s law, I am fidgety already with this longing for a resilient symmetry:   the mother a pendulum for the daughter, the daughter a pendulum for the mother.

Pianta di una casa: il Salotto Is the story coming to an end?   She said it’s time to begin again behind the screen of representation.   This inborn sketch of a good-liking name has happened in the lobby.   White and black or black and white will welcome you to the other side of the room.   We are not thinking of algidity at this measured point.   The couch fits in with the right side and the left side and the other side.   She has the latitude for likeness in the house and in the garden.   She has free range of the stretch of her imagination.   A clock ticking with desire, or not.   A wallpaper distracting us by distinguishing past and future.   Or not.   She uses couches to trace the rites of order.   Where are we to go?   We will swing through the garnering of the very roots of the Drawing Room to a sort of cave with upholstered and restitched and carved and scratched armchairs.   This will be a refuge but this will be a displacement.   Not a frigid zone with little place for herself but by any sketch of the imagination a parlour of amplitude.   If he imposed with his nuances what once was, she is impounding her self as if she knows more than the cave as if she needs to draw the free range of where she will stand.   How far along is she?   Let’s say there must be leeway to play with the constant dimness.   At best, we are burrowing in to the furrow of a couch.

Il bagno The real mother is dripping wet her sodden towel hereafter a constant calculation of her fluids.   She withdrew even further into her own entrails, as water into the depths of the earth. She seeped into solid ground by her own reckoning feasible by virtue of her “fluid” character.   The real mother dreams of soaking in the bath the water a whirl-point a spring-point to her annulled body.   The impostume part a projection of his solid logic.   She leads you to believe she is divisible in volume and in tenor dropping drop-meal, in some way language.   And yet you want to say not-denominable the she who withdrew into her own entrails.   The real mother bears her self (apart from the others) in her baptism: barred from a symbolisation that maintains the walls of a solid.   The real mother a casemate fortified against degrees of heat degrees of force degrees of conductivity.   This is solid.   Or is it? she asks knowing the women of her family disappeared, cancelled themselves out.   Soaked up by the men who counted whose deaths counted.   A casque of fluctuating words protects her from his word.   Or does it?   Along the same shivering lines we will ask why the urine blood milk plasma overflows the subject.   The real mother is dripping wet hereafter she is solid and she is fluid.   So to speak and denied by another.

La camera da pranzo Swallow the mirror.   Suckle the mirror.   Then swap glass for ice for summering memory as if we are all hungry for something to heat.   For what she considered burnt out in herself, she considered burnt out in all the world.   A culinary tarpaulin is laid upon the table because the mother prepares something to eat as an offering against the ice and the mirror.   Or is it instead that the mayonnaise, the petits pois, the salted almonds, the béchamel sauces and the cakes are for herself to eat?   Here is a memory of dining-rooms because the real mother, the dispenser of milk, put herself less put herself elsewhere otherwise.   The splendour of the laden table stands in for her disappearance, a sump that is she that is empty of her.   And if she leaves if she continues to leave, tentacles of blood and milk answer you.   How can this be?   The real mother the tensile mother reaches from inertia to movement from cave to cellar from oblivion to memory.   Sometimes the heavy table is the toll of suffocation: in you I suffocate myself in me you suffocate.   Sometimes the heavenly table is the tophus that absorbs a re-conception of the mother over and again.   Against ice.   Against paralysis.   From what we have we will be reborn over and again still remaining alive.

