The Wreck of the Orpheus

On 7 February 1863 the steam corvette H.M.S. Orpheus, a warship carrying stores for Her Majesty’s ships on the New Zealand station, ran aground on sandbanks at the Manukau bar and went down with 189 out of 250 officers and men drowned. This disaster, the worst in New Zealand’s maritime history, is being commemorated at Whatipu this year. The organisers asked me to write a poem for the event. I’d been out at Whatipu with my son Carlos and grandson Sebo, and I thought about the shipwreck with this happy beach-day in mind – a remembrance of the sailors who lost their lives, a hope for Sebo’s safety; and also a homage to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s great poem The Wreck of the Deutschland (1876). Some of Hopkins’s rhythms and alliterations are echoed in my poem, and some of his most striking and terrifying lines are quoted in italics. My thanks to the organisers of the Orpheus commemoration, especially Lynton Diggle, for the opportunity to contribute.

The Wreck of the Orpheus

From the summer beach my grandson Sebo sees
what he thinks are seagulls swarming and swirling out there
where the sea humps up across the lumpy horizon
but that’s not birds I tell him it’s waves breaking as wind and tide
shove seawater across shifting sand-shallows, gull-white water
chopping every-which way where the ghost-ship breaches
and breaks up at the bar, the silty river pouring into the bay
one way, the tide the other, sand-banks heaved sideways,
the tricky channel shifting across the sea-floor.
Man’s useless maps can’t stop them, stall them, make them stay.
Shifting sands tricked and trapped the Orpheus that day.

In a rock-pooled gut cutting the headland at low tide
Sebo finds broken, barnacled boat-timbers with rusted bolts,
splintered beams and bulk heads clustered with mussels,
and in the gale-battered cliff above, look! – a rock-faced giant
guarding the wreck, eyes and mouth wind-hollowed
for birds to nest in, a pastoral forehead ... but there was no shelter
for Orpheus
                          prey of the gales, of the bleak-about air, the breaker,
sway of the sea that storms and stars deliver, the goal
was a shoal, the sea flint-flake, black-backed in the regular blow,
the combs of a smother of sand and the inboard seas
run swirling and hawling, the rash smart sloggering brine.
One hundred and eighty-nine men dragged down to the shifting sand.

Sebo and I build bright-mica’d channels and sea walls
and watch the tide wash them away, and our footprints as well,
the gentle swell pushing sand up the beach
and sucking it back when the tide turns,
smooth-slicked shine of sea-glazed sand sun-baked, lifting
off then in dry whirlygigs, ghosts of shoals blowing away
into summer’s heat-haze, mirages of masts and shining sails
appearing and disappearing the length of the ship-wreck coast.

And other phantoms Sebo sees, surfers shimmy to shore
in the shimmer of sunshine, vague in the salty air,
and crash back under the rip-curl ... gone! Have they? Gone under?
But back up they bob, Sebo, look! – as I hope you always will,
and never know the shifting sands that drowned
poor Orpheus’ crew whom we standing here on hard ground
mourn and remember, and their brave brothers
who gave their lives to save them when all was lost.