The Backpacker Compromise:
New Zealand Poetry’s Contribution to the
(with apologies to John Dryden)
‘Nous étions un peu des compagnons de bout du monde, petit groupe d’intellectuels avec nos bouquins à portée de main, mais aussi quelques anecdotes à partager autour d’un bon vin rouge. Tout un programme…’ — Sophie Aubry, laplumetrottueuse blog.
To the Reader:
Not long since, as summer was lingering to a conclusion, I threw my bare necessities in the Mazda and drove east to te tai wahine, the soft and gentle coast, for time out and a last taste of sand, surf and sun, to a remote bay set among steep hills at the end of a long peninsula. As I drove I saw the mass of cloud fermenting, the blue-black bulkhead coiling to spring. I made bets with myself if I might make it before Huey turned on the tap, but the roads were such that it was impossible to hurry and stay alive. On the most precipitous ascent, fenceless, bare, exposed, the relentless deluge began, a short sharp wind like a Dorothy twister, and then the shaking of the earth by the sheer force of water alone. There was one ford I knew I must cross. I made it there in 15 minutes from the heavenly tap-turning and the Mazda pushed through as the back-wash splashed along the windows. God knows how the engine did not stall in mid-stream. A further 15 minutes to the backpackers and I got there crawling because the rain was so thick I could not see more than a few metres ahead. All I could do was stop the car somewhere close to the building and stagger to the door, utterly drenched in those few steps — and the door opened on a warm, dry, light room within and four startled faces staring back at me, the Wild Man of Global Warming grinning at the door. And on the table round which they sat, you can imagine my surprise to see, an anthology of New Zealand poetry, which, it was immediately apparent, was the focus of the enclave gathering I had burst upon. And that was how I met Michel the musician from Florianopolis, and Michelle from Shanghai fully intending to set up her own tourist business in New Zealand, and Ira the young high school literature teacher from Bonn, and of course Liam, the Irishman; and discovered their new shared passion for New Zealand poetry…
‘You will have some wine?’
‘Are you Kiwi?’
‘Please, read this, we would like to know what is your opinion, we do not agree what it means.’
‘But first, please, listen to this!’
I was greeted by a work in progress, a tutorial in full flood, so to speak. Gently I took the proffered book from the hands that had grabbed it from the profferer. Turning it over I found the startling image of two grinning magpies by a well-known local artist did not ring any bells: Poems as You Go, a publication from the New Zealand Tourist Board, was not familiar to me, though some of the contents, as I flickered through, were certainly full of chimes. It would have been interesting to have ascertained who had got the contract for the editing (always nice to know where the dollars go), but instantly the book was whipped back by the one I had taken it from, with a sternly barked, ‘Excuse me!’ I looked up to see a swarthy, bespectacled young man, gaunt cheeks, watery eyes, Dionysaic curling locks and strong thin lips that began to recite:
Christmas (a small clearance of the throat — and then ‘by Janet Frame’)
‘I know this one,’ I burst out, while wiping my face and hair with a grim-looking towel that had been brought to me.
‘It is very strange, because, you see, that is Christmas in my country.’ The reader had interrupted himself and the poem. ‘So what is she trying to tell us?’
‘He’s from Brazil. Michel.’
A tall blonde woman at the far end of the table, with a square glass tumbler and a bottle of Montana pinot noir in her hands, put me in the picture. ‘He is saying that two of the three plants that the poem associates with this country are not actually associated with this country.’ She had filled the tumbler and handed it to me. Salut!
Everyone quickly had a glass in hand and we saluted à nos santés.
‘Yes, yes, those plants are from Brazil. I don’t know about the other one.’
The rain on the iron roof was too heavy for my words to be heard, so I ended up shouting ‘Pohutukawa!’ and just as I did there was an obstreperous clap of thunder that made us all duck our heads, quite pointlessly. All except the blonde woman who sipped her pinot and looked upon us all with a kindly pity.
‘I think there are pohutukawas in my poem too,’ she said.
‘You have a poem too?’ I was struggling out of my semi-waterproof Kathmandu jacket, while balancing the tumbler.