Forbici, occhiali, chiavi In the object she seeks the key to the Mother held aghast at the treacherous distance.   The distance quite simply the cold empty space that is you (or is it her?).   The glasses you see are meant for better vision but separate the idea of a daughter from the ideal daughter.   Will she see herself in the hungry eyes of the girl?   The girl a tight knot a repository of the past and the future collects the visible signs of mothering but the mother rests her gaze upon the redcurrant hedges of the beloved French house.   Non-sonant words, nervous in the act of entering the right keyhole.   What can be said?   Even malevolent glasses barely know how to harvest the invisible the reserved part of the ungrateful daughter.   The mother scrimps and saves herself keeping the travelling trunk inside her decaying flesh as an antidote against all the iron and hideousness of the world.   She neatly folds her abundance away, always away a treasure that she herself has granted furlough for and thus to infinity.   The mother takes the furibund scissors to slice through the material of a life to form her own prison.   She is contemplating the paper chain girls repeating herself without taste or touch or hearing and with an alliance with blindness.   All this the price paid for storage set apart and away.

Gli indumenti To be dressed bandaged in black then the purples because the miserable widowed heart is able to stay alive beneath its homemade shroud.   There is no sparing of repetition.   The real mother has a history of sewing patches of love and hunger and melancholic toil together with the overtones of a mouldering goodwill.   The clothes are left over from her mothering left to nubilate the future with clouds of the past.   Oh her longed-for daughter will wind the pleats and folds of black and white dots to wall up her exiled heart terrible for the mother to see the dress repeating itself executing a likeness enforcing a desire to be concealed.   Coming home in the ancient dress she will never be an exalted copy.   Distinguished by her mad-eyed look the returned daughter corresponds to a flaw.   The tight squeeze beneath the armpits imperfect.   The mother mistaken in the generous lines of silk.   The mother dresses the daughter and in the daughter she dresses another.   Not herself.   Always and ever in serious colours the night pawning the pastel shades of a bed-jacket the mothering a faltering stitch.   Who can dress the mother she has boxed herself in her own hats?   Later to be squashed in almost fatal repetition.   The mother dressed in hand-overs hand-me-down mother her handiwork hanging like a loose-end.

Le cene What is she thinking in her deserted kitchen? I ask myself.   Eating her simple broccoli with oil and salt and lemon, gone the crust of fat the familiar fry-up of oil and garlic.   Transparent skin yes but still I cannot grasp her inner world.   Her world kept back and apart and away like the larder that is almost and otherwise empty of food all I will see all I will find are the disconcerting flecks of mould.   These bruised smudges of blue and green lead me famelic to the bent figure.   What does she do all day? I ask myself? The bride and the bride-mother drained of past rituals, not the rituals of feast days or Sunday, for she the non-believer, but the ritual, for example, of a darkened room and a vinegar-soaked rag, entombed in a book as if to save herself from death.   Diaphanous arms they once sought to preserve peaches apricots aubergines and tomatoes for the famish winter.   Diaphane heart tremulous heart that once to her immensurable joy consumed the beauty of dawn and storms and lightning and the manducable spikes of sunlight that recast her youthful body awry.   The real mother hidden inside the phantom mother underfed and neglected she is stripped of maternal gestures fed by past uncertainty full of years divided before the promise of death, dead frozen before her broken waters.   I would hold her stiff and close.


Gli svaghi The real mother had saved her love of science and numbers for a rainy day or a later day but the day simply filled to the brim with regret and loss.   Even the love of French and the books to be read in French slipped through the debilitating cracks of time.   Her thriftiness necessary and calculative went beyond epiphany’s gift of exercise books and pencils and sweets to the abrasive amputation of her own pleasures.   If French were the only culture for the past-time-mother now her bed, the simulative universe, percolated the cheap and garish thrillers, the infantile Settimana Enigmistica, this her percolated time bitter and riddled with natant echoes.   Not just the honeyed youth nor the diluted strength nor her history of sacrifice and tight economies, but a descent into a gabardine dark.   The quarantined thoughts sealed after finding her self on her own.   The real mother worn by the pages of her children’s lives is getting to her children’s future in solitude, covered in a shortness of miracles.   Now the amusement in day-dreaming, now the diversion from the frangible, echoing rooms.   In this mother another mother in this mother another mother in that mother another in that mother whom?  Who will account for the fulminous woman?   Thunder and lightning be damned when she sits so still and frozen.


