From the age of eighteen, Joni Mitchell has been for me a kind of seer, a lodestar, a touchstone … the poetry in her songs ringing as clear as my city’s Town Hall clock when it strikes mid-day, the chimes on a still day carried across the harbour to me in my home by the sea.
Kay McKenzie Cooke
Fear Is Like A Wilderland
I THINK I UNDERSTAND
Oh, I think I understand,
Fear is like a wilderland
Stepping stones or sinking sand
August 22nd, 1966; Gandalf Publishing Co.
Copyright Crow Music
‘Joni explains how she was inspired to write this song, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the character of Galadriel, who provided travellers with a phial of light to fight off the darkness and combat the fears and dangers of the wilderland that follows in their trip.‘ Taken from information put up on the internet.
I walked the street in the photo above many times in the two years I spent living in the town of Gore. Behind where the camera is pointing, is the direction I would walk towards the shops, the library, the picture theatre, the tennis courts, the Gardens, or in order to attend Mass or go to *CCD (which I hated.) …
And I biked to Gore High School in the direction the camera is pointing; or to my best friend’s, or to my Nana and Grandad’s home, my babysitting job, the deer park, or in order to tackle Broughton Street’s steep incline (located just out of sight to the right of this photo) to visit the cemetery and my father’s headstone there …
*CCD Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) is an association established in Rome in 1562 for the purpose of giving religious education. Its modern usage is a religious education program of the Roman Catholic Church, normally designed for children.
While living in Gore it did feel a little like living in a cage, seeing as after my father’s death we had moved to that town from the wide open spaces of the country
Fear often dogged my steps as I walked to some of the places mentioned above. It was in general a scary time for me – I felt cut adrift. As if my whole world had been tipped upside down, all the familiar pieces scattered.
As I was yet to be introduced to her music, at that stage of my life I was unfamiliar with the songs of Joni Mitchell. Had I listened to this song in 1969, I wonder if I would have identified as much with the words as I do now?
I loved walking as a youngster – and still do – which is basically what this song refers to: walking (literally or metaphorically) with the aid of confidence (a phial of light) from shadow (fear) into understanding. But when younger, as for everyone I suspect, I wasn’t as adept at identifying unsettling or confusing feelings, or the reasons behind them. I needed a phial of light and I’m not sure that CCD classes were going to provide that for me.
‘Now the way leads to the hills
Above the steeple’s chime …’ (from the second verse of Joni’s song, ‘I Think I Understand’)
On this recent visit back to Gore, I took the time to retrace some of the steps I’d taken as a sixteen and seventeen-year old, just before I was about to take the much bigger step of leaving home, and co-incidentally one year away from being introduced to Joni’s LP ‘Blue’.
‘Forgetting fear but never disregarding her’ is how the second verse to the song, ‘I Think I Understand’ ends.
‘Daylight falls upon the path
The forest falls behind
Today I am not prey to dark uncertainty’
The inclusion of the words ‘I think’ in the title to this song, hints at feelings of uncertainty. This comforts me a little as I do battle uncertainty – sometimes several times a day, alternating from a soaring sense of well being to the depths of doubt, which can all take place inside a ten minute space.
However, there’s always Joni’s music to help support and elucidate. I am grateful that she has always worn her heart on her sleeve and didn’t take on board Kris Kristofferson’s advice to ‘save something for yourself’.
Obstacles in the way of a walk can range from sprinkler systems to footpaths blocked by City Council upkeep …
But when you reach your destination, any detour or attempt to negotiate obstacles, is always well worth it. And even better if you’ve been gifted some light with which to banish any unnecessary fear.
‘The shadow trembles in its wrath
I’ve robbed its blackness blind
And tasted sunlight as my fear came clear to me’
Ah, but as the song seems to suggest, any fear we face can either be a stepping stone, or sinking sand … One kind is helpful, the other leading only to a form of drowning. The trick is to work out which is which.
ROSES IN THE RAIN
I think of tears, I think of rain on shingles
I think of rain, I think of roses blue
I think of Rose, my heart begins to tremble
To see the place she’s lately gotten to
Gotten to, gotten to …
from first verse of song, Roses Blue written and composed by Joni Mitchell
© July 31, 1968; Siquomb Publishing Corp
‘I think of rain, I think of roses blue‘
I love purple roses and have written more than one poem about them. I link them with a place where I lived for two years as a fifteen – sixteen year old. A town that at the time (mostly because at that time I was in mourning for my dead father) didn’t quite gel with me. At the same time, there were people living there who I loved dearly.
