new zealand electronic poetry centre


A.R.D. Fairburn

online works


For Philip Smithells


I never imagined all this fuss and ceremony.
What are these people doing? Why aren’t they fighting?

There’s hardly room for the band. Yes, that’s the word –
sardines. I love their smiles. And look at the streamers.

I admire these people. Nothing is too good for them, nothing.
I have shared their joys and sorrows, have come to love them.

It would be wrong and foolish of me to pretend
that all our hopes had been realized. I blame the system.

Reporters? Gentlemen, there’s nothing I can say
that hasn’t been said a thousand times before.

Thank you, thank you. It has all been very interesting.
What shall we do? Shall we dance, or burst into song?

Perhaps I should say a word on behalf of us all –
the master and his gallant crew, and our little party.

Not one of us knows, at this moment, our destination:
adventurers to a man, we salute the unknown.

What can we give you to keep old memories green?
We leave you this book on shells, and the rind of the lemon.

The blue rags of the sea flutter in our honour.
Goodbye, world, it is a privilege to have lived in you.

To you, Mr Mayor, my congratulations. Thank you
for the refreshing cup of tea, thank you for everything.


We bought and sold debentures,
and backed some risky ventures,
we ran up Gothic churches,
we leased with right of purchase,
we organized the workers
(we had a way with shirkers)
and built colossal towers,
we sent our wives some flowers
and haunted ladies’ bowers
and hid behind the curtain,
we bore the white man’s burden,
we courted in the meadows,
we slaughtered in the ghettos,
we hunted through the gutters
the ghost that snarls and mutters,
we castigated Chartists,
we patronised the artists,
we locked the slaves in hovels
and wrote them into novels,
we sent The Times each morning
a solemn word of warning,
we drank from satin slippers
with poets’ skulls as dippers,
we cracked another bottle
and drank to Aristotle
and played leap-frog with satyrs,
we used the word that flatters
in dealing with our betters
and wrote them begging letters,
we studied to inveigle
the truth from Kant and Hegel,
we danced upon the mountains,
we paddled in the fountains,
we rode beneath the rainbow,
we read of Blake and Benbow,
we happened on the notion
of sailing on the ocean,
and now like Alexander
we seek fresh worlds to squander.


Now fall the cliffs away
between the sky and sea,
and thoughts like thistledown
over the waves are blown,
old terrors charmed by time,
dear images of home –
the mushrooms in the dawn,
the pheasant in the fern,
first love’s uneasy kiss
and our mysterious loss,
the knock upon the door
at noon and no-one there,
the journey in the rain
all fearful and alone,
the silence in the night
and the unspoken thought.

Now fade the cliffs of day.
Farewell, familiar sky
that housed our father sun
and hid the wanton moon
from Heaven’s rage: farewell
mortality, and hail!
Old tattered tent of home,
our hearts are still the same
who fling our hopes beyond
the baths of ocean. Mind,
still spinning on its tip,
is conscience’ whipping-top,
as Gaffer Adam knew
who spilt the seed of woe.


Through giant seas our ship is thrusting,
her ropes rotting, her keel rusting.

Far off beyond the fluttering wave the land
withers on the sky’s edge
against the falling sun. Our famished hopes
that clung like sea-birds to that narrow ledge
now point their hungry beaks to the horizon.

Come what may, go or stay,
this, be sure, is the looked-for end
of all that’s old and too well known –
youth, and the lure of single truth;
the footsteps in the weed-strewn sand
along the brimming bay,
the outer coast, the surf and swing of love,
the view from the cliffs above
shared by loved and lover
hand in hand looking over
the sea’s barren acres.
The burning days are done,
the heat and light are lost
from our enamelled summer coast,
and that heart-searching whiteness of the breakers
dispersed and gone.