‘Let me hold that for you. I’m Michelle. I am from China.’
‘But I thought he was Michel?’
‘He is. Isn’t that funny! We are exactly the same and completely different!’
‘Thank you. And do you have a poem too?’
‘Well, yes, actually. We found this book here and while we were cooking we started reading things out and then, over dinner, we started arguing, and then the storm came and then you came…’
‘I am only guessing that the poem is about pohutukawas, because the author does not say the word ‘pohutukawa,’ but I think that is what he is talking about. But the poem is not about pohutukawas. Oh no!’
‘What is the poem?’
‘Here.’ The blond woman drew the book lazily from Michel’s hands and flicked it open to the page. ‘‘Spectacular Blossom.’ I believe that is what occurs around Christmas time.’
‘Let me see that.’ The fourth member of the impromptu tutorial was on his feet and stretching his head (it reached the blonde woman’s shoulder) to peer at the poem.
‘Oh my god,’ he said, ‘I saw that one. I thought it was ‘Spectacular Bosom,’ you know, as in…’ And his two hands performed a double circular motion in front of his chest. ‘Bosom, blossom, blossom, bosom…‘
‘And to think you are the only one for whom English is his native speech.’
‘I’m Irish. I’m not English.’
‘Let Michel read his poem,’ said Michelle. ‘I have been in many countries, but never where they give free poetry.’ And she held out her glass to the rapidly emptying bottle of Pinot.
‘I am Ira,’ said Ira, as she poured, while offering the other hand to shake. ‘I am German. I am sorry, I cannot help it.’
‘Jesus,’ I said, ‘don’t be sorry. I’m Murray, everyone. I can’t help it either.’
There were a murmured series of attempts to pronounce the murmuring name, but none that dared speak too loud, until the Irishman swallowed the name and then spat it out with a certain panache, before completing the introductions.
‘Liam,’ he said. ‘Liam. You might have noticed that it’s just ‘I am’ with another letter in front. So I try never to say, I am Liam, because it would be a kind of tautology.’
‘Shall I go on?’
‘Aye, aye, here’s to ‘Christmas.’
The very word must have contained a destructive magic for all the lights went out, the vast fluorescent whiteness of lightning momentarily engulfed everything, and then blackness. There was a protracted scramble for candles and lamps hidden in cupboards and by the time a new order had been instituted we five were all, of necessity, closely grouped around the tettered old table with our eyes reaching into the flickering combo of wax flame and spirit fuel. The poetry séance took on a much more focused tone. Michel held the book in the centre and we all leaned in as if we sought some grace or guidance from the words. And anyway, the rain was so loud that words were still likely to be obliterated by the hammering torrent.
the king of the golden river
in swimming trunks, rubbed with sun oil.
‘Oh la la!’ Ira snorted.
And Michel read on:
‘I think we shall all be drowned soon,’ Michelle added.
‘Global bloody warming,’ Liam muttered.
‘It is becoming hard to read with so many editors.’
Ira had gone into the shadows and returned with another bottle, some warmish Riesling. She unscrewed the top and replenished those who had, like myself, already disposed of the pinot, and admonished even herself: ‘Sh! Michel wants silence.’
is riches that never were rags
is plenty on the plate
is nothing for hunger who came unseen
too soon or too late;
is holiday blossom
‘It’s that word again!’
is from me to you
is from you to me
is giving giving
in a torture of anxiety
panic of pohutukawa
‘Panic! That is what it’s about. The God Pan and how, how he —’
And again, as if invoked by Ira’s protestation, the lighting, a sheet of brilliant whiteness, stripped the room of all colour, and only seconds after the resonant booming shook even the teeth in heads.
Michel had dropped the book on the table and folded his arms. Michelle looked at him sideways and put her hand on his defensive enfolding.
‘Shall I read the last bit?’
Michel simply resigned his eyes and smiled at her as if to say had it been anyone else in the room I would have got up and stormed to my bunk, but yes, you can read on. Only six lines remained.
