PRESENTING CONRAD

POEMS


 

 

VOICE OF A POET

An appreciation by Billy Marshall Stoneking 

Christina Conrad has always been considered something of a phenomenon. That she was born and raised in New Zealand, let alone lived there for nearly fifty years, seems the ultimate aberration. Where New Zealand is prim and conservative, Conrad is outlandish and eccentric; where New Zealanders veer towards what is respectably “hip” (i.e.: 'art that comes from somewhere else besides New Zealand'), or rush headlong towards the “tried-and-true”, Conrad studiously disdains fashion and safety, and their consequent mediocrity.

Poet, painter, filmmaker, playwright, designer, performer & poet, Conrad underscores the esoteric wisdom that art – if it be art at all - is is both sacred and profane - at once occult and universal, and always spiritual. Her poetry, like her paintings and clay sculptures, is highly emotional and deeply philosophical - a curious combination in an age where poetry has been objectified or de-constructed by academia into a precious intellectualism devoid of almost everything but irrelevance.

Conrad’s poetry is outlaw poetry. It eschews all rules, habits, and conventions. And for this, it has been laregly ignored or under-valued. You can almost see the hairs rising on the necks of those irate academic poets who believe they are accomplishing something important by taking up arms against Conrad’s use of one-word lines and her lack of punctuation. As if these were issues that hadn’t already been put to rest years ago by the likes of cummings and others.

Instead of “correct” formalisms, one finds in Conrad’s poetry nuances of an old tribal feeling. Something which cannot be taught in Creative Writing 101, or prodded from mediocre minds intent on furthering their poetic ambitions.

Poet and Director of New Zealand’s Museum of Modern Art, Ian Wedde, has written:

"Conrad's art is never secular; it always conveys a deep tone of mystical or spiritual importance – (and) of the fundamental, factual, logical nature of such experience. Her art reaches back to a medieval, or Gothic, iconography…it returns the recent legacy of Modernist primitivism to a remote European history..(and) enters that visual language in a medieval drama in which no aspect of life, however domestic, was merely secular -- in which objects of domestic life were imbued with malevolent or benign powers, in which banal characters could be seen as satanic or saintly, in which sexual and religious forces ran back together toward some suppressed, pagan source."

“Groping in darkness,” she writes, “I erect MY BELOVED at the center of my creative life. Around this sticky mandala, I spin… the heart screaming in its rickety cage... It’s the idea behind the idea behind the idea that I so winsomely suckle.” Her’s is a poetry that in its written and oral form finds universal force in its careful attention to personal details. She knows intuitively what Charles Simic once said, that “poets are catchers not pitchers”.

For Conrad, the art of poetry, like the art of painting, resides in the ability to prise open the lid of the unconscious. And yet it is also more of a leaving-alone than an interfering-with. She - like every poet worthy of the title - is a listener, a channel, the vehicle through which the unheard is heard and the unseen is seen - a medium for wraiths. What bubbles up is the raw material of poetry… quite literally, the voices of the unconscious. “They well up out of the throat… the throat, an ancient instrument," she says. "A powerful chakra - a very sexual organ.”

Those who have been fortunate enough to hear Conrad read her poetry realize very quickly that they are in the presence of something quite special. Her voice and energy are deep, ancient, bardic; like the voice of a Dreamtime singer. In reading her poetry, or listening to her perform it, the de-tribalised mind cannot help but hear familiar echoes of that dim, almost forgotten tribal past that binds us to one another and to the Earth. At other times, one is reminded of Blake or Yeats - and yet,  this is a woman’s voice, something not usually associated with the image of "the bard". Where are the great bardic voices of English-speaking women poets in this century? I can think of only one: Conrad’s.

Performing with Conrad can be a life-altering experience. The flow of words, like tidal waves, sweep across the room, picking up and depositing all before them on some shore foreign to the ken of those who haunt public readings. Even her so-called ordinary conversation is rich in metaphor and musical patterns. A woman in the audience at one of Conrad’s readings was heard whispering to her partner, “My god! It’s so damned emotional!” But then that is what poetry is for. A transcendental experience fashioned out of breath and sound and meaning.

