Ōtautahi Christchurch, 2020
This morning I walk down the valley, past the ponds to the river. There are wind-splayed pines along its banks, and at the fence a horse stands. The grass is so much greener on this side of course, so I pull out a tuft to offer, enjoying that moist warm muzzle in the palm of my hand.
The eye of the horse is so inscrutable. I would like to think that it regards me well, though I can only say that it regards me. Beyond the horse, the night’s frost is lifting from the paddocks as the sun slants in. Further off, the illumined city, and beyond the city, far away across the wide plains, the mountains. There is fresh snow shining on their peaks.
I am thinking of a journey — something more than has been possible in this time, it would however be a journey I have often undertaken before. In my mind I see the way ahead. It will be the only way to go…
the horse stands there silent
inside its breathing
It is the next morning. I’ve returned to stand by the fence, looking across at the mountains. The wind brought them nearer in the night. I gather my jacket closer against its keening edge. It is time to go, or else not. The horse lopes over to me, slightly lame it seems in its left back hoof.
I sense its inward stillness. There is a question there, an unvoiced rebuke to my noisiness as I stumble on uneven ground, disrupting the syntax of that incessant chatter going on in me.
Last night was rough. I rode uneasy dreams bare-back, a frayed rope for a halter. Here, by the fence, with the mountains yonder, when given the eye once more I could cry out: what is this longing that remains, like an empty bag at the foot of my bed…? This longing which, if ever it should be fulfilled, would leave nothing further to be lived?
the horse paws at the ground
The river is such a strong creature, slippery as a long-finned eel sliding by these broken-down banks. I walk alongside it, down towards the estuary where the water lies more quietly. How hard it is to get moving! I am like a beggar limping down a city street, holding out an empty hand.
Such thoughts are not those that usually saunter with me beside the river. More often I will see the mountains and simply decide to go. Usually my thoughts are quick and quickening. I think, and then I’ll be on my way… Now I think, and am not (touché, Descartes!). I entertain such thoughts, smiling, knowing they will always masquerade as friends.
‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’ A thought like this could be a can-opener. Yet I know what I shall find, so why bother? To let another day slip by, point made?
three white-plumed spoonbills
hoover the shallows
I listen to the radio. The News… Afterwards I walk down through the morning forest to the river. Ducks are at it, dabbling in rippled water. I am thinking of my friend, and what she might be doing. I have decided it is time. But time for what? Ah, together we could travel…
You are not here, or perhaps you are, as close to me as I am to myself. I feel it should be possible to speak, and hear some kind of inward answer from you. Can you also imagine that it may be so…?
By the fallen tree the water is a mirror. I watch the sky, the clouds, a gull passing through it and away. Tomorrow. And tomorrow… I am like an adolescent aged seventy, although I have this solitude in which all things are satisfactory. Still, today I will ask you, turning to you where you stand beside me, as always looking at me, eyebrow slightly raised.
the empty dinghy
tethered to a makeshift jetty—
oars dipping in the sky
It is time. The autumn is deepening and the last golden days will soon be over. I watch the leaves drift like monarch butterflies across the garden. I prod at them with my lancewood staff where they have fallen. They have begun already turning into mud. There is nothing left but to begin…
Backpack. Parka. Hiking poles. Map (a casual look at the coordinates of my destination: 43° 14′ South, 171° 43′ East). Camera. Binoculars. Water bottle. Nut mix, an apple. On my way out the door, I fetch my raffia hat.
The way stretches out before me, a twisted ribbon laid across the world, from my home towards the mountains. Someone calls my name (yes you are calling out my name and I no longer know if I am dreaming or I have already slipped across into some other life). The breeze, east-north-east, puffs alto-cumulus from the sea up against the hills…
by the bridge some guy
is blowing pleine-air cannabis—
yeah yeah cool man
Reality can be like that. The bloke smoking dope. Before that, the radio. Cars I had not mentioned. Have I given an impression of walking on this trip? Of course I would drive, then walk… Or simply stand, still as those tall power pylons astride the land, connected though going nowhere.
Well, it is possible to celebrate this countryside walking beside the ponds and the rivers, to dodge down byways away from the highways, to find some kind of wildness amongst the harakeke and tī kōuka plantings…
Flax. Cabbage tree. A different sense accompanies these words. I want to tell you about these differences, because the telling will help you find me. Can you sense the space between a fantail and piwakawaka? Between the white-faced heron and matuku moana? Or between that swamp hen and pūkeko? There are stories in those spaces, often sorrow-laden tales.
from a branch
the kōtare gazes at the water—
plastic bags stare back
The kingfisher flashes iridescent fire as it plummets down to the water, surfacing with a writhing sliver of silver. Resumes its vigil. I walk on, so much lighter for the seeing, wondering why death in nature is satisfying. There is a sense of belonging in the natural order of these things.
