Story: Joseph, Michael Kennedy

M.K. Joseph reads his poems

Hear M.K. Joseph read a selection of his poems. Click on the links below to read a transcript of each poem.


Sunken in each his individual night
They sit, the shoppers and the men in raincoats;
The children squirm; a finger like an insect
Rustles a paper bag; the lovers sigh
Beneath the blinding barrage of the white
Dream shot into their dark, and their hearts
Are the rectangle upon which intersect
The crystal vision and the vitreous eye.

Though daylight solve their equation and redeem
This dance of phantoms in the shadowed hall,
I live the lens, the dazzle and the dream
As sunk in my separate darkness I recall
Plato once said that all we are and have
Is shadows dancing on the wall of a cave.

Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 60

Infantry (Near Geilenkirchen, December, 1944)

In the land of Longago we learned in books
To recognize a hero by his looks
Hector and Achilles and the rest
With hams and biceps of enormous girth
And measured tread that sounding shook the earth
And brow of brass and buckle-bursting chest.

So different these whom no descending god
Begot nor goddess succours as they plod
North through the ruins in a wool-soft rain,
Nineteen-year-olds, round-cheeked, whose innocent eyes
See danger with indifferent surprise.
The guns’ concussion jars the windowpane.

The sergeant-major chivvies them along,
Stolid and swift they march without a song
Bent stiffly forward underneath the load.
“Hector and Troy are gone beyond recall,
Perhaps there are no heroes after all.”
So thought we, staring up the muddy road.

Joseph. Imaginary islands: poems: 8


She was content in the kitchen, hugging cheap dreams
Until that old woman, starting in a puff
Of ashes, clothed her in cobweb and moonbeams,
Conjured a coach from rats and kitchen-stuff.
At midnight the dress upon the dancing-floor
Lay dirt and glimmer, the slippers were ice-hard,
The clock-prince chimed along the corridor,
She fled him weeping through the palace-yard.
But the old witch had her way; the messengers
Went out to match the slipper to the true princess.
Dragged in her rags before the tittering courtiers,
Put to the question, she could only whisper Yes.
In glass-heeled slippers she minces towards the tomb
Beside her bridegroom ticking like a bomb.

(Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 31)

Islands in the bay

Islands answer the bay’s query,
In flat perspective they divide
The sky’s clouded symmetry
From the sun tangled in the tide.

Suspended in the shallows float
The shadows of a child at play
And of figures by the beaching boat
Who turn, like my own past, away.

You are the bay whom no dreams escape
The shadowed child under the tree,
In your vanishing-point of all my landscape
Is the figure whose face I never quite see.

You are the island and the answer
Hidden in the blue picture and the long
Sunlight that, moving like a dancer,
Shepherds the afternoon along.

Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 25

Drunken gunners

The gunners move like figures in a dance
Harmoniously at their machine that kills
Quite casually beyond the shadowed hills
Under the blue and echoing air of France.
The passing driver watches them askance:
‘Look at the beggars – pickled to the gills.’
Yet bodies steadied in parade-ground skills
Correct the tottering mind's intemperance.

Housed under summer leafage at his ease,
Artillery board set up, the captain sees
His rule connect two dots a league apart
And throws destruction at hypotheses,
Wishing that love had ministers like these
To strike its distant enemy to the heart.

Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 10

From Mercury Bay eclogue
(For Rachel and David)

The child 's castle crumbles; hot air shimmers
Like water working over empty sand.
Summer noon is long and the brown swimmers
For fear of outward currents, lie on land.
With tumbleweed and seashells in its hand
The wind walks, a vigorous noonday ghost
Bearing gifts for an expected guest.

Hull down on horizon, island and yacht
Vanish into blue leaving no trace;
Above my head the nebulae retreat
Dizzily sliding round the bend of space
Winking a last red signal of distress.
Each galaxy or archipelago
Plunges away into the sky or sea.

In the dry noon are all things whirling away?
They are whirling away, but look – the gull’s flight,
Stonefall towards the rainbows of the spray
Skim swim and glide on wing up to the light
And in this airy gesture of delight
See wind and sky transformed to bless and warm,
The dance, the transfiguration, the return.

The turning wheels swing the star to harbour
And rock the homing yacht in a deep lull,
Bring children to their tea beneath the arbour,
Domesticate the wind’s ghost and pull
Islands to anchor, softly drop the gull
Into his nest of burnished stones and lead
The yachtsmen and the swimmers to their bed.