Just as one does not expect the voice of a bard from the throat of a woman, so too are Conrad’s images and grammatical dislocations unexpected and often unnerving. Critic, Douglas Barbour, writes: "Christina Conrad is a painter as well as a poet, and her strange little poems tend to deploy words and phrases the way her paintings deploy colours; her deliberate use of a single wrong and awkward word in every poem also throws each of them out of kilter in a most intriguing way..."

i cannot paint this woman
with your penis rising out of her head
her finger nails are black
this fig tree has thorns
there is none light
there is none light
this fig tree has thorns
i cannot paint this woman


(Yellow Pencils, 88)

 

Conrad’s own ideas about the nature of poetry and its expression are worth noting. She writes:

“Poetry is a very natural thing... it seeps out of the unconscious. To bring a lot of academic laws & rules down upon it - the hierarchical shape of education down upon it - is like bringing an expensive frost to a harvest... when i write i try to remain empty… there is always a struggle as the ego wants to tip one over the edge... the ego is cunning, clever, well-schooled... it is harnessed to the bloody vehicle and intends to take it over, to drive it. i work like a medium, secretly blind yet sharp as a hunter. locked in the slippery narrow tomb, i lurk, waiting to birth an idea. it's as if i am giving birth to myself each time, and in giving birth to myself i give birth to the world, this diseased and fascinating egg that never hatches. we're all dancing around it. it's like a mad opal shining in the unconscious, uneatable, indigestible... it's through the cracks of this egg we peer. one never knows what's going to spill out... in this way i often look to myself like a terrible fool... to create, one must relinquish all knowledge... i never seemed to have any to begin with... knowledge is the poison..."

What one finds in Conrad’s poetry is not knowledge but inspiration. It is in what she leaves unsaid, what she deftly alludes to but seldom expresses and never explains, that her poetry and art are most clearly perceived. But the perception that is there is made by the reader/listener/viewer of Conrad’s work, and in the way she fashions her verse, so that it continually invites the reader/audience to participate in the act of creation.

 

 Those who find Conrad’s work dark and morbid or humorous and surreal, have themselves to blame. They are Conrad’s unwitting co-conspirators by virtue of what they bring to their perception of her vision and because she allows space for them to find in her poems what already resonates deep with themselves.

On the question of one-word lines in Conrad’s verse – something which she has been criticised for – she responds:

“this is a crazy thing to have to answer... being one of the ignorant, one of the lawless, i do whatever i like. i strike out suddenly. a sense of elation comes over me. i can only see that word, laid bare, and all the time i am thinking of speaking it...”

Conrad’s vision is unique, however it is not unlike the poetic vision one finds in every great artist. For those fearless few, one comes away from an encounter with Conrad's poetry and art, confident in the belief that the source from which she draws is the same source which all true poets draw. She encourages us to attend to the hidden facts of life, not to prove anything or even to explain or make meaningful this mystery we call life, but because she, herself, has made a lover of the unknown and takes obsessive pleasure in that love.

All works of art are works of love. They are at their base, profoundly religious. Not in the conventional sense of religion, but in what they encourage us to acknowledge and to doubt, as well as what they illuminate concerning the essential mysteries of the human soul. That such mysteries can be found in the ordinary events and objects of human existence is shown over and over again in all of Conrad's work. “i am very diligent,” she writes. “this is probably why i was obsessed with Atlas when i was a child. he was on the door of my mother's oven, and the thing that really excited me, even more than his burden, was the red dial that raced up an arc-shaped translucent fixture... if i put my finger in it the red stuff shot up the translucent arc, and fell back down again. all this was done with great secrecy. and all the while, Atlas crouched, holding the world. there was something terribly dark and fiendish about it. Not counting the fact that a butcher had once owned this stove. there were two deep cuts in the top which my mother lamented over and wiped continuously with a dish cloth.” 

 

Read Conrad's interview for MadHatter's Press - 

"The Stolen Wig of a Million Judges"

