Epistemologies of Place
There's a side to beauty
that is sadness enduring.
There's a belief in beauty
that's peculiarly universal
while unique in itself
to this punter, or that.
It's more the idea
than the actuality
of this place, not who
had the idea for it
that becomes a reality
First there's the perception,
then the journey towards
understanding that comes,
you're told, with empathy;
and, finally, it's the where
you know that refines
the who you are. It's then,
you could say, landscape's
indifference in itself
mirrors our impermanence,
has no awareness of the dramas
which, paradoxically, heighten
and enhance the sense of the
numinous in nuance and hue.
In other words, you choose
what it is that makes for piety
and pleasure, and obligation,
and how you measure such,
and what is meant by home,
and why, or whether
you believe, before
your time's up, that
this big, unloved, untidy
unwalled room is it.
Improving for the Worse
I come from New Zealand.
Most people don't know where it is,
or what it stands for. Good.
Nor do most New Zealanders,
if they ever did. Sad.
All of us are islands, entirely lost,
pretending we are not.
What It's Like
When someone asks you to explain
what it's like where you come from
you say you're still finding out,
and it's not because you enjoy being
vague, or smart-arse, a sophist
if you like, it's just because it's true.
This morning frost then fog-like smoke
from a damp wood fire, then the sun
breaking through in lamé-like patches
until there's not even bandannas
left on the hills, and order's restored:
blue sky above incandescent snow.
When he said he felt as if
he was going south in a big way,
it wasn't the same as saying
he was going down south
where he was born
and should have stayed.
A friend took one look at him
and told me he was buggered,
on his way any day.
Going south: that's what
my father meant when he said
I thought they were going
to beam me up yesterday.
Going south: it's where,
all our lives, we've heard
it is 'behind the times', that
there was 'nothing there,
nothing to do'.
Nothing there? Nobody home, eh?
Just us, who they felt sorry for.
In a Sponsor's Tent
Once I set my mind to it
it wasn't that difficult to be affable
instead of distant, sombre, severe.
As James Salter wrote,
of his last moments at West Point,
'I found myself shaking hands
with men I had sworn not to.'
And I thought, Why not?
None are flawless, all
are fated to fall. There is
an immense brotherhood
that one wishes to belong to,
in spite of oneself, deep down.
Soon I shall again wing south
to that inalienable land
wherein one's sense of solitude
is thrilling and riddling
for what it says about
the us in me, the more we think
of unexplainable things.
You hear the wind
before you feel it,
see it harassing
and listen to limbs creak.
The rowan's suddenly a mass
of nervy red light, the agapanthus
plots of antic asterisks,
the tulips swaying back and forth
like worshippers about to speak
in tongues. The wind's a ferret
angry in the grass,
a cuff on the ear,
an irritant tousling one's hair.
Wind and Stars
Stars do it for us, and yet
when you read where another reckons
'we notice ... the wind among the stars'
you think that sounds a bit far-fetched.
We notice the stars among the stars
and their seeming absence
throughout the day. Apart from that,
what else? The way the wind spurs
the clouds, and the way the mountains
won't get out of the way.
August, Ida Valley
If you think about it
you could say
life is truth disturbed
by fictions we prefer,
and time wasting for some
is, as Mary Wesley
observed, 'going to bed
with old Etonians',
or not playing sport
for money in the mad
bad 21st of many
Yet somehow, after
the 10th snowfall
since late April, it seems
winter just won't go away,
sheep still have nothing
to eat but hay, and the
few hawks left are unwilling
to turn a blind eye.
Snow in September
Someone I've yet to meet
is playing a violin in the snow
in a field nearby
and it sounds like Beethoven
to me, and under the willows
by the stream
a young boy is weeping.
When the music stops
the boy will disappear
as he does every time,
When you're in the sky
the land's all over the place
as if it's been dropped
from a scary height
and is still trying to
work out how to get
When on land
the sky's always there,
dressing and undressing,
never short of clothes
or room to parade them in,
and always insatiable for air.
(after Bill McKibben's Wandering Home)
When snow is falling straight down
on coarse grass that's already brown,
the fire is fluttering,
and some mezzo is singing
a lament on the radio,
it's easy to go with the flow
of gilded memories ... of times
that ring like rhymes.
There's the smell of wood smoke,
too, a frog's quavery croak,
and a scent that can only be thyme
whose aroma is near sublime ...
and I think, when we say complete
we don't mean tidy, neat;
we mean order, what's appropriate,
the sane, mature passage of fate.
That is what we hunger for
from youth to drear death's door,
to gather a sense of relief
equally as strong as grief.
It's learning how to say goodbye,
to bury the lies where you lie,
to have made a certain private space
that you can claim to be your place.
(for Vincent and Helen)
There's a warm breeze blowing down
off the mountains
now that most of the snow has gone.
There's a song somewhere
in the heart of every man and woman
with the heart to sing.
There's elation born of relief
and the return of hope and grace
in the flight of a hawk over Rough Ridge.
