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Today I was asked to choose a poem for my son’s wedding

I think through my own meagre offering of poems and that doesn’t take long. There is nothing there about weddings or couples.

So now I’m looking for a poem about love. But it shouldn’t be too direct, because direct is not good when it comes to poems.

It probably shouldn’t be too religious, or at least not religious in any specific way, because the people there will not be singing from the same song-sheet religiously. It would be nice if it didn’t make anyone’s raw feelings over their own heartbreak any worse. And it shouldn’t sound as if it is a given that the marriage will be happy, or that it won’t be happy. It shouldn’t make it sound as though marriage, the patriarchal institution, is fine with me. And the couple shouldn’t cringe because the poem refers to breasts and penises. It would be a bonus if it contained references to the worlds of the bride and groom. Her hair perhaps or his way with a fried egg. Or maybe the world that they will soon be seeing, after they leave New Zealand.

Despite all these constraints, it has not been difficult and here are ten. OK, there is a series of 3 that might be a bit raunchy, and one that is way to cheesy, and the others. Poems I like tend to be on the austere side, but I’ve tried to depart from that at least some of the time. Personally I’d choose the Estonian Songs, but it is not my wedding.

3 poems from Estonian Songs by Jenny Bornholdt

Waking the birds

Wake birds,
the sky loses its dark
because of you, light
slowly coming around
the corner to surprise

A lion worries a bone
into morning
and berries come out
from behind their green

Boats in the harbour
planes in the sky
the wings and wheels of the
modern world are

Praising the cook

They say the sexual impulse
is like a fiery horse.

When you break an egg
one handed
into the frying pan
it sounds like distant hooves
crossing a dusty plain.

Instructing the newly-weds

Listen bride
listen groom
don’t be afraid.
At night, the dark trees at the end
of the street—how frightening
they seem, then
morning comes and uncovers
nothing but leaves.


Wedding Song by Jenny Bornholdt

Now you are married

Try to love the world

As much as you love

Each other. Greet it as your husband,

Wife. Love it with all your

Might as you sleep

Breathing against its back.

Love the world, when late at night,

You come home to find snails

Stuck to the side of the house

Like decoration.

Love your neighbours.

The red berries on their trampoline

Their green wheelbarrow.

Love the man walking on

Water, the man up a

mast. Love the light moving

across the Island Princess.

Love your grandmother when she tells you

Her hair is three-quarters ‘café au lait’.

Try to love the world, even when you discover

there is no such thing as The Author

any more.

Love the world, praise

God, even, when your aerobics instructor

is silent.

Try very hard to love

your mailman, even though he regularly

delivers you Benidicto Clemente’s mail.

Love the weta you find on the path,

injured  by alteration.

Love the tired men, the burnt

house, the handlebars of light

on the ceiling.

Love the man on the bus who says

it all amounts to a fishing rod

or a lightbulb.

Love the world of the garden.

The keyhole of bright green grass

Where the stubborn palm

used to be,

bees so drunk on ginger flowers

that they think the hose water

is rain   your hair tangled in


Love the way,

when you come inside,

insects find their way out

from the temporary rooms of

your clothes.

– Jenny Bornholdt –

Love Poem, by Bill Manhire

There is no question

of choice, but it takes

a long time.

Love’s vacancies, the eye

& cavity, track

back to embraces

where the spine bends

& quietens

like smoke in the earth

Your tongue, touching on song,

darkens all songs. Your touch

is almost a signature.

An Irish blessing ( the cheese)

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

May God be with you and bless you;
May you see your children’s children.
May you be poor in misfortune,
Rich in blessings,
May you know nothing but happiness
From this day forward.

May the road rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the warm rays of sun fall upon your home
And may the hand of a friend always be near.

May green be the grass you walk on,
May blue be the skies above you,
May pure be the joys that surround you,
May true be the hearts that love you.

Habitation by Margaret Atwood


Marriage is not
a house, or even a tent

it is before that, and colder:

the edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
the unpainted stairs
at the back, where we squat
outdoors, eating popcorn

where painfully and with wonder

at having survived
this far

we are learning to make fire

This Marriage by Rumi

May these vows and this marriage be blessed.
May it be sweet milk,
this marriage, like wine and halvah.
May this marriage offer fruit and shade
like the date palm.
May this marriage be full of laughter,
our every day a day in paradise.
May this marriage be a sign of compassion,
a seal of happiness here and hereafter.
May this marriage have a fair face and a good name,
an omen as welcomes the moon in a clear blue sky.
I am out of words to describe
how spirit mingles in this marriage.


