Friday, August 2, 2013

Nick Williamson

Nick Williamson lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. His work has been published in numerous literary journals. His first book of poems, The Whole Forest, was published by Sudden Valley Press in 2001. ‘Broken Light’, from that book, was selected for Best New Zealand Poems 2001. In 2005 ‘Learning a Language’ won the New Zealand Poetry Society’s International Poetry Competition.

My father was a hare

I came from the Devil’s seed
born of unnatural relations
between my mother and a jack

The proof is irrefutable,
marked on my face for all to see.

I am a shy animal
not given to burrowing.
On a clear night you might think
you’ll find me in dark patches
on the moon.
But I live down here among you.

In the sixteenth century
a French doctor saw the resemblance
between a hare’s lip
and this strange disfigurement.
These days it is known that a leporid
fathers one child in seven hundred.

It’s hard to fathom why I was chosen.
Chippewa and Navajo are the most
vulnerable. They say the Devil
seldom visits Africa.

Home Movie

That’s me up on the big sheet, wet
sand oozing between my toes.

I can feel the cool
breeze off the sea, the sun
grilling Rangitoto, smell fish
on the bottom
of the boat amidst
tangled lines, blood-stained water.
I’m listening for the dry
crunch of pohutukawa leaves.

That’s my father raising
a silent head out of the blue
haze, slitting soft bellies
of snapper, moist, white.
Now he pours rust-coloured liquid
onto his tongue
waves a gnarled hand at me.

I’m ankle deep in cold
sea, watching.


These bones remind me of the time you stayed in a hut at Hakatere
Beach and knitted a raw wool jersey for my birthday. Two months
later you shot through to Australia.

Last Easter I drove down to Hakatere Beach. I wondered about you
being there alone when you were only seventeen. The huts were deserted.
The beach was cold and bleak and windswept. I didn’t hang around. I put a
dead shag in a plastic bag and took it home. I buried it in a terracotta pot with
a handful of tiger worms.

This Easter I dug the dead bird up. The feathers and flesh were completely
gone. Only this scatter of bones remained. Sleek, ochre bones; each one quite
beautiful. I washed them in warm water and bleach and here they are in front of me
in a white, plastic icecream  container.

Blue enamel colander

From the doorway
I watched
my mother stand
at the kitchen sink
peeling potatoes.
My father moved up behind
and put his big, hairy arms
around her waist.
She didn’t speak
just kept on peeling
the dirty skin
from the white flesh
her fingers raw
from cold water
above the blue enamel colander.
My father stood close
as if measuring the rise
and fall of his hands
on her belly
until she was done.
Two days later
my sister came
still born
in a rush of blood.
I never saw them
stand like that again.

Uncle Frank
You were  a kindly man
so thin, while Dad was fat.
They said it was the war years
four years in a German camp
after capture on Crete.

Bitter mornings:
so cold it tore the skin
to touch the metal of a truck.
But you were young,
the face less creased.
You look cheerful in uniform.

Later, cigarettes and sherry
got you. They said it was
the war years, four years
in camp.

Repairing the Head

He said he was on the Sickness.

But when my Bantam broke down
he cut a head
gasket out of the back
of a Weetbix pack.

We sat in darkness curtained
against the twentieth century
artefacts in his lounge:
            an ancient outboard
            his sister’s old fridge
            a stuffed red setter.

He worked with scissors squinting
through sellotaped spectacles
fingers engraved with oil.

Afterwards we drank
stout and he talked over
the TV about a ghost
he’d met in my flat
and how he knew Norm Kirk.

Climbing the Flame Tree

The tomatoes are dying.
Dry sores pock their
red sides
frost has crippled
the leaves.

You sit beside me
in thaw sun
stooping to tie
a splintered branch
with strips of Barbara’s
worn out pantyhose.

I notice your fingers
stained from too much
tobacco, the veins
in your hands
bulging like dark

Across your cheeks
stretch years
of burst capillaries:
purple roads mapping
a bleak landscape.

In another garden
you tipped me laughing
a wispy kid from
a green wheelbarrow.

We climbed a flame
tree to watch the moon
spread like tinfoil
to Rangitoto.

