Going Home

On Friday March 1st four poets met at Blenheim’s Millennium Gallery to talk about home, and to read poems that addressed, or asked, questions raised by this complex subject. Cliff Fell came over from Nelson with his partner Pammy; they were in time for a long talkative, preparatory lunch among the grape vines out at Rockferry, in a landscape that looked nothing like the nibbled pasture of my childhood. Dinah Hawken and her husband Bill also made it to lunch; they came over the hill from Waikawa Bay around from Picton, where I spent much of my childhood in a backwater that, then, had almost no houses, no marina, and a gravel road that petered out just past the boatshed where my grandfather’s clinker dinghy waited to be pushed to the water along manuka rollers. Cressida Bishop, the Director of the Millennium Gallery, also got to lunch; the gallery wasn’t there when I was a kid, but the Memorial Clock Tower was, just over the road, along with the floral clock, both of them structures of awe inspiring grandeur to my eyes in 1953, when the Queen visited and laid a wreath (I couldn’t see her). John Newton couldn’t make it to lunch as he was moving house (home) on Waiheke Island, but he tore through the door of the gallery with minutes to spare before the evening reading and would have been happy to see that copies of his marvellous new collection, Family Song Book, were for sale.

In John’s book, home territories radiate out from Robinhood Bay at the entrance to Port Underwood: back inland to what used to be called Beavertown (or ‘more/ fancifully still’, Beaver Station) – now Blenheim – in one direction, south from there to the Dashwood Pass and North Canterbury, or west through twists and turns through the Rai Valley to the Whangamoa Saddle, which my grandmother, Agnes Horne, was the first woman to drive a car over on the way to Nelson. We were all in our different ways trying to find that grid of locations, circumstances, memories, and relationships that located us in some way somewhere.

In Cliff’s case he was able to point out, from a perspective that had more to do with historical amusement than whakapapa or with what John characterises as ‘homesickness’, that his great-great grandfather Alfred Fell was responsible for surveying the town that would be called Blenheim, and named a disproportionate number of its streets after his children. Cliff came to New Zealand in 1997 and on visiting Blenheim for the first time may have found himself going along Francis Street, which his ancestor had originally called ‘Frances’ with an ‘e’ – but it was the ‘with-an-i’ version that I grew up in. Whenever I go to Blenheim I always try but can never find Francis Street at first. Then I adjust my scale, stop walking nostalgically towards the yellow Wither Hills, and there it is, so much closer to the centre of town than it seemed to be when I was a kid; and there is number 32, a slightly the worse for wear California bungalow, my childhood home.

Dinah Hawken says that for her, being at home is at once utterly tangible: ‘this room, this actual house – and garden, neighbourhood, coastline, town, country and world’. But also intangible: ‘the state of being at home with myself and with others’. I know what she means; after the reading, a woman my age came up and asked if I remembered her, Glenys. We used to play together. My answer had to be evasive to be truthful; no, I didn’t remember her or the startling escapades she then reminded me of; but yes I did remember, because the name and the place we were in again after sixty years were drawn towards each other without quite making meaningful contact: at once somehow tangible and intangible, incongruous and even comic, as in Cliff’s historical frame; and also melancholy, as in John’s sense of ‘homesickness’. We had a great night – interesting, funny, sad, simple, complicated.

The following day I caught an early flight up to Kaitaia, got a rental car and drove down to Ralph Hotere’s tangi at Mitimiti. There, it was said often over the three days before Ralph was laid to rest in the beautiful urupa on the hill above Matihetihe marae, that he had come home. On Sunday morning I walked up the next valley to Moetangi with Ralph’s brother Robin. This was where the family had lived when the kids were little. It’s hard to imagine a place more remote from the world Ralph would go on to be ‘at home’ in. What did it mean to say that he had come home? The answer was up the valley where no material trace of his childhood home remained aside from a stand of old self-propagating lilies, an incongruous flash of colour in the desiccated scrub – the place’s apparent emptiness was what made it feel right. The answer was also on the marae where hundreds of people came to welcome their relative or friend back; and it was also on the promontory below the urupa, where a driving range had been set up for those descending to the marae. You could choose one of Ralph’s favourite drivers and whack a golf ball out into the wide blue yonder across the beach.

Recordings from Blenheim

Cliff Fell, Dinah Hawken, John Newton, and Ian Wedde read their own and others' work.

First half

  • Cliff Fell
    (mp3: 17MB)

  • Dinah Hawken
    (mp3: 18MB)

  • John Newton
    (mp3: 19MB)

  • Ian Wedde
    (mp3: 18MB)

Second half

  • Cliff Fell reads Ruth Stone and Frederick Seidel
    (mp3: 7MB)

  • Dinah Hawken reads Rachel Bush
    (mp3: 4MB)

  • John Newton reads Henry Lawson
    (mp3: 4MB)

  • Ian Wedde reads Ted Berrigan
    (mp3: 7MB)

Full recording

  • Listen to the entire session
    (mp3: 112MB)

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