The cranial nerves of the dogfish


Still sorting through work from years ago. Those Dunedin days of young love were such a happy time. And I loved my job as a demonstrator in the stage one Zoo labs. This poem was a hark back to those days. I don’t have the souvenirs but I still have the man, and my hair doesn’t smell of formalin any more, though perhaps parts of me could have benefited from a touch of preservative. This poem dates from the same time as ‘The anatomy student’ that I posted a while back


The cranial nerves of the dogfish

Small grey bodies laid out in rows
the air acrid with preservative
today we examine the cranial nerves of the dogfish

late afternoon sun warms our backs
old window glass distorts
naked branches beyond

the advantage of a cartilaginous skeleton
is that the brain case can be gently
shaved off to expose the cranial nerves

I watch the dissections earnest students
intent on the display of the trigeminal
the facial the hypoglossal

Humans have the same nerves
but different functional emphasis
consider that large olfactory lobe

smell is the dominant way
dogfish sense their world
we sense ours by kissing

it facilitates mate selection
five cranial nerves in the human
are involved in a kiss

I touch in my pocket talismans
of the night before Green Island
bus tickets   movie stubs   two bottle caps

you wait for me
on the Zoo department steps
the sun sends long last shadows

down Great King Street
formalin taints my hair   my clothes
perhaps it will preserve

the moment of our shared glance
for later display      critique
our privileged neuronal network



The fridge in the mangroves

  • 2810B093-7DCC-4003-BDFF-6553ECF3E154An old one ( this end of year’s tidying up is producing a lot of nearly-forgotten poems! I’ll have to post a new one soon)

I used to walk often down by Cox’s Bay ( before it was cleaned up a bit). Always a lot of stuff that had been tipped. Always disappointing to see, but a mangrove swamp back then was considered wasteland and suitable for dumping. I have always loved mangroves – one of the topics for our special study in Bio at seventh form ( now year 13) which I taught for many years


The fridge in the mangroves

The fridge in the mangroves is tide-marked
divided into grubby white and rust
once cornucopia now forgotten symbol
an oil slick gently strays
from the adjacent engine block

the trees are stunted
at the limits of their temperature range
they are an intense green camouflage
for most of what we abandon here

global warming could see the fridge under water
human detritus transformed to
a small reef with flickering crowds of fish
though the engine block would still leak rainbows
to surround the trunks of towering mangroves


Christmas Eve poem


So here’s a very old poem – you can tell it’s old because there is punctuation. I thought of re-writing it, but really can’t be bothered. The forecast is for a sunny-ish 25 dégrées so we should be able to have Xmas lunch outside.

Pagan Song



In the early dawn of Solstice Eve
I rise, and go to a secluded corner
Of a nearby field, to my chosen tree,
Branches spare against the pale sky.
With care I tie small skulls, bird and rat,
The jawbone of a cat. A hare’s foot,
And feathers of crow, and blown gull eggs.
Around the trunk, thick candles of beeswax
Honey, red wine, and bread.
Sacrifice to the god of beginnings


The day before Xmas I choose
A young radiata pine from a pile
Outside the supermarket.
At home it stands in the sitting room corner
I add tinsel, gold balls, little white angels.
Connect up the fairy lights. How pretty.
Oh, and a star on the top, and a baby Jesus in a manger
To remind us what Xmas is really about.
And such a pile of presents at the base
How festive it all looks.
No, I don’t think Xmas is too commercial
It’s all about families and giving, isn’t it?


Christmas morning in the dawn
I see my festive baubled tree,
And in its shadow, there the spare
And ghostly branches, the skulls,
The wax candles burnt low
From that long, dark night
While we waited
For the light of the god.


The tiny pohutukawa on our deck is flowering for the first time and I am feeling a sort-of pre-emptive heartbreak about the advance of myrtle rust. What would Auckland and the north be like without pohutukawa?
We have five medium sized on the bank behind our bach and the neighbour there has some very fine ones holding up the cliff edge. In summer the decks are covered in red stamens – and they block the gutters horribly but I don’t care.
When Roger S was editing my collection Conversation by Owl-light he said I had used ‘pohutukawa’ too many times, so I obediently changed to metrosideros or to pururi or changed the line entirely – but I honestly don’t think you can have too many pohutukawa, in a book on a bank or on a deck even.
One year in the past when our book club was still doing Xmas presents I wrote a Xmas haiku about pohutukawa – the haiku itself was not brilliant – but I made 17 star-shaped spice biscuits
And on each one iced a syllable ( 5 biscuits for pohutukawa!). The trick was – for the ‘giftee’ ( can that really be a word?) to sort the biscuits into correct haiku order. Great fun. Well I was laughing anyway. Can’t find the poem anywhere in my notes but here’s the recipe. I used to make a batch every Christmas for years, when I was young and virtuous. The recipe was from Elisabeth the Hungarian- I used to teach with her back in the olden days

Honey biscuits

300 g sugar
300 g honey
1/2 pint water (almost)
3 tspn B soda
1 tspn BP
1 egg
50g butter
2 tspn mixed spice
3 tspn cinnamon. ( I used to add some ginger too)

Heat sugar honey and water to dissolve, then Cool
Mix flour spices soda and BP
Work all ingredients well together with hands then let it rest 3-4 hours
Make small shapes about 3/4 cm thick, bake 300F ( that’s about 150C I think)
Ice them while hot – icing 3 egg whites beaten with 350g icing sugar

NZPS Book launch – After the Cyclone


A lovely launch with some excellent readings. I was happy to be able to read my poem After the Cyclone, which had been awarded first prize.

