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Student poetry

Winner: Kim Cope Tait

Bloody Mess

My mouth on your jaw,
hand cupping the back of your head–
arm wound around your waist.
Animal want stirs in my heart,
breaks open like an egg, like light,
like fire ants swarming the sand.
You are the fox skulking at the edge
of the wood, dreaming the night
into being. I have not forgotten, I say.

Your muscled shoulders, creamy milk,
tucked into my palms–spongey wilderness
of touch. I have known you
since long before we met.
To to be banished
from the body now—
an ache I cannot speak.

I pay for the sins of men who
forced the breaking—
wave of you on their shores.
If I hate them, they have
power over me, so I
close my eyes and kiss them
on their miserable foreheads,
resist the urge to bite.

Your forgiveness stings, though I know
it liberates you from them all. Oh–
I would break their fingers one by one
if it was in me to be violent. Instead I
put the beer bottle left on our coffee table
in the recycling. Chuck the cap in our bin.
My profound rebellion: to domesticate
my indignation. Housewife-ify my fear.

The cabbage trees spike the air
with their green. Two tūī
shock the sky with their precision–
fighter jets of the bird world.
The Japanese word for the sound
their wings make is ‘fune’.
There is no English equivalent.
Nothing I write is worth a damn.

I stop crying about wanting
to be wanted. Instead I dream myself
into the soft, flat space between your hips–
curl myself below your navel.
This is what it means to be loved.
Desire is of no consequence, I say to myself,
but my own want swallows me whole.

Trauma is a blade with no hilt.
No way to handle it without the bleeding.
Self reflected in silver slivers: flash of teeth,
tongue, throat–depending on the angle
and, of course, the light.
It doesn’t matter
to which of us it belongs–
the handling of it
is a bloody mess.

Student fiction

Winner: Sydney Rodriguez

The Deer

I used to be afraid of thunderstorms. And you would be too if you lived here. One boom of thunder and the floorboards beneath you would tremble. The walls would whine in the wind. Your window revealed nothing but black, except for sparse lightning bolts that seemed to cleave the sky in two. My biggest fear though was that one of those great oaks would fall right on the house, maybe right on top of me. And there I would die, pinned underneath its trunk, skin scraped up by wet bark. It was on these summer nights that my mother would remind me that all the trees in the perimeter of the yard had been measured, so even if they did fall, they wouldn’t hit the house. When I got older, I thought this was another one of those lies parents tell their children to get them to shut up. You’ll go blind if you don’t finish your carrots. Or that the howling I hear outside at night is just the neighborhood dogs having a little get together, and not a bunch of coyotes tearing apart a chihuahua left unsupervised in the yard. But this wasn’t even a lie. In a place like this you have to plan for a great oak falling on your house.

So, we’ve got a lot of trees and a lot of different animals that would probably kill you if you happened upon them. But mostly just deer. Every couple of months or so, someone posts on Facebook that a bear is in their yard with some blurry photos taken behind a window screen. Everyone simultaneously gets up to peek out their window. But mostly you just see deer.

Our kitchen had a little nook surrounded by a bay window where I used to do my homework. I’d sit there doing algebra and look up and see a deer just standing in the yard, head bent down toward the grass. It would stay there completely still until you grew too bored to keep looking.

In the summer months when I was a kid I liked to take a stroll down my cul de sac. My dad didn’t let me walk anywhere else.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s that I don’t trust drivers these days.” he’d tell me. So I was relegated to this loop with five colonial houses painted different shades of blueish grey. I enjoyed the freedom of it, being a little kid out on my own, even if I was always a quarter mile from my house. But the end of the dead end was always scary. There was only one house here at this stretch, and it had been abandoned in 2008. So if anything jumped out of the woods, there was no escape.

On one of these strolls I was approaching this deserted home when I was bombarded by flies. Multiple swarmed past me, buzzing loudly in my ears. I could feel their tiny wings batting against my skin. I swatted them away, my head tucked into my arm to shield my face.
I could smell it before I could see it: the warm stench of death. Then I saw the ribs: the milk white bones exposed to the July sun. I took a step closer, and the rest of the deer came into vision. The brown pelt of it, speckled with blood. The innards in a pool on the grass. Patches of black flies obscuring its eyes. But its limbs were so gracefully splayed, like a ceramic figurine.

This isn’t some hick town that hunts after church on Sunday or hauls a carcass from the side of the road into the back of a pickup truck to grill for dinner. But some people do eat deer. I always thought it especially cruel to eat something you see each day. I think that’s why we call it venison, to separate the tender flank of meat from the kind animal that strolls so calmly through your yard. With a stoic gaze and a regal stride. That looks straight through the flash of your car’s headlights to look right at you, as if to thank you for slamming the brakes just in time.

