Kapene Kuki

From the shore that was still theirs
they saw it one morning,
called it a floating island,
a colossal bird.

The men took their oars
and sped out in their waka
right up under its massive wings
that stroked the sun.

And when one man dropped cold at the prow
they knew it was an Atua,
one of the gods that rove
like the whales, the white sea birds.

And the men ventured to challenge it,
got up close under its yawning, fiery mouths
that screamed over their heads,
as it exhaled, grew larger

as if to feast, devoured the waves,
churned up whirlpools,
while its spine thrust above
their dizzying sight.

But the men where satisfied,
they’d shown how
they were a match for the deity.

News spread as Atua slid up the coast.
And when it came to rest in a bay,
just like an island,
others were waiting along the beach.

Something approached
from the wounded side of the god,
ferried like a message
across centuries and the winds of Hawaiiki.

And there before them on the shore,
the radiant, benevolent messenger,
from the throat of that dark bird, advanced,
while the people, hushed, spoke rapidly,

and the emissary’s guards
chanted rabid, whistled songs,
clutching at their sides,
the warriors couldn’t fail to notice,
blunt taiaha.

But the quiet one moved among the onlookers,
touched them, smiled,
took their offerings,
patted the children’s fine, dark hair
with one soft palm,

handed them hard iron nails
with the other,
all the while smiling, glowing, blinding,
for he was not yet human.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

The Navigators

They followed the summer currents down,
away from the islands of blue heat,
the cliffs burnt with green,
the palms waving farewell.

Out there on the ocean,
tinted by the herds of turtles,
host to the flying fish,
they hauled out their sail,

skimmed the wave’s immense flame.
Taut bodies singed by the shadowless sky,
strained mind and tendon
to hold the prow like a spear
thrust at the southern star.

The awful night slid down,
crowded in by the sighs of the whales
which carried their distant homeland
deeper into a myth.
The men chose their constellations carefully,
marked the white shadows
of the migrating birds.

The sea grew tighter around them,
the sun withdrew its heat.
As if they had crossed through
a membrane in their sleep,
through the womb of the ocean mother,
they were no one’s now,
no hapu, no iwi,

children of the current
that flung them onto
the cold tongue of the south,
that coiled back into the throat
of a darker sky.

And then the signs they knew,
the birds, one, or two, or flocks,
lightning streaks of phosphor
beneath the frayed hull,
the high clouds that
rose like mothers to greet them,
the green that was just a slither
and rose like foam,

and the red flowers on the tide
that came out to lead their
exhausted hope to shore.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

Tasman Comes South

You victualed your two ships and,
huddled in that vast,
un-bestowed ocean,
went forward creeping,
like a pair of reluctant soldiers
into the enemy’s camp.
But you would take with you
all the precise science
of your primitive, poxied age
and impose a calm,
an order on this southern confusion.
With the scope, the quadrant,
the straight line,
the net of longitude and latitude,
you would tackle
what had once been immeasurable song,
weeping oceanic music,
and reduce it to
the cartographer’s clinical silence.
You stood apart
within the dykes of your northern soul,
and the slithers of land you glimpsed
grew as reticent as your
gliding consort.
The continents and the islands
sensed your purpose
and would not reveal themselves.
Even amidst the telltale signs of people,
plumes of smoke, clearings,
strange vessels,
still you kept your distance.
Here on the cusp of a new world,
where landfall would mean
giving yourself over
to the pregnant unknown,
to these ones
who trumpeted you forward
to violence, to transformation,
you turned your prow,
retraced the lines of your charts
back to certainties,
back to Batavia,
not knowing what you’d seen,
touched by nothing,
having given names to horizons
that sunk beneath your wake.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014


The boats left
laden with men and streamers,
and my son.
And the people, great crowds
that spilled down Queen Street
onto the quay,

held out tiny blue flags to the boats,
as if the whole city
wanted to grasp,
just one more time,
the fingertips of those
who had already departed.