Broken Light

Remember the street light
I broke with a fluke
from my shanghai?

You had me upstairs in a flash
pants round my thin ankles
paddling my raw bum.

I can see the view
from your bedroom window
out over the buffalo

grass where we flew
kites across the broad
grey sea to Tiri Tiri

Whangaparaoa and beyond
before I closed my eyes
to it all and hitched south.

Last night we cast your ashes
on the buffalo hill. Flash
apartments stare out where

once our tall house swayed
through the cold evenings.
New lamps burn in the street.

Colin McCahon

I ran into Colin McCahon
out by the garage.
He was smoking a cigarette.

We talked, Colin and I.
He asked after the wife and kids.
I told him the girlfriend
and I’d been on Banks Peninsula.
His ears pricked up – how the bush
was growing back
and the farmers are all into eco-tourism.

There’s a farmer at Stony Bay, I said.
He’s built five wood cabins
a shower inside a bloody tree
a bath under the blazing
You light this fire to get it going.

Is that right? Said Colin.
We were on our knees,
his corduroys black with sump oil,
gazing towards those bare hills
on the horizon.

Portrait of Betty Curnow
Betty Curnow hangs
in the gallery
looking a bit stiff.
She’s been in the picture
since nineteen fifty four
when Henderson laid her out
on canvas.

The light fell at such precise
angles in those days
but really she hasn’t changed:
her hair still so severe
pulled back in a bun
her arm forever
lying across that table
with a half-finished fag
between her fingers.

Climb down, Betty,
I want to say. Get out
of that dowdy red frock
untie your hair. Breathe
the warm night air.

This Chair

Made in Poland
the label says
like the shoes
I bought in Norwich
before the accident.

This kitchen chair
has held some special bums:
Jeff, who doesn’t visit now
cos we’re not talking
& Don, who cooed from it
                            I love you
to my wife
& Kate, who sat on it
seventeen years ago
& was never coming back
until today, when she
chose the same chair

& remarked on its beauty.

Insect Poem

Brewing coffee this evening
I came across a poem
on its back
beside the kitchen window.

It was kicking its legs
like a stunned insect.

I picked it up
gently by the wings
laid it out on paper
drinking in its fine markings.

Straight off I could tell
it had no sting
that it wouldn’t make it
through the night

Learning a Language

I have decided
to become a printmaker:
dry point

In the library I found an Illustrated Herbal
bursting with mediaeval plants and ideas.
There’s a man snipping grapes
big purple globes
and his wife is holding out her apron.

I bought a long needle
with wooden handle
and put a cork on the sharp end.
It came with the green bottle
that last night christened
my resolve.

Made in Portugal, the cork is absolutely right.

Tubes of ink lie heavy
against the soft skin of my palm:
raw umber
burnt sienna
yellow ochre
the blue of the very sky.

I had perspex, clear as an eye,
measured and cut for this moment
alone in my mother’s house
with my needle and my dark ink

learning a language

with my hands.


Most of my poems are self explanatory. I will provide some notes where I think it may be helpful.

·      Repairing the Head
‘Sickness’ refers to a welfare benefit.
Bantam refers to the motorcycle of that name.
Norman Kirk was elected Prime Minister of New Zealand in 1972. He died in 1974.

·      Climbing the Flame Tree
Rangitoto is an island three miles off the coast of northern New Zealand.

·      Broken Light
Tiri Tiri is an island off the northern New Zealand coast. Whangaparaoa is a peninsula near Tiri Tiri.

·      Colin McCahon
Colin McCahon, who died in 1987, is considered to be New Zealand’s foremost painter. He was noted for his renditions of the New Zealand landscape.

·      Portrait of Betty Curnow
This poem, Portrait of Betty Curnow, was written after viewing a painting of the same name by Louise Henderson at the Christchurch Art Gallery. It was of interest to me because Betty Curnow, wife of the New Zealand poet Allen Curnow, had been a friend of my mother and I had known her when I was a child. Henderson had painted her in 1954, in the cubist style, as a Spanish dancer. I didn't much like the rendition, the way Henderson had 'laid her out on canvas', and I wanted Betty to be able to escape from the painting to be her true self, of which I had a vivid memory.

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