Poetry by Iain Lonie

During the recent Dunedin Writers Festival Otago University Press launched the large and handsome A Place To Go On From: The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie, edited by David Howard. Lonie, who worked in the Classics Department at Otago University, was an internationally respected medical historian, and died in Dunedin in 1988. My cover note for the volume touched briefly on my respect for his work:

I can’t imagine how we could over estimate just how much we owe to David Howard for this superb edition of Iain Lonie’s poems. Just as I, for one, can’t sidestep a certain shame at not realising until now how fine and important a writer Lonie was. He brought to his poetry the precision and clarity and intellectual force of a gifted classical scholar. He was patiently indifferent to passing fashions, with his own more enduring touchstones. And in a remarkable fidelity to the tides of his productive but troubled life, he wrote a body of poems on love and grief and the searing currents of remembrance that, in New Zealand writing, stands alone.

There’s so much more to be said about Lonie, and that is sure to be said now that this edition places him back among us. There’s a particular aptness too in my now being able to put a few of his poems on the National Library website. I began this laureate blog a couple of years ago with a poem of Allen Curnow’s, a tribute to the New Zealand poet who matters most to me. So how fitting that I end with the poet whose A Place To Go On From seems to me as significant as any single volume since Curnow’s own selected poems. As good a page as any to sign off on.

– Vincent O'Sullivan

Iain Lonie.

Unattended crossing ahead

Some poems have no plan:
you simply have to be there to catch
the express when it whooshes through
and there’s no timetable.

Oh they’re not at all
like embroidery laid aside
taut in its drumlike frame
and awaiting a meditative hour.

Chance is all against them
they are unlikely as this love—
who knows when we’ll meet again?
And it’s not that we don’t want to—

but then the children, the grave demands
of time and place, our health even—
the years compacting around our roots—
perhaps it’ll always be like this?

Oh no, we say, we simply can’t!
seeing it all so clearly:
and yet we’re left breathless
standing here at the dusty crossing

while the red light bobs away
and the bell’s clang chokes in a country silence
thinking, I might have been on that train
thinking, it could have killed me.

Collection day

I have not had the heart
to throw out these shoes, and so they lie
still mud-caked, at the bottom of a tin trunk.

Shoes should stand in neat pairs, or be walked in.
These lying in their bent shapes are like fragments
a boy breaks out from the context of a cliff

and stores in a box along with other stones
coins, cartridge cases, and other things labelled
with days and places, their native magic forgotten.

Death comes to all of us, watery eyed
trailing his black plastic bag and wanting things:
I’ve seen whole shopsfull of cracked shoes, in their pairs.

But today, woken early, just before dawn
by rain flung hard against the side of the house
I am not thinking of all that: today

we are going to take that famous walk
along the cliffs where the difficult path
lies deep in cowdung between the iron gates

past the cottage abandoned to the sea’s encroachment
down the dene, and over the little bridge
then up again to the cliffs on the other side

where, if we are lucky, we shall just see
parting through the mist, the castle’s twin towers
far to the north, and unattainable.

Crusoe's canoe

for Elizabeth Smither


With Everyman his owne Shipwright in one hand
this rusted chisel in the other, I pick up
the principles as I go
                                           (I’m gouging a lot of trees)
We must start with detail
                                           (I’m wasting a lot of time)
A treenail’s made from trees, that’s why
it’s called a treenail. Or because it holds
trees together
                              (I get things half right).
First fashion your treenail: everything
is in the detail: for servants of the Lord
this holds in carnal matters: carpentry
child-begetting, the chapel’s business.
From one treenail another will come
from many treenails a floatable canoe

(I am making a sensible advancement).


But first you must
open your tree
up delicately
                          and trees
are close things
like one flesh, like
the firmaments
of earth and water
unwilling to be flayed
into dripping slabs.
your chisel’s made
a new surface, displayed
its whiteness to the light.

The Lord’s work, that.
Or a butcher’s.


Do nothing for a bit: listen to the surf
and think hard about trees: how, left alone
they turn themselves into banana shapes, or how
they hold a man’s curve like a hammock, ride
the big winds without going under.
Think then of canoes, how stem and prow
hold themselves together like hands in prayer:
how they’ll always want to be
splaying themselves back into trees again
lying horizontal under the heavy sands

and sending up the green shoots vertical.


I see something of the art, it has more
of woman’s witchcraft than it has of detail
a thinking yourself into things. The art
is to take trees apart in so gentle a way
that they’ll hold themselves together for you
in a different shape, the living vessel
that bounces on the waves. It’s not about detail—
it’s more like prayer. You have to ask for the shape.
It’s more like love. You have to pity the tree.
It’s more like grief. You have to let things die
in their own gentle way

to sail off from the island.