Die mit Tränen säen, werden mit Freude ernten And then in death in the week of dying the other the one in pieces there in the mother dishevelled and trembling la bambina is born again a little girl.   Even now close to the end a gesture set free, glimmerous in flight, I am drawn to the frail voice, a tindery trail that will set alight a flight of fertile signs.   If she is now born again as her own mother as mother to herself she the real mother splintered and phantomy, ventriloquous and auxiliary, she becomes both past and future in her present condition of dying.   To touch one’s sex at the point of death, to measure who one is by the finger of pleasure is to recognise and repeat the human gift of continuity.   These are the pages of dying I read again and again never enough still not finished with these melliloquent words sweet at the moment of grief her grief my grief the thought of the skeletal mother bereft of honeyed embrace, inducible love indurate love, withstanding the inexpressible heat and chill that tied this hand to that hand, this heart to that heart, this mouth to that mouth, this word to that word.   In the guts of this simmering lamentation the sentences breathe familiar air down my nerve-struck spine the thickening sentences deliver a resilient hymn or ode or lyric to maternal symmetry.

Set Thy House in Order (2)
Return from the North Unexpectedly the Mother returned from the North to find she must return even further South her heart heavy with moisture and light prepared for the stubborn waiting to be wrecked jammed with those moments that seemed to belong to another woman with waist-length hair and floor-length skirts she bent close to what she had lost a memory of emptiness that could only hold gaps sudden halts bursts of the child that catches in her throat imagined fantastic in her waking and sleeping she the Daughter whom she carried in her womb something concentrated and hesitant something at least alive yet after the Kerikeri oranges the Titoki honey the Mapua apples yet after the irascent waves at Makara beach the plump shelter of the Botanical Gardens a great solitude a capacious distance between that child and the adult Daughter between the spiralling smell of Malaysian curry in the Grandmother’s kitchen and the sweet scent of Italian herbs in Swanson Road between leaking love and other returns this distance to put it another way piece by piece like an umbilical cord dragged by the Mother in all her wanderings from Wellington to Auckland to London to Italy attached with threads and pins to someone else’s daughter the rest missing how often she had played with the emptiness of her bones grown on oranges and honey in the farthest corner of her life so that she made a lair for the Daughter and made a den to lay hold of her remote love.

Plan of a House: the Drawing-Room The cult of triads: a window to the North a window to the West a window to the East for the Mother who was as we now know notmother or unmother in this little room of homeopathic order of prodigious sun driven by some wind of rebellion sapping the very roots of daughterness carved and scratched and grooved and upholstered as if she were chair as if she were laps and arms to welcome a new arrival but in this Drawing-Room where the governing rite was in the neat row of Windsor and Newton watercolours and the sable-haired brushes wet by maternal tongue to tiny peaks already ready to make visible in one way and another out of compassion the need to get the weather all sinew and shining and the air consoled by the idea of painting in a different location for on these occasions she would hold in her arms the summer of Tinakori hills the winter of Glenmore Road and the hot wind would whisk away the ideas of paintings leaving her arms and lap empty instead with the Daughter her mere presence thus seated in her womb that might have been described as a movement of shadows the shutters closed and the door impermeable instead the airiness of her exercise books always in the same place yearning for the idea of a solid object a blue glass a lamp shade a ripe peach for the empty lap lay in ambush ready to darken the Mother’s mind with the thought that things would appear as if nothing had happened.

