Something about Ladders

13 Feb

all-the-places-ive-ever-knownThe first is a photograph of an orange ladder. The photograph hangs in my house but not for much longer because I’m giving it to my daughter for her birthday in a week’s time. That’s not the absolute truth – it is her birthday – in four days actually, and I am giving it to her, but not for a month, when she comes to Auckland. I don’t want to, which you could say, is why I’m fudging. I want to keep it. But she chose it, and if you can, you give things to your children, especially when they love them.

Thing is a reductive word.

‘They’re only things,’ said the photographer one misty morning as he strode through the streets and caught a cobweb in a corner, a bundle of blankets by a blue fence, a steeple piercing the fog.

And in this case, it’s only a ladder leaning beside a wall. I wrote against at first, and now I look again. I see that it isn’t; that the ladder has to be leaning on something protruding from the building, otherwise it would be angled differently – might never have caught the photographer’s quick eye. The building isn’t local. Those slabs of stone look too big, too old to have been built on our soft yellow clay, and that deeply recessed window strengthened by iron bars suggests caution, protection, privacy – so different from our batten and board or chicken-meshed walls which we can almost push our hands into. Or out of.

Who put the ladder there and why? It’s chipped, old – see those two bits of peeling tape; a scruffy ladder, a repaired ladder – but that’s as it should be – ladders are tools; they help you fix things – I think of wires and connection, of bulbs and light, which, you with your landlocked feet, can’t reach. Ladders lift you; give you another point of view, change who you see, how you see. Change you. The rungs of this ladder are pale bars of light quietly, quietly carrying your eyes (your feet) up to the frame of the photograph – and then what? That’s what I like about this photograph – its mute mystery. The ladder has become more than only – more than a thing – it leans beside the wall. Waiting. And from an invisible anchor on the leaf-splattered pavement, it lifts its arms.

The photograph hangs in my house waiting for my daughter. I pass it every day – each time I get up from this chair, there it is, and sometimes the strength of its silence forces me to turn to it. I look at the black rectangle behind the ladder: a window between two slabs of grey stone – dark enough to imagine it’s just a black space which makes the orange ladder more brilliant. But if I look again, I see that the darkness is speckled with light – the bars divide the window into sections and each might be the skin of the sea, a cloudy night. Or even a message in braille. The bars divide; the bars protect – at different times we need to see in different ways.

I’m myopic. I worry always about not seeing – clearly, enough, into the distance – and indeed I must peer into this dark void to discover that quiet glitter. But it’s there, just as the rungs on the ladder are ascending bars of light, just as the ladder stretches up and out of the photograph…

This photograph, you might say, is a study of light and its unexpected revelations. The walls confining the dark window are chipped, chalk-scrawled, paint-splattered. But someone has used them as a book, board or easel; someone has wanted to make a mark, less lovely than those dancing shapes in dark caves; yet has yearned to leave a trace. And the orange ladder on the gritty concrete (does it stretch up, or lean down like a bar of sun?) whispers that we long to be lifted – to see and be seen. In the light.

So when my daughter comes next month, I’ll give her the photograph. It will hang in her  flat where the traffic never stops and the birds clatter like knives. She too will look at it each day and its serenity and beauty will make her pause as she wipes the table or picks up her daughter’s toys.

We’ll think of each other. The ladder is a bridge.

The second ladder has escaped. It floats in a blue sky at dusk and the blue is washed like silk, like milk. The sky fills the canvas; is empty but for the ladder; your eyes drink the blue – you can’t have enough of it – you breathe and it fills you, and the space of it carries the ladder – and you. You float in that blue space too, your arms also outstretched, straining towards that ear of a moon. The ladder sprang from a dark distant mountain, but in its eagerness, has miscalculated – it will never reach the moon, for the moon is unassailable. But it doesn’t matter. Only the leap matters. And the leap is into enormity and silence. In a place of seemingly forbidding ‘emptiness’ whose components are stripped to earth, air and sky, what do you hear but your own footsteps, the wind carrying random patches of birdsong or animal howl.

The painting is Ladder to the Moon. Georgia O’Keefe, whose house Ghost Ranch lay on the badlands near the Jemez Mountains, said, ‘if I walk for fifteen minutes from the house, I am in some place I have never been before; where it seems no one has been before.’ The painting was inspired by a vision she had of a floating ladder and possibly a prayer: ‘if I painted this place often enough, perhaps God would give it to me.’[i]

I first saw the painting on Poetry Day in 2006 when I was, briefly a relief teacher in the Far North. That day I was the in the art room and my instructions were simple: ‘Clss to continue w projects. They know what 2 do. Folders in box in back room. Ask Tiriti to hand out. NB fill in roll. VIP. Thanx.’

‘Who is Tiriti?’

‘Me Miss.’