My heartbeat ticked in my ears, overpowering the murmuring of the millions of flies pecking away at the corpse. The blood in my legs congealed to cement, my muscles calcified. I whipped my head around in all directions, seeing if the attacker was in sight, eyeing me from behind the trees.

“Yeah, you don’t want to go down there.” a voice said behind me. It was my neighbor, Mr. Treemont. His pudgy face smiled at me. The sun ricocheted off his bald head.

“Yeah.” I said. It was a bit too late.

“Probably just a coyote.”


Mr. Treemont grabbed a stack of letters from his mailbox and ascended his driveway.

I turned around then and began the short walk back home while keeping my eyes focused on the pavement ahead of me. I never went on my summer strolls again. Not alone. There is too much to fear here.

People idealise New England.

“Oh but the foliage!” they say when you tell them about all those creatures: yellow eyes peeking through the black night. It is beautiful in Autumn. The sky appears as a flame, a base of blue consumed by reds and oranges and yellows. But these leaves fall, collecting at your feet and crunching beneath your weight with every step. And in Winter, everything is awash with grey. Muddied snow obscures the grass. Spring fills your lungs with pollen, and even your car is coated in yellow dust.

And Summer: you sit on your back porch. A glass of iced tea in hand with droplets of condensation falling onto your lap. The sun beating down on you. You don’t even realize the mosquitos are biting you as you sit, you’ll only notice the fiery itch later. You don’t know that there is a racoon purring underneath the wood on which you sit. You don’t see the gartersnake hissing at you from the stone wall. Or that pack of coyotes is perched on the hill, huffing with hunger. Or that a black bear stalks the woods all around you, his dark fur shrouded by the forest. You think it’s all just summer noise, just a tranquil hum in your ears. But it’s the sound of all those animals, thinking of you as flesh.

Staff poetry

Winner: Mandy Phipps-Green

The Wisdom of Tūī

I like to imagine
the stories the tūī tell
high in the Banksias
at the north end of Burns.
You know, those tousled trees
with long bladed leaves,
deep green topside, frosted beneath,
and spiky cones of yellow-green flowers
(an inflorescence, that’s called),
and from them issue all manner of clicks and creaks, warbles,
the occasional piercing note of pure song.

What tales are told, do you think,
in this boisterous home
where there is such rustling and rushing about
from branch to branch to dappled sky,
punctuated by a raucous opera?
Peering through limbs, you glimpse only flashes,
darts of lustrous blue and dark winged shapes
until one body flees, a fletched arrow,
to take refuge on a distant bough,
overlooked by the kuia and the kōtiro
who press noses, share breath.

Do they play or quarrel, I wonder?
Or maybe they dramatically reenact
the sagas of their lineage,
the chronicles of their past,
sharing feathered truths, those tales of how they came to be
here, in this bower beside Ōwheo, the Leith.
And what of those stories beyond our hearing?
Perhaps sacred knowledge rendered ultrasonic,
wisdom preserved for tūī-kind alone,
and not for the perception or knowing of we
who walk beneath the Banksias at the north end of Burns.

Staff fiction

Winner: Molly Crighton

95 Million Years

From this upper window, I am level with it – its riotous colour, like a crowd of painted faces stretching far away from the eye, rippling with small human movements. Even in full flower, there is something wintery about it. The branches still have the dry sparseness of crumpled bone, and each individual flower is anthropomorphically globular, like the back of a bald man’s head as he looks up and his skin wrinkles into folds.

I press my hand against the window half-cupped, and from this distance my hand is large enough and the tree small enough to disappear entirely beneath. By the time I lift my hand, a small cluster of blossoms has been cast into the air by a distant tree. They gossip past like a cloud of crystalline perfume. Behind them, migratory patterns of students move in flocks. I check my watch. Ten to three. Like clockwork.

I turn and walk slowly down the corridor, pulling my cardigan tighter around myself and pinning it in place with crossed arms. The sunlit windows I pass by are like the yellow glowing slits of a zoetrope. From the end of the corridor, I can hear the light, cheerful noises of workplace domesticity - the zip boiler tap gurgling a small deadly waterfall into chipped mugs; the dry rustle of teabags from the jar; the ebb and flow of read-out quiz questions and answers.

“Here’s a topical one! ‘How old are magnolia trees?’ I suppose a few million years?”

I round the corner and give a small wave. Someone has emptied the dishwasher already, and the mugs sit warm and clean in the lower cupboard. I scan them until I find one of the three that I like, then set about making myself some tea.

