“Big Minty Nose” is one of six long poems that made up my book The Rocky Shore. They’re about all kinds of things, mostly illness, death (keeping it cheerful here!), the garden, kids and family. “Big Minty Nose” is the final poem in the book. I was recovering from a year of pain, then hip surgery; our friend Nigel had died of cancer and I was thinking about my father’s death from melanoma some years earlier. Writing about these things helped me find a place for them inside our daily life, which is where they will always be.
Big minty nose
Coming up out of pain, coming up out of
nothing but body, to find the world
is full of weather and has a big minty nose.
Stick insects ride the dog rose
the garden trembles
Huge winds have brought down the climbing rose
behind my shed. I struggle for a long time to try
to raise it, but its weight defeats me. I move close—
leaves in my face, thorns in my hands—then away
and the scent of mint rises from where my foot
has grazed the herb growing by the path. Pain,
pleasure, pleasure, pain. That seems to be
how it goes. In the end I prop the rose up with the hoe,
then a ladder, and try climbing out the window
to haul it up from there, but there’s nothing
to hold on to and I’m taken by how absurd
this all is—the window unable to open properly
because of the rose, me too big to fit easily
through the window, the rose too heavy . . .
in the end I rig up a pulley system with nails
banged into the shed and some rope and I slowly raise
then secure the lot to an old dangerous piece of metal
that sticks out of our lawn. Some years ago my father
stuck a tennis ball on top of it to stop people breaking
their ankles. I leave the rose because I need to think about it
and head down the steps for a needle
to dig the thorns out of my hands.
Does this make me part rose?
After a year of illness, I began to walk again.
At first, still on crutches, just a short distance
down the road. Then around the block. Then
I ventured further. And further. It was like reclaiming
the world. I greeted everyone I saw along the way
because I felt so pleased to see them, so pleased
to be upright and moving. I felt so pleased with the
days and the air and I felt so pleased to see
even the surly older man whom I passed every morning for
months and who has, only now, begun to smile.
Walking around the waterfront some mornings in winter
the wind was so strong I could barely move.
At times I was scared I’d be blown into the sea
or on to the road. Runners would approach,
hurled towards me, and we’d laugh, in the brief moment
in which they passed; me grounded, them in flight.
These days, while walking, I think a lot about compost.
Mixing up, breaking down, renewal—all the big themes.
It’s a bit like baking, or making bread. I’ve been doing
a lot of that lately. My friend Susanna has given me some of her
sourdough bug, and our bench is the scene of much
mixing and rising. This bug I divided and passed on to
Trish when we met in town for lunch. She handed over her
sourdough bug, which is quite different in consistency
and needs a different rise. Susanna’s bug came from friends
who moved to Singapore, and it now resides
in a number of households around Wellington.
Bread in our house is known by name—
Susanna’s or Trish’s. Whose bread is it?
the children ask when they see me adding flour
to the bowl. This bread is eaten with Jane’s
damson jam, Chris and Margaret’s honey, or
school marmalade; often in the company of
Marion’s catmint, Nettie’s daisy, the builder’s rose.
Planting flax in front of my shed I raise large, sodden plugs
of earth, place flax in the holes, then stomp the earth back
in the same way that my father used to in our garden when
I was growing up. I can see his boots on the earth
and the brown skin of his calf muscle tighten as he trod
the soil down around the new plants. Sometimes I think
I am becoming my father. I buy blood and bone because
he used to. What’s blood and bone? asks our youngest.
It’s just that—blood and bone, but ground up.
Blood and bone! That’s disgusting.
I rarely dream about my father, but sometimes
I’m startled because I think I see him in town.
I can’t bear airports. All those men in suits.
Sometimes the sight of a shirt cuff below the arm
of a suit jacket can send me back years.
I have just cut the big fallen branch of the rose,
dragged it down the steps and across the road
to where men are pruning and mulching
our neighbours’ trees. All the way down the steps
and along the path, the rose snagged,
reluctant to leave the garden. Now I’ll fix
the remaining branches to the shed,
maybe buy some sort of canvas sling for support.
Yesterday, in a shop in town, I watched two young women fuss
over a display. What bothered them was the angle
of a grey shoe beside a handbag. I felt enraged by this
because milk is now more expensive to buy
than Coca Cola, and soon there will be no doctors
in the children’s cancer ward at Wellington Hospital.
Placement of a shoe seemed to be the last thing anyone
in this country should be worried about.