IAnd there were aspects about this town that I appreciated. The Gardens (where the purple roses can be found) the movie theatre, the shops … I was, however, willing to put up with living in this place I felt I couldn’t relate to, because I knew I was on the brink of leaving. I knew that when I left high school in two years time, I would head north to the city of Dunedin (the big smoke) where I would attend Teachers College.
‘I think of tears, I think of rain on shingles‘
In doing so, I would be leaving behind my widowed mother in the wooden villa with the iron roof in Devon Street; where the hundred-year-old ponderosa pine that’s mentioned in my purple roses poem, is still growing. A house that is no longer there, having been replaced long ago by a set of town houses with mustard-coloured rooves.
This was the house we had moved into when my father’s sudden death had enforced a shift into town from our previously idyllic rural life.
I knew however that my move from home was doing my mother a favour. After all, she had seven hungry mouths to feed on a widow’s pension and with what little she earned at her part-time job selling ice creams and Jaffas at the local picture theatre.
The next year my sister would also leave and head south to do her nurse’s training in another Big Smoke – Invercargill. The year after that, my brother would leave to go and work on a farm. When it came to be their turn to leave, some of my younger siblings felt ‘pushed out’ of the nest too soon. But my mother was eager for us to find our own way and relieve her financial constraints.
There were family and friends who stayed in this town, or in some cases moved there later, and so over the years I have had and continue to have, multiple visits ‘back’. It remains a place I don’t totally feel at home in, as farther south is really where I feel I belong – where my tūrangawaewae is located. I am always happy to visit and touch base, but it is people who draw me, rather than the town itself.
purple roses of Gore
I lived in Gore back when Flemings Oat Mill
made porridge, not pet food
and you could smell the warm oats and the middle car parks
hadn’t been replaced with hanging flower baskets
and a concrete sheep, and the library with its round brick
walls was still the old library, not an art gallery
and the old High School down by the Mataura
was a theatre for plays. Still is. Gore has its points
of interest — a fish, a styley clock with Westminster chimes,
a hundred-something-year old ponderosa pine,
an aviary with a kea and a peacock.
It has fashion and coffee shops and rugby-coach farmers
with heavy fists clambering out of dusty utes to punch
coins into the parking meter.
It has purple roses.
Kay McKenzie Cooke
The above poem is published in my latest book, ‘Upturned’ which was published in 2020 by The Cuba Press
I am not very familiar with Joni Mitchell’s blue rose song. But I listened to it today (for the first time actually) and once again, discovered as always, that I could ‘feel’ the lyrics and appreciate the poetry.
The song exhibits the loose guitar chords ‘always with a question contained’ – Joni Mitchell’s own description of her guitar chord arrangements. ‘Roses Blue’ is an early Mitchell song (written and composed in 1968) so she sings it in full ‘folk singer mode’; her style before becoming more at home in the lower registers and committing to jazz notes. In this song, her younger voice comes across more reedy, higher, sweeter, than her older voice does; even maybe, more ‘country’ more wavery; but also (as always) experimental, brave, original, iconoclastic, investigative, intriguing and captivating.
The song relays worry for someone Mitchell knows (who she calls Rose) and at how deep this person is going into what the song writer considers strange beliefs and in the process, maybe, is moving away and alienating friends.
I have had that happen to me.
And vice versa. When younger, I’m sure some of my friends felt uncomfortable and weird, and felt I was moving away from them, when I was fully in the throes of the ’70’s Jesus Movement, keen to persuade ‘unsaved’ friends over to the other side. (I blush to think of it now).
In these days with conspiracy theories abounding in the ether like flying monkeys, this song (and don’t all Joni Mitchell’s songs?) feels very relatable.
As it happens, my best friend while at high school in this town of Gore, was called Rose. We are still friends. I hasten to add that she bears no resemblance to the Rose in Joni Mitchell song, ‘Roses Blue’. That her name is Rose is simply one of the wonderful coincidences that continue to pepper both my life and consequently, by way of association, my relationship with the songs of Joni Mitchell.
