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
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