Alistair Campbell participated in the ‘New Zealand Four Poets Tour’ in 1979, performing his poems to enthusiastic audiences. The poets were, clockwise from top, Campbell, Hone Tuwhare, Sam Hunt and Jan Kemp.
In the accompanying recording, made by Radio New Zealand in 1978, Campbell reads several poems dating from various points in his career. The poems, and Campbell’s connecting narration, are printed below:
Alistair Campbell: The poems I’ve chosen are about love. The earliest I wrote in 1947, and the latest only a few weeks ago. They’re simple and direct and derive their imagery from the landscape.
Dressed in green she came
and like a tulip
leaned her head against the door
and looked at me.
Her hand lay cool as a stone against her dress
and her sandalled feet
showed quite as a pair of doves on grass.
She did not stir
but wanted me to speak to her.
Her words were lilies on a green stem
the small wind shakes.
(A.T.A. Campbell. Collected poems. Wellington, 2016, p.117)
Campbell: Spring is traditionally a time associated with joy and hope, but in my next poem I use spring imagery to offset the pain of a love affair that has gone wrong.
Coming of Spring
Already a brittle light chills
And hardens the wind-bent trees.
A post away a morepork shrills
In sudden short alarm. Cows on knees,
Deep-buried in the grass, turn
Ceremoniously a steaming head
As we walk past. How strangely burn
The daffodils in your arms! So we tread
The long valley home, with no word
Spoken, and into deeper night
Where cold air rushes, like a bird
Released, into our faces, and the light
Cast by the daffodils illumines
Your brow and eyes so dark
In their anguish, and past the pines
Where the leaping farm dogs bark.
(A.T.A. Campbell. Collected poems. Wellington, 2016, p.125)
The Rock Spring
I never knew the spring was there, and yet
I must have passed it many times
When climbing the rock face, but always
The low mist and the cool water chimes
Of the bellbird dropping through the mist
Distracted; the bones of uprooted trees
Strummed by the wind, and the wild goats
Startled into flight across the screes
Distracted; until my gentle love came
And led me with face alight to where words
As soft as hers welled out of a rock,
Cool-throated sounds lower than any bird’s.
(A.T.A. Campbell. Collected poems. Wellington, 2016, p.124)
Campbell: In many of my lyrics, the moods of the natural world are projections of an inner landscape. So it is in my next poem, where the images of dissolution reflect the girl’s misery.
At a Fishing Settlement
October, and a rain-blurred face,
And all the anguish of that bitter place.
It was a bare sea-battered town,
With its one street leading down
On to a shingly beach. Sea winds
Had long picked the dark hills clean
Of everything but tussock and stones
And pines that dropped small brittle cones
On to a soured soil. And old houses flanking
The street hung poised like driftwood planking
Blown together and could not outlast
The next window-shuddering blast
From the storm-whitened sea.
It was bitterly cold; I could see
Where muffled against gusty spray
She walked the clinking shingle; a stray
Dog whimpered and pushed a small
Wet nose into my hand – that is all.
Yet I am haunted by that face,
That dog, and that bare bitter place.
(A.T.A. Campbell. Collected poems. Wellington, 2016, p.12)
Campbell: Now for a playful little piece by way of contrast.
O catch Miss Daisy Pinks
Undressing behind her hair;
She slides open like a drawer
Oiled miraculously by a stare.
O the long cool limbs,
The ecstatic shot of hair,
And untroubled eyes
With their thousand mile stare.
Her eyes as round as marigolds,
Her navel drips with honey,
Her pulse is even and her laugh
Crackles like paper money.
(A.T.A. Campbell. The dark lord of Savaiki: collected poems. Christchurch, 2005, p.29)
Campbell: In 1962, I went through a crisis of identity which caused a change towards more personal writing. ‘Forgiveness’ is one of the products.
Forgiveness is a journey I must take
Alone into my childish fears, and there
Confront my fathers for my children’s sake.
I must go back before I cease to care,
And the world darkens and I cannot move.
Forgiveness is a journey from despair
Along a path my ancestors approve.
