Family Songbook and walking home

7 Mar


On Tuesday night I went to the Gus Fisher Gallery for the launch of John Newton’s new book of poems: Family Songbook. It’s a beguiling little book even before you’ve opened it – its cover wholly taken up by a Woollaston sketch. I like sketches – they seem to be simple, possibly a prelude to something more serious like a painting, but often they are the artist’s first impression so there’s an energy and lightness about them that may not always stay in a painting.

There are scribbled clouds and scribbled poplars; there are the spines of hills and hills shaded or cross-hatched; there seems to be a track, it might be a river, might be a road. Woollaston worked in ink (I think) and sometimes it’s dark and sometimes it’s  faint, but all the time you feel his eye framing the landscape – order and placement underpin apparently artless marks. The title, Family Songbook, is in a sort of charcoal American typewriter font, and John’s name below in a muted shade of orange. Everything about the cover suggests, not exactly nostalgia, but a reassessment – a looking back, although of course, looking forward – movement – is also implicit in the diagonal lines that dance across the sketch.

Michele Leggott gave the book a wonderful launch. She said she’d been living with the poems for at least a year – that John had made a CD of them for her so they were in her ears. She said she always started at the back of a book first; that this was a wise decision in the case of Family Songbook because many things contained in the notes helped the reading of the poems. She explained how the loops of illusions in Envoi ripple throughout the other poems. Finally she addressed them – six long poems, and conceded that autonomous as they are, they are also one long poem which is in fact an answer to a question John asked in his collection Lives of the Poets:

                           How do you translate

                           the old family story into something that anyone else

                           wants to hear?

And John read several poems. We all wanted to hear.

Family Songbook is ‘an old family story’, and family a capacious noun in which people, place, music and art move and join and part and are woven together. This is what has stayed:

Woolsheds were meant to be woolshed-red.

Now everywhere they’re galvanised iron.

What if the colour were to vanish

from a landscape? That oxidised crimson

like dried blood, the pond with its sugary

crust of duckweed, Jonathans ripening in April

streaked with honey. Cold it be simpler?

I need this colour, as much as I need

That towering summer in the riverbed

somewhere below Ikamatua:

salmony blush on the granite boulders,

water the colour of yellow Chartreuse;

A sandy hollow, your mahogany

tan; a happy, clumsy, scribble of self.

From Great Days in New Zealand Painting

Later that night I walked through Aotea Square all hedged about with high hurricane fencing. There were security guards here and there, a few people smoking on seats. I walked around the side of the Aotea Centre where the techies unload their stuff – there’s a path and some steps up to Mayoral Drive. A woman with a long skirt was pulling herself slowly up the path holding on to the rail.

‘Walk with me,’ she said. ‘You’re going too bloody fast. Me, I’m fat and I’ve got my Achilles tendon.’

There was something strange about her – her face round as a plate, her teeth glinting in the overhead light, and the curious ownership of her tendon. Her voice was a blend of Australian and Indian.

‘That hurts,’ I said. ‘My sister tore her Achilles. Where are you going? You don’t sound as if you come from here.’

She gestured towards the hotel across the street. ‘There,’ she said. ‘I’m from Perth. I’m on a tour of your beautiful city, but I couldn’t find a hole in the wall. I needed some cash. I get all the way down there with my leg and then, look –’ she pointed up at the ASB tower – ‘I could’ve just walked me over there. Can you walk with me across the road? I’m scared cos of my leg.’

We walked slowly out into the middle of Mayoral Drive towards the hotel. I could smell the last of the star jasmine.

‘But where do I get in?’ she asked.

‘I thought you were staying here.’

‘I am, but it looks different from before.’

We walked round to the entrance on Grey’s Avenue. She leaned against the raised concrete garden bed and stared at me.

‘What do you do for a crust?’

‘I write.’

‘You a writer? Books?’

‘No books.’

‘What kind of writer if you don’t write books?’


‘Essays.’ She pauses. ‘Essays.’ She tried the word out. ‘Well, thanks, writer. You look like a nun. Are you getting it?’




4 Responses to “Family Songbook and walking home”

  1. barb austin March 7, 2013 at 4:58 am #

    oh how funny – it must have been the box-pleated gym frock that did it – I had admired it from across the room. Or more, perhaps, that you seemed unbothered by the memories it might evoke – the saucy slit was an irreverent twist – a stylish rebellion.
    Yes, it was a fine launch for a fine book. As for the other book (my computer froze mid-conversation), perhaps you should try a few pages – but is ‘statedly’ a real word?

    • sightbyte March 7, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

      He likes unusual words and that people have to reach for their dictionaries. There were a few in ‘The Sea’: apotropaic, mephitic, anthropic were three I had to look up.

  2. Sarah March 27, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

    Lovely – now I have to read the book – and I particularly like your interesting encounter with the Achilles tendon woman.

    • sightbyte March 28, 2013 at 11:39 pm #

      Thanks Sarah – the book is very good; I like it very much. And as for that woman …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Steph Matuku

Writer & Voice

Austenprose - A Jane Austen Blog

Join the celebration of Jane Austen novels, movies, sequels and the pop culture she has inspired

Poetry Box

A New Zealand Poetry Page for Children

Art and My Life

A blog about art in my everyday life


We came through the Gate of the Crossing in a year that is not remembered and will never be forgotten . . .

Bernard Beckett

Author information and occasional blog


Reading. Writing. Parenting. Angsting.


A blog by Ashleigh Young. A burning wreck


Eve de Castro-Robinson's blog

%d bloggers like this: