Read an Excerpt
Three Regrets and a Hymn to Beauty
By Ian Wedde
Auckland University PressCopyright © 2005 Ian Wedde
All rights reserved.
The bottle of oil I was late sending John
This poem will mimic ordinary speech
so well, you won't tell the difference,
even though ordinary speech would never say
something like that. Ordinary speech
doesn't know it's ordinary
until we make it say extraordinary things.
Is that true? For a start, 'ordinary speech'
doesn't know anything, it is we who know things
which we express using speech both ordinary and
unusual, in the way a great athlete can make
running across the South Island appear achievable.
This morning a grey, slab-shaped mountain
appeared above the domestic horizon of rooftops
at the southern end of our street. It was there
and then it wasn't. While it was there
I wasn't surprised, because it appeared so
naturally, and when it was gone I was also not surprised
because things had returned to normal. Ordinary
speech can do that.
I'd have to say, John, that running all the way
from west to east across the Southern Alps
would be a day at the office if a gabardine alp
can materialise at the southern end of the street
I turn the western corner of
every day on my way to work, or somewhat earlier
every day, the eastern corner, when I walk the dog.
Every day I know I have a choice.
I can be the docile servant of
ordinary speech, even of ordinary speech
describing the southern traverse of icy tarns,
matagouri, lichened rocks and rabbit bones
freeze-dried in the hawk's nest, I can have my day
project-managed by human resource clerks,
I can put a two dollar coin in the slot machine
that dispenses chocolate bars
and get twenty cents change, I can say yes
when I mean no, and when I come home in the evening
turning east at the end of the street
where the dun mountain appeared and
disappeared that morning, I can remain unsurprised
by ordinary speech's failure to make something
unusual appear so. Or
I can choose to be reborn.
Let's face it, ordinary speech doesn't have the cunning
to trapeze around the end of a line of poetry
stranding 'or' on the other side of the hyper-dramatic line
'I can choose to be reborn'.
What right have I got
to make ordinary speech say things like that?
I should know better, as I turn west (but earlier, east)
every morning, and east every evening,
half expecting the slab-like shape of Mount Martha
to be there above the roof line of Wareham House
at the bottom of our street, the 'functions
venue' where bridal cars draw up festooned with ribbons
and whose balcony Fills with
singing drunks. Later, the 'happy couple'
(in the language of ordinary speech)
depart in another car encouraged by boastful cheers
from the balcony, and I sometimes wonder
if the brides have, for a moment at least,
seen the slab-like form of Mount Martha
rise up behind the noisy balcony of
their pissed cousins, and if just for a moment
they've imagined their newly wedded lover
running tirelessly, with evenly panting breath, across
the high screes and hawks' nests like bell-jars
of specimens – lean, grinning with fitness, his
skin the thin papyrus of quasi-biblical survival, his
sponsors the makers of tents and kayaks
in which the happy couple could live comfortably
in Antarctica, their adventure rendered plausible
in the ordinary speech of Discovery Channel.
But then the honeymoon car drives on, it
changes gears at the end of the street, as
history seems to some days, lurching forward into a future
not yet ready for consummation, like an athlete
getting too far ahead of the
record books, implausible in his own present, isolated,
lonely, and Finally embittered — accelerating
towards the bridal suite in
a motel at Pekapeka. They may be in time
for sunset over the Cook Strait horizon, they may
walk the salty tideline feeling good about
the way their footprints in the damp sand are
close together and pointing in the same direction, and
they'll feel diminished together by the
grandeur of the sunset display on streaming clouds
above Mana Island – whose plain, altar-like bulk
is like a memory of something dark glimpsed,
briefly, looming above the
brashly lit balcony of singing wedding guests. Romance
is good and the language of ordinary speech
does a good job for it, making articulate
what the young lovers know matters more than anything
they've ever done, this moment with the plume tips
of toitoi aflame as the sun sinks into
the red and black sea. It's probably a relief when
the prospect of resurrection fades, the memory of
the blunt mountain reminiscent
of Lazarus's 'gentle sister' fades into the lovers'
dreams and is gone for good in the morning
when he hands over the keys to the Honeymoon Suite
and goes whistling to the car. Why, John, does this story
fill me with horrible rage and sadness, and a vengeful desire
to take ordinary speech by the neck
and choke the life from it? Why, despite what I've learned
over the years, do I want the young lovers
to drive straight from their love motel into the dark
shadow of the mountain they fled, and to
wake every morning of their lives with a refusal
on their lips, like those mad athletes
refusing to lie down? The deal was, you'd give me tips
on quirky titles addressing the Sublime, like the almost-
forgotten Ernest Tuveson, and in return I'd send you
obscure treats, like Columela Picual oil. You kept
your part of the bargain, but half way through the
turgid Tuveson I got distracted by the term
'technocalypse' and lost interest in
moral philosophy, especially Ernest's version of it,
and I regret to say I forgot
to send you the thick green oil in its heavy bottle, and I regret
that it's taken me this long to confront
the spooky mountain beyond Wareham House,
to refuse the comfort stops of ordinary
speech, and to keep on running past the
all singing all dancing balcony
across a kind of darkened upland plateau.
