by John Caselberg
|This astonishing poem might have been lost were it not for the fact that
it became the subject of a series of paintings by Colin McCahon, one of New
Zealand's best-known modern artists. McCahon, in his usual fashion
at this period, used the words in their entirety, painting them onto a series
of nine tall, narrow canvases.
Apart from its original publication as the only poem in a pocket-sized book, copies of which are now rare, the poem appears never to have been published in any anthology or other collection. Yet it's an extremely well-crafted poem, making full use of the language with its aural resonances, its varied rhythms, its inner rhyming, its broad vocabulary and complex sentence structures. More than that, it takes the death of a beloved animal, a family pet, and extends this into a ringing wake for the tragedy of the deaths of all beloved ones, including humans.
It isn't an easy poem - a casual reading will elicit few of its subtleties, and in fact, it may appear in parts somewhat incomprehensible. However, I've found as I've memorized it that its depths have come alive and the more I speak it the more I appreciate it. I've made a couple of notes that may help the reader.
Recently the author wrote to me. Here is what he has to say as to the background of the piece.
"The Great Dane dog I had was bred by my father at his home in Fairymeadow, then a rural hamlet a few miles north of Woollongong. The latter has become a city encompassing the smaller places. Bulli is - I think - about 15 miles further north. D H Lawrence, the English writer stayed there once. When young I was deeply impressed by Lawrence's writings. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary gives 'vates' as an 'alien' - still Latin? - word: defined as: 1. A poet or bard, especially one who is divinely inspired, a prophet-poet. 2. Plural - one of the classes of Gaulish Druids " So it's in the first sense I suppose that the reference was made to D H Lawrence."
Your going maims God: God
Let it be sung and wept for forever;
Echoing the savagery of your loss like that of the dread
Avalanche or Adelie land's boiling winter
Of terror; like the oceanward flight of the river
Sirius, Dog-Star, stab night-long your dissembling
Lights as if the blind uprooting of his flesh
From the fond-wombed throat-hurt trembling-
Hearted earth who grieves his death as harsh
As Dante's Hell were not real;
Were unimaginable. Stop your processional
And weep, you cold stars. Weep Antares,
Fomalhaut, Vega, Cross and Centaur,
Whom yesterday he honoured by his ways,
Rain down your scalding tears of stellar
Lamentation on his going where he lies;
Where he is; where his breath was
That now is mixed with chaos. Chaos and doom
Tear up the templates now obliterating him.
And you, trees, mute-cypress-hooded kauris,
Bend your brows for him whose steadfastness proclaimed
You kin, whose gentle mien and goodness named
Him scion of the same heroic generations as
Your own sweet sap has been distilled from.
Clench tighter, roots, where you have felt your sires
After their hushed bird-lovely thousand years
Of succouring beauty, murdered, bellowing, boom
Upon the subterranean gloom and wet that you were plumbing then -
And mourn again. Stand aeons for him. Allow your stems'
Immobile masts the imaging of his limbs;
Letting their alchemy of ever-green-blue-mercury enshrine
His lost being. He gazed like you. His ways like yours will light
The future dark. Like you he did no hurt.
Though they have earthed through me their brands and those
Six lighting years have guttered out and flown
Since first you ran quick-silvering on the apple-green
At Fairymeadow, learning nostril-wise,
Below her smoking brows, obeisance to a sun-
Sea-strung, in earshot of the ocean's shattering
Her orange sands and rocks, the harbourers of a man
And shaking-portalled as your own nor yet composed
For dissolution there had rung the diapason
Of such a storm as you are drowned in,
And it's after-calm of sepulture, the wrecked, foundering,
Nightfall hurtle home - they echo thundering.
Orion strides the firmament,
The great dog at his heel.
Scorpio's red heart
But stars explode
Here. His death is irrevocable.
That all the daedal physics of the flesh,
The chemistry of glacier teeth, the fresh
Snow-splashed basalt body,
The brow like regal Taranaki
Albatrossing oceans and the hot
Reverbatory engines of his heart
With their concomitant
Jonquil eyes and our tomorrow's
Should halt, dry, freeze,
Grief, thee I'll wive
In the midnight hours
Since his departure
That eyes again
Will ever start with
But time cannot corrupt
The beauty you have brought
Burgeoning our rock,
Your tempering is done
Fled (as you came)
From a sea-plucked harpstring
Headland, Icarus-brave in
To the dazzlement of oblivion.
Beyond the lash of the world's whip and the sun's gaze,
Kauris - of the same family as the monkey puzzle and the Norfolk pine, this is one of the great timber trees of the world, as well as being one of the largest. The long, straight, branchless trunk produces durable straight-grained timber, and a resin once greatly prized for the manufacture of high quality paints, varnishes and polishes. The largest recorded kauri grew in Mercury Bay (New Zealand) and in 1850 had a girth of 23.43 metres and a height of 21.8 metres to the first branch. (source Bateman's Illustrated Encyclopedia of New Zealand) [back]
The continent is Australia. [back]
The man is the writer, D H Lawrence, who spent some time in Australia. [back]
Taranaki - the Maori name for what was called Mount Egmont; it has now reverted to its former name. It's also the name of the North Island province in which the mountain stands. [back]
Tasman - in this case, the Tasman Sea, between Australia's east coast, and New Zealand's west coast. [back]
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