Self-Criticism of an Otago Poetry Worker
One whale doing a refugee roll in Foveaux Strait,
greyer than all that grey, holds out no promise now.
It’s as if those birds and beasts, created for the salvation of zoos,
have withdrawn from the game –
(The Albatross Wars, Kakapo’s Last Stand, Muttonbird Elegies) –
crowding a recess that hasn’t been blundered on
and detonated into a spangled galaxy, a holiday car,
tripping up and down a blitzed stretch of the Dominion’s
premier highway like a Tijuana taxi,
mariachi horn going hee-haw,
largesse of light spilling from festoons of chrome,
disgorging into foaming fields of daisies the Happy Family.
Furthermore, mind adrift, eyes agog,
their rugged bodies the only hard thing,
trampers, possessed by the land’s self-possession,
plunge in deep rapture towards Memory.
Each reappears in it clutching a centrifugal shrub,
(those alloys of exploded light and leaf)
transparently healthy, stars of an ad for milk or Fresh-up,
beckoning, vanishing, grinning without effort in the fierce sunlight,
their faces to me as enigmatic as any African’s
were I too, not part of the community,
able to read the fraternal signs of Invercargill and Rolleston.
I wish to say it’s of Karangahape Road I sing
and to celebrate those haunting boyhood arcades,
but to describe them isn’t enough and anyhow
this South Seas Hotel to which I return
looks out on swamps of islands and hanging tides of ice.
So I praise lighthouses, seaweed, pink roofs instead
and collect those myths of Maoridom,
about Chief Hongi Hika, for instance, because they grow on one,
like a fantastic work of tattooing spiralling
energetically all over.
Also there’s the poem on ‘The Assassination
of Marion du Fresne’ to be written,
a splendid antique theme on which it would be easy to be abundant.
But for now I’d like to escape this prosiness
and take you with me to the imperishable sheaf of gold,
diamond-hard lakes of light,
the turquoise ground at the core,
the moony inland wilderness.
There, ordinary dusty moths are winged celebrations,
night scares the daylight out of the stews
and the fly-blown mutton rots in its cloth.
Remember the delivery of your sofas,
O daughters of Aotearoa, twin garages chock-a-block
with the meaningful debris of a clocked-out civilisation.
Some things we can share and will always have warm memories about.
More, I believe, than just say what belongs to us or how
you got saved by the Surf Patrol.
The Virtues should always be in our thoughts.
Why is there this wickedness in the world?
At times the promise of a Sanctuary is a gift.
I feel sure the rest of the world is counting on us.
Pre-historic ferns are struck like decimal coins beneath
the dead black beech pointed stiffly to the spreading light.
More afternoons of dry wit spent in the land of the golden skinned,
sudsy passions of the Sunday bar room,
jugs flung from the potter’s wheel,
dim textures of wallpaper roses:
Kingdom Come shines with this very catalogue.
Firebirds and Stingrays have got nothing
on the belongings of the new poor,
nor have those electric hangi pits
or the edge on the Amcos spraypainted across the legs and hips.
Sunglasses at night!
Words made visible in the electric park.
Couldn’t these parodies serve
as an introduction to the slow movement
of a sonata under all this blue fire,
which is where we left one another, the future rich with promise and distances?
Katherine Mansfield was a mere shadow on the horizon of Literature
within that bright ring of fire,
that particular, sapphire exclamation
which causes me to drift like roots in water,
collecting poems as casually as you brush your teeth.
And you, compost heap, humble sacrifice of rat and bird,
urgently reminding the home-maker harmony can develop into chaos …
Weary of revering cloud castles, I pass in under the porch
to rest on the hammock with clinking glass and straw,
leaning to the steadily souring tones of a rock singer
broadcast in memoriam.
Hot night pushes forward its black, sticky champion.
The vanquished are bellying up to the victorious sportsmen
who, clinging to their toilet bags, are swept away from the vanity mirror
by the large crowd of well-wishers.
This mixed style is going flat out as fragrances ripple
Those puzzled knots of Fijians fill the quota.
A net of lasers? Are you sure it isn’t
a brick temple of medicine you mean?
I only say this because we are the people
our parents warned us about,
gone familiars getting lost.
Hey, what’s this moving like a ’droid?
Something new from the mother country, I’ll bet.
Well it’s not to be contemplated.
She is without a stitch on her head in a room
of lost causes.
His moustache hangs before his face like guiding handlebars.
Fat raindrops fall like tiny frogs on eel-black streets
which flick their backs and drive closer together.
Swings and seesaws, slides and a jungle gym.
This provides everything you could wish for.
The Alps of green glass tower sharp and clean.
The peaceful Sounds go down to gawping fish.
It’s always the same,
monumental bottle of lemonade, wharf promenade,
tattooed palisade of flesh
just serve to reveal the pretty blue faces
of the Southern Lakes, which themselves have
no memorial, though now and then a picnic is held.
Tell me something I don’t know about how
poetics collect behind the frail leaves
of drifting veil of rain,
spout issuing a silvery tongue –
the Annunciation is not very far away.
As for the Assumption, the young hitch along higher trails
to the pagan festival calling jubilantly –
‘Free at last, fellow souls, free at last.’
