11 Tracks from Learning to Love Blue

1.

Taylor brings me a drink and then takes a guitar off someone mid-strum. He starts playing out a familiar riff – The Strokes’ ‘Someday’ and soon we’re all singing it together, tapping out accompanying beats. I wonder if it’s like this here every night.

2.

 Why didn’t I just go back to sleep and catch the tram to work in the morning like a civilised normal person? I’ve slept on couches before. I could have handled it. 

I start humming ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ to myself, walking along my own road, taking comfort in the ‘it’s all right’ part. It’s also the best song about moving on ever written.

3.

I’m humming, and it takes a few minutes to recognise the tune as one off Blue. The one about a flight, set to a frenetic beat that I tap out anxiously on the armrest. I watch the animation of the plane creeping to the edge of the Tasman Sea, closer towards Wellington. The familiar shape of New Zealand on the screen gives me a strange surge of patriotic comfort. 

4.

As I park my bike and lock it to the railing, I hear a busker outside the shopping centre. He’s playing The Smiths, ‘There Is a Light That Never Goes Out’– one of the darkest and yet most optimistic songs ever. I walk closer and realise that not only are the lyrics familiar, but the voice is too. It’s Taylor. 

5.

‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ is blaring out of Lou’s room. She’s been playing Simon and Garfunkel all day and I have reached my absolute limit. 

I storm through her door.

She’s sitting cross-legged on her bed with her eyes closed and the most blissed-out expression on her face. Is she meditating? With this racket going on? She seems to sense my presence and holds up a hand to silence my not-yet-uttered protest. Then, as if conducting me, she moves her hand in a welcoming gesture, drawing me into the room and pointing to the seat next to her. There’s half a beat’s pause in the song and then the next verse starts, the crescendo rising again. There’s no use trying to speak, so I sit and close my eyes with Lou, let the song fill me. God, I hate Simon and Garfunkel.

6.

Lou flips through some CDs and puts one in her chunky old Sony stereo.

‘I love that you have a CD collection,’ I tell her, my voice calming.

‘I love CDs. They’re so old school. Listen to this.’ She hits play and something familiar, yet strange and synthy starts playing.

‘What is this? Is that an accordion?’ Drums burst out like controlled explosions.

‘This is “The Boy In the Bubble”, from Paul Simon’s Graceland. This is his best solo album.’

His choir boy voice has changed into something stronger, and there’s a sense of urgency and an optimism in the rising major shifts.

‘After he split with Art Garfunkel, his career was dwindling and he got very depressed, but then he had a stroke of genius in the mid-80s and wrote this album in South Africa. It’s my number one top favourite album of all time,’ Lou says.

I raise my eyebrows at her. ‘Really?’

7.

I pull out Blue. ‘Now this is one I’m still learning to love,’ I say as I slide the vinyl out of the sleeve and place it gently on the turntable. ‘Last year when my mum came to visit, she gave me this album. It’s her favourite. Dad must have said something about me liking records, but I was surprised she liked something so folky. She says it’s poetry.’ 

I set the needle down and ‘All I Want’ jangles out with the determined, sweet, melancholic first chords. 

8.

‘Too cheesy?’ I ask.

‘Just cheesy enough. Where is he? He should be throwing himself into your arms after that.’

I bend down to retrieve my scarf. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Ah,’ Caz’s tone changes.

‘What?’

‘It’s like a Pixies song,’ she says, nodding towards something behind me. 

I turn and there he is. Caz pats my shoulder and slips away.

He’s gorgeous, a dimply smile twinkling like the fairy lights. ‘Paige …’ he starts.

9.

I’m on the brink of pulling out of the Alanis tribute show when I turn up to work and Jagged Little Pill is playing.

‘Who put this on?’ I ask, before I even greet anyone.

‘It’s on random,’ Caz winks at me.

‘No it’s not. And this would never be on a Vinyl playlist anyway. It’s nowhere near Triple-J enough for us.’ It cheered me up a bit though. Caz starts singing along to the chorus of ‘You Learn’ rather melodramatically. I laugh and join in.

