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
Just a little green
Like the color when the spring is born
There’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow
Just a little green
Like the nights when the Northern lights perform
There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes
And sometimes there’ll be sorrow
lines from the song, Little Green from Blue album by Joni Mitchell
I don’t think of myself as a full on fan-girl. Well, I could be borderline. But I don’t belong to the Joni Mitchell fan club – although I do follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I can never remember her birthday, haven’t memorised the year she was born, or where she was born and always have to remind myself again what her name was before she called herself Joni Mitchell. (Wikipedia here I come).
What follows is something like something of a transcript of my talk given in Wellington, Thursday, June 17th, Victoria University.
A simile I heard on the fly and so am unsure how or who to attribute, goes something like this – it’s like trying to catch a whale with a toothpick. Maybe in this time of Matariki a better simile would be (I believe this is original but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) ‘like trying to sweep up the stars with a broom’. I’m referring to trying to gather my very scattered thoughts in order to describe or explain the influence the music of Joni Mitchell has had on me and on my writing. It really did feel like trying to use a toothpick or a broom to achieve the impossible. The unattainable.
When I set out writing up the page, Through This Year With Joni I was aiming for an organic, intuitive approach. I was interested to see how the music of Joni Mitchell would impact on my life through 2021. However the invitation by Victoria University’s English Department’s senior lecturer Dougal McNeill, coming out of the blue (ahem) as it did and inviting me to speak about Joni’s influence on my life / writing, affected this trajectory somewhat, launching the page along a more retrospective, chronological loop – especially with the album Blue and the 50th anniversary of its release being something of a focus.
At the time of the LP’s release in 1971, I was aged eighteen. Whenever I take myself back there, I am the kid that left home, the country girl moving into the big smoke from Gore to Dunedin. A bit like Joni leaving Saskatoon for Calgary. The song my mind always leaps to when remembering back to that time is Wild World, the 1970 song by Cat Stevens, a song which I find it easy to imagine as older me singing to younger me, its chorus
Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile, girl
Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world
I’ll always remember you like a child, girl
especially pertinent. Not even Joni could have put it better.
Thinking about it a bit more, perhaps it was a little grandiose of me to describe Joni Mitchell as a seer, a lodestar, a touchstone. I note that I left out muse. Has she been – or is she – a muse for me? Maybe. But only one of many … Anne of Green Gables, my ancestors, Katherine Mansfield, my descendants, Scotland, nature, Jesus, stones, shells, Diane Wakoski, the chimes of a bell. (Yes, I am being a wee bit facetious).
I don’t think of myself as a full on fan-girl. Well, I could be borderline. But I don’t belong to the Joni Mitchell fan club – although I do follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I can never remember her birthday, haven’t memorised the year she was born, or where she was born and always have to remind myself again what her name was before she called herself Joni Mitchell. Wikipedia here I come.
When I do look up (again) these facts, I experience a dementia-like amazement to realise all over again that she’s the same star sign as my oldest son, is ten years older than I am – just like my father was ten years older than my mother – that her name before she called herself Joni Mitchell, was Roberta Joan Anderson. My husband’s name is Robert. His mother’s name is Joan. That she was born in Fort MacLeod. My husband’s mother’s maiden name was McLeod.
When preparing for the talk, I was staying at my sister’s place and I pointed out to her all these parallels, coincidences, overlaps and synchronicities (there were even more, too obscure to list here) and how all these stars appeared to be aligning. My sister is very grounded – to the point of cynicism; a family trait, either that or a direct result of being born in Southland; and her response was to say, “Parallels are always to be found if you go looking for them.”
Perhaps after all is said and done, it all boils down to Joni Mitchell and her music – her poetry – being important to me. She holds an important place in my world, right there along with, in no particular order of preference, Aotearoa, stars, Orepuki, my mobile phone, my grandchildren, trees, friends old & new, God, the sea, flowers, my husband, my family tree, the sky, my kids, mountains, rivers, hills, pencils & ballpoint pens, whanau, tūrangawaewae, poetry, books, tv and my bed. And other things too numerous to mention. And Joni. She’s definitely there among all that. Another star in the cluster.