“They must be old enough to have made it around the world - so yeah, definitely a few million. Probably more. Twelve?”

“Ninety five, I think.”

My colleague turns to face me with a half-smile. “Are you sure?”

I drop my used teabag in the bin where it lands with the same fleshy slap as a fallen petal. “Pretty sure. They evolved before there were bees.”

“Damn. Alright, I’ll give it a go - thanks for that.” He bends studiously back to his quiz and I swipe a biscuit as I inch past him.
It’s three in the afternoon. The corridor is a dancehall for dust motes. The gold sun drenches dark-polished wood, and in the cooling shade of the quad, another flower begins unfurling.

There are so many opportunities and chances I have let slip through my fingers like sand. So many countries I never went to; languages I never learned. So many interesting or kind or dangerous people I never went home with. So I am too old now and too afraid of the nothing that life offers up to me that I do this thing with half-closed eyes.

I used to do it every few months. Then every few weeks. Now it’s hard to go a few days without. Now that it’s so light in the evenings - now that campus has entered its week-long mid-semester hibernation - it has become too easy to do this every night.

I wait until they’re all gone. Some linger, and as I wait for them to leave, my fingers twist the cuff of my cardigan until it hangs loose and baggy in fingertip-shaped swags. Then it is just me. Just me and –

I make my way out into the cool of the quad. Just me and my opportunity. Just me and the chance I didn’t miss.

I make my way up to the magnolia in steps so slow that I almost overbalance. Anticipation. Wheting. I place my hand flat on its wooden bench – feel the spikes of splinters and the cool undulations of moss under my skin. There is a petal just to the right of my fingers. I let them inch over to it, almost as though I am not culpable for my own movements.

I pick up the petal and lift it to my lips, pressing its thick-veined flatness to my skin. The tip of it is a bruised taupe colour. When I put it in my mouth – folding it slightly to accommodate its cupped width - the bruised part tastes slightly over-sweet, like the water of flowers left in a vase too long.

This is the opportunity I wait for - this is what keeps me holding my breath through each day. The moment I bite through the petal’s flesh and let its sour, perfume-y taste bleed out, vivid images unfold in front of me like an impossible cinemascope screen. I bend slightly at the waist, gripping the wood of the bench, and the sudden cool breeze feels impossibly textural, as though I can count each molecule of air that moves in rivulets over my bare skin.

I can never predict what it will show me. The first time it was magnolia trees, and I saw through beetle eyes ninety-five million years ago - I saw mandibles at eye-height; I saw bracts and tepals; the morphology of each flower up close. I saw its near-extinction events; its roots and coils and numbers dotted over the earth like forever-stationery soldiers.

But today it wants to show me volcanoes. I am magma rushing hotter than blood under the earth. I am smooth skins of metal cooling even under the blazing sun; I am the pulse-rush of anger after the slip of a tectonic plate. I am skeins of brightness running in deadly veins down a mountainside.

I swallow the last of the petal and the bark of the magnolia turns back into dry greyness. I hoist my handbag over my shoulder, breathe a dry mouthful of air, and walk into the night.

The next day I take my sandwich out to the garden next to Marama Hall and sit on the sunniest bench. From here, if I squint against the starkness of the light, I can see the tip of the magnolia tree rising above the hedge like a distant lilac mountain.

If age is wisdom, and if the tree is giving me what it knows, then I should be wise enough to stop. Ninety five million years of knowing when to stop.

I stretch out my legs and hook one arm over the back of the bench, then kick my shoes off and feel the clean rubbery texture of the grass under my feet. I have been the eyes of a beetle, looking out from a magnolia tree millions of years ago, an unfamiliar cretaceous landscape stretching out in front of me, tectonic and bare. I have been the favourite tree of emperors and queens; I have been the first sign of spring at the end of cold, bitter winters. But always at the end I come back to me - an inoffensive admin in a baggy cardigan; a someone who isn’t quite no one, but who barely exists in memory and will exist even less when I am gone. The tree’s memories should be teaching me something but I am too young and too human to learn. I take a bite of my sandwich and chew it slowly, wishing it were a petal.

The next morning, I watch my mouse make its way slowly across my screen. It phases – sometimes if I blink too fast it becomes two cursors pointed to two tabs on two screens. I drink some water from a glass next to me, gripping it carefully, not trusting my own hands. As I reach for it, the mangled sleeve of my cardigan rides up slightly, and I feel a sudden tightness in my torso, as though a hand has taken my kidney in a death-grip.

The skin of my wrist is paper-white. The white is veined with purple and a faint pink blush colours up from my fingertips.

