Gallipoli 2015

Three thousand dead on the fingertip of a dry old empire,
and they were just a drop of blood for the larger conflagration,
in which they now lie embalmed.
If it was a senseless war, universally agreed,
the bloom of Europe snuffed by a red frost,
then how much more indefensible
the loss of these young lives of a young world
ten thousand miles away?

What did they die for?
Tell me the return on their fields of flesh.
A doomed and arrogant empire, a generation without death?
Or was it simply war for war’s sake?
Very modern,
that love for a colonial boy’s adventure,
and uniforms for smitten girls, and the brotherhood of mud,
and the arousal of violence, let’s not forget that.
So, was it just one big glorified blood sport?
The World Cup on steroids and ten storey high guns,
a way of sorting out the wusses from the men.

Except, the men and the wusses all lie in the same stiff holes.
How can you tell the one from the other now?
What have we learned after going two rounds
in that bloody century of our brave new world?
As we remember one hundred years on, lest we forget,
a sickly tone of glory sneaks home.

We paint the glorious dead larger than life
in both their virtues and their sins,
colossus that now looms over our fraught tomorrow.
Imposing monuments, the blare of trumpets,
the fanfare and parades of the shell-shocked dead
hide a more prosaic truth;
we really don’t know why they went,
but we cannot tell them that.

I fear the nightmares of the past
still lurk in the cupboards of all nations,
dusty empires still stalk the crowded continents,
and there’s still a quick buck to be had in the cynical grab
for the spoils of the afflicted masses.
Everybody jostling on a shrinking stage,
lighting powder kegs for hot Julys.

And if it does blow up in our faces once more,
will we go off happily to other people’s wars as we did then,
bristling for the good fight, as loud in our certainty
that it will all turn out for the best?

At the exhibition on “our boys” at Gallipoli,
fathers point to the soldier mannequins,
all with faces like star rugby players, unreal athletes of a great game,
that any Sanitarium kid could one day hope to play.

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The Colonist

Finally out of the tangle,
the stubborn undergrowth,
the dripping sky
that descended like subterfuge,
his gentle field,
laid out like a picnic,
emerged.

The forest still
reared its cold, damp mane
at his approach,
but there was something now
he had as reply.
And from the larder,
the woman,

who was no longer
young and gentle,
ferried the raw materials
he tore with calloused thumbs
from the earth
into jars, into cupboards,

sweetening, smoothing,
caramelizing the savage man
that the land was
daily tearing from him,
as if he were his fraying shirt.

She too was part of
his quarrel with the bush.
With her he’d teach it
to part its hair,
to accept the fields,
to accept the basin and the soap,
and above all the harvest.

And the forest reconciled herself
with this man,
for their treaty was neither
wholly hers or the invader’s.

And they were,
in their own ways,
immovable forces, bearing down,
hewing the other
into transformation.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

Margins

There was, even in the earliest arrivals,
that element in their souls
which shrunk from the purely urban,
the pinched living,
the tripping over each other
in the dark courtyards
of old Europe,
from which they had fled.

No, here in this land,
that knew nothing
of cesspools running deep
in the nostrils and the mind,

they pushed the new cities out
to arms length or more,
and kept gardens, rolling lawns,
undies flying like flags of independence
from the line.

This wild land soon enough
de-civilized the new comers,
in the call of the mist,
and the folds of endless ranges
to the vast, un-hedged isolation.

And they grew more reticent,
lost the eloquence of the mother tongue,
steeped in its crushing epochs of speech,
lost in the thick silence,
pierced only by the tui,
a rush of wings from the bush,
untutored voices.

The forests dispossessed them,
those so-called colonizers,
but they gained in return.
On that margin between
the bach and the sea,
the mountain hut and the infinite south,
they pushed out from the pale,
the left behind, walled up centuries.

The threads tore
in the purer, turbulent skies,
while they kept the essentials,
wooley jersey, gumboots,
and tin of beef,
things to take with them
when they went off
to learn from the cataracts of the bush.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

The Invasion of the Sea

At first it was just a trickle.
Like unusual shells,
the strangers,
salted by their long journeys,
washed up with the tides.

The chiefs were keen to barter
what they had,
flax, food, women,
for the trinkets, the nails, the cloth,
above all, the muskets.

And every man who counted
soon had “his” Pakeha,
an invisible fish-line
to that cold world of iron.

