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Robin Hyde

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Robin Hyde in China, 1938



The Word
The Brazier
Sweet Landfall Water
Journey from New Zealand
The Silent
Sweeping the gutters clean
What is it makes the stranger?
East Side
The Water-Bearer
Unaccustomed voices have cried on you
Fragments From Two Countries
The sweet-named god
True there was much unkindness
After the Chinese
Ku Li
Pihsien Road
Bear the message from the roof-tops
Harvest Bird
The Native Grass
China is floating past me
Thirsty Land  



Hyde left Auckland 18 January 1938 on the ss Awatea bound for Sydney, where she transferred to the ss Changte for the voyage to Hong Kong, arriving there in early February. From Hong Kong she was scheduled to travel to Kobe and Vladivostok, then via the trans-Siberian railway across Asia and Europe to London. When her Kobe connection was delayed, she went instead to Japanese-occupied Shanghai, meeting Rewi Alley there and sending freelance articles about the war back to New Zealand journals and newspapers. She returned briefly to Hong Kong in mid-March then travelled to Canton (Guangzhou), staying in the city until early April. She then travelled by train 7-9 April to Hankow (Wuhan), by then the political capital of free China and strategic centre of operations against the Japanese. In Hankow Hyde had to wait several weeks for permission to travel further north to the battlefront. She reached Hsuchow (Xuzhou) 1 May, visited frontline troops in the field and was still in Hsuchow when Japanese forces overran the city 19 May.

Robin Hyde was reported missing in enemy territory 19 May-30 June 1938. She tried twice to escape from Hsuchow by walking along railway lines to the west and then north, and was successful on her second attempt when Japanese officials agreed to escort her 16 June by train to the northern port city of Tsing Tao (Qingdao). She was taken by British authorities to Hong Kong to convalesce July-August before resuming her journey to England by sea. She arrived in Southampton 18 September in the week of the Munich Crisis.

Some of the poems written in China are presented here, in chronological order as best this can be established. Most were probably written in Shanghai or Hankow where Hyde had time to give to her writing. She also expanded the draft of a sequence of poems begun after a farewell visit to home and family in Wellington at the end of 1937; the sequence would be finalised in 1939 as ‘Houses by the Sea,’ Letters to her family from China show how preoccupied Hyde was with memories of New Zealand and their intersection with the overwhelming Asian present. In Dragon Rampant (1939), her book about China, Hyde described the state of intense split-consciousness she experienced during her first days in Shanghai:

Almost every night, lying in the red padded quilt, I dreamed about New Zealand, dreams so sharp and vivid that when I woke up, it seemed the black-tiled houses that were a fairy-tale. People walked … an old sailor who was anxious for me to write his life-story, Elsie at the bay, a poet who could never stand me, but who in the dream was walking on our hills, and his words were like Christmas stars, so wise and kind and fair. I was restless for these dreams, and turned for them from the early shadow of sleep, like a drug addict for his drugs. (Dragon 97)

To her family in Northland, Wellington, she wrote from Shanghai 2 March:

N.Z. is my country beyond any possible mistake [ . . . ] I’d like to be home, in the back-yard among the black-eyed Susans, or in the front garden with the hose sprinkling – it’ll be autumn now, and Wilton’s Creek soft and smelling of wild mint and burning gorse. By whiles I have tried to write and link up a series of poems about our childhood places – Wellington – and like some of the results, though very fragmentary as yet. But in travelling, peace isn’t deep enough – if at all – for the writing of real poetry. For prose, however, it hasn’t been so bad, and I think the inarticulate blurred mass of Eastern noise, which is just enormous, is easier to stand because I can’t understand it – my mind isn’t hunting a thread here, a word there. (Challis 531)


About the poems

Many of the poems written in 1938 exist only in manuscript: ‘The Word,’ ‘The Silent,’ ‘Sweeping the gutters clean,’ ‘What is makes the stranger?’ ‘East Side,’ ‘Unaccustomed voices have cried on you,’ ‘The sweet-named god,’ ‘True there was much unkndness,’ ‘Pihsien Road,’ ‘Bear the message from the roof-tops,’ ‘The Native Grass’ and ‘China is floating past me.’ Other poems were typed up and four were accepted for publication by New Zealand editors 1938-39: ‘Shiplights,’ ‘Journey from New Zealand,’ ‘Fragments from Two Countries’ and ‘Ku Li.’ One (‘Harvest Bird’) is an excerpt from Dragon Rampant (267-70), treated here as a prose poem. The present selection is derived from Young Knowledge: The Poems of Robin Hyde, forthcoming from Auckland University Press.



Derek Challis and Gloria Rawlinson, The Book of Iris: A Life of Robin Hyde (Auckland: Auckland UP, 2002). (Challis)

Robin Hyde, Dragon Rampant (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1939). (Dragon)

Michele Leggott
March 2003


from The Word

Excerpts from a poetic essay written on board the ss Awatea about the historic and contemporary significance of the Pacific ocean, quoted in Challis 495-96.

if board and men were of the right breed, she tossed or lulled them, she passed them on smoothly from wave to glistening wave, or killed them with the blow of one lifted paw, like a kitten. There was no hate – And let her love or hate – in the morning, was there not always her vast forgetfulness, her tenderness, playing and basking in dimpled white and gold around the sore islands, the dismembered ships? So she has lived – a monster, if you like, livid with boiling hatreds sated briefly, a mother who feeds her fishermen children and swallows them, a goddess-monster whose heartless loveliness – so gentle when it please her – draws men into forgetting that they loved better women at better times.

