Tuesday Poem: 256 Words For Snow, by Mary Cresswell

I’m inclined to tow the line, you opined, dismantling
            the spyglass and putting it into the icebox we
            kept for that season.

I stormed out.

This was not what I had in mind as, armed only with
            a memory stick, I considered possible forays
            into the outside world. The blizzard clattered
            frozen water and blazed around the windows.

Exercising demons is not one of my skills, but I
            excepted this. Perhaps the hexagonal flakes
            will cease their incessant fall upon the
            coruscating rink.

Perhaps none of this is true.

I put my ear to the wall of the cabin and ascertained
            that what I heard was sound. The shape is
            troped in the shaven ice, you cried, and we
            will all be quashed.

Nonsense, I snapped, cutting your fine Italian
            hand off at the wrist and tossing it across
            the estuary. We must swing through the
            slush fund, take what we can, and proceed
            according to precedent. There is no other way.

The ship rocked, as if in answer.

You began to nibble my ear lobe, and I leaped
            back. Outside outside, I cried and cried. You
            collected the tears as they rattled down like
            crystal beads into the bilges. We dragged up a
            try-pot and commenced fire.

A full moon shone as the storm moved north-
            northwest, seeking a kinder sunset. As we
            sank our starveling selves into the pleasures of
            the boil, I elucidated the stars: The Dog and
            the Bear. The Dipper. The Dongle, the Bilge

We dined on fried snow and were glad.

Credit note: “256 Words For Snow” is published in Mary Cresswell’s new collection Trace Fossils.

Tim says: After I interviewed Mary about her new book recently, I’ve had the pleasure of reading it – in fact, I just finished it tonight, and I enjoyed it very much. There are a lot of tremendous poems in there, but this one really popped out for me. Of all the many things I like about it, the thing I like about it most is that it mentions memory sticks and dongles – but then, I’m known to be easily amused.

You can read all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog – the featured poem is on the centre of the page, and the week’s other poems are linked from the right-hand column.

Tuesday Poem: Notes From The Futurist Project

You float like a cloud in trousers
I stand with my cow in the rain

Your poems electrified Russia
Your dams were a hymn to the rain

Your empire crumbled around us
As here and as gone as the rain

The birch tree lies by the roadside
Its branches are wept by the rain

The smoke of my village drifts upwards
Its ashes retreat from the rain

Your red square has entered the market
Its cobbles are slick with the rain

The future lies inside the present
As close as a cloud and its rain.

Credit note:First published in Lynx XXI:1, Feb 2006.

Tim says: This is my one and only published attempt at a ghazal. I don’t think it’s as fleet-footed as the ghazal by Mary Cresswell I posted last week, and in fact, I’d almost forgotten I’d written it – but then poet and photographer Madeleine Slavick kindly sent me an article by John Berger about the Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, which touched on Mayakovsky’s ‘frenemy’ relationship with his contemporary, the Russian peasant poet Sergei Esenin (sometimes rendered as Yesenin).

To simplify greatly, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Mayakovsky tried to build the urban future in his poetry, while Esenin tried to preserve the rural past. Neither succeeded in life, though both did in art. Both died young and by their own hand.

In this poem, Esenin is the narrator, and Mayakovsky is the “cloud in trousers”, as he once referred to himself.

You can read all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog – the featured poem is on the centre of the page, and the week’s other poems are linked from the right-hand column.

An Interview With Mary Cresswell


Mary Cresswell is a Wellington poet who lives on the Kapiti Coast. She came to New Zealand from Los Angeles in 1970, after having lived in various parts of the US, in Germany, and in Japan. She graduated from Stanford University in California with a degree in history and English literature. She is retired from freelance work (science editor and proofreader) and has spent at least one lifetime in the Wellington workplace.

Her first book appearance was with Mary-Jane Duffy, Mary Macpherson, and Kerry Hines, co-authors of Millionaire’s Shortbread (University of Otago Press, 2003). This book is illustrated with collages by Brendan O’Brien, has an afterword by Greg O’Brien, and introduced these four poets to the Wellington scene.

Nearest & Dearest, Mary’s collection of her parody and satiric verse, was published in 2009 by Steele Roberts and is illustrated with cartoons by Nikki Slade Robinson. At that time I interviewed her for the first time.

This is a first for me, Mary – a re-interview, and it indicates that you’ve had success in getting two books published in relatively close succession. Before we get onto your new poetry collection, Trace Fossils, how did things go with your 2009 collection, Nearest & Dearest? Collections of light poetry are still quite rare in New Zealand – do you think that this affected the critical and popular reception of Nearest & Dearest, for either good or ill?

There was no critical notice in NZ, which didn’t surprise me. In the US, I got a very good notice in the well-established print journal Light Quarterly, but the US has a lot of humour written by women – not just Dorothy Parker years ago but many women today. I fondly remember Hen’s Teeth, Crow Station, and lots of good women stand-up comics, but NZ seems to me to have handed written satire and parody over to the boys. (If anyone can tell me otherwise, please get in touch!!)