A shepherd on a bicycle
Breaks the pose of pastoral
But will suffice to keep
The innocence of sheep.

Ringing his bell he drives the flock
From sleepy field and wind-scarred rock
To where the creaming seas
Wash shoreward like a fleece.

The farmer and his wife emerge
All golden from the ocean-surge
Their limbs and children speak
The legend of the Greek.

The shadowy tents beneath the pines
The surfboards and the fishing-lines
Tell that our life might be
One of simplicity.

The wind strums aeolian lyres
Inshore among the telephone wires
Linking each to each.
The city and the beach.

For sunburnt sleepers would not come
If inland factories did not hum
And this Arcadian state
Is built on butterfat.

So children burn the seastained wood
And tell the present as a good
Knowing that bonfires are
Important as a star.

And on his gibbet the swordfish raised
With bloody beak and eye glazed
Glares down into the tide
Astonishment and pride.

Machine once muscled with delight
He merges now in primitive night;
The mild and wondering crowd
Admire the dying god
Where Kupe and Cook have trod.

Whitianga, January 1952

Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 18–20

Below the Sierra from The tourist in seat 29

The brown tower broken on the cliff,
The shining black hoof of the goat,
The hillside terraced with random stone

Where hoarded water feeds the olive,
A shepherd in a ragged coat
On the harsh skyline stands alone.

An old church and two crooked streets,
A guesthouse solid as a farm,
A whitewashed room floored with blue tile.

Red blankets and coarse sun dried sheets,
And the cool darkness lying calm
Outside the window, mile on mile.

The tattered piper stands and blows
A kind of fanfare or salute
Upon his pipe of polished cane;

Then, changing key, the music flows
Like water from that pastoral flute
Through sleepy valleys of the brain.

Above the shadow of the hills
Iberian stars are mildly bright,
The new moon lifts out of a cloud,

And the long hollow valley fills
With milk of phosphorescent light
And the piper's music sweet and loud.

The agile melancholy tune
Winds and unwinds its varying stream
Inside and outside of the mind.

The sense dissolves. Somewhere the moon
Is slowly sinking in a dream,
Where travellers set out to find

Some antique scene of living rock
Of horsemen tall on the hillside
Of armoured ghosts upon the march

And Gods In trees. The minstrel cock
Strikes up; galactic darkness rides
Under the sky's triumphal arch.

Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 41–42

Cordoba from The tourist in seat 29

Discreetly patios assume
Their late afternoon look
Of sunshine, blue tile, geraniums
And scrolled ironwork.

Beyond the Roman archway lies
The river slack and sad
Where ruins of the Moorish mills
Grind no more for bread.
Motley on crumbling ochre walls
Flutter rags and patches
Of posters for American films
Bullfights and football matches.

Poised upon captured Roman columns
Abdurrahman’s mosque
Raises its striped and doubled arches;
The choir is plateresque;
Pure structure and fantastic art
Reconcile the schism
Of heaven wrought with images
And pure monotheism.

Dusty Time wields a mason’s trowel
And slowly labours on,
Spits, and calls for his mules
With another load of stone.

Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 44–45

Madrid: Prado from The tourist in seat 29

Two clergymen, one long, one short,
Stand before Greco's Trinity:
The tall one twirls a single thought
Round some point in divinity;
The short one mops his heated brows
With a red handkerchief, dimly aspires
To levitate among the clouds
Upborn by incorporeal fires.

The dessicated blond inspects
The pages of her Baedeker,
Hoping that somehow culture and sex
At last will coalesce for her.
She who through Europe has pursued
Delight still missed en troisiéme noce,
Beneath some vast exuberant nude
Of Rubens, knows the pain of loss.

Fading with cup and mandolin,
Goya’s country feast turns dark,
But soon the firing-squads begin
By lantern light their bloody work.
Before that last anger and despair
At human folly, someone stands.
It is oneself that cannot bear
Those anguished eyes and famished hands.

Velazquez turns with easy stance
To the princess and the maids of honour,
Caught in a movement like a dance,
And calms the dwarf’s indignant humour.
Royalty in the looking glass
Fears its heavy image less:
The gift of water in a glass
Forgives the human ugliness.