Years later they find themselves talking

about chances, moments when their lives

might have swerved off

for the smallest reason.

What if

I hadn’t phoned, he says, that morning?

What if you’d been out,

as you were when I tried three times

the night before?

Then she tells him a secret.

She’d been there all evening, and she knew

he was the one calling, which was why

she hadn’t answered.

Because she felt—

because she was certain—her life would change

if she picked up the phone, said hello,

said, I was just thinking

of you.

I was afraid,

she tells him. And in the morning

I also knew it was you, but I just

answered the phone

the way anyone

answers a phone when it starts to ring,

not thinking you have a choice.



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Kundera’s Words

Milan Kundera’s ‘The Art of the Novel’ popped into a discussion I was having recently with a novelist about the scope and aspirations of the novel. That discussion itself was in the context of a discussion about the critical writing of creative writers. These discussions do not happen every day or by chance but when you do get to talk writing with other writers the rewards can be huge. This was one of those days.

I am not a novelist, so in some ways Kundera’s thoughts on the novel might be seen as slightly peripheral to my thinking about my writing, but that isn’t how it feels. It feels as if his ideas about form and structure could apply easily to my work. I think there are several reasons for this. One is that he talks so explicitly about the relationship of form to content which is one of my preoccupations.

‘To bring together the extreme gravity of the question and the extreme lightness of the form –
that has always been my ambition.’, he says in “Dialogue on the Art of Composition” , one part of ‘The Art of the Novel’.

The juxtaposition here, presented baldly with no description of method nearby, opens the door to a lot of questions. What is a ‘light’ form, for instance? Is it space, brevity,segmentation? I don’t think brevity should be under-rated as an instrument of communication. Think of Echinoz, and how he is able to make a book about two men and World War One in about a hundred and fifty pages, and yet the work feels entirely sufficient to the topic.

My attention is always engaged when an artist owns right up to seriousness of purpose. In New Zealand saying something like this would be seen as arrogance, and not many writers would talk in these terms, but for a famous writer from Central Europe, living in France, it is perfectly reasonable to claim some serious territory quite explicitly.

So I was pottering along, enjoying the questions going off in my mind and special moments like the statement that Kafka provides beauty, not hope. Beauty, Kundera says, is the last refuge of a person without hope.It’s always interesting what people say about Kafka. But it was the attention Kundera focuses on individual words that made me stop reading, tear out pieces of the morning paper to use as bookmarks, and write this blog.

The intensity of Kundera’s attention to words is perhaps similar to a poet’s, but I’m not sure in the end whether the nature of his attention, or his purposes, are the same or different. It seems to me as if the words are one of his tools, and he wants to use them in every way possible for his creative ends. That is exactly like a poet. Words aren’t his only tool, of course. He has structural devices like the use of the magical number seven, narrative devices like abstaining from interior monologues and unusual punctuation and sentence structure. But as a writer who has changed languages and who communicates to his audience mostly in the form of translations, the actual individual words matter. Words are everything, he says in the forward to “Sixty Three Words”. (His italics.)

Kundera explains that while writing ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ he realised that the ‘existential code’ of his characters is made up of ‘certain key words’. For one character these are body, soul, vertigo, weakness, idyll and Paradise. For another, lightness and weight. For a relationship between two characters the words were woman, fidelity, betrayal, music, darkness, light, parades, beauty, country, cemetery and strength. The existential code is not explored abstractly. It is explored in action, in the situations of the novel.Here he seems to have taken off into some territory that is his own.

In “Dialogue on the Art of Composition” Kundera talks about ‘themes’, which are also closely related to individual words.

‘A theme is an existential enquiry. And increasingly I realise that such an enquiry is, finally, the examination of certain words, theme-words. Which leads me to emphasise: A novel is based primarily on certain fundamental words. It is like Schoenberg’s “tone-row”. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting the row goes: forgetting, laughter, angels, litost, border. Over the course of the novel those five principal words are analysed, studied, defined, redefined, and thus transformed into Categories of existence. The novel is built on those few categories the way a house is built on its pillars.’