This morning I learned that another father
of three has cancer. I planted an apple tree by the shed
—nobody’s apple, just an apple—with more of Margaret’s
blue daisy underneath for company.
When I was ill, time slowed and stopped, except
in the laundry, where a child’s watch beeped
on the hour and the Harry Potter clock
ticked its way through the year. In hospital
I slept next to a woman on an air mattress named
Nimbus 3. When pain happened I would think
sometime this will be the past.
And now it is.
Days hurtle by with all the weight of memory
I’ve been thinking a lot about our friend, Nigel,
who died. He and I shared a time of
illness. His much graver than mine.
It seems wrong to write of them in the same
sentence, or even the same poem, but this is not
about comparison, it is simply the way
it was. One late summer afternoon
we went to the beach. Nigel frail
in his pyjamas, me on crutches, others
with cushions and Greg with a dinghy
on his back. We sat and watched
as the children rowed back and forth
across the bay and a seal rolled lazily
nearby. It was a perfect day. All we wanted
was to row our friend away
Often when I’m up in the shed working on
this poem, I get drawn out into the garden.
I’m typing this with muddy hands, after stopping
on the way here to pull some weeds. Yesterday
I began work then found myself out
behind the shed where the rose grows,
wondering how to make a raised bed. I think the garden
is as much poem as this poem is. And the washing and the coffee
are also poem. The men next door with hammers and
saws, they have become poem, along with
the steps and the stick insects—one red, one green—
stuck to the shed window, looking in.
Maxim and Costa, the young boys I see
on my walk each morning—always trailing
something interesting to school—they have become
poem. And the men burning bees out of a flax
bush, they also have become poem. The seeds
on my sleeve and the spider scrabbling
on the desk, blown in from somewhere,
all are poem.
Because Nigel and I grew up in the same small
city and because we attended the same secondary
school, though not together, I felt we knew each other
in a way that didn’t come through conversation
or meeting. He sold books in a shop I discovered
when I began venturing into the proper ‘town’.
When I had my first poems published, he
stopped me at the counter and we talked,
for the first time, about books.
I will always remember that time,
Today while the pasta sauce was cooking
I iced a chocolate cake, dried the dishes and vacuumed
half the living room. Put coffee on, hung out the washing
and put a second load on. Our son Jack rang
from Auckland, laughed, told me he didn’t go
to the boobs on bikes parade because he had to attend
an ethics lecture. I made afghans and remembered
I had to remember a dental appointment. Sometimes,
to make my life more interesting, I empty the dishwasher
in the afternoon, instead of the morning.
Things to do: Put the ‘i’ back in ‘Clare’; dismantle
the table of war.
I go to the funeral of the mother of our childhood
friends. Her eldest child, now 60, stands to speak:
I am the first son, he says, and here we are—all
the sons and daughters. My father was father
to three daughters: the first daughter, the
second daughter and the third. The eldest,
the youngest, and the middle one. When he
was dying he asked me if I’d called
a taxi. He obviously had a destination
in mind. Never one for public transport, he was
keen to make sure he arrived on time.
Halfway to 94 and here I am with the oven cloth
in the garden. I ran down the steps
in the middle of planting a hebe
(Raewyn), because I remembered the bread
(Susanna) in the oven. When I got back
to the garden I found I still had the cloth
in one hand, trowel in the other.
It’s so quiet you can hear the washing dry.
Days get away on us. And where do they go?
They go to the neighbours’, where Karen is pruning
the pear tree. Our cherry tree (I first typed cheery tree)
used to shade Karen’s house, and broke the fence. That tree
will always want to be a bigger tree said the arborist.
In the same way that the houses in our street
want to be bigger houses, and this poem will always want
to be a bigger poem.
What I wonder about is how much you need
to know? What if I don’t have a garden?
What if I do still have a father?
In an earlier poem, full of grief
about my father, I wrote about my friend, Mary,
who made sculptures out of tree branches on the lawn
for her mother, who lay dying.
A few nights ago we launched a book by Nigel,
our friend who died, and for two days
I’ve been back inside the time of my father’s
death. I was thinking about my friend and her
construction and then a message came
that she had begun to make
another of those stick works—twenty years
after her mother’s death. She’s been gathering
branches and standing them against the side
of the house, walking around, looking at them.
In the same way that I stand around and look
at this poem, work around it in the garden.
