Friday, August 16, 2013

Tom Weston

Born 1958 in Christchurch (now, the city formerly known as Christchurch) New Zealand, Tom Weston spends his time on the move, principally on a circuit comprising Christchurch, Auckland, the Cook Islands. He has published three books of poetry and his work frequently appears in Sport and Landfall.

A Selected Poems most naturally falls in a chronological sequence.  Sometimes poets will mix it up but that’s the exception rather than the rule.  Humans, being a race of story-tellers, tend to think in chronology.  Looking back over a period of writing, too, it can be interesting to see how things have developed. The poems collected here, the baker’s dozen, assume an easy chronology.
Although my active writing life began in the late 1980s, it took some tentative steps ten years earlier when I was at the University of Canterbury.  Initially, poetry was a side-shoot from the songs I wrote for a band I played in for several years.  Rock lyrics are generally fairly banal.  Only die-hard fans actually read the liner notes.  Even the songs locked in our sub-conscious look pretty thin when closely analysed.  But it was a way to start writing poetry. 
Surprisingly (at least to me), some of the poems from this early time are passable.  My climbing experiences – and the death of my friend Richard Burn on Mount Cook – led to a long poem entitled “Below Mount Cook”.  It started:
“In the beginning
was the East Face of Sefton
shedding tears. 
In the beginning the earth
rose arrogant
& howled its nose at
whoever cared. 
In the beginning I saw two tears
through a veil
of southerly mist
but that a mask soon rent
by the eager hand of summer burning.”

Over-egged, sure, but at least edible.  Most of the rest of it, though, was fairly poor stuff in the way of such juvenilia.  I see some early hints of where my writing has now landed but, plainly, there was much to learn.  Several pamphlets published at the time are interesting – to me – as historical artefacts.  But that’s about it. 
My first book of poetry was published in 1996 when I was 38.  It had had a long gestation.  During this time I learned how to write poetry mainly by reading the work of others.  Over a period of about 20 years I read almost every book of New Zealand poetry published.  Mainly, this was in the context of reviewing poetry for The Press.  But my reading was more international than that.  The New Yorker, The London Review of Books and the New York Review of Books showed me what reviewing could be.  And they also introduced me to an extraordinary stable of international poets: Louise Gluck, Anne Carson, John Burnside, Mark Strand, Paul Muldoon and others. 
The Ambiguous Companion (1996) was a collaboration with a painter Joanna Braithwaite.  Having written the poems, I passed them to her and she selected the 14 for which she then completed a painting.  Two of the poems selected for the baker’s dozen had accompanying paintings.  Joanna deftly caught the essence of the poems – although with her own particular perspective. 
This first collection was published by Quentin Wilson’s Hazard Press.  The next, published in 2004, came out under Roger Steele’s Steele Roberts imprint.  This was, Naming the Mind Like Trees (2004).  I have selected three poems from this collection, another undertaken in collaboration with Joanna Braithwaite.  The book, as a physical thing, was beautifully produced.  
“Inside the Reef”, was one of an increasing number written in the context of the Cook Islands.  My wife Margaret and I have been going to the Cooks for many years.  More recently, I have also been working there. 
Hugh Roberts reviewed this collection in the New Zealand Listener in 2005.  He spoke of how reading the poetry gave him a knot in his stomach.  “One feels in every line the presence of a powerfully alert mind that is fully engaged with real and serious matters; it’s a little like watching a surgeon performing a delicate operation.”  A writer, of course, values such a perceptive reviewer!  In 2008, Tim Upperton, reviewing my next book, responded to that earlier review.  He said “The poems move the reader towards a complex of feeling for which it’s hard to find a name.  The best poems here patiently build an image, without nudging that image into an explicit significance…  The negligible presence of a speaker locates the emotion in a kind of limbo between image and reader, which occasionally gives the poems, despite their concreteness of observation, a sense of disembodiment or abstraction.” 
Four years later, Steele Roberts published my third book, Small Humours of Daylight (2008).  One of these poems, “Traffic Noise” was selected by James Brown for the 2008 Best New Zealand Poems on-line selection. 
This on-line publication shamelessly (to use its own word) built on David Lehman’s long-running series, The Best American Poetry.  This series has long had a readership in New Zealand.  Lehman’s annual reflections and meditations upon poetry have always, for me, been a highlight.  Some criticise the poet’s notes on each poem which are tucked in the rear of each volume.  The purists say the poetry should speak for itself.  So it should, but these volumes are part of a bigger conversation, and the richer for it. 
“Inland Roads”, selected from my third collection, is another poem which lays claim to the Cook Islands.  Its provenance is the southern island of Mangaia which has a brooding and haunted quality about it. 
“Exhilaration” was written for Margaret.  It is a love poem.  I am sometimes told that this is not immediately obvious. 
The last two poems come from a forthcoming collection, Red Swamp Road.  Both of the poems here have been published in Sport
I particularly like “The Dying Man Plays His Pianola”.  It has an overwhelming percussive beat to it, designed to capture the mechanical processes of the pianola.  The poem salutes Ian Arnott, owner and restorer of said pianola who died of cancer shortly after playing it for me. 

