James Ackhurst: ‘Ngawi’ and ‘For Benjamin Franklin’


Go down, now, from the window-watched hill
to where your friends are waiting. Drive the car
through the thickly-trafficked town, until the highway
widens to a gray strip that the river rambles
next to. Hold on to that road with all
your might, even as it morphs into a silver
snake that twists and turns like a trail
of smoke, or a banner tortured by the wind
emblazoned with the ideogram for trespass.

You’ll come to a town square laid out like
a flag. Eat the battered fish there,
drink the bitter tea, then drop that town back through
the rear-view mirror, abandoning yourself
to fields that hoard their holy power like hedge-held
reservoirs of green. The leaf-lined shapes
are opening now, their broad geometry
drawn out by long straight lines that lengthen out
until they intersect with some stray tangent

or with a perpendicular. And now turn down,
turn down again; follow the turns like a winding
staircase, a whirlpool plunging its carousel
to the bottom of somewhere—where you now find yourself,
the blue baize sea of the sea spread out, and the village
in the harbour waiting like a pile of dice.
Now listen to what your guides are telling you.
Don’t turn away. Be curious. This is
the only birthday that you’ll ever get

this year. Chew up the chalky fruit, fall back
into the hard arms of the tree. Forget about
your doubts, your hopes, and these instructions,
which will now self-destruct. Your minute hand
can’t count the pulses now, nor can the rhythm
of your wrist. Someone has thrown a quilt
over the lime-green hills. Someone has smashed a wave
of ocean through a wave of rock. And there
beside a beach of iron filings, a tumbler

of cobalts is being sloshed around. Back home
a window has been opened to the open
sky and to the open ocean. The light
flows in from sun to soul and back again
from eye to air; and out beyond the window
frame you sense another opening
beyond; and out beyond the limits of
that opening, still other openings
beyond the open sea and the open eye.

James Ackhurst


For Benjamin Franklin

At first I thought it was just normal birdsong
mixed up with some unfathomable
rubbing-together-of-limbs by some
Antipodean mega-insect—
until I noticed, with a short, sharp jolt
that the sweet little trills I liked listening to
were being cut short, interrupted, by – what?
A pygmy chainsaw? Self-strangulation?
Metamorphosis into a monkey?
It was like some demon of Gondwana
was going and wringing the poor birds’ necks
just as they were finding their tuneful voice!
And then, in Waitangi, I finally saw one
standing still on a branch above me—
surprisingly normal, except for the double, er,
testicles bunched right under the chin,
like an outgrowth of goitre, or a cravatte;
and that’s why it was such a hit
when our friend Greta suddenly exclaimed
(she was studying the card I’d bought
for seventeen dollars in the visitors’ shop
with a picture of a tui on it
which, when you opened it, would make the sounds):
“Don’t you think he looks just like Benjamin Franklin?”
And that, in turn, is what we named you,
after Valerie had freed you from the Te Papa shop,
Benjamin Franklin, since it suited your style:
your wig and cravat and your breasted coat,
your noble bearing and the way you gaze
with your head turned sideways towards the future.
And yes, this is a poem for you:
you who sit on my desk, and greet my students
with two identical chirps, one after the other,
as long as I have squeezed your tummy.
You who valued a balanced constitution,
you who symbolize making the best of the new;
you whose cousins are currently going ballistic
with mating songs in the Botanic Gardens.
You who, also, I guess, are a friend to the lonely,
a companion of sorts, like all of the bears
in the bedroom of someone I used to know—
a girl who, this one time, on the trip back home,
made her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend swear
he’d never write a poem about her;
not guessing, I guess, what she—what poems—
might mean to him, or through what trills
and convolutions he would go
so he could write a love-song for her.

James Ackhurst

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