In my country the feast
of Christmas is free;
we pay our highest price
for the lost joy
of the jacaranda tree.
Michel let a faint smile spread across his lips. Michelle gave a small mock-bow from where she sat. Liam applauded and I joined in. Only Ira felt restrained by what she had heard.
‘Perhaps we could all write an ‘In My Country’ poem and hand it in for marking. As soon as you try to write a poem that starts like that ‘In my country…’ and then you make it about Christmas! All Hollywood movies have Christmas in them, did you notice? It’s such a cliché cliché!’
‘Don’t be deceived by apparent simplicity. I see it as a particularly pointed thrust at the delusional economy of the Neo-liberal fantasy. No, listen, what’s a gift when there’s no such thing as a free lunch? Ask the Irish bankers! Good poem! ‘We pay our highest price for the lost joy…’ I’ll drink to that!’
And he clapped again. And grabbed the Riesling.
‘Will you listen to that!’ Another wave struck the hut on its south-west wall and the wind did its banshee thing. ‘I drink to The Deluge.’
‘Since you’re standing up, you should read your poem next.’ I could see Michelle was managing a difficult cast with some aplomb.
‘My poem. Ah, yes. Though not without controversy, mine is a simple song.’
‘Has it started already?’ I noticed that Michel had not actually retreated into a huff, but was watching the chiaroscuro circle with a searching eye. I took the soggy sneakers I had removed to the door. Through the gap in curtains draping the ranch slider door I saw the souls of the dead workers in their caps and shawls pouring judgement on us all. I came back to the table and took up my place.
‘Not at all. It’s a song of the people. How could I not choose a poem by someone called Eileen Duggan. I don’t know who she is, but I know where some part of her must have got a start. And the first word’s ‘lord’ more’s the pity. It’s another prayer, I’m sorry to say, but she’s written it like an angel. Here goes, another bloody ave.’
‘Isn’t Lorde the famous Kiwi singer?’
‘Quite different, love. This is the masculine Lord, without the ‘e’ — you know, he who causes the rain to fall. Though ‘masculine’ itself has an ‘e’, which is odd.’
‘What is he talking about? Is this the poem.’
‘No, no, this is not the bloody poem yet. Here comes.’
My man is out there clearing.
God send the chips fly safe.
My heart is always fearing.
And let the axehead hold!
My dreams are all of felling.
He earns our bread far back.
And then there is no telling.
If he came home at nights,
We’d know, but it is only —
We might not even hear —
A man could lie there lonely.
God, let the trunks fall clear,
He did not choose his calling;
He’s young and full of life —
A tree is heavy, falling.
‘So there it is. You have a lot of beautiful forest — how do you call it, bush? — covering the hills, which the Lord God put there for some purpose, and you steal it or conquer it from the poor bastards who are trying to live there and then you pay a few other poor bastards a miserable nothing to chop it all down and get killed in the process as you squeeze the dollars — and I see, reading the paper, that still goes on here in this country — and then you make a whacking great profit from the grass factories you create in stead of the forests by selling powdered milk to the Chinese — excuse me, Michelle.’
‘It’s okay, I don’t drink milk. I wonder if the cows are getting drowned out there.’
We stopped for a moment to listen. A drowning cow would not make much sound above this racket, not like a falling tree. But, strangely, the wind at that moment sounded exactly as I imagined a drowning cow would sound.
‘Apologies. Not a very uplifting poem. Dollars. Hasn’t it ever occurred to anyone that ‘dollar’ and ‘dolour’ sound almost the same?’
‘I cannot hear the difference.’
‘That’s because they’re the same.’
‘’He’s young and full of life’ and ‘A man could lie there lonely’ — I think this is a very romantic poem, a very sexy poem. She is dreaming of him and he is lying there dreaming of her. You know, there is fear of course, but also so much desire.’
‘Do you think so?’ Michel was looking at Michelle with watery-eyed puzzlement. ‘Do you mean it’s sexier because he is going to die?’
‘Probably.’ She shook her short, bobbed hair and looked straight up at the ceiling.
‘I don’t get it.’
