The Lifeguard: Poems 2008-2013

The Lifeguard: Poems 2008-2013

by Ian Wedde


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781869407698
Publisher: Auckland University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2013
Pages: 1
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Ian Wedde is a distinguished writer, critic, editor, and curator. He won the National Book Award for Fiction for his first novel, Dick Seddon’s Great Dive, and the National Book Award for Poetry for Spells for Coming Out. He was made an Arts Foundation Laureate in 2006, a distinguished alumnus of the University of Auckland in 2007, Officer New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to art and literature in 2010 and, in 2011, commenced a two-year term as the New Zealand Poet Laureate.

Read an Excerpt

The Lifeguard

Poems 2008-2013

By Ian Wedde

Auckland University Press

Copyright © 2013 Ian Wedde
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77558-191-8




    You have to start somewhere
    in these morose times,

    a clearing in the forest, say,
    filled with golden shafts of sunlight

    and skirmishes. A little later
    your itinerary will take you past

    weathered churches on plains that stretch
    as far as the eye can see.

    Their horizons elude you,
    not just because the earth is circular

    like the argument you can't bite off
    and spit out, but also

    because of your restless
    dissatisfaction with a status quo that,

    more and more, reminds you
    of everything you've been at pains

    to forget. 'Return all that stuff you borrowed
    when my better nature

    was in the ascendant!' you bark,
    but nothing ever comes back

    once it's gone. To your left, out west,
    a bitter coast of ghosts, shipwrecks,

    vengeful expeditions, short rations
    and lies, lies, lies. To your right,

    on the suave east, are the glittering lights
    of private properties as far

    as the eye can see, pink palaces
    of coral bricks and parades of people

    you've watched before so many times
    you know they don't exist

    except as the repetitions
    that fame and fortune fabricate.

    Bleak indeed are the days
    that smash themselves against

    the galloping thighs of lifeguards
    on the western flanks of this god-forsaken place.

    But sweet the dawns that gild the shoulders
    of giggling vacationers

    up all night celebrating their windfall lives
    on the eastern beaches

    of islands whose tides come in
    and just as smoothly go, like contented but

    mediocre cover bands
    from the patios of three-star resorts.

    Here, among the useless, easy-to-please
    recidivist idlers the lifeguard lolls,

    but out west his counterpart
    watches arms upraised

    where the surf breaks against its own backwash
    and the maws of hideous fate

    gulp down every last gasp of air
    the unfavoured sinkers ever hoped to breathe.

    How can they meet, these brawny
    brothers in arms, the gaze of one

    running its tongue across
    the sweat-glazed clavicles of celebrity,

    the other's eyes averted
    from redemption's hopeless odds?

    There's always a middle ground,
    a light-filled clearing in the gloomy forest,

    where all the non-returns accumulate,
    where arguments conclude,

    horizons cease to recede
    and a different silence falls.

    This is not the silence that follows
    the mediocre band's finale

    or the silence
    in the helpless lifeguard's mind

    when that upraised arm out at the breakers
    drops from sight

    and the surf's arrhythmic roar
    pours into salty gullies behind the dunes.

    This is a silence you may not hear,
    the silent silence

    when it's too late for the lifeguards
    of west and east to meet,

    share a boast or two, a drink,
    some platitudes, swapping yarns about

    the shrieks of fear
    and those of idle pleasure

    commingled like the wrecks
    of either coast,

    nothing to distinguish them
    as their phosphorescent glows go phut.


    Of course it's always in the west
    that the sun sets

    and my endlessly recursive hopes
    erect themselves

    like scaffolding against
    a verdigrised monument

    to the lifeguard. How anomalous
    this seems, how pitiful,

    abject and irrational, how like the message
    to inflate your life jacket

    at the moment your jumbo jet
    impacts at speed on the ice floes

    of some southern ocean
    leaking its consequential chemistry

    into a fate minus the carapaces
    of those minutely self-contained creatures

    whose bodies will become continents,
    the building blocks

    of aqueducts, of upthrusting
    mountain ranges down which

    the off-piste daredevils
    of carbon-fibre innovation

    will plunge headlong into futures
    we've only now begun to imagine.

