One year ago exactly, we had a poetry reading to launch The Ski Flier with a lot (a lot a lot) of help from my family and friends. My sister Natasha played her violin, my parents were proud and loving, my other siblings supportive, my partner Joe and his twin brother Sam did the 1950s afternoon tea style catering. The egg sandwiches were discussed for some months after. Joe's mother provided much practical support. Victoria University Press, where books and book launches are very much business as usual, still manged to make me feel that my book was special and important. Katie Julian knitted the arm warmers. Many other friends from Paekākāriki and Wellington jumped in and did things as and when required. Airini Beautrais and Helen Heath read wonderful poems. Airini launched her book Flow: Whanganui River Poems just a month after The Ski Flier and we went on tour. And on Thursday last week Helen launched Are Friends Electric. Are Friends Electric is a wonderful exploration of the boundaries between life and technology on one hand and between grief and desire on the other.
Another really key player in my launch and life is Helen Lehndorf. Helen is the author of a collection of poetry The Comforter and a journalling guide Write to the Centre. Helen and my lives weave back through politics as deeply as it weaves back through writing. She was one of those people I am very grateful I met at a time where we were confronting our own sense of the awfulness of the world, and, because we shared deeply serious things and moments of great worry, I was and am with her, able to experience the kind of deep laughter I can share only with those I really trust.
When I asked Helen Lehndorf to launch my book, she said yes immediately, but in her usual self effacing way, asked aren't there other other more important, better people to do it? No, I said you're my best. (Oh I remembered slightly wrong).
I've never published Helen's launch speech before. The first anniversary seems a good time to do it. You witness a lot of Helen in here, her generosity and her willingness to see and celebrate the good that she sees. You also get to experience her wonderful writing style: clear and funny and true.
Helen Lehndorf's speech at The Ski Flier Launch - 17 June 2018
I’m lucky enough to have been friends with Maria for twenty-mumble years now…and we have always shared a devotion to both reading and writing. Maria commented on Facebook recently that with publication of this new book and our collective previous books, she was so delighted for the young us, the Helen and Maria in our early twenties, for whom writing and publishing books was a strong hope, a wild hunger…something which felt like it might involve magic and holding our mouths in a certain way, crossing fingers and praying and sacrificing small animals to ever actually happen. Well, we got there, and I’m equally delighted, and proud of this incredible woman and her phenomenal writing.
I read a blog post once in which Maria had written about her voice - how hers is a loud voice, an ‘outside’ voice, a strident voice… I hadn’t ever thought about her voice either negatively or positively before that. To me, her voice is just my beautiful friend Maria’s voice: as distinctive, direct and unique as her personality…and an integral part of who she is.
But I do think the directness and clarity of her literal voice extends to her writing voice, always, and to The Ski Flier, in particular.
I love this book. The poems are so strong and yet tender. Wide-ranging in subject matter, yet cohesive in style. The poems reveal a bit of Maria’s brilliant mind - they skilfully ask questions, tease at answers and engage the senses…all at once.
In ‘The Ski Flier’ Maria has both the macro view, the icicle through the close-up lens, and the panorama, down the mountain slope and out to the horizon. Her existential riffing is masterful, her wit pokes and pleases, the artistry of her imagery so unique and enlivening…just like a day out in the snow is enlivening.
In the book she casts a wary, but compassionate eye towards her youngest daughter, their personalities at times out of sync. She integrates what it means to be in mid-life: ‘Remember when everything didn’t remind you of everything else?’ she asks. She explores many mountains, both real and metaphorical.
The poem ‘In which I attain unimaginable greatness’ could almost read as a kind of manifesto for Maria’s desire in life. She is a person, a writer passionate about justice, about empowering others and pointing out all that is askew in the world’s values and priorities. In this beautiful poem, she imagines herself as a kind of omnipotent super-being, a magical version of herself and her longings, who can actually fix the problems she sees with such clarity…she solves problems ranging from the Auckland housing crisis to global warming and smaller, more human problems too: ‘I clean the fucking fridge…’ says the super-being…’Here is a perfect cup of tea’…’I absolve all mothers of their worries curled in them like worms…’ The list of ills the super-being will fix is long, it goes for four pages, the pace is swift and energising…but to make it clear she has not even scratched the surface of the injustice she sees, that there is much to come…the poem ends, with a determined chin: ‘This is how I begin. This is my first day.’
