'Time is worn into beaks': Robyn Maree Pickens

Image courtesy of Robyn Maree Pickens
Image courtesy of Robyn Maree Pickens

Robyn Maree Pickens is a PhD candidate at the University of Otago, Dunedin, Aotearoa/New Zealand. Her writing has appeared in Art + Australia Online, Turbine|KapohauThe Pantograph Punch, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Art New Zealand, Art News, The Physics Room Annual, Enjoy Gallery’s Occasional Journal, and exhibition catalogues. Currently she is an art reviewer for the Otago Daily Times, and was Blue Oyster Art Project Space’s 2016 summer writer-in-residence on Quarantine Island Kamau Taurua.

Her output directs an ecocritical gaze, building its power from clausal fragments that frequently feel like complete sentences yet push and pull against settlement. Observations are quickly situated; discomforted by their larger implications, they remain critically thought-through. Her work is sharp yet layered, folding over and inward like an origami sculpture: Donna Haraway (the tension between “affinity” and “identity”), patterning and its relation to access, the nonhuman operation of time and its linguistic mimesis — these all ensure a strong formal architecture despite Pickens’s shifting eye. Her work is an exciting arrival and departure for Aotearoa/New Zealand poetry.


These poems were written over a dedicated parcel of time between December 2016 and January 2017. At times I wrote in conjunction with Al Jazeera and my Twitter feed. But before the presence of these collaborators, I read, researched, wrote, and thought with the rest of “natureculture.”[1] I also grew vegetables and planted trees. Like Donna Haraway I want to “stay with the trouble of living and dying in response-ability on a damaged earth.”[2]

We exist in the time of Patti Smith

War shrivels. There is always
a first time. Fat padded moths
nibble radiant sap.

Weapons manufacturers cannot back
presidential candidates. There is no
demand to supply. They make arms
and legs and wheelchairs. Caterpillars
eat leaf holes of sky.

The next mute, stunned, dust-covered
child is a performer in a Noh play; who
swiftly breaks the fourth wall with joy.

After Cassini plunges into the succulent heat
of Saturn, space is left to be. Ears listen
to the needs of trees. They pinch to the cry.
In other news, countless genders are discovered,
and soften all that is green into longer lengths

of pleasure. The edges are soft with video.
People become blue-sky bootlegs
of Lin-Manual Miranda on street corners.

Keening love is love is love is love is love.
Diamonds, precious metals and the tusks
of buried Siberian mammoths are returned
to the earth. What the earth needs to tick.
Jewellery shops become reiki bars.

Our stumbling is the mountain we no longer
care to summit. Velvety. We walk around the base,
fossicking stone water and foraging cloud berries

to fill green gourds of obeisance. You are there.
The life we wear grows long grey
hair. Time is worn into beaks. We have felt light
enter sideways and tied string into hinges,
until eventually we gleam as the mountain.

This leaves you. A lulling tide grazes
with soft lips the wet sand, hushed moisture
to moisture. Yes I glide on you.

Think of all the things you cannot say
and all the billions of people speaking.
The pounded felt. The watching hare.


Patti Smith has been here forever, but I felt like I only appreciated her fully in the days following her Bob Dylan tribute performance at the Nobel Prize ceremony in December 2016. I loved her crisp white shirt, her long grey hair and natural, unmade face. But it was her humility that felt so visible and needed. It perhaps goes against the grain of Patti’s humility to frame a potential future with this trait, and with her as the figurehead, but nevertheless, in this poem I did. The reader will recognise some other individuals and events from this tumultuous time, but I am more interested in what mass humility might look or feel like. 


Golden venture


I like the way you are folded into yourself; a compressible constraint
against the scattering of time in this unexceptional city street.

Immobile in the crack of light with your wrist bone raised
to the sun, your mind is a bone folder that sees a child with

raised clavicles and bony knees in want of a lamb’s wool vest,
shucked fish scales of disappointed bridges and worn cellulose.

You pour into almond-eyed gaps, lean on tall grass, support
a body, are a reflection in glass against the cuff of the sea,

sit in a booth under a lamp, visit the Laundromat, slide under
pillows, between sheets. All the ropes relent … in corners

that are silent now, asymmetrical, stooping at the salt lick.
How we resisted melting icecaps and the descent

into subsidised time, blind milkweed and zero moth song.
To arrive here in mean solar time; a flat foldability

unsure of our allocation, mundanely biographic, all thoughts
a flight of pigeons in a lift shaft, tessellated, frayed, bleached.

