Two cups of coffee

the first cup

Caffeine is my mistress.
I meet her every week downtown.
She wears the same dress
the one she knows I like best,
a milky caramel brown.
We whisper hello, then,
quietly, she slips her warm
tongue between my lips.
It is like tumbling down the slope
of a wave; the world spins on around me
unaware that I’ve stepped out for a moment.


the second cup

Caffeine is a sacrament.
It is prepared for ministry
with articulate hands.
This is the bean
roasted and ground for you.
This is the milk
steamed and poured out for you.
I take the cup, recite the creed:
I believe in the perfect blend of bitter and sweet
in the aroma that slow dances across the surface.
in the fuel that somersaults me
headlong into the afternoon.
I raise the cup to my mouth.
Angels draw breath for the Hallelujah Chorus.
First published in JAAM (around 2006, I think) This version has an updated 2nd verse. The original version included the line “…she makes a damn fine coffee.” I’ve since seen the words A “damn fine coffee” is sold here! on Fusion signboards.


How cool to be an All Black!
A stallion of national pride
snorting sweaty and truck-shouldered
bowling the enemy lines to a soundtrack
of narrative praise
and yahooing couches.

The All Black is friendly with
mash of a ruck
and purple of sprig-mark and bruising
and sprains.
Raised through winters
of muddy club rugby
he trained in the twilight
in still chilly gloom where
his only applause
was the boot-gallop echo
that padded the field.

Then one day my TV erupted with his presence.
Like thunder he bulldozed
and battled for country
for love of the game
and for thrill of the fight
and I ran with him right down the wing wishing
far in the small of my mind
that I was the one full of thunder and lightning
that I was immortal on slow action replay
but I
am made of other things
and besides
I prefer to play tennis.

First published in Bravado, in the very first edition, I might add, 2004. Plus it was my first published poem too.

The trouble with logic

Logic is a little man,
bald, with bifocals.
Very polite, writes letters,
makes appointments that
people forget when
Lust turns up with her
long legs, her
low cut top.
She doesn’t even
knock, just bowls on in
and starts kissing.


First published in Spin

Very Slow Olympics

I never thought that life could get this small,
that I would care so much about a cup,
the taste of tea, the texture of a shawl,
and whether or not I should get up.

I’m not unhappy. I have learnt to drift
and sip. The smallest things are gifts.

~ Julia Darling (from ‘Chemotherapy’)

All I can tell you is what I did; whether or not it is the thing that made me better is a question I can’t answer.

On 17 November 1999 I cut short my morning run. I walked back up the driveway. I blinked. I opened my eyes again and realized I had just fallen asleep. My world had changed. I sat at the table and considered the weight of my breakfast spoon. It was too heavy.

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) is a condition I still can’t properly pronounce, let alone understand. Apparently that’s what I had. Actually, I had severe glandular fever, but six months later, when I was still exhausted by the thought of assembling a full sentence at dinner parties, I was diagnosed with ME.

It’s different to being sleepy. Your very bones are tired. You are exhausted from lying down, from the weight of your limbs on the world. This may be hard to understand, that despite the complete absence of activity there is never any rest, and even bed is no escape.

Every moment feels late at night, like the vampire time when you’re stuck on the couch knowing if you don’t move soon you’ll never get to the bathroom to clean your teeth. It’s one long party, but always the day after.

Most people call it Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) which sounds a bit lazy to me, like an excuse rather than a reason. Fatigue has many causes, and sometimes the diagnosis of CFS is a convenient explanation. I prefer the grandiose specificity of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis.

Hardest for me was the fatigue in my brain, the collapse of my ability to think clearly. I lost random, ordinary words. I was unable to finish sentences. For example, I am looking at an object: it is yellow, rectangular, and I would like my wife to pass it to me so I can spread it onto my toast. I ask her to pass the… but it is gone. I can’t think of the word, and I can’t even describe what I want to do with it because I have also lost the words for ‘spread’ and for ‘toast’. So I point. Everything becomes ‘stuff’, ‘that’, or just a few frustrated clicks of my fingers.

Conversations become burdensome. I am fine for a few minutes until, wham, I hit the wall and the words flying around me become goobledegook. It is a concentrated effort to understand what someone is saying to me, and I struggle to reply.

I avoid the telephone. I can’t play the piano for more than a couple of minutes. I can’t concentrate enough to read. I certainly can’t write. All I have ever wanted is time to write my elusive novel; now I have all the time in the world but no energy to exploit it.

The greatest blessing during this time was my wife, Debbie, with whom I had the most topsy-turvy arguments:

“Go back to the couch.”

“No. I want to wash these dishes.”

“Marcel. Go back to the couch and watch TV.”

“But I just want to finish this plate.”

“No! Go and watch TV now!”

It sounds pleasant. It wasn’t. I had been struck down in my mid twenties. I felt robbed. All of our plans went on hold. I tiptoed around the edge of depression. I worked hard to develop my own theology of denial (‘God has far more important issues to deal with than to heal me, and besides, I don’t have it so bad compared to some people,’) Perhaps God did have something to do with my recovery. There are plenty of people who would suggest he did. Anyway, here’s what I did for my part.

