new zealand electronic poetry centre


Robin Hyde

A Public Conversation


Knowledge, I know, is sure, of gradual thought,
A mare in foal, who pastures with dew eyes,
Cropping the grasses of a certitude
By many seasons sweetened for her sake;
Waiting with heart untroubled till it come
That by the straw-beds and the breathing clover
Like frost shall brittle one brief night of pain,
And then her treasure nuzzles at her side.
Knowledge has sunlight sleeked about her limbs,
White-headed reverent trees to partner her
In days of no event but steady growth.
And in the orchard where the crab-tree blooms,
Where surpliced tui chants one orison
Too wild, and shakes his petalled pulpit down,
None plucks unripe, none has a lust for bane
Or thieves across a fence ungiven sweet.
The labours of the world make road for knowledge,
Handling their time-known tools, the scythe for stooks,
Blue wheel in ruts, the brown and running sacks
Wide mouthed forever on the threshing floor.
Proud-nostrilled, chestnut in the sun, shines knowledge,
And singled men will tend her all her days ...

Or knowledge is the hour that strikes but once,
Strikes, and demands, and never comes again.
Old vine on walls, thick-jointed, stiff with knots,
Knowledge creeps up the mortised centuries;
White grapes from this; but here with darkling pride
Burgundian clusters silk their sides in sun.
A thousand stamping feet across the vats
Press out each grape-year; now the rosy foam
Seethes up in hillocks, and the vintner’s rods
Stir the dark coil of potency beneath.
Awhile the new wine in the barrel hisses,
Singing the song of grapes with savage lips
Still sensual for the air, the straight-backed vineyards,
And brown hands thrust among the clustering leaves.
Slowly comes settling, slowly wine forgets,
Sinks into silence, dreams its sunny rage
Away in distillate of centuries.
At last when cobwebs thicken sweating wood
Sure hands draw off the spigot; so much red,
So much bouquet, just so much bite in crystal.
Set the dew to your lips, friend, this is knowledge.

Or knowledge is the thin, contemptuous wine
Of wit from him you met once, in a tavern,
The grudging fellow sprawled across the fire,
Who for no reason (smell of sopping cloth,
Click of the cautious weather fingering latch,)
Poured out his lees of laughter, crude ‘I know’;
One spoke his soul, but next day in the street
Passed you a stranger, never spoke again.

And knowledge is a thunder in the night,
Huge claps of mirth, a frightened woman flung
Over the bed in oil-lamp’s yellow gleam;
One half your soul an awe of burning blue,
One half your life a flower of burning flesh,
Touch her and laugh, whisper the comfort-things;
While still the leaden sky is great with child
And adder flashes dart against the pane.

Knowledge has gardens planted, rooted, so companioned
The lichen on the cobhouse sees the way
The flowering damsons in your driveway spill,
And sets its orange cap to catch the smile
Of timid daisies, scared across the lawns
By that old gardener, whipcord like his boughs.
Long since the roots of ash-tree learned the gentle
Contact of fibrous-fed forget-me-not,
The creeper on the walls grown intimate
Swarms just so far, and then for its encroachment
Sees the remonstrance of the garden shears.
The bellbird half-afraid drops down his song
Into the thin and metal campanile
Of glittering pear-trees, white mirage of mosques.
Each bee has learned his choosing. Here you walk
By careful paths, no bruising, nor no stumbling,
And only age and almond be upon you,
Here in the garden; smooth to tread is knowledge.

Or knowledge was the second while you listened
Waiting for raindrops, in the little start
Like claws of birds that patter on the leaves ...
And dreamed that your two hands had made a rainbow.

Knowledge is flint-fire crackling in the road,
The hard impatient message in the breast,
Big words like bloodshot smoke behind old houses,
Loud bells like fishwives clattering their news,
The loneliness of rocks where ships went down,
Black horse that broke his heart to reach the post,
The fool who fell too soon, or lived for failure,
Knowledge is blindness coffined in a world
Where every bloom black-clappered with its bees
Rings out a fragile warning on the wind;
And none to heed; and all to toss aside
The stumbling words, the hand upon their sleeve.

Knowledge is all that grasps and breaks and strives,
The flat tide flowing red between the mangroves,
The little evil roots that suck in mud,
The broken faces; all the broken faces
That put together makes the mask of knowledge.
O fretted minds bear yet your sheaths a little.
Not on the high fields you go, nor in command,
Not greatly owe to captains of wise mien,
For these were ordered; but your march as rough
As the first jagged troops that flung at Alps.
Like vagabonds and thieves you go by night,
Brandishing childish cudgels, circling torches,
And for a sudden burning you shall strive,
And at a sudden evil you shall strike,
But not for long; and God knows well or ill.
What your hard soles have taught you, and rough hands,
What your wet eyes have dealt with, and tight mouths,
What your bewilderment gave you, and hot heart,
That only is your knowledge. Take and bear it.

And die at last, like nettle in the ditch,
And burn at last, like gorse across the hills,
Because you stung the cloth and pricked the proud,
And are a bane to what shall come hereafter,
This also, is your knowledge; take and bear it.

Kauri they split with wedges, when too vast
The grey trunks rose for any ripping-saw;
It rounded off in masts that reigned on seas.
Gum-tree from Sydney makes the keels of boats,
But tall puriri, cut in six-foot lengths,
(After the berry-day that snared the pigeons,)
Rides evenly, and never rots in water,
And burns at evening with the hottest flame
For travellers, met ripe with early knowledge.
Soak the lithe toro-toro, and best yarn
Was not so strong for tying up stockades,
Three pickets for defence, a carved head fixed
Red-ochred, on the height of every gate.
The nikau born in shade plait hard together,
(One of the sacred four from lost Hawaiiki,)
Lay over toi-toi, or the raupo, tough
When used for thatching; but if huts take fire
They sheaf in yellow flame seen twenty miles.

The mangrove roots were ground for making powder
At the three secret mills among the Maoris,
When the lost war-dance thudded through the North.
They cut the yellow twisted horoeka
For sticks; the grass springs best when thin-belled cattle
Tramples their path, dung-dropping in the fern;
And the young shoots were burned off once a year,
But food for bellies when the crops were drowned.
And these I know, and ghosts of dead men’s knowledge,
(And ghosts of young, rebellious, chidden knowledge,
Dunce at its class and stalking out of school,)
By bridges slender as the ake ladder
Where Heaphy, climbing, found the Greenstone People,
Saw the wide nets wash out in thundering surf
Too huge for the canoes, drawn in by moonlight;
Watched the brown women drying out inanga
For fodder in the nights of eaten moons
When wind prowls round the thatch with thievish fingers;
Saw the marled greenstone littered on the ground,
And how they fine the edge with whalebone drills —
And turned away at last, and climbed the ladder,
And standing on the clifftops, saw their smokes
Final steam up, blue parting of a dream.
There standing on the clifftops weighed his knowledge —
The thin precarious weight of early knowledge —
And staring in a sun, half steeled his heart
To tell the cities there was no such world.

From Houses by the Sea and the Later Poems of Robin Hyde, ed. Gloria Rawlinson
(Christchurch: Caxton, 1952). 60-64.




Last updated 30 June, 2003