To corrupt linearity we apply a stent that enables spines to
uncrick; smooth wrinkles; moon out sun spots; make veins

less muscular; skin stronger than tissue paper; restore organs.
Sometime in the twenty-second century two leap seconds

will be required every year. Were you to beat the air even
you would still taste melt water on your palette.

“Golden venture” originated with Harry Wilson’s Days in San Francisco #1, 1984, which was Rattle magazine’s January 2017 “Ekphrastic Challenge.” The photograph depicts a lone figure with torn-off calendar pages adhered to her. In general terms “Golden venture” is a poem about time. There are also some references to Joyce’s Ulysses (“disappointed bridges”), as I came across some scrolled up notes on Ulysses down the side of my desk. The regular couplets seemed to augment the Western concept of time as irreversibly relentless and linear. Though perhaps the exact or near repetition of certain words works against linearity to suggest circularity and cylicality.

Ida Mary Whyte

Before I knew it was rude I sat
on my grandmother’s lap, tracing
the wrinkles on her face as if I
were drawing lines on soft earth.

My other grandma had a second husband we
called Uncle Ern. Earnest I learned, not
a tall vase for the storage of ashes.

Ida, the grandmother of soft earth lines
had a spine a few vertebrae short
and by this time only one kidney.

I watched as her body became its own
clearing house, despite batteries and
minerals. It was no sudden oak death.

In 2005 mum texted me from Australia to
say that Ida had died. I stood the way a
dancer faces a bare window, poured into
self-hardening pigment.

I journeyed over the Seven Bridges of Königsberg, down
the silty Tigris to ask the Caliphate and Krishna
for an audience with Ida, and the Ministry of Water for
a second kidney and a couple more vertebrae.

I would ask her where have you been and what
did you see? Was it glossy? Were you sleek?
Was the light supple? Does grace have a
sound? Did you see Audrey Lorde?

I asked Krishna for an exquisite textile covered
in ornate swirls the colour of molten paprika
and a hairbrush to comb her long hair while
she listened to the past eleven years.

I tell Ida that I cannot join every cult
worshipping on the street even if they
offer dried fruit; that I have been evicted
from my room by Zen Buddhists; that I
live with an elderly Chinese man who speaks
no English but lives his life as a hum.

The hardest thing I tell her, is how to remain
an open fruiting body as advancing dunes
would make husks of us all.

An elegy to my maternal grandmother, and the most strongly autobiographical poem in this sequence, Ida Mary Whyte combines fact with a journeying kind of magic realism, and compounds disparate yet thematically cohesive events to create a dense micronarrative (penultimate stanza).

All the way

To whet a structure like this:
a temple; a palace; a tomb;
I bring my roosting being down
from an adjacent planetary system,
and feel the dew lining each blade
of grass.

I offer fresh pineapple chunks
and pointy rose quartz crystals,
twelve distinct species of lichen,
and a harvest of fine salmon bones.

I bend unpruned effusion; quiver
like a minnow free; become human sap
that slips out the side of the mountain.

I smell what bees taste; feel my forehead
crease into the occasional sun; greet
the raindrop that finds my eyelid; trace
the soft down dune of your neck; drift
into immense fields of information:
microbial, arboreal, mycorrhizal. Palpating
organs that bring salt to the pore; lift
heat from the asphalt; hold the glisten
in an ear of corn.

Till we are limbed-loose and I live all
the way through to you; tendered
to the meat-earth; to the black peat;
the mantling mica, oracular bracken, ur-apple.
Craving, lifting into this flowering temple.

I’m reading a lot of Rosi Braidotti at the moment, so now I could describe All the way as aspiring to communicate a kind of “radical immanence”[3]: an embodied ontology of intersubjective human + more-than-human relations, although in this poem there is an “I” who only gives way to a mingled plurality in the last stanza. Radical immanence is like Haraway’s “staying with the trouble.” It is the opposite of seeking transcendence, whether through religion or “inevitable,” overdetermined techno-humanism (transhumanism). Radical immanence is living in the present as part of an ongoing, heterogeneously constituted subjectivity that is alert to power inequalities.


Well firstly it is not an oval, although the sign says it is
I rectangle it clockwise, although it is not a face
Some faces are open; the greeting is decided before it is spoken
Other faces are like restaurant names on Princes Street:
The Great Wall, or occasionally an India Gate
Mostly we are held together with masking tape; are amused
by cat gifs; forget what it was to look at clouds as
somnolent bruised grapes, steel salamander, eighties pastels;
as potential rain bearers not data carriers. But they know
they are clouds, who appear less over Lebanon’s cypresses
when cut down. The clouds miss the symbiosis; the pools
held in the earth by tree roots. Al Jazeera told me this.
I also met a woman from Uganda tapping rocks with a fine
hammer. She sat in front of her small rock mountain six days
a week from nine to five. She has been tapping for ten years.
In this way she helps her family. She is also an excessivist,
but has not been recognised by the art world. She hasn’t been
invited to any biennials or had a retrospective at the Tate Modern.
She’s been an excessivist for a decade, predating Ai Weiwei’s
one hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds made by one thousand
six hundred artisans. But the woman from Uganda has not
tapped into the art market. She doesn’t blog or tweet. She taps.
I watch her, am occasionally amused by cat gifs, tweet,
and walk the rectangular oval as if I could cut its green
back into the sky; as if I could make it rain
where it is needed.

