Diana Bridge

The Laureate blog's current guest is a poet I very much admire. Diana Bridge has had five volumes published by Auckland University Press, and is also a Chinese scholar. Here she pays tribute to a favourite English writer, translates a classic Chinese poem, and posts three of her new poems.


Several years ago I was introduced to Geoffrey Hill's marvellous poem 'The Peacock at Alderton'. At the time I had been raiding the Wellington Public Library for Hill's small volumes. Though his topics were sometimes frustratingly recondite, and a poem's sense often hard won, what kept me reading was Hill's blend of compressed lyricism and hard-hitting observation. I particularly loved the way he jumped between registers, the demotic strength of his language allied to the loveliness of so many lines.

One of the things that had attracted me in Hill's work was glimpses of a poet-narrator who stands at an angle to the poem's high, sometimes angry, sometimes anguished, moral seriousness. In the poem below, that self takes up more of the stage. The poet-narrator welds together a variously-sourced identity, one that is wrested from improbable combinations, intricately balanced. As the poem goes on, that constructed self continues to stalk lines of apparently pure description: Hill's magnificently observed peacock feathers. And, when feathers morph into bird and the poem lifts into an account of the peacock of the title, the writer self continues to shadow it, the conflation clinched, right at the end of the poem, with the mention of the peacock's voice, his occasional scream.

The Peacock at Alderton

Nothing to tell why I cannot write
in re Nobody; nobody to narrate this
latter acknowledgement: the self that counts
words to a line, accountable survivor
pain-wedged, pinioned in the cleft trunk,
less petty than a sprite, poisonous as Ariel
to Prospero's own knowledge. In my room
a vase of peacock feathers. I will attempt
to describe them, as if for evidence
on which a life depends. Except for the eyes
they are threadbare: the threads hanging
from some luminate tough weed in February.
But those eyes – like a Greek letter,
omega, fossiled in an Indian shawl;
like a shaved cross-section of living tissue,
the edge metallic blue, the core of jet,
the white of the eye in fact closer to beige,
the whole encircled with a black-fringed green.
The peacock roosts alone on a Scots pine
at the garden end, in blustery twilight
his fulgent cloak stark as a warlock's cape,
the maharajah-bird that scavenges
close by the stone-troughed, stone terraced, stone-ensurfed
Suffolk shoreline; at times displays his scream.

Geoffrey Hill (2007) | Listen to The Peacock at Alderton

Some time later, I gave in to the urge to respond to what I had read of the corpus of this towering poet, and to sum up in a poem something of its effect on me:

Prospero’s stones

I have thumb-printed your last volume.

Here are incantations. Satisfactions struck
in half-line lengths, driven phrases that lap
around each other. I shiver as they bind.
Here are the peacock’s screams at evening:
harsh as the santoor, refined as a high
high string, dashing the face of 'we shall,
tee-tum, live happy ever after' with a splash
of anguish. Here stones are scored with
a prophet’s bloody one-eyed censure.
Release me from their charge? You will not.
Yet see them, often as not, fracked into
lyric slices or, hollowed to catch rainfall,
cupping reflections of untainted beauty.
Then there are some – I would say hallowed
but let it be soft-cornered by acceptance,
where all that we expected was late stubborn grief.

(Published PN Review, December, 2011)


In the 1980s, I read a lot of Chinese classical poetry and finished up the decade writing a dissertation on one of the formative aspects of regulated verse, the verse form perfected in the Tang (618-907), and regarded as the apogee of classical poetry. While I was writing my thesis in Hong Kong, poems of my own began to float into my head, probably as a gesture of rebellion against the court language with which I struggled every day. Thirty years on, at the instigation of a far better scholar than I, Peter Harris, I am beginning to collaborate with him on the translation of a selection of favourite classical Chinese poems.

I offer here a translation of perhaps the most famous classical Chinese poem written in a husband's voice, that of Du Fu (712-770), to the wife from whom he was separated. The background to this poem is of civil war, detention and separation. It is probable that it was written around the time of the full moon that marks the Mid-Autumn Festival, which Chinese families traditionally celebrate together with moon-cakes, wine and gazing at the moon. In September of 756 Du Fu had been captured by rebel soldiers and detained in the capital, Chang'an.

A moonlit night

Tonight there is a full moon in Fuzhou.
My wife will watch it on her own.
Away from them, my thoughts are with my children,
Themselves too young to understand, or miss me in Chang'an.
A scented mist has wet her mass of hair.
In the clear moonlight her jade-white arms are cold.
When shall we two lean in the open window,
Light drying up the joint tracks of our tears?