White Heron As It Is Spelled

The word, being water, follows the zig zag line
of the heron
as it casts low
through the reeds, wings that scrape the water

and scrape the reeds,
a whisper of white in the great forests
of taut language.
The index of movement is the art
of very being,
an instant that holds the plume of the heron.

Reeds stand or fall in the shallow water.

In the early morning of understanding
the word is
half formed on lips, and there is a moistening
by the tongue, the word
that commands the dark to stand still.

A bird moves in the frost of morning
and it is black as it comes from the lake,
eyes to the sun.
In the first light of language
the hill brightens and is
no longer plain nor lake, and the bird is white.

·              Sport 3 (1989)
·              The Ambiguous Companion (1996)

Flying into Christchurch

The day’s frayed cuffs
scuff on the warm earth of evening,
insisting that cycles pass, expectations slipping
out over the mountains

burning their imprint into the cloth
of the sky, vermilion,
smoke wisping
from singed fibres as light surrenders

and the week ends. Across the plains,
flat angles rather than paddocks,
gaps where there are sawmills, shingle
pits, the whole commerce of the land

reduced to one condition. The rug
of the sea is rucked up and covered in dog hair,
unravelling at the edges where the surf
breaks onto wicker beaches. Colours shake off

so much geometry, with the rivers
carrying the burden of dying light
and the braided river beds becoming horses
or violent lovers, shiny as tin foil.

Who is to say that there will be landing
when the wheels scorch the asphalt, for it will
be dark, with pinpricks of light
and the terminal like all of Christmas?

·              The Ambiguous Companion (1996)

Castle Hill

The jawbones of dead sheep
snag on grasses, worn incisive

by the floss of the mountain’s storms.
These are their teeth in the yellow gum

of the clenched hill, picked over,
muscle buried under tussock and matagouri,

slight echoes of the
limestone corrugations on the skyline.

Damaged shrubs struggle
into cracks above the reach of sheep

where the earth folds
into a shock of eating, and not just teeth here

but the stubble of broken jaws, armies of jaws,
limestone molars splayed across the yellow hill,

indentured to storms,
fast in the plate of the earth.

·              The Ambiguous Companion (1996)

Today's Story

There it is again,
a plaintive call in the cypress,
four notes endlessly repeated in

the threadbare hall of winter:
witness, witness, witness
the long decline of the sun

into clouds, driven
by the glimmer of the bird singing
its chorus of days without

love. And why,
in the weak soup of the day,
does the bird seem to follow,

incessantly there?
It laments for those who are
falling, swept

in the floodtide of their lives,
wishing to be more than the husked
skin of their longing. The song

is unanswerable, unmelodic. There are
no clothes in which to dress the nakedness
of fear. We fear less

when the world is naked with us.
The small bird, a thumb print only,
sings and sings, notes like dust all over the trees.

·              The Ambiguous Companion (1996)
·              Essential New Zealand Poems (2001)

To Disappear

If it were a matter of magic only

the man would disappear
when the red cloth slipped through

his fingers

but he was all trembling, straw hat firmly grounded
at his feet

for coins
and the odd spell to drop in.
Perhaps in one breath the hat would simply

mark his place
for the passing crowd to find him there

and ask why he stood with his grey jaw
and the ragged

red cloth miraculously closed now
and spinning

like fire in his hands.
The straw hat blossomed and became fields of wheat.

