Friday, April 30, 2010

Breath-taking coastline

I've been away from home since Monday on a graced journey with friends. I hope to find more words than these at a later stage, but for now need to sit quietly with my metaphorical map, water bottle and backpack and to ponder the places we have been and those we have yet to travel.

Being away means I have the delights of a week of your stories and poems to catch up on... I hope you have all been well.

Last night, I hurried my bags along from plane to conveyor belt to trolly to car as efficiently as I could and drove the half hour stretch from Dunedin airport (with its smart new runway, control tower and buildings endearingly flanked by pasture and paddocks) to the University Book Shop in Great King Street. It was important to be there in time to celebrate the launch of Penelope Todd's long-awaited new novel, Island (published by Penguin Group (NZ)).

Fellow writer and friend, Emma Neale, introduced Penelope and Island and has given me permission to print her launch speech here ---

Island launch speech

University Book Shop

Thursday 29 April 2010

I suppose when most of us hear the title of Penelope's latest novel, we might think of our own community – we island dwellers together. Or, embraced by bookshelves as we are right now, we might remember some classical and literary precedents : those ancient forefathers of TV reruns of everything from Gilligan's Island to Survivor Samoa. In Greek myth, for example, the Islands of the Blessed were said to be the final resting place for the souls of heroes and the virtuous. So perhaps we'd expect visions of some far flung paradise in the pages of this Island. At the other extreme, we might recall the bleak marooning of Robinson Crusoe, who fought to survive on what he called the Island of Despair, and who at one point gains religion, thanking God for a fate in which the only thing that is missing for him is society.

'To island', as a verb, of course means to insulate, or to protect. In the nineteenth-century setting of Penelope's novel, ailing immigrants and sailors are sent to a fictional Quarantine Island, to protect mainlanders from the threat of disease. So there's an immediate link to the archetype of the island as a place of bitter isolation and suffering. But what possible version of paradise could there be, in a tiny half-village of hard-worked nurses and pain-wracked patients?

Well, take one part need, add one part gentleness: heat them together, and the cloistered environment becomes a crucible for desire and love.

I think the most extraordinary achievement of this book – even better than its gaspingly beautiful prologue – is its knowing display of the strange compulsions of attraction, the human magnetism that leaps social boundaries like age and health, and historical standards of propriety and decorum. In Penelope's novel the life force surges forward in the shape of desire, insisting on its right to exist even in the most starved of circumstances. Yet in some startling scenes the book also asks – do love and attraction actually become destructive, when they dig in their heels and declare their own primacy? When is a lover wrong to insist on saving the beloved's life? When is a caregiver morally correct to withdraw warmth and nurturing?

I'm phrasing all of this in a slightly abstract way, because I don't want to rob you either of the pleasures of narrative pace, or of the full shock of the ethical dilemma that young nurse Liesel faces in cruel, doubled form. I hope it doesn't siphon off the fizz of discovering the story for yourselves if I do say a couple of specific things about the characters. I loved meeting them on the page. There's Liesel, who talks 119-to-the-dozen, is briskly capable and practical, and is only just growing aware of the effect she has on men. She's a kind of prototype modern woman: the type many of our European great-great grandmothers must have been for any Pakeha to have survived mentally and physically in the new land. There's also a severely injured but deliciously salty sea captain, drawn to Liesel despite himself; there's young, athletic runaway Kahu, who shares Liesel's instinctive gifts for healing, but who's only just on the cusp of manhood, so who can't always challenge her in the ways she needs. There's Martha, the hospital matron, whose indulgences of whisky and keeping pet donkeys give a wonderfully quirky yet grounded sense of personality. I have to say there is also a lovely donkey-father: for me he's changed that saying 'making an ass of himself'. He's quite the tender gentleman.

As with all of Penelope's earlier work, the writing in this book often has a deep, melting poetry – it asks you to slow down, let the images and descriptions send out their full impact in expanding ripples of response. Yet the plot – with all its high drama and its erotic turns – also keeps you scudding swiftly along with its current. It's as if the book has two quite different yet somehow perfectly compatible speeds. I found it compulsive reading to the point where I worked on deceitful strategies to sneak more reading time into each day. Such as pretending to sort clean laundry, with the book concealed under a cloth nappy, so that I'd look boringly occupied to my 7-year-old. He seems to accept that clothes have to get folded, whereas reading a book – well! It's interruptible idleness.

