POEMS

in the sky burns a garden
‘He who loses his language loses his world.’ Iain Chrichton Smith/ Iain Mac a’Ghobhainn

Really the loss began when Motoitoi
married Dallas
and her daughters married
Pākehā. Tūpuna silenced
when as a small boy
my grandfather met his grandmother
for the first time at a railway station
and shied away from her.
This then the only thing
he was left with, this memory he told
his own children
of how scared
he was and how old and dark
she appeared, his grandmother, how strange
her language and the black shawl she wore
over her head.
This grandmother of my grandfather
with his Māori nose and freckled skin
I loved — his hands, his face,
his short, brown roundness,
his shiny acorn-coloured bald head
often topped with a homburg,
a grey, felt hat he could easily grab
from the peg with one hand
with its ready-made thumb-shaped
hollow one side, three-finger
shaped dip the other, boat-shaped
hollow in the middle and its
tobacco-stained satin lining
smelling of shut-in sweat and gravel,
this hat he always wore
perched on the back of his head
like a sunflower.

~*~

cricket during lockdown

The ragged monotone
of a cricket’s refrain
is childhood’s waist-high grass
and boredom. It is last chances,

eternity, the beige of neglected summer lawns.
Through an open window
I hear its shrill register
competing
with the sporadic wash
of reduced traffic noise
and my granddaughter’s tearful protests
against an afternoon nap.

This cricket’s front-leg click, rub, whirr,
is an irksome useless key
turning a music box
with a loose spring
that cannot be wound any tighter.
I am counting on it

to be today’s measure of time. Even when
everything turns, re-turns,
the cricket will keep
on. For now though, it is
my stop watch.

~*~

above the line

Above, a black-backed gull
grifts the high way
only gulls trawl,
a sky-valley current
that streams between
beach and harbour.

I look up, see its chest
feathers ironed white by light,
its black wings
rowing west
towards today’s catch:

fish entrails, road kill,
mud crab. I note
how it hauls its cargo
of intent, watch
until it disappears
behind the tips
of trees, envision

the movement, the trail
it leaves
behind, that caught
rude disturbance
of time’s dead air.

~*~

21st century guy
‘We need to go down George to get
maximum exposure to eateries,’
says 21st century guy wearing shoes without socks.
He’s keen for a bagel or panini or falafel
somewhere al fresco where the weather
sets the tables. By Albany, Gen Y’s out
of my hearing range, as well as my time zone:
that time when I was the keen one, a blooming
Baby Boomer, when two dollars was a purple note
and wages were placed inside brown envelopes
to be collected on payday – a Wednesday
when it always seemed to rain – then opened up
to pay for lunch in a cafe with lace curtains on the windows
and tablecloths on the tables
and Dusky Yo-yos.

~*~

‘so close no matter how far’a line from Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’

He bites his fingernails, his teeth
clomping like boots. We have all
been summoned to the Principal’s office,
son and parents, where he’s told in front of us
there will be no more warnings and about the nature
of institutions / this school, how once
you’re asked to leave, it will be as if
you never existed.

There will be a confidence course
and counselling on self-esteem
with blobs ‘which blob
best depicts you?’ We are all going to have to learn
to say No. There will be days
when he cannot be found
even though it’s plain to see
he’s there in the kitchen, making a sandwich.
There will be deep voices on the phone. Boys
who sound like men.

~*~

convolvulus

Beside me, the wind is whistling
a fine tune through a gap it has found
in the frame between
a window’s glass and sill
as outside, each flower petal bends
in order
to survive what I imagine
to be their lament
for this present disappearance of warmth
it is their complaint
against summer’s cold shoulder

as the southern rata slowly bleeds scarlet
bristles on to concrete
I choose not to recall betrayals
and instead attempt a dumb embrace
of a jet’s overhead tumult
as it heads north.

~*~

the road and the rain

Three paddocks over from State Highway One,
I glimpse the forward motion of a silent train
dragging 
its grubby white necklace of containers.

Ahead
puffs of rain under the tyres of a truck. 

We pass a gravel pit, a patchworked hayshed,
queueing poplars. A choir of dead trees. 
When we arrive, a skylark
struggling against a southerly
leads us 
to the right end of the beach
where my ancestors are buried
in a graveyard
lost among the tall grass
and where tīpuna sigh,
‘Leave us be.’ 
Leave. Us. Be.
The sea snowy with breakers.


We travel on, country music
barely discernible
above the sound of the road and the rain,
kilometres farther into the future
where a lake smacks and slips on a beach piled high 
with driftwood. Your grandparents used it
for firewood, hauling loads back home
by horse and dray.
Above us — silent, dark, small
— a swift scythes through
the last of this long day’s light.