Reading this poem achieves what excellent political poetry should achieve: I read it and I feel seen, I feel understood, I feel part of a larger whole, I feel heartened, I feel motivated. After reading this poem, justice seems possible, and the heartbreaks of the world feel deeply acknowledged. Maria, this poem is nothing short of a triumph.
I needed this book, I’m so grateful it exists. You need this book. New Zealand needs this book. The world needs this book. It’s can be a challenging road to hoe, choosing poetry…the marginal book art which for most of the populace is reached for only during times of heart break or heart swell…I’m so glad you have kept your faith in poetry all these years, Maria. Your work just gets stronger and stronger.
‘This life is overwhelming. What is there to live for?’ she asks in the poem ‘The forgotten Mountain…’ Hills, homes, mountains, daughters, friends, snorkelling, and fresh bread and intense conversations with beloved friends…in the Ski Flier, Maria answers her own question…a lot, so so much!
Congratulations, Maria, on the launch of this beautiful book…your fifth baby! (If we count your human babies and your book babies.)
May this new offering have a long and vibrant life, finding its way into the hands of those who need it and will love it…and hopefully, into a few mountain huts, too.
Buy The Ski Flier
Clothes Based on Covers of Poetry Books Written by Maria McMillan
So I stopped blogging my travelling, didn't I. Sorry my three intrepid readers. I will catch you up later. But today we drove once more (perhaps our final time) up the road from our house in La Masure through Col du Saint-Bernard, across the border to Italy. In the first town over the border we got stuck in traffic because what looked like the local school was moving a herd of cows down the main road. So we stopped for lunch. Then we drove on and turned into Courmayeur and then took two gondolas up Mont Blanc or Monte Bianco. Here are the photos ranging from bored children waiting for the gondola to start. Then the half-way point where there was a kids playground including an excellent raft on a rope thing, and climbing walls, and on to the next gondola and up to the very top which was flipping spectacular. It went to 3488 or something meters. The peak of Mont Blanc is another 1400 meters above that but it looked so close. In the photos of two peaks, it is the snowy one on the left. I have of course, never in my life been so high except in an aeroplane. It was achingly beautiful and I loved it. I think this is why I have lost my travel blogging mojo before it went very far. We did stuff, we saw it, it was good or not. This was.
These might not be true but as far as I can tell:
We went up to Tignes today, which is 2400 meters above sea level. We caught a gondola type ski lift this time which took us up to 2700 meters. All around us mountains which were 2000 meters above that. It had rained in the morning and the clouds were still there and we didn't see all the peaks. We saw marmots! We took lots of photos of marmots in the mountain rocks. Marmots look just like mountain rocks. You can't see the marmots in the photos of marmots we took, you can only see rocks. Later we went to a swimming pool in the village. It had excellent views and a tog spinner to dry your togs.
The best shirt
(from Tree Space, Victoria University Press, 2014)
The best shirt I ever owned was polyester,
green and cream stripes, with a wide
collar. Green trees on the cream stripes,
cream trees on the green. The best shirt
I ever owned I found in a one-day basement
market in Brixton, the clothes piled on
trestle tables like food. It was a whole
pound and I thought about it for quite
a few minutes holding it to the light
that streamed down onto us,
holding the cuffs to my wrists, fearful
of extravagance, until some interesting
young man said, that’s a good shirt,
I’ll buy it if you don’t, and I realised then
that I would wrestle to the ground
anyone who tried to claim the best shirt
I’d ever own. I see from photos I wore it
with Cath and Bec and everyone
the night before Lady Di died, the night
Fi and I decided to go to Switzerland,
but later changed our minds
and went to Italy. I wore it there too,
in the piazza of Siena with a green
crocheted beret and imagined the
applause of horses. I’m the kind of person
who has to think my way to emotions
and figures out later the joy of all the right
things arriving at the right time.
