Last last — C.K.S signs off as laureate

A month ago I signed off what was meant to be the last of these laureate blogs but there are a few ‘last things’ still deserving report before I vacate the chair.

One was the death of Nicholas Tarling, a colleague, Auckland University Emeritus Professor of History, and a younger colleague of Professors Sinclair and Chapman whom I wrote about in my two previous blogs. Nick was my age, and like me, a resolute and regular swimmer, but on the North Shore.  Last May he was ‘seen swimming vigorously’ and then seen to be not swimming. A heart attack or something similar had taken him off, and it seemed to me a great way to go – no preliminary decline, no slow loss of faculties of mind. How nice it would be if one could arrange such a departure for oneself. So I was sad Nick was dead but not sorry that his life had ended in that way, at that time, while he was still lively, interested, knowledgeable and grumpy. Consequently when he found his way into a dream, and a subsequent ‘Nocturne’, he would have been surprised to find himself confused and conjoined there with thoughts about rain on the roof, and a leaking gutter, and how one should go about seeing them repaired:

Another nocturne

remembering Nicholas T. who died swimming

In Shallowsleep, that life-of-the-mind that comes
at three or four a.m., hearing big rain

beat on the roof and spill from broken gutter
to concrete path, and quoting to myself

(faultlessly) a sonnet of a single sentence
and great complexity by Willie Yeats,

I promised I would call that comic-strip
tradesman I had named, just to amuse you,

Gutterfix. It was the day we’d buried Nick,
historian, daily dipper, opera aficionado

with song and stories of his gloomy wit.
‘Come to our aid, great Gutterfix’ I sang

in my opera voice, and laughed, and seemed to fall
a moment after into a dream of drains.

Perhaps Nick’s ghost would laugh, perhaps not, and one will never know.


I got back from our (as it has become) annual visit to our daughter in London just in time to recover from jet lag and take part in the end-of-July Marlborough Literary Festival, which centres on the Boathouse Theatre in Blenheim but occurs also in various supporting vineyards within ten or so kilometres of the town. My solo session as a fiction writer was on the Friday evening of the first day, and my parallel session as poet ended the Festival on the Sunday late afternoon. In between I did a poetry reading with the Iron Man of NZ Poetry, Brian Turner, and the multi talented Emma Neale. I was housed at the Dog Point vineyard with Brian, and also Anne Salmond and Gavin Bishop. Awake at 4 a.m. (jet lag) I stepped out of doors in my pyjamas into the frosty night to look at the sky, something I had not done in the South Island for several decades. Later I wrote a poem about it which I here dedicate to the Festival, the people who run it and the vineyards that support it:

At Dog Point

After a day of frost and sunshine
in the valley of winter vineyards and winding streams
that teach the far brown hills by definition
and the farther mountains by peaks and caps of snow
Dog Point at 4 a.m.
showed me the night of another world
created by gods and peopled by their children
each one distinct, a point of  brilliant light
each family a constellation
and needing all together
a name to match and affirm their magnitude –
‘the Heavens’ for example or ‘the canopy of the stars’.

There is a dream of love
so far from the avidities of lust
and dramas of fidelity and possession
it is like that southern sky at night
burned across by a single shooting star.


Since Marlborough there has been a visit to Wellington sponsored by the Alexander Turnbull Library for the launch of a small book, a sampling of poems done during my period as laureate, beautifully printed and hand sewn by Brendan O’Brien, illustrated by Douglas MacDiarmid, a Paris-based New Zealand artist, in an edition of 85 signed and numbered copies, 50 for sale. We launched it with speeches and a reading on the evening of Tuesday the 8th and then next day we had a lunch-hour panel discussion, the printer, the poet, and the painter’s niece (who is writing his biography), chaired by poet-and-painter Greg O’Brien who is the printer’s brother and the poet’s former student. This was a very lively occasion and by the end of the day there were only a very few of the ‘for sale’ 50 copies left.

While I was there the 2017 issue of the Turnbull Library Record appeared, which included, among many articles of interest, an account of how the Library acquired and prepared to catalogue and house Sam Hunt’s archive. It also printed another five of the poems I have written while laureate. These were so attractively set on the page I was reminded how important form is, how sharply and significantly it differs from poem to poem, and how the visual appearance on the page can make this clear – or equally can fail to do so.

C.K. Stead in conversation with Greg O’Brien, National Library, Wednesday 8 August 2017. Photographer: Mark Beatty

Here are two poems from that Turnbull Library Record offering:

An Horatian Ode to Fleur Adcock at 80

When I wanted only to sing
        war and hunting
                     it was Phoebus warned me
                                  remember sooner

friends of your youth, especially
        that princess of quiet fire
                     from a southern city
                                  she of the classic lyre

on which she counted lovers
        one perhaps a prince
                     one a certain pirate
                                  too many to remember

until in middle life
        she gave them all away
                     denied herself meat
                                  and cigarettes in favour

of her family’s fables
        and deftest celebrations
                     of the life of things
                                  with feelers and wings.

All that’s fine in Fleur
        I celebrate and sing
                     as you commanded Phoebus
                                  but on my solo string

and sounding from so far
        gone in an instant –
                     and I still wanting
                                  war and hunting.

‘Auckland’: the renaming

Now that we know
he was only another
imperial duffer,
a Caesar’s bumbling sidesman
and journeyman of Empire –
couldn’t we quietly
wipe him from the record
and give back the name
tangata whenua first
accorded her –
our clement isthmus
between two harbours
and two oceans,
hub of the South Seas
loved by too many?

The Alexander Turnbull Library is one of New Zealand’s great institutions, beautifully housed within the larger framework of the National Library of New Zealand, and containing the Treaty of Waitangi newly and permanently on display.


I now have ahead the Outwest Festival where I will be involved, with editor Linda Cassells and chaired by Professor Alex Calder, in a discussion of the new biography of Allen Curnow by the late Professor Terry Sturm. This biography and the new Curnow Collected Poems (both to be published by Auckland University Press) will be the subject of a symposium three weeks later (30 September) at the University, and it will be my job to make the opening address – something which will be difficult only because there is too much to say and too many possible ways of going about it, and I have only 30 minutes.

Not too far beyond, but still in 2017, will be the launch of my new novel, The Necessary Angel, and the Whanganui festival (6–8 October). And after that perhaps a quieter life.

I and my laureate tokotoko bid you farewell/haere ra! Here is the last poem in the Brendan O’Brien’s fine little book:

The laureate’s last…

His last
was not least
nor yet his best
but shaped for a shoe
his size
and like his sighs
not to last.
— C.K. Stead

1 comment:

Kerry Schultz said...

I have always find your blog post very interesting and informative. sadly you are leaving and will be missed. my heartily grievances for the loss of your colleagues.