I returned into this country to die, and look, I am living as though I were living! There is a will that wants to live me, that stands me up out of bed each morning, that has taken me to the door and beyond, that walks me on my way. ‘Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year, will learn the trick of standing upright here,’ the poet declared. Well, here I am.
The path is wide enough for just one person at a time. That is all I am, and it seems anyone else is walking in me, so there is room enough. This is what it really means to walk together, maybe.
a falling leaf—
water in the puddle blinks
I follow the names. I savour their meaning and resonance. The first river is Ōpāwaho, the place of the outward pā, a place of rest, a place to store food. You know this river, it was with me while I pondered this journey, and now I follow its sinuous testimony upstream below the hills…
Then cross over, northward through the innards of the city to the second river, Ōtākaro, where the children played while their parents gathered kai. Today, the Margaret Mahy Playground is in the middle of Ōtautahi.
This is the place of Tautahi, great chief of Ngāi Tahu, who came with his people from Koukourārata across the long harbour Te Whakaraupō. Past the sternpost Rapanui, across the estuary Ihutai and up the winding river. On the banks of Ōtākaro they camped amidst the harakeke and tī kōuka and toi-toi, where they trapped tuna and snared kererū.
muddied by those histories
they meander through
Yes, that other country rides with me. Heathcote. Avon. Christchurch… Yaldhurst, West Melton, Aylesbury… All across the Canterbury Plains, windbreaks of Lombardy poplars and macrocarpa hedges, binding fields into a regular patchwork of pasture and crops.
Kirwee, Darfield… A grand estate, Racecourse Hill, a delight for any eye conditioned by England, colonial as can be, mansion and chapel set back amongst the parkland oaks and chestnuts, below a green hill.
Roads, straight as a die, three-way crisscrossed like ley-lines. This is the vaunted familiar, a way of settlement transplanted from the Masonic Old Country. ‘Home’ they said, grafted and stamped into the lighter footprint of the ancient culture. No use crying over spilt milk, it is done. Fonterra has a factory just along the road. It is done.
one world two worlds—
such diverse ways of printing
this storied land
Further beads strung along this journey-strand… Sheffield. Springfield. Here is another voice from elsewhere, although beginning in this place: Rewi Alley, communist friend of China, born in Springfield in 1897, died in Beijing in 1987 (such a satisfying numerical harmony in those dates).
Rewi gave himself to China, building schools, organising the collectives, writing and translating poetry. I wonder, how did that phrase he coined, ‘gung-ho’ (‘work together’), come to mean ‘going off half-cocked’?
His ashes were scattered across the Shandan countryside — ‘beyond the withered oak ten thousand saplings grow.’ That book title could do, but, translated by Rewi from Du Fu, the following might be a better epitaph: ‘Nature ever calls people to live / along with her; why should I be lured / by transient rank and honours?’
swallows over water—
the irrigation-race presages
next season’s crop
There’s Bashō, of course, walking on his narrow road to the deep north. I would dedicate this passage to him, but he is the master who seeks no follower… ‘A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a weary horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.’
As a young man Bashō studied the poetry of Du Fu and Li Bai, learning how to let the world write itself into the strokes of brush and ink. It was his longest journey, most arduous, and ultimately most gracious.
When I stumble on my way, the first thing I do is look around, to see if anyone is watching. Self-consciousness. Then I check the hurt to my ego. Self-consciousness. Then to my body. Self-consciousness. Only then do I notice where I am… It would be so good simply to notice that. The best lesson comes from whomsoever or whatsoever does not teach.
scrabbling amidst the grain—
so utterly goldfinch
In this time of coronavirus, you see how socially spacious this journey is that I am taking. But there is another reason for this solitude. Here I am, out in the open, differentiated against the white noise of the usual… Can you see me? Can you sense my coming nearer? Look, here I am.
I have clothed myself in this world I love. And you, elsewhere, are you looking this way? Are you looking in the way we both need to look? This inward seeing… When I come into the high country, amidst the snow-clad mountains with their golden-tussocked river terraces and the beech forests with their light-filled canopies, will you witness my delight?