[ . . . ]

Tell me, Cloud-Rider, moving swiftly and imperceptibly in the airs that half forget their savagery, lighting as warm as seagulls on the baked white planks of this ship, is not that how she has always lived – child and wanton through the ages, quick slayer, easy lover, more often than not a lonely child who seeks a mate to play with?

[ . . . ]

But all things, foolishly called inanimate, have a need of man, the shrunken ape. Without him, his perceptions and words, there is a certain articulation of life they can never enjoy. The diamond in the mine needs him, to be a diamond. The red flow of the volcano needs him, or its loins had better sleep. Needing, they call to man, these great unexpressed beauties and tragedies who must have the petty mirror of his eyes to understand themselves – they call, they reveal, sometimes they slay, or he is crammed with rewards.

[ . . . ]

And Asia, between sleep and waking, fights with wild dangerous fists, as a man leaping out from nightmare fights. Hope there, but death first, and danger the very height of folly. And Africa matured in too hot a sun, a sun that threatens rottenness, awaits what destiny?

[ . . . ]

It cannot be John Bull’s Pacific: or America’s Pacific: or Japan’s. Its space, material and spiritual, is sufficient to drown any or all of these – and yet, properly approached, it has so much to give.
It is a blue-covered book whose green pages, Cloud-Rider, are nations – mostly underpopulated nations. In many of its island territories, primitive or near-primitive people still exist. The thing is, Cloud-Rider, to place an exactly equal value on all human equations of the Pacific to let them grow up, independently as possible, forming among them the basin of a new civilisation, more diverse, more intrepid with its own natural salts, than the world has yet seen. And as they grow, in freedom, in fearlessness, they could take from one another, these tall brown nations, without greed, without inferiority: learn, but in community, not under a mastery.

[ . . . ]

Leave the future of the Pacific to a militaristic domination, Tokyo and the Singapore base eyeing one another, while radio carries on a thin American cultural campaign, prismatic with the neutrality pronouncements of Mr Cordell Hull and his successors, and our generation has blasphemed more effectively against Pacific potentialities than the traders and slavers of a century ago. The half-known ocean of the unspoken word will be nothing but an ineffective addendum to the problems of Europe, America and the Far East.

She can be more than this, Cloud-Rider – the new source of a new greatness, and not greatness of the petty sense. She has a word, and it is not lightly that the old Hebrews wrote ‘And the word was God.’ But because the new is forever sacrificed and stained by the old, it is a word in jeopardy.


The Brazier

God bless you, honest man who minds the brazier,
With your surly looks and your big boots smudged on grass,
And your tufty flames blown back on the wild, wild wind
By a sea that is brittle and green as glass.

You are little enough, old man who minds the brazier,
With your threadbare coat, and your hooped back one long ache;
Yet because of you there will be no wars, no plagues,
No ship will sink; nor my heart this morning break.




Hugging the Queensland coast
There passed us, Saturday night,
Bare half a mile to port
A ship tricked out in light;
Swung up, shuddered and jibbed,
Like a rearing horse;
(And the Chinese boy stared out,
Watching her course.)
Till knowingly handled she swung
Heels up and over,
Melting into her destined wave
As woman to lover.
Glittering stem to stern
She left us, with no more sound
Than the rootless feet of the dead
On a rockless ground.
And of all her neighbours, we
In earth, sea or sky,
Were the closest she had on call,
The safest for standing by.
But steadily heading north,
Cleaving well apart,
She left our lights, in the murmuring well
Of the murmuring waters’ heart.
So in clipped stiff English I asked
What ship, what manner of man?
And the Chinese boy, watching on,
Said, a ship of Japan. 

                                                                                              [DC 617.2]


Sweet Landfall Water

Sweet landfall water, bobbing bewigged old branches
Cast off by many an after-the-party tree,
Owing as much to streams and avalanches
As to this bearded, bastinadoing sea;

Which, propping chin on islands, with its turban
Pinker than tamarinds, looks down from new
Metropolis-magicked clouds considered urban,
And gives the slaves these strokes of blinding blue –

Catch me to smooth, give me bland crocodiles,
Monkeys, macaws, brown merchants all a-chatter,
The world, with Levantine and greasy smiles,
Chatting the things that never matter –

Bloodshed, blue Boston born-without-evolution,
(Evolving therefore perfect-stymie virgins);
Russia, more sturdy, after revolution
Proves no conception sounder than the sturgeon’s.

Not sick of face, but mirror now; of hopping
One-legged, one booted boat impressed on sea.
Like some American Saint, big-time non-stopping
Walker breaking old records on Galilee.

                                                                                                      [DC 619] 


Journey from New Zealand

Now as I go between sands red and yellow as poppies,
Or across a desert many-breasted like Kali,
Shifting, changing, with navels and sockets of wet deep blue,
I shall see always these things, patient yet obdurate,
And my heart be broken for them, as together we wait the rainfall.
Earth, earth, and the purple thither-dusty grasses,
I shall dream thee fat rains, waiting alone by the desert
Whose white and bitter body makes mock of rain.
Sheep bought for Russia, thick-sided breeding rams
With the grey grass of the steppes tangled between your teeth,
Do you lift up your heads, short and bellicose, black-nosed,
With the round horns curled hard as a boxer’s fist?
Do you lift up your heads, snuffing their north-watered wind
That drank ice each winter, and seek, however dimly,
The scent of another spring than the Muscovy spring?
(Down in Mackenzie Country
They burn off tussock each year, with the writhing flares
Tied to their galloping horses’ tails).
You cannot remember the snow-fence, black birch rotting in slabs,
Or your weak protesting cries
As old Donald, the shepherd, snuggled you into his plaid,
And blinking stiff lashes free, thanked his stiff God
For a new lamb, delivered alive in snowtime.
The bark and frisking of collies is gone from you,
Lost honey, dissolved in the vague old murmuring hives of your brain.
Yet, as you lift your heads snuffing, (the train growls by)
I have a hope you will find their grass acrid, will give
Some maimed defiance out of the weight of your loins.
I too am sold into strangeness,
I too will look out of windows, thinking, ‘How fair!’ or ‘Strange . . .’
(Is ringo their word for an apple?)
But in my heart will only dissolve, re-form,
The circling shapes of familiar things. 