Three new poems

Camellia Gully

Within days the lime that canopies the left side
of the valley has thinned into a parasol. Its greens
and pale yellows are the shades of summer – the way
we feel, against expectation. The season is autumn;
autumn has much to recommend it – runs on the board,
for one thing, although the tree is drier, bonier and its raised
bark splits. You could wring the symbolism out of that.
Next up, a drift of outsize spangles, as the wind shakes
into frenzy all the glossy bushes, those subspecies
that lie together in Camellia Gully. And now the tree
is given over to gold. It is still dressed, still itself.
Let it be true, we whisper, for the rest of life.

When the tree opens

The pine tree halts, like a spine on the brink of parting,
and lets you into its world. You look up into the hollow
where, keen to see biology reflected, you spot,
sheathed in that tough cable stretched across its mouth,
the great rope of the cauda equina, the pine's plait of nerves.
Further in, concealed below a fluff of lichen that wraps
the opening's corrugated lip, you glimpse in layers
of assorted wood the shelves of a whole library.
Before the scene has time to settle, shelves convert to lines,
the lines of a single poem: a free verse composition
braced with an armature of rhyme so cunningly implanted
no one twigs. And so you stretch it to the limit,
your way of seeing. It takes a spider to re-route you.
Unmoved by anything you see, or strain to see,
it struggles to complete its mortal mission. As it sways
across the chasm, it traps you in its glittering rigging,
hooking you on a wonder not of your own making,
entangling you in passions set far outside yourself.

Is there anything to match it?

When it appears, its arc spanning the harbour,
and there it lies in all its braided brilliance, everyone
talks colour. Is there anything, they ask, to match it?
I think about the course the rainbow takes: one foot
grounded in the moment, its unmoored trunk sways
upwards, light as longing, before its weight tips it
into a U-turn; then comes the symmetry of its descent,
when it is down, down, if not to earth, it must end
somewhere; its hoop is like a circuit of the mind,
taking you to the edge of the universe and back.
A poem ends in human arms. The rainbow
is a flyover to anywhere you wish. But for that,
I’d say of all things it is closest to a poem – up to,
and including, the moment of its dream-like fade.

Strangers on a World Poetry Day

Fleur Adcock, the Auckland born; now UK resident poet, editor, and translator recently celebrated her 80th birthday, and for World Poetry Day we would like to acknowledge her contribution to the world of poetry.

The British poet Fiona Sampson in a Guardian review of Adcock’s 2013 collection Glass Wings observed:

Like her fellow New Zealander [Katherine Mansfield], Adcock is a literary writer in her limpid, apparently artless style and the precise emotional intelligence of her observations. It's a technique whose ambition is revealed, as was Mansfield's, in its modernising effect. Informality and immediacy are vivid ways to remake a world; and Adcock's style has not dated in the half-century since her debut.

Here, as an instance of Adcock’s 'informality and immediacy' is her reading of 'Strangers on a Tram' from the 2010 collection Dragon Talk.

Jasmine Revolution Poem

One of the luxuries of living in a decent democracy is the liberty to be embarrassed by most contemporary political poetry. Poetry has become so polite we are even a touch wary of being reminded that words are so easily there for the taking. No one is trying to tell us which ones we can use, which ones we can't. If no one needs to keep us quiet, then why on earth would we feel we're at risk? But there are dozens of countries where poets pay a price for not accepting that the word-hoard of language belongs only to a few. One of the things a laureate blog might do is at least to show we know about such writers. There’s solidarity even in that. And it doesn’t much matter whether they are good writers or mediocre ones or even less. Translation barriers usually prevent us from being able to judge. But aesthetic judgments are not what most matter to them. What does, is to be part of a world where language is not claimed to be the possession of political elites.

Mohammed-al-Ajani, a thirty eight year old Qatari, the father of four children, did not respect the regime that governed him, and that he had no part in choosing. He said so in a poem, a straightforward statement that had none of the subtlety say of Mandelstam's famous poem on Stalin that took him to the camps. In one sense it was the broadest kind of 'banner poetry'. But he read it aloud, and was sentenced to fifteen years solitary confinement, for conspiring against the state. This is part of his 'Jasmine Revolution Poem,' translated by Abu-zeid.

When we lay blame
only the base and the vile suffer from it;
and when we praise
we do it with all our hearts.
A revolution was kindled with the blood of the people

tell them in a shrouded voice, a voice from the grave,
tell them that tragedies precede all victories.

This question that keeps you up at night –
it won’t be found
on any of the official channels. . . .
Why, why do these regimes
import everything from the West –
everything but the rule of law, that is,
and everything but freedom?

Let us entrust entirely to the gods

Thanks to a chance enquiry about Greek writing on papyrus, two previously lost poems by Sappho have been uncovered. Oxford's Dr Obbink has shared his findings and the texts online, and they're raising a stir.

Metafilter user Bromius quickly provided a rough translation (have a read of the thread – there's already another translation and some great conversation about their choices):

[Several missing stanzas]

But you always prattle on that Charazon is coming
With a full ship: Zeus, I think,
And all the gods know this, and you
Must not think about it.