Cold is this wind that blows
and bears us in its hand like a falling rose,
and like a storm-blown rose the deep-sea wave
bursts on our bows.
Three sailors dressed in red and blue
play cards on the fo’c’stle deck. The master
stands on the bridge: reared like a rock
against the sky, against the swaying shrouds,
calm as a god he stands,
calm as a stone he acts and dreams
our journey and our doom,
while lightning dances on the marbled gloom.


Who can surmise
through what white mist of lies
the new land will arise?

What air-borne pestilence
of mind-perverted sense
will follow thence?

The world is wide,
but does this moon-drawn tide
join or divide?

Knowledge, tall as the mast
looks backward over the vast
gulf of the past.

Faith’s figurehead before,
deaf to the ocean’s roar,
stares blindly towards the far conjectured shore.

Tell me, my friends,
what journey ever ends
where the heart intends?


George the bos’un sleeps like a cherub,
grog-blossomed cheek on chubby arm,
dreaming of orchards robbed: old George,
a plum ripe for the sea’s picking.

Paul the apprentice purloins rum
and steals from the ship’s stores:
the sea will take him into her cupboard
and lock the door for ever.

Len the lamp-trimmer writes a letter
no postman will ever touch:
the waves will put out the light in his heart,
the sea will dowse his candle. 

Charles the chippy lies in his bunk
yarning, picking his teeth over women:
the sea will take him, let fall her tresses
over his face, fold him in white arms.


The sailors playing cards on the heaving foredeck,
the master standing on the bridge,
the cook working in the stink of the galley:
three attitudes of faith.
O Lord, give us a wind that will annul
accident, fortune, judgment and the reasoned hope,
for these betray us.
Lord, bring us a wind that blows out of Hell,
a following wind to lift our sails
and belly them hard as a board. Let the wind
and the drift of the ocean current take us
over the blank horizon to Heaven.
Quarrelling, eating, drinking, praying,
we lie in your hand. Do not forsake us.
We are blind, O Lord, we see that we are blind.
The compass fails, the sextant will not save us.
Save us, Lord.


Mast-high, with noise of thunder,
the night-cloud rolls asunder:
   now Sirius and Orion
and the pallid sisters seven
show in the rifted heaven,
   but not the rock of Zion.

Faith, that will move great mountains,
fails when the black wave fountains
   above our streaming board:
and now we must abandon
hope, and the deck we stand on,
   or look for another lord.

O tall certificated master,
our shield against disaster,
   we trust in you alone.
Open your sealed orders,
take us beyond the borders
   of the known, the too-well-known.


He’s sailed boats all his life.
The sea to him is wife.
Observe how wise he looks.
He’s studied all the books.
He has his master’s ticket.
In youth he shone at cricket.
He sprang from poor beginnings.
It’s time he had his innings.
He’s learnt about salt water?
From the lighthouse keeper’s daughter.
He steers a level course.
He’s studied braille and morse.
His shanties are by Britten.
The daintiest ever written.
He doesn’t fear the mob.
His heart is in his job.
He knows of our despair.
He has sealed orders there.
He’ll take us safe to port.
He has a friend at court.


The girls are weaving garlands for our coming,
    the aldermen are sitting in the shade,
the fifes are full of wind, the drums are drumming,
    the soldiers of the Queen are on parade.

The populace is gathered in the grandstand,
    binoculars are trained upon the sea,
the band is playing polkas in the bandstand,
    the fishermen are dancing on the quay.

The morning sun is glittering in the fountains,
    on dewy lawns the milk-white horses prance,
and hairy men are riding from the mountains
    to scatter forest flowers and join the dance.

Shipmates, when we touch the roaring jetty
    they’ll cheer us for the heroes we have been,
they’ll blind the sun with roses and confetti
    and take us shoulder-high to see the Queen.

Her Majesty will never ask for payment,
    she’ll victual us with royal fork and spoon,
we’ll fill our bellies wrapped in silken raiment,
    and lie with supple girls and rise at noon.


Is this a deputation, or a mutiny?
Let us inspect
your record, and subject
your motives and your loves to closer scrutiny.