Because I’m always losing and finding
things, I never grieve about them,
never dream it is the last loss, like I
never think this is the last time
it will mean something and all
the next times will be full only
of yearning. I don’t know the
last time I wore the shirt. Perhaps
I forgot and gave it away. I know
how the fabric stretched across
my chest and one of the cuffs
had lost a button and I was in the
city but something of rotting logs
and small brilliant fungi hung about.
No pictures today.
I have a big screen so now I can write long drawn out descriptions of places based on what I find out on Wikipedia and other people's travel blogs. Without pictures I can also imply that my children are impeccably dressed and groomed in the French style, and did not, on our outing, develop headaches and complain about the heat after 3 minutes in it, and then when told not to complain did not flop and scowl and look pained and ask to go home while carefully avoiding doing actual complaints about the weather. Nor did they need to go to the toilet at a very awkward moment and nor did we rush from place to place asking in terrible French or in desperate English where the toilets were and were sent in eighteen different directions. No no, not us, not my children. And I can happily report, they are now, of course, speaking fluent French and chatting happily to locals with their little plastic brains sucking it all up. They are definitely not saying what does du pain mean, or Bonj....????!! Also, with the big screen I will never make a typo in French or English again. That was all due to screen size. Yup. (This is like those getting to know you games where only one of the 18 things I say is true).
So yesterday was nice. No really. Wanting some fresh vegetables we went to the Moûtiers market and it reminded me of the Willis street market except more mushrooms and cheese and salami and seafood. And we bought fresh things and so what if we ended up with kiwifruit rather than nectarines. Then we went to a Creperie and Saladarie in a shady alleyway and the children ate crepes with lemon and sugar and I ate salad and Joe ate something he didn't expect to and we drank our first cafe coffees. We said oui a lot, without understanding what the waiter had said because we know the word oui.
And then we went to the Cathedral which was first built in the 5th Century on a Roman Forum and then built over and over as it got ruined at various times. I liked the leaflet, it was badly photocopied and the one diagram had that lovely over inked too black look. I would have stayed longer and looked at all of it but one of the kid's DID have a headache and kept asking to leave. But what I saw was the reminder of how every inch of places like it had beautiful details. It was so carefully done and so thoroughly. Every inch saturated with colour or coolness or detail. There were statues and paintings, and stained glass and I think if I had stayed and looked then the leaflet told you which things were from which century. There were lit candles and candles available to light, 1 Euro for small ones and 3 Euro for much much bigger ones, and a heap of rocks in front of the statue of Jesus, and folded up prayers on paper, scattered on to them.
The stained glass windows behind the altar had St Paul on one side, St Peter (the Cathedral is called Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Moûtiers) on the other, and Mary with baby Jesus with a grown up face in the middle. I tried to explain to Lily why there was so much Mary imagery and why they often show baby Jesus as not-a-baby-Jesus. One of the most intriguing cool things was a ceiling with a group of birds with halos. Can someone tell me, why birds with halos, are they the 12 Saints? That ceiling was exquisite.
We went up to the place in the mountains Col de Petit Saint Bernard where you cross from France to Italy. The place was full of mountain bikers and motorcyclists. We went to an Italian cafe just over the border with about 50 Swiss Harley Davidson bikers. They all looked really hip amd wealthy with gleaming new bikes. We went up a chairlift and it was mind dazzlingly beautiful. Joe could hardly look at Mount Blanc because it was so big. We were so high. Mountains everywhere. I felt very happy.
Joe liked the fibreglass customs officer at the border, The kids liked the St Bernard dog models. There was a neolithic stone circle. There is evidence of human occupation for 5000 years at the crossing. Here are many inadequate photos including pictures of Lily doing yoga moves (thanks Cosmic kids) and Abbie on the border stone.
My laptop did a bunk so I not writing much and can't edit these easily but here are various pics from walks and of the village and house and a garden that makes me think how much my friend Helen L would love it here. She is queen of pretty and functional and abundance and harvesting. All the houses around here have nasturtiums and hollyhocks and the dregs of sunflowers.
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