I said at the start that the book touches on several aspects of our understanding of what an 'island' setting might bring. There's the potential paradise of desire; there's the flip-side of exile and desolation brought on by terrible illness, and love tested to its limits. But although the novel is set in the nineteenth century, there is also 'us': we current isle-men and women. For it's not only Liesel who might seem like a prototype modern, in some of the freedoms she claims. Kahu and Martha also at times vividly reflect us back at ourselves in their language and actions. This ensures that we don't treat the historical texture of the novel as 'other' or escapist. The bigger questions the characters face about morality, destiny, love and lust are those that may still trouble our minds, or make our hearts swerve off course, on any otherwise unsuspecting Thursday evening. In this sense, although Penelope's novel touches on all those island associations with a delicate, original hand, the one she examines most attentively is exactly what Robinson Crusoe missed: society; ourselves.

Island did all the things I want a book to do. It took me away to a place that was far from my own circumstances, and yet it also brought me back, better able to reflect on what those circumstances are. I'm so pleased that Penelope asked me to launch it, and I'm honoured to hold the boat steady for a moment while you, its future readers, climb in, and head off for a breath-taking coastline.

Congratulations, Penelope, and thank you for all the solitary, hard graft you've put in to helping us look at both our past and our own world afresh.

Yes, thank you, dear Penelope - and congratulations.


Thank you, Emma.

Penelope is one of our Tuesday poets and author of the blog, Life in the Intertidal Zone.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tuesday Poem - Mystery Sonata


Heinrich Biber 1644 –1705

He tears notes from the throat

of his violin, a savage gathering

blood and sinew into sudden music

taut as a tendon, glistening wet

on the surface of an open wound.

Shadows there are now, and light

lining up on ridges, tracing lines

of bone and hair on skin.

The woman hears the trammel

and tread of footprints. They mount

her spine - the legion of history drops

its baggage, scrabbles to set up camp

on the tip of her scapula.

He is a madman, this dead musician

his violin nothing more than an ancient tree

cut down. He sends reconnaissance troupes

of sound ahead, instructs them to navigate

the rise of her shoulder, circumvent

her clavicle, find a way into her chest

cavity. She is packed with kindling

splinter-dry. His bow parts her ribs,

singes the corridors of her body.

And look. She stands to leave

the room. See the telltale burn marks

where the soles of her feet touch

the floor? Leger lines smoulder

beneath her chair. There is the threat

of fire in the air.

detail from v. Fire, a work in progress - CB 2010

For more poetry, visit the Tuesday Poem site.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Haiku Islands

Cut these words and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive; they walk and run.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer & philosopher (1803-1882)

Plumb Bob & Haiku Islands - Oil, liquin & pastel on paper - CB 2009

This morning's quote comes from A.Word.A.Day

To sign up for your daily word and a weekly newsletter, visit their website. (You can send friends 'A Gift of Words', too.)

"The most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace."

The New York Times

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Slips of the pencil

I'm up early this morning to write my exhibition statement for Alchemy (the opening is at lunchtime and I realized with some surprise last night that I'd quite forgotten to do this . . . )

A couple of sentences in, I wrote what I thought was the word 'begin' only it arrived on the page as 'being.'

This got me thinking about words within words and about their relationship to each other. When one word - or more than one - lives inside another, does it necessarily carry similar energy or related meaning? When we unfold one word, lay it flat on the page and take a look at the contents of its stomach, what hidden torches, tools or bridges might we find? Perhaps the other 'embedded' words are there for the purpose of revealing something ordinarily unrecognized and out of sight. . . the way shadow can tell us more about light than light can about itself?

I used to dismantle and reassemble words a lot when I was a little girl and anagrams have always fascinated me. But what I'm trying to say here is a little different.

Mistaken slips of the pencil might in fact not be so mistaken. Perhaps they're an offering? This morning's certainly feels like one.

Begin. Being.

What are your thoughts about 'words within words' (which I don't think is quite the same thing as 'worlds within words'). Or is it?

Friday, April 23, 2010


Photograph - Samuel Bowser

My tongue's a little tied today.

I want to thank you for your interest in and support for this recent work process; feeling comfortable about sharing these things is something of a challenge for me. I am by nature reserved - a fully-engaged yet reluctant exhibitor. It has been a joy and a privilege to discover that this is a space where we can grow in courage and where matters dear to our hearts can indeed be shared... It seems to me that it is precisely by expressing our truths that we are able to stand more fully alongside each other and so make sense of these 'extended moments.'

Thanks for helping me see this.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Almost there

I've just been sent these photographs. Tomorrow, at 9.00AM US time, InterfaCE will be raised into its final position on this beautiful, stone-coloured wall.

At 2.22PM, the short ceremonial launch will begin; at 2.44PM, the gathered company will observe a minute's silence in honour of Earth Day. I will set my alarm for 6.00AM and rise in time to accompany the proceedings over distance, observing my own minutes' quiet according to NZ time (6.22 - 6.44AM).