He was gone, gone, and the crowd
threw coins

like rain into the stalks. 

·              Sport 21 (1998)
·              Naming the Mind Like Trees (2004)


This early morning the sea is
so flat it could be black ice.

A mist drifts in the trees like fish amidst
the ribs of yesterday. We wait.

A launch leaves the farm, crosses the bay.
The sea opens and folds back, a whisker

of wake peeled from the copper plate
of the bow. We want everything.


The day passes in light rain, tides,
little movement. Sea leaks out

of the bay, its face spotted
in an arpeggio of wet notes straggling

from the seagull’s nest on one point
to the broken beech on the other. Everything.

Night has a light touch. Small breezes
encode its stories into rising stars

and longer pauses, a taste of wood smoke
sliding into dreams of midnight’s army.

·              Naming the Mind Like Trees (2004)

Inside the Reef

We walk in the shadows
of trees with roots complicated

and loose in the air, cheated by the sea’s efforts
to reclaim all it has given, blue bottles

expelled from the sea strained blue,
cast amongst roots like minor royalty.

We walk in the shallows
in the company of dogs we do not recognise,

that roll in the sand, ecstatic,
counting the royal princes in their beds

within the wind-gathering roots
of the casuarinas, stitched and observing. 

·              Naming the Mind Like Trees (2004)

Inland Roads

At night, inland dirt under my fingernails, red
as distant volcanoes, the singing of constant winds.
The shop lit up at night, shelves painted red.

His voice sing-song, like he’s chanting the price
of a hundred stocks, one after the other.
The limestone road an octave of noisy puddles.

Church lights in the low cloud, trees heavy
with mosquitoes, languid along the lingering road.
His gold chain the marriage of light and flesh.


Night-time at the store, speaking in low voices.
A gathering up of children, homewards travel,
scooters roughly flecked with red soil.

Singing and muscle. All that remains.
Guess at the planting of trees abrupt against the night,
all the known stars blanked out. Think, too,

of the red light inside and the weakness of flesh.
An augury of knives, and the rain constantly dripping.
Those travelling the back roads remain vigilant.

·              Sport 35 (2007)
·              Small Humours of Daylight (2008)

The Unprepared Mind

The western island is furthest from land,
a place of shrubs and grasses only, a holy place

devoid of adultery. The women fasten their clothes
with the bones of seabirds. With such charity

they can soar at will. The neck of goose
is a chaste shoe, a lightness of feet, rising over

the marbled expanse of sponge and moss,
like flying. These things have been seen.


The boat returns. For them, a first journey.
One awakes, in the quick of morning, at land

wholly new to her, the same virtues, same rock,
a familiarity utterly foreign. How shrubs

have become as tall as buildings, taller even.
Trees, she is told. And she is amazed,

almost winded: they grow to such a height
and they hold us when we walk in them.

·              Sport 32 (2004)
·              Small Humours of Daylight (2008)


Her hair held all the sun intact.
There was pollen on water, and the day

rowed through continents leaving its trail
blazed on the surface, passage marked

with a blade, whetted, sharp as desire.
Her hair was a glorious flare that burned itself

into my brain, evanescent as three miracles.
My apotheosis came in the burnished hair,

for the shudder of morning on my blade, stolen,
like those returning home to find it gone.

When she stood to leave the boat, flurries
as the earth adjusted, sighed, hefting the new day

like steel into soft wood. A clean wound.
Another fatality. The clear necessity of it.

·              Small Humours of Daylight (2008)

Traffic Noise

Make no mistake. The delicacy of the horn is a porcelain
vase, its rage a gun that shoots its victims down. It is yes
with a dozen meanings, the yes of no, the yes of maybe,
an almanac, the shudder of love and the shout of the
policeman, a bearer of drinks. The horn is the tongue of
the road, insolent and hard in what it takes, a singer that
can assume any damn lyric.

It is a black choir, a choir of boys in a cathedral, the Pope
as he blesses a crowd, white with flecks of gold and
purple. A low noise, calculating. The horn resists an
answer. It drives a long way for you. Yes and no muster a
discordant tune. The horn is rules made in an instant,
details etched in the ear-drum’s cells, insistent you are
nothing more than here.

