the art of losing

3 Oct

There are some days when nothing gets done. It’s Friday; it’s eleven o’clock. There are papers all over my desk, and on the floor are drawers I’ve pulled out from my other desk because I’ve lost a poem and several sheets of pale duck-egg paper to print the poem on. I emptied out the drawers pretending I might find them there but knowing that the folder in which I kept them is somewhere else – the library, the post office, the greengrocer. I’ve been into all those shops but they say no – they haven’t seen such a thing. The green grocer opened a dark door, kicked a cardboard box on the floor and shook his head. The woman at the post office said I’m so sorry –– what is your telephone number? The librarian remembered I’d asked her for a pencil and smiled sympathetically. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster. But right now the fluster is too much – papers, mess, anxiety. The wind is blowing, the blinds are rattling. Now it’s raining. At least I’ve made my bed. It’s got something to do with Jane. I keep saying her name over and over like Mr Rochester. We did Jane Eyre together in the fifth form. Our teacher told us there was much evidence of lunar display. Jane said she means lots of moon here and there and we turned the pages looking for the moon. There are bits of Jane all round the house.

54d1f25c-2e12-4f2f-a800-2b6704218bdbIllustration – Angela Barrett

EJP 1954-2014

30 Sep







The wax has hardened in strands on the table

like pale silk that once flowed through your fingers

becoming leaves or butterflies or waves

which might also be shells or towers, depending

on the twist of your thought. In the night I woke

and carried a candle back to my room

and in the shifting flicker saw a black

ribbon the glint of a stork’s beak a needle-

bristling strawberry. I remembered bluebells

beneath high trees in Otaki scattering

light like lace over the lawn. You leaned against

the painted post and said pansies were pensées

And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts. You taught me

how to look when I was twelve and brought them

to school. See their tiny faces. Later

in a dim room where Saskia or one

of Rembrandt’s women gazed impassively you

showed me how to love Bembo Bodoni

and Baskerville’s Q. See its tender tail.

In the secret chambers of your mind you

were always thinking – about colour form shape

how a shimmer of blue suggested silence

how the space between words was rupture and repair.

I pick hellebores and freesias – their heads fall

forward they spread their scent like balm because you

have slid away. Into the invisible.










25 Sep

2014-05-24 08.16.34

Poem Written In a Garden


the days were crowded there was no room

to write about the poetry of things

the sage green tablecloth that brought

the grass into the room

the pink rose in the honey-jar that made

the field a garden

(the rose meaning love or grace

or just a witness to a hand out a window plucking it

you gone: and the coffee pot

still bends at the knee slightly

like Rodin unguarded in his studio

like the beloved standing as if he wishes

to be entirely


dictionaries piled up

give the room a mannish look

& those blue flowers, corn flowers

against the dark


dark as inscrutable sea walls in

shadow, as an altar by Bellini,

dark as the inside of a rabbit’s


declared their poetry, I said

but un-

translatable to one who couldn’t


the face of the beloved

framing them.


Joanna Margaret Paul like love poems



22 Sep



2014-07-01 11.41.21 - Version 2


Where to start from?


In the Wintereise bad weather makes a shroud,

fog binds the world

with cold-as-charity bandages.


Setting off

into the invisible, beyond music,

you strain at something

glimpsed –


but the retina’s

all fog and shine,

light curtained by water.


How to catch what you’re looking for

in the mind’s

tricky lens?



in the exit’s street-glare,

you remember ash twigs

held up for a moment against fog;


the way winter light slips

from room to room

of a house among water-meadows –


and how  something was always going ahead of you, always;



as if crowned with water droplets.

– from Fog Bound by Fiona Sampson.






Ways of praying

22 Sep


some haiku from my students

   Is this how you pray
   asked the simple, naked man
   to the confused duck.
 I bring word from God
  said the duck. Kneel before me
  and learn to pray.
  Why do you tell a
  duck to pray when he was
  never in Eden.
  In a naked state
   he confided to the duck
  ‘Peace is hard to find.’
 God is in the duck
  Buddha in the lonely man
  And now they shake hands.
  Naked man on knees
  worshipping a small white duck.
  Moon blesses them both.
  I pray to a duck
  at night. To show I come in
  peace, I pray naked.
Worshipping a duck
 is what a lonely man does
 when he wants answers.
I have found the duck.
He was searching for me too.
We are not alone.
Searching for my soul,
asking the duck for answers,
shedding my old skin.