Such kindness and generosity of spirit has been brought to these proceedings by the good folk in Albany. Thank you. I am humbled, 'whelmed, grateful.

Beneath the surface, a transparent labyrinth

Charcoal drawing showing foraminiferan pseudopodia exploring the surfaces of a nano-lithographic landscape.

Happy Earth Day, Everyone.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An ultimate of air

'For what we see is never purely seen,
Not final with its final radiance,
As if we were but animals a-gaze
In a gray field, and grayness all around,
A universe contained by walls of stone,
An ultimate of air, a final scene . . .
A sea-wind pausing in a summer tree,
A bird serene upon a nest of light . . .


And shall we leap the trees as light as birds?


I leap to the wind.


A stretching time, a crossing time,
Taller than the longest sun-shaft . . . "

from A Nest of Light by Theodore Roethke

And now, sleep.

Tomorrow I will wake late, 'leap to the wind' and walk this beach.

Alchemy ii

This has been a close-to-the-wires week and it's not over yet... Today and tomorrow Kate and I will be hanging Stage Two of our collaborative exhibition - Alchemy - in readiness for a lunchtime opening on Saturday.


A collaborative Painting & Jewellery exhibition
Kate Alterio & Claire Beynon

The Artist's Room, 2 Dowling Street, DUNEDIN

Opening celebration Saturday 24 April - noon till 2.00PM
Exhibition closes 9 May 2010

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . please join us if you can . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tuesday Poem - Perennial


For days it rains

the sky -

Storm water drains
gulp and hiccup

rivers billow

soggy leaves cling
to each other.

We dream of summer.

Rain rises through the floor,
runs clear deltas down the wall.

Faintly, faintly as constellations
emerge at day's cusp
a fleur-de-lis pattern seeps
up through the paint

printing across the wall
the careful curves
in a grandfather's garden:
white irises

which, slick with rain,
months ago,
defiantly vital

flowered again

because the season demanded
some offering between their rising from
and returning to earth

Now, winter at its most emphatic,
here they are
ghosting up that ancient insignia
through my walls.

They begin to retreat when the rain clears.
The day is out of the blue

I expected watery light
not this blaze.

I expected doves with new green shoots
not three ducks
wings a-whirr
swooping from the wrung sky

and the smell of silt

and evaporation

Poppy Haynes

Poppy Haynes recently completed a BA(Hons) in English and Theatre Studies. She co-edits the poetry section of Critic and is active in the Dunedin live-poetry scene. She has had poems published in The Listener, North & South, World Literature Today and the Otago Daily Times, and is also the author of two plays.

"One day I noticed that the pattern of the painted-over wallpaper was starting to seep through my bedroom walls. The image resonated with me, and even before the rest of the poem was written I had a strong feeling it would be to do with survival and regeneration, the redemptiveness of natural cycles, the newness of a rained-out world." PH April 2010

You will find more of Poppy's poems at Deep South and on the ODT website.

For more Tuesday Poems, click here.

Thank you, Poppy.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

White - or not, as the case may be

I've had cause to reflect this past week on my relationship with Antarctica, remembering again how I sensed her before I saw her; how I found myself drawing her landscapes without even knowing I was doing so, conjuring up her spaces on paper only to find myself standing in them years down the track. It was as though some part of me knew we would meet long before the rest of me had even the vaguest inkling she would be written into my life's script. I do think there are times when our unconscious goes out ahead of us, scanning landscapes, embracing people, entering situations, noting features, atmospheres and coordinates so that when the time is ripe, we are ready to step into a space prepared, without our conscious self having any real awareness that this is what is happening.

When Antarctica's edges first came into view, I was standing with my face pressed up against the porthole of the Hercules airplane. My response to her was a somatic one. A surge of heat rushed through my body; I shivered at the same time. I don't know how else to describe it save to say it was like being seduced and chastened at the same time; pierced, buckled and somehow straightened. It was clear to me that uncharted parts of me were stirring, given a call to wake up and pay attention. This may sound strange and dramatic, but it wasn't. It was quiet and private and something I wasn't able to articulate till much, much later. One thing is certain -something inside me was shaken up and reconfigured on 6 October 2005.

The reason I've been thinking about these things is because this coming Thursday - 22 April (at 2.22PM) - the major collaborative piece I made with polar biologist, Dr Samuel Bowser, is being unveiled as a permanent installation in the foyer of the State Plaza building in Albany NY. Titled InterfaCE V, this work is the culmination of nearly five years' ArtScience exploration with Sam. It carries both our signatures, but rather than the work of two individuals, I see it more as a communal piece. As with most joint endeavours, it carries the energy and input of a great many more people than might at first meet the eye.

