Sunday afternoon
13 March 2011

The snow is falling, and the world is calm. Robert Bly, ‘Sunday Afternoon’

Roman auguries paid unnatural attention to eagles

and funereal birds like ravens, but I’m lapsed,

meaning is redacted to chance and transience.


Black cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus funereus)

wing overhead and pebbles clack below

where Wynn’s planting seedlings.


My skin leaks onto the aluminium rocker,

I’ve been moving earth to our Japanese garden,

what fault shifted Earth’s axis one foot?


I’m relaxing high in the gallery of birdsong

its breeze as delicious as ice cream

yet stillness holds the forest upright,


inventive light swims branch to branch,

the chiaroscuro more useful to artists

than a poet curious how language sketches


abstract futures or the stupid past

using the way words love to perform

imagining the world revolves around them.


Without moving a muscle

my tan-tien senses movement,

five thousand miles north


where snow is falling

Fukushima No.1 reactor

has exploded a dirty bomb


and I realise it’s flesh

swallowing air, it’s my

breath rocking the world.


Translation notes – from ‘Notes for the translators from 140 New Zealand and Australian poets’, ed Christopher (Kit) Kelen, Macao: ASM and Cerberus Press, 2012

Poems are improvisations and thus elusive to explanation, but I can offer some connections:

I’m sweating on a rocking chair on our top balcony, exhausted from gardening. I notice that the rocking chair/sun lounge is moving and don’t know why, then realise it’s my breath that I’m not conscious of that is causing the movement – and everything seems connected.

There has been a disaster but life goes on.

In Brueghel’s Icarus for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone . . .
 Auden ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’

We are gardening, growing things destined to die in a world of disasters. It is somewhat bathetic (‘bathos’) – I had been moving small wheelbarrows of earth to our new Japanese garden (small stones, bonsai, black bamboo) and was exhausted – while tectonic activity moved Japan.

I have been in many small earthquakes, missed one in Turkey by a day that killed 20,000. It is a most extreme event when the earth that seems so solid beneath one’s feet moves (though we are moving around the Sun at around 67,000mph). Yet we love to escape the stasis of gravity, flying, driving fast, paragliding, skating, kids on swings, rocking a baby to sleep. The poem disagrees with Bly’s line – the world is dynamic, never at rest (ecology tells us that) never calm. As an aside, his poem is disdainful of American football which I quite enjoy!

The use of the flight of birds as omens was common in Rome other parts of Italy, Greece and the Near East. The Romans had an official college of augurs, not so much to foretell the future as to suggest what actions should be taken in the given circumstances (auspicious orinauspicious). The augurs were consulted on all matters of importance, and the position of augur was important. Tiresias, the blind prophet of the emptiness of Modernity in The Waste Land, is said to have invented this art/ skill/ superstition.

Our interest in causality is that we want an ordered world. Causation is sometimes a mystery – why things happen? Evans-Pritchard in his account of Zandi witchcraft cults, showed they have internal coherence and functional viability, but never doubted that the ‘scientific’ account of the same natural events were more comprehensive). Spirits and witchcraft were used to explain unusual events, now we often use a modern word ‘chance’, which has two distinct meanings:

1. events occurring within a given system that are caused by factors lying outside of that system, e.g. a tree branch falls and kills you and not somebody else, but that does not eliminate causal factors, wind, termites. We have another word luck for that, traditional societies may talk of spirits, gods.

2. events that are random in nature e.g., the sequence of heads and tails in successive coin flips or the exact position of any gas molecule in a large room.

Chance has replaced the will of the gods, chance is important. Evolutionary history is the interweaving of both these meanings. The process of evolution takes two wholly independent paths: random variations through mutation and natural selection, which use senses of the word. Most people in surveys in the US do not accept evolution (and chance) as the best hypothesis for how life exists as it does. This is important because if you believe evolution is a most likely hypothesis one realises how intimate we are to the web of life and our duty of care to the planet. Science is important to me (the Linnaean naming in Latin) and poets where once very interested in science, particularly the Romantic poets, despite what some (e.g. Keats said). I was watching the Yellow-tailed Black ‘Cockies’, the breeding season had ended and I had not seen many recently.

