John Newton (b. 1959) grew up on a sheep farm at the top of the South Island. He has a Masters degree from Canterbury and a PhD from Melbourne, and taught in the English Department at Canterbury from 1995-2009. His books of poetry are Tales from the Angler’s Eldorado (Untold, 1985), Lives of the Poets (VUP, 2010) and Family Songbook (VUP, 2013). He has also published The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngāti Hau and the Jerusalem Commune (VUP, 2009). He now lives on Waiheke Island, near Auckland. He is married to public health activist Robyn Toomath.
Shorn in this weather the sheep get burnt
so they’re trapped in clusters,
piled in the shade.
They’ll wait for dipping until they get
patched up, comb-furrows
rust brown, mending black, and troubled with lice still
they work their backs
against the rutted trunk of the big macrocarpa.
When the shearing machines and the tractor
go off it seems silent
at first: then you pick up the sound of a chain
being wrapped around a fuel-drum kennel,
the thump of surf,
the blare of cicadas, the squeal
of hinges on a gate swinging open.
Or you do if you listen. And the high
square door of the woolshed frames
the breathless glare outside
in shade, a vehicle closing in down the hillside
trailing its balloon of dust.
The powerlines catch the sun like water.
Packed in the shade of the big macrocarpa
this morning’s shorn sheep heal
and rock in the heat.
A white hen sitting under the house
butchered, the nest cleaned out.
With a ferret about
the nights are full of noises.
They may show up in possum traps
but you’re never ready, you never get
used to the noise they make when you
corner them, the smell, the coldness
of the fur to touch,
the body like a cat’s surprisingly
heavy. The blood
on bait or the plate of a trap
seems darker than it ought to be,
darker than possum blood,
darker than the blood of a hen.
The dogs bark at a pair of headlights
creeping down across the black hill,
the chooks in the macrocarpa shift with unease
as you staple the trap to a wooden pile
and set it, sheep’s heart jammed on a nail
for bait. You wash up, watch T.V.
and wait for the smash and the cold shrill chatter
an arm’s length away from you
under the floor.
Opening the book
You open the book
and there unfolds a road its skin is blue, it is summer
the heat that dances in its hollows turns
into water. You ride it in the vehicles of strangers:
homesteads and haybarns dusty yellow sheeptrucks
convoy of soldiers in jungle greens returning
from an exercise
slipping past their polarised windscreens;
you draw from them splinters of lives made of words
though you never take your eyes off the mountains.
The mountains reach out to embrace you
they fold their blue ankles
they give birth to rivers, they
can even crouch like tigers if that’s the way you
want them: they are a story you tell
about yourself, a story you are journeying
into, that swallows you. You leave
the road, then you honour the logic of ridges
and gorges, of funnels, of slotted
stone chimneys You startle a huge bird
nesting in the riverbed, climbing on slow
cream and ash coloured wings and you follow
as it disappears
inland, you tunnel to the spine of the island
and bury yourself alive, with your possessions, this
curved sky, this whisper of ice-cloud
this magic mountain shutting behind you.
I grew up at place called Robin Hood Bay in the Marlborough Sounds where my parents farmed. My earliest poems were self-consciously regional – memories of the Sounds, or of other landscapes in Marlborough and North Canterbury – and as concrete and imagistic as I could make them. ‘Lunch’ and ‘Ferret Trap’ are from Tales from the Angler’s Eldorado. ‘Opening the Book’ was written a couple of years later.
from ‘Lives of the Poets’
This evening’s guest speaker needs no introduction
and the boy and his missus no second invitation
to observe at the shrine of their weather-beaten elders,
their proud expeditions, their indomitable ascents.
Every other Tuesday being Young Folks’ Night,
upstairs at the Sensibility Club.
‘My comrade in arms, the late Stokely Adamant’ –
the Feral Professor tamps his pipe –
‘I can picture him now in the faculty tearoom
terrorizing the dear old Leavisites,
conjuring his divine afflatus
with a Zippo lighter and a coffee spoon.
There were no creative writing schools in those days,
you mark my words!
Talk about years in the wilderness, Gentlemen:
he taught himself to touch-type in Japanese, his first time in Long Bay!’
Far off somewhere in the blue smoky distance
the Zip water-heater blows its lonesome whistle
but the twinkling scholar has found his theme and refreshments are suspended
in the anecdotal amber of his eloquence.
The poet’s on a drilling rig in Azerbaijhan,
now he’s in a boatshed on the Hawkesbury River
with the green mosquitoes and the hookfaced ibis,
the red raw skin of their underwings like terrible trackmarks,
and his diet is gin and jimson weed
and the sunsets spread like burning oil
while he works on his difficult Blood Sugar Sutras
and picks off the fruit bats at dusk with his trusty Armalite.
Hank and Shona feel dizzy themselves
as they pick their way home through Darlinghurst,
he in his buckskins, she in her summer dress.
‘It’s a lot to live up to,’ he says.