You were a scratch lot, got through the agony column,
gathered from the gutters of romance.
You signed on for adventure, or to escape
from creditors, or wives and mistresses:
in brief, to evade the war, the perpetual war.
Your investments have been unwise, your affections promiscuous.
You have embraced illicit hopes and fears,
begetting a race of phantoms:
and still your thoughts are black on those old enticements
as flies on carrion.
There is little that men may know
that you have not known,
and by knowing destroyed. You have even
invented a vacuum: history.
There have been wars and wars
and revolutions turning about the axle of our
pure indifference.

You have lost tension, pursuing on Monday the real,
on Tuesday the ideal, striving
to sanctify division.
                               At first
we looked for the phoenix in every thorn-bush,
heard anthems in the morning wind,
dreamed always of the lyrical encounter
with girl, or god, or ghost.
We carry each in his kit a scrap-book
of old anxieties, dog-eared aspirations.

And even now would consent
to be racked or beaten, or chained to a rock,
or to live in a pandemonium of devils
if your illusions could be refurbished.

We have at last undertaken this voyage
hoping, we admit, for a fresh start.

For a new beginning of the old.

For something different, yet the same. We seek
to enlarge the limits of the possible,
making a spiral of every circle. We trust
in your knowledge and your goodness. Show us a vision.

Unseal your eyes, and see what lies before you,
the recurring dream made real by despair,
the bone dancing on the deck in the green light
on the fraying edge of thought
against the world of nothing;
the skin drawn upon the bone,
and the bone lacking marrow. Is this your vision?

Our faces are averted, our eyes
turn upward. See, the mast
leaps like a dancer from the deck, the sails
belly with fruitfulness. On the dim horizon
are clouds like beckoning gods. We trust in you:
open your sealed orders, unfold the answer.

This is no chartered ship. I have no sealed orders.
There are no lifeboats. The rockets that we carry
will make a display for the astonished gulls.
You think of me as a lion, or a mountain.
I am a sailor, my business is ropes and cords,
and navigation, by tangent or the rhumb.
My work, my end are both
measured in fathoms. My hobby
is weaving: on the hand-loom in my cabin
I weave projections, latitudes, courses, making
a pattern out of the sea’s tedium and
the duration of this flesh. You seek an answer:
look to the sea-creatures for assurance,
dolphins and diving gannets, albatrosses
that sleep upon the wing. You speak of spirals:
there is only the earth’s sphere,
which we experience only as courses, reckonings,
lines leading from here
to there. And here and there,
as points discrete, unhallowed by relation,
are equidistant from infinity, all times
the same for the eternal.
                                   Where, say where
shall we find our answer?

or here, then or now, what does it matter?
A world can be constructed, at a pinch,
within a prison cell, a pack of cards,
a spider’s web. Here in this pygmy ship
the fo’c’s'le is a kingdom, the galley an empire,
the chart-room a prosperous parish. I give you
an analogue for Christ: a rope well spliced;
and this for Plato: a well-peeled potato.
As for your hopes and hungers, and this ambitious
voyage: we shall touch at many ports,
tire of the girls and the strange foreign foods,
and end in a far port, a silent
and dark harbour at last. Beyond the best
that head and hand can do, I promise nothing:
anchor no trust in me. Turn from the past,
from wraith and phantom. Wrap your deep-sea faith
about you like a blanket. Have no fear
of the unending, blind, befriending sea,
wind or wave or the storm’s blast. Here
our microcosmos flowers. Who are we
to know the complete, the illimitable pattern?
Each to his business, tending ropes and gear,
navigating or cooking, keeping log,
fulfilling in each act our sacrament
and simple story. We have the changing heaven
for roof-tree, and for company great whales,
and birds that nest upon uncharted rocks;
the dolphins gliding and breaking at our bows
will lead us on, and the wind filling our sails
gather us into glory.

© A.R.D. Fairburn

Last updated 27 June, 2002