That place trodden hard,
With the white cocks pecking in the sun, their combs like dusty blood,
Under the pines, and the serious pungent macrocarpa,
Don’t we all know it?
                                  Those dropped shafts of a gig
Leathered over from rain; (it is seldom used now,
Seldom the jolting and laughing into market,
One boot high on the high old iron step,
And jogging in front the mare, with solemn dappled buttocks,
Black tail lifted for clean manure,
Grizzled lashes winking over her eyes,
Part of a world still -- cars or no cars):
Ah, I shall speak it between the scorching beats of the train.
(Change for Berlin at midnight!)
Watching the kea, red outlaw, circle a plain
Scarred with dry river-beds, where gorse-gold metal
Flares up at the copper metal of underwings;
I climbed a snow-peak once; who would believe
How the ribbed gold grass bowed frozen into the snow?
How a fall sprang out and down, singing,
The mountain’s woman,
And the dreadful singing of winds blew forth at dark?
Down upon Diamond Lake, the trout plopped home
Spreading such lonely circles;
The dying boy mined shealite,
And the old man polished his well-loved worthless greenstone.

They say the great bird still stalks at Manapouri;
No one has tramped those sounds.
They speak of great men with red beards;
(Quickly; this gulping train must start at midnight.)

Young crude country, hard as unbroken shell . . .
She was hard to love, and took pains, like a virgin.
Sometimes, in money or dust, the little farms bled away,
Dripping between disconsolate fingers like blood
Of that harsh girl, who would never love you.
But in the cities, (old days!)
We could live better, warm and safe as the sparrows,
Twittering through the evenings like young sparrows.
Ours was a city, like any city,
But with more perhaps of sea and cloud, not long loved.
November tar, ripening, blackened our sandals.
Our city had doorways, too many shut.
Morning and evening, facing the rampant crimson brutes of the light,
Nobody had the beautiful strength to decree
‘Leave your doors open, morning and evening:
Leave your doors wide to the stranger.’
So ours was a city, like any city, but fair.
At seven, (still light,) the children snuggled down
Like rabbits; the rest sat on in the lamplight,
Sat still or spoke words by their failures.

There is nothing else to tell, but the catkin grass
Strung on pale wires by the sea.
Our great rocks fluked like whales,
We loved the dead coal-hulks, did not despise them.
Money was nothing, balloons were much,
And the grey mists gentle-breasted as doves.
I knew a green place where the light was more like trees,
Trees more like diffused and stilly light.
(Green, green be upon my eyes; red in my heart,
The world’s troubled colour; for I must awaken.)
Once in the rose parterres, my mother stood still, and said
‘Man, woman and child; man, woman and child.’
(She was born with a restive heart, but grew old.)

Ah, too many sparrows twittering into the dawn . . .
The dawn should be men’s, not your little voices’ --
The deep, blue and unborn colour.
It was always too soon to awake, I remember now.
But the world, this and that world,
And the Templar stars in their order said ‘Rise and go.’

                                                                                                            [DC 651] 


The Silent

In this country far of range
Little is strange; little is strange.
Rowers in blue bowls clapped together
We front alike our teacup weather.
A young hawk sweeps the glistening pine.
Both are yours, but both were mine.
Green alabaster cups the foam —
There was a mead we loved, at home.
Halting among your grasses, I
Trace no commandment from your sky
‘Be thou different!’ One in green
And one in shadowy purple, mean
An equal mood, the selfsame grace
Hooded about a country’s face;
And sulphur butterflies among
The tangle loll with delicate tongue,
Choose their honey, seek out dew
In peace as clear as all I knew.

Only man, who cannot speak,
Must rest burnt hand on rocky cheek,
Printing poor gentleness in stone,
Where safely locked it lies unknown.
Against the bending of your road
I watched a woman and her load,
(Black her gown, but blue her scarf
As the old ocean’s wrinkling laugh.)
Into the swaying lights of grass
She drew aside to let me pass.
She knew me, and she knew me not;
(Eyes of the ages, half-forgot.)
Both were silent as the breeze
That wreathed about her mountain’s knees --
Only this locust from the wall
Parched and dying, sings me all.

                                                                                      [DC 634.1] 


Sweeping the gutters clean,
For ever and in vain,
Men in straw cloaks and hats
Bare-legged, swish through the rain,
Pushing great brooms of twig;
                                            And then
Mocking the backs of these men,
Second and filth and spittle fall again.

Later, donning their dress,
Shanks bare as their own,
The midnight man goes forth
Stopping by blackened tusks of stone,
Sweeping the mortal household.
                                                The sacrifice
Whose timeless agony did not suffice,
Pushing a broken broom, he goes alone.

