Ockham Shortlist 2020: Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy
Below is an excerpt from the poetry collection Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy, which is shortlisted for this year’s Mary and Peter.Biggs Award for Poetry at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
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About the poet:
Anne Kennedy is a writer of fiction, film scripts and poetry. She weaves many influences and images into her writing including music, art, film and her Catholic upbringing, all underpinned by a wry humour and a sparkling imagination. Long known for the poetic qualities of her fiction, she turned to her hand to poetry in 2003 with the sequence Sing-song, which was named Poetry Book of the Year at the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Kennedy followed up this success with The Time of the Giants in 2005, which was shortlisted at the 2005 book awards.
About the book:
A complex, moving and ambitious poetic engagement with the death of a brother.
The family didn’t know what to do about grief. The noisy house went silent. I was fourteen. I lay on the red rug in the sitting room and listened to Beethoven’s Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, op. 120 – over and over because it was there.
In 1973, Anne Kennedy’s brother Philip was partying on a hillside when he accidentally fell to his death. Among books and records, Philip left a poem typed in Courier on thick, cream, letter-sized paper.
Come catch me little child
And put me in a jar . . .
In Moth Hour, Anne Kennedy returns to the death of her brother and the world he inhabited, writing ‘Thirty-Three Transformations on a Theme of Philip’ and concluding with a longer poem, ‘The Thé’.
Kennedy’s extraordinary poems grapple with the rebellious world of her brother and his friends in the 1970s; with grief and loss; with the arch of time. The poems reach into the threads of the past to build patterns, grasped for a moment and then unravelling in one’s hands.
Moth Hour is a complex, ambitious piece of writing and a moving poetic engagement with tragedy.
(Auckland University Press)
I am watching the materialists who have no materials
the loved Gen X, Y, Z,
schooled in the alphabet of desire, they finger seamlessly the black window,
anti-moths at a dark pane.
They are silent – or their moth screams are inaudible to the human ear,
their headphones high quality.
They live on the side of the screen that has no materials, yet they are materialists,
so the situation is very sad.
There is probably nothing on the other side either, but who cares? We are here,
and they have no materials.
If they were nonmaterialists and had no materials that would work?
But unfortunately, they are materialists.
Forgive me if this sounds ironic. I’m not trying to be funny, although I realise
that’s almost impossible these days.
I want to be the Winston Smith of seriousness, to recall the last shreds of seriousness
before they also become funny.
Sometimes, if you walk along Great North Road at sunset blinded by the glare
through your hair, and by traffic
and keep looking into the blinding world, an old serious thought comes up.
The materialists have no materials
except for their bodies which they couldn’t get by without. Their bodies are mashable
and tender and those very qualities
are both sad and heartwarming. The tenderness of the body is actually the whole point.
The materialists have no materials.
Oh, they do have a bedroom. Their room is dark, still and moist like a mushroom farm
or farm for thoughts
which are like moths. Like, there are no moths, then suddenly they are everywhere.
(Some materialists of course
have no bedroom and must live under a bridge or in a doorway or in a car
and those people
already know the perils of materialism with no materials, those people arguably
are not even materialists
anymore. Those people do not need to bother reading this poem.)
I am watching the materialists.
They follow avidly shadows moving on the screen, and they kill this guy and this guy
using their opposable thumbs.
The thumbs are how all this started. And they kill another guy and another,
they shoot them dead and they shoot
more and more until at the end of the afternoon, although it’s hard to tell day from night,
bodies like slugs litter the screen
which might sound like gratuitous violence, but in fact it is all in a good cause:
a story, and a good one.
For materialists with no materials, a good story is everything because it is portable,
lightweight, and relatively inexpensive,
like the air we breathe. Although sometimes the materialists watch a documentary
on the screen in the middle of the night
about how in the future air may not be so cheap and so accessible,
it might be hard to come by
especially if the methane in the oceans heats to a certain point and explodes.
Then air will be like tulips
in Holland in the eighteenth century or like Ikea in New Zealand, or worse,
and they worry like hell about that.
They watch disaster movies so disastrous they have to watch them
with their bodies twisted into a ball
(and remember their bodies are tender), so this is not good, it is stressful
watching a world being destroyed
on the other side of the screen in the middle of the night, and the materialists
get very worried
because worlds are material, and materials are the materialists’ stock-in-trade
even though they don’t have any,
or many. But the movies must be watched because an unwatched movie
is even scarier. How would
the materialists know all the catastrophes that could befall the earth otherwise?