I remember listening to Blue for the first time with my friend Jen, on a small, portable record player in front of a two-bar heater in a freezing, stone flat on Heriot Row, Dunedin. I would have heard the song, Little Green, but was oblivious to what it was about. In that I wasn’t alone of course, as no-one else knew what that song was about either. Joni kept her secret. Much like I did when I too went through something of the same experience three years later – that of falling pregnant young, having a baby (a girl) and then going through the grief of having to adopt that baby out. Parallel lines. And to add to these coincidences, it turns out both daughters – although separated by nine years – were born in February . They both have the same star sign – Pisces. The song ‘s first lines – Born with the moon in Cancer, echo my own star sign. Those parallels. Always there if you go looking for them. All the same, it’s clear that it is those parallels that serve to tie me even closer to Joni Mitchell and her music. We have travelled along similar lines.
As a seven-year old Southlander I started submitting stories and poems (alternating each week) for the children’s page of the Southland Times. I did this until the age of thirteen. Although, probably not as faithfully as every week. But I do remember being awarded the Gold Medal for my efforts one year as being quite the highlight. In the Blue time of my life, back in the early seventies, I was still writing poetry, some of which was published in the Teacher’s College magazine, Te Rama. At a recent reunion of the 1971 intake of that teacher training college, someone there was bemoaning the fact that the 1972 Te Rama had hardly any photos and ‘was full of poetry.’ She seemed aghast, her voice laden with undisguised disgust. I said nothing, merely allowing myself a secret bitter smile.
In my journey as a poet, I did develop sophistication and learnt to use the language of poetry to tell my story and tell it plain. To make sense of stuff. As a way of working through grief. Call it therapy if you like. Confessional. And Joni is what I would call a confessional song writer. All her songs speak of her own life. Fantasy and the imaginary don’t play much of a part.
Throughout her song-writing life, Joni has allowed metamorphosis to take place, learning as she’s gone on by trying out different modes styles and angles to tell her life story as it’s happening. It was apparent that she was not going to get stuck in the rut of being labelled a folk singer, even if she is still remembered as that by people who haven’t followed her journey in music since her early albums. Her later albums are perhaps my favourites. I appreciate them even more than Blue. It’s because Joni has allowed her older self as much room as her younger self, even to the point of being unafraid to go back to her younger songs and re-do them from the perspective of an older self. And her songs have a timeless quality to them. Big Yellow Taxi and Woodstock being two examples of 20th century songs that have a prescience about them (another of this singer-songwriter’s gifts) and which slot seamlessly into the present day.
Joni’s music is transparent, attainable, relatable. In the poetry world she would be called a confessional poet. She is as see-through as clear cellophane; to quote the much-quoted simile she came up with to describe how she felt upon the release of Blue. Kris Kristofferson once famously advised her to ‘save something for yourself, Joni’ But she never really did. And I admire her for it and have used that attitude as an anchor stone. Especially when writing poems for my autobiographical poetry collection, Born To A Red-Headed Woman. I too was told that the poems were perhaps a little too revealing. But as a poet, it’s the way I roll. And Joni too. Parallel worlds.
I am grateful for Joni Mitchell’s presence in the world. For her being here on this planet at the same time as I am, for being something like an older sister. Ten years older. Almost as if she has gone ahead. Paved the way. I am grateful for all the material she has given the world. The way she can fit so much story into one song line. I’m thankful for her inspiration. For her example of courage, her refusal to join causes, her authenticity and how in some weird way, she gives me permission to also write in a way that’s *‘tied and true.’
*borrowed from a line in the song My Old Man from the album Blue
Inside a stone flat in Dunedin
rancid with the smell of gas-stove elements,
the reek of frost
through gaps in the sash windows,
is where I gave up butter
and coal-range heat
to the unsatisfactory warmth
of two-bar heaters, Leonard Cohen
and Joni Mitchell wavering under the needle
of a record-player placed down on a mustard carpet
and in the chill of a kitchen with cracked lino,
using a bone-handled knife
with a spotted blade to spread
margarine from a plastic container
over thin-sliced bread
that never failed to partly- burn,
each slice a bomb site.
