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Kendrick Smithyman

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Uncollected Northland Poems

edited by Jack Ross
Originally published in brief 26 (January 2003): 19-49


Debating One Specific Scene 
Low Tide 
One Saturday on Extension 
Cliff Shelter 
At Jacky Marmon’s Grave 



Debating One Specific Scene

Little for commemorating, being
what people we are: nurtured, not native
(or so some to the south declare)
whose poets are left to backbiting or nailclipping,
yawping at foothills. They have heard it before.

Formalise to coherence the landscape
Permit musicians to think (suitably) of rests.
Demanding silence. Assert to the contraries,
but silence which is already handy, bland
and blanks the painter’s lively tones.

By Tekapo, pastorales; and scruffy eumenides
beating about a local shrieking, where accent
fails to agitate the twice-shorn fathers,
they in their sheepish deserts played well away.

What regard? Authority’s bombast blows wide
until it gets home mediocrity, its long shot.
Uncles deed willing nephews an eroded acre,
and a long hillside driven off the wind.
Pile cairns for them, to mark the emptying years.

At Waipu, a sottish lion roaring castrated
rearing exile’s redoubled wandering ministry.
Do sentiments improve by voyage? In Dunedin,
the Cargill piece (Victorian-Convenience Style).
You may prefer the anonymously functional,
military mileposts along the Great South Road.



English visitors find strangely unlovely
a river all silt prospecting coarse paddocks
as though reluctant of its way with tides.
Sluggishly it bends south, half-circling
raw hills which even in summer eat at clouds.
Mornings break out cold on a terse view.
Westward, they bear the Tasman’s unstopped rumour.

They want cars to take them north to an alien bush,
or would get back to the brashest city – its harbour
is famed more tantalising. A city may offer
even the least men a consolation of like crowds.
Whereas, that northern country proffers nothing,
but lies suffering all wounds made in its soils
and knows to be spoiled and rent and made over
is to have estranged spirit, but can be patient.
Sensual men are dulled. Earth is tutored bearing.

Yet if you make your peace with that soil
which burns barren this season the land will give
peace in return. Eyes will learn to open
the clay scars, bush burns, water courses;
learn way of manuka and lank toitoi, harshly winded.
Then, not heard before but some morning unpredicted,
a certain music is sensed to have spoken.
At midday there are birds springing beyond sight,
evening is tempered. Dogs barking summer away.


Low Tide

These flats do not forget the sea
which only briefly goes away.
About the gorse and manuka
moonlight like shifty memory moves.
Blurred point across the estuary
lays finger to the lip of night,
and warns the watchful wordless moon.

If a bird were, if birds would beat
hauling the seaways back and out,
subtracting sea and sunburnt shore,
to draw off pine and fir and leave
the soil, a naked surgery
excised by moonlight - then have
stubby coprosma foam again
on soil as once it may have been.

An image of wings, there, of monster wings
beating from beyond silence.
Like a wind. This beach has been popular.
Let the sand bring out its citizens to speak
for us, for our need and for their need –
it is not enough to stand here shivering.



Layman on holiday handles – no, mauls his spear.
Jaded roll sallow valleys breaking white,
of their god defiant.
                             A seaman hurled his fear
sleek in that sudden broil where sails bite
at the blue. As a moment back, bit at the green.
The hoary sailor poised, then tossed his lance
leagues over.
                   Pitched, for far and near
before you, child and Child, were named, let alone seen.
(This is the tune called down. Get up now, dance
for honour gone with its glory – do you hear,
boy, have you art to hear?)
Immense at prayer, from his sea’s coils set
fair to harry, hassling your whale’s boast.
God’s novice too, huntsman, quarry, layreader met
how under with your host
apprentice of this craft? How, blessing, the coast
gales bloody home? Stands morning wholly clear
for veteran youth, unaged, in one same rite?

The blessed claim their place in our time whose blessing
finely drops, located in haven. Among bays outsworn,
parched before bow, spins, thirsting and quested.
And, of those more accursed than blessed,
who of the earliest, sea’s black sheep?
Make one to speak since you were better born.

He no end costs unshriven, falls to distressing
blown years which add them to our year:
his blanked at the sea’s heart. That, being torn
(as it must) rolls green again not attested
in one loss singular.
                             Calling on return,
who’ll swear him once more outgoing where thrive, burn
sun, salt, sea beast? Who in brute plot upbraid
him living
               until despairing hands are stayed.
Twin bloods surge those valleys out to frown
below morning’s long fall renewed, gone down.
The rude shipmen, we take and cast their spear.


Cliff Shelter

Nobody hunkered in the overhang
long enough for the idea to break:
"I shall paint dog-headed birds on this wall,
against ..." whatever he wanted to defend.
Not even conventional graffiti.
You detour from sensible regress
towards mussel beds, terraces
farmed by edible shellfish, pools
for crayfish matings.
About it, no awareness of mystery.
Anyway, on such honeycombed bitten rockface,
not easy to effect as little as one
heartful of covenanting initials
plus one day’s date specific of one summer.