‘See she says, ‘My dreams are all of felling’ but of course ‘felling’ isn’t really the word she means, is it?’ She spread her palms and fingers on the rough surface of the table as if it were a tree and she had just managed to restrain herself from hugging it.
‘Do you think so?’ Michel had unfolded his arms now and reached out and picked up the book and was staring at the poem as if something might jump out of it or it was one of those trick visuals on Facebook where you stare for a while, then glance quickly away and when you look back suddenly the answer appears — or if it doesn’t then you have a low IQ or some hereditary deficiency.
‘Michelle’s right.’ Ira was leaning back, hands behind her head, elbows thrust out. ‘After death and sex, poetry is nothing. What do you think, Murray?’
‘Do I have to choose between sex and death?’
‘And I can’t choose poetry?’
‘Then, I choose — Riesling.’
‘It’s finished.’ She held the bottle upside down, not even a drop.
‘I like the way that Liam connected the clearing of the land to the drowning cow.’ I thought I should contribute to the literary discussion, but Michelle rejoined:
‘The drowning cow was my idea. Just like the sexy bushfeller.’
Michelle was laughing now and had gone to the darkest corner of the kitchen alcove and then came back with a brown paper bag in her hand. ‘This is called, in English, The Whiskey Rescue,’ she said as she pulled the bottle from the bag and placed it on the table, where it wobbled for a moment and then subsided.
‘Does anyone know anything about Greek mythology? Is the God Pan the same as Dionysus?’ Ira looked around. Michelle pulled out her phone. ‘Wireless is down.’ Ira went on, ‘No one knows? Pan gives you the word ‘panic’ meaning to be full of the god Pan. In German it is the same of course, ‘Panik.’ So what has Pan got to do with Dionysus?’
‘And we say ‘Panico’ in Portuguese. Of course, it’s all the same.’
Michelle was laughing. ‘Not in Mandarin. We don’t know the God Pan. Why do you want to know?’
‘Because of my poem with the pohutukawas.’
I wasn’t sure how Pan was connected to Dionysus, though I had a vague image of them both hanging around on hillsides, playing pipes, dancing after a certain style and whistling up songs, as people looking after sheep are wont to do. Cows are different. Not so likely to call forth the muse.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘all I can remember from teaching Greek theatre is that the Greeks regarded Pan as the God of Theatrical Criticism. And the festival of Dionysus was the great theatre festival for new plays in Athens. So they probably hated each other.’
‘When I went to see the Pompey exhibition at the British Museum, they had a sculpture there of the God Pan, and what the sculpture shows is him having sex with a goat.’ Liam looked around to see how his contribution had been received.
‘I saw that exhibition,’ Michelle piped up.
‘Something I know from when I was studying at the university,’ Ira continued, ‘was that Pan wanted to have sex with Echo and Echo said no, and so Pan had her killed and chopped up and threw all the pieces everywhere. Like echoes — little bits everywhere.’
‘Let’s pour this whiskey.’ Liam glanced at the label. ‘Basic. But we need it.’
‘Sex with sheep is a standard rural custom in these hills,’ I ventured.
The four young tourist faces turned towards me with mutually uncertain skepticism: what wool is the old goat trying to pull? Their eyes spoke in silent chorus.
‘But probably not in weather like this,’ I added as reassuringly as I could manage. ‘On such a night as this do babies get made.’
‘Give him some more whiskey,’ Liam commanded, grabbing my glass and glugging in several shots. ‘We’ll see what that makes him come up with next.’
‘Schmutz,’ Ira snorted.
‘It wasn’t me who started it,’ I defended weakly.
‘It was me,’ said Michelle stoutly.
‘’Yes, it was,’ said Michel with admiration.
‘Anyway, my poem is even worse.’ Ira had the floor. ‘I read this poem before and everyone said they didn’t understand it.’
Ira replied by reading quickly, without much pause for thinking or for what punctuation the poem did have, the first stanza of Allen Curnow’s ‘Spectacular Blossom’:
Between the sweltering tides and the tin gardens,
All the colours of the stained bow windows.
