Poet Laureate’s Choice, August 2021 | Michael Steven

Poet Laureate’s choice, August 2021

The Poet Laureate's Choice, August 2021 is a portfolio sequence of new poems from poets chosen by the Poet Laureate. Today a new poem from Michael Steven.

Intercity Bus Elegies



When I left your yard to bus north again
strange portents gathered in the sky.

Westward the setting sun turned
clouds into curlicues of orange flame.

Tweakers and glue sniffers combed
the terminal for coins, cigarette butts.

Backpacking Mormon foot soldiers
with pressed shirts and bryl-slick haircuts

waited on rides out to the provinces.
I envied for a moment the rigor

of their faith; its unerring certitude.
Dusk was copper and rippled with static.

I wanted beyond my limits to believe.
Strange portents were hanging in the sky




Summer taught the changing world’s vernacular.
January brought us a Sunday afternoon

darkened at three by the inconsolable
drift of bushes burning across the Tasman.
Nightly the news reports chilled us.
We watched corporate drones in real time

murk Iran’s top general near Baghdad.
An endgame seemed inevitable.

We found new words for hopeless.
February’s humid lassitude

delivered death and car crashes.
We waited through summer’s sleepless

soupy heat, keyed-in to panic,
for the empty stasis of tomorrow.




It was the hour of news speak algorithms.
Our hectic world emptied, inverted.

Planes grounded behind closed borders.
The people wailed partisan folk songs

from their balcony prisons while coffins
heaped up in Bergamo and Madrid.

Rings of satellites orbiting the stratosphere
beamed back down granular images

of trenches furrowed behind mosques.
In Brooklyn’s empty parking spaces

forklifts filled makeshift mortuaries.
Without marker the dead put to their rest

became black pixels, memorial smudges.
Night after night the news reports chilled us.




Past Norton Road’s jaundiced factories,
corroding foundries and scrap yards

walks a man with outstretched arms.
His palms are facing upwards,

aiming a supplication at heaven.
God updates his image for the times.

He will come to us in teal scrubs,
rubber sneakers and a surgical mask

caroling his ventilator gospels
from a kingdom of disinfectant clouds.

Traffic stalls to brake light haze.
Drivers download the day’s ending.

A stray dog shits beneath a lamppost.
The path the man walks on is a motorway.




From the new truck stop near Taupiri
late capitalism’s gleaming coronas

downsize the night’s first stars.
Back draft from passing freighters

shakes the bus cab and chassis.
In every seat: an islanded traveller’s

myopic face made lunar by screen glow.
Next to me a woman from Holland

swiping through her Kindle novel
mutters about the gone world.

Mallards crest an arc over the urupã.
Seaward the dark river slithers¾

eerily, unmediated and succinctly,
light sliding off its black liquid scales.




On every bus there rides a lay evangelist.
Tonight’s tweaker preacher clambers

along the aisle clutching at seats,
laying down his vision of original sin.

Pupils sprung from firing points of meth
he yammers louder than a rock drill

spitting parables at anyone who’ll listen—
“Does hate have a home in your heart?”

He spooks a couple of young backpackers—
“If it does, the Devil’s got your papers.”

The driver yells at him to sit back down.
He goes on raving in the darkness—

“My god has no name other than God.
The Devil’s got papers on every one of us.”




Above the racetrack at Hampton Downs
the sky discharges like a giant capacitor.

Fork lightning letters the space in between
with a jump cut of twenty-five years

back to night school, at Manukau Polytechnic.
We’re dropouts, baby dopers and drinkers.

The tutor, a former navy drill sergeant,
blasts us again with variants of Ohm’s law.

I‘m wedged between them in the front row:
the boy whose heart will blow out on speed,

the boy whose life will end as a flashpoint
between the terminals of an 11kv transformer—

ignorant and blazed while the tutor barks on
about fault currents finding the short path to earth.

Michael Steven

Michael Steven biography

Michael Steven was born in 1977. He is the author of numerous poetry chapbooks, as well as the acclaimed collections Walking to Jutland Street (2018) and The Lifers (2020), both published by Otago University Press. In 2018 he was awarded the Todd New Writer’s Bursary. Recent writing appears in Kete, Photoforum, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2021 and Ōrongohau|Best New Zealand Poems. He lives in Tāmaki Makaurau.

Michael Steven. Photo by Michael Steven.

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