I let out an involuntary noise of surprise and drop my hand, closing my eyes. In the safer semi-darkness, I use my left hand to touch the skin of my right. Cool. Fleshy. Petal-texture.

I open my eyes again and nothing has changed. The death-grip inside tightens. I clap the palm of my left hand across my eyes but in the darkness I see magma again, lighting up with a heady phosphorescence.

I stand suddenly and make my way towards the green-patina doors, stumbling and gripping the wall with my petal-flesh hand. The sensation is cold and strangely empty, so I put out my other hand instead, but from its palm the yellow fronds of stamen bend uselessly.
I break out into clean, sterile daylight and stumble towards the magnolia tree. With my stamen hand hanging uselessly by my side, I use the other to pick up a petal and shove it into my mouth.

An image of myself. Myself learning another language and moving across the planet. Myself in a uniform; myself in the arms of a lover I barely recognise.

I pick up another petal. Swallow it whole.

Me sitting silently on a quiet porch; me stroking the head of a small child. Me raising a hand towards the marble statue of a woman, her fingers transubstantiating into leaves.

I eat another. Another. A zoetrope of all the choices I didn’t make. A knowledge-feast of everything I never did.

My colleagues stand clustered in the doorway to our building. I should turn and look and them but I can’t move. My skin is dry and cracked and the soil feels cool and gentle around my feet. A single petal drops from my arm.

Alumni poetry

Winner: Val O'Reilly

Kōrero on the getting of wisdom

I buy birthday presents
for myself
It's my 65th birthday
next month
I've been thinking
About the getting of wisdom
I’ve been thinking
I might get an e-bike
The plus side
for the e-bike—
it’s cheaper than a new car and
I couldn’t push an ordinary bike
up the big hill
by my place
It could be a fossil saver
and a conversation starter
and it might keep these old bones moving
Did I say it’s cheaper than a new car?
Yes. And for getting wisdom?

Alumni fiction

Winner: Caellin Rodgers

The Guest

The Guest arrived on a Wednesday. Its body – tall and pill-like, with one long, narcissistic eye-stalk - was much discussed on the morning news. Photos of it straddling the Thames were plastered across social media. Two eyes; one long and alien one short and historic. Fox News in America called it a hoax, while the BBC speculated that Banksy could be responsible. There were no credible reports of how it came to be; it was as if the sun had shone it into being as it rose over the dome of St Paul’s. The usual suspects, desperate for fifteen minutes of fame, all had different claims, and by lunch we were treated to a special PM briefing – in windswept hair and guffawing verbal diahorrea – saying nothing of any use. London tourists, usually scattered throughout the landmarks, gathered with the locals around the foot of it – as close as the police tape allowed, selfie sticks mimicking the Guest’s singular eye. By evening, the regular commuters had given up on Tower Bridge, diverting around the river in a number of different ways. Helicopters droned over it, all stations trying to get their piece of the action and maximise their ratings. The Guardian reported that police were looking for the person or people behind it, and that there would be no punitive action if it was removed by the following morning.

By Thursday, Big Commerce had had enough. Cranes, sequestered from elsewhere in the city – most notably, some reconstruction work on Big Ben – flocked to the Guest’s location; one group on each side of the river bank. Police expanded their tape line, keeping the public well away. Nearby business owners could be seen, faces and phones pressed to the glass to watch the action. Ropes were flung around the Guest’s shiny metallic body; but it was anyone’s guess as to where they intended to take it once they had it hoisted. Not that we ever found out – despite the sheer determination of the operators, the Guest refused to budge. It was immediately clear that the cranes could hardly give it their all as the risk to nearby buildings – if they fell – was too great. Before the sun set they’d all given up and returned to their regular jobs. Changing tack, news sources started to focus in on the eye. A robotics professor from Nottingham was flown in to get a closer look; the eye had many features available in today’s robotics technology, and he presumed it was currently conducting a scan of its body, looking for damage. When asked to explain what he meant by ‘today’s technology’, he paled and glanced at a heavyset man in shades and an earpiece standing behind him, before refusing to say more.

On Friday, a materials expert was arrested trying to take a metal scraping from the Guest’s body. The rumour started on Social Media, of course, spreading through the conspiracy groups before the mainstream media picked it up: aliens. The Americans, who, up until now, had largely considered the Guest to be ‘typical British silliness’ flew in later that day. The Russians and Chinese were already here. All of a sudden, what had started with jokes and selfies was now crawling with military and special agents. They could hardly shroud it in secrecy – the thing was as tall as The Shard – but boy did they try. Military and governmental scientists, who were disappointingly not in camouflage labcoats, set up tents nearby. Presumably, they were performing those tests the materials expert had been arrested for that morning. Local restaurateurs yelled about business losses from the edge of the cordoned zone. Bored soldiers loitered around the edges, guns the same length as their torsos strapped to their waists. One crafty boat owner charged people £100 for trips to the Guest until the government got wise to this and utilised boats of their own to keep people away.