You must, rather, send me off and order me
To pray many things to Queen Hera:
That Charazon, sailing his boat
Arrive here

And find us safe and sound. The rest
Let us entrust entirely to the gods:
For fair weather can arise suddenly
From a great storm:

Those for whom the King of Olympus
Wishes a spirit as a helper with troubles,
They become happy
And greatly blessed.

And if Larichos ever lifted his head
And became a man,
He would free us, too,
From very great despair.

Undoubtedly translations are being worked up all over the internet. Please add a link in the comments if you find one you like.

Vincent's Version of Sappho

A version of the last Sappho discovery a few years ago appeared in Vincent's Blame Vermeer in 2007.

Version of Sappho

Make the most of it while you can,
my girls- of what the Muses give you,
the splendid fashions they pass on,
the lyre in your hands this moment.
I've a different story. The old always have.
This hair - of course it was black.
My heart wasn't always this despondent.
I once danced with the best of them,
'like a fawn', as we say. Now just standing's
the problem!
                           Here's a moral for you.
Dawn with her famously lovely arms
once carried off Tithonus - should you want
the man's name - to the ends of the earth.
Once there she figured he was hers for good.
That's how handsome she thought him, how
he caught her breath. And yet age, oh yes,
age took even him, the same age
that cripples me. And what if the woman
who loved him, who carried him off,
was immortal? As if it matters, in the end.
He is still dead, Tithonus.

from Blame Vermeer, Victoria University Press, 2007.

Michael Harlow

"In the company of map makers you are one"

It seems to me that one of the best things to do with a Laureate blog is to give air time to a fellow poet one admires – as I do now with Michael Harlow. And what better time to do it, with his taking part in Writers and Readers Week next month in Wellington, and the publication shortly of Sweeping the Courtyard, his selected poems, due from Cold Hub Press. A collection of his love poems, Heart absolutely I can, will also shortly appear from the recently established Makaro Press in Wellington.

My own regard for his work is put in a jacket note for that volume, where I recall first reading him soon after he settled here back in the 1970s, when 'his impact had much to do with the distance between what anyone else here was interested in doing, and his going about his own poetry in a way that seemed both singular and confident.' That, even more so, is my view when I now read him at length in his Selected Poems, and recall his own credo – 'the rich delight' as he calls it, of a poet's 'looking out and listening-in for a language to say something about how mysterious we are to ourselves and to the world.'

Black and white portrait of poet Michael Harlow, who is bearded and wearing his watch around the wrong way.
Photo by the Otago Daily Times.

As well as his own poems, I’ve asked him to choose three of his favourite poems by other writers – one is by Sir Thomas Wyatt, who died in 1549, another by Wallace Stevens, published over ninety years ago, and the third by Emma Neale, from her 2012 collection, The Truth Garden.

The company of map makers

In the company of map makers you are one.
   When you lay out the world there are no
straight lines. There is only clamouring for it
   in occluded offices where high words plump
for the 'straight and narrow', and are bluster.

   The only rule that's truly to itself is clear:
turn, and follow the stories. And the stories inside
   them is what map makers do. To know how
mind’s thought feels its way through dark,
   and the light of the dark. To see what it feels like

to follow earth's curve the shape of what you
   imagine, and are imagined by. An art to make
any surprise a wonder. There is laughter buried
   here. To follow the song of hurrying water,
to recall the 'river of rivers' rushing to the sea
   to lose its name, then returning to take another.

In word-struck lines of optic infatuation you are
   mapping the territory to make the invisible, visible.
To know how the imposing impossible is possible,
   when it is like this: 'the air is full of flying children';
and trees are so musical they are always scoring
   'harmonies of a heaven'. And to know the turbulence

of women, and then their quietude – is to find a place
   to be, and being what is in us to attain. When you say
there is no one thing naturally alone on either side
   of the great divide – to map that, is no sophistical aside.
That finally you would like to 'die with life'. And to know
   today’s map is tomorrow the same, but always different.

– Michael Harlow

They Flee From Me

Read "They Flee From Me"

– Thomas Wyatt

All about the world

Last week
my friend’s daughter Cassandra
asked me in a small voice of wonder,
if I wouldn’t mind could I tell her
all about the world?

Today she
telephoned and said I’m going to tell you
about yesterday and about poetry, too,
since they had been hearing poetry at school

Uh huh, I said
because I couldn’t think of anything else
to say, and besides it had been hard work
not telling her all about the world

She said then
lowering her voice, letting me in on a big
one, Poetry is when words sing. And then she
added since she was in that kind of hurry
to catch up with tomorrow

About one hundred years
from now trees will be called very important
people. I could hear that already she knew enough
of all about the world to keep her singing.

– Michael Harlow

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Read "The Emperor of Ice-Cream"

– Wallace Stephens, read by Tom O'Bedlam

Today is the piano’s birthday

        Today is the piano’s birthday. Yesterday it was found weeping
in the garden. Mother was not there, father was gone. But today
is the piano’s birthday...

