Michael Harlow
New Zealand

Michael Harlow has published six books of poetry, most recently Giotto's Elephant, which was a finalist in the National Book Awards in 1991. At present, he lives and works in Central Otago as a writer and Jungian Psychotherapist. He has just completed a new book of poems and short prose texts, Cassandra's Daughter (to be published by AUP), and is the recipient for 2004 of the Randell Cottage Writers Trust Residency, where he will work on completing a new book, Inventing the Real.
All about the world

Last week
my friend’s daughter Cassandra
asked me in a small voice
of wonder, if I wouldn’t mind
could I tell her all about the world?

Today she
telephoned and said I’m going to tell you
about poetry, since they had been hearing
poetry at school

Un huh, I said
because I couldn’t think of anything else
to say, and besides it had been hard work
not telling her all about the world

She said then
lowering her voice, letting me in
on a big one, Poetry is when words sing
I could hear, I think I could hear that already
she knew enough of ‘all about the world’
to keep her singing from time to time

And then she added,
since she was in that kind of a hurry,
About 100 years from now, trees
will be called very important people.

Translating Narcissus

The stranger in the Oyster Bar at Grand Central
waiting for the train he kept missing, who confessed
in a whisper that he grew up kissing himself a good
many times goodnight in the bedroom mirror.
And he was he said, let’s face it, a big time masturbator

The fact that sometimes the world is a wonderful
place, and you find yourself longing to be at the head
of the queue, doesn’t necessarily mean you have to add
to its wonders, my friend Askleipeios said

All the while telling me about the rainbow-coloured
cock across the back fence, who crows and crows as
stridently high as he can, convinced he’s made the sun
rise all by himself

And you know, the stranger said--leaning back
out of the light, inside an envelope of shadow--that
once he had an indentical twin sister and he fell
in love with her, not so unusual, and when she died
he began to listen to her for the first time

His grief so great, emptied of all words, that to
console himself he would look and look and look
for his lost love, you know, his other self--in that
place called ‘who’s missing?’

And he knew enough about waiting, he said,
to wait for as long as it takes for that great house god
the moon to break through the ceiling of their room.

The Undertaking

My friend the undertaker is in such
a hurry-up to slow down, to discover
at least one good night’s sleep, he is I think
sometimes my twin. All these years
making a pretty case for the long gone dead.

All these insisting bodies and no one
to snuggle up to; the clock always striking
thirteen. He would like at least once to say
everything he knows about the world, though
it is true he knows less than he can say.

All certain else, even the ‘dear departed’
know listening is difficult when you
don’t hear anything--especially here
in the blue air itself the silence wears.

I can see inside the mirror where he’s
busy touching himself there and there,
a deft hand at the fine cosmetic: looking
out he is waiting for the story that begins
with how mysterious we are to ourselves.

And I think that one day and soon
we will have to confess his darkness.

i. m. Robert Lax

What would you do

If you happened on a woman
who whistled all too wildly
in her father’s house

Met up with a hen who crowed
as stridently as a cock, convinced
she made the sun rise

Dropped in on a man who spends
all his time looking long and ardently
into the mirror


Would you, as sometimes the old
stories go

one: cast a spell on her hearing,
and banish her to the kingdom
of below

two: kill the hen and prepare the pot

three: strike the man blind, and send
him in search of a cage


I would

three: tell the man to look behind
the mirror, and open his eyes

two: arrange for the hen and the cock
to get together on a moonlit night

one: whistle a happy tune, and make
a date with the woman for as much
laughter as we could bare

and I would learn the language of birds

Magic Man

Looking always other ways
away, he plucks bits and pieces
he can magic from the moment:

out of air his hands snatch birds,
fireflies from darktown rise
and fall, how his pockets flutter

rippling secret names, yours
and mine, the king and queen
of ‘singing in the rain’, and look

you there--the moon is blue.
Now dancing half-a-road to lolly,
our children hooh and haah around

him, sure that he is wonder--and a wit
not less a prancing man who’s come
to town, and sing you one-o can charm

the weather, too: thimble cups of thick
dark Turkish, gardens of cloud he swears
he can divine; honey his laughter skims

all rough aside; and once, for a grand
finale ‘left his head on the table behind’.
Slick as an ace up a highroller’s sleeve,

one day and you are gone inside a passing
shadow--and we are stunned by what
we know and struggle to understand:

how such sleight of hand, dancing
on one foot the other is not forgotten;
how inventing the real recalls

what lies behind our eyes,
where never never never is always
always always, and how dear too,
‘the round stone upon the green hill.’

Hello and Goodbye

When she returned how happy she was. To be somehow home again,
armfuls of welcome when you go there want to take you in. To leave
behind the sounds of any lonely promise you would hardly trust the
company of. No matter how loud the shout. She had just entered the
day she would be most alive when she died. All her words now a green
invitation for a long embrace. And her fine body too, light-filled: you
could hear it when she said, dear heart, hello

When he appeared it was a lost conversation. All that time rehearsing
his lines. What if he was inside his memoirs, lost? The deep walk back-
wards to meet yourself: the word-wallet, winged slippers, the wand so
that words might dream again. But couldn’t. Some old oath dead under
the tongue. It seemed to matter that there was no marvellous music
anymore. All he heard would ever hear again in the ear darkly, years
waiting in the wings, the terror of it: all he could hear was the long history
of, goodbye