There's beauty in the unruffled
olive green and grey feathers of silver-eyes
feeding on sugar on my schist stone wall.
There's rivers and streams that are
quieter again, and sheep and cattle
whose stoicism never falters.
There's the feeling exile's over,
and that, for all its limitations,
what's foretold has barely begun.
Full Moon in November
Orange and hearty in the fullness
of another month gone round.
There's tubular cloud couching the moon
smirking above the Hawkduns,
Venus bright in the tops of the birch
next-door, the leaves of an oak shuffling,
quelling anxiety; and across the road
one bare streetlight set to shine
until daylight returns. I go to bed
with Fauré's Requiem playing
in another room, moonlight milder
than the frenzied importuning of stars.
The grasses are wispy, the land's blond,
rivers mere streams, creeks dry.
Sheep scavenge, eat straw and stones
and the edges show through their skin.
Every bird's a rival by every dwindling pond.
Winds chap and burn. Far off, clouds
huddle in the ranges and deny us rain.
At night the sky's black and sprinkled
with all the stars this side of infinity
and, miles away, in small-time towns
and on parched farms, those you've never met
gather to chant Abide, abide, abide ...
The brightest star I can see tonight is dead
so astronomers and physicists say,
when explaining their understanding
of matters to do with illumination and ...
I wouldn't know, except to hope
beauty's for everyone, one way
or another; in the shapes of ducks
flying across the face of the moon,
or in the hues of bales of hay
lying in paddocks docile in sunlight,
in cirrus stretched over the mountains, in
insects scritching in bone-dry grass.
'Find your place on the planet, dig in, and take
responsibility from there.'
Affecting without affectation, like the sere hills
then the early evening sky where Sirius dominates
for a time, then is joined by lesser lights,
stars indistinct as those seen through the canopies
of trees shaking in the wind. There's this wish
to feel part of something wholly explicable
and irreplaceable, something enduring
and wholesome that suppresses the urge to fight ...
or is there? Ah, the cosmic questions
that keep on coming like shooting stars
and will, until, and then what? All I can say
is that for me nothing hurts more
than leaving and nothing less than coming home,
when a nor'wester's gusting in the pines
like operatic laughter, and the roadside grasses
are laced with the blue and orange and pink
of bugloss, poppies and yarrow, all of them
swishing, dancing, bending, as they do, as we do.
There's a bit battered
wool-buyer's truck in Omakau
that has painted on a plate
hanging on the tailgate
the words 'Nearly Honest Brent'.
That could stand as
a worldwide epitaph
and for reasons
of my father's
last words to me
which were not
'I did my best', but
'the soup looks good'.
When you shot the horse
you said you hoped
it would go straight down
and not stand there
as if deciding whether
to begin a dressage routine.
And someone who claimed
to know horses
said the animal knew
what was coming,
the slash between its eyes
like forked lightning.
A curdle of sheep wobbles by
and liver spots
all over the road.
On the Road to Wedderburn
Snow and ice and a sniping wind
so the dead hare's ropy-red entrails
are sustenance for a hawk
defiant in desperation.
In the wind it's minus 6, minus 9
an hour ago. The bird's close
to going the way of the hare
who knew the now but not
the now we know. In the way
one does for reasons of conscience
and compassion, I swerve so as
not to mow the bird down,
wave and wish him all the blood
and guts he can stand.
In the Hill's Creek Cemetery
Everything says tenuous here
where neat edging and vases of fresh flowers
are one way of trying to tidy untidy lives,
and even the empty jars
that shine in the morning sun reflect remembrance
in all its kaleidoscopic fragmentations:
love, affection, grief ... guilt
about inattention when it was needed most,
apologies not made, churlishness enjoyed,
schadenfreude relished, and so on.
What matters most can't be attended to now
in a place where guilt and sincerity
are determined to merge as self-indulgence.
But never mind, if we're lucky the road to hell
may not be paved with good intentions
here or anywhere else, and,
in a soak close by, a heron practises dressage,
paradise ducks pretend imperious, and above us all
a hawk masters disdain. Dry grass wafts.
Serenity's hanging on somehow despite pervasive
evidence of our mortality and, overhead, the wisps of cirrus
that tell us a big nor'wester's not far way.
Between Shingle Creek and Fruitlands
Cast your mind back to the first time you came this way,
the road windy, corrugated, dusty,
the surface mostly the colour of yellow clay, cuttings
stained with the leer of water seeping.
On the left the ever-ascending slopes,
the Old Man Range, white flecks
in blue gullies near the summit,
and your young old man wondering when
we'd ever get to Alexandra, your mum complaining
about 'the blessed dust', both of them
cursing the 'washboard surface' and you thinking
about the number of times she told your father
that 'it didn't matter' when it clearly did. And that
was the way it always was with them,
it is with you, it is, period. Until, you might say,
something happens that's never happened before.
Like love came back and sent hate packing
never to return, and peace of mind arrived
like a dove from afar, decided to stay, and you
no longer dreamed of what might have been.