I must go back and with them make my peace:
Forgiveness is a journey into love.
(A.T.A. Campbell. Collected poems. Wellington, 2016, p.19)
Campbell: My next poem could be described as sentimental, but that doesn’t bother me because I believe that the sentimental has a place in poetry.
Rain in January
We are sitting in a coffee bar,
swimming in each other’s eyes.
I try to talk,
but you press one long finger
gently to my lips and murmur,
'Don’t talk –
there’s no need to talk.’
Then I see you hunched up
on a wharf rail –
a child again, crying in the rain,
your face in your hands,
myself beside you helpless.
A young policeman questions us,
thinking me perhaps an aging rapist
and you a runaway schoolgirl.
Suddenly you drop your hands –
you are laughing.
You drive him away.
It’s dark now and still raining –
and you in my arms for the last time,
crying goodbye, goodbye
into my shoulder.
We stand under a dripping oak tree
out of the rain –
but it’s no use.
It never stops raining
and you never stop crying.
how many long wet streets did we walk,
looking for an answer we never found?
(A.T.A. Campbell. The dark lord of Savaiki: collected poems. Christchurch, 2005, pp.79–80)
Campbell: Sometimes, the only way to cope with a crisis is to do nothing but sit perfectly still, as a rabbit does until the hawk has passed overhead.
Make Your Mind a Blank
Sickened by petrol fumes,
stunned by grinding gears
and the shouting of children
laying siege to a school,
I steady myself on a stone
under a critical tree,
high above the sea.
My senses wince, ambushed
by a sudden stench
from weeds in a wet ditch.
Tears fall on my hands –
and I stare helplessly
at an outcrop of rock
unmoored by a choppy sea.
I know nothing can be gained
by staying here, confused
by a wind glittering with knives –
but if I sit quite still
and make my mind a blank
at least nothing too terrible
can happen to me.
(A.T.A. Campbell. Collected poems. Wellington, 2016, p.275)
Campbell: My next poem is about the essential innocence of the lyric impulse.
The Sirens’ Cave
He has never been the same,
my father, since he blundered
into a sirens’ cave as they
were soaping each other’s
crotches joyfully, their voices
linked in harmony.
Insidiously they shrilled
at him, but his innocence
simply bladed off their spell.
Then unabashed the sirens
let down their hair, stretched out
like seals and barked at him
which caused him to run off,
unmanned by laughter
that mocked him as it blessed.
He has been running since,
my father, hoping to repeat
that blunder and find again
the sirens’ cave, not once
suspecting why for him alone
the rock pools open out
their pockets or why
each night he falls asleep
in the palm of the wind.
(A.T.A. Campbell. Collected poems. Wellington, 2016, p.135)
Campbell: Death, eternity – these are the themes of my next poem.
Dreams, Yellow Lions
When I was young
I used to dream of girls
Now it is water I dream of,
placid among trees, or lifting
casually on a shore
where yellow lions come
out in the early morning
and stare out to sea.
(A.T.A. Campbell. Collected poems. Wellington, 2016, p.281)
Campbell: My last poem completes the cycle by taking me back to where I started years ago, when the landscape was the arena in which my emotions were acted out. Burning Rubbish is set in Pukekura Bay where I live.
On this wild, wet Sunday morning
I am burning the week’s rubbish
In the oil drum by the red hut
Where the dogs graze in the spring grass
Under the ngaio tree. I hear
A thrush sing somewhere above me,
In the sodden foliage, a song
Out of key with what the storm wind
Has been singing all weekend.
I look up but I can see nothing
But plunging branches and a gull
Back-pedalling across the sky.
Above the whitened bay, pigeons
Hang in a shimmering curtain
As they check and turn in their flight
And vanish, beautiful as our love.
I would like to believe the thrush
When he asserts that there is room
In this world for the two of us,
But the wind is more persuasive,
And not even the rain can douse
The flames that are consuming
Our dreams with a week’s rubbish.
(A.T.A. Campbell. Collected poems. Wellington, 2016, p.144)
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