Gene Tanta interviews Christina Conrad 

http://www.madhattersreview.com/issue12/interview.shtml

Some Conrad poems
 
for River & the wet butterflys
 
 
ah River 
we long for love

Love  
Love
eternally hidden 

in our terrible  longing 
to possess
Love 
we lounge
in Loves shadow
offering velvet veneer hearts 

in our fervid desire 
to possess Love 
we gnaw on Loves hard biscuits 
whimpering 
spilling crumbs   
harping on an ancient lament 
 
hanging on Illusion's flapping wings 
we clutch at his gigantic cod piece 
 bathing our suppurating wounds 
in his glorious sperm   

ah    
the eternal song 
of Love
 unheard
in the clambering,
to suckle on 
Loves
pinkedy 
pink  
tit  

ah Love 
    Love
 in a craven jungle 
nearer 
nearer
 than 
a blue antelope  
amongst the great grey boulders
of hearts discontent
in torture chambers 
of minds shrink 

ah ah 
Loves 
Loves  comely bread brooch 
doth tickle 
doth prick 
hearts velvet veneer 

ah
Loves 
Loves
hermaphrodidic 
shadow
doth darkly shimmer 

high up in 
Lament valley

ah 
Love 
Love
in a forge of servitude 
the harrowed ones'
long shadows 
fling sorrow 
at the feet 
of great trees 

ah Love Love
in  sight of a raging thirst
shoals of intemperate tongues
 drown 
in the deep River

 

lapping water

(for jeannine)

lapping water

agate eye in caves crack

red snake

white fire flickering

lapping water

 

you call from new mexico

whispering of death

love

lapping water

your mothers adobe house

yours now

high walls

hidden door

lapping water

 

before a wall of mirrors

you stand

naked in her pearl necklace

 

foetal on her high carved bed

you stroke

her long black

furs 
 
 
rolling melons
in my family
no one possessed 
large bosoms
mine were small & hard
later they grew
from an ardent wish
to possess melons

they rolled
on my mother’s
oak table
shocking her
into removing
bread & butter
demanding to know
if i was pregnant at 48
i who had given birth
to so many

nurturing each child
to the age of 7

sorrow & guilt
accumulated
blowing up
wickedness
until she was
disproportionate

 

antique swords
(for julius)

when i was 18

i met a virgin

she collected

antique

swords

kept them

in

a

blood red

tower

when a

train

shot by

the tower shook

the swords rattled

she lost

her virginity

sold

her swords

gave birth

to twins

 

 

white coral cunt 

when we were homeless

every house we looked at

you desired

as if

a woman  offered

her rooms

spread out

 

i am just

 a figurehead

in borrowed rooms

my flesh

has grown

 

i cut up cloth

with blunt scissors

thread rusty needles

with blind eyes

conduct fear

as i slice the collar

off a dying tiger coat

 

yesterday in a rag pickers  market

midst black bowler hats

mens suits

 on wire coat hangers

i saw a white coral cunt

on a plastic dish

 

i asked you for five dollars

to buy it

 

too expensive

you said

ive seen lots of these before

 

alone on a remorseless couch

i fondle

the white coral cunt

put it in

my glow mesh

bag

put it in

 

my long pink

bag

put it in

my black

antique

box

 

 

doom prepares to give birth

(for stoneking)

 

a bird twitters of cruelty

eternal delay

ah,

how cold

 

Doom prepares to give birth

to Love

licking up the sperm of artifice

wheedling the stick

smashing the skull of justice

 

ah, beloved

do you recognize

the flower

the flower

concealed in a dry rasp?

do you remember

the honey

we slurped

 

ah, let me wrap you in this weathered quilt

stuffed with the fine feathers of

a dead goose

i shalt not harm or possess you

i shalt not fix my eye

there shalt be no burning

the body hollow

for the white flame to leap

 

 

last song

 

you come

you and your claustrophobia

to drop in my lap

you never thought

I could have changed

from a wooden martyr

in a bath of your blood

my feet

thorns

 

your moon is not in the same place as mine

the river flows fast

over smooth rock

where you lie

that red fish you catch with your hands

gapes from a bowl of rock

I never saw the snakes

that glide round you

your letter comes from a summer far away

you cannot feel the winter

that has come down on me

 

 

fox glove poem

it was last year

same time

same time as this

the sweet peas were black

by the side of the road

I did not know the fox gloves then

 

last year

same time

same time as this

I was hidden   hidden by the walls

dark red

 

a long road 

lay between us

 

the hills were burnt black

black the manuka trees

black black the sweet peas

by the side of the road

 

I did not know the fox gloves then

the throats of the fox gloves

are spotted   spotted inside

the black storm has passed

leaving the river yellow & swollen

at the foot of the house

 

the leaves of the fox gloves

are pale fur

between the hills

 

I shall never know the river

yet I bathe my head in its waters

walk on its smooth stones

 