Cover image: The Centurion’s Servant (1914), Stanley Spencer, oil on canvas, © Tate, London. Book designed and typeset by Damian Love.


Long after the sun had gone
three poets sat on, talking.

The first said:
though not a religious man
I see that wrong we do ourselves
and the earth, sometimes righted by a natural good.
What else is there worth speaking of?

The second said:
though not a religious man
I hear sometimes voices penned in things
claim utterance such as makes the light
ripple out eastward over folded hills.

The third said:
though not a religious man
I think that if I shouted loud enough
the sound would not travel out forever
but find some foreign shore to break against.

And darkness fell
in its silent wave upon
all choices right and wrong;
upon the cities and the hills
silence upon silence.

The house of childhood

I watched you walk along that mile of beach
to the house at the end of the beach

the home I’d pointed out, the house of childhood.
How well I remembered the garden, its grey stone wall
the stone rest in the garden, overlooking the sea.

And so you set off bravely, to walk that mile
staggering now and then in the sand that ran to you until
the sun blazed overhead, to the right the sea shimmered
I watched you walking that mile, your figure grew smaller and smaller.

Out of the sea’s shimmer came the faint crying
of voices subdued by the sea and the view.
I remembered the stone rest, the thyme scent of the garden
and beyond the stone wall, the sea splashing in the evening.

I pointed all this out to you, this house of my childhood
and watched you set off towards it, staggering slightly
not looking back, growing smaller and smaller
until you passed into the sand, into the stone wall

and under the garden, the earth of the garden, under the sea.

The National Library thanks Otago University Press for their assistance in the preparation of this blog post.

Poetry by Rhian Gallagher

When Rhian Gallagher returned from almost two decades out of the country, and won the NZ Post Award in 2011, it seemed to me that there was a perceptible addition to what went on in our poetry. Here was a freshly attentive linguistic edge, a direct sensual intensity, a focus and gutsiness in writing of memory and regret, that seemed just that bit different from what any other writer here was doing. One reviewer called her poems ‘assiduously polished’, another picked up on ‘the visceral strength of her language’. What I admired then I find there again to admire in these unpublished poems. I’m glad my almost last laureate blog becomes the forum to display them.

– Vincent O’Sullivan

Photo courtesy of Rhian Gallagher.

A Haunt that the Thistledown Bore


It was a warm wind day,
no one was at home in the asylum,
the thistledown woke from its dream

shocked by the electric sun
the armour plate of leaves turned gray

out of those ragged grave clothes
the feathery lightness rose,

emerged through broken crowns
like breathless children.

*     *     *     *

A faint depression in the land,
blurred with the years,
where the misery mansion stood –

four and a half million bricks, one hundred and sixty foot tower.

Those who were sent or came
lost their names at the gate.

The voiceless ones among us
as if the earth gave them away
and whatever was left became air.

*     *     *     *

Above the walls and the bars and the slips

all afternoon the thistledown flew
hatching like a thousand butterflies,
each with a small ghost face.

The wings and the seed, how life
makes a start and an end,
how souls depart

some held on to a friend
or huddled in groups on briar,
some floated free alone

above the walls, above the bars and the slips.

Note: Misery Mansion is taken from the book title Misery Mansion: Grim Tales of New Zealand Asylums by Arthur Sainsbury (self published 1946)

An Age of Windows


I’d left the clarity behind, the blue,
the startling light exchanged for days
that felt like versions of the night
when autumn blew and winter
drew its blanketing across the rooflines.

First east then west then north again,
a sort of bedsit crawl. The streets to ask
is this home, here or here?
London stretched the other side of any wall,
it was the sea that Shelley heard,
fierce, aquatic London.

Those houses were in disarray, each room
with small repair: the windows gave
damp green, the foxes making fight and play,
the gaps of sky, the chimney stacks.
To learn there was an animal of light
rearranging shadows, a single tree

with all of aching autumn in display.
Gulls gathered on the bricked-in shore
to lift away and leave their flight-lines on the air.
Where dwelling dwelt, inside to out,
I’m numbered by the windows I have known.

Learning to Read

Your friends go forward
writing stories. Sunlight
sails through the chalk dust.
This is your timeless time. The alphabet
lives on the blackboard’s brow
– each letter has a big brother
or a big sister.

Miss Breen can see
there’s some far place in you.
Fantail stutters from the window tree.
You stand beside the island of her desk.
Your friends are busy;
even the tadpoles are working themselves
out and into frogs.

You can’t tell what you see
– the words are shapes
and the schoolroom’s paused.
Bright crayoned houses
pinned to the wall; the piano that waits
to be woken with a touch.
All of the doors that will open.

Her finger steers
crossing the page – you tilt
your voice in reply; through your held back days
you are her echo.
The smell of Miss Breen. The story
is everything.