We sweat at purpose, solving nothing.
Two demi-shelters, side by side,
tipped under the cliff’s conglomerate –
they would be next to useless
even for strandloopers.
Unwieldy lacework, acid-resistant
stone, is their burden. Soft filler,
granulated, decomposes.
An effort surfaces, crude stable pattern.

These quasi-caves, their floors refuse
yield. I checked their bases.
At hand, persisting,
water’s exclamations utterly
sotto voce
. You scarcely hear them.

Water knows about tempting
as a craft, or the art of it. Yield yourself
willingly on a day like this. Light, heat,
these are terms which interchange.
When you talk about shelter, what should
I be sheltering from?
Around the headland
midday bewilders. It fills, saturates
to a dearth of reason the water voice
under, noises of surf mindless
among rocks, harbourmouth sandbars
blundering between one fixed,
one shifting point. Thumping. Bellowing.


One Saturday on Extension

Saturday night,
movies, at Hikurangi
with a dozen kids, partly aware
of waterlogged coalmines uneasy
below the floor, under the shallow
oh so urbane English comedy
played out early. Even the fish
shop was shut, so we drove
back to the Whangarei hotel
dissolving the nature of satire
through shifts of fog.
What conspires to irony
in such casual occasion?

O birds we should not name,
You pass, and again you pass.
Mines where you never whistled
drown in their slime and mucus.
The limestone burial caves crumble
into brown ceremonies uncharted.
A hundred village halls cannot forget
their dialogue of one English comedy
while some last wall stands
between fever and cold.




Nimbly, not in full view,
like bends or one-way bridges
they recurred unpredictably, opening
a valley, pushing through cuttings,
grading curves. Yesterday, they were settlers

were red-crowned parakeet.
You might swear to them, or to rosella,
with reservation on a blue-hot
hazed afternoon, a Saturday good
for pub crawling, intending to go
, landing up here. But they did not settle.

Others gave the valley an identity.
Moving, not in full view, holding fast
to their tract, covenanted to their faith:
in their land, in an awakening

which could well be providential,
signified by flighting birds.


I crossed that district last three
years ago, when we misplaced a house.
I wanted to see it again this trip
from one country boozer to the next.

F. and I, we thought that we chose.
They found for us--parakeet, hawk,
swamp hen, let alone little fellows
unnamed – how to go right,
thinking to fetch a main highway

and brought the farmhouse over
a paddock, the blanking look outwards
of an old man deep in his age

with the old man himself, the last son.


Surviving, between hope and memory,
in eighty years of holding. The matchlining
is inch-thick pit-sawn totara. Upstairs,
no one got round to putting in ceilings.
Bedroom walls you wouldn’t read
about. Calendars, pasted to the wood
A placard for an evangelist’s visit.
Pious prints. Modder River won, worn out
in monochrome.
Magazines, agriculture
journals, school readers, exercise books,
tax schedules, ledgers, newspapers, almanacs,
mailorder catalogues, diaries, letters.
Letters, all over the place.

Utility, possession. Dissent too.
Some of the books "instructive",
mainly S.P.C.K. type, edifying,
dogmatic, Victoriana Dull.
One son’s Victorian received revolt:
Ingersoll, Butler’ s Fair Haven, Godwin,
and doctrinaire stuff about sex.

No Bellamy, no Wallace, no Henry George.
Instead,a text in silver and mauve,
0 taste and see!
nailed between hope
and memory.


Family, extended, keeps its faith
cropping the valley methodically,
keeps the name. They clash
with a local body’s authority,
maintaining their own.

At the heart (strained figure) a house,
still, solidly structured, soundly timbered,
overburdened with paper. The past is
not wholly paper.

A rutted formal drive, the hawthorn
has tangled. Oldfashioned camellia is
overgrown by the front door. Roses are
reverted. Out back, a chestnut
which watches the creek stands large
but sterile. How shall we know
the dancer from the dance?


The Old Man isn’t exactly spry
but his timbers are fairly sound.
Like the house he ails, yet goes upright.
His lands are faithful. "Come on up, if you
’ve got time, and see my bush.
There’re kauri snails," he offered.

He pointed the original site,
sketched the family in, and the district,
an ancestor now. Not alone – he lives with
a daughter along the road – in special nuance
his family, grown more. He spoke of
the swamp hens over the fence
as he did of his children,
without being sentimental.


A past he is. The present contains.
And what future?

They will be the valley which they are.
Not all that much becomes.
The change in them which matters
achieves only slowly. Except, he is becoming.
Other than identity, soon he will be
an archive, a fiction of documents.

To that end, I conspire.

Pioneers 0 Pioneers! you are best
understood by your swamp hen peers,
by the old dog which each of you buried
out back, near your chestnut tree.


 At Jacky Marmon’s Grave

If the grave is found, have someone
make him a wooden marker. This county has
peculiar grave markers. Add one.

