If the muse leaves town

Martha Morseth, Dunedin, December 2017 

When I first wrote poetry, I had no problem finding topics: relationships with my partner, events at work, people I knew, situations of conflict ... all underpinnings for my poems.

But after living in one place for many years and having exhausted writing about my garden, birds at the feeder, the neighbourhood, a few places I’ve visited (etc., etc.) my muse decided to take a trip overseas. I wondered how I would become motivated, how I would find new topics?

I decided to try working with clusters, or groups of words. I started with the alphabet, a poem for each letter. That kept me busy for a while.


           ‘More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold.’   (Gerard Genette)

            On page ninety-five I find a filigree tangle of hair
            not quite golden, a light brown,
            pressed against the paper as one might save
            dried flowers.
            I’ve come across watermarks and wine stains,
            smudges of jam,
            sometimes a gnat or grains of sand
            but never a remembrance so resonant.
            I picture the reader, a woman surely,
            tugging her hair with the turn of each page,
            the tension building,
            the twist of the plot possibly not to her liking
            until twelve pages later, when
            the fictional lover bends nearer.
            I close the book as I would a door
            not intruding.

          Quinsy & Quincy

           I overheard a very old aunt tsk-tsking
   about a friend burdened with quinsy.
   Too shy to ask, I hoped it was a person
   as in Adams, sixth American president
   or Quincy Jones, musician

   and not the disease I found described
   in my dictionary;
   ‘inflamed tonsils and surrounding tissues 
   sometimes with abscesses’.
   Could a Quincy coming to stay be worse
   than this fate; would I get quinsy?
   My visiting nieces talk about skiing
   snowboarding, white water rafting
   never about being ill. 
   I don’t want to alarm them
   so introduce safe topics I know:
   jars of homemade jam
  quince fruit I’m preserving,
  how the bitter tang sweetens
  in cooking, how no farmer’s wife
  in my great-aunt’s long life,
  would be without the fruit
  how historians believe quince was the apple
  in Eve’s garden
  how I planted a quince tree in mine.

       both the above from Hippopotamus In The Room, Steele Roberts (2012)

A writing friend, Maxine Alterio, suggested The Seven Deadly Sins as the next group I should focus on. I found writing about sin was fun, and even better, the poems were published last year in Landfall, issue 231.

      Watching  (Lust)

Men’s legs
the strong, muscled ones
lightly covered with fine blond hairs
catching the sun.
She sees them on the beach
on the street, in shorts
their tendons taut
ready to leap in sport or rush her away
for an afternoon of playful love
on the white sheets of her narrow bed
overlooking a garden of flowering kowhai
entwining her body in their strength
dissolving her in a golden haze.


       Lifelong friends  (Gluttony)

She’s already eaten a lunch of salad and coffee
with a slice of ginger crunch to finish off.
So when she meets her friend she isn’t
really hungry but they‘re in a café
noted for its delicacies
and this afternoon is special because the friend
is in town for only the day and the food so enticing
with its choux pastry and cream and chocolate sculptures
how can she refuse?
They say goodbye after an affogato.
Back to work and eventually home
where she remembers the left-over cream pie
waiting patiently in the kitchen.
Just a piece she promises herself before she has the pizza.

After writing about sins, I focused on incidents from my childhood as well as other themes suggested by writer, poet and editor, Caroline Lark, who taught me and other writers in several Summer School workshops at Otago University. She became my interim muse.

       The street

 When we Protestant girls
 played on our street
 the rough Catholic boys
 would annoy us
 break up our games
 call us names
 grab the skipping rope
 catch our ball
 dare us to come and get it
 One day I’d had enough
 remember being on top yelling
 arms flailing.
 Friends pulled me off
 my play dress torn
 I didn’t care; he ran home.
 They say a neighbourhood
 moulds the growing child
 I never had trouble with boys again.


       In the moment

 Across the park I trudge through frost
 leave boot prints on stiff white grass.
 Iced sunlight streaks the sky
 Do you love me still? he asked
 standing on the warm asphalt
 sticky black with tiny pebbles.
 I stared at my unpolished nails.
 I turn my head from wind’s assault
 dig mittened hands deep into pockets
 tuck chin into my coat’s high collar.
 He grabbed my arm, held tight.
 I have feelings, too, he hissed
 his breath on my face. I pulled away.
 That’s that, he said and left.
 I think of summer when I cursed the heat
 sought iced drinks, air-conditioned theatres
 friends with swimming pools
 watched him dive nude into cool water.


I’m at a hiatus again, struggling for ideas: lines, objects, people---anything that I can relate to objectively and emotionally. But it’s slow going. My last poem was about my neighbour’s two chickens.

     Feeding time
       The chickens are chirring
and purricking
thanking her
for peels, celery tops and lettuce
They see her and fluff, shift
fuss in deep-throated hope
for food to fall from the sky
much like her family
scratching around the kitchen
grawking hunger 
brwaaarking impatience
at stove, microwave
expecting manna.

      published in the ODT (August 2017)


I’m hoping my muse will come back soon. If not, I may have to suffer the inconvenience of a tempestuous, heartbreaking affair to get more material. Help me!