(from Born To A Red-Headed Woman, Published by Otago University Press, 2014)
Look out the left, the captain said
The lights down there that’s where we’ll land
from Joni Mitchell’s song This Flight Tonight from Blue album
In what must surely for me be one of this year’s stand out highlights – this Thursday coming (June 17th) I am going to be discussing with students of Victoria University’s English studies, Joni Mitchell’s influence on my writing and life. This is by way of a commemoration of it being 50 years since she released her album Blue.
So excited about this opportunity.
I fly up on Tuesday, referencing all of Joni’s lyrics to do with flying and travel as I go. Of course.
I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
It was the strings of my guitar
Amelia * it was just a false alarm
The drone of flying engines
Is a song so wild and blue
It scrambles time and seasons if it gets thru to you
Then your life becomes a travelogue
Of picture post card charms
Amelia it was just a false alarm
People will tell you where they’ve gone
They’ll tell you where to go
But till you get there yourself you never really know
Where some have found their paradise
Others just come to harm
Oh, Amelia it was just a false alarm
I wish that he was here tonight
It’s so hard to obey
His sad request of me to kindly stay away
So this is how I hide the hurt
As the road leads cursed and charmed
I tell Amelia it was just a false alarm
A ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea like me she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms
Amelia it was just a false alarm
Maybe I’ve never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes
And looking down on everything
I crashed into his arms
Amelia it was just a false alarm
I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel
To shower off the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust
I dreamed of 747s
Over geometric farms
Dreams Amelia – dreams and false alarms
Lyrics of Joni Mitchell song Amelia.
Recently I went to an RNZB (Royal New Zealand Ballet) performance of Giselle. Going to this ballet reminded me again of Joni Mitchell’s Shine cd – the cd that played an integral part in the composition of another ballet – The Fiddler and The Drum, performed by the Alberta Ballet Company. Mitchell authored this ballet along with Jean Grand-Maître, the artistic director of the Alberta Ballet.
And here it all gets a little babushka-doll, because the ballet itself is not only named after Joni’s song by the same title, but also uses a selection of Mitchell’s songs from Shine, including ‘If I Had a Heart’ and ‘If’.
On my desk, the cover of Joni’s CD Shine (with blue jay.) Interesting fact: when this cd was released, a removable blue band was placed over the photo of the bottoms (putting a new slant on the word al-bum?) and kind of akin to reactions to Lorde’s recently released nsfw album cover.
Some facts about Shine CD (found on Wikipedia)
In 2002, Joni Mitchell famously left the music business. The public first learned that she had returned to writing and recording in October 2006, when she spoke to The Ottawa Citizen. In an interview with the newspaper, Mitchell “revealed she’s recording her first collection of new songs in nearly a decade” but gave few other details.
Four months later, in an interview with The New York Times, Mitchell said that the album was inspired by the war in Iraq and “something her grandson had said while listening to family fighting: ‘Bad dreams are good—in the great plan.'”
Above are Joni’s words written for the musical introduction to Shine. The actual song on the c.d. is just music, without words. The only way to see the words to accompany the song, is when you read the c.d. notes. Another Joni Mitchell innovation – always thinking!
When I listen to that sublime orchestral intro. called One Week Last Summer I can easily picture Joni tucked away in her Saskatchewan hideaway in Canada – a place she apparently uses / used as something of a getaway and a way of touching base with her roots and homeland. Her Canadian equivalent of tūrangawaewae I guess.