As the sun rose on Saturday morning, the eye stalk unfurled. Where it had been previously focused downward, introspective and still, it now moved smoothly up directly into the air. It felt like the whole world was watching with a singular held breath as the lolling soldiers snapped to action as one, guns from four of the world’s most powerful militaries trained on the small bulge at the end of the stalk. For a moment, it waited with us, and then – slowly, ever so slowly – we became aware it was doing the tiniest of circular motions. Like an upside-down spinning top, it rotated in incrementally-increasing concentric circles. Our attention turned to the military: the Guest had stated its next move, and we didn’t know how they would respond. Cameras focused in on a small group in suits: four world leaders with their mouths and hands flapping. We could imagine our PM in the centre of it all, using his standard array of ineffectual buzzwords. It took half an hour, the eye’s circles growing bigger and flatter, scanning over the top of St Paul’s and stretching down towards the Tower of London, before a fifth, more competent, person joined their group. Germany had arrived. It took less than five more minutes of consultation before they opened fire. Bullets flew through the air and pelted against the Guest’s metal exterior. The City of London jumped. The camera operators jumped. A tiny scientist in a labcoat scurried into the centre of the frame, yelling something at the suited-group. Thirty seconds later, the firing stopped, the Guest undamaged and - seemingly - unbothered. I can’t recall how we knew, but we did know that the world leaders were discussing bombing it. The eye tracked slowly downwards.

By Monday morning, it was clear they had decided against the bombing. Three more times it was fired on, including by a tank sent up the Thames on a boat. The Guest could not have been less bothered, its eye stretched out like a slow-mo lasso over its head. It took in everything, the scattering remains of the spectators, the bored-again military, those going about their Monday business on Southbank. There’d been a body found in Finchley park, which had drawn the London news stations’ attention away from the Guest; the American stations reluctantly lingering in case there were any further changes. The citizens of London had adjusted, the Guest was no longer new and exciting - we returned to our regular lives, bored and complacent. The world, which had trained its singular eye as acutely on the Guest as the eye of the Guest itself, also returned to its concentric circles, looking for something else worthy of its attention. Murders, wars, political scandals returned to the headlines. The Guest was relegated to page 5 or later. The materials scientist was released with a small fine and a slap on the wrist.

It took the Guest nearly five weeks to complete its visual rendition of London’s cityscape. We’d forgotten its presence – commerce had forged different routes around it, military and police had disappeared. It had become an interactive monument – we all knew it was uncomfortably warm to the touch, like a just vacated toilet seat. We had all stood in its shadow and looked up, comparing its sleek metallic body to the glass points of The Shard. We had admired its symmetry, and teens had taken distorted selfies, their faces reflected in its skin. I don’t even think many of us noticed it had stopped circling, the eye withdrawn and flattened against its body over the Thames during its final circle. But for a lone Guardian reporter and her brief back-end column, I doubt any of us would be able to pinpoint exactly when it had stopped. The article itself attracted less than a hundred views the day it was published.

And then, one morning, the sun rose to find the Guest had gone. Its sturdy, silvery presence odd in its absence across the Thames. The article written two days previous soared in views as hungry spectators waited for the scrambling reporters to write a new update. A homeless man claimed it had been wiped out by the sun, like pencil by an eraser, top down as the sun reared its golden face above St Paul’s. As shocked as we’d been by its arrival, something felt even more shocking about its disappearance. The world turned an eye back to London, to the chilling absence . The PM – a new one, by now – bumbled about it being nothing to fear, but fear felt like an inadequate name for what we felt. The government had kept the only thing it left behind - need to know only. And the public did not need to know. Experts analysed it extensively, determining it was not a threat. They were right. It was a gift. A gift, alongside a note printed in several languages. The gift itself was simple, albeit technology we hadn’t yet invented: a full-scale, holographic model playing back an incredibly detailed rendition of everything the Guest had scanned over its stay. The Experts worked out it could be zoomed in, and audio would appear for the various zoomed sections. They puzzled over its purpose between them; was it a threat? A warning? An educational tool? Finally, they gave up and released it for public viewing. An artist was the one to solve it: “it’s a snapshot,” she said “a beautiful, working capsule of what it means to be human.”

The note released many months later proved the artist right. It said, quite simply:

Thank you for your hospitality.
We enjoyed getting to know you, and we wish you all the best.
your Guest.

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