I’m not sure if the new apple tree will survive
the gales. The fence my son and I built
around the vegetable garden is, amazingly,
still upright. We made this fence after I got a quote
which contained far too many numbers, so we
drove to Placemakers and bought sturdy wooden
stakes and they gave us some wooden pallets, free,
from the timber yard. They are very good at Placemakers
in Kilbirnie—we recommend you all go there. We
drove home and built the fence. First we paced out
the placement of the stakes, then we hammered
them in as far as they would go, with me
doing the last bit because my son is not quite
strong enough to deliver a hefty blow. Then we
unwound the black mesh my mother had
given us (she’s moving after twenty years.
In the house she and my father built there’s
a lot of stuff that needs to go—our accumulated
childhoods, for example. Mt Egmont from the Southward,
Papa Small, the fish smoker. A lot of it
has been absorbed into the respective households
of me and my sisters; stuff like the roll of black mesh).
We rolled it out and I stretched and nailed it
onto the posts as my son searched for worms
in the garden. The pallets we laid outside the boys’
shed to make a deck, so they don’t stand
on the vegetable garden.
All this cost us $23.50.
Just over a year after Nigel died, we drove to Mataikona
to bury his ashes. Three baches on a rough
coast. Children wild as the water. In the evening
we ate together on the walled verandah, candles
lit, coats and scarves against the cold. Next morning
friends and family arrived, then at midday
we called the children from the beach and the bush
and we headed up the steep climb at the back
of the house. Our friend’s ashes were passed
from hand to hand on the way up the hill.
Halfway, his mother sat—desolate,
breathless—then resumed the climb.
Nigel’s wife and three children buried his ashes under
earth, then named stone. The children planted seeds
of the karaka tree he rested under. Two daffodil bulbs
were placed—one for new growth, one for friendship
so they would never be alone. Next morning, early,
the children headed for the rocks bearing
sticks and buckets, on the hunt for crabs.
Left behind, the smallest of them
hurtled down the paddock, jumped the long, damp grass.
Hey! he cried. Hey! All our childhoods
joined with him. In our jackets and gumboots, morning hair;
the oldest ones, the youngest ones, and the ones
in the middle, Hey! we cried. Frankie, five—
youngest son of our friend who died—he ran and
climbed the fence, in gumboots, with toast.
This poem was always going to end there, with Frankie
and the toast. That image has been the engine
of the poem, but then
I wanted to write about my father’s ashes.
How when we scattered them I was shocked
at how fine and grey and gritted they were.
I was pleased I had read Dave Eggers’s book
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
in which he describes his astonishment at the feel
of his parents’ ashes in his hands. It was from this book
that I knew some of what to expect—see how useful
literature can be. Still, I was amazed.
Learn to be slow said a slate work of Denis
O’Connor’s. Yes, I am. Illness stopped me
and because I have no desire to revisit
that place, I am wary and stiller than
I ever have been.
On my way home from a hospital appointment
I talked to a taxi driver called Bob about quiet
and how no one seems to like it any more.
People are always plugged in, listening to something.
I explained that I walk with nothing in my ears but
what’s going on, and Bob said yep he preferred
the sound of the world because the sound of the world
has the sound of reason in it.
At the supermarket, on my way to read poems
at a book launch, I remember a letter to the
newspaper from a man who was appalled at the price
of groceries, but said nothing would drive him
to mix with the type of people who shop
at PAK’nSAVE. What does he think we’ll
do? Bite him?
Tomorrow I’m due to get on a plane to fly
to a city to chair a panel of artists talking
about their work. For someone who doesn’t like flying
(as one of the characters in West Wing says:
‘I experience flying’) or talking in
public, I feel strangely calm about this.
I have agreed to do this thing, both
these things, because since my father
died, and since being ill, I have decided to stop
When I was away, I woke early and leaned
out the window into the morning. In the distance
over the city, a hot air balloon ascended.
It was pale. It was perfect. It rose
at just the right speed. It was the ending
to this poem. But then it wasn’t.
I closed the window, had breakfast, then a shower,
then gathered my things and went to meet
the others. We packed the car, had coffee
then headed out of town. On the way
we passed a sign which said ‘Sing Now’
and so we did.
Jenny Bornholdt: Wellington poet Jenny Bornholdt was the recipient of an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award in 2003, and in 2005 became the fifth Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate. “Big Minty Nose” is from her award-winning 2009 collection The Rocky Shore, and also features in her recently published Selected Poems (both published by Victoria University Press).