Read an Excerpt
By Ian Wedde
Auckland University PressCopyright © 1993 Ian Wedde
All rights reserved.
In this description lager sunlight's
whirling. So much for atmosphere.
And cigarette smoke drifts through the bar
as though from some sacked city
and the angry red-haired man, a supple liar
in a Phrygian peasant cap
heaves his heavy shoulders forward
after his gouging words. He's good with words
but his legs are too short. Maybe
you've heard of him: he inherited enemies.
After he's had a drink, he sucks the brown light
down, and then he begins to rave:
Half-way to town is a zone
no one I know wants to be in
but it's where most of us are.
The last time states of nature
featured was when
you looked back over your shoulder then
at the sunset vanishing-point,
toetoe plumes burning on a high seacliff,
the waves broadcasting gold froth, remember?
And ahead no Veritable City
where Justice and Music ignite
equally terminal passions. What makes us
so lucky? If anything in nature had been
half as rotten as the state,
its foolish signalling flame would have been
bombed flat long before.
That's the right question, friend.
(Seems like it's another of those 'conversations'.)
You, the listener, stop your mouth with ale,
you watch the smoke spiral out upon the air,
you watch the raver's angry teeth
gnashing froth off his ginger whiskers.
Beneath that dopey peasant cap his eyes
have turned to stone. The cunning voice
of angry reason advances into
your silence. His huge shoulders
sag under the burden of repetition:
always half-way to town
and then always going back home after.
Maybe it helps, to think time tides out
from this calm bay
whose westering shores lie flat against the sky
at dusk. From the promenade, later,
anglers lay lines across magenta water
where the moon floats like a motel light.
Birds, dogs, younger children
mumble of sleep. Whole generations
have hopelessly fished here
where from the promenade, so elegant
within living memory, shrill ratchets
reel off line.
for my mother
Starlight rains into your balcony
Hotel Terminus of my dreams!
Beyond your memorial arch
the Royal Palms wave their shadows upon the park.
Waves push light up the beach,
the distant beacon flashes
where the moontrail drowns in darkness.
'All hung with bright beads'
comes the ferryboat, a rumour of music.
The young woman is dancing —
her eyes are half shut.
Into the net of her eyelashes
swims the glitter of the approaching pier.
Fishscale glitter of noon.
Smoke of gorse-fires in auburn air.
The lovers dip their mouths in spring water,
they wait for night to quench their flames of vision.
And now the children sleep
in this bunkhouse of dreams
while the owl calls to the shark
out there where eyes are open
in the dark air, in the dark water.
A BIRTHDAY ODE TO THE MUSE
Nostalgia falls like a broken balcony
taking the sundowners with it —
a party that drops with its merriment
into the carpark.
The wind assaulting
high glass towers
could be compared to time.
Beautiful greens, serene blues,
music, and 'the shadow of your smile'.
Children go by on one wheel.
Talk, eat, smile, listen.
Flowers the wind tosses to scurvy sailors.
Or: colours ravishing the shiftworker's eyes.
Or: clink of icecubes under Capricorn —
at any rate, 'You look beautiful
From one dawn to another dusk
there's nothing much to say
that someone hasn't said before
— that's the human way.
So gather round, you celebrants
and harken to my lay.
It will not tell you much that's new,
just pass the time of day.
Dear Treen, this is no cunning key
hacked from native wood.
I've merely tried to shape my verse
as every poet should.
The proof is always in the pud
my Granny used to say
as she beat our sticky fingers back
and put the bowl away.
And so I went down to the shed
all in a corner green
and drank some scotch to clear my head
and see what might be seen.
Yes, of whiskies I drank three or four
and also had a smoke
and soon the Muse came by and said
'You're a decent sort of bloke —
I'll tell you what: I'll make a deal:
just get these verses right
and set them down on bits of paper
for Treen on Monday night.
And don't go reaching for the high
nor even for the low
but make your pen prepare to move
and I'll show it where to go.
For you must learn to trust me, Ian,
though oft I seem to stray —
there's many another poet in need
and each must have his day.
Now put your paper on your knee
and your pen into your hand
and let us set these verses down
that all may understand.'
But as she spoke I chanced to glance
through the broken window pane
and there outside I did perceive
how autumn came again
and how the clouds went sailing by
and all the trees did shake
and how the rooster trod his hens
some more chickens for to make
and there up in the watery sky
that yet was darkening blue
I did espy the evening star
that just came shining through
and yonder above Mount Crawford Prison
all lit up on the hill
the big pale moon began to rise
and it was shining still
just as it shone when I was young,
as young, Katrine, as you,
and often did sit up very late at night
a-hunting for the true.
And now I saw how night came on,
the chickens were asleep,
the wind blew through the window pane
and made my flesh to creep,
and down on Evans Bay Parade
the motorcars went by
and overhead the late flight
bound for Australie,
and soon enough, above these sounds,
from somewhere pretty near,
the sound of music and of shouts
came loudly to my ear.
