The Kawhia Canto
Without the archaeological reports, local histories, and antique maps I usually regard as essential travelling aids, I was always going to be vulnerable to the machinations of Hamish Dewe, who soon had me sitting in the Kawhia Hotel, sampling what he likes to refer to as 'the finest brown wine'. The weather further limited my research opportunities: although my companions and I made forays to nearby Aotea harbour, with its ancient taro plantations and abandoned razorback pa, and to the south side of Kawhia harbour, where 1835 declaration of independence flags flicker next to the ruins of a Wesleyan mission station, a succession of hailstorms and gales meant that we spent more time indoors than out.
Kawhia is not a bad place to be kept indoors. When I wasn't in the Kawhia Hotel, I was able to sample the delights of the Blue Chook Inn, of the local fish and chips joint, which specialises in shark meat, and of Annie's Cafe, which does a superb paua fritter. Back in the cottage, I joined Skyler, Sabrina, and Hamish in low-stakes games of poker and high-stakes games of scattergories, and explored the absurdities of the Creationist books and magazines the previous tenant had left behind in a vain effort to save my soul. Hamish is never perturbed by inclement weather: unlike ordinary mortals, who need regularly to stock up on their rainy day reading material, he is not only willing but able to read the same book, Ezra Pound's Cantos, over and over, year in and year out. For nearly two decades, the peripatetic Hamish has kept Pound's epic near him almost constantly, consulting it in the way lesser men consult horoscopes and travel advisory statements and Creationist textbooks. The new books Hamish continually consumes are read through the prism of Pound's masterpiece.
With its endless quotes and allusions and its journeys across millennia, The Cantos is a book which seems to contain all other books, and to comment upon all of human history. Pound may have gone mad, and embraced for a while the putrid doctrine of fascism, but to a reader of Hamish's sensitivity this only makes The Cantos a more complete record of human folly.
On Saturday night, as we were manouevring our way between huge cold raindrops on our way to the hotel, Hamish told me that Ezra Pound would have liked Kawhia. 'Pound loved history', he said, 'and in Kawhia history is real'.
Typically, Hamish refused to elaborate on this gnomic remark. I think, though, that I understand what he meant. The Cantos have a strange simultaneity, because of the way that Pound juxtaposes fragments of the history of different societies and epochs. At its best, Pound's poem shows us that history not only influences but, in a real sense, persists inside, the present. Kendrick Smithyman might have been discussing The Cantos when he wrote that:
History is real. You may touch,
eye, taste, smell it out from
its forms or casual deformities.
Kawhia is not a prosperous place. Arguably, both Maori and Pakeha have maintained the town for ideological rather than economic reasons. Kawhia was the final resting place of the Tainui waka, and the seedbed of Te Rohe Potae, which eventually extended north to Auckland and as far east as the little Bay of Plenty town of Torere. Today Maketu marae, where the Tainui waka was reputedly buried, remains an important gathering place for the iwi, as well as the summer residence of the Maori King. In 1883, the Pakeha government in Wellington established a settlement in Kawhia simply to show that its power could extend even to the cradle of Tainui. In the early decades of the twentieth century there were suggestions that Kawhia should be turned into a major industrial port - the town's harbour looks straight out to Australia, and is not nearly as treacherous as west coast rivals like the Manukau and the Kaipara - but these were ignored by successive governments. In 1942, when Japanese submarines were attacking Sydney and orbiting New Zealand, military planners briefly became alarmed that Kawhia might be used as a 'back door' to the Waikato and Auckland. Defences were quickly thrown up around the harbour, and then just as quickly forgotten, as the course of the war changed.
Like so many provincial centres, Kawhia was badly affected by the neo-liberal 'reforms' of the 1980s and '90s. More recently the town may have suffered, in relative terms at least, from the decision of Tainui to build a new parliament, a whare wananga, and other institutions in its modern capital Ngaruawahia, rather than in its ancestral home on the coast.