I wrote most of it when we were driving back to Aks from Hamilton after days of heavy rain. The road follows along the Waikato river for part of the way and the flooding was impressive

the river rises / the river floods / branches float by / and clumps of flax / and pukeko nests / swift drifting islands

the river covers the land / cows thigh deep in cold water / they won’t swim for it / not till they’re nearly drowning

my eyes flood / my vision distorts

I see what I don’t remember

I am heart-deep / and cannot swim

towards that fast-moving / swampy shore


Memory or history?



The anatomy student

I come before you in my bare bones

you see right through me

Metatarsals click on floor boards

your thumb tracks my zygomatic arch

one of my better features

You are a student of anatomy

and you fondle condyles

probe cranial nerve foramina

You seek out the lesser trochanter

the supra-spinous fossa

ball and socket hinge joints slide

as I am folded into your arms

Yesterday you held a preserved

human heart in your hands

I have left my beating heart

somewhere in your vicinity

Do with it what you will


My Lady Trigemina

IMG_2653My Lady Trigemina

My Lady Trigemina
is a black spider
she lives in my brain
in a word-stumble of a location

her claws strike crystalline flashes
spinnerets weave fibres of nausea
chelicerae deliver the molecules of pain

when I was 14 I visualized
cutting her into halves then halves again
imagining a diminishment of pain
I persisted with this strategy
but unsuccessfully

we’ve been on a long journey together
the Lady and I
I have attempted poisonings of various forms
starvations and manipulations
needles heat cold and yes
all those fascinating alternatives you helpfully suggest
botox does make her curl and hibernate for months
but then she is back refreshed from her break

and I could write a list poem of useless weapons
of magnesium
and feverfew
and coffee
and not-coffee
and osteopaths
and acupuncture
and exercise
and vitamin D
and everything else that works for a brief spell
and then i am left with
nails and hooks
spikes and sparks
and my lady Trigemina laughing


Hubert Airy was a 19C doctor who studied migraine. This drawing shows how his migraine aura grew over the course of about 20 minutes.
This article is worth a read

It’s hard to write during those two or three days a week of chronic migraine. Though when I do manage the oddness quotient of what arrives on the page is increased.
The words may hang beautiful in my brain surrounded by crystal sparks, but much gets lost on the journey through the pen and I find I have written of red peacocks falling bokeh and vanishings

The accompanying poem however was written during the post-dromal stage




These are not the super strings you are looking for

I was flattered when the lad came to me after Physics class and said

Miss can you explain string theory to me so I said yes and first made

a cat’s cradle with some handy string from the lab bench then I took

my knitting from my bag and showed him knit one purl one then I

found online the pictures of the crocheted hyperbolic surfaces the

ones that don’t map onto Euclidean 3-space the ones that the Maths

professor from Latvia made and then I told him about the woman

who learnt and tied a different knot every day for a year then turned

them into an art installation but when I said the Ashley Book of Knots

has 3,900 entries and it was my dream to learn them all he said

thank you Miss                                                                    and walked away



I found these images of crocheted hyperbolic surfaces by Gabriele Meyer at Mathematical Art Galleries




Clivias – bright and tough – a flower for old ladies

Mary Flynn’s head

If I could have the preserved
head of an ancestor to talk to

(maybe my three greats grandmother)
I would keep her on my desk

wrapped in a silken wimple
a brightly patterned scarf

balanced on a book or three
sometimes I would bring her flowers

alyssum a bold clivia daisies
Mary Flynn was Catholic she might

be comfortable with the relic role
I imagine her gaunt shriveled brown

like St Catherine of Siena repellant
but attractive with the holiness of age

and I would gaze
on her stretched lowered lids

as if with archaeological skill
I could penetrate the orbits

enter the remnants of her brain
extract her memories

in a neural cannibalism
feeding my curiosity asking

what was it like to be immigrant?
to be stared at?

to not know the ways?

to wonder if after all you
should not have left home?


The red pod in the glass is a clivia seed head which had been knocked off the clivia clump by our apartment building lift. I am optimistically waiting for it to ripen and burst forth multitudes of seeds.

I have to remain optimistic when writing – sometimes a poem just does not work – or worse – it works very well until the last important few lines. So I keep hoping for that last bursting forth of perfect words.

The poem I include here ( which contains clivias) is a bit of an odd one – but I had to keep going back to it for a couple of years hoping I would find the right ending, the last five lines.

Mary Flynn was my ggg grandmother. The family story is that she took to her bed for a week when her husband told her they were emigrating to New Zealand