April 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
I’ve just returned from a trip to New Zealand. Although I took a notebook, I wrote absolutely nothing. Perhaps it was the stupendousness of the place: fizzing on multisensory overload, I had no mental space in which to process it all. Agape at glacial blue rivers or razored peaks, ears filled with alien calls of tui and morepork, it was impossible to take stock. The perfect holiday, in other words.
But there was something else. The landscapes of New Zealand are heroic. Human occupation feels tenuous and extremely recent. Vast tracts – particularly of the South Island – remain unpopulated, uncleared. Fiordland, which covers an area of about 10,000 square miles, has a single road. Kiwis laugh at crank reports of sightings of the long-extinct moa: but in that huge alpine rainforest, you could imagine it.
If we think of NZ writing, it is probably storytellers that come to mind: Mansfield, Frame, Marsh. Might this be a symptom of a landscape which insists on an apprehension of the horizon and whatever lies beyond – an invitation, in other words, to initiate change? Are such environments antipathetic to poetry? Or was it simply that, as a brief visitor to a very different land, I found it difficult to decode the experience in terms which I could explore at the concentrated register of the poem?
Well, finally, I found a subject. Staying in the goldfields of Otago, we walked along a creek to a delapidated cluster of huts – the remains of a 19th century settlement which had been the home of Chinese miners who had lived here, far from their families in the Canton delta, for several generations. Surrounded by the vast ranges of the Southern Alps, here was a straggle of iron-roofed hovels – a human scale to measure. Bowing my head as I entered one of the huts, I felt that here, perhaps, was a way in.
The miners returned last night
to their ghost-homes.
No-one saw or heard them;
but they are there, now,
blowing sparks in their chimneys,
coughing, bringing water from the creek.