Sport 35: Winter 2007
'and the whole thing wavers as though we'd dreamed it
… and it topples all at once.'
Nothing was as I remembered—until
the walnut tree. Hung with slim pods
whose adult kernels my mother made
into jars of black-brown pickles,
it swept over the lower garden
offering a pool of shade.
The two-storey brick house
looked hot and small,
surrounded by grown-up shrubs.
In a flash, I was in my upstairs bedroom
with my little record player,
then in the yellow kitchen
where one lunchtime, by the bench,
my mother cried out and fell
and although it's hard for me now
to understand, after the ambulance came
and the world slipped sideways,
I went back to work.
In a performance of La Traviata
the heroine, sitting at her desk,
picked up a white feather
to write a farewell letter.
The tall quill with its fine vanes
expressed every sadness—
it was both a tool for writing
her transactions and a feather
floating through the air.
I'd like that quill to write about
the time it was too hot to walk
so I sat with my father and drank
cold bitter beer. Moisture
from the glass wet my palms.
We watched the TV news,
sometimes silent, sometimes talking.
The chrome on his new wheelchair shone
and the living room's fine wool carpet
stretched above the concrete and earth garage
where space vacated by the ruby Toyota
slowly filled with other goods.
One day this room will waver
as memories do and the house will signal
that every trace of us is gone.
Black curved swallows were everywhere
that late summer. Sleek fighter pilots
with no regard for buttoned-down cottages,
aerials or smart renovations,
they zoomed between roof and tree,
then out to sea and back again.
When black arrows whizzed through
the wide doors of our rented house,
it was like they'd darted through our bodies.
We felt the ocean flood the rooms.
The huge kitchen, with its green island
of steel sinks and impenetrable oven,
was no hiding place. What saved me was how
you cradled the lost fluttering ones
in your hands. On the deck, again and again,
you launched a shivering bird into the air.
One morning you instructed me
to put three birds in a poem.
'Look—evenly spaced', you said.
I reluctantly admitted there were
three grey birds, evenly spaced,
on a black wire. 'A haiku perhaps?'
You grinned. Smartarse, I thought.
'And put in the mist!' Grey mist rolled
over the sky. For days afterwards,
I fretted about what I would put in.
Something in me believed that if we saw
the penguins, the missing harmony between us,
the birds and the ocean would be restored.
Seeing a penguin, in its solemn suit, would give us
our place of ease. One freezing afternoon,
we drove the winding road to the cliff's edge.
In the wooden hide, carefully ignoring
the other people, we lifted heavy, metal binoculars.
One penguin stood high above the steel sea.
While seals flopped in and out of the water,
and we pressed into the binoculars until our eyes hurt,
the stately bird shuffled two steps up its cliff.
When I heard the scrabbling sound
and wheeled to see the little swallow
dancing in the woodstove's metal firebox,
all I could think, stupidly, was
'It looks like an astronaut.' The squat
swollen box with its stained glass,
was the bird's helmet, and through it
we stared at each other—both of us, alien.
I stared wordlessly at the woodstove
then recovered my voice. You opened the firebox door
and cupped the agitated swallow until it escaped
and flew against the glass. We placed
the dazed bird outside on the wooden table.
For a long time it sat unmoving
looking in at us. What did we look like—
two people in a rented house, pretending
they lived beside an ocean of grey brushstrokes?
All we could see was our reflection
in its dark bird eye.
On the ferry a machine promises
to turn your coin into a beautiful souvenir.
But it's broken.
In Lawrence, F Martin 1922 is carved on a stone façade—
did he think his business would last forever?
We come by, hot and moody,
and there's an old sewing machine in the window
with a jumble of objects. We argue over
whether we like it here, and how long to stay,
but love to walk along Back St and Breakneck Rd.
Once, I wrote out my childhood address in full—
from Scobie Road through to The Universe.
Each line opened a new window and my home began the list.
Today we drive across the heart of the island.
On the car stereo, a man sings of what he sees,
as his brother drives him to jail.
In Geraldine, rain pounds the deck
like horse's hooves.
One evening in a new room
full of pictures of ducks
I use Pine-o-Clean to wash the dishes
instead of Morning Dew.
On the coast road to Oamaru
we see the signs for All Day Bay
and Vanished World. I want to stop the car
and imagine my way back
to people who left drawings on rock,
bones in the soil, walked through
en route to somewhere else,
in the accidental way of becoming history
we all share. Today, I remember my past,
other days, I'm rinsed clean as the ocean.