Despite its isolation and relative neglect, Kawhia has none of the bleakness of North Island towns like Mangakino and Murupara, which were built quickly in the postwar era for specifically economic reasons, and then hammered by neo-liberal deindustrialisation. Despite the odd boarded-up window, Kawhia has the sense of permanence that a long past can create. History exists alongside the present without mocking it. Ancient, dense gardens full of taro and banana plants creep between backyards, ignoring boundary fences. Middens can be seen in banks and cliffs. The great wharenui at Maketu marae and the beautiful Wesleyan church opened in 1935 by Princess Te Puea have been carefully maintained. A waterfront museum holding giant ammonites, an old telephone switchboard, portraits of Te Rauparaha and Tawhiao, and a nineteenth century whale boat suggests the town's regard for its history.
After ordering a pint of the 'finest brown wine' at the Kawhia Hotel, Hamish Dewe extracted an ancient piece of paper from his coat, scribbled a couple of lines, and pushed them at me. 'Let's write a Kawhia Canto', he said. 'History in the present. No narrative! No boring messages! Just resonant details.' We filled a few sheets of paper at the hotel, and added a few more on the drive back to Auckland, after Skyler became alarmed by Hamish's driving and ordered him to join me in the backseat, where I had been scribbling a long list of research topics to explore on my next visit to Kawhia.
The Kawhia Canto
Like every other deep-diving mammal,
the I-26 knows when
and where to surface.
A third of the way down Kawhia harbour,
Yukio Mishima climbs into his captain's coat,
pushes at the metal trapdoor, surfaces,
and tugs at the dirty length of rope
that hangs between an aerial
and a periscope.
The Imperial Sun climbs six feet
into the sky, so that its rays fall
onto the western slopes of Pirongia,
and onto the knoll past Maketu pa,
where the Tainui waka lies on its side
like the whale they buried at Muriwai
after last summer's storm.
Time is indivisible.
Time is infinitely divisible.
Auakiterangi was no fool.
He left the kids to push the waka out,
after they had loaded it with kuri, and kiore,
and kumara as heavy as stones.
Even before Hawaiiki was out of sight
the arguments had started.
We saw the koki turn
and head back toward shore,
its green feathers flinching in the wind.
Was the bird a coward, or an omen?
One of the men lunged at the anchor stone
but could not lift it. He threw himself overboard
Night was a relief.
The stars cannot change course.
Once out of sight, everything's
pa and midden,
mistaken for terraces
Sea-sick in the
ferry: you can't read
You'd be better off
in front, jerking
the gear stick, twisting
the ferry wheel
as if it were
your sister's arm.
Driving, you compose the text
that you read, turning
your head, turning
the wheel, scanning the lines
of radiata saplings, of poplars,
of superbly functional
pylons, or looking ahead,
watching the road past Pirongia rise
and straighten itself,
like the old bloke who stumbled
outside the Kawhia Hotel -
His name came
Off Kawhia, nothing's happening. We
aren't even allowed to lay mines.
Yukio passes the time telling
stories about Manchukuo, when
his Dad walked tall with a gun at
his hip and fear all around.
What's the point of skulking like
the souls of the dead?
I am a Pakeha.
Don't ask me about wahi tapu
or portage routes, or other stories that old men
tell to gullible men.
I know how to name mountains
after dead monarchs or
I know how to plant a theodolite
in the best-drained soil.
I know how to cover this landscape
with squares and rectangles
as regular as syllogisms,
as lonely as Descartes.
The order in which events occur
is not important.
These objects rotate endlessly
through the roadside fields:
sheep, bull, local, goat,
Te Rauparaha's magic horse.
West of Lake Parangi
a Japanese sub, surfacing like a whale
through a hundred-foot dune;
the mad fisherman from the pub,
casting into lupins
and cutty grass;
a squad of Home Guardsmen,
bayonet charging the wind -
To study history, let
through the harbour heads.
Now Hotunui stoops to
to fill the bailer,
as another wave washes
over the prow, stings the atua’s
paua shell eyes.
A wave breaks another wave
on the bar. The salt-haze rises
like smoke. The rocks are ready to dive.
The Tainui waka is always
crossing this bar.
THE JAP IS COMING. IT'S FIGHT WORK OR DIE
Picture of man - dark grey, perhaps rotten
skin, low forehead, each eye as narrow
as a pillbox grill - striding south,
out of a jumble of islands
in East Asia, across the ochre steppes
of Australia, towards Britain's most distant
dominion. His right foot has landed
on Taranaki. The shadow of his bayonet
falls on Kawhia.