Treen, I thought it was your mother's voice
but maybe I was wrong —
in any case, it was a voice
that was both loud and strong.
It woke me from my reverie
and I did gaze about:
the Muse, she had shot through, I saw,
and my time had run out.
The night filled up my little shed,
it cooled the corner green —
except for Donizetti from next door
the place was quite serene.
I recalled the Muse's final words
and the Muse's angry look:
'By Jesus, boy, I came this far
and I think it's pretty crook —
you just stared through the broken window pane
like any half-arsed hoon,
your eyes were wet and your throat was dry
and you just stared at the moon
and even a fool could see you were struck
with a sentimental notion
as you watched the moon trail her sleeve
across the dark blue ocean
and listened to the wind that shook the trees
and all that kind of stuff —
well let me put you straight, my boy,
I've had more than enough!'
And with these words she straightway left,
and my poem was still unwrit
and come Monday night, with these doodlings here,
what would Trina make of it?
So here I sit, in the dark of night
round about half-past ten
and I doubt if scotch or another smoke
will get me going again —
and yet I think, and it may be true,
though I cannot vouch for this:
the time I spent in my dreamy daze,
it did not go amiss —
remembering when I was twenty-one
which was a while ago,
the time passed very pleasantly
and also very slow
and while the real professional Muse
tapped her impatient toe,
I thought I might've had the right idea then,
quite a few years ago.
And maybe there's a lesson here,
although I'll not insist:
there's many a job of tough dictation
that might as well be missed.
And now, to bring things to a close:
Katrina is twenty-one —
I wish her well, I kiss her hand.
Now my poem is done.
When the people emerge from the water
who can tell if it's brine or tears
that streams from them, purple sea
or the bruises of their long immersion?
They seem to weep for the dreams they had
which now the light slices into buildings
of blinding concrete along the Corniche.
Is it music or news the dark windows utter?
Day-long dazzle of the shallows
and at night the moon trails her tipsy sleeves
past the windows of raffish diners.
The hectic brake-lights of lovers
jam the streets. My place or your place.
They lose the way again and again.
At dawn the birds leave the trees in clouds,
they petition the city for its crumbs.
The diners are cheap and the food is bad
but you'd sail a long way to find anything
as convenient. Pretty soon, sailor boy,
you'll lose your bearings on language.
Language with no tongue
to lash it to the teller.
Stern-slither of dogfish guttings.
Sinbad's sail swaying in the desert.
Only those given words can say what they want.
Out there the velvet lady runs her tongue
over them. And she is queen of the night —
her shadow flutters in the alleys.
And young sailors, speechless, lean
on the taffrail. They gaze at the queen's amber
but see simple lamps their girls hang in sash windows.
Thud of drums. Beach-fires. Salt wind in the ratlines.
Takes more than one nice green kawakawa
leaf, chewed, to freshen the mouth
that's kissed the wooden lips of the figurehead
above history's cut-water
in the barbarous isles'
virgin harbours. That hulk shunned by rats
bursts into flames.
And now the smoky lattice of spars
casts upon the beach
the shadow-grid of your enlightened city.
And now I reach through them — I reach
through the eyes of dreaming sailors,
faces inches from the sweating bulkheads,
blankets drenched in brine and sperm.
Trailing blood across the moon's wake
the ship bore out of Boka Bay.
Trailing sharks, she sailed
for Port Destruction. In Saint Van le Mar,
Jamaica, Bligh's breadfruit trees grew tall.
In Callao on the coast of Peru
geraniums bloomed like sores
against whitewashed walls.
The dock tarts' parrots jabbering
cut-rates in six tongues.
The eroding heartland, inland cordillera
flashing with snow — these the voyager forgets.
His briny eyes
flood with chimerical horizons.
'I would tell you if I could — if I could
remember, I would tell you.
All around us the horizons
are turning air into water
and I can't remember
where the silence ended and speech began,
where vision ended and tears began.
All our promises vanish into thin air.
What I remember are the beaches of that city
whose golden children dance
on broken glass. I remember cold beer
trickling between her breasts as she drank.
But my paper money burned
when she touched it. The ship
clanked up to its bower, the glass towers
of the city burned back there in the sunset glow.'
Cool star foundering in the west.
Coast the dusty colour of lions.
The story navigates by vectors
whose only connection is the story.
The story is told in words
whose only language is the story.
All night the fo'c's'le lamp smokes above the words.
All day the sun counts the hours of the story.
Heave of dark water where something
else turns — the castaway's tongue
clappers like a mission bell.
Unheard his end, and the story's.
Raconteurs in smoky dives
recall his phosphorescent arm
waving in the ship's wake.
Almost gaily. The ship sailed on.