    What am I supposed to do
    with this crazy optimism

    that has been the bane and blessing
    of my life, besieged on the one hand

    by sunsets that throw apocalyptic
    paint bombs against the

    brooding monument of the lifeguard,
    and on the other

    by dawns that soothe
    the languid limbs of budget revellers

    determined to make their last
    dollar count? Is this a question

    that can be answered
    from the grip of paradox,

    tightening daily as things
    go from bad to worse?

    Julia Roberts embracing orangutans
    in the rainforests of Java

    remains a compelling image,
    the 'Man of the Woods'

    extending his tubular lips in a tender,
    cooing kiss, his ferruginous pelt

    gripped by Julia's conflicted
    fingers-to hug or not to hug,

    to leap to the aid of the endangered
    'Man of the Woods'

    whose upraised arm
    has a querulous finger at the end,

    curled over like a gentle
    question mark? Even harder,

    sadly, the decision to embrace
    the thirsty children

    who stand knee-deep
    in filthy saline scum

    leaching from salty shrimp ghers
    into those packets of pre-shelled prawns

    that adorn the pizza marinaras
    of fast-food joints

    whose products
    are relished equally by surfers

    risking their lives against
    the west's black-fanged rocks

    and those on the east
    whose snacks arrive at speed

    on scooters powered by palm oil
    the 'Man of the Woods'

    can't stomach. But I salute him,
    the watchful lifeguard

    whose warning voice rattles
    my thoughts as the wind does

    the rain-pocked panes of perception
    through which I view

    what must be memories
    of mountainous rubbish dumps

    across which children crawl
    collecting rags and cardboard,

    since what's really out there
    is a garden flicked by rain

    where, later, I'll stand as the sun sets,
    in the roar of machines

    from the nearby city,
    my arm upraised in a defiant toast

    perhaps, or the sinking question
    I don't know how to answer.


    The pool we entered blithely
    with cameras held aloft

    was someone's drinking water
    but we didn't know that

    and didn't care. Weather
    leapt to applaud

    the coast's fresh, modern architecture,
    clapping rain against

    the perfect panes of glass
    through which we watched

    a swimmer ruddy with warm blood
    churn like a designer bath-toy

    across the harbour. Languid yachts
    wafted towards the sunrise.

    Resembling almost becalmed thoughts,
    their vacuity was kept moving

    by isobars whose shapes
    were no more purposeful

    than the ribbed striations of sand dunes
    or the wrinkles of never-say-die sun-worshippers.

    It was then that I noticed
    what looked like a mirage

    on the far side of the bay, where a low
    sandspit glinted in early-morning light.

    Extruded aluminium sheets
    buffed up, perhaps, the dull gleam

    of gunmetal-coloured roofs
    smacked by brisk new sunshine,

    and, most perplexing of all, a candyfloss-pink aura
    hovering above the whole thing.

    This had to be desirable, I thought,
    to be emanating

    such effulgent confidence,
    at once hard like valuable real estate

    and soft, like capital surplus
    oozing into gaping cracks.

    This is what happens when you
    let your lifeguard down, mistaking him

    for the agent who only ever told you
    what you'd already decided

    to believe. The paradox is, this glowing mirage,
    tinted by hopeful dawns,

    utterly dismays me, nor can I tell
    when the lifeguard's strong arm,

    hauling me back up
    from the depths of a decision,

    will merely shake the water
    from my ears so I can hear

    the skanking rhythms
    of another sales pitch.

    Mass-produced postcards
    of significant sites are hawked

    along the promenade
    where fame's louche profile

    frames those artful view-shafts
    through which light floods

    the dreams of paparazzi. The waking dreams.
    Their dreams that drown us

    in the bewildering mirage
    of a rosy empire across the bay,

    its erubescent flush
    rising to the undersides of clouds.

    Be ashamed O Sidon, for the sea speaks,
    even the strength of the sea,

    saying, 'I have not been in labour,
    nor have I brought forth.'

    He's idling at the tide-mark, the lifeguard,
    where early-morning bathers

    blink at the sunrise that surprises them
    every time they see it —

    every time they beach themselves anew,
    streaming warm brine

    from bodies that feel their mortal weight
    press footprints in the sand.