        Under the balalaika tree the children touch it. The piano’s
foot-pedals hum.

        Hurrah! shout the children. The piano is on holiday! They sing
the birthday song. They bound up and down. They strike the exact
note without looking, without looking the piano writes a song for
the children...

        Plinking, planking, plonk – the piano conducts the children through
a small wood of ivory. The children sing with their feet. They call
to mother who is dreaming on the lawn, to father who is at the office
polishing his machines...

        The piano falls into a dream. The children listen. From far off,
birds with the faces of women enter the garden. They lie down.
They call to the children. The children listen. They lean into
the darkness. They decide. They curl inside the piano’s birthday.
The children are the size of a crotchet. The piano grows around them.

        The piano is being dreamed. The children are the stories.
They are listening... to mother wake on the lawn and touch the space
around her... to father close the office door...

        And today is the piano’s birthday.

        If we listen – we can hear mother call them, we can hear father
enter the house, carefully. If we listen – we can hear the very first
song the children sing, the very first dream the piano dreams...
we can hear... mother and father touch each other with wonder...

– Michael Harlow

On the death of a daughter

Nowadays often he finds himself down at the river
with fishing rods and home-made lures
that dance as colour-drenched and flamboyant
as an opera diva’s earrings
though the gear, and the catch (if any) aren’t the point.

He goes because he has to.
Because sometimes a twig floats by,
or a bird jags past,
or a dragonfly balances
on thin air.

And it’s -
            he cannot finish what it is.

Yet in this still room
we feel the river move on and on
as if there were comfort
in something pushing forward from its source,
always forward,
light gleaming on its surface instant after instant,
each sudden vision – leaf, water-beetle, seed-pod -
a match that is struck against a deep-running dark.

– Emma Neale

Jennifer Compton

A word from Vincent

The obvious point of this site is to celebrate and present the breadth of experience and formal variety that poetry embraces. I shall be inviting a guest poet to contribute work of their own, and to select a poem by a living writer they value, as well as a poem from an earlier era that continues to matter to them.

The first guest poet is Jennifer Compton, a New Zealander who has lived for many years near Melbourne, and was back in Wellington as the resident writer at the Randell Cottage in 2010. She was the winner of the Kathleen Grattan Award for her collection, This City, mostly written while at the cottage, and published in 2011 by Otago University Press.

Most of these blogs will also speak of a poet who is or has been punished or persecuted as a writer for refusing to accept the constraints imposed by a regime or a government threatened by creativity and independent thought. The present blog celebrates the Ghanaian Kofi Awoonor, who was among those killed in a terrorist attack in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, last September, on the day he was scheduled to read at a literary festival.

"Across a New Dawn"

Sometimes, we read the
lines in the green leaf
run our fingers over the
smooth of the precious wood
from our ancient trees;

Sometimes, even the sunset
puzzles, as we look
for the lines that propel the clouds,
the colour scheme
with the multiple designs
that the first artist put together

There is dancing in the streets again
the laughter of children rings
through the house
On the seaside, the ruins recent
from the latest storms
remind of ancestral wealth
pillaged purloined pawned
by an unthinking grandfather
who lived the life of a lord
and drove coming generations to
despair and ruin


But who says our time is up
that the box maker and the digger
are in conference
or that the preachers have aired their robes
and the choir and the drummers
are in rehearsal?

No; where the worm eats
a grain grows.
the consultant deities
have measured the time
with long winded
arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes
to the door with his own
inimitable calling card
shall find a homestead
resurrected with laughter and dance
and the festival of the meat
of the young lamb and the red porridge
of the new corn


We are the celebrants
whose fields were
overrun by rogues
and other bad men who
interrupted our dance
with obscene songs and bad gestures

Someone said an ailing fish
swam up our lagoon
seeking a place to lay its load
in consonance with the Original Plan

Master, if you can be the oarsman
for our boat
please do it, do it.
I asked you before
once upon a shore
at home, where the
seafront has narrowed
to the brief space of childhood

We welcome the travelers
come home on the new boat
fresh from the upright tree

(From Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems, 1964-2013, by Kofi Anyidoho. Reproduced with the permission of the University of Nebraska Press and the Ghana Poetry Foundation. Copyright 2014 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.)

Kofi Awoonor was also a teacher, a diplomat, an essayist and novelist, and the eminent father-figure of contemporary African poetry in English, although it drew deeply from the singing and oral traditions of his Ewe people. As Wole Soyinka wrote on hearing of his death, he stood against 'corruption of the soul', and 'was imbued with the spirit of ecumenism towards other systems of belief and cultural usages.'

