Alistair Paterson is a New Zealand poet, editor, critic, and occasional fiction writer. He is the editor of Poetry NZ and has thirty years of literary magazine editing behind him. In 2006 he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature.
Paterson has published nine books of poetry (five of them long poems) numerous articles on poetic theory, and edited two anthologies He has given readings and promoted New Zealand poetry in Britain and America. In 1993 he won the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award. A selection of his poems is available in Andrew Motion’s on line Poets and Poetry Archive UK.
A former naval officer, adult educationalist, Green Party supporter and parliamentary candidate, he enjoys sailing, camping and family life. He says he has had a lifelong love of poetry and been privileged to support and mentor poets in NZ and elsewhere. He believes New Zealand poetry is among the best in the world and much of it at poetry’s leading edge of innovation and development. His poetry is grounded on his experience and delight in literature and history, and his interest in literary theory and poetics.
‘Selecting the following 13 poems from my work,’ he says, ‘has proven difficult, but it’s given me an opportunity (which I much appreciate) to reflect on and think about continuity, change, and the ebb and flow in other people’s and my own writing.’
Yesterday in Heron Park
I saw young Harry,
with his war proof on, his sword
& buckler at his side–
a prince indeed
bemused perhaps & loitering
where he’s never been before
except when imagination’s
called him up–
& the other unexpected guests
cormorants & molly hawks
thrown into sudden flight
the startled air . . .
on shadowy, misnamed Elsinore
crying out from the parapet
his anguish & despair
‘Remember me! . . .’
I remember them
& lesser ghosts from other climes
summer dappled seas & skies–
people met in Singapore
a woman seen on Rousseau’s Isle
‘two girls in silk kimonos
one a gazelle’ . .
the swans Yeats saw
on the lake at Coole–& the herons
that once were here, now
long gone, are
ghosts themselves . . .
Heron Park is a place I’ve visited often, carrying in my head recollections of people from the books I’ve read and know or have known. There used to be herons in the park but since the Auckland City Council began an upgrade of it, they’ve disappeared. This was written no more than a few days ago and therefore hasn’t previously appeared anywhere at all.
Homage to Leofric
Maeg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan . . .
- The Seafarer
The Exeter Book says it, where you’ve
come from; the wanderer, the seafarer
whoever searches for landfall, a planet
a star, the place where sea
meets sky & massed clouds shimmer
roll overhead so that you ask yourself
did they (the wanderer, the seafarer)
think as others think, as you think–
of the swell, the ocean, the seabed below
the wind’s howl, the wave’s song
mountains hanging in the mist
above the waterway, the ice-cold sea?
But you follow the sun’s course –
watch a movie, read a book, wait
for the minutes, the hours, time to pass
expecting to reach on schedule
your destination – þær gebidan
where people you know will meet you.
And you hope travelling’s a forgetting
a putting aside the dangers of the journey
all thought of vast distances, what
happens when you least expect it
that no longer needs an accounting
maeg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan.
The quotation which can be translated as ‘I can recite a lay of truth about myself’ comes from The Seafarer, found in The Codex Exoniensis, given to the library of Exeter Cathedral in the Tenth Century by Leofric, the first bishop of Exeter.
from Africa, //Kabbo, Mantis and the Porcupine’s Daughter
This is the moon
I told you about, that I desired
should come for me,
I’ve waited for the shoes
I must put on
strong for the road.
The sun will go along
stay with me.
I will go with the moon
& the warm sun
while the ground is hot,
along a great road.
I shall walk
letting the grass
the flowers become dry
while I follow the path–
while I go
with my ancestors . . .
They’re alive, our ancestors
our ancestors are alive
they live through us & yet
there’s a sense in which
what’s happened seems
never to have happened . . .
The earliest people
were dancers, became
antelopes, were lions
entered the place
of the Cave Bear, painted
its walls, its over-hangs
fish, serpents, the Rain bull
painted themselves as huntesr
those who have died
who have become spirits
& now live in rivers . . .
These are the opening sections from Africa, a poem of more than 2,000 lines suggested by Neil Bennun’s The Broken String, Viking, London, 2004–which explores the myths and legends of the vanished bush people of South Africa.
The night before Christmas
(after Randall Jarrell)
(after Randall Jarrell)
The blue & white of clouds, of sky
the green of grass & willows–
although of course there’s usually
not much grass under willows . . .
It ought to be a quiet place with
the river redolent as it always is in fairy tales,
redolent of so many things: the splintered
fragments of half-forgotten dreams,
the night before the night before Christmas
as Jarrell would have said, actually said,
& the days, all those days after the night
before the night . . .
Not that it matters–that nothing’s silent,
nothing at all. The noise of course,
the noise is principally not there
under the willows but in your head:
a clamour of voices, the perpetual sound
of people talking, each somehow striving
to be heard above the rest, to be heard
& understood–so many of them,
So many before and after the night before
the night after . . .
your stockings lying under the window
when they should be over the fireplace.