10.

I’m listening to Blue and tapping on my phone when Spike appears in my bedroom doorway.

‘Is this Joni Mitchell?’ He puts down his guitar case and lies next to me on my bed.

‘Yeah, ‘My Old Man’. One of my favourites.’

11.

We’re pretty messy and I don’t blame the passers-by for passing on by, but it’s so much fun. We run through our living room repertoire: Dylan, Nirvana, our Alanis song. I try the opening chords of Joni’s ‘All I Want’, but give up. That one’s going to need more practice. We sing our way through Ryan Adams’ ‘To Be Young’ – Spike loses it trying to do falsetto in the bridge and I get the lyrics all mixed up. 

Learning to Love Blue is available 31st July 2021

Masks

Before we took our masks off

we took them on and off

off when out and on when in…

 

before we took them off when out

we wore them all the time.

 

Who knows how fresh the air was

as we walked around the block

well-practised smise  

in case we encountered 

another half concealed self.

 

But before we wore them all the time

our masks weren’t even real

we carried them with us as 

a cliched metaphor, lazy 

description of the nuances

of human interactions

O, the masks we wear, they’d say

and you’d be too bored

to even roll your eyes.

 

Before it was a cliche though

it was probably quite a good metaphor.

Not brilliant, but apt enough 

to be used into a cliche we could hide

more subtle, smising thoughts behind.

“No mud, no Lotus”

Everything comes together in November. The sun comes out and the house stays warm through the night. Cases in Victoria descend to zero and remain there for days and then weeks. Trump loses. There are no euphemisms for this and no hyperbole too great. It feels like the embarrassed silence after months of heated shouting, like waking up from a terrible night’s sleep, grateful it’s morning. We become giddy with these glimmers of okayness. I feel like crying when we meet up with friends at the beach after hundreds of days of isolation and when we first go to a cafe for lunch, we make friends with every wide-eyed person there. We book a holiday out of town – a rebooking of a twice cancelled trip from July. Everything went pear-shaped around July.

In the beginning, I felt a strange camaraderie with the world. We made jokes about running out of toilet paper and people across continents would laugh. The mention of isolation boredom and work pyjamas had wide reaching ripples of knowing nods. Suddenly everyone in the world had something in common. Then jokes gave way to fear and anger and things got worse, of course, before they got any better. Or they briefly appeared to be better before they got much worse. 

Relief that 2020 is coming to an end is understandable, the need to draw a line under it – through it even – as we collectively agree it was nothing like we’d planned, but I feel a pang every time someone says what a terrible year it has been, even though I know it has been devastating for so many. In our family alone we lost a dear parent and attended the funeral by zoom, we had illness, we had disappointment and we mourned the absence of friends and family as we tried to show our new baby the joys of the world we brought her into. But 2020 is special to me. When I mention this to a friend in the park, gesturing grandly towards my baby, she says “No mud, no Lotus, right?” and I google the phrase later at home.

This was the year that started with Lotus’ birth, my mum here for ten days prior and ten days after and my brother making a hasty appearance just in time to meet her minutes after she emerged. It’s the year my dad delayed his flight to Nepal so he could meet his new grandchild and the year so many other beautiful babies – Lotus’ friends – were born into villageless isolation. 

It’s the year Lotus learnt to crawl. First her own invention, a kind of dry-land butterfly stroke – flopping and dragging her body around the house we moved into in August, then figuring out the more energy efficient version on hands and knees, squeals of delight as she became mobile. It’s the year she learnt to clap her hands, eliciting praise and excitement from her parents, looking at us in turn as she does it, knowing we’ll be delighted. The year she learnt to sleep the entire night, settle herself back again on waking or stand in her cot to call out she’s ready to get up. 2020 will always be the year Lotus started pointing at things she liked, things she wanted, things she recognised and things we asked her to. Every day she shows us the patterns of light on the walls from windows covered with trees or lace curtains. Her full cheeks rise into the biggest smile when she finds even the faintest impression of shadow and bright. There are rainbows in our living room in the afternoon and she will find them before anyone else can. In the mornings, she pulls books off her shelf and hands them to me one by one to read to her as she turns the pages, points at the illustrations and sometimes says “baby!” if there’s a baby on the page. It’s the year she made friends with babies. This year is the year Lotus first called me “Mumum” and her dad “Papa”, the year she started singing along as I play guitar and nodding her head to her favourite songs.

