on a mat at the bottom of the world
At the bottom of the world we sat cross-legged
with our arms folded, on a mat behind the teacher
who wore pink, plastic pop-beads, a twin-set,
a tweed skirt and see-through nylons.
She played the piano
and we sang, ‘Oh dear what can the matter be?’
as outside, flax blades clattered and the grey sea
across from the railway line seethed in its own mist.
We sang, ‘Oh dear, what can the matter be? Johnny’s so long at the fair’
about a man like my cousin Billy, the one who disappeared
from home and nobody knew where
he was, until he was found sleeping in the car
he always drove too fast round corners.
And we sang about a fair just like the one held every year in the rec.
with saveloys and bagpipes and wood chopping
and black-slippered dancers, dancing the Sword Dance
on the empty deck of a truck used for a stage.
‘He promised to buy me a bunch of blue ribbons’
like the ribbon on the clip that Wendy B. always wore
in her hair with its pale zig-zag, side-parting
like lightning. We sang, ‘To tie up my bonny brown hair’
about hair the colour of acorns like the acorns
under the oak trees along Latta’s old drive.
We sang, ‘Dear, dear, what can the matter be?’
on a mat at the bottom of the world, as young Billy
made his way back home past the pig-farm, the bracken
and overgrown gorse.
We sang songs on a mat at the bottom of the world
and sat cross-legged with our arms folded
making our own world and never asked
why and if the teacher ever knew
what the matter was, she never let on
in her pink, plastic pop-beads, twinset,
tweed skirt and under her see-through nylons,
black leg-hairs pressed flat
into the shape of tiny question marks.
copyright Kay Cooke. Posted with permission from the author.
“This poem comes straight from the heightened senses of my five-year-old self attending Orepuki Primary School (circa 1959). I have a very clear memory (like a frame in a movie) of sitting with my classmates on the mat and singing while the teacher played the piano. The songs we sang were mainly nursery rhymes, which my imagination transferred directly onto my southern hemisphere environment. For example, ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ would seamlessly transform into being all about a neighbour who had a beautifully tidy garden. ‘Oh Dear What Can The Matter Be?’, to me, was describing the annual fair in my home town of Orepuki. As well, it hooked into memories of my older cousin who went AWOL for a few days. The mystery of his (thankfully temporary) disappearance became for me a symbol of the nature of underlying concern and unexplained absence (which is partly what the nursery rhyme about the missing character named Johnny is about).”
More about Kay Cooke:
Recently I had my third volume of poetry published by Otago University Press. Called Born To A Red-Headed Woman, it has a soundtrack (but as yet, no cd!). I live in Dunedin and recently exchanged my role of teaching in early childhood, for my present occupation of full-time writer. I am a third of the way through a tangle of sub-plots and conflicting voices, as I struggle to maintain control over a novel full of characters who would rather be left in peace.
Thank you, Kay Cooke, for sharing your work!
Tuesday Poem is a collective of poets who share poetry on a weekly basis across borders and time zones. Please check out the other poets and the main poem at the TP hub this week — by Canterbury poet Hamish Peterson, brought to us by Hub Editor Andrew Bell.
For more Tuesday Poems, go here.