(For those who do not speak Czech, ‘litost’ is a feeling that happens to Czech people, and may happen to others too but in English we don’t have a word for it.“Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery,” says Kundera in ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’.)

A motif is different from a theme. It is a theme or element of the story that appears several times in the book, in different contexts. A Beethoven quartet, for example, begins in one character’s life and moves into another’s.

The penultimate section of ‘The Art of the Novel’ is “Sixty Three Words”. There Kundera has assembled a list of words that are a sort of ‘personal dictionary’ as a friend described it when he challenged Kundera to make the list. “Put down your key words, your problem words, the words you love…” the friend said. And he did.

Reading these words and their definitions straight after reading about existential codes and themes, I felt obliged to think about what it meant to have sixty three words connected with a person. I thought perhaps these words defined ‘Kundera’ rather as if he were the biggest character of all in his work, or perhaps they were the themes of any book about his life as a writer. He even links the words to actions he has taken in his writing, as if all his writing was one novel.

In my PhD thesis I made an Index, in which I hoped to hide the most important words in the text amongst a forest of straightforward names and other details. Mine was a failed artistic experiment, but I think if I had read ‘The Art of the Novel’ first, and not been in such a PhD funk, I might have done better.

[With thanks to the writer who mentioned Milan Kundera’s 1968 book ‘The Art of the Novel’ to me, to the sparks of pink light that appeared at that moment and told me to read that book right now, to the writer-friend who was wise enough to have bought the book when Wellington City Library disposed of it and to the books and events of the last thirty years that have left me old enough to read this book now.]

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What space did to the Russian cosmonauts

I have become interested lately in what Soviet cosmonauts say about what space did to them.Sometimes there is a kind of ecstasy. Sometimes, and this really fascinates me, time spent up there seems to make them kinder. One of the cosmonauts even said that he thought troublesome world leaders should be sent up to space for a while so that they would start to feel they were just a small part of something rather wonderful.

Yuri Gagarin was the first person to be able to talk to us from up there. On the 12th of April 1961, he said this:

“Cosmonaut to Earth,

I am looking at the earth. I can make out the colours of the landscape – forests,rivers,clouds. Everything all around me is so beautiful.”

I love the present tense of this. It is as if he has never looked at the earth before, which I suppose is true in one way. I also like the repetition ‘Everything’ and ‘all around me’.

I decided to share this because what he said seems to me to be very simple and also very profound. Yes, he tells us what he sees. But I think [although something may have been lost in the confusion of languages here] that he is also telling us what the earth, as he sees it from space, means to him. He speaks of the earth as a lover would speak of the loved one.



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Perezhivanie, the gift of confidence and creative collaborations

Sometimes psychology is annoying. For example, when it finds long boring ways to say what my Aunty Freda and everyone on her street knew without having to be told. But the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) is never annoying. He never goes round in reductionist circles. It is a tragedy that he died at only 37. But it is fantastic that his work on emotions is now translated into English and is available to us.

In Vygotsky’s hands words become live organisms.

‘A word’s sense is the aggregate of all psychological facts that arise in our consciousness as a result of the word. Sense is a dynamic, fluid, and complex formation that has several zones that vary in their stability,’ Vygotsky wrote in 1934.

Holbrook Mahn and Vera John-Steiner, who are disciples of Vygotsky, tease out how creative collaborations work. Anyone who uses a workshop method of teaching writing, or anyone who belongs to a writing group would find this exploration interesting.

‘Partners who have been successful in constructing such a joint [collaborative] system are sensitive to the sense as well as the meaning of each other’s language. In producing shared texts, collaborators expand their partner’s early drafts; they strive to give shape to the communicative intent by combining precision – or word meaning – with the fluidity of the sense of words. They live, temporarily, in each other’s heads. They also draw on their mutuality as well as their differences in knowledge, working styles, and temperament.’

One of Vygotsky’s radical ideas was that emotions drive thinking and thinking doesn’t just happen by itself. Writers choose words based on their own full and complex emotions floating under and behind the words in their minds. That is their perezhivanie. Collaborative discussions let that complexity in. Say goodbye to the isolated mind. Say goodbye to the opposition of emotion and reason. Say hello to lived experience poking its nose shyly out from behind words. Say hello to the aspects of social interdependence – human connection and caring support – that foster the development of confidence.

Link to full PDF of Mahn and John Steiner’s book chapter

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