‘Me Miss.’

‘Me Miss.’

‘He’s away today. Miss.

‘Gapped it Miss.’

‘Catching kina Miss.’

‘You like kina Miss?’

‘Where’s Sir Miss?’

‘Is that your name on the board miss?’

‘You married Miss?’

‘You Indian Miss?’

‘Where you come from Miss?’

‘I seen you at the supermarket Miss.’

‘Can we have the radio on Miss?’

‘No. Could you put your phone away please.’

‘Aw, shit. Sorry Miss. Can’t Miss. My sister’s having a baby Miss. Any minute Miss. I might get da call. Sir always lets us.’

‘He’s going to be a uncle, Miss.’

‘He is already.’

‘Yeah, he does.’

‘We always have the radio.’

‘Well, not today. Sir says you know what to do and your projects are in a box in the back room.’

‘’S locked Miss. Got da key?’

‘Sir didn’t say anything about a key.’

‘Sir’s a douche bag Miss.’

‘Excuse me.’

‘’S true Miss.’

‘Try da door Miss. See. ’S locked. Cos we are robbers Miss.’

It was true. The back room door was locked, and the art room a tunnel with windows facing a concrete yard with a leaking tap and three plastic bins. If you walked to the windows, you could see beyond the yard, the symmetrical branches of Norfolk pines, beyond which lay the blue bowl of the bay. Posters on the walls – of the Northland Panels, a Clairmont sofa, and Picasso at a bull fight – vied with students’ renditions of Fomison or manga. There were six or eight paint-splattered tables, an assortment of plastic stools and about twenty students. The girls were squashed around a table at the back of the room putting on make-up, texting, or eating. They threw apples to one another. Some had yoghurt and fed their friends with plastic spoons or poured it down their throats. They aimed the cores and containers at the bin near my desk. They were not good shots. Others in pink or pale blue puffer jackets shared earplugs and jiggled to unheard music. A few looked up occasionally through panda eyes, but mostly they faced the windows so I looked on an impenetrable pastel-coloured puffered wall.

The boys wore nylon jackets with stripes and numbers, and caps so it was hard to see their eyes. Some had enormous diamond studs in their ears. They pushed back the sleeves of their jackets and sprawled across the tables. They drew gigantic penises, or masked men with guns on one another’s arms, legs and hands. They took turns at decorating, they compared, contrasted and congratulated.. It was 9.15. The class finished at 10.

On the table apart from Sir’s instructions and the roll book was a battered book of paintings by Georgia O’Keefe.

‘Has Sir been telling you about Georgia O’Keefe?’

‘She lived in da desert Miss.’

‘She liked bones Miss.’

‘And close-ups of flowers, Miss.’

‘She was rude as, Miss.’

‘She was a rude dude.’

‘Have you looked at her flowers?’

‘Can’t Miss. Too disgusting.’

‘She must of been a pervert, Miss.’

‘Sir’s a pervert, Miss.’

‘Are you a pervert Miss?’

‘Here is a painting,’ I said. ‘What do you think?’


‘’S Cool, Miss.’

‘’Sucks Miss.’

‘Why is da ladder flying to da moon, Miss?’

‘It was smoking weed, Miss.’

‘You want some weed, Miss?’

‘What do you like about the painting?’

The girls put gloss on their little fingers and spread it on each other’s lips. I walked to the boys’ table and put the book in front of them. They raised their heads and tipped their caps back and their big brown hands stroked the page.

‘It wants to excape Miss.’

‘Like us, Miss. We want to excape. It sucks here Miss.’

We looked at the moon and the mountains and the floating ladder. We talked about walking and being quiet and symbols and why they wore diamonds and rings.

‘It’s Poetry Day,’ I said. ‘Here’s a poem about a ladder. Write it in your homework books. Take it home and read it to your parents. Learn it by heart. I’m coming back tomorrow.’

‘Can’t Miss.’

‘Why not?’

No book, Miss. No pencils neither. They locked in da back room. Bell’s going in ten minutes Miss. We gotta tidy up and get ready for School Council Meeting.’

‘Just do it.’

‘Oh Miss.’

‘I’ll time you.’


The Ladder 

Too short to reach the roof,

too short to threaten important windows,

the ladder lies on its side

behind the house, out of sight.

The ladder lies in the grass,

A different grain in each of its rungs

(and wings on each rung

so where can you place your feet?).

And as you can see, it is rotten.

Nevertheless, it longs to be lifted.

Bill Manhire


[i] /

Ladder, Paris, Harvey Benge


3 Responses to “Something about Ladders”

  1. barb austin February 14, 2013 at 6:21 am #

    sounds like the ladder needs a farewell party – barb

  2. seattle tree preservation February 19, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    I read your post ,Thanks for sharing

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Steph Matuku

Writer & Voice

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