Come to the dinner gong
The table is laden high
Fat bellies and hungry little ones
Tuck your napkins in
And take your share
Some get the gravy
And some get the gristle
Some get the marrow bone
And some get nothing
Though there’s plenty to spare
I took my share down by the sea
Paper plates and Javex bottles on the tide
Seagulls come down and they squawk at me
Down where the water skiers glide
Some turn to Jesus
And some turn to heroin
Some turn to rambling round
Looking for a clean sky
And a drinking stream
Some watch the paint peel off
Some watch their kids grow up
Some watch their stocks and bonds
Waiting for that big deal American Dream
I took my dream down by the sea
Yankee yachts and lobster pots and sunshine
And logs and sails
And Shell Oil pails
Dogs and tugs and summertime
Back in the banquet line
Angry young people crying
Who let the greedy in
And who left the needy out
Who made this salty soup
Tell him we’re very hungry now
For a sweeter fare
In the cookie I read
“Some get the gravy
And some get the gristle
Some get the marrow bone
And some get nothing
Though there’s plenty to spare”
© October 30, 1972; Joni Mitchell Pub Corp
During my walk this morning, earbuds in place, this song popped up. I was loving how relevant the words still are today (young ones – albeit a different generation of young’uns – are still angry at greed.)
As I looked around me at life happening on the water of the inlet – a female mallard duck with her late-summer brood of four ducklings, pied stilts, terns, gulls, spoonbills, shags … the images of a waterside world as conjured by the song Banquet, appeared to be materialising before my eyes. Just another example of this seemingly magical quality of Joni Mitchell to write lyrics that span time.
Prescience is one of her gifts. And intuition. Song lines that are packed tight with short stories; slices of life; still able to be identified with, still relevant, decades later. After all, this song is nearly fifty years old. And as always, so much story tucked into a single line.
The line, ‘Some watch their children grow’ was particularly relevant to me this morning as I thought about my granddaughter leaving Dunedin on a jet plane that very minute; moving away from the city where she has lived for twenty-three years, to live in Wellington.
At the same time, it literally felt like time flying because wasn’t it just a day ago she was just a little dot-in-a-blanket? Then a kindy kid, a school girl, a teenager … and wasn’t it just yesterday her mother, at almost the same age her daughter is now, told me how much her baby daughter completed her world?
Last night at her farewell dinner, my granddaughter told me that she too is a huge Joni Mitchell fan. I’d like to think it was my influence, but in truth she found her own way to this deep appreciation she has for the music of Joni Mitchell. Which is far better and somehow even more precious.
Fly silly seabird
No dreams can possess you
No voices can blame you
For sun on your wings
My gentle relations
Have names they must call me
For loving the freedom
Of all flying things
My dreams with the seagulls fly
Out of reach out of cry – Joni Mitchell ‘Song to a Seagull’
Joni’s ‘Song to a Seagull’ is about freedom and time and the search for space in a cityscape.
“Kay is a bit of a free spirit,” stated one of my aunties once. I didn’t think I was at all. Me? The one who finds her safety in rules. The one who is always checking out what the correct response might be in any given circumstance, before feeling relaxed enough to just ‘be.’ Rule-abider me? People pleaser me? Am I really a free spirit, riding whatever winds blow in?
Nah. I couldn’t see it. I felt too anxious to be free. Although born into the right generation to be one, I never did commit to being a hippie. Never embraced the lifestyle of a would-be Laurel Canyon-like resident. Always happy to remain on the fringes, I observed and appreciated but never joined any crowd wandering to any kind of Woodstock, whether that be in body or in mind. I never dropped out.
Off and on over the two decades since first hearing that observation from my aunty, I have thought about whether or not, despite appearances, I am at heart a free spirit.
If there is any quiet rebellion at all in me, I imagine it manifests itself in my ‘urge for going’ – the name of another Joni Mitchell song.
That urge for going is the name I would give to the feeling that sometimes hits me smack in the middle of my chest: the one that feels like there is a small bird inside scrabbling to free itself from the cage of my ribs. It is my urge to be free, to be alone. To fly above everything.
It is I believe the longing I feel to ride the thermals and currents like the gulls I see when hanging out the washing; when gulls turn from annoying plain and raucous creatures into something splendid, soaring through blue space on beautiful, sail-like wings.