I shall never know the trees

that stand on the other side

I know only the fox gloves

the fox gloves

 

to Stoneking 1993
 

in my 50th year

my teeth are still sharp

i slowly devour

the flesh

of my heart

 

i was ill when i only ate pasta

it was so

white

under the hood

of 

a black dish

i

dreamed

all my teeth fell out

 
 
brush of thorns
(a song for stoneking) 
 
who braids your hair
who braids your hair
not your lover
not your lover
why vanity braids my silver hair
with toothless comb
brush of thorns
 
when i look in the mirror
i see
death straddling life
i see drowned ones
clutching
my silver hair
 
a headless man
in a horsehair coat
drags the pond
with a blood red net
 
who braids your hair
who braids your hair
not your lover
not your lover
why vanity braids my silver hair
with toothless comb
brush of thorns
 
 
love
 
each day
i wash
 your clothes
your hard
black socks
 
your white linen
shirts
slide
through my
hands
 
your  under pants
are
still 
blown up
with
your
shape
 
each day
i
stand
cold
before spurting
taps 
 
 
letter to miro
 
there was a storm here
a revengeful spirit entered
black cloak flung across stars
moon dead in a broken basket
 
in the old blue house
we sought shelter
in the iron teeth of a bed
groaning on its haunches
red velvet flapping
round a ghostly sliver
 
through night’s dark howl
great trees cracked
split
fell in ancient patterns
the cry of life’s warp
bloody stems
bark falling from flesh
 
in mirror’s cruel oval
no proof glimmered
of life’s cause
horror moving close
to sentimentality’s plush
night’s wail locked
as light shot
across darkness
 
we rose 
 
a white morn
took us 
 

eskimo baby
(to my first born – miro)
 
your room is a theatre
your bed – a collapsible stage
the siren sings
you wake
rising above crowds
in your satin underwear
 
your face is lit like a golden eskimo
those golden eskimo babies
made out of sugary stuff
in secret, white paper bags
one devoured them slowly
 
lollies hung like dreams
silver balls one could never crunch
people said they were made out of mercury
they tore around in one’s mouth
 
even at an early age desire was considered
 
those all-day suckers one longed to possess
one licked though never tasted 
 
chocolate bears
were satisfactory lovers –
their paper auras
rustling
 
 

A poem for my ancient friend,

Lisa

(balmain 1993)

blue… blue

blue bird

blue angel

blue Madonna

blue monster

ancient beloved

 

first time I saw you

i thought you was a big child

sitting on dark stairs

in the old Greek house by the sea

 

that day I rented a studio

from the old Greek woman

in the old Greek house

where you lived upstairs

 

each week I paid two hundred dollars

to the old Greek woman

 

on mad hot days

drowning in paint

i heard you walking above me

in cloistered rooms

you wore a white bathing suit

staring through high salt-sprayed windows

at the sea

 

sometimes

you descended the stairs

in a big white dress

i thought you was

a child bride

wings of your white dress

touching my black door

before you passed

into blinding light

 

in my studio

standing before the naked shroud of my canvas

i could hear you and your lover fighting

the high white ceiling

with little plaster roses

trembled

 

later

a perfumed envelop

slid under my door

a letter from you

inviting me to be your friend

 

your golden daughter tamika

with the long silent hair

glided into my room

i fed her

with sardines

squeezed together in a tin

she opened it with a silver key

we purchased lollies

from a shop

in the street that led down to the sea

in the park there

we swung high on screaming swings

under a starry sky

the moon fell

 

i needed money for paint

i was hungry

clots of paint fell into my mouth

 

you were the blue madonna

you said

make pies

lentil

pumpkin

little pear muffins

breasts of angels

 

you came with a big willow basket

a white linen cloth to cover

madonna’s eyes

same colour as the sea

 

each week you came to my studio

with money for paint

 

at dusk we walked together

wheeling the baby tantu

i called her the white chinese

 

leaning against the sea wall

we sucked paddle pops

united in longing

in the light of the evening star

the white chinese

reached out

for your holy nipple

 

blue…blue

blue bird

blue  angel

blue Madonna

blue Madonna

ancient beloved

 

i think of you

our meeting in this life

in many lives

 

blinded by sorrows –

joys

we reached out to touch

the transparent skin

of the dream

 

laughing –

crying –

we separated

came together

our tears in the old Greek house

salt spray

on the great silent windows

Sydney, December 2009

 


 

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