    Bewildered by my own dismay,
    I join them as we plod

    like Galapagos turtles
    towards our denouement,

    tipping the lifeguard a generous
    percentage of the fee

    we've earned simply by turning up again.
    And then it starts:

    the clattering sound of
    time's backwash up the beach

    and the lifeguard's klaxon
    yelling at the wind.


    Theocritus: Idyll XI

    Deep inside he bore a cruel wound,
    the one-eyed lifeguard of the west,

    half blind with salt the surfers
    blink away, or is it tears

    pushed out by the thudding damage
    in his chest, whose only cure

    is the high place where he sits
    watching the surf break

    for the first time, out where the sea
    darkens with turbulent grit

    and the rip sweeps curds of
    yellow foam along the coast.

    This is the song he sings,
    the heartbroken lifeguard, blinded by love

    for the mermaid who punishes him
    with catastrophic hope.

    'Why do you come
    just as sweet sleep claims me,

    why do you depart just as
    sweet sleep lets me go?

    You will see that life
    can be just as good

    if you leave the murky sea
    to crash on the beach back there.

    I wish my mother
    had borne a freak with gills

    so I could have dived down
    and kissed your hand

    and its slender stem
    smooth as the kelp's wrist.'

    O Cyclops, Cyclops, where
    have your wits flown away?

    Love is not the same as hope,
    they mutate each other

    so that each drowns
    where the other wants to live.

    In between is our coast of wrecks
    where the ribs of boats

    stick up out of the sand,
    and the shrieks of gulls

    mimic those of revellers
    on the eastern corniche

    teetering on brinks
    as the sun comes up

    over balconies that might as well
    be those black basalt shelves

    on the sunset side, the ones
    awash with windblown foam

    the lifeguard watches,
    just in case his mutant Venus

    strands there, his long odds,
    his hope, his tolerance,

    her shining kelpy arm
    upraised one last time

    in what might be a salute,
    a question, a plea, a final wave

    foreshortened by the lifeguard's
    monocular hope:

    that he will learn to see her
    swimming in her depths

    and learn to breathe again
    the thick fluid he spat out

    the first time he climbed up
    to his high place and commenced

    his vigil, which ends only
    when his eye shuts.

    A man waves from the window
    of a sundown bus

    as I push ahead through chilly air
    towards the fish market

    whose goggle-eyed produce
    stares up through melting ice

    and a pinkish tincture of blood,
    whose hairy clumps of mussels

    rattle into my bag,
    and whose compliant tentacles,

    slithering across my grasping hand,
    are not the long cool fingers

    of the lifeguard's dream
    of going back to the depths

    where he can be 'other than' himself,
    'at one with' the sea

    whose arm he waves
    as if from an icy sunset window.


    Ovid: Metamorphoses Book III — 'Narcissus and Echo'

    Will the lifeguard of the vain east
    live long enough

    and live to see his children's
    wave-blue eyes

    that are the eyes of his water-adoring mother?
    'If he shall himself

    not know,' is the answer to that question.
    It's what the infatuated

    pool-side loafers gossip about
    while they watch their tanned dream

    ogling his own reflection in filtered water
    whose iridescent sheen

    has leached from
    the oily limbs of bathers

    stroking the water's surface
    where his reflection breaks up

    just when he thinks he's real this time.
    So may he love

    and never win his love,
    sinking his arms to clasp

    the phantom of a mirrored shape,
    an echo like the echoes

    of the lovers he's disdained,
    repeating himself in the ripples

    that wash back and forth
    from the pool's edge.

    Beautiful in repetition, white petals
    clustered around cups of gold,

    spring's fresh flower-beds
    nod under night's dew

    and ranks of blushing mirror glass
    echo the dawn's false hopes

    as the day's first fitness freaks
    eject themselves from revolving doors

    and hit the beachfront running,
    their showers of sweat

    seeding the sand from which ranks
    of sun-worshippers sprout.

    It's that time of day when
    dreams repeat themselves

    and the spa's lifeguards get cracking,
    clutching paper cups

    of elixir as they sprint for buses
    whose shining flanks,

    bedecked with budget
    vistas of golden sands,

    themselves resemble
    mobile flower-beds of narcissi

    forever fresh, fated to
    echo their schedules.

