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

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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

Gallipoli

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