Then letters came sailing back
over that same thread of ocean,
that all who remained behind
feared would fray.

He wrote of Gallipoli,
poetic names that
leaped from my tongue.
He wrote of fierce seas,
fierce men, fierce disease,
and the fiercer sun
that flung its own bullets,
claimed its own share.

This was not your homeland,
this was not your history.
But the men persisted there,
they wanted a chronicle,
they would rush up that hill,
they would fly headlong
into a myth.

And when the ships came home
across the kneeling sea,
he wasn’t one of the cheering men.
And in their own way
the crowds that came out were changed

by the holes in the parade,
the fallen confetti.
But they persisted in their ardor,
and made of my son
a nation,
and set him in stone
where I can no longer mourn him.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

The Birds

The first visitors were struck silent
by the utter abandon of this land.
The forest and the calls of the birds
descended like unanchored bells
to the very shore.
An ancient, sonorous veil,
washed by the gray dreams
of the clouds,
covered this un-spoilt archipelago.

And how they sang,
from the low hum
of the dark moa,
the shrieks of the flightless parrots,
up through the canopy
to the impossible song
of the bell bird, the fragile tui,
the land seemed born in music.

Here the forest was
the wisest monarch,
here her kingdom of birds flourished ,
gilded, pampered,
here the dark, gray ocean,
for centuries,
flung back the continents,
and the land grew folds of peace.

The kakapo, the weka,
stained by the deep green of the sheltering ferns,
shed their wings,
grew indolent and irascible,
larked and spun madrigals
on the forest floor, dissipated courtiers.
The wood pigeon fattened itself
on the dark berries
of enormous totaras,
where silent wetas
oozed their eons of sediment,
clinging to thick trunks.

The land lay open,
a ripened lime, beyond any grasp,
and the birds ran riot,
abandoned feverish toil,
precautions against invasion,
sung recklessly
through the numberless centuries.

Only the ancient tuatara,
perched still on the rocks,
watched as the polar storms
approached but never arrived.
And sometimes
a great albatross,
exhausted by the slipstream,
alighted on the unguarded coast,
leading the new comers
who had followed him for days,
their prow like a harpoon,
their starved hope plunged like a hook
into his wake.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014




They left that old land

hoping the sea spray

would wash away its gray memory

and its hatreds.


But the worst was to come,

deep in the dripping caverns

of those ships full of England’s castaways,

who coughed up cholera

and dead infants,

offal for the

green wastes of the sea.


And those interminable months

in the thick, wet air of that womb

waiting to be born,

what could they do?

Learn to read, learn to write,

a name, a catechism,

learn how to build cities?


Dreams could expand like lice

in those holes,

honey from the new land

would ooze in their ears.

While the dying poured into buckets,

their dreams grew hard and dark

in the stomach,

fanatics multiplied, intoned,

it is an empty land,

a promised land.




When at last

the choked exiles arrived,

disappointment fell like an anchor,

the ship was a gangway

aimed at a land

as untaught as the sea,

a slow lizard

dripping its own grayness,


and the settlers could only

huddle and dig sodden gardens

and starve through wet years

while the forests constantly leaked

and the rivers fell from their beds,

drowning their delusions.


But they had their hard dreams,

their grim books

that afflicted them like dropsy,

and with blunt tools

they built new Shropshires,

poorer ones that often caved in,

they grafted familiar

sounds and scents

onto the alien soil.


And at night they cowered

in their wattle kingdom,

clutching useless muskets,

as the native land closed in

brandishing its own weapons,

carrying its own unbreakable treaty.




By the time the first children

grew up, they were already strangers,

arrogant, rough, more certain,


the new land plundered everything

the parents poured into it

and returned nothing familiar.

Some dreamed of reverse journeys,

of second exiles.


And when it came time

for the vigorous, young colony

to celebrate its aged pioneers

it was hard to know

who these foreigners were,

the relics of a defeated, grey country,

who seemed, to the youngsters,

like strange invaders.


Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

Out Walking After the Storm

Walking along the river tonight

after the typhoon

I notice the newness of everything.

The sky seems closer,

as if it had come down

to inspect the fresh earth.

The moon too leans in,

face still raw

from the lashes of the wind.

Everything wears this new sheen

from the storm

which passed over like a mop,

washing off the mud

and the iniquity

of the bruising summer.

And the elephant clouds,

stragglers of the whirlwind armies,

lumber through the

clear pools of night,

dipping their white trunks.

Even the river rushes on

more quickly now,

flushed of all the junk

from the men and the mountains

that clung to his old hide.

There are turtles, backs glistening,

clasped to his swifter mane,

heading for the sea

and the gleaming plankton fields.

And on the blue bank

and the still reeling grass,

plundered by the fierce palms,

the old tree,

shadow of tendrils and leaves,

damp, creaking trunk,

strengthened by the

ordeal with the murderous rain,

exhales through his pores

the dark, calm scent

of the defeated storm.

Nature’s ancient capacity

for renewal spreads everywhere tonight.

And when we’ve, in our own turn,

laid her low

with our own catastrophes,

when we ourselves are amber

in her deep soil,

there will be dark, galloping mares,

ferocious rivers, silent moons,

purer than anything we’ve dreamed,

that know nothing of our capital.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014


Even something as mundane as this

you turn into beauty

overflowing into pain.

How can I contend with this moment

you fling at me,

like a burning coal,

like a two thousand pound bull

of utterly raging joy,

like a challenge?

I’m no matador,

I’m no handler or hot things.

What I contain,

nothing more, nothing less,

is the balance of my usual

shaggy and tattered days.

Sunrises, mail,

daytime TV, checkout queues,

all these I can handle

with the prowess of a lion tamer.

But you, walking under

this arbor of our old garden path,

while the late afternoon light

rushes into your wake,

like sea spray, like citrus,

you are, this afternoon,

nature herself out for a stroll,

stretching her infinite limbs.

And you know somewhere, far off,

she’s smeared her horrors across the sky.

Ah, what do I know,

a sensible man, a clumsy dancer,

a shoveller of familiar days,

of how you became breath,

afternoon and the never understood?

The trees, the path,

its weeds, its yellow incendiary flowers,

the late noon sunshine, they know,

and flock close around you

like children at play,

pull at your dress, accompany you,


to the sweet places you go

bestowing life.

What need of me here,

this already conquered one?

But I’ll follow anyway,

hoping to catch a ride

on your slipstream’s burning wave.


Copyright Ricky Barrow, 2014

Almost Desire

There are so many feminine types,

so many blond and red-eyed,

black, blue, monstrous busts,

or soft knees of forgiveness,

so many almost attained faces

to toss around on the

tongue of your animal brain,

to chew on and spit into cups.

This one’s round face,

lips pursed, sucking dry sex;

this one’s face coiled up

and kept in a pocket

where no hands fondle it;

this one’s sharp face

the men all run from wounded,

and she slices open buses

like a can-opener;

this one’s sweet face,

oceans of milk,

and you’d die on her lips

before you drowned in her breast.

You could wade through this crowd

of Madonnas and sucker-fish,

seeking out the almost attained,

perfect face your eyelids

translate for you in their lurid, sad moments.

And you might find her

and she’ll be like

an air-conditioned room,

neither hot nor cold,

just dry,

or she’ll be like

a still wrapped sofa,

you paid too much for and

now fear to use,

and lighting flames near her

will be dangerous.

Or you could return

to your wounded, decaying woman,

who bruises under your

blunt fingers

and curls and browns at the edges

after every bout of love,

like a fallen hydrangea

in the sauna of the humid summer.

You could stay and watch

the flesh burgeon out

and finally fall away

until she’s just her

last essential apple core

which you carry,

a precious seed, in your palm,

this last thing she can give you,

and she does,

for that is love.


Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014