Monday, March 16, 2015

Taken over

A couple of seconds after this photograph was taken a wave came over Waiwera's sea wall and drenched me, much to the amusement of my brother-in-law and his kids. We'd driven to Auckland's northeast coast to meet the remnants of Cyclone Pam, which had done so much damage to Vanuatu a day earlier.

Even in a weakened state, the storm could raise winds and water disconcertingly high. It reminded me of a poem I dug out of Kendrick Smithyman's archive and published as part of a book called Private Bestiary in 2010. In Smithyman's text, heavy winds and rain make the normally murmurous Waitemata Harbour into something ‘monstrous, incalculable' and 'contemptuous’, and cause random landslides on the edge of the neat new suburbs of the North Shore. The safety that New Zealand's largest city seemed to offer the poet becomes ‘unreal’, and the suburbs are suddenly a place where humans ‘test’ their ‘limits’.


Today, roads blocked,
Four slips on Albany hill
with subsidings predicted.
Any prospect west is rained out,
More rain is headed that way.

A view of our circumstance is narrowed: this
side, unreal safety.
Down in the valley men console
in a thoroughly public bar.

Wind roves easterly, sea’s
quarter where nearest the gulf.
Beyond is Ocean, a dominion
known to be monstrous, incalculable, contemptuous
of our offering, not entirely indifferent to us.

We are a myth of our making.

Locally there’s a record of slipping.
At the crest drivers are advised
to watch for edges falling out.
Oil drums and a wooden frame -
limits of safety, with a view
denied to farmers and foresters.
We test the limits. We project.
Speaking in figures we are taken over.

[August 28th 1965]

The ‘thoroughly public bar’ mentioned in the poem is probably the Albany Hotel, which was, along with Smithyman’s beloved Puhoi Tavern, a popular watering hole for the North Shore literary community in the decades after World War Two. In his biography of Smithyman’s friend Maurice Duggan, Ian Richards reveals that Smithyman and many other writers held a whiskey-drenched wake for ARD Fairburn at the Albany Hotel in 1957. I needed a couple of whiskeys of my own after yesterday's dunking.

If the storm was disconcerting for Aucklanders, then it must have been terrifying for ni-Vanuatuans on islands like Efate and Tanna. I was very sad when I checked the website for the Vanuatu Daily Post this morning, and found that the paper hadn't been published for three days. You can help ni-Vanuatu by donating to the Red Cross.


Blogger Richard said...

Smithyman's almost 'clipped technique' fascinates me. I've used it myself a little. He himself derived it via many other poets. The dense complex intellectualism combined with 'talking' maybe from Lowell who is a great poet, especially his 'mad' poems and 'For the Union Dead' etc. But Conrad Aiken is also cited. But he mixes it with the detail, that makes Eliot's 'objective correlative'.

And Nature is always there.

"Beyond is Ocean, a dominion
known to be monstrous, incalculable, contemptuous
of our offering, not entirely indifferent to us.

We are a myth of our making.

Locally there’s a record of slipping."

'Ocean is', NOT 'The Ocean is...' the mysterious and the quotidian, the men drinking or consouling themselves (ironic touch) is all his touch.

That 'Locally there's a record...' reminds me also of some of Leicester Kyle's poetry, his deceptively 'quotidian' poetry.

I was ready for the storm but it fizzled out a bit in Auckland, but I think a lot of people were concerned. Not good for the Vanuatuans though.

10:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

Ted Hughes

12:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

12:55 pm  

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