– Vincent O’Sullivan

Selected works and selections

"Now You Shall Know" has just won the Newcastle Poetry Prize 2013 – quite a big deal here in Australia, a $12,000 prize – so at the moment it is my favourite poem. Also, I am on a bit of a mission for the shorter poem, and I was well pleased a 52 line poem could win a prize that allows entries up to 200 lines.

Like me, Eric Beach is a New Zealander who is a long time resident of Australia, and I love his affection for his adopted home, and his wry humour, and his laconic, elegant depiction of inland Australia. I have heard perform him this poem and it was a scream, he set the whole house on a roar.

And of course, "Adlestrop". This poem has haunted me ever since I read it, a very long time ago now. Wherein lies its power, its continual magic? I can't explain it. For me, I think it has something to do with the delicious rhyme in the last stanza – mistier and Gloucestershire. But that's not the whole story.

I have written a homage to "Adlestrop"; "Alamein" is from my book This City, published by Otago University Press.

– Jennifer Compton

Now You Shall Know

Maria Callas sings the aria 'Voi lo sapete' from Cavalleria Rusticana

The aeroplane is hung in the sky from a clever hook, so we seem
to inhabit a thrumming stillness, but we believe we are travelling

forward. A little this way and a little that way, up and then down
as if we are nosing out a scent. And there is a singing in my ears.

This is cleverness. Recalled from history, the voice of Maria Callas
and the presence of that audience, their rapt surrendering translated

into a thing of monstrous beauty, as she screams, exquisitely, her high
anguish. Or is it our commonwealth of torment? It is, anyway, almost

unendurable. As human as anything is. And everyone present is part
of this. She pauses. She breathes. The orchestra dawdles to intimate

there is a resolution to come. And then he coughs. The man cannot
contain himself a moment longer, the paroxysm erupts. He coughs.

Forever, at this point, he interrupts. Whatever else he did in his life
he coughed and is now part of the story—which I can't follow but

can tell is of dark betrayal and death. And of the tickle in his throat.
But I don't know—non lo so—what it might mean—'Voi lo sapete'.

You it will know? You will come to know it? Now I am being previous.
I am hung in the sky knowing nothing of what I will come to know.


Held high in the palm of technology's hand, awaiting our delivery
to a runway, a skybridge, a carousel—to our eternal mother, maybe

propping up on the pillows like a bright-eyed dolly. Oh holy dread.
There is nowhere else to sleep this midnight except within her reach.

Believe me. In this house there are no other beds in which I may sleep.
She doesn't whisper stories all night in the dark, her mouth to my ear,

in a language that I used to know, a shuffle of syllables, as if she can
talk me back into her sad, shamefaced arms, snowball's chance of that.

But in the morning when we wake, she laughs, and denounces me as
a blanket thief. A rusted coil has eased. You selfish old woman—I say.

But I am an old woman also. Two old women waking to the new day
that will bring a sudden jolt that is the beginning of the end for her.

I have imagined what I might feel dressing for my mother's funeral,
and as I pinned her lily-of-the-valley brooch to my grey lapel, I knew.


I have flown in with a book in my clever hand. She loses all feeling
in her left hand. I quit the house to speak to everyone at once. She

is lifted into an ambulance. Something tells me she is about to throw
the performance of her life—her parting shot—the last big push with

everything she’s got. I read that poem—she says—the one about...
ah yes—that one—the one about... we are in the busy corridor of

the hospital close to the grief room. And I know that she will die soon.
This is the hospital where I was born. Once again she reaches for all

her strength and pushes me away from her. I didn’t know—she says.
And that is enough. Go—the voice in my head says—just go. Now.

– Jennifer Compton

wimmera roadsong

on the left hand side

               we have the left hand side

& on the right

               we have the right hand side

& a silo straight ahead

flat roads lead to friday night

               they rolled their car & are dead

the wheatfields they are young & green

                               the donald farmer shakes his head

the racecourse is brown in warracknabeal

                               hopetoun streets are red

the lake's dry out of rainbow

               & the cockies

               (that's the birds, not the farmers)

               look well fed

on the left hand side

               we have the left hand side

& on the right

               we have the right hand side

& a silo straight ahead

the barber's sweeping main street

               lest we forget avenue

now the second barber's sweeping main street

                               butcher shops like marble too

yesterday's marked down at the bakery

                               & the river looks like stew

on the left hand side

               we have the left hand side

& on the right

               we have the right hand side

& a silo straight ahead

two kids share one ice-cream

               another brief lick at the drought

when the dirt blows there's no fence

               that will keep the dirt out

only stars hang in the window

roos, moving south

– Eric Beach


Read "Adlestrop"


At Camberwell she chants—Change here for the Alamein line.
So I did because my uncle used to say that word in a certain way.

Riversdale Willison Hartwell Burwood Ashbuston Alamein.
I was the only person who got off here. And nobody got on.

A bemused and indolent suburb, stunned by peace.
A slow car bumbling through the shadows of trees.