2020 was terrible, but I won’t cross it off. It’s the year we realised how lucky we are, never again taking simple things like going out for breakfast or having visitors for granted. We hunkered down through winter, solving sleep issues with only as many tears as it took to scramble from our bed to hers. We never had to figure out the logistics of how to get baby, pram, nappy bag to this thing or that thing. There were no things to try and get to. 

Soon, and I’m sure of this, we will be able to see our families again. My mum will come from New Zealand the moment she’s allowed, my dad will have to find his way back from Nepal and our newish little family will have planes to catch to see Lotus’ uncles, aunts, cousins and grandmas. We have lost people and there will be time again to grieve and process this. Somewhere in the midst of this chaotic year I turned 40, quietly and with a carefully planned glass of champagne. Everything falls slowly into place in November and this blurry and intense, forgettable year is the most memorable of my life.

Borders

 

Sometimes I’m that puzzle you bought from an op-shop

five dollars. You looked so pleased holding it under your arm

a rubber band snapped tight around the cardboard box

seasonally appropriate image of red and yellow 

leaves above a thick black river.

 

When we spread it on the kitchen table and sifted

pieces through fingers, fingers through pieces 

we couldn’t find a single edge to get us started

– not a single edge or corner – five bucks, sure 

but it was hard not to feel let down.

 

There are times on the train when young men sit near 

and speak softly to each other in the familiar cadence

of my father’s language. I want to tell them I know

I’m related to them, just look at my name

but it’s a language I only recognise by sound.

 

Or when I hand over my keep cup and the vowels 

of the barista are clipped like mine, hanging pounamu 

and I want to say bro, we’re bonded, secret handshake

but there are hundreds of us here 

with nothing remarkable about our easy migration.

 

Anyway, it turns out you can still put a puzzle together

when the edges are missing, but it’s harder to trust the process

harder to immerse yourself in the task

when you don’t really know if the bit you’re looking for 

is lost in someone else’s living room miles from here.

 

The trick is to start from the middle.

Work your way from the bright centre of autumnal leaves

towards forested outskirts, like an ever-expanding universe 

trying not to think what will happen

when eventually

inevitably

there will be no spare pieces left.

Learning to be gentle

I keep my judgements to myself, mostly

a cat claw stuck in the baby’s sleeve

causes more tears

 

than her top teeth pushing through gums

those stubborn numbers

finally in sharp descent.

 

Clusters form from a reckless traveller

while we focus on enjoying bath time

and every playground we can walk to.

 

I turn the pram around so she faces

the world head on.

I must be feeling optimistic.

 

Not knowing about thresholds

the step into the sunroom becomes

a literal tipping point

 

each morning, firm pats on a patient cat

until the patience of the cat snaps too.

The numbers

Every morning I check the numbers:

Covid cases and hours of sleep.

 

Try to focus on the rolling average forest

not the trees, though they blossom and bud.

 

It’s been a year of seasons.

I mean, of course it has, but so much so this time.

 

We spent money on woollen things to wrap around us

and from this end of it all I’m glad

 

to have hunkered down through the worst of it.

Hair growing unruly and the same two outfits.

 

I buy sparkly skirts in preparation 

for whatever good things are surely about to happen

 

and on the morning after Lotus first sleeps

straight through twelve of the night’s twelve hours

 

I walk to the corner store for bread and eggs

feeling extraordinarily ordinary

 

back to some baseline normality

and the forest is not fogged, 

 

but a dappling canopied, mossy floored space

letting wind and light breathe through.