The chiefs, one by one,
fell to its power,
grew bold and puffed up
in the eyes of their rivals.
With their guns they had
old scores to settle,

and soon the land
was caked in the black powder
and the Maori had undergone
the first tragedy
of their long, agonizing century.

And all the while
the strangers trickled in,
with books, bread, bronchitis,
but they waded into a Maori lake,
made islands, made terms.

Then, on the shores of Te Aro,
Te Wharepouri saw with astonishment
one thousand of these strangers
step off their ships,

and called it an invasion of the sea,
the salt water people,
who would rush into
the eddies of the Maori stream,
sicken the waters
of the green stone children.

But Te Wharepouri made the most of it,
did a brisk business with the new comers,
while they eagerly took,
and stayed like a congealed tide.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

The Diggers

The rush had brought the worst kinds,
drifters, crooks, half-breeds,
men without nations or loyalties.
They’d followed the migrating gold,
the elusive, fast burning phoenix,
crisscrossing the Pacific,
not giving two hoots where they landed,
whose backyard they tore up.

These men, flung together
from a dozen sinking kingdoms,
burned and froze
in the brutal streambeds of the south,
clung to their earth, their rocks,
damned all efforts
to build an orderly colony,

poured their precious stones,
once they had them,
down the gullet of the grog shop,
the whorehouse,
spoke dangerously of rough democracy,
passed their gold
to the resentful patricians
along with their dysentery,
their syphilis,
their infectious social leveling.

And the powers that be,
fearing the civil breakdown
of this happy-go-lucky frontier
of diggers, whores and Chinamen,
imported shiploads of respectable girls,
wives and helpmates,
to entice them back to the farms,
to the serious business
of building a Victorian empire.

But they stayed away
and rode the river steamers
deeper, deeper into the interior,
where they made or lost their fortunes
in the thick silt,
in the muddy streets of the ghost towns.

For they had to take pains,
to be with their loneliness
in the lonely throat of the new country,
had to tear down
the moldered shafts of the old world,
seeking new seams,
cursing, spitting, brawling
with themselves and the earth,
so that something strong,
enduring, infinite,
could be theirs.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

The Snug Country

It was enough for most,
the well-tailored sleeve of a nation
pulled snug over these narrow shores.
It was a kind of satisfaction,

the well-watered gardens,
row on row,
the native ferns without the natives,
the Chinese lanterns slung from eaves,
without the Chinese,

the rounds of the Plunket nurse,
the wife on her hands and knees,
scrubbing the porch.

It was enough for most,
The triangular pen
of pub, rugby and race day,
(bets under the table made the blood rise)

the missionary position,
the starched laundry,
flags over the sacred quarter acre,
short back and sides,
the hair parted with a comb.

And if it wasn’t enough,
then there were sharp eyes,
and faces ranged like corrals,
and rumors mobilized like armies

against the dangerous question,
the irregular habit,
the un-pressed collar.

And for the very stubborn ones,
of which there were always a few,
artist types, the degraded boheme,

there were certain
more robust therapies,
in the depths of those gothic houses of joy,
guaranteed to instill the best qualities
of a well-tailored nation.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014

Te Puea

When she returned to her village,
a young bride of her forgotten people,
she was greeted by despair.
The light had gone out of them,
and they sat on porches,
spoke of nothing,
while the days abandoned them
for progress happening elsewhere.
The sweet honey had all gone
to feed fatter hives.

The people died of the smallest things,
a bottle of gin, a cough,
some simply fell in the rivers
and never surfaced.
And so she began her backbreaking work,
picked up the spade and the taiaha,
the shards of the land,
the fallen stories of the ancestors,
fallen from the elders’ lips when they died.

In the poverty stricken villages
of her people,
she began to speak like the old chiefs,
held huia,
dug pits for food, dug seasons,
sent the men to fell trees,
and roused the sleeping carvers.
And soon there were things unheard of,
and great festivals of waka on the rivers,
the scent of fresh carving in the
young maraes.

There was something, at last,
in the breast of her people,
which aroused like early summer.
They held the fragile broken heart
of their centuries,
passed it from palm to palm,
rubbed it, warmed it,
till it beat again of its own accord.
And they all went down
to Te Puea’s new meeting house,
committing forgotten waiata to heart,
and even the old folk got off their porches,
followed the songs home.

Copyright Ricky Barrow 2014