Cilla McQueen: Way Up South

Oct 2023 | Short story

Rare air, pale light, beyond       up south, old world,
Rakiura.           Step ashore
bush masks the way         watching blue shadows
whirring wings, waves         hush        wind stirs leaves,

I like to write on a veranda, between inside and outside
the house and myself          can see who’s coming up the path
and when they leave         with a wave, words
flow back in to fit the poem.

Sunrise Cottage, old and sturdy, looking over Halfmoon Bay
where fishing boats at anchor      swing        sound of wings
Tūī come to check us out
from the overhanging fuschia.

A red, white and blue striped hand-painted table made from a cable reel, with a perspex top screwed down; under the top in gold and black lettering: TODAY BLUE COD,

old weathered timber as black as shadow, brass propeller tussock paua shell stone fern           quality of silence pervading (different birdsong from Bluff),

on the kitchen door the pokerwork message ‘Gone Fishing’ hangs from a long wooden fish with chicken-wire scales.

I hear Tuwhare’s voice, in the broad Scots accent
of his boilermaker workmate, who preferred his work-bench
‘hard by’ ‘the big doors’,            with easy access
inside and outside                space for a poet to think.

One Anzac Day, with Gwen, I read a poem at the Dawn Service on the beach at sunrise. Another visit, for a poetry reading, brought the Foveaux Express crammed with a whole symposium of poets.

A timeless village bay. Wharf, pub, fishing boats, church, school, museum,
cling to the shore. Small blue islands dissolve in mist,
the horizon like thumbed chalk;

similar to Hirta perhaps, island of muttonbirders, fishermen, families,
loyal, self-sufficient, adaptable, obedient to weather,
canny, hospitable, tough, with discerning taste in fish and fowl.       

Kākā comes down on the deck and sings a warbling song, having a good look,
hops on the sofa beside me,

interior narrative weaving through – my small inclusion, life’s thread, history making itself continuously even in small things, unique instances.

This is where I like to be – on the porch of a fisherman’s crib looking out to sea – have found my liminal space (to write) on the blue sofa – what’s more, here come Pauline and Geoff bringing fresh blue cod, in batter.

A holy island, Hone?
I’ll not go in, but touch an edge
as the village keeps to the rim of the bay
so far and no further
the island keeps to itself, a vast quiet place,
untouched land’s power.

A large brown bird with a hooked beak
comes to the fuchsia branch: Kākā.

History’s quick, right here, deep-down
sensitive       in its privacy      covers its tracks
in layers                 beyond the Pākehā, beyond the early
and the earlier people,             beyond the museum,
beyond these, something
elder        even
feels like something sacred is working
(do not disturb).

The island aware of itself in the museum;
that which is given to be seen            in plain sight
the history narrated by means of bones, stones, whale’s jaw, shells,
artefacts, photos, stories. Concentrated power in an ancient anchor stone.

At the school there’s a poetry class of lively young ones
who give the words their full attention, know their good fortune
in living here, loving Rakiura and its nature,

and in Pauline’s class, act out how it must have been
to undergo the Dawn Raids of Muldoon.

Air-slicing wings all around, dawn chorus, ripping sound of Tūī wings
clicks and squawks                as they ply between the breakfast branches.
Last night I heard a Kiwi screech.
Geoff warbles to the Kākā, the Kākā warbles back.

News of a discovery at West Ruggedy:
the near-intact skeleton of a giant Moa, naturally deceased,
has been found lying ‘in a granite bowl …. exposed by wind’,
its gizzard stones undisturbed.

The invisible past continues to exist      is simply vanished
to my sight          I lack the senses to perceive so deep
renews its archive     layer by layer.

In time, wind brings the bones to light.
So far, no further –

This history isn’t mine. On one shoulder sits Hone, on the other an old St Kildan grandmother; between them my English mother, who considered the importance of Te Tirīti ō Waitangi equal to that of the Magna Carta.

Luminous greys in sea and sky, a memory of sealskin, feather, rock, rainwater;               white-chested Kererū, heavy on a branch, a slight bounce.

I felt relief to hear of the Moa resting in its granite bowl.
Alive once, those eyes would have gazed across the land-bridge
and gone there, over here, on foot.
Extinct yet extant, gizzard and stone.

Deep silence undisturbed by sound events – wings, strings of liquid notes –

I’m entered by this silence, in my writing place transported to this porch,
this end of the comfortable blue sofa               where I listen
to the Island              as if it were a consciousness telling itself

in Hone’s voice, perhaps,
‘something more real, more lasting,
more permanent maybe, than dying …’

Cilla McQueen
Motupōhue, 2021

The poem referred to is Hone Tuwhare’s ‘Monologue’.
And thanks to Second Beer for the recording.

Cilla McQueen has written 19 collections of poetry; her latest are Poeta and Qualia, one of six chapbooks in Bundle 1, Maungatua Press. Three of her collections have won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. She has been the University of Otago’s Burns Fellow and a Fulbright Visiting Writers’ Fellows, among other honours. She was New Zealand’s Poet Laureate 2009-11 and is a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.  She lives in Bluff. This poem was first published in A Kind of Shelter Whakaruru-taha, edited by Witi Ihimaera and Michelle Elvy.

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