After about two years I had a conversation with Debbie’s uncle, a medical consultant, who offered the view that one way to look at this condition was that my body had reset itself, was back to zero, in a sense like that of a baby. The idea was that I needed to build it up again, very slowly. It was a turning point for my perspective as it put me back in control rather than looking for the cure to arrive externally via therapies or whatever. (And I had a lot of them!) This view assumes that there is no magic bullet worth waiting for.

So I started training for my Very Slow Olympics. I chose a regular time to get up. Everyday I went for a five minute walk, usually at the same time of day for routine’s sake. I would walk a few lamp posts, come back home and sleep for at least half an hour. That was my programme for about a year.

After a year my walks turned into ten minute walks. I’d walk five minutes to my friend’s house, visit him for a while, then walk home. It worked well. I had Chronic Fatigue, Doug had Chronic Study. He’d been studying for four years and showed no sign of speeding up, which was great for me. Eventually I was doing ten minutes in one hit. Sometimes I overdid it; one time I got all excited and decided to jog for several lamp posts. I jogged, walked, jogged some more. Felt wonderful. Came home and crashed for three entire weeks. Debbie was mad.

After we moved to Tauranga I graduated to 15 minute walks. These were slow walks, and I was regularly passed by little old ladies and it still felt like I was wearing concrete boots. But I remember all the milestones: the day I first walked part of the way up the steep hill on our road or the day I first walked all the way to the supermarket and back. By this time five minute walks were a piece of cake. That doesn’t mean it was easy to get out of the house. I would get passed by a runner or cyclist and remember thinking ‘it doesn’t look like it to anyone else, but I am doing much more serious training than them.’

That’s basically all I did: very slow incremental walks. There was a lot of pushing and shoving of boundaries as I tried to find the right balance. It was a terrifying process for Debbie because she had to trust me and allow me to make mistakes. It was a very slow process with gradual peaks and troughs. I spent a lot of time grappling with the question: at what point do I know that the condition is gone? If I have done no exercise for ages how do I tell whether I am still actually sick or merely chronically unfit?

The time eventually arrived when I got right around the Mount base track. It took an hour and a half with several stops along the way but I did it and was even okay afterwards. Once I knew I could do it on my own I tried to go once a week, which after a few months turned into three times a week. And so on from there. This was perhaps the most frightening time for Debbie because we were dabbling with hope, which can be the cruelest game if it goes wrong. And of course it did go wrong for the odd month or two at times because it is impossible to find the right balance without swinging to one side or the other, like tuning a guitar. Once I walked to the end of the boardwalk that started near our house and had to ask someone for a ride home.

The most triumphant moment was when I climbed to the top of the Mount. The first two climbs I didn’t tell anyone, not even Debbie. I felt like a superhero with a secret identity.

Other parts of life ran tandem to this as my health improved, for example, I took on three music students per week for six months, which gradually increased to two or three students per day. Then one week I covered for another teacher to the effect that I worked nearly 20 hours, and to my surprise I came out smiling. Little steps getting bigger over time. Time is the key, none of this happened quickly.

That’s the very fast story of my Very Slow Olympics. I wouldn’t presume to claim that this is what fixed me, or that it is the automatic fix for everyone. Perhaps it was just my time to get better, or perhaps the condition had already left which paved the way for me to increase my fitness. But I am convinced that without the very gradual exercise I wouldn’t have made anywhere near as much progress.


See also Exercise versus illness

T42 (14394)


This is your captain speaking


“Plaster noon slappers in chilly bins.
Cheese choosing satin chalky poos,
soft porn, cows and sheep.
Zits achtung-baby inch awkward.
Er… curry slight torch pressed sleaze,
sifting spots.
Chop suey feathers will cheer up
itchy plasticine sneezes.
Weetbix to be fish pies the chip’n’dale,
egg spatula pm.
Spank you.”



First published in Bravado 

The human conversation

 An essay I once wrote about creativity. I’ve since changed my mind about some things but it’s still good.

Thoughts on being a creative being

I am sitting at the piano, chatting with Beethoven. We are talking across 200 years of history. I am engaging with Beethoven’s ideas, trying to follow his line of thought in the sonata I’m learning. He keeps surprising me. Sometimes I think I could do better, until a few bars later when I work out what he is driving at. I am partaking in a mysterious and marvellous conversation that transcends centuries, continents, culture and language.

I am fortunate to be a musician, able to unpack the elements of a composition, classical or otherwise. It is a privilege to be able to play the same notes that a master wrote hundreds of years ago. It is a window into the mind of someone who lived in a different age but the same world.

You have to engage with the arts. Passive observers will catch some beautiful moments but miss out on the great conversation.