And then one day they were gone.
Like tall ships. Leaving
behind them echoes of an exotic serenade —
raucous brass fanfaring from the poop.
Then the fog closed. Where turquoise light
struck through, the prevaricacious glitter
of empty sea. Dense white cordite
rolled down from the battery,
the city's glass shivered. The broken
hearts of the city, the new voids
of its crowds, its solitary mourners —
these too shivered, as though
the doctor's wind at evening
blew in from the wide ocean.
Like a captive flamingo, evening
folded its wings. The nights
were no longer fabulous. If something like calm
now entered the chandlers' households,
perhaps a bargain had been struck.
Perhaps this cap tossed upon the harbour
betrayed the stowaway curled
like a child in a lifeboat. Perhaps
the child curled there would see
the great stars also footloose in the firmament.
THE ASTRONOMER IN LOVE
I'd have had to be mad to imagine
those codices could outlast her stare — she,
the unblinking foe of adornment!
Lavish at last in nothing
but essentials, I know my place.
Those starry flights of footnotes across paper!
If you want to get lost,
study my almanac:
niceties of protocol where theories abut,
courtier's swivel of haunch,
the narcissistic force of intellectual habit,
or the professorial trick of locking
the grosser terms under a long jaw —
all this she sweeps away with victorious eyelashes.
Even the words must go!
Acrid, sinuous and patient,
I feel her descending upon me
the light, grinding weight of her hips.
Before her, they said I was wise;
but afterwards, a fool. First I was old;
now I behave 'like a child'.
I am a plain burning-glass she polishes.
Then, I studied stars; now, her.
Where we meet, in smoky curls,
a lazy pyre of secrets. Now
the sun rises in the morning,
the moon at night.
Her tongue poked in my ear
tells me where I am. It's like they say:
nothing could be simpler.
SIX FALSE STARTS. NO STOPS. GETTING HOMESICK.
Somewhere behind all this, before a view
of fountains, statues and grass,
near a lake, far from you.
Somewhere behind all this,
stranded in language neither advancing
nor falling back.
Between desire and absence, in a mill of meaning,
grinding between language and the
words I want to speak.
Moving towards you somewhere behind all this,
moving back from this, moving
behind this, to where the language of desire
and the words I have for you
between desire and absence.
Hesitant, provisional, urgent, moving myself
into that grinding place,
feeling myself grounded
somewhere behind all this,
becoming the words which
have entered the place of you.
Becoming absent in the place of you,
the space you name, the space of your name,
moving behind all this, the fountains,
the statues and grass, the lake. Ground
to be whispered by you,
your desire, my absence. That place.
A TRANSPORT DISASTER
On my left pleasure, on my right pain.
Don't talk to me about Desire.
I've climbed that flight of steps.
I've ridden that transport.
Just tell me:
How to approach the flame-cheeked city?
By way of its glass towers,
those westering mirrors at dusk?
Or like a privateer, through the sea's
romantic breach, indifferent
to the jargon of authenticity,
'not your brother, not your friend,
not someone you can understand'?
* * *
We leave at dawn. All around us
the real-estate of an impossible dream
littered with the season's picnics.
This clumsy tumbril, these groaning drays —
these phrases must convey us
to a frontier already made redundant
by brochures. Mouth filled
with grey, glacial water, Julius von Haast
lies: not a man, and not a river
but a sediment of words
dredged against banks where the
clearfell flinches, against
mirror lakes whose reflections of tourists
are immobilised by nostalgia.
A grey skein of maps unravels to the interior.
This perspective which improbably broadens
with distance — this too, cataracted, misty and sublime,
alluvial gold overhung by vivid moss — this too
lays down its barrage of signage before us.
* * *
Be glad the poet is not doing
the lord's work. He's lying
among the lush parklands
of what we see and hear,
considering creation not as handiwork
but as perception. Like shining
delta water her hair
pours over the map of his humid and veiny hand.
* * *
And now I see my shadow
broadcast upon smoke. Deeper
into the gulf the musical swell advances.
A wind from clear stars
stirs the lagoon.
A BALLAD FOR WORSER HEBERLEY
for the Heberley Family Reunion, Pipitea Marae, Easter 1990
I remember the pohutukawas' summer crimson
and the smell of two-stroke fuel
and the sandflies above the Waikawa mudflats
whose bites as a kid I found cruel.
At night and with gunny-sack muffled oars
when the sandflies were asleep
with a hissing Tilley lamp we'd go fishing
above the seagrass deep
— a-netting for the garfish there
where the nodding seahorses graze
and the startled flounders all take fright
stirring the muddy haze.
And who cared about the hungry sandflies
when a-codding we would go
my blue-eyed old man Chick Wedde and me
where the Whekenui tides do flow.
Excerpted from The Drummer by Ian Wedde. Copyright © 1993 Ian Wedde. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
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