Night Poem XVII

Who can resist the night,
disobey her giant’s arms?
See how she dims their fierce lives,
for her dark palms are cribs,
and in them lie, in equal count,
lizards and women.

They accept this,
the soft erasure of their finite span,
and call it sleep.
Given a name, sleep becomes part
of the logical momentum of our
feverish accumulations.

But sometimes one, quite inexplicably,
yet filled with strange expectation,
refuses to close his eyes,
and waits up into the night’s deep realm.

And he discovers in her deserted streets,
her rustling orchards,
an amplified existence,
weird noises that echo
the weirdness of his own soul.

What the boys and girls bestowed and
named with songs and rumours,
the night assiduously removes.
What he used to call bird cries,
could now be wind, could be colours.

What once was wakefulness
is now pure tension,
the promised vibration of his fear and longing.
And the day bestows, and the night effaces.

And he walks on through her deserted streets,
out of language, out of landscape,
until his name has no meaning,
and is only a chord struck on the night’s enormous bell.

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Matsuri

One summer I went alone to a festival in Japan.
Under the oppressive evening heat
that rang sweat out of me,
I watched young ladies in their bright yukata
giggling, munching down octopus dumplings
under the striped tents,
and old men scratching their arses, tough as leather shoes,
scowling at boys
who slathered ice cream on their cheeks,
and lovers holding startled fish in plastic bags,
sauntering the long lane between the crackling stands.
I watched them all, strange human lanterns,
floating down to the shrine, dark and quiet against the mountain,
while far above fireworks painted dusk
purple, pink and green.
There was no part for me in this parade of falling lives,
each like confetti, or streamers,
or the bursting brief flowers in the sky,
or sickly sweet candyfloss
dripping through the summer’s hot little hands.
But I was happy there, and unnecessary,
unwanted, unloved, unhinged,
and pleasantly left alone with the discovery of the world.

Young Animals II

You tell yourself you won’t give up.
Burdened with a lust and a fear
and the entirety of this moment.
Has it come too soon?

Why is it now
that a weight like a lead eye
descends into your stomach’s depths?

And you must become
her thousand scented fires,
you must pilot both these loaded souls
to the shrouded tower.

Ill-starred, you’ve set out
with things you don’t need,
reasons, images, language,

plummeting sadness invades,
and you tighten the reigns
of your equine body.
But you are not yet animal
to her responding roar.

You plunge your paths into her,
straight and familiar,
crippled effort.
See how suddenly the undulating pain,

the breaking joy unravels them,
beneath a billowing undergrowth.
See the strange cats that
weave in and out of realization,
that come devouring children.

How at last you have
journeyed into no territory,
and are no conqueror.

Young Animals I

Holding you,
trembling, the hurt
song in you.
Why has it wavered

in the infinite openings
of these sheets,
in this new wakefulness,
alert to the silent thrust
of his stone?

Did you know it would be this way?
This strange solitude
you share
threatens to become you.

And what you give
over, in the tearful exchange,
where will he take it,
in the fretful journeys of his sleep,

how will it become him?
Courage fails through crimson sighs.
But have you ever been this unguarded,
this immense, without towers?

See how the young animals flow
so freely from you now,
through the undulating pain,
through the breaking joy.

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