Poems

David Mason: ‘New Zealand Letter’

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.

                                                —Charles Darwin

 

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.

 

                                                            Out here

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

by changing.

 

                      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.

David Mason 

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