                                                                                                [DC 633]


What is it makes the stranger? Say, oh eyes!
Because I was journeying far, sailing alone,
Changing one belt of stars for the northern belt,
Men in my country told me, ‘You will be strange —
Their ways are not our ways; not like ourselves
They think, suffer and dream.’
So sat I silent, and watched the stranger, why he was strange.
But now, having come so far, shed the eight cloaks of the wind,
Ridden ponies of foam, and the great stone lions of six strange cities.
What is it makes the stranger? Say, oh eyes!
Eyes cannot tell. They view the selfsame world --
Outer eyes vacant till thoughts and pictures view them,
Inner eyes watching secret paths of the brain.
Hands? But the hands of my country knit reeds, bend wood,
Shape out the pliable parts of boats and roofs.
Mend pots, paint pictures, write books
Though different books: glean harvests, if different harvests,
Not so green as young rice first shaking its spears from water.
Hands cannot say. Feet then? They say
In shoe, not sandal, or bare, if a man be poor,
They thread long ways between daylight and dark,
Longer, from birth to death,
Know flint from grasses, wear soles through, hate sharp pebbles,
Often times long for the lightness of birds.
Yet in my country, children, even the poor
Wear soft warm shoes, and a little foot in the dance
Warms the looks of young men, no less than here.
In my country, on summer evenings, clean as milk poured out
From old blue basins, children under the hawthorn trees
Fly kites, lacing thin strings against the sky.
Not at New Year, but at other festivals
We light up fire-crackers
In memory of old buried danger, now a ghost danger.

Coming to your land, I saw little boys spin tops.
The girls marked patterns in chalks about your street –
This game I might have told them at five years old.
A man sold peanuts, another warmed hands at his brazier,
A smiling mother suckled the first-born at her breast.
On a roof-garden, among the delicate red-twigged bowing of winter trees,
The small grave bowls of dwarf pines (our pines grow tall,
Yet the needle-sharp hair is the same,) one first star swam,
Silver in lily-root dusk. Two lovers looked up.
Hands, body, heart in my breast,
Whispered, ‘These are the same. Here we are not so strange --
Here there are friends and peace.
We have known such ways, we in our country!’

Black-tiled roofs, curled like wide horns, and hiding safe
From the eyes of the stranger, all that puts faith in you.
Remember this, of an unknown woman who passed,
But who stood first, high on the darkening roof-garden, looking down.
My way behind me tattered away in wind,
Before me, was spelt with strange letters.
My mind was a gourd heavy with sweet and bitter waters.
Since I could not be that young girl, who heedless of stars
Now watched the face of her lover,
I wished to be, for one day, a man selling mandarins,
A blackened tile in some hearth-place; a brazier, a well, a good word,
A blackened corpse along the road to Chapei,
Of a brave man, dead for his country.
Shaking the sweet-bitter waters within my mind,
It seemed to me, all seas fuse and intermarry.
Under the seas, all lands knit fibre, interlock:
On a highway so ancient as China’s
What are a few miles more, to the ends of earth?
Is another lantern too heavy, to light up, showing the face
Of farers and wayfarers, stumbling the while they go,
Since the world has called them stranger?

Only two rebels cried out ‘We do not understand.’
Ear said, ‘China and we
Struck two far sides of a rock: music came forth,
Our music and theirs, not the one music.
Listening in street and stall, I hear two words,
Their word and mine. Mine is not understood,
Therefore am I an exile here, a stranger,
Eaten up with hunger for what I understand,
And for that which understands.’
                                     Tongue said, ‘I know
The sweet flavours of mandarin or fish. But mouth and I,
Speaking here, are mocked. Looks fall on us like blows.
Mistress, we serve you well, and not for cash,
But free men. Therefore, beseech you, let us go on.’

Heart lowlier said ‘There is a way of patience –
Let ear study the door to understanding.
Mouth, there is silence first, but fellowship
Where children laugh or weep, the grown smile or frown.
Study, perceive and learn. Let not two parts
Unwisely make an exile of the whole.’

But still the rebels bawled, and so I saw
How in a world divorced from silences
These are the thieves.
Ear, who no longer listening well, sniffs up
The first vain trash, the first argument into his sack.
Mouth, who will spew it forth, but to be heard  –
Both ill-taught scholars, credulous liars,
Seizing on, flinging up fuel.
Their flame the restlessness of such sick worlds,
As cannot know their country, or earth’s country;
Their moment, or an age’s moment.

Having such brawling servants in my train
I can be neither tile nor lamp.
Only a footprint. Some boy sees it at dawn
Before his tilted cart wheels over it;
Only a sped and broken arrow,
Pointing a way where men will come in peace  –
But I betrayed by restless  –


Yet in my country, (in your country
Brown women’s hands are deft in weaving grassy houses,)
Boys fish, willows watch their blowing tresses in stream,
Good, against evil, sets a young wrestler’s foot,
Praying for strength from his hills.
No more I say, but that once
My father brought home an old flute.
Very small was our house: but twisting poppies run wild
In our hair, my three sisters and I
Danced that night like three sources of corn.

                                                                                                           [DC 629]



East Side

In the deserted village, sunken down
With a shrug of last weak old age, after the shells
All people are fled, or killed. Not one mild house
So much as a sparrow hears on earthen floor,
Walls stand, but cannot live without the folk they loved --
It will be a bad thing to wake them.
Having smashed the rice-bowl, do not fill it again.
The village temple, well-built, with five smashed gods, ten whole ones
Does not want prayers. Its last vain prayer bled up
When the women ran outside, to be slain.
A temple must house its sparrows, or fall asleep,
Therefore a long time, under his crown of snails,
The gilded Buddha demands to meditate.
No little flowering fires on the incense-strings
Startle Kwan-Yin, whom they dressed in satin --
Old women sewing beads like pearls in her hair.
This was a temple for the very poor ones --
Their gods were mud and lathe: but artfully,
Wistfully, in the well-appointed colours
Some broken artist painted them all,
Wooden dragons are carefully carved.
Finding in mangled wood one smiling, childish tree,
Roses and bells, not one foot high,
I put it back at the feet of Kwan-Yin.
Showing mercy one mercy.
                                   A woman’s prayer-bag,
Having within her paper prayer, paid for in cash
(Perhaps for a fighting son,
Perhaps for the little son who sought not her womb,
This I took, seeing it torn.
No prayer can I answer, or understand –
What prayers were answered, those last red nights?
Carrying her bag around the course of the world,
I shall often think ‘My sister I did not see
Voiced here a dying wish.
But the gods dreamed on. So low her words, so loud
The guns, that death-night, none could stoop to hear.’