    The shoe-of-the-week emerges
    in a different guise today

    but the same really,
    branding the foot inside it

    as a suitable breeder willing
    to toe the line — either that,

    or a dangerous bastard whose
    wild blue-water gene

    rides ashore in board shorts
    under the rip curl, repeating himself

    through some nymph who
    sees her chance and takes it.

    Livid jet trails rake the blue
    as the day advances

    past dawn's bleary
    somnambulists in back streets

    whose doors blink open and shut
    on the DJ's last rites,

    his surf-line forecast cut up
    into recovery beats, metronomic

    the way history seems to be
    most days on this coast,

    the lifeguard back on watch
    at the mirror pool's edge

    while clubbers poleaxed
    behind thick, sunblocking drapes

    sleep off the dance floor's
    predictable sub-woofer thud

    and that sense of déjà vu that always
    hits them between the eyes.

    Then spare a thought for lovelorn Echo,
    fated to repeat

    the clichés of conversations
    she'd have joined in if she could,

    only what was there to say
    that hadn't been said already?


    Sensitive in spite of everything
    to heat and cold

    the alert body reports
    on the world's condition

    and notices, for example,
    as a general rule, that the sun

    warms the earth when it rises
    in the east in the morning

    but cools it at evening
    when descending into the western sea.

    But the ancient of ancients, Te Mahuta Ngahere,
    his head dreadlocked

    with epiphytes and trailing vines,
    his forehead suppurating

    from knobbly cankers, irritated bees
    whining from his armpits

    and guano compacting
    in the cracks of his great girth —

    the father of the forest's oblivious
    to the trivial diurnality

    of creatures in the clearing
    he's made for himself,

    their endogenous or exogenous rhythms,
    their crepuscular singing,

    their nocturnal flitting– what
    difference does it make

    whether the sun rises in the east or not,
    or even if it will?

    Why would he bother to hope
    for anything that repetitive?

    Four thousand years is a long time
    to keep noticing trivia

    which is why the clearing in the forest
    seems to empty suddenly

    as a party of eco-tourists
    wanders into it

    wondering why their minds
    have gone blank.

    It's like a drug, the thought of eternity
    flatlining in a space

    where everything's motionless
    and all bets are off,

    the gummy nectar of time
    reduced to blobs of amber

    in which something you knew once,
    like your credit card's PIN number,

    is just another chronotype
    you gaze at without recognition,

    as you do the sunrise (or sunset)
    that warms (or cools) you

    whenever another day begins (or ends).
    The morningness — eveningness debate goes on

    and on, always the same
    but always different

    like the tour guide's rhapsody
    as his captive audience nods off

    into the space-time continuum.
    For me, it's often about now

    that my raptures and griefs
    jam each other's signals

    and the mere sight of someone
    smiling to themselves

    where they're stepping up
    into a bus on Courtenay Place

    at some indeterminate
    time of day

    is enough to make me
    sob into my sleeve

    and turn aside to the window
    of Arty Bees Books where,

    through teary eyes, I see the copy of Larks and Owls
    I've 'always wanted'.

    Like most people I know,
    I've also always wanted to save the world

    or at least that clearing in it
    where I find myself at a standstill,

    like Narcissus staring through himself
    into a shop window

    at a kind of visual echo,
    the Zeitgebers of east and west

    leaning their sunlit heads together,
    brothers in arms, the lifeguards

    of rising and setting, empty of hope
    and full of it, swapping yarns

    about arms waving or sinking
    out there in the rip.


    A buzzing in the ears as if bees
    were swarming in my thoughts

    or as if my head had become
    a clearing in the forest

    filled with the never-too-late serenades
    of cicadas at summer's end

    makes me long for the gritty obscurity
    of the west's waves

    or the suave silence of eastern lagoons
    through which pouting fish

    mutely swim. On the other hand,
    if I listen carefully enough

    to the sound of my own listening,
    I might eventually hear something.

    The hum of longing seems to fade at last
    into a kind of aural impasto,

    thick and bland, without apparent surface
    but also without depth.

    Neither meniscus nor void, without perspective,
    not flat and not profound,


Excerpted from The Lifeguard by Ian Wedde. Copyright © 2013 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.

Table of Contents


The Lifeguard,
Another bottle of oil,
Harry Martens,
Mahmoud Darwish,
Oum Kalsoum,
Shadow Stands Up,

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