Small Bird Without a Sky

She flew in through an open door
or some gap that I can’t see
and now a life in danger
– small bird without a sky.

Corralled inside the corridor
she flutters to a pane
that falsifies the world,
                      the tree, the cloud.
The walls she has no map for.

Free her, shoo her...
how she claims me
– bright beaded eye, feather unto skin
creature to creature –
this rapid, rapid beating.

The City

The city had a breath, inlaid a glaze on pavements
deepening the features of old stone. The buildings
recreating from their daylight face
beams and haloes
melded with the currents. A busker
and the bird-like note of flute, a beggar
held a card for you to read;
and from the bridge a scent of distance,
Big Ben tolled, gulls gathered up their shadows
across the shiny plane, each long chime
beat towards a headline.

The hovering of crane shafts, a pleading
outstretched hand, the city with an ache
and moving at a sprawl; that decade that you knew
marchers snaked along the Strand,
a violent blue: Thatcher’s wars,
the bloody Poll Tax, too many bomb scares.
All that news leaching into pores of stone,
became another chapter in the air. The city
peeling and re-peeling like the plane trees
casting skin, hunting with their roots
through layered clay.

You walked and walked
inside the never-ending winter¬ – your destination
in delay to ripple with a crowd and then another
as if the night were pushing from below,
with a sequence of small nudges, anticipation gained
and flowered into Soho; pouting boys and boys
in leather, where a hidden river flowed,
below the street, strobes cast a rainbow
on the floor that mixed the beat –
‘Native Love’, ‘It’s a Sin’ and ‘The Hills of Kathmandu’
– you could be a stranger or a friend,
a body making heat till 4am.

Now and then you went to Heaven*;
it was the prelude that you loved
and after love the night bus
staged its crawl across the city;
the Hackney estate you called home,
your keys cocked in your palm.

Note: Heaven is a gay nightclub in London

The Wahine Storm

Let out of school early
we cut through the paddocks for home
and the wind came, it grew
like an animal, our voices drowned in the roar,
clods flew up from their bed,
the little ones got scared.
We tried to keep our heads above the air,
a sheep lorry went past on a lean
then my dad swooped in from nowhere
pulling me out of the wind, ‘thank God’ he said.

*     *     *     *

The wind kept coming for more, the shed roof
sailed over the lawn, everywhere was drag and claw,
it felt like our house might surrender.
Our faces made strange in candlelight,
the transistor voice was our centre, the ferry
was the size of a street. ‘These night prayers,’
mum said, ‘are given up for the rescue’.
But wasn’t God steering the storm?
A horn blew, a judder, behind the window
where I lay, chilled by the air waves.
The sea would never be the same
                                 and the people, the people.

His Parting Gift

I wheel you into the garden and the sunlit air
beyond the glass where day on day your stare is cast.
A gap between the trees, there are the mountains,
the horizon sleeps against your knees.

*     *     *     *

The birds about us jest at spring
but what of it is reaching you? Memory gone,
your talk’s away, amplifies remembering in me
till the garden is the one before
– long rows you stooped and tended.

Your work is done – who loved to dance
and taught us how to make food grow.
In your bent and buckled hands
you show the difference of life.

*     *     *     *

Out to sea in a sea of air –
who’s provider? Am I the elder?
– every breath becomes a flower,
I prattle like a girl beside your chair.

*     *     *     *

A vigil kept across the night, what matters most
we hardly know – oblivion, the outmost zone –
you’re being fetched without a thing in hand.

The ships of all your life are passing
and there are stars to see you out, to toil and dance
upon the decks. You were a child
                                                       though we forget.

Poetry by Peter Belton

W.H. Auden’s ‘Musee des beaux Arts’ is probably the best known poem that takes a painting as its starting point, much as Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ imagines a painting that sparks a fiction. The Australian poet Peter Steele wrote a fine book that drew on a visual gallery, and of course Peter Porter wrote several splendid poems that come into that category rather forbiddingly described in literary dictionaries as ‘ekphrasis’. As far as I know, such poems are thin on the ground in New Zealand writing, with Hone Tuwhare’s poem about a Ralph Hotere painting certainly the best known. More recently, Anna Jackson has a good one that takes off from Browning’s Duchess. But what a delight then to come across Peter Belton’s ‘Talking with Painters’, an on-going series written by a practising artist and teacher at the Southern Institute of Technology in Invercargill. Some of these will be published later in the year, but in the meantime a coup to offer a number of them here on the Laureate blog, as well as some of Peter’s images. I was struck by the imaginative flair and range of their engaging with artists as well as their works, and by how deftly an informed eye is so at home with the challenges of another craft.