                                                                                                                 [DC 629]



The Water-Bearer

Earth says, ‘Liang, my young darling,
Thirteen times has taken his New Year gift.
At seven he was busy, clinging astride the old meek buffalo,
Switching off flies with a branch, watching out at rice-fields.
The fish his brown hands pulled from the stream
Though little, he carefully bore to his mother
On his reed tray covered with leaves.
Later, when long drought sucked the apricot trees
And stones in the creek beds gaped like fish
It was he who searched far, finding water.
When winter cracked, when summer chafed my sore sides,
Always Liang, awakening, listened first.
Only this year, I watched his eyes grow grave --
He sees a star in my pool.
Still he runs like a child. Humbly I beg,
If the others must be for death, let this one stay,
My son, my water-bearer.’

General Matsui says
‘No water, but redder drink
This earth must learn, perhaps four summers.
All crops shall carry red leaf --
Rice, cotton or bean,
Men shall reap nor need them.’

Liang, who guarded a field,
Caught between the laugh of childhood, star of his youth,
Speaking no word, presses cheek to dust.
The new red flower is born,
A curse on all crops.
Earth cries out: far, yet as clear, rings the starry cry.
When did men heed the pain in voices?

                                                                                                     [DC 625]

Unaccustomed voices have cried on you
Asking your solace, out of a summer’s night.
A woman (not she who sets her pride on you,)
Stands wringing her hands, on your sharpest edge of light.
Strange fingers sum up your hearts, and you shrink from these –
Far-off and fruitless her trees,
Hot and cold the shame in your breasts, as if she had spied on you.
Such is your thought. But the verity, red soil marches,
Allied with green of crops and brown of its men
Fronting your old invasions. Your stony arches
Stand or fall by the peasant’s fist again,
And his body is pierced in young forests green as your larches.
And the Yangtze holds as white a bird as Devon,
As scarlet as Surrey’s the bloom and blood on these rocks,
As frail as yours the closed doors, that fearfully open
When Death, riding lathered, flings down his bridle and knocks.
No ghost, but a sister shows her dishevelled locks.

Come back: make the short peace,
On what terms you will.
Take the banners, bid the groan cease
Of the guns on the hill.

Take and disband my will.

For I cannot bear, my guest,
To affront these hours,
Waterwheel, white stream’s breast,
The wine-stained napkin of flowers.
(The young pines’ well-captained powers.)
And the huts, very old and black, that in you are towers.


Men who fill our sails with breath
Hawk their dual ways to death
Pleading, threatening, bargaining rise
Bloodstained markets in their eyes
Here the tempted child shall buy
Head or amoeban lie.
Wind may mock us for a while,
Sun may wound us with a smile,
Sister vain pardoneth.

Then in village huts alone,
Find by clay, by wood and stone,
Find by handiwork despoiled,
Find in rice-plots river soiled
Find from bitterness and ruth
Small temptation but the truth.

                                                                       [China N]


Fragments from Two Countries

What is it makes the stranger? Say, oh eyes!
Coming to this land, I saw little boys spin tops,
Others tugged red-tail kites against the wind,
Girls hopped in chalk-marked patterns about the streets —
That game I might have taught them, at five years old.
A man sold chestnuts, another warmed hands at his brazier,
A mother suckled the sleepyhead at her breast.


Crossing the Zacchewei Road, I saw one tree,
A white stranger to winter:
So, in my country, before slipping off her robe,
Spring tests the yet icy waters with bare white foot.


White bough, soft blow of blossom on my sight!
Spring takes the broken town.
How can they bear, this springtime in Japan,
When cherry trees are dight,
To walk abroad, spread fans like delicate wings,
Move through the white and rose, half-seeming still
The same small courteous guests?


Boys fish, willows watch their tresses burn green in glass:
The people are deft in making bamboo huts.
Old men, thin-fleshed as golden shells, dream on,
Almost the dragon’s blood, red-veined in stone,
Stirs from the torpor of the centuries.


In the heart of the reed is a secret,
In the heart of the green bamboo, a spear;
In the heart of a boy is ‘Chee-lai, chee-lai!’
They will take a long time, ere they crush out these.


I saw a man plaiting withes still green,
Swiftly the green whips built up his basket,
A cool dark sap bled out on his fingers.
What will he carry in his basket,
Hurrying from shop to shop,
Whispering from door to door?
A fish, a flower, or a word?
The heart of China, the heart of China,
Whose living sap runs bright on his fingers:
He will creep with that heart through dark cities,
He will run with new heart to his mountains.


Having but idle servants in my train,
I can give neither tile nor lamp,
Only a footprint: some boy sees it at dawn,
Before his high wheeled cart creaks over it.


Of my home I say this: one day
My father brought in an old flute.
Very small was the house. But twining poppies in wreaths,
My three young sisters and I
Danced, that night, like four wands of corn.


I dreamed your book was written, and that the great
So praised it. In my green room, facing the hills,
Outstaring the cold Karori tombstones, the blinded moon,
Your eyes laughed, your two close hands were warm.
I was rested, after a long and weary running,
And leaned my head. I, too, had praise for your book . . .
In the wakening, I saw my hands, wetted with tears;
Still the blind moon watching in,
And trivial guesswork . . . thus you might say, might write.