Shona’s night off – bugs in a rug,
with the phone uncradled and the vodka chilled
and the constellations of tea-lights mustered
and a thunderstorm tearing apart overhead
and reggae (‘slowly, from the hips’)
and the renovating virtue of hot knives and tinfoil –
a hippie sportin’ lady on a busman’s holiday
and Hank Fortune Jnr, irrepressibly tuneful.
(Perhaps we should tip-toe from the picture,
close the door quietly and leave them together
building their play-house of pizza cartons,
designing the high-ceilinged rooms of the future?)
Outside tyres make waves in the street.
A branch wipes big splashy hands on the glass.
Headlights sweep the blistered paint
with the glycerine wash of an incipient nostalgia.
Shona, where can I write you, lover,
crossing the desert on your hands and knees?
You made me feel like a grown man, lover,
in the last November of the 1970s.
Clair de Lune
After a hard day behind the wheel
out there somewhere in the lunar hinterland
new-car sickness of the company wagon
with its boot-load of samples or swatches or whatever it is you’re ‘travelling in’
and evening finds you Christ-knows-where
in this little desolate service town . . .
So here’s the question (What’s it to be?)
(a) the publican and his wife
her motherly chat and his Fish of the Day
a beer or two with the mild local farmers
a cavernous bathtub, a ‘home-cooked’ breakfast;
or: (b) a cinderblock motel
a ‘studio’ at off-peak rates,
stroll through the chilly lavender dusk to the single phonebox
to call your wife
while the insects fizz in the baleful sodium
aureoles of the Hopper streetlights;
TV perched at the foot of the bed
TV dinner from the Superette
middling red in an acralyte coffee mug:
‘glass half-full’, is that the expression?
Like doleful music, like a storm at sea: this
heartbreaking world that has so many ways to be happy in it.
The Assassination of Kenneth Koch
At old St Mark’s, in the bowels of the Bowery, he reads from his
mighty poem for peace, wherein are contained, by his own estimation,
all the Pleasures of Peace that there could possibly be.
He jiggles about behind the lectern, he waves his briar insouciantly,
the idea of peace is really catching on
until, with a flourish of car horns, the doors burst open to grant admission
to the scuzziest hippies in the Northern Hemisphere.
‘Tear down the Terrible Institute,’ shouts Ben Morea. ‘Death
to irony!’ Listeners squeal at the gun’s report
and Leroi Jones flutters down from the balcony.
The poet, God be praised, is safe: ‘Oh grow up,’ he says,
donnishly, ‘you have the wrong man, I am a lyric poet
from Cincinnatti, the child of Keats. Why, the city is teeming
with calculating and unhappy poets. Shoot one of those!’
Kerouac, somewhere near Billings, Montana
Beneath the outline of his face, in the smoky window
of the Greyhound bus, the atavistic continent,
its pitch-black mountains, its steel-grey rivers,
scrolls by him. Knight of the Dolorous Countenance.
Here is the West of his mislaid connections: neighbourhood
softball games under floodlights, a girl in bright denims
with strawberry hair, a fatherly face among the wind-beaten ranchers
at the card tables back in some beer joint in Butte.
In every valley there’s a single light, and every light
is a family’s love, and the inky night between them expands
in his chest. With his hand in his trousers
he cradles himself, adrift in the darkness and solitary joy
of an epic grief that could almost be real, that
could almost be something else, minor, too painful to touch.
Electrical storm (Joni Mitchell in Winnipeg)
The first crash of thunder overhead empties the room.
That’s how it is on the prairies, the weather comes first.
Even the bar staff abandon their posts: by the time
she gets through the second chorus she’s playing to the furniture.
The emptiness sucks the breath out of her lungs. She remembers
the Emerson respirator, the night nurse who slapped her
for baring her legs while she bargained with God to let her walk again.
Every age (who was it said this?) admits one complaint.
A few days ago she heard ‘Positively 4th Street’ on a motel
transistor, and it blew her world open.
She could do that! It left her calling into continental space.
But that was him, and this is her, and the year is 1965:
she strums to the number’s end, lays down her instrument,
follows the audience outside to take in the show.
The senior year of high school hypothesis
Granted, it’s not the most elegant phrase, or indigenous
either, but that didn’t matter, reading Lowell and Eliot
and drinking Robitussin on the dormitory roof.
‘Preludes’, Prufrock, the quatrain poems, all that gorgeous
early stuff, and you knew that there was a person there,
a dandyish, unhappy person with an accurate grudge.
What else could ever compete with that: two young men, at such an
absolute age, happening on ‘My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow’?
Back home, of course, it was a different story, in the wreckage
of some awful family dinner, bashful, belligerent,
fingers and thumbs, as you tried to find the thread
of all that fevered becoming, and the Old Man, finally,
condescendingly pouring himself two fingers of gin
and reciting Milton’s sonnet on his blindness.