15 Sep

My friend, who lives far away, is very sick. It’s good to walk.


Cox's Creek





Looking at some Annunciations

4 Sep

I’ve been reading Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, specifically Lippi: ‘Fra Filippo di Tommaso Lippi, a Carmelite, was born in Florence in a street called Ardiglione, below the Canto alla Cucilia and behind the Carmelite Convent. The death of his father left him a sad and solitary orphan since his mother had died not long after he was born…’ He was brought up by his aunt who found him hard to handle so when he was eight she sent him to the Carmelite Convent where he was very good at drawing and hopeless at learning – he ‘scrawled pictures on his own books and those of others.’ He learnt from Masaccio – so well, it was often said that ‘Masaccio’s soul entered into his own body.’

He was also very amorous – he gave up being a Carmelite when he was seventeen and if he couldn’t buy a woman’s favours, he cooled his passion by painting her portrait. Vasari says Cosimo de Medici tried locking him up so he wouldn’t ‘wander away and waste time.’ When desire proved irresistible, he ripped up sheets, turned them into ropes and jumped out into the night. He painted four Annunciations, and his model for at least one was Lucrezia Buti who was so beautiful he stole her away from the nuns on the day she was supposed to make a pilgrimage to see a very important relic: the ‘Girdle of Our Lady. I first saw this Annunciation when I was twelve. It hung on the on the wall, along with a miscellany of Madonnas, of the second flight of stairs, which I passed each morning on my way down to breakfast at school.


Mary is tall and thin, probably golden haired – a flat gold halo sits on the back of her veiled head. Her body is draped in a blue cloak edged in gold. Lippi found hands hard to paint. The hand pointing to her heart is small, plump, pink – at odds with her long body, and the hand which holds her cloak a blurred claw. The Holy Spirit in the form of the white dove slides down a shaft sent from God’s heart, or his mouth – conception by breath or spirit – to Mary’s cloaked body. She stands behind her prédieu, ready to greet the angel, a beautiful hermaphrodite with tawny owl-like feathers, a crown of red and white roses, a scapular round his neck. So much complicated theology compressed into this painting. How reluctant the Church was to allow this child to be conceived like the rest of us. The golden stream on which the dove glides represents the Holy Ghost ‘coming upon her’ and by the power of ‘the Highest, ‘overshadowing her.’

She doesn’t seem too overawed by Gabriel’s arrival – she doesn’t recoil like Martini’s Mary, as Jenny Bornholdt observes:

She draws back in her

chair, doesn’t want to know

about the child. She wants

to know love, wants the

long back of desire which

endures like earth, or

rock – rock being

the hardest thing.


I suppose I like Vasari because reading him is like talking to him, or listening to someone who’s partial and prejudiced, who has favourites and is dogmatic, who’s mad about art and knows a lot, but if he doesn’t he invents; I know people like him – you can imagine him standing in on Saturdays for Mary Kisler – telling Kim Hill ‘he was there’ the day in the Sistine Chapel when Pope Julius arrived unexpectedly and told Michelangelo to get on with his work.

Angels are messengers; they look human yet they have no bodies — are pure spirit rising and falling in an endless song of praise, but they have wings. And the wings mean they come from some liminal other place; to tell us something we need to know, which, but for them, we can never know. They come, as the poet says, ‘across distance’ — spatial, temporal — with beating wings, light, trailing clouds of glory. Their wings are the opposite of our tethering feet.

And what about Mary? She is often reading when the angel arrives: he seems to interrupt. Is she scared, or excited? In Botticelli’s Annunciation, the angel’s clothes billow and swirl with the rush of recent arrival. He may not  have told her yet. His hands and Mary’s nearly touch; their fingers are open, they hint at a caress. Her hand seems to contradict the twist of her body: he’s on his knees, lily in one hand, staring at her with a kind of direct reverence.

