People and Places, Poems and Stones: Kay McKenzie Cooke and Orepuki

A few weeks ago, on an aeroplane, I read Kay McKenzie Cooke’s book of autobiographical poems, Born To A Red-Headed Woman (2014). I was flying south, on my way via Invercargill, Gore and Riverton to Orepuki, the place where she grew up. I read all the poems at one sitting, and was transported in space and time beyond that morning’s plane journey to my own past and to the places that we unknowingly shared many years ago – the beaches of the southern coast, parts of rural Southland, the town of Gore and its high school, the big city of Dunedin. Kay lived in Orepuki for only ten years, but I understand the deep feelings she has for that place and how it remains strongly influential in her life and poetry. I grew up on “The Mains”, a farm just outside of Waikaka, leaving there when I went to university. I still think of it as “home”, and many parts of that farm are clear images in my head and still have strong emotional meanings for me. I have come to know Orepuki as the town near to Gemstone Beach, a place where I collect magnificent little stones, but seeing it through Kay’s eyes adds significant depth and meaning. 

I used to write a column for “The Smallfarmer” magazine, about 17 or 18 years ago. One of my articles was titled “The Passions and Emotions of Smallfarming: Place, Experience and Meaning”. I started it with this comment: “Geographers have argued for some time that a place is not simply the sum of its physical and biological components. Rather, places are peopled, and have significance to people in a wide variety of ways. Places are centres of meaning constructed by experience… They have emotional value and meaning to us.” I argued that different parts of a smallfarm (or of any place, in fact) can have different emotional meanings at different times to people, and these intensify or even change as the years pass. Lived-in places have “emotional micro-regions”, small areas charged with emotions based on the experiences we have there. 

In that article, I explored different types of “emotional micro-regions”. There are areas associated with delight, with stimulation, or with joy, which are keenly felt positive emotions. Gemstone Beach, for example, is full of those experiences for me, where the discovery of a colourful or rare stone brings a surge of emotion. Such emotions have come to be associated with the preparations for any visit to that beach. Then there are regions of comfort, security, and relaxation, positive but more passive emotions. Sitting on the high bank of stones half-way through a stone collection expedition, eating a refreshing mandarin or bar of chocolate, or finally reaching the carpark and warmth of the car after nearly three hours on a cold and windy beach – these constitute such micro-regions. 

Negative passive place emotions include boredom, dissatisfaction, and tedium. Gemstone Beach does not hold such areas for me. But I can imagine that someone accompanying me, who has no interest in stones and really wants to be somewhere else, would come to have that kind of emotional experience of that place. Finally, there are the places that may be associated with stress, anxiety, tension, and frustration, even sadness, fear and anger, the more keenly felt negative emotions. Crossing the swift-flowing Taunoa Stream, or walking eyes-down along the edge of the waves, have sometimes resulted in the discomfort of cold water in the gumboots. And the pounding of powerful waves on a stormy day, when I have a high bank of stones restricting my ability to elude a wave stronger than the previous one, can be an anxious experience. 

Emotional micro-regions are not fixed – they may last for only a short time, though the memory and subsequent association remains. And they often overlap – the same place can have both positive and negative associations related to a number of different events or visits that have occurred over the years. Gemstone Beach is an amalgam of emotional micro-regions built up from the experiences I have had there. 

Kay McKenzie Cooke was born in Tuatapere and grew up in Orepuki, a stone’s throw from Gemstone Beach. She was the oldest of the seven children in her family. Through her mother’s line, she is tangata whenua and of Scottish and English descent. Through her father’s line, she is of Scottish and Irish descent. She writes: “My maunga/mountain, the Takitimu range, my awa/river is the Waiau, Southland, my ancestor is Moitoitoi, the maraes I affiliate to are Waihopai, Aparima and Hokonui. My iwi is Kai Tahu, my hapu is Kati Mamoe.”

When she was ten years old, Kay’s family moved to the Otama Valley, further north in Southland, 20 miles from Gore, where her father continued to work in farming. Five years later, Kay’s father died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. Her mother took Kay and her siblings to live in Gore. After four years as a pupil at the small, two-roomed, country school of Wendon, Kay attended Gore High School, probably just a year ahead of myself, although I did not know her. In the early 1970s, both of us went to Dunedin for further study,  Kay to attend Teacher’s College. She became an early childhood teacher, got married, and had children. In the early 1990s, she decided to take up writing seriously. Her poems have since been published in a number of journals and magazines. Her first book of poetry, Feeding the Dogs, was published by Otago University Press in 2002 and won the Jessie McKay Prize for Best First Book of Poetry. Her second book of poetry was Made For Weather (2007) and her third was Born To A Red-Headed Woman (2014).