Across the broad plains of Waitaha. Kā Pākihi-whakatekateka-a-Waitaha. Walking by the cold clear waters of Waimakariri, beyond the gorge and up over the first ranges to Kura Tāwhiti, most often called Castle Hill.
treasure from a distant land
spilled from the kete
Words scramble with me up amongst the weathered limestone outcrops. The name, Kura Tāwhiti, means treasure from a distant land, and is said to refer to the kūmara, once cultivated here. But I think kūmara would not have flourished up in this high country. Rather, I look at these rocks and the mythic mind gets it — kūmara-forms everywhere.
‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’ Let my words be large in scope therefore, that they might resonate with the story in my senses. Let this journey in language enlarge my mind.
For instance, consider the Castle Hill buttercup, Ranunculus paucifolius, of which there are sixty-something plants only. Almost as scarce, the Castle Hill forget-me-not, Myosotis colensoi… And Hebe armstrongi. Hebe cipressoides. Carex inopinata. Australopyrum calcis obtatum. Helichrysum dimorphum.
waxed flakes of sunshine
fade in dry grass
History and names: John Davies Enys, born in Enys, Cornwall, in 1837 (and thus fortunate and cursed enough to have a background, including his friendship with the Tripps and Acklands), arrived in Lyttelton on the Chrysolite (such a gem of a ship) on 27th of July, 1861.
His younger brother Charles joined him in 1865 on the station at Castle Hill, where they lived in a pit-sawn timber cottage they called Trelissick, two men alone. Julius von Haast was a visitor (he graffitied a rock).
Charles painted lovely watercolours of the region. John collected plants and butterflies. His name is suffix to several species, including Ranunculus enysii and Chrysophanus enysii. He is commemorated (maybe Charles too) in the name of the highest peak in the Craigieburn range, Mt Enys. Not great farmers, they were, it seems, good men.
after the sudden shower
a memory of earth
Petrichor: from Greek petra (πέτρα), ‘rock’, or petros (πέτρος), ‘stone’; and īchōr (ἰχώρ), the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods. Breathing it, here amongst these rocks, I think it is exactly that (just look at the way words can lead us further into mystery, if only we might be attentive).
After months of drought, the rain is a benediction. Sheltering beneath an overhang, I listen to its spatter on the stone, I watch its patterning in the dust. My sense of smell releases memory, and I am a child again…
As a fourteen-year-old out on the headland beyond the Mokau Inlet, the hollowed ground redolent with must, and he with no sense for the tapu ruling over urupā — the light closing around him, the roaring in his ears of this world turning inside out, hypnotic chanting of ancestral voices, and a different smell rising from his body, his fear and awe and potency.
summer-music of cicadas
on adolescent skin
‘Locus iste a Deo factus est…’ Latin is another gateway. This side of the gate seems devoid of meaning. But lean against the gate, push it open, let the light fall on what you see, this ground of logic. Linnaeus made it easy and almost impossible, concealing identity in syllables of Latinate light.
A systematic light, that hides the mystery in plain sight. Have I lost you? These words, flailing about in the air like a kite when its string breaks… All I wanted was to weave a net, or a patterned cloth in which you might discern a story. You see, limestone is called kākahu, a word which usually signifies a kind of cloak. Just picture its patterning.
Be patient with me. Language can be the problem when we attempt to be together like this. Try silence. Or else look at this rock art in the caves and overhangs here at Kura Tāwhiti. In this place, which is Tōpuni.
birds and bird-men
hover on the foliated rock
Tōpuni: this is the dog-skin cloak that is laid upon a person to confer the owner’s rangatiratanga upon that person. For Ngai Tahu, it also is the word laid upon a place of cultural significance. The dogs, fish, birds and bird-men depicted in this rock art have been called ‘frozen poetry’.
That is one way of saying things as best we might. Tōpuni is another, this cloak laid carefully upon the land. Here is a mystery. A project, we might call it nowadays, to befriend the night, so when a fire was lit, or a torch of tōtara bark and bird-fat flared in the cave, familiar creatures appeared, reassuring, moving over the walls, lively in the flickering light.
I have come this far in order to be near you. ‘A native country is a sort of second body, another enveloping organism to give the will definition.’ My love is a third enveloping organism, a cloak perhaps.
place of dry bones—
the kaitiaki do not chatter
on this frosted talus
And so down from the escarpment, down into the gully, down further to the confluence of Cave Stream and Broken River, where the light plaits the water and the water plaits the light… Ko te whenua ko te tāngata he kāwai kotahi — the land and the people are woven together as one.
When the river has been broken, what will our lives become? My voice resounds in the trombone-bell of the cavern, calls out to the future and then falls silent. What will our lives become (become) (become)…?