– Vincent O'Sullivan

Rembrandt’s Mirror

All said and done, they left the bankrupt with only a
mirror which shattered anyway through his distraction
collapsing hours spent in half-light before a window of white canvas
into a stare. So much time to think.

Thick with the dusty stuff of pigment let him paint
an inch thick; for we must come to this. Saskia with blood in
her mouth. Geertje’s exhausted eyes puzzled with weeping and
Hendrickje lifting her shift; lowering her eyes.

Stand Tapies against the wall and shoot him

Would he be the Master of Analogy through simulation?
Must he, needs be, create yet another allusion without irony
or reflection to the timeless wall?

Blood sticks to walls and bullet strikes suck punches like offended mouths.
Strike me with stuff. Scratch me artfully. Pastry bits onto me.
Beyond reflection? Maybe.

Peter Belton, My Shadow before the Torrent (2013), Mixed oil media on board, 770 x 900mm

De Kooning

The hand slips, mind.
Does glimpsing slip the eye?
Words fail on our lips.
Do we sense the lie?
Do we hear then? Do blind men see?
Or has all meaning passed us by?

The Curator sings his lament

an elegy to holding and keeping

Is a palimpsest a sideways swipe at being again?
An erasure of impression with another, another?

A sideways swipe after the fact when folding follows
collapse into messiness; abjected, altered, muted?

Another footfall becomes a sediment to be peeled, revealed
and, bye and bye, a gouge to bleed by.

Embed the press of palimpsest; straw into lead Mr. Kiefer
and lay your weary impressions edge to edge.

Peter Belton, Sunset: Foveaux Coast (2014), Mixed oil media and Livingstone marl on board, 900 x1100mm

no title and no thing

So everything signifies and Kurt Schwitters lugs his valise
laden to the next trainstop. Ambleside from Hanover.
Handover hands thick with worrying paste and patches.
Tickets from Neverwas to Maybe and Stumbledown
revealed in the small nervousness of torchlight.

On Kitaj’s Suicide

Kitaj hunted by the Jew
within and over his shoulder
watching the crackling air.

Kitaj hunted no rest for bodies
over there, beside his shoulder
burdened with pointy fear.

Kitaj - just behind us now
slipped his burden from shoulder
to shoulder. Our shoulders
stand. Behind.

Peter Belton, Prospecting (2015), Mixed oil media and Livingstone marl on board, 770 x 900mm

How might it be? (for Johannes Vermeer)

Spinoza, the lens grinder shaved pixels from his looking glass;
bending refractions in order to magnify.
It was, as his friend the painter noted, about selection
so that we might reflect upon our seeing
more clearly: pearls of light to be discovered dancing
in the tapestry of the moment.

A Light Bright Beach

Drawing across my eyes,
dexter and sinister switching
so like a white horse’s tail
to keep the moment away;
and voices rolled
into the wash of stones.

Peter Belton, Flying Man (2010), Oil media with encaustic, 300 x 600mm

1914: An Old Photograph from Berlin

Death Maiden.
I see you wave.
Your hand in his arm
to arm his smile.
Compliant, bemused boy
short stepping not so sure of
the weight of rifle
upon his shoulder.

Tode Madchen.
Your face gripped thin
lipped with resolve your eyes
away out there.
It is an old photograph. Flat toned and
airless he marches a
plucked flower button-
holed to his heart.

Death Maiden.
Your blouse so white.
There are holes; perforations in your
lace like a file of bullet strikes
about to poppy froth.
He marches. He is a frozen moment.
Her white arm upraised;
shot clean with holes.

Call for nominations

Kia hiwa ra!
Kia hiwa ra!

The National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa is seeking nominations for the New Zealand Poet Laureate Award.

Poetry is a quintessential part of New Zealand art and culture, and through the New Zealand Poet Laureate Award the government acknowledges the value that New Zealanders place on poetry as a part of our national identity.

The Chief Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library will appoint the New Zealand Poet Laureate after reviewing nominations and seeking advice from the New Zealand Poet Laureate Advisory Group.

Nominees must have made an outstanding contribution to New Zealand poetry, and be an accomplished and highly regarded poet. They must also be a strong advocate for poetry, and be able to fulfil the public role required of a Poet Laureate, which includes engaging with a wide range of people and inspiring New Zealanders to read and write poetry.

Nominations close on Monday, 6 July.

Candidates must currently reside in New Zealand.

The term of appointment for the next Poet Laureate will run until 30 June 2017.

Please send your nomination to Eva.Weber@dia.govt.nz.

Email is preferred, but you can also mail your nomination to:

Alexander Turnbull Library
Attention New Zealand Poet Laureate Award
PO Box 12349

Enquiries about the New Zealand Poet Laureate Award can be sent to Peter.Ireland@dia.govt.nz.