Quick, she’ll be dead on time, the single
Actress shuffling red petals to this music,
Percussive light! So many suns she harbours
And keeps them jigging, her puppet suns,
All over the dead hot calm impure
Blood noon tide of the breathless bay.
And then, before the little silence could be broken, she threw in the single chorus line: ‘Are the victims always so beautiful?’
‘So?’ asked Michel. ‘This poet wants to know if the victims are always so beautiful, in other words as beautiful as this one, this actress who has a lot of sons, and I think already the poet knows the answer, so the question is not real, he — it’s a he isn’t it? — knows that they will not all be as beautiful as this one he has got today. Is he going to kill her on his sooty altar?’
‘Actually it is ‘suns’ and not ‘sons’ but no one can hear that difference.’ Ira explained. ‘He wants to make the whole world a big theatre for himself with lights (‘so many suns’) and sound (‘percussive light’) and this gorgeous actress dancing for him (‘shuffling red petals to this music’) which makes her ‘suns’ keep ‘jigging,’ which sounds a bit schmutz to me, and the result will be she will be dead on time — he keeps saying ‘dead (‘dead on time’ and ‘dead hot calm impure/Blood noon tide’) so maybe he will kill her soon. So she is the victim.’
‘Jesus, you’ve got it all wrapped up in a soggy tissue!’ Liam laughed at his own joke, but no one else did.
‘Don’t be rude,’ Michelle told him. ‘That was brilliant, I could see it like a scene from a play, when Ira explained it.’
‘It is not difficult, if you are German,’ she explained. ‘We have to read Rilke in school. This is nothing.’ She paused and looked around. Since no one spoke, she went on: ‘Tell me, in what famous play does the character, who is a victim, see more than one sun?’
The tutorial was once again silent. The question was definitely too hard but no one had the courage to say that.
‘In that case, I shall read on.’ And she did, as breathless in her perfectly articulated rapidity as the day the poem was busy evoking. ‘Think about it while I read.’ We assumed our pondering positions right smartly.
‘Ah — she has girls!’ I couldn’t stop myself.
For ever and astray. I see her feet
Slip into the perfect fit the shallows make her
‘She’s having a fit?’ Liam was becoming provocative. He was ignored.
Levels its lucent ruins underfoot
That were sharp dead white shells, that will be sands
‘A lot of shallows this time, though the poetry is definitely deep.’
‘Oh shut up, Liam,’ the chorus intoned.
‘And here’s that little choric piece to bring the second stanza to a climax: ‘Always for this / They are chosen for their beauty’ — he means the ‘victims,’ of course.’
‘Of course,’ we all chorused.
‘I think I’ve got it,’ I said, feeling like a nervous student tentatively raising his hand.
‘So?’ said Miss Ira, ‘Tell us.’
‘The Bacchae?’ I ventured.
‘Well done, Murray.’
Everyone applauded and took the entr’acte as a moment to re-charge their glasses. Like the poor little gingerbread boy, the whiskey bottle was two thirds gone.
‘Agave has girls who have definitely gone astray — I mean, Dionysus, not Pan, has driven them mad, but it is like a crazy panic. And her son, what’s his name?’
‘Pentheus — ja!’
‘Dionysus makes Pentheus think he wants to be one of the girls, and he dresses up like them, but when they see him, they think he is a wild animal or something and Agave his mother and her girls tear him to pieces, with their bare hands, and Agave carries bits of him, his head and other bits — ‘
‘Down from the mountainside because she’s in some kind of crazy trance. Pentheus is the beautiful victim — but so is his mother Agave. Mother and son. And when Pentheus has made himself beautiful, by dressing up as a woman, he says this strange thing: ‘I seem to see two suns.’ I remember that line.’
‘Exactly. The Bacchae is the play of the great dismemberment. Like Orpheus too, he was dismembered of course. Rilke wrote a lot of sonnets to Orpheus.’
‘Tearing the poet apart is part of the tradition of Western poetry.’
‘In China they just fall in the water and drown.’