In the days before tempest, (my head will be good as the next!)
I dream so much of the poems made in my youth.
Small idle ghosts I had written, forgotten, never since seen,
Slip into my brain; say, ‘We were part of you,’
As swiftly are gone again.
A soft might carries us on.
It is like the wind, streaming over Wellington hills,
Which, bearing all sunset’s flame, scorns not the kites:
It is like the tide, flowing out from Island Bay,
Bubbling round dinghies, it lifts the children’s boats.

                                                                                                                          [DC 628.1]


The sweet-named god, the poppied breath, the lulling
Marble made warm, the dusky golden eyes,
Smiling entranced, remembering, not forgetting –
Petals and sharded starlight where he lies,
Blossoms like moths and light like living wings
Hive to the silver canopy and deep,
While notes of music round like unseen breasts,
Coaxing his lifted hands to sleep -- to sleep.

Life-wearied flesh, take home the love untired!
The poppy’s blackening wine has quelled the rose.
Low in the west, by embered sunset fired,
A moon of philtred amber heats and glows.
Flinch not nor grieve, into his dream who sink
From the unequal combats stricken soon –
This smile round young Salome’s dancing curled --
This pity led the victor from his noon.

                                                                                                                 [DC 637]


True there was much unkindness
And silly things to say,
But what are words ill-seasoned
In season of the may?
Oh, seemly goes the meadow
And shining flows the blue,
And you and I and skylarks
We’ve other things to do.

Because I crossed you lately
Or let the harsh word slip
Makes not a birth-stained morrow,
Today with hare-shot lip.
And I with no more wisdom
Than wandering breeze or rhyme,
Say ‘Brittle sooth from mouths dear
Except at kissing-time.

If you’d be bound and bind me
Knot me no stupid word
In trails of briar wind me
In the wind shifts of a bird.
Oh you and I and throstle
Enough we’ve done and seen
In pacing with the gold world,
In lacing with the green.

                                                                                     [DC 636]


After the Chinese

Torn by the trees,
a glimmering shred of moon
hangs like a white tear on a dim blue curtain,
a silver crystal shining in the dark . . .
Out of the dark
comes the wet tang of tears:
the lonely sea
is crying for the tattered wisp of silver,
struggling with leaves behind a net of stars.
Within my hand
the ashen foam lies for a moment,
the sea knows not that I have gathered
a thousand tears
born of its sorrow:
that in my hand I hold
a thousand tiny silver

                                                                                               [Best Poems 1943]


Ku Li

Two words from China: ‘Ku li’ -- bitter strength.
‘This coolies’ war!’ tinkle the sweet-belled idle.
His face and Hundred Names sweep on below,
Child-like, he plays at horse without the bridle:
And carts a world along, and carts a war,
Tugging perhaps to mountain heights at length:
The new vernacular chronicles exhort him,
And waste their breath.
                                  His grinning face can’t know
Half the fixed meanings of the flags he saw:
He had a happy childhood: then time caught him,
Broadened his shoulders, but forbore his head.

Eight years his life between the shafts: eight hours
(With luck), between Changsha and Hsuchowfu,
Picks swinging like pendulums in a noon of flowers:
Shining their freedom, bombers spot his blue,
But cease to count. Too poor for marriage-bed
He looks for dreaming in the big dim shed,
Rolled in the quilt where other warmth has dossed:

Turns to Yunnan, hacks the next strategy through,
Cheerful; and often killed; and always bossed.
And not on Tiger Head or Purple Mountain
His grave-mound rises: worlds live on, to slake
Their ashy gullets at his bitter fountain
Of blood and vigour. Enemy armies break
Somehow on this, as somehow cracks the stone
Under his pick: but now he rots alone
(Not claiming to have died for something’s sake,)
Only the earth makes ready for his bone,
The green rice sees him with unflattering eyes:

Too cheap a partisan for man to prize,
Men seldom know him for their broadest river,
And burnt in the immortal tiles forever.

                                                                                                                       [DC 625.1]


Pihsien Road

Old men in blue: and heavily encumbered
Old shoulders held by shadowy whips in sway,
Like ox and ass, that down this road have lumbered
All day: all the bright murderous day.
More than their stumbling footprints press this clay.

And light in air, pure white, in wonder riding,
Some crazy Phaeton these have never known
Holds by a lever their last awe, deciding
How flesh shall spurt from sinews, brain from bone --
Crushing desolate grain with a harder stone.

                                                                                                                     [DC 631]



Bear the message from the roof-tops, from the tiled h’gom houses
Where the storks splash out in shallow yellow day.
Tell them Ali’s sister listens to the lessening of the rein-bells,
To the jar of scattered pebbles far away.
Says she sings, and stoops anew to touch her loom
Where the thread is woven scarlet as his quests --
‘Brother, beauty wearies the beautiful!
Next time, let me be born with no breasts.’

White door, and the blood-combed cockerel boasts the dawn,
Fierce hoofs, and the neighing stallion stamping forth,
Bells, and the women’s veils across my windows drawn,
Lest I watch you in the riding to the north.
Keen and clean the air; the sound of the cavalcade lingers,
Echoes and mocks and faints on the cloudy crests,
I would be beautiful, but not so beautiful.
Next time, let me be born with no breasts.

I would be your young companion, hold the jingling bridle
Near your sword arm, sleek the hides of our little stubborn horses.
We would watch the silent planets in their courses,
In the silver-threaded hours of the idle,
I should learn from you the laugh a warrior knows --
Brother, the bright loom flashes, whirs and rests –
I would learn to hold the lance and leave the rose –
Next time, let me be born with no breasts.

