When you don’t want to see your neighbour

Analysis by Freya Daly-Sadgrove

Featured in Capital #67
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Excerpt from Autobiography of a Marguerite

By Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

I cough onto the window. Outside the window the street is eating itself. I am eating a piece of bread, chewing as if I can’t decide whether to swallow. I need to go outside but my neighbour is out there. I’m waiting until she goes away.

She goes away and I go outside. But I was wrong, she didn’t go away, she was still there, but I couldn’t see her, she had gone into her garage momentarily. My neighbour is wearing complementary colours which hurt my eyes. She is holding a pair of hedge clippers. She says hello. I say hello back, but not in the tone that one usually says hello, more like in the tone that one says sandwich. I don’t look her in the eye. She asks me where I am going. I am going to the hospital, I say. It’s the third time I’ve broken my arm this year. She bends down to cut the head off a dandelion. Is that so, she says. Well, did you know, once I went to three weddings in a month.

The poet and the poem

Zarah is a poet from Auckland who now lives in Melbourne. She began writing Autobiography of a Marguerite, from which this excerpt is taken, during her MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters in 2012. She won the Biggs Poetry Prize for her manuscript, and Autobiography of a Marguerite was published in 2014 by Wellington press Hue & Cry. The book is one long, fragmented poem that explores the narrator’s mysterious illness and its all-consuming, paralytic effects on her life and her family.

Why I like it

Zarah’s writing is sharp and haunting and formally inventive, but what makes it exceptional to me is that it is all of those things as well as very funny. The humour is completely integral to her work – it’s her perfect tone and timing. Zarah does a faultless deadpan; it’s mesmerising to see her read her poems aloud, but it also comes across so well on the page – like in this steamroller of a sentence: “But I was wrong, she didn’t go away, she was still there, but I couldn’t see her, she had gone into her garage momentarily.”

A lot of writers notice small details, isolate them and inflate them for significance. For me, Zarah achieves the inverse of that. She notices small absences, or small clues to a big absence – the absence of that significance, maybe, that yearned-for profundity – and she exposes the absence by identifying each clue with precision. Reading her poems is like standing transfixed at the receiving end of the world’s slowest wink, and it feels amazing.


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