My first book appeared when I was 25, my second, Lives of the Poets, when I was 50. People often ask me why I stopped writing, to which I usually reply that if I knew the answer it wouldn’t have happened. But the question has been an ongoing subtext in the work I have published since. The title poem, which I describe as a ‘novella’, is about a young man’s mis-education. As always, the problem is Romanticism. The fourteen sonnets of STATIONS evoke moments of excitement or perplexity among a rogues’ gallery of romantic avatars. Like much of what I write, they vacillate between lyricism and satire.
from ‘Great Days in New Zealand Painting’
Meanwhile, back in the scenic zone
(Boyd Webb’s bathtub, von Guérard’s altarpiece)
Sigrid and Günther, saddle-sore Romantics,
tipple on a lukewarm Lucozade, easing
their hamstrings. All day into a moderate
headwind, grinding up into the throat of Southland,
but the lake edge here is a wave-lapped mosaic,
reds and ochres, olives and blues.
Now, as at only the most perfect places,
the lovers build their ephemeral shrine:
cradle of fallen, rain-softened branches;
platform of moss and old man’s beard;
then snail shells, pebbles, paradise duck feathers,
beech leaves (amber and scarlet) that find their
And look, now:
here comes a worshipper!
In ten-gallon hat and psychedelic lederhosen,
whistling a tune of his own composition,
it’s JR – angler extraordinaire –
descending to the water to commit to
sky-burial the four pound slab his exquisite
skills lately conjured from the
water hazard at the Glenorchy golf course.
A sensitive soul could have nightmares here:
these strutting black-backs, their reptile
gaze, the flush on that muscular bill
like a congenital bloodstain. But our
fröliche campers, pumping the primus,
dispose their tender thoughts elsewhere,
while the lake water dimples
and the athletic taste-maker packs his
evacuated trophy with a flourish of wild mint.
from ‘Small Farmers’
Something was always not right with other
people’s farms: landlocked, bleak, deciduous,
it feels as if it was always winter.
The pond at that place in the hills behind
Sheffield, late on a Sunday afternoon,
I can only imagine it choked with
ice, in a cage of leafless poplars, grey,
like oatmeal. Ice, too, veining the muddy
path from the tennis court to the winter
garden (the oddness of it, but yes, of
course!) where bark was a kind of inverted
blossom, the golden willows lit up with
amber heat. And now I can never smell
wintersweet without being back on that
frozen farm: my schoolmates carving across
the surface, belting a stone with their field-
hockey sticks, while I, who could no more skate
than ski, lost in a gigantic homespun
jersey, gripped the frame of a kitchen chair
as I inched my way out on to the ice.
from ‘Driving to Erewhon’
DARFIELD WEST COAST
MT SOMERS GERALDINE
Night-time strips out the scenery but leaves
you these places. History descends like
a plague of rabbits, shaving your story
back to the root, but out of the dark the
names come rushing, and burn themselves into
your retinas, dip-stripped and luminous.
A lifetime ago there was poetry
here: it glowed like the frail white coral of
a kerosene lamp. History would have
it otherwise, but your lights find its sans
serif aura, still faintly vibrating.
A lifetime ago there was poetry
here – you could walk across the river on
its back. But history arrives with its
hands on fire, like Butler, sweetening the
country for sheep.
Legend has it there was
poetry here. It smelled like high-summer
heat in the manuka. Sometimes the rain
drove it into the forest where it crouched
in the blue shelter of its pipe. Sometimes
its hold on the air was so light it seemed
to stall above the trees. History falls
from the sky like a payload of poisoned
carrots in the summer grass.
a time there was poetry here. It clung
to the hairs on your legs in the bush. It drank
and roared and discharged its weapons and fell
face down in the silage pit.
spreads like a plague of filmmakers, story-
boarding their fascist hokum.
turns like an iron mangle, grinding you into
sausage meat, and then feeds you back
to yourself on a stick while poetry
No, don’t eat it!
Somewhere out in the dark beyond Mayfield
a young man rides to the gate for the mail
and a hare lies still in the long grass as
if to let him stroke it. And the little
fishes leap in his lap, and the gape-mouthed
harrier speaks his name: Cresswell, bard of
Robin Hood Bay, finest poet in the
language ‘since Tennyson’. Would you look
at those mountains! the great man exclaims – the
Arrowsmiths, their immaculate teeth – and
he vows to take a stonemason and climb
the proudest peak in the range where he’ll carve
his poems in a font so bold you can
read them all the way from his brother’s farm.
Family Songbook is a meditation on the ways in which landscape imprints itself on us: landscape as family romance. ‘Great Days in New Zealand Painting’ is a mock history of South Island landscape painting. Eugene von Guérard (1811-1901): colonial painter; Boyd Webb (b. 1947): distinguished contemporary photographer; Sigrid and Günther: fictional German tourists; JR: prominent Christchurch art dealer. ‘Small Farmers’ is a boarding school narrative set in Christchurch and North Canterbury. ‘Driving to Erewhon’ describes a night-time drive up the Rangitata River and into the Canterbury high country. The sheep station known as Erewhon is the initial setting of Samuel Butler’s famous novel; it also furnished locations for the Lord of the Rings movies. D’Arcy Cresswell (1896-1960), whose family farmed briefly in the Rangitata, is widely believed to be the silliest New Zealand poet of all time. By a curious coincidence, he was educated as a small boy at a tiny private preparatory school at Robin Hood Bay. I imagine him here as my idiot doppelgänger.