A description of Feeding the Dogs from the publisher: “This bumper collection of 60 poems is autobiographical and in it Cooke writes about town, landscape, family and everyday life. ‘Feeding the Dogs’ is one of the poems in this book. There are other rural poems, such as ‘I love this farm so much I could pat it’, but Kay Cooke is equally at home writing a well-made poem about lawn bowlers in Queenstown, a family reunion, global warming or biotechnology. Cooke’s work is strong and confident. On top of that, she has a particular southern sensibility that is very appealing and recognizable. Cooke writes that her poems come from the ‘sense of isolation that I felt living on a farm in Otama Valley, with tussock-covered hills and no shops and bus trips to school’.”

One description of Made For Weather includes the following: “The poems contain an array of striking images, developed from Cooke’s exposure as a child and adolescent to the wind-whipped coastline of Orepuki, now a ghost town on the eastern fringe of Te WaewaeBay, near Fiordland. The passing of seasons features in the background of scenes which are dominated by ostensibly contemporary concerns such as a wild and woolly boyfriend, or collecting Toheroa. The poet has a gift for capturing people in day-to-day, incidental situations.”

The following comments by the publisher on Born To A Red-Headed Woman are an accurate description of that book: “Laconic, wry, subtly philosophical, Kay McKenzie Cooke’s new collection carries us from her rural Southland girlhood in the 1950s and 60s to the bitter pressures of adopting out her baby as a teenager in the 1970s, and to her present as grandmother, mother, wife and author. A plain-spoken honesty, a sensitivity to the natural world, a gentle humour, a deep sense of how the richness of our relationships lodges in ordinary rituals and routines: all combine in a quietly moving autobiography.” 

Kay’s first two books are out of print, but can sometimes be discovered in second-hand bookstores. You can buy Born To A Red-Headed Woman here.

Kay has two blogs, Cuttings and Time & Place. You can listen to Kay reading “Sacred Days”, a poem of images of her life as a high school student at Gore High School, a poem published in “Born to a Red-Headed Woman”: “I wrote the poem as a sixty-year old looking back into my own adolescence and its callow bewilderment. My very normal teenage confusion was compounded by the recent loss of my father who had died very suddenly of a heart attack when I was fifteen. His sudden disappearance from our lives had necessitated, for my mother, my six siblings and myself, an immediate removal from the freedom and familiarity of a rural home [at Orepuki] to the weird constrictions of life in a small town, living in a wooden villa with a mailbox on a street next to a lot of other wooden villas with mailboxes.” (Click here for more of Kay’s comments on the poem and here for the full text of the poem.)

Kay has lived in Dunedin for many years now, has retired from teaching,  and participates in and helps to organise Dunedin poetry readings. With Jenny Powell, she forms the poetry performance duo, “J&K Rolling”, taking poetry readings to out-of-the-way places and rural areas in New Zealand. Kay is available to visit schools as part of the Writers in Schools programme. She visited Waikaka School in 2018 as part of this. In February this year (2019), she read and discussed her poem, “some time”, at Knox College Chapel’s opening service – an excerpt from this poem is featured on a sculpture in the College quadrangle: “But this is home./ This place,/ where every season counts/ and under our feet,/ safe ground”. I note this because I was a student resident at Knox College in the early 1970s. In March 2018, Kay and Jenny Powell had a poetry stall at the Owaka Cavalcade Market and Family Entertainment Day.

Stones are part of Kay’s childhood memories of Orepuki, and she often visits the beach when she returns there. “I remember as a kid keeping on our bedroom window sill, jam jars full of water to keep my stash of gemstones bright and colourful – until an algae-green sludge smothered their attraction and I had to throw them out again, allowing the rain and air to keep them instead” (from a  2011 blog post).  Her father was born in Orepuki and “over his many years there – long before Gemstone Beach was famous or even called by that name – he, like all Orepuki kids, collected the coloured pebbles”. All of his stone collection then went into the wet cement of the concrete paths and steps he built around their house. Many years later, Kay managed to retrieve the two steps and take them to Dunedin. She comments in the same 2011 blog post:  “I love this tangible reminder I have of of my childhood home. I always feel close to my father (dead 43 years this Thursday) whenever I take time to sit on them and rub my palms over the smooth, rounded stones. To me they are gems not so much semi-precious, as fully-precious. Each one tells a story and recently I’ve been paying attention.” Her poem “living stone” contains the story of the steps, and three other poems were inspired by her father’s Orepuki stones, including “quiet life“. Other poems have been stone-fed, such as “a heart-shaped one“.

It was a moving experience for me to read Kay’s poems, their power lying in our shared southern roots as well as her personal openness and perceptive insights about everyday life. The links to Orepuki and Gemstone Beach led me to offer Kay the gift of a few of my polished stones from Gemstone Beach, which she was delighted to receive. These stones are the subject of my next Post, 16 Gems – Stones for Poetry.

Author: tumblestoneblog

Retired Academic, male, living in the New Zealand countryside with his wife, two cats (Ollie and Fluffy), two horses (Dancer and Penny) and a shed half-full of stones. Email john.tumblestone@gmail.com.

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