A tinsel twist of lights & coloured paper
drifts round the room beneath the willows.
They’re becoming–the lights & coloured paper,
drifts of tinsel–they’re becoming something
they’re not: the thousand & one nights
of Scheherazade–becoming the fabled hare
& tortoise, a wily fox waiting for the lights
to go out in the farmhouse . . .
It’s the night before the night before Christmas
& this is a quiet place–the willows & river
redolent as they are always in fables–
in fairy tales . . .
Written in the 1990s in response to one of Jarrell’s poems in Selected Poems, Atheneum, New York, 1968, the piece above first appeared in my collection Summer on the Cote d’Azur. More recently it was reprinted in the New Zealand section of Andrew Motion’s on Line, Poets and Poetry Archive UK.
In the yellow street lights of youth
I knew you though we hadn’t met
you were there where I couldn’t see you
half-hidden behind those sudden rains
that leap across footpaths
& roadways, stream down the steep
hills & narrow gullies of childhood.
My bones said it, myth & memory
confirmed it through a stumbling maze
of false starts & clumsy wanderings
& now when your voice comes to me
unexpectedly at noon
or out of the last hour before dawn
the words I hear are your words
the face I see is your face
& it seems as though each
& every morning the world
makes a new beginning
that somewhere between myth
& history, illusion & subterfuge
there’s truth & meaning.
A cappela is another poem from the 1990s. It first appeared in Summer on the Cote d’Azur, but has since been included in the New Zealand section of Andrew Motion’s Poets and Poetry Archive, UK.
Waiting for the cabbages to grow & keeping them safe
after looking at the paper
to see what (if anything)
is happening in the world
I go outside & check the cabbages.
It’s not just the cabbages though–
there’s the potatoes as well
& I’m not certain which of them
concerns me most.
They’re there in the garden
peacefully minding their business
unaware even (well I think
that’s the way it is) that they’re
unaware I’m interested in them
but then, who’s to know
about cabbages, what they think
or whether they think at all?
Then again, my interest
in them is personal–and I care
what happens to them
have an empathy for them
the way (in the case of cabbages)
their leaves crinkle & fold
& the potatoes–in their flowering,
whether it says anything
about tubers & what’s happening
in the earth below.
What they make me think of
is people & everything
that goes wrong . . .
that might go wrong
that usually does & especially
when nobody’s thinking
about it because there’s so much
–more than anyone can imagine–
so much more to think about
that fills in the days, weeks, years
& seems so important
except when the worst happens
as it does so often–
& then it’s too late
to do anything about it . . .
Cabbages was initially published in Summer on the Cote d’Azure, HeadworX, 2003. In 2007 it was anthologised in Harvey McQueen’s the earth’s deep breathing, garden poems by new zealand poets, Random House NZ.
A view of Rangitoto
(for Roland Barthes & Jacques Derrida)
What I’m paid for
is to stare through the office window
& look at clouds:
the clouds are interrupted by paper
which is brought in
& dropped onto an ‘in’ tray
by ‘Christine’ or ‘Anne’
two women who could be
from Barcelona, Spain–but more likely
arrived here (yesterday)
from Putaruru or Taihape
not necessarily ‘the truth of it’
but at least–or at the most–
a good enough imitation.
The clouds–Anne or Christine–
drift across the horizon
the variegated blue of the sea
‘ride’ over Rangitoto
That mythical (mythos) island
the paper obscures–
& all of it ‘in the course of time’
which (by the nature of things)
appears in my bank statement
not exactly ‘belonging’ to me
but as a form of transitory accounting
that waxes, wanes
independently, ‘of itself’ . . .
And it is ‘independent’
a kind of choreography/dancing–
clouds that are more or less
paper moving over a desk
that is more or less plastic or wood
‘signifying’ as much
as anything is ever ‘signified’
the nature of things:
Anna or Christine, the wave
of a hand, the slide of a pen
whatever is ‘constituted’:
Christine, Anne , the clouds–
particulars made manifest
realised . . .
A view of Rangitoto first appeared in the New Zealand Listener and later in Fire 15, Ed Jeremy Hilton, Field Cottage, Old White Hill, Tackley, Kidlington, Oxon OX5 3AB, 2001.
The Dictionary of Battles
The Dictionary of Battles
covers more than three millennia:
from Thothmes III against the Hittites
(Megiddo Pass–1479 BC)
to the Golan Heights, the Gulf Invasion–
endless bloodshed, constant warfare . . .
I turn the pages–
identify the man next door
people who live on the next block
someone dressed in black
who’s walking towards
an empty house two streets away–
and you my love, and you . . .
In 1099–the 15th of July–
forty thousand died
when Tancred and Raymond,
Godfrey and Robert (both of them)
scaled the walls
and captured Jerusalem . . .
They’ve worked it out
in the Pentagon, in the Kremlin–
made an estimate of
missiles, tanks, what it will cost
how many Scuds Iraq will be able
to launch against Israel . . .