The guide dog
I want to help a puppy grow into a guide dog
because, let's face it, I might as well be blind
in the world of the senses when it comes to
taking in what's out there. It's true,
I can read the price tags on new appliances
and calibrate them to deliver services
on time. I can smell
toast burning. Facing the windy assaults of seaspray
in the Karori Rip, I can see from the
GPS that we are going nowhere even as the sea creams
past our keel. The domestication
of the perilous adventure
may reach its apogee in the Brown Trout Motel
in Eketahuna, 'widest main street in the southern hemisphere'
and Discovery Channel on the 14-inch TV.
Once, it was believed
the bird of paradise never landed
but mated and reared its young in the pure air.
If there's no unity in things,
the many cannot appear to be one
in the Eighth Antinomy of Parmenides.
The bowerbird makes his nest beautiful
not to live in, but just to say, I
can do this, you need me.
The peacock's exorbitance says,
you want thrifty,
This morning was so quiet
I could hear birds 'conversing' in
wet branches, rain falling
through the foggy air, the dog's
paws 'plucking' at the muddy track
as we both ran panting across the flank
of Mount Victoria at dawn, the
distant 'roaring' of traffic
moving into the city
(couple of early, distant jackhammers),
the Westpac helicopter
beating up the grey
harbour surface down by Shed 5, the redeye
business flights accelerating up from Rongotai
into the muffling clouds, the dog's
and my old-fart breath gasping
and between my ears
a high persistent 'ringing'
day in and day out, like the sound
(I imagine) of telephones
heard by someone almost
deaf, but in demand.
Waitangi Day at Dick Smith's
The four young guys in white shirts and cheap
black pants who are moping outside Dick Smith's
at 11.30 a.m. on Waitangi Day probably know
everything that's familiar has changed because
day to day that's how it goes. Improbably pale,
my happiness approaches
like dawn above a reef,
though happiness doesn't look like anything
even when it's absent and you have to imagine it
looking like something. Nor does absence
look like anything even when it's present in your life
like the treacherous air that withers the
weak fibred plant of love. Nor does yesterday
have any appearance now that it's gone
though it may have been the day you heard news
that made appearance, sound, smell, taste, touch and colour
drain from the world for as long as it took you to think
do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles? Achievement
doesn't look like anything, any more than your admiration
for it does, though you imagine the achievement
and your admiration for it
drawn to each other like public holiday loiterers
outside Dick Smith's, unsure about opening hours, unwilling
to leave the world of appearances
to chance, which doesn't look like anything either,
though it pays to remember that, under the sun,
the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,
neither yet bread to the wise
nor yet riches to men of understanding
nor yet favour to men of skill
but time and chance happen to them all.
Exploration has no sound – into that silent sea
you burst, not bound to any master, wherever
the wind takes you, you travel as a visitor.
What does the future sound like? Everything
that's familiar has changed, you'll hear words
but not voices, songs
but not singing. Did Dick Smith's
open for business on Waitangi Day? I don't
think so, but that doesn't matter – I can give you
my love but not my thoughts
because you have your own thoughts.
Yesterday doesn't look like anything, what I believe
has no sound, knowledge no taste, the future
can't be touched, and happiness
has no colour, though when it's dawn
I often feel happy and for some reason
imagine a line of pale surf breaking
half way out to the horizon. It's then
that I just don't want to die
and regret all the many times I spent waiting,
not knowing what to do.
A HYMN TO BEAUTY: DAYS OF A YEAR
you're the trouble I'm in
because there's a lot of sweetness in my life
with that rude kind of magnificence
as when they hung Le Bateau upside down,
unusually animated and sparkling.
Happy birthday Montgomery Clift:
where did I see this guy – in Red River
or From Here to Eternity?
Accept and you become whole
bend and you straighten.
It's the trouble I'm in
the paraglider's air –
if I centre myself
I will then be able to perform my duties with excellence
sending back thousands of pictures of the lunar surface
with that rude kind of magnificence.
Happy birthday Cindy Crawford
whose small, dark purple, fringed bell hangs down
and shudders over the icy cleft that it has cloven.
Search the minds
and test the hearts of people.
But I don't want to talk about it now
I want to go down
and I should be thinking about work
only I can make things happen
which could produce a black and white photograph in 60 seconds
an attractive force, naturally.
Happy birthday W. H. Auden
your different impression of loveliness from that which we receive
among the dead ice and the idle clouds.
and I will be whiter than snow.
Oh such a beautiful way
to break your heart!
You are resourceful and clever
but your retrieving skills leave something to be desired
if Baruch Spinoza's house of mourning opens as a museum,
a palindrome dropped and rewritten with appeal.
