Kōrero: Campbell, Alistair Te Ariki

Alistair Campbell in performance

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.

Green

 

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)

Campbell: Many of my earliest poems came from my experiences in Central Otago, that harsh, beautiful land which has fascinated a number of poets, including Baxter and Brasch.

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.

Daisy Pinks

 

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

 

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

 

It’s raining.

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.   

Angelica, Angelica,

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

and mountains.

 

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.

Burning Rubbish

 

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)

Te whakamahi i tēnei tūemi

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Photograph: Private collection. By Don Higgins

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Mark Williams. 'Campbell, Alistair Te Ariki', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2021. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/mi/biographies/6c7/campbell-alistair-te-ariki (accessed 3 December 2021)