The Bathroom The Mother withdrew into an accumulation of colour as water into the garden’s hunger a calculation of giving at what cost at the cost of her skin expanding to the point of scar the rippled mischief and here in an unspoken way the scar the remainder of the Daughter an eternal confirmation of annulment for she was cut off from her duty left instead all shining dress it is life she will believe she will say all dripping wet she who never passed the nursery tunes down to the Daughter she never bathed her mirific skin kissed honeyed and sweet she plucked the guitar a kind of savage conviction in fact that life would go on the art and literature would be made flesh scarred beyond principle despite calculation and on purpose and in the face of past currency that the cult of Love would exist or the cult of Art or that of the Family but the Mother plashy in the dark night her seeping waters an unthinkable flood the very night she scrubbed the back steps a hygienic threshold three times clean cut off from feeling and thought not even to consider other thresholds the Daughter would cross the sacrifice in getting there held and veiled as in that house she inherited water stillicidous not torn by aridity not to be forgotten by life so to speak whence the year she carried a Daughter for nine months and held her for seven days not to tear you might hope not to be forgotten nor at odds with the world but to be carried across other shining steps so the Mother could go apart her being held just so and in trust.

The Dining-room Of the dining-rooms of her daughterhood she remembers at the age of five around a table almost as if it were gouache the other faces indistinct and with idle chatter and she yes brought before a bowl of vivid red tomato soup essential now to the memory of her baby brother vivid in time the later dining room the hefty furniture rag-eared and dour the walls deserted as though the house were uninhabited the food a mystery in someone else’s life the Mother more than anything feeding off the summer in that garden feeding off the charcoal braziers in the shelves of novels essential to her hunger so that it seemed someone else’s life kept her alive the sun-packed windows opened out onto the illusion of an eternal present she may have drank camomile tea collected pennyroyal from the fields up north but then it seemed the very glass trembled in front of that garden for she was not the dispenser of milk nor would she provide mayonnaise tenderly made nor salty pistachios nor hand spun salad for the very glass without festive gleam might lament the lack of sweet juicy oranges the obligation when you thought about it to keep her child but not in a continual state of loss and poverty the smell of the honey stirred in the rosehips the voices of the locals drifting through her window as she spread through the house the dank rooms uprooted from living filled with blood and black scorch the singe of herself reading of béchamel sauce new potatoes.

Scissors, glasses, keys In later years the Mother was forgetful blind to the tiny details of the corrugated days the swollen belly the sunken belly the time when the streets were a paradise of mothers and children in abundance ordinary or bizarre because in order not to see after eyes etched with promise and sombre fate had swept away playfulness and shadow and breathing-space the glasses groping in vain for the Japanese folds of her Daughter’s dressing gown the glasses meant for perfect vision but the lethean frames finding a shapeless object laid bare kept at a resilient distance so dear to her in order not to see the Daughter where in the echo of others the Mother storing in some box or drawer the paintings of leanness geraniums roofs and attics the Mother putting away the wide blue happiness of the gingham dress she had sewn with clumsy stitches that fell apart like a dumb or lifeless travelling trunk outside those windows still breaching the lawn with hedges of blackberry and redcurrant the neglected key to the crude trunk lost or forgotten or frozen for those glasses were akin to a new-fledged time acute like the merchandise in stores that unlike cotton reels in the grandmother’s jar is dead-new a life without keys it was as though it were just at such times that she led herself as if to say she would fetch the thing she was longing for a big larder given in gratitude and still perhaps in order not to see but to cut herself apart from the impossible knots.

The clothes She wore it that way on her return from the North and even further South to cross a threshold not the gingham dress by now moth-eaten but not discarded for there are some things you won’t ever do she had gone from blue to white to black and wondered at the awkward fit of any clothes to wear to travel not a formal occasion this return she nevertheless felt it to be some kind of ceremony because there was to be no sparing of cloth for how would she describe herself to the adult Daughter black chosen out of her own tradition not yet grief nor bitterness and blue jeans chosen out of ritual yes she put on those clothes in defence of the familiar and the clothes she wore with draped heart and painful breathing and in her was the terrible decision of heart an accident of life that has no uniform of its own out of so much heart the Mother now carrying in her womb a second daughter so that the generous comfort of clothes hid her toil the harlequinade of amatory words   kept in the drawer with cotton buttons scissors let out for out of the blue the Mother returns to meet the adult Daughter to meet her at the airport against the background of wind hills harbour a new-fashioned sight crimped of history but sharp like the seashore in winter and the Daughter tall enough to stand out as she leant back against the back wall her long hair an edging of lace her blue jeans the Mother seeing herself seen and given out of heart intersilient Daughter emerging from a great many pleats and they laugh they laugh.