Re the song: The Fiddler and The Drum:
I found this online – a transcript of an introduction Joni made in 1969
… because I’m a Canadian living in this country, I love this country (applause)… I do, no need to applaud for that it’s really true. I enjoy all of the privileges of it and also when I go to Europe I’m treated like an American abroad which isn’t so groovy. At first I used to say “oh but I’m Canadian” and flash my maple leaf at people. Then I said “no, no, no”… people are people and, well, I always get my foot in my mouth whenever I try to introduce this song because I always feel apologetic for the fact that I’m not a very political person because Canadians, of course, aren’t very political, you know, they’re always having sort of intramural sports up there – canoe races from one province to the other and things like that. And flag choosings and (laughter)…
The protest song can be found on her Clouds album. It is written as a conversational piece with Joni addressing America friend-to-friend, saying, ‘Hey what’s the story here America my friend. Why do you insist on replacing the fife for the drum? The fiddle of music for the drums of war?’ I’ve just listened to it again enjoying the rawness of Joni singing a cappella. As with all of her songs, even though it is now historical (this song actually refers to the Vietnam War in the late nineteen-sixties early ‘seventies) it is still so very relevant.
A picture from Shine’s album notes putting me in mind of a scene from the ballet Giselle. The RNZB’s production that I was privileged to attend, was exquisite. Enchanting. From set, costumes, music and dance, it was simply stunning.
Tied and True
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings
And fly away
Only a phase, these dark cafe days’
Lines from Joni Mitchell’s song, Last Time I saw Richard on Blue album, released June 22nd 1971
It was the middle of June, 1971 and my eighteenth birthday. I remember my friend Andra visiting me in my room at the boarding place where I was staying and bringing with her a bunch of narcissus she’d bought from a florist on the way over to see me. It was the first time anyone had ever bought me flowers. I buried my nose in the fresh, cool petals of sunny yellow, taking in their smell of what in a southern hemisphere winter-June, is still a far off Spring. It has become an etched memory, those flowers, that winter day, my first birthday spent away from home.
Over in America, three days previously, Joni Mitchell had released her fourth album, Blue. But at that time, I had no idea who Joni Mitchell was. However, before the year was over, I would find out.
It was that year’s spring; or was it early summer? Or maybe it was late summer. I cannot put my finger on an exact date. But I do remember another friend, Jen, bringing back to her flat where I was spending the weekend, two albums she had just bought. One was by someone with the name Leonard Cohen. The album (which we actually at that time called an LP – short for Long Playing) was called Songs of Leonard Cohen. We played this album first. The record player we played it on was plastic, small, flat, with one tiny, built-in speaker. Jen had it placed on the floor in front of a two-bar heater. (But not too close, otherwise the records might melt.) The flat was in Dunedin’s Heriot Row, a street on Dunedin’s city rise and looking down over the northern end of the main shopping centre. A dreadful, one-bedroomed, sunless bunker that smelt of something damp mixed with a hint of mould, musty wallpaper, the dust from exposed patches of scrim and the suspicion of leaking gas.
As we listened to Leonard Cohen, we were accustoming ourselves to this singer with the wonderfully strange, laconic voice, liking his difference, his odd, almost sneering, vulnerability and idiosyncratic delivery. We had a sense that we were listening to someone who was speaking our language; the language of introspection and a weird kind of celebration of loneliness. This was a singer who was thinking farther than rhyme or melody. Who was using words to slowly weave stories for our ears only.
And then on the same little record player we played Joni. Such a sweet, high voice that skipped and danced – especially when compared to Leonard Cohen’s monotone. We were immediately drawn into the stories this singer was singing; again, like with Leonard Cohen, we liked the poetry, the melodies, the charm, the angst (although we would never have described it as that – I didn’t even come across that word until I was in my thirties) the ache for freedom, the sun, the light, the rain and the sadness. The love affairs and the mystique of such lines as ‘I could drink a case of you’ escaping us at that stage. If I remember rightly, Jen had a brother Richard who had moved to Australia and she was missing him, so the song, ‘The Last Time I saw Richard’ took on a completely different meaning to what Joni was actually singing about.
But that was okay. We do take songs and adapt them to our own stories, our own lives – especially where our lives are when we first hear a song. We had no idea what ‘Little Green’ was about. And again, it didn’t matter. It sounded sad and pretty and beautiful. As was ‘River’. ‘Blue’ was mysterious. But it was good to not understand everything. It was good to discover the spaces around the words. Although at the time I doubt we would be able to put it into words what we were hearing, or feeling, or taking in, as we listened to Joni Mitchell singing out her heart. Looking back I think I can safely say that what we were appreciating was the break away from the formulaic pop songs so prevalent up until that time. Hit Parade music. We had broken away from that commercial stuff. We were discovering something deeper.