Sun on the steel, and not the trembling of rain.
(That is the woman’s trick -- to smile and to weep again.)
Hand by your hand at dusk, but not there
The still eyes, or the counselling hair.
Strength for your strength -- but never till battles cease
The lost loom, the cool threads of your peace.
Rider to match your pace -- but turn not
To the quiet hills, to the love you forgot.
Fight where you will, a red edge turned to the foam.
But speak not of woman, dream not of home
I shall be beautiful, questing brother: and you
Have lost but her whom you little knew.
For Shiva the silent smiles, and shapeth his guests –
Next time, let me be born with no wheat.

                                                                                                                    [DC 632]


Harvest Bird

You are looking very well to-day.

Thank you. You look well yourself.

Yes, we're all beginning to feel like ourselves again. But look at you! I believe you must have grown at least another inch since the last rains. At one time I thought they would never come.

I haven't grown any taller myself, my time for growing is well over; but the child must have grown, it feels so heavy. Perhaps it will be born to-day. I do feel remarkably well, ready now to face anything. I, too, was worried over the late rains.

Now it's full sun-up. What a colour you have, a real sun-colour, amber and dark brown, and with the jewels the sun hangs in your precious ears! Wheat, you are looking very Chinese to-day.

What else should we look? Listen, they’ve begun. It's a sweet noise, I like it, the noise of the big scythes in the centre of the field, working nearer. I suppose that is how the bees' murmuring sounds to the flower. The men are working hard. Yesterday the noise was away at the far end of the field, but now, if everything goes well, they may reach this corner before nightfall.

Then we'll be cut down.

As if that mattered! After that our children will be born, our sons and daughters, the grain.

I shall only have a daughter, ignorant and ugly, but you will certainly have a fine son.

You are laughing at me. But taken all together, I certainly think we give them a good field. Tomorrow, perhaps you and I will be threshed out, and lie with our heads together under the stone, while the donkey marches round and round in darkness.

Yes . . . sometimes it seems a pity. You look very handsome where you are. A shame that you should be cut down!

If we don't have our children, how do you suppose we can feed the people who planted us and are cutting us down? It is almost wicked, the way you talk, but I know you don't mean it.

Men, men, always to feed men! Are they the only ones?
Doesn't it sometimes seem to you a trivial destiny?

And if we don't feed men, whom do you suppose will sow the next crop of wheat? You are getting confused. You must see that the whole thing lies in the wheat. The trouble is, men don't plant half enough wheat, and also, owing to droughts and other troubles, our children aren't as fine and strong as they ought to be. The thing for us to do is to feed the men without the slightest complaining: the more of us there are, and the better, the stronger the men will grow. Then they can plant more and more wheat.

What good will that do ?

The men will grow taller and stronger in every way, and have good sons and daughters themselves, just as we need to do. Then they will plant still more wheat. Perhaps this very field, though it has had such a hard time, and was certainly nothing to boast about a few years ago, may produce wheat as fine as any in the world, and the best grain.

Taller wheat, taller men. So that's all we are supposed to know.

It's all we need know, but there is another thing. Often we used to hear the trains on the railway track. They run to another place, down in south fields, not a wheat country but a country for rice and millet, and there the people who come out to the railway trains sell little patties, made in the dirt. On one side a character says 'Ground,' and on the other, another character says 'Sky.' That is what we do not know, but there is some meaning in it, ground and sky. It's what we are all made of, men and wheat. Not that I want to claim any monopoly for wheat, the millet has done as well as ourselves this year, and look at the bean-shoots, already climbing.

Yes, the bean is always pushing. Can't wait to see us fall, before he sings out: ‘Look at me! I'm alive, climbing!’

Well, you know, these little fellows, when they are creeping along the ground in our shadow, can't really believe that they will ever have their own time of growing, and their own say in affairs. They grow quieter as they grow higher. Besides, the crops are in rotation, it isn't as if they interfered with our grain.

Then you don't ever feel, ‘I'd like to put out my foot and stamp on that cock-a-hoop?’

The summer would have a bad time quarrelling with the autumn. We all need one another too much to start arguments.

Stop talking, listen to the scythes, they are so near. If this is our last day, I am glad it was like this . . . so warm, so golden. That old fellow in blue has brought out his water-bottle, and the cracked earthenware bowl that he will tip up and drink, trying to cool himself with brackish water when the sun is right overhead. But why aren't the women working in the fields, as they always do ?

Because they are afraid. You know that, as well as I do.

Yes, I have nostrils, like anyone else. One doesn't like to think of it, and if I could, I would always stand looking the other way. He has lain there now three days, poor fellow. Why don't the harvesters come and take him away?

Well, they are mostly old men, and they feel afraid of getting into an argument. Then, after dark, when they shut the doors of their huts, they never know just what is going to happen, and the world outside seems strange to them, as if it had been all changed by water. You know how it seemed to us, until we found the wheat could keep on growing. But men take longer to get used to things than wheat. Soon they will know their way about again, in darkness or light, and when they do it will be their own way, not anybody else's way. We are the wheat, and people may think: ‘Those peasants are too ignorant to know anything!’ But we know our way about.

Look how he lies. His blue clothes are torn and bloody, and the flesh, which was our colour a few days ago, is a horrible colour. Ants and beetles scurry in little black streams into the pits of his nostrils and throat. I suppose you will say: ‘It is all right, he has only been cut down’?

No, not in his case. Can't you see how young he is? How could such a boy have done his work in the world? It is not good, it is the most terrible, the most criminal thing on earth, when the young are cut down before they have borne their fruit and given of their seed. But since he couldn't do it in that way, he does all he can. That body you seem to despise is coming back to earth. He is given to ground.

What of sky?

The sky is a big ear. It hears and records a lot. But that is none of our business.

What about the others, who did it ? The people who make our people afraid, because our people are women now, or mostly helpless and old?