This weekend, I received the first few photographs of the mounting process... I confess I shed a tear when I saw them. You will know from previous entries on this blog that I get homesick for Antarctica. My buttons are easily pushed. Mostly, these are tears of gratitude for times, people and a place who together opened me up to 'more' and whose imprint I will always carry.

Positioning the vertical base plinth - Wadsworth Center foyer, Albany NY - April 2010

The photographs I'm posting here show the base template that will eventually hold 127 glass laboratory beakers that will in turn support 127 images (a combination of Scanning Electron Microscope imagery plus interpretative drawings)... From the front, the composition will appear to spin, perhaps even give off hints of sound. The underlying 'blueprint' is mapped out according to sacred geometry; rhythms are set up by prime numbers and phi...

Looking at it side on, people will be able to enter (metaphorically and with the eye, not the body!) the space behind the drawings to meander through the trails of a transparent labyrinth - an unexpected landscape of light and shadow that hints at worlds many of us never get to see; the universe beneath the lens of a microscope and/or the second heaven that hovers below metres and metres of heaving sea ice. The piece documents seven stages of polar biological research, with a specific focus on the motility and morphology of foraminifera. (Foraminifera are ancient uni-cellular aquatic organisms; living fossils underpin our evolutionary pyramid and that date back 650 million years). Rather than go into all the background details here, this link will take you to an explanation of the collaborative process and this one to the installation as it was first mounted at the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs in May 2008.

For many reasons, InterfaCE is a piece dear to my heart.

InterfaCE - behind the frame

My task this weekend has been to put together a 7 min introduction re; this collaborative venture. Sam will be preparing something similar. A dear friend, Jack Harris, will read on my behalf on Thursday. The Director of the center will speak for 5 mins, too, and the brief unveiling ceremony will end with a minute's silence in honour of Earth Day.


Sometimes - often - I wish our seven continents were no more than a stepping stone or three apart.

Her bones - a weekend's silence before fat, cartilage and muscles are added

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Some days

Empty = full

Later: Oops. I've just received a loving email from a friend asking me if I'm alright. "Empty = Full?", she asked. "I hope nothing is wrong?" Nothing's wrong, no. To the contrary; I'm feeling full because I'm enjoying my first 'empty' day in quite some time ('empty' as in, open-to-do-with -it-what-I-will; undisturbed, delicious, expansive) so this is a happy, wholesome emptiness... I can see, though, how those two words on their own might give rise to questions or concern. (I'm sorry, M!)

My linen's out on the line, the bellbirds are singing. Sage is stretched out along the top step of the ladder-to-the-loft and the sun's been shining pretty much since dawn. A few errant raindrops fell just a moment or two ago - nature's instrument coming along to perform a brief jig on my corrugated iron roof...

I'm relishing the day's quiet. Life's been full-on lately (amongst other things, I'm finishing work for an exhibition that opens in Dunedin nine days from now...) so today's solitude has been necessary and filling.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Poetry Reading - Circadian Rhythm


Open Mic. Theme: "Lenses and Windows"

Wednesday 14th April

Circadian Rhythm Cafe
72 St Andrew Street

Entrance - Pastel on paper, CB 1997

All Welcome

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tuesday Poem - Button Shop

Via Cappellari, Rome

There is no front door; the way in is through
a gash in the old man's chest. Behind his ribcage
centuries-old buttons regulate the beating
of his heart. His chambers are bordered
by pleated velvet, the arch of his aorta embellished
with medallions carved in ivory and horn.

His ventricles are red-ruched satin, stitched
by hand, reinforced with the bleached baleens
of whales. You have only to press your ears
to the walls of his chest to overhear murmurs
of treason, bear witness to acts of love
and betrayal in the eighteenth-century court

of Versailles. His floating rib transmits
the sound of insects colliding with candle light,
street lamps and crystal chandeliers. Stand close
to detect the whirr of industry - in his blood vessels
the heat and light of theatre sets
and behind-the-scenes machinery.

He is centuries old. His superior vena cava echoes
with the metal of wartime trenches
empty cartridges, abandoned ammunition belts
and lost belt buckles: there, too, the crack
and split of a sailing ship crushed
in the fist of a storm.

There is no front door;
the way in is through the gash
in the old man's chest. His body
is an apology of dull grey scaffolding
but his heart? His heart remains
a patient, all-weather place.

CB 2007

This poem first appeared in OPEN BOOK - Poetry & Images, published by Steele Roberts Ltd, 2007

For more Tuesday Poems, please visit the new communal site .

Monday, April 12, 2010

Looking forward, looking back

Mary McCallum has set up a dedicated site titled Tuesday Poem - click on the link above to see what it's all about and how you can join in...

Where there is ice, there is music i - CB 2008