There is nothing like the utter satisfaction of exciting new music. This year I fell slowly in love with a CD that grew on me and captured me. So much to chew on. So much to be challenged by. Music that disturbs you, follows you round. I return to this music again and again, then suddenly tire and need something else. There are moments when I think I’ve found the only music I’ll ever need. But I always need more. Just like I need morning as well as night. You can have your favourite time of day but you still need the others.

What is it about poetry, music, literature, film? They constantly lure and tease with the promise that they will satisfy your soul. A book that you want to hold and own. You buy it and love it and look at it on your shelf, but only rarely do you pull it down to actually read. Yet you could never throw it away. Its very existence is a pleasure.

The trick is to move between art forms. Moments of silence as well as widescreen 5.1 Surround sound. This is why I love poetry, because to read it properly I must wrestle with it. Only when I slow down can I engage with the mind behind a poem. Ben Johnson’s poem about the death of his son. Walt Whitman’s poem about a noiseless, patient spider. Robert Frost who is ‘one acquainted with the night.’ Billy Collins, the contemporary American poet. All of these people connect with me, show me a piece of their world, share their lives and their fears and their musings. I learn from their mistakes and their wisdom. I share their experience. That moment of connection for me is quite spiritual. There is something both terrifying and encouraging about meeting the mind of another human.

For me, poetry is a collection of moments that can’t be captured any other way. I can’t video my entire life, so I write poetry to preserve those small moments of being human. When a moment is distilled and concentrated into a single poem it becomes greater than the poem itself. Suddenly I am contributing to the great conversation.

All of this points me toward God, the Creator. Why else do I have such a need to create, to gobble up created art? If there is no God, then we create to fill the emptiness. But I don’t sense an emptiness. I feel that the universe is already overflowing with art, and the human soul naturally, desperately, wants to contribute.

We often mistake this impulse for ego, but really we are trying to express the wonder, the pain and the mystery of existence. So we create because there is a spark within us that was placed there by a creative God. We cannot help but create. Those who create to immortalise themselves have got it backwards, even though they create incredible works of art. It is not the artist, but the art itself, that is the genius.

Plus, genius is relative. What I think is genius, someone else thinks is a waste of time. Or offensive. Still, I must create, or I will self-destruct. The creative process can never be tamed, nor explained (despite my best efforts right now.)

Not all art is beautiful. It needs to be true. Truth in the sense of a good story well-told that hits home; a song that strips the writer bare for anyone who cares to notice. The integrity of the artist – artistic, not moral integrity. Art is about the human condition with all of its bumps and bruises. I am passionate about honesty, not piety.

Writing poetry is slow. I write a poem and it is utter rubbish, words that mess up an otherwise perfectly good blank page. (The scariest thing in the world is a blank canvas.) One small twist or scribble later, and suddenly I have discovered a gem. Or the germ of a gem. The potential poem, a glimpse of the hidden art. The hard work that follows is to translate it for others so they will be able to share the moment – or find their own moment.

I am skeptical of those who claim to get their poems right first time. The first draft is cathartic. It feels rugged and pure, but that’s not the place to stop. Now that the emotion is out of the way the next step is to apply your craft to make that emotion as potent as possible for the reader. Ironically, it requires some detachment to effectively critique and edit the poem. (Perhaps that is why artists often reveal more about themselves than we sometimes think is necessary.)

Most ideas need time to cook. My best work always surprises me. There is something deep at work here. Who can explain where ideas come from? I work and work and work at a poem. It is hard slog. I can’t get it right. Then one day the answer arrives and I have no clue where it came from. A poem finished at the beach on a Sunday afternoon is completely different to the same poem that is finished in the dining room on a Monday night.

Incidentally, this is why I don’t believe that God made the world in seven literal days (scientific arguments aside.) People who push the seven day theory seem to believe they are rescuing God from the indignity of slowness, as though God simply MUST have created quickly to keep his divine credibility. I think this position misses the creative point. I can’t imagine a creative god short-changing himself by waving a magic wand to create an instant universe. The pleasure of the creative process is in the process! If we truely are made in the image of our maker, then surely a god who takes millions of years to fine-tune his creation is much grander and bigger – and authentic – than an instant coffee god.

Look at the world around us: Nine months to grow a baby. The years of learning to walk and talk. A lifetime to explore how to be human. My own experience of creativity convinces me that God is a creative being and takes his time with it. The Big Bang was the first big idea: Bang! Then it had to be worked out to its best possible manifestation. If it is a poem it will take days or weeks or months or even years. If it is the universe it takes billions of years. The time taken is evidence of care and passion, not inability.

I need to create. I was born to create. Just as someone climbs a mountain ‘because it’s there’, I write a poem ‘because it’s not there.’ Even if no one else will ever see what I have made, I still spend a stupid amount of time to get it to my satisfaction.

I cannot not write. I must create. If not poetry, then music. If you take away my pen and paper I will tap rhythms on the table. If you take away the table I will scratch pictures into the wall. Anything to explore what it means to be human, to ask the questions, to celebrate life, to rage against pain, to join in the human conversation.

First published in the anthology This Side of the World, edited by Sue Emms and Jenny Argante.