They will think they are right, and know they were wrong. They will justify themselves completely, and the man who does that accuses himself. He is his own prosecutor and his own defence, and when he has done clamouring, there is the wheat to judge him, and the testament of ground and sky. It is true those others have had a difficult time. They are a sun people, like ourselves, but beneath them burns the savage, destructive fire of the volcano. It is very hard to be trapped between two burnings, two mighty passions, but only these people themselves can find a cure for that, and they will not find it by defiling another man's wheat.

Let us be tired, let us forget to pretend that we have voices or thoughts, and sink into our own speech, the slow rustling murmur of many laden heads, meeting the keener voice of the scythes. Can't you hear the harvest bird calling, early this year? He never forgets to come to China. Some of our people say he sings: ‘Work now, work now,’ but others say it is ‘Worship now.’ I will be wise for once, I will tell you what you are going to say. You are going to say ‘There is no difference, Ground is written on one side and Sky on the other.’



The Native Grass

Grasses, and none would speak
By our halted train;
Or they murmured among themselves,
And spoke not plain.
I know not when I may pass
That road again.

Meadow-grass speaks a known tongue
From a quiet mind,
Its speech is an English speech,
The farming keeps it kind.
But what of my untamed grass
In the twilight left behind?

Harvesting, cattle, stook
In the fields are known;
The field-grass speaks with the scythe
And greets with the milling-stone.
But the native grass stands back,
Uncouth and alone.

Lion rocks were the lords,
Stone was the bed,
Thorn bearing no man’s fruit
Ran wilfully overhead,
And the sides of the hill were gored
Where sunset bled.

Man-high, sharp as a spear,
Speaking a barbarous tongue,
Edging and sheering back
In the beaten strength of the young;
This was my own land’s grass,
And there, her songs sung.

Grasses, waiting the word,
Whispering hope or curse . . .
Treat with it, trample it,
For better or worse
There stands the only pride
No man buys with his purse.

                                                                                                                    [DC 623.2]

China is floating past me, and I watch not
The little isles, the cool jade-rippling bay.
Half yesterday her face. Yes, I shall reckon
Her laugh, her terror, things of yesterday,
Seeing them vaguely, from so far away,
Coldly from west’s grey eyes and unawoken
Saying not for me is brilliant, or is broken
Lord butterfly on lord hibiscus spray —

And not for passing guests are set in motion
Junks that are autumn leaves across the ocean.

I shall be chaptered in the books of stone
The cities of the west, aloof, immense
With arrogance the marrow of their bone
And speed the levin of their insolence.
There to walk undisguised, without pretence
Of lowlier love than in their fortresses
Is coldly fed : where even music is
A metal mouth, writhing open in a hiss
For new attack, where there is no defence.

Steadily I shall seek to keep in tune
All I shall say, with all that blears their noon.

The Hong Kong water, lapping on stone stairs
Where a young lemming tipped the evening tide;
A broken moon, frail white, a lamp for prayers
So softly said, immaculate from pride,
It mattered not if granted or denied
The fragile wish: and said too low for mortals,
The waters’ quiet petition at the portal
Of the black cave that cracked across the west
To bear a pearly sampan on its breast;

                                                                                                                [DC 635]

Thirsty Land

Sharpset the tide runs up, the eagerly flowing
Sea-flags are tossed past rampart sand and stone
Where ancient sunbleached vessels dream, forgetting
Their wasted wooden sinews, broken bone,
Once more Argos at sunset. White birds scream,
Soften the skies, where noon’s fierce helmets shone.
The lion dunes shake out their manes. Forever
Darkness and wave glide on.

Oh sick of empery, craving the tide-borne cup,
Things on that shore gasp seaward, and renew.
Rockpool anemones flush with rose; the soiled
Vain jellies spilt on sand fringe white and blue.
Old blistering wood is slaked, the salt drink wakens
White boats to bubbling talk; veins filled with foam
The blackened seaweeds, swelling green and brown,
Sway out, stream glistening home.

And children’s feet and wings pattern the gloam.

Now the cool stars come out, the murmuring nets
Round their moist lips, the sea-pods burst like grapes.
Street-weary people linger at the edge,
Shadows of things are lovelier than their shapes.
Sands underfoot turn chill, old fishermen hear
Lost bells, the drowned Atlantean ringing.
A needled silver pricks and cures the heart,
And sound of oars, and singing.

Around my hands the seaweed tress is clinging.

But pausing not, the lambent waves melt on
Past where the Penguin sank; a bright host flow
Cook Straits to Tory Channel, where the great
Barnacle-bellied seabeasts cumbrous go.
They hail the broadbuilt whaling ships, they pass
Remembered peach-tree islands, where one light
Breaks by the broken jetty; where one house
Sets drift-fires to the night,

And air beats up the oyster-catcher’s flight.

Farther to gleam, where feather-handful terns
Drift on great galleon waves, and fern-plumed nod;
Past Reefton, white in surf; Lyttelton lights,
Lake-locketed Manapouri, half untrod.
Past stars grown big as fists, through dangerous reefways
Sealers and men grown old in sailing teach.
(Wild fuschias’ falling crimson dyes the sands,
Ambergris rolls on Hellfire Beach.)

Onward, to wash the southernmost reach.

Such I remember, in the thirsty land
Whose bones stare through her skin, pain from her soul;
Her wells dry, her unharvested grain stands pale . . .
The tides run up, they lap the southern Pole.
Blue-green that ice; and this land burning hot
With fevers. Withering hangs her misty glow.
Abundant wings are black about the breasts
Of dead I loved, and could not know.

Give me your cold: waves from my hands to flow --
In the hot deathly nights, you arm me so.

                                                                                                  [DC 622]



Last updated 30 June, 2003