You take your coffee in Vulcan Lane
walk along Wyndham, Wellesley, Durham
risk your life–
you’re reading The Wealth of Nations:
somewhere near Customs Street East
there’s a man with a knife . . .
and you, my love, and you . . .
This piece, written in the late 1990s, was also include in, Summer on the the Cote d’Azur, 2003.
The clean, white sails of childhood
moves over still water
& with such certainty, such grace
one can see the physics behind it:
beneath that steep hill
where in company with
his fellow townsmen (the last of them)
my grandfather lies under stone–
his bones amongst
long forgotten bones.
There will come a time
when no one remembers him
who, living, passed his life
moving in front of strangers . . .
He lies with his fellow townsmen
in the shadows
& mountains, lies where
morning breaks from silence
a tolling of bells
the far crying of gulls–
move over still water, their sails
bent to the sun . . .
This tribute to my grandfather who I had great affection for, formed the last section of the longer poem Odysseus Rex, Auckland University Press, 1986.
(which is the present–now)
she sings the sun–
of the day’s begetting
& a morning so bright
it reaches out catching the throat:
a supreme perfection of things
that have a handiness about them
that could be used.
She could make of this morning
a net or a boat–music–
a wooden bowl
something to fish with
or for travelling–
a scarf or a rug.
She sees that the sun is a climber
ascending the East –a journey man
who’s mastered his trade
& knows how to use brush & ladder.
She is moved by it
waves to it
as if she knows what’s done well
is not done with ease
& rarely for pleasure:
she recognises a wrestling
a tension of opposites
& the sun rising.
This is a representative section from Qu’appelle, Pilgrims South Press, Dunedin, 1982. In 1981 the poem was co-winner of Auckland University’s John Cowie Reid Memorial Award for longer poems.
from The Toledo room
It’s not Spain nor Mexico, but nowhere
no place at all–neither the llano nor
the sierra, neither the plain nor the high
places . . .
and you arrive late, a little nervous
uncertain of yourself, & the room’s empty
as empty as a theatre when the actors look
between the lines & the audience begins
to lose its patience . . .
I make signals to you, reach out to you
but there’s so much noise it’s useless:
everyone talks–is smiling / serious–laughs
& behind the scenes they mark the slates
with chalk . . .
It’s Spanish, at least the arch & grill
are Spanish–the bright blades, the black
cape & matching hat–& it’s logical, it’s
logical enough to make a rough & ready
kind of sense . . .
But it’s not Spain, not Mexico–the llano
And no one can equate what’s being said
with what is being done: haggling & talk
of politics to pirouette, veronica, death
in the sun . . .
This is a section from The Toledo Room, a poem for voices illustrated by Terry Stringer, Pilgrims South Press, Dunedin, 1978, performed at Downstage Theatre, Wellington in mime form and later over Radio NZ as a poem for voices.
Letter to Miss Dickinson
exultation is the going
that you know the way
by mountain and plain
from your father’s house
out from the inland
to the shining sea.
can the sailor understand
the divine intoxication
of the first league
out from the land
and I ponder explanations
of your attitude
no one’s completely sane.
Thinking of a man
who composed a symphony
he carried in his head
all he needed was
a skilled and sympathetic hand
to set it down
of a woman who thought
her private possession
the fisherman who needed
neither line nor hook
I wonder at
the narrow circumstance
gives a larger view–
and the consequence
if this is true.
Holding little else
you held more truth than most
of a clamour and clatter
an obligation of days
deprived of so much
you escaped being crazed
as you say
exultation is the going
the sailor through sailing
loses sight of the land
your song be the praise.
Letter to Miss Dickinson is one of my first poems in double margin field form. It was included in the collection Birds Flying, Pegasus Press, Christchurch, 1973.
Horses with children
Horses with children by a green paddock
stop the car. In a field of silence
colder than stars, ears pricking
the great beasts move gently
through grass–the children follow
wind-driven, like ungainly flowers.
We watch while the landscape, strangely
pale, white as the wood
of weathered rails, and the sky’s
distant bars bespeak unearthly
thunder–a struggle of horses
and men, rain and trampled mud
swept by lightning and coursed
by flood. Soon the children
will know that the sky itself
is the implacable force that throws
horses and men from a babble
of fields, the heat of the sun,
that in spite of whatever they say
or do, there’s nothing can ever
be changed, nothing at all
to be done. Disturbed by the engine
the horses start, though faintly
they sound, the children laugh.
Horses with children first appeared in Birds Flying, Pegasus Press, Christchurch, 1973. It reappeared in Our Own Kind, 100 poems about animals, ed Siobhan Harvey, Random House NZ, 2009. It arose from stopping in the late 1960s on Auckland’s North Shore so children could view horses there Imagery in it was derived from William Morris’s The Haystack in the Floods (1858), and Shakespeare’s description of the dying Falstaff ‘babbl[ing] of green fields’. The hanging indent comes from R A K Mason.