The mountains 
do not remember
asking the forests 
to shelter birds 
with silent tongues
and wings of bark. 

CB 2008

These poems form part of a body of work I made in response to the waterways of Western Fiordland, some of them written whilst on board the conservation yacht, The Breaksea Girl. A group of us were fortunate to spend six days and nights in and around Doubtful and Dusky Sounds, a protected, once-pristine area of black water, red kelp, primordial forest, 'vanishing' waterfalls and - until quite recently - a cacophony of birdsongSadly, predators - cats, rats and stoats - have resulted in a severely diminished bird population and significant damage to the forest floor; this in turn has led to the canopy thinning which implies potentially dramatic long-term changes to the ecology in the area. We were shocked and saddened to witness firsthand what felt like the loud absence of birds. . .    

Vanishing Waterfalls - Snug Cove, Western Fiordland



             This is no trick of the light -
             the headlands are being carried away
             stone by rock by stone.
             Neither wind nor rain nor day

             nor night can deter these gulls:

             watch them soar

             and plummet, pick clean
             the coastline’s bones. It’s work
             and it’s a game, their winged insistence
             their raucous reclamation.



                         LOVE THE WATERS

                         Stop this hustling about. 

                         Take a small boat
                         down the river. Fish
                         in the rain, cherish
                         the green moss, love
                         the waters that offer up
                         their purity – 
                         love the waters.



                   SOTTO VOCE 

Striking, the ambiguity of language – 
sound and sound, hold and hold
birth and berth.

Sotto voce. Sotto voce.

Our brave boat’s hull
is a dull silver arc
at odds, and at one
with the ocean’s shifting
meniscus, the sky infinite
yet Doubtful as a clenched fist,
a menace of wishful thinking.

Mariners without local knowledge
are advised to exercise caution.

I am no old man of the sea - my stomach
one of two that pitch and turn
in 4m swells - but Lance and the Breaksea Girl
are unperturbed; back and forth she rocks
back and forth, a metronome used, by now,
to holding her own in stormy waters. 

Sotto voce. Sotto voce.

Ours is hardly the first voyage, neither will it be
the last. There are records aplenty of this coastline, 
these steep, hard-nosed mountains, 
the seductive tongues of waterfalls.
I have scoured the record books,
wondered more about the lines not there
than the many written; nowhere
do we find Cook – or Orton –
writing of love or lust
or loneliness at sea; in the journals, no poetry
to soften the un-yielding years, the reek
of sour beer and unwashed skin,
the loud absence of women.

These men, too, must surely have known
the sudden singe of heat
on heart, the unconfided bruise?


On the edge of the clearing weather,
mountain, sky and ocean lean towards
each other with conspiratorial intention.
They are lifetimes ahead of us
the way they know how to sleep
together, dream together, lie awake
in the dark together, rarely - and always - 
alone with their separate thoughts.

Where are we to drop anchor?

I am reluctant to interrupt this silence.



Before we set sail on the Breaksea Girl, our Captain Lance suggested that should any one of us feel a need for space, we should speak up and he’d drop us off on a convenient rock for as long as might be deemed necessary.

‘Can’t you just picture it,’ said Gillian. 'Ten artists, ten rocks?’

    for Gillian Whitehead

This unsteady place of black water and red kelp insists
we lay down our tools and listen.

     From where I stand, spine to the rope, I catch her
     in the act – eyes closed, head back – undisturbed by silence
     or squall, the sharp/flat cadences of weather.

She’s with us on the Breaksea Girl, but music
is her separate boat.

     See how her face is wet
     with notes, her throat a waiting bird.
     Taonga Puoro surge in her chest like waterfalls.

How strange I should remember here a line I read
long, long ago; bees in Mykanos hum in a minor chord.

      Here, the scale is unpredictable, the thrum
      that of a sailor’s cap, an incidental island,
      a glissando of salt shattering the shadows of dark-bellied fish.

We sail through contrapuntal seas -
our private charts, our common geography.

      Ten artists, yes, and at least as many rocks. But
      in this unsteady place of black water and red kelp
      we do as we must. We lay down our tools and listen.



2009  Double Portrait - Story shortlisted for The Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing (theme 'Edge of the Universe')


New Zealand Society of Authors - Writer profile 

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