Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows
1980 Louis Johnson
1980 Louis Johnson
The jaunty straws, the Sunday hats
Stroll blandly from the Government flats,
Their plastic fruit and flowers of glass
On heads as dark as beaten brass
Gleam in the sun: sedate beside
Blue suits, white collars, quietly stride.
Ahead of them, like nylon fawns,
Two skirted children eye the lawns
For weekday running: now green grass
Wears an ironshod word—'Trespass.'
But like cicadas in the trees
The band ahead has news to please.
Its solemn notes rise thin and clear
Upon the neutral Sunday air
Where even buses learn to mute
The rancour of their usual route
And rising bush absorbs all sound
Before it gets above the ground.
One pair of high heels on the path
Creates the only hint of wrath
To crack the windows of this view
As goes a girl, all limbs, and new
To old designs and repetitions
That may restore the lost positions.
But she has vanished through the trees
And eyes revert through stone degrees
As the band turns the page to surge
Onwards through its ponderous dirge,
And suits and hats arise, resume
Their walk, then home to habit's room.
Home from play: Miranda bearing
the day's takings—a minute hedgehog.
One of the three, she explains, fallen into holes
dug by the other father for posts:
and this prize, as she places it to feed
from the bowl of slops on the lawn, lurches,
dragging a back leg so sickeningly I know
something is much broken like my own peace
for another unreasoning avalanche of the sense
of hurt that always unbalances. And damn
language fails again: only the hurt speaks
plunging to pity when the language of size
adds its diminutions. It all depends
on definition and training. Were it vermin . . .
I have kicked rats to death
spiders and crawlies, ticklers of another
trade and conscience. This small one agonises
towards the ward of shrubs to lie from sight
so slow I ambulance it with the fireshovel
bristling with pain like a hot coal
among dry leaves and twigs (while the heedless
grandeur of nature knives away at lusts
and possessions) its faint side suspiring
while we all die into ourselves as night falls.
You do not need to depend on the location
to gain the poem: it is, perhaps, enough
that a general sense of sea or sky persist
or nag the memory to put you here
in the mind's eye, gazing out on the specific
ominous island you are told rises like ruin
from an ocean haze of blood-soaked history.
Interpretation begins. You can close your eyes
if it helps to establish earshot and anguish,
the heard and tasted tears that were real
as stone and as hard to swallow. Not only
a place, but what happened here. Each
detail part of a map of pity you need not
be intimate with because you have domesticated hurt.
And yet you know. There is that current
of water and air, electric, conducting the sense
a louring sky might attempt to conceal. Houses
whose inmates look out for the stranding of stories,
miraculous mammals beached for their glory
and anticipation. All to be handled and put away
at day's end with bloodsports and entertainment.
The place does not matter in detail if you remember
there is terror best not recalled when nightfall
crackles and flame blinds the beaches. Black stones
from former feasting, and a set of kneecaps
for cupping the springwater. Drink deep. Look
again. Pray that rain might squall; obliterate:
memory be cleansed. Hope to reopen eyes, and see.
Louis Johnson (1924—88) was a central figure in New Zealand poetry for over thirty years, despite spending the 1970s in Australia. In the 1950s he was the key figure in the innovative 'Wellington Group' and in the 1980s provided support for younger writers through his Antipodes Press. He founded and edited New Zealand Poetry Yearbook 1951— 54 He died during his tenure of the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship at Menton.