The poet uses language and vice versa – the stanza ‘abstract futures or the stupid past . . .’ realises the danger of language because language allows us to imagine and play with new worlds and distort this world and the past. George Steiner notes how “language is the main instrument of man’s refusal to accept the world as it is.” (After Babel) This can be disastrous. In Nazi jargon , a shipment of Jews to Auschwitz was: “Thirty thousand pieces from Czechoslovakia, twenty thousand pieces from Hungary.” The Nazis called Jews UNGEZIEFER, ‘vermin’, and spat the word out.


A few line notes:

·         funereal is a rather antiquated term, along with lapsed – a term for leaving religion you were brought up in, here with wider connotations. From these lines  I snap to the present

·         redacted – in this instance the meaning is somewhere between ‘revised often for literary purposes’ and the US military habit of blacking out important information in documents released to the public

·         clack – short sharp sounds (in opposition to the long drawn out cries of the cockatoos)

·         Wynn [is] planting – keeping a natural momentum to the lines

·         Gallery suggests an image of birds flying around as an art form in itself; also their flight path was mainly alongside the house, a flight corridor (gallery as in long narrow room)

·         chiaroscuro – the forest is open woodland – plenty of light and shade, and the light always changing as the earth revolves. I enjoy the fine arts and music and write about art a lot, but much art and poetry is self-referential, often narcissistically so

·         ‘using’ – is used in a slightly derogative way – the poem is suspicious of fortune tellers, art and poetry, the poet’s own perceptions, the egocentricity of artists even language (as above)

·         ‘Without moving a muscle’ - is a common saying – often about using one’s mind to achieve something, of course it cannot be literal, but ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’

·         the tan tien - is the centre of the body in Chinese medicine, centre of gravity, fulcrum  of single weightedness in my (lapsed) tai chi practice

·         A dirty bomb is a technical term for use of nuclear material in an explosion, not an atomic explosion. ‘Dirty’ also refers to the pollution the accident will cause (at the time, a day or so after the news I knew it was very serious, but not how serious). Hence the date is important to the poem. On March 11 an earthquake and subsequent tsunami caused a nuclear meltdown (and not just reactors No.1 but 2 and 3 as well) at the Fukushima Daini nuclear plant north of Tokyo. The accident on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) was 7, maximum.

The opening lines are relaxed, conversational, despite a concentration of stresses and unusual terms at the beginning. The lines shorten towards the end in a quieter embodied and reflective mood. The shadow of the disaster, the ‘gravity’ of the situation was in my mind. Everything is connected; everything may be important (‘the butterfly effect’ in Chaos theory, where a small change in initial conditions in a nonlinear system can effect massive changes down the line. “Wisdom I take to be the knowledge of the larger interactive system- that system which, if disturbed, is likely to generate exponential curves of change.” Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind ) We breathe in and out with the trees and birds; we drink and eat, sweat and excrete in constant exchange with the planet.

Requested by Kit Kelen for a future anthology.

Additional notes:


“In their science of augury the Romans used the verb contemplari for observing the parts of the sky whence the auguries came or the auspices were taken. These regions, marked out by the augurs with their wands, were called temples of the sky (templa caeli), whence must have come to the Greeks their first theoremata and mathemata, things divine or sublime to contemplate, which eventuated in metaphysical and mathematical abstractions.

“The temples of the sky were the first tables of science. Science meanwhile has advanced a great deal since the time of its divinatory origins, but has it in any way altered its nature? For all its strides and breakthroughs in abstractions, science has never yet lost its initial vocation, nor has Vulcan ceased laboring to keep the eye of knowledge open. One way or another science preserves its allegiance to the sky. Space travel remains its ultimate ambition. It predicts the eclipse, contemplates the stars, observes the comet, telescopes the cosmic abyss. One way or another it continues to scrutinize the auspices, attending upon the celestial sign; and one way or another the vocation as well as criteria of science remain that of prediction.” Vico, The New Science.