‘Our great poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade wrote a poem that said something like this, in English translation — ah — yes: ‘The arse, how funny it is, / Always smiling, never tragic.’ I have been trying to make it into a song.’
‘Oh, please do!’
‘Perhaps the Western tradition changed when it reached Brazil.’
‘But not when it reached New Zealand.’
‘The poem is not finished. One more — and you will see, who really gets it in the neck. Are you ready?’
Mocking cries of, No! Never! No more! But Ira over-rode all protest.
The temple bones and parts the grey-blown brows
With humid fingers. It is an ageless wind
That loves with knives, it knows our need, it flows
‘Listen to that ageless wind out there!’
And woody tumours burst in scarlet spray.
‘Ah, yes, there’s those pohutukawas just in time for Christmas.’
‘Here it comes.’
‘See the man as the girl!’
These dying ejaculate their bloom.
‘And then, as usual, the chorus, expanded a bit more each time: ‘Can anyone choose/And call it beauty? — The victims/Are always beautiful.’’
‘But not so beautiful as the old man? Is that what he’s saying?’
‘I think he wants to be the beautiful victim, just like Pentheus, all dressed up for the party, to go down under a hail of maenads, to be drowned in his own blood… kia hiwa ra, kia hiwa ra.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘In Maori: ‘watch out!’ It is called out on the marae when manuhiri, visitors, are approaching. Sometimes they say, watch out in case you are drowned in your own blood. The tekoteko, carving on top of the house, calls out the warning.’
‘Like when tourists are coming!’ Michelle was laughing. ‘Maybe I shall call my business — how do you say it?’
‘Kia hiwa ra!’
‘So, excuse me, but is he having sex or just being slaughtered at the end? I found it hard to tell.’
Ira agreed with Michel: ‘It is difficult to decide. Maybe he is having sex with a tree. Or just turning into a tree. Like Ovid.’ Liam was losing patience with poetry — and poets. He skated towards the bathroom in socks shouting, ‘Bloody poets.’ We heard a crash as he hit the door in the darkness. Then, distinctly, ‘Serves me right,’ followed by loud cackling.
‘What about your poem, Michelle, do you have one?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘Mine is a love poem. Of course.’
‘That’s a good way to finish,’ Ira agreed, ‘then we can decide who sleeps with whom.’ She looked around. ‘Isn’t that what poetry’s for? I mean, my question is, who do these poets think they are?’
The rain was definitely falling more lightly now, and the wind sounded as if it had dropped. Within the enclave of guttering, golden light, all the faces heard the change and were still, listening to it. Michelle began to read the love poem and even Liam, returning from the bathroom, stood in the shadows to listen.
lest she fall on some evil chance:
make haste and run
to light up the dark fields of France
See already the moon
lies sea-green on our globe’s eastern rim:
speed to be with her soon:
even now her stars grow dim
Here your labour is null
and water poured upon sand
to light up the hull
which at dawn glimmers on to the land
And here you in vain
clothe many coming sails with gold
if you bring not again
those breasts where I found death of old
Why bring you ships
from that evil Dis of a shore
‘What is Dis?’ Michelle interrupted herself. All turned to look at me. I shrugged and shook my head.
‘Yes, well, I know the poem, but, no, I don’t know, I always just read it, you know, because it sounded good… ‘
‘Don’t worry,’ Ira cut in. ‘I had to study these things and now I make sure my students know. Dis is the name for the ruler of the underworld in Virgil, and then in Dante it is the City of Dis in Hell where all the people who cannot control their lusts and appetites go. Not a good place.’
‘I couldn’t help noticing, even in this love poem,’ Michel ventured, ‘that again we have sex on the seashore and the poet calls it ‘where I found death of old.’ Just saying. It’s a beautiful poem.’
‘It is,’ Michelle confirmed.
‘I think I could make it into a song.’
‘Why not?’ she asked, adding, ‘Shall I read on?’ to which we all nodded. There was an eerie silence in the room as if not just the wind and rain, but also time had stopped, just for a moment.
if you bring not the lips
I kissed once and shall kiss no more:
O sun make speed
and delay not to send her rays
lest she be in need
of light in those far alien ways
‘Sounds like early Bob Dylan,’ Michel butted in.