Happy birthday Luis Buñuel
who ministers to morbid sensibilities,
ticklers and fanners of the soul's sleep.
I will utterly consume all things
from off the face of the earth!
Down through the long
loneliness of the world
you can take a turn for the better
but only if you are willing
producing a lamb named Dolly
and love to run your eye over a mountain nymph.
Happy birthday G. F. Handel
whose heart is rightly tuned
or whose mind is clearly and surely sighted.
Create a pure heart in me,
give me again the joy.
I don't know where we are
and I don't care –
if something doesn't match up
re-evaluate your motives.
Yes, the second killer avalanche
was gloomy, in a ceremonial way.
Happy birthday Wilhelm Grimm –
look upon those as most lovely
which are most happy.
You do not want sacrifices
or I would offer them.
You have heard the silent running
of my dreams:
prepare yourself well
so you can follow
with samples of the moon's surface
I rant about in spectacles on the lake.
Happy birthday Pierre Auguste Renoir
who can only fully be established
with respect to vital beauty.
is how you should pray.
I hung around a little too long
I was good but now I'm gone,
I may find myself in a tight spot
but forge ahead
where satellite images show Yongbyon
and a mariner in the distance appears cordial.
Happy birthday Betty Hutton
who is to be found in the lines and gradations
of unsullied snow
for your heart will always be
where your riches are.
You are my sorrow
you are my splendour
you're on your way
to something good:
a green light to pioneer cloning
make copies and exit at speed.
Happy birthday Elizabeth Taylor –
throughout the whole
of organic creation
you are my defender and protector,
in you I will trust.
I guess I'm taking my chances
trading in my things
and I may find myself
moving in a new direction
where Princess Diana agrees to divorce
allowing a girl to enter a sleazy place.
Happy birthday Raphael.
You cannot be the object of reason
but of immediate sense and feeling,
this includes everyone
because there is no difference.
Did you suffer at the end
would there be no one to remember?
Nice work if you can get it
and there's no reason why you can't
if Columbus frightens Amerindians with a lunar eclipse
don't take it out again in a public place.
Happy birthday Jimmy Dorsey,
you're just too marvellous
too marvellous for words.
How doth the city sit solitary
that was full of people.
And I was almost persuaded
to strip myself of my pride –
a chance to make a change
to put myself first
as the space shuttle Columbia carries out a mission
releasing Gilbertian medley.
Happy birthday Frédéric Chopin
with that rude kind of magnificence
which appears in many of these stupendous works.
I fear no one
I will never be afraid.
They're Justified and they're Ancient
and they drive an ice-cream van
so do what will help
and don't worry what others think
if King Kong premieres in New York.
In his eyes, beauty may be seen.
Happy birthday Lou Reed,
as fast as a musician scatters sounds
out of an instrument.
one thing only do I want
to marvel there.
How does your body feel today?
– I forgot to ask.
Tie up loose ends
you will enjoy the rest
and Apollo 9 is launched
a mythical tale with a sad end.
Happy birthday Jean Harlow
amid the deafening tumult
Nature is not kind
it treats all things impartially.
I go to bakeries
there's a lot of sweetness in my life
and this is the perfect time to take a trip
or get involved in talks
about Swan Lake first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre
or take to the air in frenzied dances.
Happy birthday Evan Dando.
Amid the smoke of cities did you pass
your time of early youth
knowing that tools come from what exists
but use from what does not.
I need an empty room
the crowd has just passed through
where you can do no wrong
as long as you get out
to Italian dirigibles behind Turkish lines
or country roads all over the place.
Happy birthday Niki Taylor –
beauty should be smooth and polished
the great, rugged and negligent.
Deal with the difficult while it is yet easy
deal with the great while it is yet small.
I need a gravel path
to travel on
to begin the long process
of quitting a bad habit
as Michelangelo strikes personal computers.
Though coming by river, not all are daring.
Happy birthday Kiri Te Kanawa
with that rude kind of magnificence
among the dead ice and the idle clouds.
Arise, cry out in the night
at the beginning of the watches.
Searchlights on the skyline:
just looking for a friend
a mixed bag of happy tidings on the home front,
some stress, an increase in travel
when Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone —
it thrashes and throbs.
Happy Birthday Matilde Serao.
The men who thus feel will always be few
and overborne by the thoughtless avaricious crowd.
Nature doesn't miss these luxuries
when people can recline in company on the soft grass.
You were washed up on the glittering shoals
looking for another crime to confess
but it's time to get new clothes, a haircut,
pay your bills and clean your home.
The Edwin Hubble photo shows as many galaxies as the Milky Way has stars
and loves to run the eye over a mountain nymph.
Happy birthday Joseph Berg
whose ear might have learned to distinguish
the sounds that communicate ideas.
I punish all those that leap over the threshold,
that fill their master's house with violence and deceit.
Excerpted from Three Regrets and a Hymn to Beauty by Ian Wedde. Copyright © 2005 Ian Wedde. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.