For countries not colonised by England, an oval is a large grassy area primarily dedicated to the playing of cricket (in summer). An oval may or may not have a war memorial (this one does), and a ring of introduced deciduous trees like oaks (this one does). In some respects, an oval, with a narrow, rectangular cropped pitch for playing cricket at its centre, a ring of oaks around the circumference, and a war memorial framing the northern entrance, is a quintessentially English artefact of colonisation. Colonisation is about access to resources. I heard the other day that only one third of the world’s population has access to electricity. “Clouds” is about shapes and patterns and access.

Almost seeing harder

(after Kushana Bush’s The Burning Hours)


The hills behind us are rolled like Play Doh and turbans
   Your thumb and forefinger are white against my black skin
We stand open-sandalled on ruled paper, pens and pencils at the ready
   A pool of water is offered in a golden bowl, apple cores held aloft
You gnaw your hands; the pale dog is farseeing; I take your pearls back to the ocean.
   We look out on the audience who hold hands; are baleful, distracted, engaged, bored.
Exquisitely patterned fabric slung over rope cannot conceal those who pray
   to swallows and clouds and Nike sneakers for rain and benediction.
Chrysanthemums always choke my senses; the paper lantern might catch alight
   We are little but pointing gestures referencing space and time; golden
coins dropped into yellow plastic gloves. We stand on bright buckets
   in trainers waiting for the one: clasp wrens, go naked, leave floral urns
of water for the thirsty. I wear a blindfold or your long braid will do.
   A hidden pair of hands will always seek to snip the union cord; always
someone will want to light a flame to the page; peak out when blindfolded;
   wear casual clothes to a formal event.
I spy your eye through the knothole in the fence paling;
   the lemon peel unwinds. Tongues, a pig’s head to fill our begging bowls
and endless exhaustion. Everywhere wristwatches have hungry faces.
   Those off stage want to pace the boards, while those on stage yearn
for anonymity in the dark tonal ranges of the overcrowded pews.
   We all play our instruments and wonder who will get to play birdman.
A small green winged bird flies a shadow over a man’s back. He is roped
   at the ankles; a goose has fallen; pigeons copulate on the awning.
The lemon peel unwinds; the paper lantern might catch alight.
   And though we may creep on our knees where the floorboards creak
from bowing, we fall into dazed sleep, or wake ready to gesture
   and claim the next milagro, a special tapestry, a hole for a neck, the bowl-pool
of water, golden ablutions for the realised. Holding a wooden hand
   in your own hand will not advance you any faster along the path, nor
will the singing of special masks, or being tethered to sacred fabrics. Our
   eyes match the white of our fingernails as the pony-tailed supplicant
is lowered. Pray with your eyes open and hang a bell from your big toe.
   Cup, clasp, raise, proffer; be rhythmic with your hands and true
to your pattern. We are half cast emblems of rapture. The veil is so
   slight and the air eager.

I was fortunate to be asked to review Kushana Bush’s first major exhibition at the Dunedin Art Gallery (December 2016-April 2017, Aotearoa/New Zealand) by the online journal The Pantograph Punch in December 2016. Kushana works in gouache and gold leaf to create exquisite paintings that unsettle normative ideologies of gender, race, sexuality, and devotional practices. The impact of her reimaginings, and the unexpected juxtapositions between the sacred and the profane in particular, inspired me to return again and again to her exhibition (The Burning Hours). Almost seeing harder is a response to this body of work. It is less a description of events and scenes depicted in the paintings than a compressed selection of narrative moments that form a loosely cohesive poem on the theme of devotional yearning, and the proliferation of arcana that attend these desires.

[1]Stephen Hobden, “Posthumanism,” in Critical Environmental Politics, ed. Carl Death (London: Taylor and Francis, 2013), 181.

[2] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016), 2.

[3] Rosi Braidotti, “The Critical Posthumanities; or, Is Medianatures to Naturecultures as Zoe is to Bios?,” Cultural Politics 12, no. 3 (2016), 383.