Those gulls in my own patch of sky – my own symbol of freedom – are what I see when I hear Joni’s ‘Song to a Seagull.’ And maybe, just maybe, that yearning I feel at the sight of them riding thermals like surfers do waves, is really my free spirit – there all along, ever-present – crying to be let out. To be given wings. Sometimes I listen and allow myself the freedom to be that free spirit my aunty saw.
'You know it never has been easy Whether you do or do not resign Whether you travel the breadth of extremities Or stick to some straighter line' Lines from the song, 'Hejira' written and performed by Joni Mitchell
Upturned is my fourth poetry book and the first of my books to be published by The Cuba Press in Wellington, New Zealand. I couldn’t be happier with the team at that independent press and the expert, supportive and engaged way they got behind my book. Due to Covid, a lot of the work; editing, polishing; adding, extending etc. happened while the country was in lockdown. However as the edits and layout, arrangement and structure were all achieved through video, texts, tandem online editing, phone calls and emails, it was no problem to surge on through.
Knowing that for my previous collections I’ve used my son’s art work, the team spent some time looking through his website and spotted how well the image (featured above) would fit the book. The result is a striking cover of which I am inordinately proud.
They also helped me choose the title for the collection. I usually find choosing a title for a poetry collection very difficult. The title we eventually chose comes from a poem that is in the book; one which I wrote about ten years ago but has also turned out to be apt for a book published in the middle of Covid’s wild ride.
A sense of dislocation comes through many of the poems (all written pre-Covid.) The poems often respond to a world upturned; of things being the wrong way up; whether that be caused by travel or simply by life events both positive and negative, such as parenting or death. The pandemic and all its ramifications running parallel to the book’s production, launch and promotion, could not be ignored and was in itself, upturning. Putting together a book in that altogether unusual, upturned year, also added to the appropriateness of the book’s title.
Joni’s song ‘Hejira’ speaks of leaving the familiar, travelling and experiencing stuff outside usual spheres; experiencing events that impact on the full range of a person’s senses. For me the song conveys a feeling of stunned loneliness and dislocation. It’s a song very personal to Joni – all the songs on the album of the same name could be described as deeply personal. In fact all of Joni’s songs by their very nature are deeply personal. But along with the personal, comes an invitation to respond and recognise. In some ways, what Joni is describing is what I felt I was experiencing through Upturned‘s 2020 journey. It is also what I experienced on one of my trips to Berlin – as described in a section of the book.
Four months after the book was launched and during a time when Covid was being successfully kept at bay, I flew from my home in Dunedin to Wellington where Cuba Press editor and promotions manager Mary McCallum, with customary efficient, friendly and kindly expertise (added to by a dose of spontaneous magic) organised some poetry readings.
While in Wellington, I caught up with my brother and sister who live up there. It was so good to see them, especially in the midst of Covid when a lot of family get-togethers couldn’t happen. Fortunately at that time the country was in a Covid-free space for which we were feeling very thankful. Tragically, however, towards the end of my stay, my brother in law suffered a fatal heart attack. While I was grateful to be on hand for my sister and to be able to support her through the shock and grief, it did turn the kaleidoscope from bright delight to a more serious, intense and sadder pattern.
The shock and grief also meant that I didn’t have the heart to read at another poetry reading arranged by Mary, one to be held in Palmerston North. The reading went ahead without me and by all accounts was a happy event. I received kind messages from Mary and the other poets involved, expressing their condolences and care. This meant a lot. Kindness always does.
From there I attended the Word Christchurch literary festival, where I was a reader in the Poet Laureate’s Choice event. Despite feeling I was in a mist of mourning (mamahi) for most of the time I spent at the festival, the experience has worked its way into the fabric and added its own particular colour and texture to my Upturned experience of 2020.
Once back home again in Dunedin, a November Upturned reading that was supposed to happen in Gore, Southland, never eventuated. A sudden and unexpected snow storm put paid to that.
It truly felt like this book of mine was determined to live up to its name.
Upturned was launched in June 2020 (as it happens, on my 67th birthday) by my good friend the Dunedin artist and writer Claire Beynon with every wish for a smooth and successful voyage. Whether that voyage be by travelling ‘the breadth of extremities,’ or by sticking ‘to some straighter line,’ is beyond my control. Upturned will make its own journey and I trust wherever it does turn up, it will be right side up.