A shop with a tiny woman behind the tower of tic-tacs
and the deep throb of the drinks fridge by the sticky door.

I looked around for a war memorial but I could find none.
Just an insignificant station like the original El Alamein.

The sunshine and the lazy trees and the somnolent ease
are a true memorial for my uncle and the men like him.

– Jennifer Compton

First day on the beat

Vincent receives the National Library tokotoko from Hon Chris Tremain. Photograph by Mark Beatty.

There's nothing like being presented with a marvellously myth-laden and symbolic tokotoko by the Minister of Internal Affairs to focus the mind on what that rather chromium-plated phrase, 'Poet Laureate', bears with it – the tradition of poets who carry on the business of poetry very much in their own way. I don't think many prescriptions for poetry stand up apart from one – if it isn't individual, if it's not 'the cry of its occasion', then why aren't we doing something else?

Since the laureateship though is a public role, as well as a personal trust, there’s the very reasonable expectation that what you are up to as a poet becomes information that you are prepared to share. This means both what one does, and where one's values as a writer lie, are there to be observed. Here, I will say something of what I may have been doing in the world of fellow poets and their varied interests. This site will also carry new and unpublished poems I may have been working on, and poems by others I particularly admire. I shall also invite different poets to choose a poem of their own, as well as contemporary and older pieces that significantly ring for them. It's the breadth of poetry I want to take in, not just my own narrow questing through its terrain.

If I may rattle the banner for a moment, poetry is hospitable to pretty much anything, other than the cosy and complacent. As a kind of masthead, I begin with what must be close to my favourite New Zealand poem, a touchstone for so much that I like poetry to do. Then two poems from my last collection, Us, Then, published just before the laureateship was announced.

And special thanks to Ian, for his kind good wishes as the baton changes hands. Here’s to Berlin.

Spectacular Blossom, by Allen Curnow

Mock up again, summer, the sooty altars
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.

Are the victims always so beautiful?

Pearls pluck at her, she has tossed her girls
Breast-flowers for keepsakes now she is going
For ever and astray. I see her feet

Slip into the perfect fit the shallows make her
Purposefully, sure as she is the sea
Levels its lucent ruins underfoot

That were sharp dead white shells, that will be sands.
The shallows kiss like knives.

Always for this.
They are chosen for their beauty.

Wristiest slaughterman December smooths
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
Justly, simply as water greets the blood,
And woody tumours burst in scarlet spray.

An old man’s blood spills bright as a girl’s
On beaches where the knees of light crash down.
These dying ejaculate their bloom.

Can anyone choose
And call it beauty?–The victims
Are always beautiful.

About Allen Curnow.
Reproduced courtesy of the copyright holder, Tim Curnow.

On the track above the bay

Grinning was the best part of it,
once you’d scoffed the blackberries
up above the beach:
                                          you grinned black
like a crazed ink-drinker,
rusted ink, let’s say:
                                         an elderly
man who had eaten libraries
liked watching the child:
taste bitter, or better than others,
you’ll never run out', though
scratches along her arms’ll tell him
how 'Hard to get at them, see, my wrists
still bleeding'.
                             It's red scribble, she thinks
of. Or 'Like lace', he wants to tell her,
'like stinging lace'.

First time, about Easter

There was a donkey inside a wire fence where the road
begins its first climb to the Rimutakas.

We passed it on Friday late afternoon for years,
passed it again coming back on Sundays, or thought

so in winter, when the dark was already down.
It was more grey than not, though children

reasonably argued the toss, and its muzzle
this frosty white, without question. You could not of course

hear from inside the car, but once we saw
its neck extended, its teeth displayed, without

doubt it was braying, and looked hurt: our driver
said No, it was nothing like it, yet thought of the horse

with the spiked tongue in Guernica, the blue-grey horse,
or paler even, imagine the glare of a search-light

picking it out in a show called 'War Arriving'.
Then one day it is gone, the donkey on the first

incline towards the Rimutaka hill. A dozen reasons.
I forgot, says another driver, a long time later,

to ever mention, did I, the one time
it snowed that far down the hill, the donkey

standing in the white paddock brought tears
to my eyes? Its head hung forward

as though too heavy for its body. As though,
finally and forever, that bit too much.

A donkey in a snowed-in paddock, under trees black
as its hooves. On the Rimutaka road. One Friday.

Your new Poet Laureate

The National Library is thrilled to announce our selection of the New Zealand Poet Laureate for 2013-2015: Vincent O’Sullivan.

Photograph by Mark Beatty.

One of New Zealand’s most significant literary figures, Vincent will be a superb voice of and for the nation’s poetry. The British critic Chris Millar recently wrote of O’Sullivan’s work, "You can’t ask much more of a poet than wit, profundity and elegance, and they’re all here in spades."

While Vincent settles in, we welcome him to the site – here for him to use as he will for the next two years – with a poem from his most recent book, Us, Then.