~*~

in bits
‘I think that like the food we eat we are made of the things that make us feel comfortable. Our routines, our favourite chairs, our pets, our favourite topics of conversation, our opinions – they’re not who we are, exactly, but they allow us to access who we feel we are.’ Ashleigh Young

I find it in the one game rose
that has outlasted winter. In a hammock.
In a memory of a pot of murky Milo
steaming at the back of a coal range.
In that coal range’s wooden fender
pocked with scorch marks from embers.
In a fire guard. In the falling
note of a chaffinch’s song
to mark the end of daylight.

In the colour of a granddaughter’s hair
the shade of tussock, of bracken,
of sun on ground, of pine, of poured tea.

In notes
left on the kitchen bench:
‘Corn fritters
In the warming drawer.’
‘Leave the dishes, I’ll do them later.’

In a lake. In orange poppies. In the smell
of growing cabbages, of sweet peas,
bruised geraniums, sea-soaked kelp, a warm tractor.
In a piece of blue beach glass. The sound of rain
on ferns. In photos of the faces
of my parents when they were still alive,
in the faces of my children now fully grown.
In the smooth gleam of an acorn,
in sun warmed stones.

In the taste of beer. In the view of the city
as you approach from the south.
In the view of the city
as you approach from the north.
In the scent of a sleeping child.
In a piece of cold egg-and-bacon pie
eaten on top of a hill, among tussock,
under a trig station.

In the weight of wool. In an afternoon nap.
Toast. Horses. Contentment coming to me
in pieces. Never all at once. In bits
just big enough and no more.
Like the sight from behind of a brown vintage car,
a travelling time capsule spinning
along on narrow, spindly wheels
along Musselburgh Rise.

~*~

double-clutched bellow

On Crawford Street,
by the hospital, the truck performs
a double-clutched bellow
as it barges through
this short city’s afternoon-act,
its twin-bunked wagons
stacked with sheep

like stuffed pillows,
rammed together.
Waiting at the lights, I hear
the truck’s death rattle,
smell the sheep-shit draught
that hangs in its wake;
foul breath

soon dismissed, but harder to forget
and converting me
to vegetarianism
for the next month,
that sight through the dark slats
of fixed stares; the wall-eyed fear,
dumb terror.

~*~

Japanese language lessons

Give each vowel
its own emphasis
and sense of importance.
Don’t forget suffixes
and prefixes.

It’s very simple.
Very complicated.
Sometimes funny. For example
the word for potty,
is ‘omaru.’

But at least
I am now on the inside
with my head full of the difference
and holding in both hands
(the Japanese way)

language’s twisted skein.
The one that is beginning
to unravel in order
for my clumsy fingers
to attempt to wind it up again

into tidy hanks.
Strange words, puzzling
sentence orders, run to me,
beg to be remembered
and (quickly, quickly) gathered in.

~*~

so green it’s blue

This music I listen to is homesick
for a bayou. It is a foreign accent
in a suburb gurgling with lawnmowers
performing breaststroke
through oceans of grass; swirling
with the catfight-maul of electric saws.
It is music that picks
and talks of grass so green it’s blue.
It is music that pines. This plucked banjo
I listen to in my home far
from any Virginian heart breaker,
piano pedal pusher, is so agile
it trips the light
like a highland dancer performing
the Sword Dance, pointing toes
over invisible steel ropes that
twang, even in the rain, with the sweetness
of a guitar bleeding blue, it reaches
through to stop the heart in its train tracks,
here in this small city fastened
to fast-cooled volcanic remains, built to last
upon the crust of hardened magma.

~*~

biscuit tin lid

Two girls in white socks,
shiny shoes, tartan skirts,
visit a blacksmith’s forge,
to pat the patient nose
of a draught horse.

A man who could be their father
with his shirt sleeves rolled up
stands beside them
holding the reins.
Nearby, the pot-bellied blacksmith

waits in leather apron
and big boots,
holding a hammer
in his right fist.
My sister and I imagine

the girl in the red shoes to be me,
and the girl in the blue shoes
to be her. We smell the straw,
the fire’s breath, the dust,
dung and horse-flesh sweat.

We hear the snort and shiver,
the leather creak, the metal jangle
of rein, yoke and bit.
We hear the clang and calls, the sparks
as hammer falls

to strike iron, stamp steel,
the hiss and steam
as scarlet metal
hits water. We are certain
that we are actually there

because we heard our father say so
pointing out the picture on the lid.
“That man
holding the reins that’s me
and those two girls,

one in red shoes and one in blue
shoes, they’re you”, he’d say
as he drank his tea with two sugars,
and reached for another biscuit
from the tin.

~*~