SUPPORT YOUR QUEEN AND COUNTRY - THIS IS YOUR WAR, TOO
The war on gorse will soon be lost.
In a generation or two there'll be fire
on every hillside with cows sidestepping
I'll work at the plantation, breeding radiata
for slaughter. Maybe I'll swap the old car
for some sheep.
To prepare for invasion
retreat. We dig tank traps
at Puti Point, traps deep enough to hold the Japs
but wide enough for the snipers
we hide on the hill -
possum trappers, deer stalkers, Great War men,
and the odd alkie or TB case
who got past the Draft Board -
who have six shells each
to defend the town.
After we shoot our loads
there are huts in the hills,
there are pots of possum meat turning
on woodfire stoves, there are maps
left by the Native Land Court,
there are high-flying clouds that might hide a kittyhawk
bringing arms south from Auckland, or America.
To retreat is to resist. Just ask
Because it has happened
like this before
(wave striking wave on the bar,
the rocks rising suddenly,
like harpooned whales,
out of the haze)
we count the minutes
to Te Maika,
we count the ferry's lurches,
and the loads of foam
the sea throws up.
We count the pier's rotten teeth,
we count the windows
on the baches,
we count the cracks
on the windows,
we count the cabbage tree heads
shaken in assent,
we count the fishing boats listing
in the storm.
The world is repetition.
The world is real.
Tawhiao broke the first window.
He led the group of hotheads,
those hauhau recalcitrants
who lamented peace,
who wanted to hold on to Te Rohe Potae,
who found beacons in the harbour
and broke them in half,
who used the buoy Bryce floated
for target practice,
who smashed up the first Pakeha store.
Wellington was not amused.
Bryce sent the Hinemoa sailing north,
loaded with one hundred and twenty
Most of them were drunk.
My tupuna sailed from Ulster
one hundred and twenty-four years ago
in a ship called the Ruapehu.
Four years earlier the Hinemoa had helped 'open'
the King Country to Pakeha.
Why did we give our waka another people's names?
Did we want their language
as well as their land?
He'd heard us talking
He was pissed, not bitter.
"I'll tell you,
the Japs did not surrender.
We stopped them at Midway,
smoked them out of Canal,
turned them to glass and asphalt
but they came
the bastards came back.
Instead of conquering this coast
they cart it away, kilo by tonne,
on the ships that pull up off Taharoa,
where the tube from the ironsand mine goes out.
We buy our beaches back
as hondas and toyotas -
Jap crap, scrap metal
in the making.
The Japs are mosquitoes.
They take small bites, but their appetite
Te Rauparaha planted fire,
on Horoure pa,
beneath the tranverse ditch
where palisades were planted
in time for the siege
so that he might also harvest
the heads of
The dead shift, uneasy,
beneath the gorse, moving
between bleached mussel-shells
and afterbirths of the
generation just gone.
Pasture robs them of their
they slowly drain with the
ironsand to Japan,
eat Roundup, pass away,
or are daily starved as
we pool in the city,
driving second-hand cars
through dairy-plain wastelands.
The order in which events occur
Today is June the 5th, 2010.
An inch of rain flushes the gutters
of South Auckland.
Gerry Brownlee's flat face and quadruple chin
fill the TV screen.
At Te Maika the tractors rust.
A third of the way down the Kawhia harbour
a Japanese submarine has surfaced.
Captain Mishima stands on deck and stares at a sky
lit by the red rays of the Emperor's sun.
He notices blackbacked gulls, a petrel,
what might have been a hawk.
Where are the Zeroes, diving
at five o'clock, shitting their hot bricks
on the wharf, the hotel, the converted courthouse?
Where is the frigate, where are the landing craft
surfing in to shore?
On the lookout above Tainui Street
a gaggle of tourists - Germans, Poms, a coupe of Japs -
climb out of their bus, and aim their cameras
at Captain Mishima's whale.
The boozers at the Blue Chook
wander outside, wondering who
might be shooting a movie.
Captain Mishima is just following orders.
He stands and stares up at the wrong type of wings.
The order in which events occur
is not important.