The dinners The Mother and Daughter ate alone in the deserted kitchen for the Mother remembered the accumulation of meals off alabaster plates garden salad with extra virgin olive oil pacific salt home grown lemon the burning purity of summer plump tomatoes all this with the ritual of wine or coffee committed by health to haimish plates the accumulation in the knowing of that light not a dinner as such but the staging of an absence a dinner drained of life the company of others her friends and her relations for now under the glinting light of this meeting in order that she might see what was as remote as the line dividing this day with that day the Mother was fed by the Daughter a Greek salad the salty feta and sharp olives encrusted with a sudden and strong spurt of life the larder now replete with food so that where we like to imagine comfort under the gaze of each other there is the working of wonder the fate which she had received at birth the bruise of rejection which would cause a flutter in her heart now the fate in the kitchen with ample ripenings around the table as if they sought the one in the other for the Mother tendered the life that had preceded the Daughter’s birth it was a life and it was the staging of life the consummation of the salty past where ordinariness was returned to bread and water and even the smell and dirt of living was received and given in that warm diurnal hum as if the undertow of recognition had cleared the dust from the jars the grapefruit marmalade sweet as anything.

The pastimes The Mother cultivated her love of painting so in keeping with her uncles and aunties and distant cousins who were artists she painted the blustery harbour in cobalt blue knowing the sky would become sea and the sea become sky such was her lavished interest her enlivenment from them her bed in the sunroom covered in paper drying her feelings that sought the colour of sky as if there she would make an account of herself a ledger of gains and losses those figures transformed into cloud glass-like water the planets the stars and her love and her regret as she held her billowing stomach against the sun gave vent to the formation of sky for even longer hours in the dour house the infinite sky a rebus that did not limit itself to the eyes and the voice but gave a sense of the miraculous a ritual of reparation and even of anguish knowing then the bread oil vinegar salt pasta lentils would line the kitchen   shelves after the gift of the Daughter and she would calculate in other ways a chain of gains and losses reading Herman Hesse or Doris Lessing and she plunged into a world of affluent words fiction not fact maps of life that resounded through the echoing house before her child’s future the adult Daughter who would in love and regret by one of those passages of blood as if performing some ritual of records make a poem after the stars in the sky to hear herself resound through the echoing page then pluck a guitar such was her enlivenment from the world.

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy” The adult Daughter of the graceful movement and of milk neither the Mother’s nor cow’s born without frills the Mother alone in solitude in the dark room the mystery of blood unexplained the daughter detached and held away to be held in the lap of the Mother accumulating the sky as she awaited her day the Daughter that would receive her cue and be born away and apart born without frills no hand-knitted booties nor tender name no family tree nor family quarrels for the Mother never wrapped the gift to be unwrapped in view of the blustery harbour but she left her gesture a beacon lit from that maternal torch the way her mouth closed or hummed to the new-fledged bundle for just that moment leaving wind and soil to transport the seed of her love an unstable sign faltering an amulet for those coming later which from that maternal torch became the way the Daughter’s mouth closed and hummed a gift made fertile so that the Daughter unexpectedly called the Mother south in order they might peel away the gesture that had remained buried for so many years a gesture lit from the Mother’s lap the Mother before daughter the Daughter before Mother like the flight of the dove that alights with its message to be grasped with fertile listening almost panting leaning forward the one to the other in strong embrace the strange words already familiar zigzag in their promptings because they breathed on the harbour so as to see.

Paula Green

Last updated 7 August, 2005