Cut to it a totem, or what will doduty for a totem. A horse headed
weta – that will do fine. He was, by
report, a heavy headed horse-faced tattooed man
who wore habitually a top hat, and scared kids.
Every Christmas he tarred his hat.

Reputedly, married twice, he had one daughter
"even more ill-favoured than her father"
who died without issue. Nonetheless,
kin of three surnames now claim descent
from him, almost surely justly.

Immediately after his death
versions of his life were published,
two dictated, the third a gloss of fiction,
an unrecognised novel. He sought
to become respectable, did not succeed.

No doubt he enlarged on his career,
telling the tale. Death expanded.
One story says that they buried him three times.
Twice the coffin came back to the surface,
so finally he was buried standing up.
Another legend insists that on the way
uphill, the coffin was twice dropped.
With a third drop, it split, and the old
man sprang out but did not catch
up with his mourners. He was put down
on a flat patch on a ridge above
his house, below the survey peg.

He was the first white man to settle
at that harbour; again, that may be qualified.
Of the first known to come ashore, he survived,
reasons for this are conflicting.

Protected by Muriwai, he became son
in law to Raumati. He was useful.
Later he wanted to be harbour pilot.
Refused, he sometimes worked at housebuilding;
he built Judge Maning’s home at Onoke.
When he died, in eighteen eighty, he was
the district’s last known white cannibal.

In one of the accounts of his life
the copyist got tired transcribing
and polishing. Here and there you can
hear the old man’s actual words,
his turn of phrase, even his dropped aitches.

When I went to look for his grave I heard
only a cryptic breeze among pines on the crest
and the telling silence of the Waihou’s
low tide summer torpor. 



            housing the dead: is at end of,
above end of an underprivileged
narrowing valley.
                          The valley narrows
to make its point bodkin-bare yet sharply –
no, chisel-fashion. This is where your cutting
edge of experience runs out, striking deeper.
Out of date cornstalks slattern back to some main road;

           out of date school grows weeds in gardens
once experimental, then well thought of;
but the meeting house is getting a new lease
of life, which is subsidised.

           Above, those who are knowledgeable can
pinpoint the cave’s opening. That’s where
they went down: Only the bodies,
noone else. You realise this was long
long ago?
               Before the church which is overshadowed was
built on its bit of land uplifted higher,
a vigilant siting, before
the graveyard which is nondenominational came
into use? None is less, however
long in the tooth or longserving there,
finally: ‘Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust’,
one same whether ‘we fall by ambition, blood
or lust’ cut rightly down to size, eh?

           Or not so long ago. Not dignified
by myth; and, not according to the books.
"After the tangi the body was taken past the graveyard,
up near the top of the ridge there’s a cave.
It’s famous – " So I said, Yes, I’d heard about it
and read about it, it’s where Maning’s brother
in law was sent down; he was betrayed
by the wild ducks up the Waikare river, 1845.
But Maning doesn’t say that "They tied the body
to a plank. They pushed the plank into the dark.
Christ, it must be deep in there.
You could hear it banging and bouncing
until you couldn’t hear it any more."
It wasn’t something he wanted to say much of

           understandably. From up there at the crest,
a long sheer trundle down to the church,
from the church to the meeting house,
from house to school
                                 Oh keep the Dog
far hence, that’s friend to men –

                                                    he must have
been a man about the age, sort of,
that putting bodies into the cave, this was supposed
to be long gone, wasn’t it?




  • Debating One Specific Scene
    This poem, like "Pioneers" (Collected Poems II: 1951-55 [1951]), records Kendrick’s conviction that the stone lion at Waipu had had its more rampant parts censored by Calvinist elders.
  • Kaipara
    It’s hard to see why this one was rejected from the canon. "Dogs barking summer away" is one of my favourite Smithyman lines.
  • Low Tide
    This is the best attempt I can make to reconstruct a readable text from a somewhat confused typescript.
  • Whangamumu
    In style, a little like Robert Lowell’s "The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket" (1946).
  • One Saturday on Extension
    Uncollected, despite having been published in Poetry & Audience XVI, 10 (1969).
  • Cliff Shelter
    Margaret Edgcumbe writes "This seems to belong to the Pioneers poem," but it seems very different in substance and style. (There’s another poem called "Pioneers" in the Collected Poems, which I refer to above, but they’re not otherwise connected).
  • Pioneers
    There are two texts of this poem sequence. I’ve printed the longer (undated) version here, as it has "To CP" [Collected Poems]" written at the bottom. The reason it remained uncollected may have been because it was superseded by the shorter, two-page text, however (both are reproduced in brief 26 (2003): 33-38).
  • At Jacky Marmon’s Grave
    Kendrick wrote "delete this" at the top of the draft. He did a good deal of work on Jacky Marmon in the late sixties. Presumably it failed to live up to his expectations.
  • Of
    Margaret conjectures that this may have been intended for inclusion in Atua Wera.


Last updated 28 March, 2003