Road from the Camp

A story here I wish I hadn’t heard –
a row of prisoners stitched with yellow stars
marching a summer road, oddly surprised
to pass a compound lined with circus bears,

with creatures of diverse and mottled kind,
remnants from simple entertainments lost.
Both sides look up, confused, the memories stir,
the bears perform their stunts for favours tossed

once their way by children, parents – scraps
for begging paws. Those mimed displays
a hundred years back, was it? Thinking how
they and these once met in civil ways.

This is the story of the final show,
the trawl of stars from village and from city.
The bears withdraw their paws, conclude their dance,
watching the humans pass with almost pity.


On Wednesday 26 June we celebrated the end of my term as New Zealand poet laureate with a lunchtime reading and an evening book launch at the National Library in Wellington. It may sound strange to say that we 'celebrated' the fact that my time was up – what’s to celebrate? It’s been a great couple of years, now they’re over. What was being celebrated was the opportunity for another poet to have the opportunity, and what we’d done during my time.

I say 'we' because it’s been the involvement of other people that’s made the last two years worth celebrating. A short list will include:

The organisers of the book fair, and of the Smart Talks series, at the Old Library, Whangarei; Massey University’s 'Writers Read' series at Albany; the trustees of the Orpheus, Whatipu, for commissioning a poem commemorating the shipwreck; Metro magazine, for commissioning an ode to Auckland Town Hall; Auckland Central Library, for hosting a number of great events; the poets who took part in those events in Auckland, and also at Matahiwi, here in Wellington, and in Blenheim, including John Newton, Robert Sullivan, Cilla McQueen, Hinemoana Baker, Amy Barnard, and Marty Smith (at Matahiwi); Murray Edmond, Mary Paul, Iain Sharp, and Michele Leggott (Young Knowledge, Auckland); Amy Brown, Lynn Jenner, and Aleksandra Lane (Words on Edge, Wellington); Bill Manhire, Bernadette Hall, and Sir Andrew Motion (The Place of Poetry, Wellington); Cliff Fell, Dinah Hawken, and John Newton again (Writing Home, Blenheim) – and lots more along the way; partners in those key events, especially the new zealand electronic poetry centre (nzepc) at Auckland university; students at Auckland University, who took my poem 'Shadow Stands Up' for a ride on the green Link bus; the hosts of Going West, Poetry Live, spit.it.out, and Auckland Writers and Readers Festival; the University of Waikato, for inviting me to give the Frank Sargeson memorial lecture; He Whanui o Matahiwi, ko Te Matau a Maui te Whare Tipuna, especially Tom Mulligan, who challenged me to write something for Matahiwi based on Psalm 23 (not finished yet); Jacob Scott, he tohunga whakairo, for the beautiful tokotoko, and Tama Huata for blessing it; Sir John Buck, for the support, and the superb wine (still got some); Tony Chad at the Upper Hutt Library; the very special people at the National Library – especially Peter Ireland, Reuben Schrader, and Keith Thorsen; Cressida Bishop, at the Millenium Gallery in Blenheim; the organisers of the Christchurch Writers Festival; the IIML for inviting me to judge the NZ Secondary Schools Poetry Prize, and to select the Best NZ Poems for 2012; my publisher Auckland University Press, and the wonderful team there, especially Anna Hodge and Poppy Haynes for the editing, Katrina Duncan for her book design – and Phil Kelly for the great cover design and photographs for The Lifeguard; and, importantly, the National Library and the Department of Internal Affairs for their generous support for the Poet Laureate programme – which has been a wonderful experience and honour for me, in many practical as well as intangible ways.

I asked Bill Manhire if he’d take on a renga challenge to be the last of these memorable collaborations, and he agreed; and to posting the result as a final blog. Here it is. It feels like a good place to finish and to thank all those listed above, and many others, for being generous, and great company. Quite a few of us had a wonderful lunch when this started in 2011, and we had a great dinner after the book launch on 26th. Think of the renga as a toast.


Fred’s footpath signage on P Road
promises lunch-time flâneurs
'coffee, food, friendship and fun'.

I’m good for friendship, thanks,
but give me a jumbo 'fun'
& does that come with sides?


– which takes me back to Upper Willis Street,
where the Settlement once sat,
a place called FAT ALBERTS

whose circular roadside shingle
had somehow spaced itself to FATAL BERTS;
so that maybe you smile but don't go in.


