The other day Muzzlehatch, who is one the of the proprietors of Titus Books, sent me three proposed covers for Richard Taylor's volume of poems Conversation with a Stone, and asked me to give an opinion on which was the best. He might as well have asked a blind man to judge to a beauty contest, or a baseball player to assess the New Zealand cricket team's performance [apologies for egregious dig at John Bracewell - ed]. Muzzlehatch is one of the several AWOL contributors to this blog, so I thought I'd spite him by putting the images here and asking for the judgment of you, the people.
All three cover designs come from the cunning Ellen Portch, and show macrocarpa trees growing on the side of Mt Wellington, one of Auckland's fifty or so extinct volcanoes. Mt Wellington's southern slopes back onto the working class suburb of Panmure, which Richard Taylor has called home for most of his life.
The macrocarpa is often simply called 'the farm tree', because when dairy and sheep farms were established by Pakeha up and down the country at the end of the nineteenth century it was planted extensively as a windbreak. That wasn't always a good idea: the tree is native to California, and because it grows too quickly in the wetter conditions of New Zealand it sometimes lacks what engineers call 'structural soundness' when a gale comes calling. When I was a boy I remember a row of ten massive macrocarpa trees on the edge of my parents' farm; today only three survive. The morning after a storm toppled one of the monsters the whole neighbourhood would turn up with chainsaws to restore the flow of traffic and stock up on firewood.
The young Kendrick Smithyman wrote this poem in 1957, when macrocarpas were still being widely used as windbreaks:
Torn sea, if only as the wind makes.
The winds come. Before long they go.
These are bergs that will be blocks –
The winds have risen, saying No
To our clutch and stay; to our comfort,
Once more No. A small dismay is brought
Home fast, flagged down by a mad saw.
Death smells of wood. At five, your day quakes.
What sound will dazed waves beat in their blown
Jaded caves, but briefly here? We’ll to
These woods no more; your trees resign
To charring indignity. Let fires row
Back through breakers of day’s ragged fall
Only to ash – Troy was, Mai Dun, all
Yesterday was, think, to one line descends.
Not quite. Yet what your fondness was, is mown.
(In case you were wondering, 'Mai Dun, also known as Maiden Castle, near Dorchester in England is a large earth mound with three concentric ramparts, originally an ancient Celtic settlement; in 43 AD, the hill fort was invaded by the Romans'. Thanks Margaret and Peter.)