The publisher and I sold just under 150 copies between us. Most of my sales, many of them multiple copies, were to groups of women who would never browse poetry shelves but who were pleasantly astonished that reading poems could be fun. … On the other hand, I was surprised by a number of people who were nonplussed (embarrassed?) by the contents, didn’t know what to say. Perhaps they had no experience of responding to satire or to sarky women fronting up in print.

Trace Fossils was first runner-up for the Kathleen Grattan Awards in 2009, judged by Fleur Adcock – a notable achievement! Is the published version of the manuscript the same as that submitted for the Kathleen Grattan Awards, or has it changed since then?

It’s exactly the same. The manuscript wandered around some years before that. One reason I am so very glad to see it in print now is that I am starting to have trouble recognising the author – and I’m extremely happy to be on the receiving end of Steele Roberts’ very attractive design and presentation.

Trace Fossils is divided into four sections of roughly equal length. What is the significance of these four sections within the collection? Were most of the poems written with an eye to this particular collection, or did the shape of the collection derive from the type of poems that you had been writing?

The section names are intended to be vaguely geological and to suggest eras, different from each other and long in time. Trace fossils themselves may or may not represent anything, and they are a geological construct, a fascinating one (they also have a very funny classification system – take a look). In the introduction, I nominate trace fossils as a metaphor for our memories of loss and our ways of observing loss.

The poems themselves were written at various times and in various forms: counted syllables, sonnets, prose poems, ghazals, concrete poems, ovillejo, accentual poems, free verse in a variety of lengths and shapes. I assembled them more with an eye to connection than to form; they were none of them written with a particular book in mind.

I spent some time recently talking with a fellow poet about the marketing and distribution of poetry collections – that is, letting people know about new poetry collections, and getting poetry collections to places, whether physical or virtual, that people can buy the books if they wish. I imagine the poets reading this interview, at least, would love to know whether you have any innovative ideas on either of those topics!

I wish. Virtual: I have no clue. Finding more about this side of things is my next project. Physical: The books I have sold were sold by word of mouth – people rang me. Local museums, educational groups and art galleries are sometimes prepared to handle books by local authors, especially if the books can be tied in with current shows, if you do the record-keeping and paperwork, and if you are prepared to donate some of your profit to the organisation. (And if you accept it as a one-off, not a continuing relationship.) I suspect special-interest groups, like writing classes, might be worth trying if you’re prepared to give a reading. I expect any reading is a place to sell books.

Do you have any poetry readings planned around the publication of Trace Fossils – and if so, where can people hear you read?

No, no readings. As you know, there are poets who perform with panache and poets who potter on paper. There is a lot of overlap, I’m glad to say, but I generally prefer not to do solo readings. The main reason for this is that a lot of my poetry is based on word play (both visual and syntactic) and shifts of register. I think that much of this goes west when people hear the poems read out loud and only once. I write page poetry that is to be looked at and re-read. I wish I could bounce and rap, but I can’t.

If you don’t mind me asking, what projects are you working on now?

No, I don’t mind, but there’s nothing all that coherent. It’s been years since I finished the poems included in Trace Fossils, and I have shifted more and more to formal patterns, particularly ghazals (at the moment) but also other repeating structures. I enjoy working in accentual (as opposed to accentual-syllabic) forms. Somewhere down the line I would like to end up with a book built on a skeleton of ghazals but fleshed out with a variety of other poems. I’m still writing light verse and publishing it in the US and the UK, but as always this is a separate department. My main immediate project will be trying to get my head around what might be useful in the world of e-publishing.

Book Availability

Trace Fossils can be ordered from the publisher, Steele Roberts, and is available at independent bookshops.

Nearest & Dearest can also be ordered from Steele Roberts.

Sample Poem

I published Mary’s poem “The Sound Of Now” as my Tuesday Poem this week – check it out!

Tuesday Poem: The Sound Of Now, by Mary Cresswell

The Sound Of Now
First line from Marie Ponsot, ‘Reminder’

I am rich. I am poor. Time is all I own.
Time is fair. Time is foul. I am all I own.

Pale hands pick me up and let me down again.
I smell shit and Shalimar. I smell cologne.

No matter on which page you hide, in which book,
I’ll know your name when I can’t recall my own.

A sob?… no, it’s a stab of recognition.
The knife cuts deeper. My thought is all I own.

They called me Marīa when I read Latin.
In this place I have no name to call my own.

Until the end, the sound of one hand clapping —
In the trees, the toucan plays a slide trombone.

Credit note:Published in Ambit 199: 71 (London; Martin Bax and Carol Ann Duffy, eds.) and reprinted in her new collection Trace Fossils.