‘I can tell you something funny about this poem — excuse me, Michelle,’ I said. Michelle smiled and placed the tourist anthology face-down on the table. ‘Only three more verses,’ she said.
‘I read this in the biography of R.A.K.Mason — that’s the name of the poet who wrote this. You know the poet who wrote the ‘Spectacular Blossom’ poem, Allen Curnow, well, when he first met Mason — this must have been about 1932 — Curnow was editing a magazine at Auckland University and Mason was working for a company in town, and Curnow went to see him there where he sat behind a little iron grille writing out receipts all day. When Curnow said who he was, Mason pushed out under the grille, typed up on the same yellow receipt paper, a copy of this love poem, and Curnow printed it the magazine.’
‘So, who was the lucky lady? Liam asked.
‘I think she had gone to Africa to get married.’
‘Not to France?’
‘No, it does sound like that, doesn’t it. Maybe she had been in France already.’
‘And he was sitting behind his little grille with his yellow paper.’
‘Shall I go on?’
The low murmur of assent was the only sound in the still night. We were too far up the valley for the sound of sea down at the bay to reach us. I think we all wanted to hear what happened next, though we also knew, as a company, that there wouldn’t be any dismembering or tree chopping or even any sun-oiling.
my love from the rest, her eye
her wide eyes commingle
all innocence with all things wise:
Raindrops at eve fall
in your last rays no lovelier:
her voice is the madrigal
at your dawn when the first birds stir
Be swift O sun
lest she fall on some evil chance:
make haste and run
to light up the dark fields of France.
So, nothing happened. We could still see the man looking out from behind the grille. And as his blessed chorus we were sitting there with him, looking out too. Michelle broke the silence.
‘Seven colons, one full stop and only one comma. Very strange. Poetry is always about counting. It’s a way of measuring.’
She seemed to be lost in her thoughts, as if she had become detached from the rest of us who were trying to process her words. But her mind remained uncatchable. And it was at that instant, as Liam gazed woefully at the empty whiskey bottle, and I gazed at Liam, and Ira stretched her long arms above her head and Michel gazed at Michelle, that it happened: a crack, which wasn’t lightning, and a long rumble, but it wasn’t thunder, and what is more the little hut shook, but not violently, so it wasn’t an earthquake, more as if the shaking were an echo of something larger, something total elsewhere, and we were simply a fragment. There was no need to say, ‘What was that?’ as we got up and moved to open the curtains and the wobbly old ranch slider, and shuffle out onto the stony ground. The moon was out, full and bright, the stars were all around, the air after rain as crisp as whiskey on the tongue. And then we saw, at once as it were, that the mountain had spoken. Across the valley the moonlight made clearly visible a huge rift, a great scar torn in the hillside opposite, a wound of pale clay where the land had slid.
The night was beautiful, but also late, and when we had done gazing on it and on the shattered landscape, the company began to break up. The four young ones progressed inside. I took the chance to check the Mazda. And to gather my belongings, the toothbrush bag, the box of supplies, the sleeping bag balanced on top, the backpack with tomorrow’s changes inside, all balanced together, and the car locked up once more, it was impossible to imagine how it had been when I arrived not so long before. I stood a little longer, but I couldn’t really summon back the craziness of the storm, the poetry must have supplanted it. Inside the lights were all out. Had they forgotten my existence that fast? I smiled in the darkness, then pulled the curtain open to let the moonlight in. There were two doors opposite each other opening off the central space, but I had no idea who was in which room. I looked at the old couch, its worn arms, its bare upholstery where the foam rubber poked through. I unrolled my sleeping bag.
John Dryden, Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668).
Euripides, The Bacchae and other plays, trans. Philip Vellacott (Penguin, 1973), p.224.
Poems as You Go (A New Zealand Tourist Board Production, 2016).
Rachel Barrowman, Mason: The Life of R.A.K. Mason (Victoria UP, 2003), p.172.