New Zealand Letter
(Revised in memory of Anne Stevenson, 1933–2020)
Nothing, not even the wind that blows, is so
unstable as the level of the crust of the earth.
This morning, groggy and a bit footsore
from another tramp in these New Zealand hills,
I write to you, Anne and Peter, in Wales
or Durham, no doubt hoofing it yourselves,
or Anne with Mozart at her fingertips,
Peter tracking Darwin across the page.
Just now the sun slipped under laden clouds,
lighting a forest that, from where I sit,
could be some alternate Seattle, made
by an artist fond of Hobbits and Maori lore,
exotic but expected like the sky
two nights ago: Orion on his back,
and at the opposite end what Bishop called
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross.
in Queenstown’s alps I’m slightly less at sea.
Two weeks ago, in a Northland port of call
that battened down its hatches while a squall
unsteadied solid earth like a tipped canoe,
I lay awake in a house on Hospital Hill.
The continent of home, familiar, firm,
was far away. I felt, as Freud might say,
that oceanic, vague, religious sense,
my confirmation of insignificance,
and wondered with my hearing aids turned off
how thought would swim if I were totally deaf,
if wind and sails, wails, whales, and even Wales
were all the same descending sonar ping,
an undersea sensation. I thought of friends
like you who sound these depths without the bends.
Forgive this letter from a wanderer.
Forgive the sound of this, my sounding out
locations you have yet to see or hear,
and let me tender my small vision here.
Begin with the region’s young geology,
the accident of islands that still rise
and spiral into zig-zag mountain ranges,
glaciers long and white and wizards’ beards,
cold rivers, silt green or so transparent
they flow like breezes blowing over stones.
Now fill in lichens, mosses, undergrowth
of silver fern and berry-laden shrubs,
the eerie forest of the podocarp,
its leafless branches choked by hanging moss,
rare stands of rimu pine, the nikau palm,
sheep meadows scoured by European gorse—
alpine, tropical and imported plants
tossed on the rumps and hummocks of the land
right down to the shoreline birds, the dotterels,
whimbrels, bar-tailed godwits, white-faced heron
lording like headwaiters at low tide,
the shags and oystercatchers, penguins, grebes.
And here the albatross alights at last,
world traveler folding its weary wings.
Inland, white-backed magpies and pokeko birds
dot meadows, while in woods the begging wekas
pester walkers. Others I need hearing aids
to catch: fantails, bellbirds, twitching finches
chatter in humid shade, guarding their eggs
from possums or the poisons humans spray.
Which brings me around at last to swelling towns
like Auckland, Napier, Christchurch, Wellington,
the tourist hustle, some of it rough as guts,
where Poms and Yanks, Pakehas of all stripes,
mix with Maori and new wave immigrants,
fractious and varied as the forest birds.
It’s like Creation’s proud Cloudcuckooland
but earthbound, addled by bungee-jumping youth.
Each permanent or momentary claim
asserts a version of this land or sea
so freshly robbed or its virginity,
where moko hoons mark turf, spray-painting walls,
or clash like rugby teams in free-for-alls.
The spillage of spoiled empires everywhere
rumbles ashore like the redundant surf.
Yet the never-far-off sea still models change
like that wind I started with, to rearrange
Aotearoa, land of the white cloud.
Darwin hated it and only stayed
a week, bound for the sedentary life
that would explore as no one else had done
currents in all species known to the sun.
And terminal cases on every kind of pill
in every weather out on Hospital Hill
can try to see the earth for what it is,
not as the perfect dream that always dies,
the Promised Land promoted in brochures,
but as the sort of matter that endures
Some of its forms we recognize.
Others astonish—the inarticulate
we try to voice before it is too late,
this metamorphic world, tidal and worn,
rooted, adrift, alive, and dying to be born.