I keep in mind
John Gully colouring a thunderstorm over Lake Wanaka,
whale-calf fishing in the white and blue,
varnished tatterdemalions in the Great Canoes,
the expressionism of the Saturday Night Headlock,
hot black rectangles in Gore on early summer afternoons,
winking bottles turfed into the drink,
the superb fizzy-soda light in Cook Straight,
Dunedin ’s sunrise, which, most often, is as gloomy as murder.
I say January and it is geraniums busting out,
red flowers with blue shadows carrying a full cargo.
The synthetic bossa-nova beat of the suburban
electric organ drifts prettily on a Sunday morning
over the pears, plums and gooseberries.
They are just little lonelinesses ripening.
Shades wander in their rooms and collect the spume
washing gently from the TV receiver.
A few Mongrels cross the square al fresco, they chew
peanuts and generally picnic.
The telephone booths have that surreal look of extreme emptiness.
The small panes cling to the few reflections offered
as a light breeze trembles the eyelash of Persuasion
launching on her frail barque where,
beyond a cakeshop window,
the inviting banks slope off into the river.
How odd we should be
so selective when, really, it’s just you and I
and maybe a few coffee-skinned Papuans
sipping refreshments somewhere to the north of us
in what is obviously jungle.
I can see someone bending over to pick up
the jawbone of a cow.
Go easy, we are all fighting dawning realisations, gaiety,
discarded trumpets which won’t stop playing.
Was it the muttonbird or merely some weird echo
of the fat wood pigeon?
Re-ordering the past
let us lie in bed more lightly,
our dental-work wreathed with smiles
as we snooze in the vast protectorate of Sleep,
fantasising for all the world
with the determination of young children
embarked on an epic voyage around the garden.
Ah! It’s too hideous, the poet cries, his wet face
set before the waves
or lost within the penumbra of dimly lit
Chinese restaurants – walls emblazoned with golden
characters meaning ‘Good Luck’ and ‘A Long Life to You’
when all the time
it’s a question of your wallet and them trying to guess
a favourite dance tune.
Out back, great-grand-dad is an antiquity
who hunted fruitlessly for gold, they cherish him.
Yay! The Revolutionary Symphony groans on.
Brass shines among the kauri and olive green.
These rumours of hexagonal rooms in gone Bee City
over the Strait, just north of Leper’s Footprint Island,
are like being in a hexagonal room, spectacular lattice,
stalking the sweet elixirs of rewarewa.
Homages, tears and smiles,
all alone with a sputtering kerosene lamp of shadows,
sodden, bruised blossoms,
fragile stems of herbs, embattled comfrey roots,
pale throats of mushroom,
and in the lounge the closed basilisk eye
of television, dense grey amid the shrieking orchard
swirling in the carpet.
It’s Autumn, that gymnasium of harlequins;
snow’s dirty coat’s ready to appear in mid-year.
Velvet purple-cherry blood
on a saint’s statue and the carved benches in a
cheapjack church early settlers slaved to establish,
bequeath the momentum of heritage.
They were so distracted by all this space on their hands.
Trifles of day-to-day lucidity are like liqueur chocolates
inside a shallow box decorated with blues and golds,
the bland haze of tapestry reflected in Lake Wanaka.
The boys disport in tee-shirts advertising soft drinks
in the exploding hollows of God’s eyeball,
ducking and diving, scowling and quarrelling.
The radio emits wild, synthetic sounds,
jubilant fretwork buzzing and sawing,
heartbeat noises in gurgling glissando.
On delectable cabbage-tree-lined coasts
the sea swells pregnant with never-to-be-born light.
In a carton-shaped factory
the mirror-hard receptionist, cool as a pavilion,
remembers a shark-finned Cadillac
wobble between the dunes.
The small town glitters like a supermarket trolley.
The whole school is painting –
a fish hatchery, a deer fawn, stoned fruit, flossy wool.
Violet, violet, violet, violet
they pluck chords from the yielding tawny hills,
they are engulfed by the quivering froth of existence.
Abel Tasman, I salute you,
sailing these frigid cum tropic azure zones
from which would later spring such memorabilia
as whalers, nuclear testing, high-tech tourism –
the poisonous fruits of the Imagination.
The lost Elysium’s England, they said, driving to Blenheim.
Newsreel spectres jog the elbow of Memory.
Boats pitch forward to Resolution Cove.
A small Honda winds past, tooting its sullen horn.
Inflation cycles from chainstore to chainstore.
In her make-up she shines like a mandarin slice
on a choice cheesecake, spreading illuminations.
Oh to live on beaches by the crash of waves,
solarising with a brunette beside the polystyrene flotsam
of a picnic lunch, our wrinkly togs held up with elastic,
bladderwrack going pop.
The heroic ranges and the Empire of Sheep! We may never get another chance is a
phrase never far from the lips.
O Christchurch, I can see how the flagrant heat sometimes wins you away
from that curious glacial pose in which so much absence
Ah stung vanity, ah slippery efforts to have congratulations accepted.
The stone lids of Time will lift when everything has crumbled.
Those doomed splendours,
the dark hydrangea flowerheads, are radiant symbols of mortality.
This tattered foliage is otherwise harmless.
A reporter takes the fakes down.
Coal-black water springs back
its tense, soft skins,
curling under thin, slanting rays.
Light collects on the wing of the moth
and disappears into the brown monotony.
From South Pacific Sunrise (Penguin, 1986)