'Going in' is what we need to be doing,
even so – smiling, why not,
optimists that we are,

and hoping for a generous helping of fun,
'the whole enchilada' as we say,
sizing up 'Bert's' fatal consequence,


because it's dark down there, darkening,
and Judy's gone 'to the fish market',
she of the shining brow – but no,

suddenly she's back, fixing a fresh drink,
saying she thinks she knew you
in some other life, one you don't recall but


hey, where are we going with this?
There is no 'other' life, only this one,
in which Bella, aged three,

jumps in at the deep end
though she can’t swim
yet, but believes she will, when Bert...


but Bert has left the premises,
left the poem – he never learned to swim.
He walks beside the ocean,

on sand that talks of driftwood
– it bleaches and it sinks, it's binding –
and wonders what that stranger meant by


"... a quick snack shack
above the high tide wrack,
a take-away before the under-tow,

an oyster bar at Piha we’ll call
the Walrus and the Carpen-tar..."
Name of Fred? Said he did 'fun'?


But undertow's already making sense
– time to mention the tides!
Time to mention the moon! –

especially with someone way out there
at what could be the horizon
waving and calling “Clowns!” or “Kleos!”


Kleos! Claus! – could that be Bella,
already 'in the swim', so young
and out of her depth, beyond the reach

of Ruth’s moony tides or lighthouse brow,
the mother who just let the kid
go on believing in Santa Kleos


as if that might be reach and depth enough,
meaning it's just fine to be all at sea:
the big boat lowers a little boat

and now we're all being winched aboard
to make small talk to a captain
who knows that fathom means embrace


your cruise ship, fathom its delights,
its string trio and buffet lunch, its deck quoits
and quartermasters, its bowsprit parting

the fog with moist kissy sounds
like the cheek-pecks of amorous matelots
or the splutter of chilly champagne flutes!


So, yes, it could even be Fred and Bert,
old chums 'not in narrow seas'
drifting around these islands,

on deck in their deckchairs yet raising a glass
to the coast where 'renga' becomes
a clump of cliff-face rengarenga,


that juicy lily whose baked rhizomes
may be relished with friends, and whose flowers
can be plucked just for fun.

Ngorera: 'Me whakatupu
ki te hua o te rengarenga,
me whakapakari ki te hua o te kawariki.'

Be nourished by the fruit
of the rengarenga, and mature
like the fruit of the kawariki.

Shadow Stands Up #17

This will be the penultimate entry I make on the National Library’s blog site. The invitation to nominate a new poet laureate has been posted, and soon another writer will be enjoying the generous hospitality of these pages and the blog’s support crew, not least the guy who may seldom get the thanks he deserves: Reuben Schrader, who’s transformed my messy texts into the elegant pages you see on your screens. Thank you Reuben. (Ed: Aw, thanks.)

One of the enjoyable spin-offs from the involvement of students at Auckland University has been the project, at once inspired and bizarre, to use the university's Photon Factory research facility to shrink some verses of 'Shadow Stands Up' and laser them on to objects including a piece of coal, a bus card, a cork, and a key. I love this project because it reminds me of my favourite museum, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, Los Angeles. Here, you will find objects whose relationship to verifiable truth and material authenticity – or usefulness – is ambiguous to say the very least. The Microminiatures of Hagop Sandaldjian, for example – teeny-weeny sculptures that can fit inside the eye of a needle – are described in deadpan museum label-ese. "Each nearly weightless sculpture seems to hover between its slim hold on the material plane and the lucid and immeasurable reality of a mental image. Straddling the line between science, craft, art, and novelty, Sandaldjian's work befuddles our ability to make such distinctions, and in so doing, opens a space for wonder." Of course there’s a give-away: "nearly weightless"?

The possibility that Sandaldjian's works may not exist seems beside the point. They exist, or come to exist, inside a space called a 'museum', in much the way that words sometimes seem to exist inside a space called 'poetry'.

A bonus of this disappearing act which I also like is the sense I get of the 'Shadow Stands Up' poems, and my time on these pages, not exactly fading to black but disappearing to a pin-prick invisible to the naked eye.

You can see this happening at poetryoffthepage.org.nz, where an interactive website allows visitors to zoom in on the poems. Thank you to the students of Poetry off the Page 2012, who selected the objects and supplied initial design ideas for Jake, Rob, Fraser, Cather and the rest of the Photon Factory crew to implement, and to Michele Leggott and Helen Sword who run the Poetry Off the Page course. The ten inscribed objects, one for each of the first ten sections of 'Shadow Stands Up,' will now travel on to Special Collections at the University of Auckland Library, where a display involving physical and digital renditions of the project is being organised by Library staff.

The last full-size shadow you'll read here is number 17 (there are three more in the book...) in which a lovely dog called Pete is farewelled.


Dead of night, the sentinel
clock strikes three from the tower
at the junction of Three Lamps
where many roads converge if
you’re arriving but diverge
if you’re striking out. Goodbye
dear Pete, I’ll never forget our
walks up behind the zoo where
slyly slinking hyenas
stopped you in your tracks – shaking
with recognition you looked
over your shoulder as if
to ask, should I remember
this, is this what you mean by
that cacique of Westerners,
Anubis, black dog, Khenty-
Imentiu, whose shadow
stands up as he trots human
souls towards the Western Lands?