In Curnow country
In a late night conversation at Galbraiths Ale House years ago, John Geraets - avant-garde provocateur, editor of obscure literary journals, and stern English master at St Peters College – admitted that the poems of Allen Curnow disturbed him. “I can’t read Curnow too often, because he screws with me” Jon explained, as the huge head of Richard Taylor wobbled sagely on the other side of the table.
Most literary critics would call Allen Curnow the best poet New Zealand has produced, yet few of the man’s texts have won a wide public readership, and even fans like Geraets and Taylor and yours truly sometimes find him more a challenge than a pleasure. “I feel trapped under him” John explained at Galbraiths. “Curnow is overwhelming."
If I find Curnow a disconcerting writer, it is probably because he is capable of leaping, in the middle of a stanza, a line, or even a word, from the world about him – from trees, birds, surf, overheated barbeques, crashed cars, and a thousand other objects rendered with an almost hallucinatory clarity – to a chilly universe of abstract nouns like God, fate, and sin. Curnow entered this second world when he studied theology as a young man, and he never quite left it, despite swapping a career in the Anglican church for a career as a writer.
In the final decades of his life Curnow spent a lot of time at his bach in Karekare, on the far side of the Waitakere Ranges that block Aucklanders’ view of the Tasman Sea. In poem after poem, Curnow described the broken-backed waves and temperate rain forest and exhausted hikers of Karekare, only to dispose of them in the same defiantly nihilistic way that a child knocks down the same lego landscape he has spent hours building.
In Curnow’s Karekare young men in fast cars end up at the bottom of roadside gorges, where ‘rainforest quickly repairs’ the ruins of their vehicles, fishermen are consumed by huge and sentient waves, and landmarks can dissolve without warning. Even the apparently impregnable Paratohi Rock, which rises above the surf at one end of Karekare Beach, abruptly becomes an Italian bell tower, as Curnow takes a god’s eye view of history:
All the seas are one sea,
The blood one blood
and the hands one hand.
Ever is always today.
Time and again, the Tasman’s
Throw me on Karekare
beach, the obliterations
are one obliteration
of last year’s Adriatic,
The eyes are all one eye.
Paratohi rock, the bell-tower
of San Giorgio recompose
the mixture’s moment;
the tales are all one tale
dead men tell, the minor
characters the living.
Lonely Planet may link Karekare beach to films like The Piano or television programmes like Xena, Warrior Princes, but Allen Curnow’s poems are the only contemporary cultural artefacts that have become part of the place. They are stamped on the landscape, like the forts left by the Kawerau-a-Maki and other iwi. They are one of the reasons I think twice before visiting Karekare.
Here’s some doggerel I wrote recently after visiting Curnow country.
Hopkins was right: the world is charged
with the grandeur of God. The wind and the water
talk of His glory, and will not stop talking
until judgement day,
no matter how bored we become.
preferring the horizon's silent line
to the foaming preachers on the beach.
flinch from His didactic wind.
they will wince awake, up and down the coast,
in their andesite caves. They will rise
angrily, and make themselves armour,
wrapping themselves in scraps of iron, and seaweed,
and whatever else the tide has provided,
and retrieve adzes and patu and machetes
from clifftop pa, and old Home Guard depots,
and fight for their graves, against salvation.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]