It is the day as it becomes smaller about you, abandoned
everywhere, marked with incomprehension,
announcements in a foreign tongue, how to buy food,
what to expect. The horn reduces to these simple things
and it drains you. The querulous tongue is one
of complaint, of imminent argument, where threats
are the taking of territory and a refusal to see the consequences. 

The couple in the taxi queue has been wounded. She is
blotched with iodine and his arm is in plaster. The horn
does not care. They find a car and she lifts their case into
the boot. Pain burns them. An Egyptian drives through the city.
He understands the pattern of bruises like a roadmap.
His English is halting but he finds where each one leads.
This is the tongue and the taking, every step retraced.

·              Small Humours of Daylight (2008)
·              Best New Zealand Poems 2008 (ed. James Brown)

The Dying Man Plays His Pianola

Those puffing feet, those paddles sculling
a slow boat with music jaunty in the air, his own
body’s bellows belting out a ragged air.

Magic from New York, gleaming, glamorous even,
entirely new, renewed, resplendent perforation.
Pipes and pumps and paddles permitting sound.

Music of the brass tubes, the puffing silk-paper
bellows, each a breathing lung for the machine.
Driven air reading gaps in the line and

making Chopin. A factory of corridors and tunnels,
almost a city, a production-line of mazurkas.
Air the glutton that beats on wires strung

in the black box, insisting upon tune, air building
notes, building phrases, pounding the ear’s drum.
Everything in resonance, the harmonic teeth

driving each cog, forcing the spindle around,
the roll of paper punctuated by absence, and
absence activating song. His own lungs

leaking air, the paper rolls misread and sending
dud notes through his blood, his engineer’s feet.
All the pumps in the world insufficient for now.


The grand act of forgetting, his body decrepit
and diminishing. Silence the only point of thought,
the finality of air forced through tubes

scorching the paper that carries the crescendo
with it, a holy pyre consuming what it reads.
Here’s what he knows. The making and working

of machines, the paths the air follows, slamming
a hammer down. The music he cannot catch,
it out‑runs his hands. That is the mystery,

his disappearing body an unsolved experiment,
fingers that no longer follow. Scrolls of notes
catching in his throat and sending static through

his mouth, coughing now his punctuation, coughing
now a new syntax, one that plays tunes here
and next year, re-creating the grammar of oblivion.

The holes burned by cancer, or radiation,
or both. Fix one, another comes, perdendo. Crank him
through the pianola, then he’ll puff out a tune.


My friend, he sang six songs before breakfast,
like a bird got up in finery, all dressed for love,
a harp on which his breath would have the final word.

·              Sport 37 (2009)
·              Red Swamp Road (forthcoming)


The memory of a bridge spanning a wide river, white
stone blocks stacked

into a geometry of recollection.
The warmth and ease of walking in the air above a wide

and, it must be said, dirty river and the care
with which it has been aligned between the banks.

A disease for which, the neighbours say, I self-medicate,
as always the eternal optimist.

I am brought to this by the scent of daffodils in spring,
that dirty hint of musk, more intense even

as each collapses, folding in and darkening.
That scent outruns its form: yes, then I know the stench

of reluctance, a lingering announcement on the hall
table, stalking me

as I take my course across this ghostly bridge, stalking
the other self I saw earlier.


The memory, too, of a café brightly lit like
a doctor’s surgery. Three heads bowed at separate tables,

the murmuring evening put beyond each of them 
who has ordered

by pointing at numbered wall-cards, wanting
to step out from that god awful cornucopia of a life

even if only for a moment.
And clematis slumped on a railing, after-rain, with the sky

intensely blue to match the immense green that’s everywhere.
This settles deep

in the lungs as if the earth were being formed there, as if creation
were giving itself a shot at perfection.

It’s about the angular, a pure art of the eternally awkward,
bowed heads again.

As these announcements cut across the years,
call me in from my memories and their heady perfume.


I am ready to make a clean break. Yes, really.
That’s what I will say when they put the truth serum in.

·              Sport 41 (2013)
·              Red Swamp Road (forthcoming)

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