At that time of our life, in the early 70’s, my friends and I would fall in love with other singer song writers like like James Taylor, Carole King, Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Carly Simon. I didn’t straight away attach myself to Joni Mitchell. I wouldn’t have identified myself as a Joni Mitchell fan. Nevertheless, the impression she made the first time I heard her, was an impression that went deeper than any other singer before, or since. It was an impression that would lie in wait; bide its time.
Being a Southlander I was brought up listening to a lot of country and western music. Plus I had a father who had a country and western singing voice, with the ability to yodel exactly like the yodeling cowboy singers on the radio. Country folk / rock was a natural progression for me as I grew out of my teens and into my early twenties – John Denver, Glen Campbell, Kris Kristofferson, Linda Ronstadt.
I went back to Joni Mitchell in my thirties, taking her music seriously and listening and being richly rewarded for doing so because despite what most people think about Joni Mitchell (as just a long-haired hippie, folk singer of the seventies) she never did remain there. This was a singer who – to a certain extent, like Bob Dylan also does – kept progressing, evolving, adapting, diversifying and experimenting; she kept writing; all while remaining true to herself, steadfastly authentic and not suffering fools gladly or kowtowing to the music industry. Successfully and not losing any of her originality or creativity. Perhaps what I most admire about Joni, is how as she has grown and aged, she has reflected that journey in her lyrics and by doing so, takes us with her.
Joni Mitchell told Rolling Stone in 1979:
The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy.
Before being introduced to Joni Mitchell’s album Blue, I’d only ever heard her singing, Big Yellow Taxi, no doubt at the time classing it as a simple ‘pop song’. Bubblegum music. I hadn’t heard anything of her other three albums. Before I ‘got to know her’ through her music, Joni had already experienced her own version of the years between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight. For me, those years and what they would bring for me personally, still lay ahead. After all, when I first listened to Joni Mitchell’s music (and more importantly for me anyway – her lyrics) I had just entered the adult world. I was standing poised to dive in. To become fully immersed while she was already in the depths – a mature, grown woman approaching her thirties. Joni has always been that one step ahead of me and to a certain extent, has continued to pave the way.
Recently a friend who has moved to Dunedin told me that one of the things she loves about living here is the light. Sometimes this light is a dove grey slate; cold and intractable, waiting to be written upon. At other times, when there isn’t a cloud in the sky, it is sheer blue.
I love that Joni’s fourth album (the 50th anniversary of its release coming up next month) is simply called Blue, a word that not only describes a colour, but also denotes sadness, regret … and a lot of the songs on this album, if not all, hint at these emotions. I’ve read it described as the ultimate break-up album.
Without wanting to sound grandiose, even if any fire ignited in me upon hearing Blue didn’t exactly catch straight away, it did form a slow-burning ember – an ember buried so deeply I failed to identify it at the time. However it was about then that Joni Mitchell, to some degree, became for me a muse. One of a few I have gathered over the years.
When I heard Blue, I didn’t even realise that Joni Mitchell was the singer of the only other song of hers I’d heard – Big Yellow Taxi; the song mentioned earlier. At that time I could only receive her music from the emotional level of a young, eighteen-year old woman who’d just left home, her wings still not fully formed. Even so I heard this singer – the pretty, long-haired blonde coloured blue on the album cover – as someone who certainly knew how to put words to music. She knew how to fill an album up with song-stories. Even though I had no idea of the depths of emotions going into those words, ‘Joni the wordsmith’ did have an immediate impact.
It was around that time that I began to write poems myself – ones that in my opinion reflected the time I found myself in. As I saw it anyway. Essentially this seemed to be (going by the poems) an era of brown suede lace-ups, velveteen corduroys, coffee, Cameo cigarettes and freedom.
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 I was younger (and I suspect it’s the same for everyone) 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. Co-incidentally, I was also one year away from being introduced to Joni’s L.P. ‘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 before plunging into the depths of doubt – all of which can take place within a ten-minute space.
Of course there’s 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.