I.K. Paterson-Harkness is a Dunedin-born writer and musician who now lives in Auckland. Her poetry has previously been published in Landfall, JAAM and Poetry New Zealand.
Writing, for me, is being allowed to make stuff up. Even when it’s based on something true, fundamentally it is still fiction.
Nebraska Part 1
When I think back to Nebraska
I see endless land, uninterrupted by hill
or house or tree or pole:
only tawny grass blinking from a hole filled with field,
and a mute, white sky.
Behind me, and outside of this view
a barbed wire fence runs the length
of a hot, crackled highway.
It stretches through the land from horizon to horizon
and far, far beyond that, too.
Behind the barbed wire, the long road is silent,
but between the fence posts the grasses are woven,
and groundhogs and prairie dogs
build burrows and reed baskets
and flies sit on the fence posts and hum.
At the centre of the road behind the wire
my mother stands and stares at my back,
at the mushroom-gray overalls that she sewed.
She notices my hair that my dad tried his best
to French plait like she used to.
She stands beside a man
that she loves.
But I can’t see him
because I’ve never been to Nebraska.
Nebraska Part 2
Seward, Nebraska is a town that is flat
and the streets form squares
and the façades are grey
but oddly not cracked
by the ice and the summer sun.
The residents don’t smile.
They wear slacks, brown as muck
and their collars are crisp
and they stand on the streets with their arms at their sides
or they walk from one door to another.
They sell carp in their aisles,
their monstrous eyes
pressed flat against cellophane wrap.
Their orange juice is sweetened with corn
and coloured a much deeper orange.
At the local high school every kid wrestles
on polished gymnasium linoleum.
The parents lean forward with clenched fists and sing the national anthem when the
limp flag is hung.
The restrooms have carpet,
and in diners no one understands, so they say
“I’ll come back later hon,”
and they pour you a drip cone coffee
and read cartoons at the counter, chewing gum.
But outside, glimpsed between
and beyond the grey square blocks
the plains reach out incessantly.
And always, always one twister or another
rests its pale tail down
and creates havoc at a distance.
I was asleep for six years.
When I woke things had changed.
The blackboard had gone from the bar
where I used to drink,
the dusty chalk replaced by a laminated menu.
The duty manager said, “it hasn’t been that way
since just after you fell asleep.”
The blankets on my bed were so thick
that the sounds of the outside world didn’t reach me;
they surrounded me in secret.
I dreamed I was married.
It’s hard now to imagine it.
My illusory husband told me that he was the best thing that could ever happen, and so
I slept with no fear except of waking.
In the fictitious house that was his,
and, was ours,
moonseed grew tangled and wild from the balcony.
In flower pots hemlock grew pure and white.
A gramophone played a continuous tune,
all cracked and lurching, and caught in a loop,
but it was the only song I knew.
After not four, not five, but six whole years
an old crone held a trumpet to my ear and she blew.
She took a knife from her kitchen drawer
and cut the sleep from my eyes,
and fed me mashed potato with a spoon
because I’d forgotten.
And now, I know I was only dreaming
because there’s no evidence to the contrary
and because people tell me so.