Tim says: There are two good reasons that this is my Tuesday Poem for this week: first, it’s a fine and most elegantly constructed poem, and second, I am running an interview with Mary – my second interview with her – later this week on my blog. Keep an eye out for it!

You can read all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog – the featured poem is on the centre of the page, and the week’s other poems are linked from the right-hand column.

Astropoetica: Mapping The Stars Through Poetry

In 2003, I came across a call for submissions for a new webzine, Astropoetica. Its mission statement was “Mapping The Stars Through Poetry”, and editor Emily Gaskin had the excellent idea of launching it with a Constellations Issue: at least one poem for each of the 88 constellations recognised by the International Astronomical Union.

“That sounds like a good idea,” I thought, and set about finding some Southern Hemisphere constellations that would by the overly-prosaic Abbe Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille – you can see the poems at the bottom of this post. Octans is the constellation which contains the South Celestial Pole.

Later, I had poems in a couple more issues, including two in the Solar System Issue – these two form part of the Mars sequence in All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens. But, not having written any suitable poems for a while, I was especially pleased that my poem Losing Weight was included in the latest issue.

I’m not the only New Zealand poet to be included in Astropoetica: Mary Cresswell has been published there several times, and Su Lynn Cheah had two poems, including a particular favourite of mine, Insects, in the Constellation Issue.

It isn’t easy to keep a small-press magazine appearing so consistently, especially when you’re paying the contributors. Emily Gaskin has done both poetry and astronomy a great service with Astropoetica, and if you are interested in either, I recommend it.

Three Constellation Poems

Antlia, the Air Pump

The good Abbé
had a telescope, and time
and a cloth ear
when it came to names

Abbé Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille
You’d think a name like that
would awaken a sense of rhythm
in the most prosaic of men

a sense that would guide his choices
as he looked up
from the Cape of Good Hope
at a southern sky crying out for names

But no. He wished to honour
Robert Boyle, great father of the Air Pump
Antlia Pneumatica and Machine Pneumatique
that’s the name he lumped me with

Dogs, bulls, and virgins
wrapped in their antiquity
chased me from the north
with their mortifying laughter

Later someone had mercy
shortened me to Antlia
People now think
I’m named after ants or antlers

Squint and you can see me
crawling through the southern sky
keeping my head down
as air leaks from my broken heart

Horologium, the Clock

Clock, clock
Tick tock
In the southern sky
Counting down the lonely years
All are born to die

Clock, clock
Tick tock
Entropy remains
As your stars drift out of reach
Leaving only names

, the Octant

I was there when the Yamana
sailed south from Cape Horn
in their flimsy bark canoes
and found a world of ice

I was there when the Maori
dared the Southern Ocean
in twin totara logs
sailing from Te Waipounamu

There for Ross and de Gerlache
Bellingshausen and Borchgrevink

Nothing much to look at
Not shining like Polaris
But when they came to the South Pole
I was there

When Roald Amundsen
planted the flag of Norway
at his best guess at the Pole —
I was there

When Robert Falcon Scott
lay down for death to claim him
Somewhere high above the blizzard
I was there

There for Mawson and Shackleton
for Hillary and Byrd

Nothing much to look at
Not shining like Polaris
But when they came to the South Pole
I was there

Above the chattering of tourists
and the scientists’ endeavours
Above the melting and the greening
I’ll be there

When the sea level rises
and the ice turns into water
Or when a new ice age beckons
I’ll be there

There for artist and astronomer
Protester and prospector

Nothing much to look at
Not shining like Polaris
But when they come to the South Pole
I’ll be there

Antlia was included in All Blacks’ Kitchen Gardens. Horologium and Octans have not been collected in book form.

An Interview with Mary Cresswell

This is the first of three interviews I will be running over the next few weeks with New Zealand poets whose first solo books of poetry are being launched on or near Montana Poetry Day on Friday 24 July.

Mary Cresswell is a Wellington poet who lives on the Kapiti Coast. She came to New Zealand from Los Angeles in 1970, after having lived in various parts of the US, in Germany, and in Japan. She graduated from Stanford University in California with a degree in history and English literature. She is a freelance science editor and proofreader and has spent at least one lifetime in the Wellington workplace.

Her first book appearance was with Mary-Jane Duffy, Mary Macpherson, and Kerry Hines as co-authors of Millionaire’s Shortbread, published by the University of Otago Press in 2003. This book is illustrated with collages by Brendan O’Brien, has an afterword by Greg O’Brien, and introduced these four poets to the Wellington scene.

Mary, your first solo book of poetry, Nearest & Dearest (Steele Roberts, 2009, NZ RRP $19.95, illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson) is a book of humorous poetry, which is a side of your work I’ve not seen before. Have you always written humorous poetry alongside your serious poetry, or has that been a recent development?