I was there, in the afternoon, in the shadow of a karst landscape sculpted by primeval forces into such intimate immensity, these forms gathered on the hillside chanting the ages. You would understand, I said, turning to your image in me (O yes please tell me that you understand!). And for a moment the echoes of my words were a solace. For a moment.
silences of the departed
depart / arrive
The rock is its own story. Oligocene (from Ancient Greek ὀλίγος (olígos, ‘few’) and καινός (kainós, ‘new’) denoting few fossil molluscs in relatively recent sedimentary layers… Is it all Greek to you? Touch the rock, listen. It takes time, this substance forming its phonemes over the aeons.
Like bone shards, this path of limestone flakes is calcite, ‘a spiritual stone that facilitates the opening of higher consciousness and psychic abilities. It helps the mind and body to remember soul experiences.’
Could have guessed. Still, let’s not be cynical — we could surmise this is why Kura Tāwhiti is Tōpuni. In the end, through travelling in this land, words have brought me near and far. The whole story is found in that stillness when the words have ended. I find you standing in me. Bones of my bones. Bound into this matrix of calcite. Story cloaked in memory.
in my mind the open road
calls me home
There are names, there are no names. I have learned that the names offer resistance. I push up against them, stare them in the face, then relinquish my demand. In the ensuing silence is the one name that is not a name. It is said to be unutterable, and certainly I have nothing further I can say.
‘We’re all just walking each other home.’ The night is calm. Virtually no traffic, and the cry of the little owl from the rocks on the hillside is loud in the still air. This journey is complete, and it will continue…
Moonrise, and there the horse is standing in its breath. The grass glistens with the frost-to-come. Bright Jupiter and Saturn triangulate the moon. The river is a silver road, flowing on towards the estuary. You are near, and not near. The rising mist. The sky is shining. Once seen, nothing can displace this moment of the world in which I am the I.
rusty oil drum
by a cracked concrete wall—
tide washing in / out
Notes on Departures & Arrivals
When our country was fully locked-down late in March due to the threat of coronavirus, I had been planning a road-trip. I welcomed the requirement to self-isolate; after all it is what we poets do. I walked daily in Heathcote Valley, up on the hills and down to the Matuku Ponds at Ferrymead, enjoying my environs. I wrote and read. After a few weeks, the desire to travel further called once more, and I decided to take a trip in my imagination, from my home to Castle Hill. A journey that also became myself travelling in language.
I thought of writing a travel-diary, a personal essay. With my fondness for words and their origins, the etymology of ‘essay’ appealed to me: “from the late 15th century (as a verb in the sense ‘test the quality of’); alteration of assay, by association with Old French essayer, based on the Latin exagium ‘weighing’, from the base of exigere ‘ascertain, weigh’; the noun (late 16th century) is from Old French essai ‘trial’.”
So, an essay…? I happened to be reading Bashō, his account of journeying usually called ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’. The Sam Hamill translation I have is titled ‘Narrow Road to the Interior’ and that seemed to me suggestive in regard to my imaginary journey.
I set out… Haibun is a Japanese form, featuring short passages of prose interspersed with haiku. My prose passages tended from the start to be formed as prose-poems, with distinct structural elements. As I proceeded, I enjoyed these constraints; I thought of them as the elements of my current life, having to live within the strictures of the lock-down. And like all constraints, they became a basis for imaginative freedom.
Most of the following phrases are likely to be common property amongst readers:
‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’ —Satan is speaking, from Paradise Lost by John Milton
‘Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year, will learn the trick of standing upright here.’ — final couplet from The Skelton of the Great Moa by Allen Curnow
‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’ — Proposition 5.6 from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein
‘Locus iste a Deo factus est…’ (‘This place was made by God’) — first line from the choral motet for mixed voices by Anton Bruchner
‘frozen poetry’ — a phrase applied to this cave art by Theo Schoon in an article published in the New Zealand Listener (12 September 1947).
‘A native country is a sort of second body, another enveloping organism to give the will definition.’ — from The Life of Reason by George Santayana
‘a spiritual stone that facilitates the opening of higher consciousness and psychic abilities. It helps the mind and body to remember soul experiences.’ — from crystalsoftheearth.com
‘We’re all just walking each other home.’ — from Walking Each Other Home co-authored by Mirabai Bush and Ram Dass
Born in Blenheim in 1950, John Allison returned to live in Christchurch in mid-2016 after 15 years in Melbourne. Throughout the 1990s he had poems appear in numerous literary journals, and three collections of poetry published. Balance was published by Five Islands Press in Melbourne in 2006. His fifth collection, A Place To Return To, was published in August 2019. A chapbook of new poems, Near Distance, has just been released by Cold Hub Press.