By observing a rooster pecking grain.
By the various behaviours of birds.
By balancing a stone on a red-hot axe.
By the shape of molten wax dripped into water.
By the pattern of shadows cast onto plastic.
By the colour of paper dipped in urine.
By the growing of fresh mould in round dishes.
By the magnification of blood.
By the alignment of electricity around the outside of the heart.
By the rise in a column of mercury.
By timing exactly the formation of clots.
By the examination of excrement.
By the placement of sharp needles underneath the skin.
By tapping the knee with a hammer.
By the bouncing of sound against a full bladder.
By the interpretations of pus.
By the attractions of the body to strong magnets.
By the characteristics of sweat.
By listening carefully to the directions of blood.
By waiting to see what happens next.
About this poem
This poem was first published online as part of a SPL project, supported by Creative New Zealand, which commissioned Scottish writers to introduce a NZ poem. This introduction is by Gerrie Fellows, a poet who lives and teaches in Glasgow but was born in New Zealand.
My first encounter with Glenn Colquhoun's poetry was a gift from a New Zealander, my Aunt Fran, in 2003; and the book she gave me was Playing God.
They are poems I came to love, not because they call me back to the place of my childhood, or explore a history, or evoke a landscape of tussock or tree ferns. The country they come from is the unromantic, suburban landscape of ‘letterboxes, picket fences, front doors, back doors/beer crates, backyards, barbecues,' described in his poem ‘Two Strokes'; a country in which young men kill themselves on the road and elsewhere ‘so awkwardly, lankily, idiotically, swaggeringly fast,/with everybody staring at them,/On a Friday night, with a wicked grin,/in the moment of their greatest triumph.'
The voice of the poems is a New Zealand voice - practical and matter-of-fact. The poems are funny and serious. They are also a little crazy: jam-packed with odd, juxtaposed images held together by vigorous sound patterns. Glenn Colquhoun refuses to be intimidated by any strictures about mixed metaphor nor by any prescription of what a poem should be: he's at play with language; his way of seeing the world surprises us in just the way the odd and unexpected pops out of a child's picture book.
Colquhoun's earlier books made use of illustration and his most recent collection, How we fell: a love story (2006), a sequence of poems about the break-up of his marriage highlighted throughout by Nikki Slade Robinson's cartoon figures, could almost be described as a picture book. The concrete poems which made an appearance in previous collections are a feature of this one. In places the poems themselves become cartoons - comic strips in which emotion can be explored with Kiwi male jokiness. Colquhoun's refusal to make value judgements about high and popular culture allows him to see economy of language as something which poetry and the comic strip have in common.
An aspect of this openness is that Glenn Colquhoun does not dismiss or deride the question of what poetry is. On the contrary, it is a question he rejoiced in trying to answer in his 2001 collection, An explanation of poetry to my father, a sequence of inventive poems which do just that, using the metaphorical material of rugby games and building tools:
Rhyme is the ratchet on a socket, two steps
forward and one step back. Use it to draw
words tight as wire against their fenceposts.
from ‘The word as tool'
Playing God, similarly, is a book based on practical experience - in this case his work as a doctor. It's a book I love for its voice, its sound patterns, its emotional resonance. The poems - stories of the helplessness and resilience of doctors and patients - allow us to stand inside what Colquhoun calls ‘the red-hot zone of another human being.' ‘Teddy', a poem about a child with leukaemia, works obliquely: the child's experience threaded unspoken though lines of hospital dialogue; the teddy bear who ‘knew the thermometer was not sharp', who 'was not scared of needles' poignantly reversed with the child. The poem ‘An examination of her body after death' also uses the familiar Colquhoun device of the repeating negative. Here, the reiterated denial - ‘You are not her shoulders!/...You are not her face!' - is a way of mourning the dead and coming to terms with death.
A poem from the sequence ‘Parkinson's Disease' takes a form that is ubiquitous in medical training and fills it with unruly images, haphazard as sickness itself. They are images which threaten to burst the bounds of their lines, echoing the questioning of those stricken by illness, questions the poet must ask though he knows they have no answer.
(a) It could have been from curses
placed by people that he hurt.
(b) It could have been a screw loose
or a spanner in his works.
(c) It could have been his gutters
filled with rubbish or with leaves.
(d) It could have been he might have
fought with something he could see.
from ‘Multiple choice questions'
Glenn Colquhoun's incantatory use of the voice, his exhilaratingly rhythmic energies, come to an exuberant climax in the poems of ‘Spells', in rhymes and foot-stomping rhythms and in his casually tuned use of the repeat. The poem I've chosen, ‘Increasingly sophisticated methods of divination used the practice of medicine', is both ironic and magical, which finds modern medicine to be no less ritualistic nor more certain than that of earlier and different cultures.