How could they be prepared
for an ice age or the sea exploding? Actually, there isn’t much they can do
apart from lobby government
to reduce emissions, and especially lobby the biggest government in the world,
but that is for the daytime,
and they don’t even live in the biggest country, they live in a small country
and it is the middle of the night,
which it often is, and the movie is only a story. Stories are their stock-in-trade,
the materialists without any materials.
Without stories they would die; I tell you they would die. I tell you solemnly,
without stories they would die.
You might think the materialists with no materials sit around all day and night
playing games and watching movies
with their tender bodies twisted into a ball, but no, they go to school.
Well, air-school. They study
Philosophy, which is interesting but it makes them worry even more.
They worry that in the future
there will be nothing to apply Philosophy to, on either side of the screen.
They worry there will be no food,
no water, no air. No materials whatsoever, and for materialists that is frightening.
So they do vocational training,
something too complicated to explain but you have to follow it like a game
except it is not fun.
They are like border terriers bred to catch rats except they will probably
live in the city where there are
not many rats, and someone will have to take them for walks for exercise
so they don’t get depressed
and they worry about who will take them for walks. Who will take them?
They learned the violin
but have no strings. They learned biology but they have no healthcare, botany
but they cannot grow food.
They learned nutrition, but one corporation owns almost all the supermarkets.
They hate that, they hate it,
but there’s nothing you can do but lobby government especially the biggest
government in the world,
but they don’t live in the biggest country, and it is the middle of the night.
I am watching the materialists
who have no materials. The materials they had they spent on the piece of paper
that says they can metaphorically
hunt rats, but there are no rats. The materialists float in Purgatorio with the ghosts
of indentured labourers
the plantation workers who could never save enough to go home, the students
who can never pay off their debt
and go home. They watch the screen. The screen is sometimes beautiful,
a lake in a dark forest,
obsidian shining in the flank of a rock. They will love this, you will love this.
But they cannot have it.
They will find true love, but they cannot meet anyone, outlandish sex
but they find they don’t find
the person attractive in person. They can vote, but fuck everything,
everything is fucked.
The screen is a fringe of hair through which the materialists view the sunset.
You might think the materialists
with no materials are thoughtless – you might think that precisely because
they have no materials,
they have no expensive bullshit machine. Remember they are the materialists
who are not racist, they are
the materialists who are okay with LGBTQIAPK, they are the materialists
who are okay with everybody
except they don’t get the chance to show it because they are materialists
with no materials.
You might think they are self-centred, and you might think that precisely
because they have no power,
they have no real estate apart from their egos, they have no platform
apart from their bedroom
(if they have a bedroom), there is nothing out there for them because they are
materialists without materials.
And this is where it gets particularly sad and unfair: for their whole lives
they have been peddled materials
while at the same time the means to buy materials has been taken away,
and taken away exponentially,
taken away in an escalating manner which matches the escalation of wealth
for a few, so the pattern
of taking away is an anti-pattern, a pattern that disappears into the earth.
And the extremely sad and unfair thing
is that the taking away is being executed by the generation who invented
the counterculture, the former swingers
who believed in community, authenticity, and peace, who believed in
youth culture for fuck’s sake,
but who came swinging back on a pendulum like a wrecking ball
and knocked the next generation
out of the very arena where they perform their egregious and foul
acts of capitalism,
and they continue as if they are the last generation on earth. The generations
moving through the alphabet like hurricanes: X, Y, Z. But instead of protecting
the next generation,
the people who once believed in community, authenticity, peace and youth,
they lock them in their rooms
with the things they have sold them, their screens and the hopes and dreams
that come pouring forth
from the screens like false gods. The materialists with no materials
have been fed the rice of desire,
they worship at the feet of illusion. They are eaters of beauty
but there is no beauty.
The materialists with no materials will be kept safe by their materials,
and of course there is no safety,
they look through their black screens at a brilliant future,
but there is no future.
The materialists with no materials have been trained like bears to dance
in their unbearable bedrooms,
they have been educated in the decisions of want, the deeds of desire.
I am watching
the materialists who have no materials. I am watching intently
like a capitalist, and I hope
that they will hurl themselves again and again at the screen,
burst through the screen
and collect their imaginary mind.
© Anne Kennedy, 2019, published in Moth Hour, Auckland University Press.
'Character to some extent is much a construction of the reader as it is of the writer.' - Lloyd Jones