Poems for Christchurch: provocative?

Entrance to Scorpio Books, Cashel Square, Christchurch.
Cashel Square entrance to one of Christchurch’s most beloved book shops: Scorpio Books

I’ve got poems for Christchurch. But are they provocative, as advertised?

On Wednesday I’m reading poems at Scorpio Books in Christchurch alongside Helen Jacobs, a Christchurch poet whose work I like very much. You may know Helen by her other name, Elaine Jacobssen. Please come along, ye Canterbury readers and writers! If not for me, for Elaine.

The thing is, Elaine and I are billed as “Provocative poets”. That’s got me combing through my book, How To Be OId, for poems that might be called provocative.

Now I can’t speak for Elaine who is 90+, but at 80+ I will not be flaunting my sexual availability or deliberately saying outrageous things on Wednesday. I’m over that, and when I was guilty as charged in my youth, it was, at least occasionally, accidental. (I know, that’s not very convincing, is it?)

True, I do speak about the unspeakable, namely old age with its expected challenges and general weirdness and unexpected pleasures. And I hope I speak with a kind of tenderness. After all, to hate old age would be to hate myself.

So I’m hoping to provoke not outrage but memories, new thoughts, certainly laughter and perhaps a few tears. I share more than the fact of growing older with you: I spent my childhood in Canterbury, moving to Christchurch for high school and university and one year teaching at Christchurch GHS. And I regularly visit my many family members there. So expect some poems that are close to home!

Logo of Scorpio Books, the Independent Book Store

Join us at Scorpio Books, 120 Hereford Street, Christchurch
on Wednesday 7 April at 5:30pm
for poems and refreshments — and Q&A.

Meantime let me share this quintessential Christchurch poem about the Hulme-Parker murder. I will certainly read this one on Wednesday, because many people still have strong feelings about this event that happened more than 50 years ago, when I was 14. It affected me far more than I realised at the time…

My Crush On Death

Some deaths were real (apparently)
 but most were in detective books.
 People died in libraries
 and shearing sheds and country clubs
 in beds and baths and bell towers.
 Agatha and Dorothy and Ngaio spun 
 their dainty tales of death. 

 Murder was a puzzle, amusing till the day 
 they sat me down for a chat so weird
 that the air got squashed 
 and I didn’t know whether to faint or sob
 and the blood sank into my feet.
 I was fourteen when I found 
 that a real life murder isn’t fun 
 and it isn’t a puzzle. 
 For everyone knows who done it
 and murderers can be girls 
 fresh out of your own classroom
 girls you tried to be nice to 
 but in your heart you do not like.

 That’s when I learned that murder hurts 
 everyone, even the public 
 who go feral with theories and fear
 even the murderers who had been
 so vain about their work
 and I learned that every teenage girl 
 must be prised away, sliced away
 from her best friend
 in case they go all lesbian
 and kill their mothers too.

 That’s when I learned to feel guilty 
 for not seeing what was obvious 
 for only writing twice to Juliet in jail 
 guilty for not saving her, guilty for retreating
 when our mothers tried to make us friends
 guilty for not liking her model horses
 guilty for not feeling as guilty as I should
 because it was all my fault.

 That’s when I learned that life
 is not a book. And that was how 
 I lost my crush on death.

 Two wise women 
 set me free at fifty.
 Only then was I allowed 
 to talk and talk and talk and talk
 and weep. 

Rachel McAlpine — from How To Be Old, Cuba Press 2020

10 thoughts on “Poems for Christchurch: provocative?

  1. I love your book and find the poems all thought-provoking at the very least. I’ll be there!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I am thrilled to hear this! See you Wednesday!

  2. Good luck for Wednesday Rachel, I hope it all goes well.
    I just had to look up the story behind your poem. Such a sad tale. I wonder if we are any more enlightened now than we were back then?

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Some things have changed. But prurient attention has new channels.

  3. What a powerful and poem, love it even with its sadness! Good luck Wednesday and have fun!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you Priscilla. The poem had a long gestation, thats for sure.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    A horrifying murder for sure. I think you wrote in a very moving way about it. Provocative? Not to me. Maybe they mean thought provoking. That seems a little closer to me.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I am certainly assuming that meaning 🙂

  5. annbarrienz says:

    This poem is profound and moving, Rachel – and close to the bone for me. Best wishes for the poetry reading on Wednesday.
    (Scorpio Books is a wonderful bookshop, and they were kind to me as a first-time author).

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I hear you. And thanks—I love Scorpio Books too and I am sure they will organise everything delightfully. .

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