Equal and intellectual,
Transcending flesh, transcending flame,
This passionless light that hallows all
Shall build us an eternal home.

Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 45–46

Mars ascending
(For Jet Morgan and Sandro Botticelli)

A continental cloud of yellow dust
Storms over Lacus Solis; dull and hoar
Are the lichenous prairies; polar frost
Dissolves into unseasonable thaw.

Out there, down here, something is amiss:
Flood takes a town, grenades kill a child,
What has been will be, what might be is,
The nations rage and the desert runs wild.

Somehow our future, age or violence,
Measured by clocks or strata, mirrors there
For stargazers to see with instruments
The white-patched poles, the dust, the thinning air.

Mars ascends in golden armour
Venus in shell of dark lies sleeping
Children gaze at night-sky window

Children in their beds lie sleeping
Mars unbars the shining window
Venus unpins the golden armour

Venus clouds the curtained window
Mars now in her lap lies sleeping
Children steal the golden armour.

September 1956

Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 48


The world decays, breaks down with every breath
Leaves sludge behind, and radiates power or strife.
What is the half-life of a word like death?
Or the half-death of such a word as life?
Bring words together and the mass implodes.
Better to vent their fury at this rate
Than torque or buckler that in vault corrodes.
What is the critical mass of love and hate?

This is the word’s function, what it means,
Whether it stands for bombs or dynamos,
Destroys the marrow and distorts the genes,
Fuels rockets or irradiates a new rose,
Loving or hating, animate or dead:
To activate a counter, turn to lead.

Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 51

Girl, boy, flower, bicycle

This girl
Waits at the corner for
This boy
Freewheeling on his bicycle.
She holds
A flower in her hand
A gold flower
In her hands she holds
The sun.
With power between his thighs
The boy
Comes smiling to her
He rides
A bicycle that glitters like
The wind.
This boy this girl
They walk
In step with the wind
Arm in arm
They climb the level street
To where
Laid on the glittering handlebars
The flower
Is round and shining as
The sun.

Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 58

The dancing ploughmen

Ring of stars in sky turns
Above the piper on the hill
Twelve common clodhopping clowns
About him swing their reel.

One tilts back a foreshortened face
And gazes upwards in a trance
Towards the ring of stars that trace
Upon his eye their ritual dance.

The circling clowns upon the hill
Behold the wheeling fires of space
And moving at an equal pace
See them stand still.

And yet more giddy grows the dance
The dancers separate and sprawl
And lying prostrate on the grass
Stare upwards at the starry wheel.

Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 28

Elegy in a city railyard

Slategrey stonegrey smokegrey
The fag-end of evening smoulders away.
The girl from the store and the produce-broker
The teacher the wharfie the city clerk
The sportsgood man and the barroom joker
Have all gone into the companionable dark.
The ledger is closed: the hand comes down
Carefully blotting the graph of skylines
Scribbled across the dove-coloured town.
Like a woolworth diamond, Jupiter shines
On a sky as soft as an eiderdown.

Creme-de-menthe, ember-red, amber
The lights glow out and the day fails.
Tyres burr on the road’s camber
As they take the bridge above the fan of rails
Shining like lead and the sheeted steam
Tinged from below with boiler fires.

The roundhouse is silent – there seem
No live things here except the tyres
Of the buses, and the piston’s push and haul
And the signal’s unintelligible call
And the searchlights in their tall martian machine
Knifing the grey September weather
Where the voices of night come home between
The engines talking quietly together.

Joseph. Inscription on a paper dart: selected poems 1945–72: 65

Using this item

New Zealand Herald
Reference: H_09011988NZHJOSEPH

Permission of the New Zealand Herald must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

Text: Reproduced courtesy of the estate of M.K. Joseph

Audio: Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision, 33747: Cinema, Infantry (Near Geilenkirchen, December, 1944), Cinderella, Islands in the bay. Alexander Turnbull Library, Waiata Recordings. Recordings of New Zealand poetry. 1973-1964. OHColl-0550: Drunken gunners, Mercury Bay eclogue, Below the Sierra, Cordoba, Madrid, Mars ascending, Chronosemasiology, Girl, boy, flower, bicycle, The dancing ploughmen, Elegy in a city railyard.

How to cite this page:

Roger Robinson. 'Joseph, Michael Kennedy', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2023. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)