The clod of earth speaks
I have come to Waitangi,
Said the leader of the opposition.
But I have always been here,
Said a clod of earth scooped from the ground.
We are for the leader of the opposition,
Sang the enclave of suits.
So am I,
Intoned the clod, mid-air.
Although you didn’t recognise it at the time
I was your best idea
a thought bubble hovering just west
of your changeable complexion.
That, between the two of us, we might arrive at
some natural relation
between man and land, I was a hearing aid
that you might hear,
a handful of clay rubbed into your eyes
that you might see.
A year has passed, I am often asked
where the flying clod
finally came to rest. Up north
we have a saying:
the mud outlives
You never stood easily inside
your body – you needed
earth to steady you. That I offered.
Every gardener’s dream:
A good manuring. Time did not
stand still for me:
I was raised up, remembered
as ‘the high flying one’,
but also that most stationary of things,
the everything-returning earth.
©Gregory O’Brien Afternoon of an Evening Train Victoria University Press, 2005.
In 2004, Don Brash, then leader of the opposition, delivered a now infamous inflammatory speech at the Orewa Rotary club. Amongst other things he claimed that Māori were the recipients of unfair privilege, and described the Waitangi tribunal process as the ‘now entrenched Treaty grievance industry.’ The full text of Brash’s speech is available online.
The speech sent ripples of hurt throughout Aotearoa: amongst Māori, amongst non-Māori, amongst people working for reconciliation.
In 2004 I was 21, living in a flat with six staunchly political women and genderqueer people. Some of us were directly involved in working with treaty issues, particularly aiming to educate our wider communities about the history of the treaty and its importance in the contemporary world.
When Brash attended Waitangi Day celebrations in 2004, he was showered with mud and hit in the face with a clod of earth. It felt like the clod of earth was speaking for a lot of people. It was speaking for us.
Later, when Greg O’Brien’s poem ‘The clod of earth speaks’ appeared, I remember reading it and thinking ‘Yes.’
Responses to reading poems vary, even when poetry is one’s ‘thing.’ Sometimes I am quietly impressed. Other times I’m delighted by a poet’s technical skill. At times I’m ambivalent, at times I feel ‘that doesn’t work,’ and so on. The poems that have really stayed with me over the years have been the ones that reached me on an emotional level. Somehow these poems have said something I needed or wanted to hear; something that stops me in my tracks. ‘The clod of earth speaks’ is one of my favourite New Zealand poems for this reason. I remember being excited that O’Brien was willing to tackle this subject, one which might quickly be put in the ‘too hard’ basket by many writers. Few subjects in New Zealand have the potential to touch on so raw a nerve. For Pākehā poets it might be easy to say ‘That has nothing to do with me, I have no place writing about it, I’ll leave it for someone else.’ But it has everything to do with us. We live on this piece of earth.
I like the way this poem is divided into two sections, the first the symmetrical, call-and-response exchanges of Brash and the clod. I like the shift in tone in the second half, where the clod is given the last words, stating ‘I was your best idea . . . a hearing aid / that you might hear. . . .’ Ventriloquising through the clod, the poet asks a politician, but in fact all of us, to listen. The final line ‘the everything-returning earth’ is a call to humility: a reminder of our fallibility and mortality, and our responsibility to the land and to each other.
In the collection Afternoon of an Evening Train, this poem is included in a short section entitled ‘Two handfuls of earth’, alongside another political poem, ‘Dominion’. A number of other poems in the collection feature the story of Parihaka. There are strongly thematic concerns in the collection, various approaches to place being the most evident. ‘The clod of earth speaks’ marks an important moment in New Zealand history; Afternoon of an Evening Train is a significant waypoint in New Zealand poetry.
Airini Beautrais is the author of three poetry collections. A fourth collection about the Whanganui river region is forthcoming later this year.