Botticelli Annunciation

In many paintings of the Annunciation, Mary is in a house, or at least a room, separated from the angel by a column: a division between human and divine; a barricade emphasising her spotlessness. Botticelli’s virgin’s eyes are closed — it’s the way their hands reach towards each other that makes the moment so intimate. Outside the quiet room a door leads to a garden, and beyond the garden, a gate, a tree — the world. The tree is ambiguous: no doves or golden showers to remind us of the Incarnation — this tree is an omen of his death: the lignum Crucis or wood of the Cross.

Fra Angelico’s Annunciation is painted at a different moment. When you look, you know the words have been said. This angel genuflects; their eyes meet. Mary stays seated, but her body leans towards him, their hands mirror each other’s suggesting serene acceptance: she has just uttered the ultimate Christian response: ‘Be it done unto me according to thy word.’


McCahon angels are different from the  angels of Martini, Botticelli and Fra Angelico.  He’d seen reproductions in books of Italian Quattrocento and early Cinquecento paintings, and the Angel in The Angel of the Annunciation enters from the left of the painting like most Northern hemisphere angels. McCahon angels are outlined in black, however, they’re as heavy and physical as the mortals they’re visiting. Gabriel has round breasts and solid legs; traditionally angels were sexless, but those breasts and that blue dress seems to turn Gabriel into a woman. S/he hangs over hills like a brooding sculpture, like the hills themselves, rather than a gathering of light. A wing tip and an upward hand point to a cloud whose ochre underside is earth-coloured.

5McCahon angel of the Annunciation

The quiet room filled with lilies, the virgin reading at her prédieu have gone. Mary in this place is standing, exposed, outside what could be her house, but is actually the Tahunanui Golf Clubhouse – McCahon’s attempt to locate these stories amongst us. There is a door but it’s dark and black, there is a window— perhaps. The angel is looking down at the top of her head; her eyes are at the same height as the angel’s knees, and she seems to look out of the frame, over the triangle of words squashed themselves into the left-hand corner of the painting. She has no hands. But there is a connection between angel and woman: Gabriel’s hand against a grey sky points up: he’s definitely referring to something, but the message seems melancholic, and the tilt of the woman’s head suggests resignation more than acceptance.

In the smaller Annunciation, you can hardly tell who is angel, who is woman.

The angel’s almost brush the top of Mary’s head — only her halo prevents touch; these two close-together heads are sharing something: the message is whispered into the Virgin’s ear. This is a private moment: the fact we see only part of the angel’s head makes me think we are looking at through a keyhole and might also be a reference to the idea of conception occurring by hearing.


Gretchen Albrecht’s Pacific Annunciation painted more than thirty years after McCahon’s Angel of the Annunication refers to their artistic legacy differently. Maybe because she actually stood in front of the paintings McCahon saw only in books, walked through churches, saw how they fitted into its architecture. She was also interested in the idea of the Annunciation differently from McCahon. Of all the paintings concerned with the divine birth, Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto had the most profound effect on her. She wrote:

It was discovering the Madonna del Parto (in San Sepulcro) standing within a fur-lined circular tent its sides held open by a pair of angels to reveal the blue gowned Madonna pointing to her unbuttoned dress and her pregnant belly. The tent has a curved top curving itself again into the (original) curved romanesque architecture that prompted my sense of the shape intensifying the experience of looking and understanding and ‘presenting’ the image to me — or making it become visible to me through the fabric of the structure. A perfect containment for revelations.



Her Pacific Annunciation is a distillation of all she saw when she went to Europe. She asked her father, a builder, to bolt two quadrants together to form a semicircle which she has always called ‘hemispheres’. Within this space she was able to refer both to the architecture of the northern hemisphere, and the semi-circular tent of the virgin held open by the angels in Piero’s painting. Gretchen Albrecht reinterprets Piero’s Madonna’s confidence within the structure of the hemisphere: its curve echo her fecundity, and although she uses the traditional colours of the angel and the virgin, their separate quadrants acknowledge the separate, equal, and co-existent conditions of divine and human. The lightness and shimmering quality of the pink paint is not unlike the swirl of the angel’s clothes in the Botticelli Annunication: as if the angel has just arrived, while the dark pulsing blue of the Virgin’s quadrant suggests Mary’s grave consideration of the words.



1 Lippi  Madonna

2 Martini Annunciation, Uffizi






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