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The perpetual bird
1

The wind, wily as Te Kooti, at the window
which wants shutters. Colours

tumbling into your pupils: flesh
tones shadows grope at, black-backed

gulls homespun over poplars
planted to make the wind-break

they are a mockery of. From a lost novel by Robin Hyde
a succession of guestless rooms

prepared for some unknown celebration
God knows when. Seven years old

you sleep on the leather sofa you descend
the stairs you bend over

a guttering fire in the library
where every book uses the vocabulary of mildew and silverfish.

‘Daddy, don’t you see the devil
under the embers?’ No answer—

or the answer of someone sleeping
who is touched on the shoulder,

a stirring that is international
and untranslatable like the scent of oranges

in a flawed bowl the ghost of Henry James might notice—
this expatriate’s dream of Home

measured by the wingspan of the dove (O for the wings…)
which can never know the name of its destination,

feathers tracing a circle in the stone ocean
over there, perpetually. Yet still

the echo of Rua Kenana:
Whakaarorangi ai te rere mai a te manu…

2

Ko te kiri kahurangi hoki i wera i te ahi!
Ko au, ko te kiri tutua, e waiho mo te ora—

You look at the sun on the trees, suddenly
the sun overlooks

you: the dew
evaporates on the verandah overhanging

stone which is, I guess,
incomprehensible because it is outside

language. If I put my hand in yours – but why
would I put my hand in yours? Years ago

our bed was covered with the sky’s debris:
birds collected scraps and stuffed the pillows

our heads could never rest on. Whispering,
our subjects were pitiful and we had no pity—

God no! If we hesitated it was only to go
on with flowers in our arms

like relicts on a drizzling Sunday
visit to the cemetery we nearly always missed

the turning for. The prevailing wind was the closest
we came to an angel: it superintended

the scent of our bodies, traced those crow’s-feet
encroaching on our faces, the spaces behind

our poppy eyeballs. God knows
dry leaves stir under our feet

on the flagstones and once again we enter
the house, setting our flowers

near the mirror which tells us nothing
we care to remember.

3

Once again the sky comes to
earth, firing the iron

knocker on our door. Draw
back before you knock, knowing

I will answer with a half-smile, remembering
last night: your bent neck in the bedroom

presaging our boy, who will point
out my faults, and finally

answer a different door after my knock
twenty years on, with you gone

before me into the dark
laughter of the dirt. ‘Show your self’ I will

say, still tasting your pillow talk.
‘Come in to play’ you will

respond, offering your body as the sky offers
its blue to the puddle under the poplars.

4

When the rain overwhelms
the bucket above the well,

when the star below closes its arms
your laughter will ripple

like the wings of McCahon’s angel
through the space that separates us.

Rusted barbs are more dangerous than bright ones.
The wire fencing the well

wants the signature of a child’s thigh,
the blood of one more explorer.

5

Say the water’s clear, your bare feet
sign the sand, say

you are stranded on an unmapped island
only I know the location of: look

for my sail on this iridescent horizon
which is elusive but precise

like a dictionary definition of ‘desire’.
Once it was the sheer

drop of your stockings onto the nondescript
present that sent me headlong

through epithets, then expletives as we made
the day over with every breath: now

I don’t want to know, I want to know
nothing. I will take down my sail.

6

E pari, e te tai! Kei roto toku aroha
E kore e mutumutu i te ata tu e hinawa!

Tonight no keel will find
this swell. The waves have

expatriate status: they cannot make up
ground. You drift

off into the darkness laughing
softly because you belong

to whatever’s beyond the black rock.
The wind bruises your eyes

black, too; they assume
the value of negative numbers.

Your voice mimics the sound of a cloud
colliding with a spinnaker

only there is no spinnaker, there is
no cloud. If the boat-shed is almost firewood

it will keep you warm, it will keep you
until dawn has worn the door

down. Then you can set sail
again.

7

This sea wind carries the anxious
scent of a young girl

carrying a candle that could gutter
anytime, or never.

Mid 1996, Customs Street West, Auckland.

1. ‘Straight towards me flies a bird….’
Tuhoe prophet Rua Kenana: ‘Song Sung in Imprisonment’, where the bird is seen as a messenger from his first wife.
       – Margaret Orbell, ‘Maori Poetry’, pp.58–59, HEB, 1978;

2. ‘Oh the precious skin was burnt by fire!
I, the slave-skin, am left for life –’
       – Ibid pp. 22–23;

6. ‘Tide, flow on! The love within me
Will not cease with the dawn e hinawa!
       – Ibid, pp.52-–53

 


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