The opposite, actually. I stopped writing serious poetry when I was about 17 and only took it up again the year I turned 60. All the years I didn’t write serious poetry, I’ve frequently come up with silly stuff for friends, for occasions in the office, or for family. That’s been a constant. I just wish I’d kept copies!

How did you become involved in writing poetry? Which poets have been most influential on your writing?

I was raised in a family where capping verses (usually limericks) was a standard indoor sport, so I have emitted poetry as long as I remember. Important poets? My sense of rhythm owes a lot to Anon. and to Cole Porter. My parents lived on folk songs and cabaret songs, hence my need for accentual (rather than accentual-syllabic or free) verse. Individual poets: Lewis Carroll, Auden, Eliot, Poe, Dorothy Parker, Donne, Walter Scott, Byron, Longfellow, Ogden Nash, Sidney Lanier… for starters. These days I’m reading Kay Ryan, Marie Ponsot, Robert Alter’s new translation of the Book of Psalms, among others.

“Humour” and “playfulness” are not words often used to characterise the literary scene in New Zealand. Indeed, there seems to be a view here that purse-lipped seriousness is the only acceptable literary stance. Have you run foul of such attitudes, or is this just me being paranoid?

I think “literary” is the operative word here, and no, you’re not paranoid. But this isn’t poetry’s fault: A lot of people last thought seriously about poetry in the fifth form and settle for genteel obeisance to Beauty and Nature when they think of it at all; light verse is for greeting cards, and they can’t imagine a serious message coming via humour. — And there’s also literary fashion. Humour is difficult in personal-experience poetry written in free verse, with no formal aspect. In New Zealand, we have to go back a generation to, say, Denis Glover to find a top poet writing humour, especially black humour, with a sting in it. Was Glover ever considered literary? I don’t know; I wonder if his contemporaries kept him in a category of his own.

Not many Americans write poems that feature cricket, such as “Willow Green Willow” in Nearest & Dearest. Do you now feel thoroughly ‘acclimatised’, if I may use the term, as a New Zealand poet?

After forty years in New Zealand, I’m about as acclimatised as I’ll ever be. I switched to correct [sic] spelling early on, though my spoken accent will never change much. I’m not sure, though, if any poet can or should aim for the mainstream. I know that both Americans and Kiwis think I don’t really belong, and the discomfort that comes from this seems to keep my satiric side alive and healthy.

Several of the poems that I most enjoyed in Nearest & Dearest are parodies of or based on other poems, several from the Victorian era. I know I like reading these – what attracts you to writing them?

They’re easiest to get started. Many of them (like the office manager’s Shakespeare sonnet (see below) or playing games with Wordsworth in the ‘Pass at Grasmere’) are based on poetry I read years ago, and they’re part of my sensibility in a way more recent poems aren’t. So a phrase—a few lines—perhaps a rhyme for ‘schadenfreude’— will pop into my mind by surprise; then I spend hours and hours trying to polish a humorous poem that also is a credit to the original.

Your poem “Metastasis” appears in Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand, and you work as an editor of science publications. How much of an influence has science had on your poetry? Would you describe yourself as a “science poet”?

Not a “science poet” in that I rarely take scientific principles into account; “Metastasis” is a bit aberrant. I take notes of and am definitely influenced by goofy-sounding phrases I run across in the course of proofreading fearsomely technical material. (Who would be a “ring-based indole”, I ask you?) The US magazine Umbrella publishes an annual light supplement, Bumbershoot. This poem: http://www.umbrellajournal.com/summer2009/bumbershoot/light_verse/LabNote.html reflects a temporary passion for technical terms beginning with “Sq”.

Are copies of Nearest & Dearest available in bookshops yet? If so, where can people find it?

Absolutely. In Wellington, try Unity Books; Moby Dickens and Paper Plus in Paraparaumu; Bruce Mackenzie’s in Palmerston have it for sure. Books a’ Plenty in Tauranga. If you don’t see it on the shelf, ask for it. Supporting your local bookseller is admirable, virtuous, and a sign of high intelligence. If all else fails, the book’s available from the publisher and from Fishpond.

Finally, what’s next for Mary Cresswell as a poet?

Write more. Read more. Read more. Write more.

Watch this space.

by Mary Cresswell

Shall I wear the Gucci scarf today?
It’s far more lovely and more corporate
than what sleek young managers affect
in all the offices up and down the way.

It gives an air of strength, they always say,
classic looks for classic power dressed,
Look and feel and act as though you’re best
and the rest will follow, as the night the day.

No dangly earrings! What women call
postmenopausal zest, in other places
gives a bad impression overall.
I will notice all their airs and graces,
a quiet woman, not looking to outwit them…
I shall run the show before they know what hit them.

This interview is the first stop in Mary’s “virtual book tour” for Nearest & Dearest. The next stop is on Janis Freegard’s blog.