Waking life

Each night in the new house I farewell former lives

through broken sleep dreams.

 

Spot a high school crush, now mid-forties

soft about the jaw, the soft hue of his roots.

 

Old partners with mail they’d neglected to redirect

challenge me to a game in the penny arcade.

 

Night after night the past appears

asking if I’m sure, and I’m sure

 

I wake to my baby again and again

fall asleep to reply

 

I choose the life I wake to

I wake to this life and I choose it 

again and again and again.

Trust

The change table is a safe place, you learn
no longer protesting instead
laughing, finding your voice, kicking
to the edge raising eyebrows
until I respond.

You wake with a shout sometimes
then a smile when your dad or I
appear, faces goofy with love.
You’re all gums and drool.

One day soon you’ll sleep through
and I’ll miss our 4am meetings
when you feed with focus, then come to

that gummy smile again as you realise, I imagine,
I was here all along.

March 20th

The world is told to self-isolate just

as I might feel like mingling with the world again

I get Friday mornings off to shower, cut my nails

drink tea while it’s still hot. Rainbows in the living room

I walk around the block

 

collect two fallen frangipani flowers

an autumn garden inconsistency. Summer

a blur of pregnancy birth baby

two months measured out in feeds and naps

tears, each week I walk this walk a little quicker

 

each week things get better

before they get hard again, but mostly

there are more good days than tricky days

and never do I call them bad days.

One of my flowers blows to the ground

 

face-plants grass, stem to the sky

the other I hold as I write, bringing it to my nose

with each pause of the pen, sun-warmed

black-clad body, cheap kmart shapewear

holds my weakened core together

 

I swing my briefly baby-free arms about

the scent of good days and tricky days ahead.

Expectant / Morphology

Expectations and Reality

Here is a poem published ten years ago in my first collection, Wit of the Staircase. It is inspired by the form of Surrealist poet, André Breton’s ‘L’union libre’.

I wrote this poem from my imagination, looking up images and descriptions of what it might feel like to have a life growing inside me.

Expectant

after André Breton

Girl with the eyes of blown glass
With the limbs of a curled tadpole
With the thoughts of a startling gesture
With the breathing of a baroque organ.

Girl with the fingerprints of tiny forecasts
With teeth of tight buds and a harvest of rice
With the quickening of fists
With the heart of a fusible link
With the heart of a bicycle pump.

Maybe-boy with the eyelashes of ellipses
With the ears of fine bone drums
With the eyelids of swift translucent fish
With the fingers of quotation marks.

With the hair of hiccupping
And the ends of guitar strings
And of a shelter of bracken
With the bones of clay
With the weight of the world.

From Wit of the Staircase, 2009

There are images here which I love – the “eyelashes of ellipses” and “eyelids of swift translucent fish”, for example. But the last two lines feel awful to me and I wonder what feelings I had back then about having children. “Bones of clay” is vulnerable and soft in a terrifying way and “the weight of the world” feels devastatingly unfair.

Here’s a recent poem, this time based entirely on experience. She is a marvel and she is strong – I’ve seen and heard the four chambers of her heart beating and feel her movements deliberate and determined.

Morphology

We saw you on the fourth day of spring.
Still part of me and in ghostly black and white
but there you were, like a photo of the moon.

The sonographer chatted the whole way through
recommending nappy brands and hypnobirthing.
We could see your bones, your organs and eyeballs.

You are beautiful and perfect and even if you weren’t
you still would be. When we stepped outside
jasmine was everywhere, new blossom

on the otherwise bare twigs of winter. The next time we see you
you’ll be entering the world, exiting the world you’ve made inside me
and joining this marvellous place of birdsong and magnolia.

Each day the temperature rises gently, our body swells
ripples of your quickening strengthen your underwater dance
beating heart, undeniable presence of being.

September, 2019