A Busy Port
My turn to embark. A steep gangplank
expects me. An obedient child,
I follow my father down.
It happens that the sun will have topped
a black hill beside the time-ball tower,
and found the spot of a fresh
tear on Bob Hempstalk’s cheekbone, whose wet
red eyes blink back seaward where he leans
for’ard at the wheel-house glass;
one hand wipes an eye, the other shakes
a half-hitch loose, unlashing the wheel.
A man’s tears, obscene to me
caught looking. Too late now. The time-ball
drops. Quayside voices (not for my ears)
discuss the dead, bells repeat
ding-ding across the wharf. Brightwork traps
the sun in brass when I next look up,
following my father down,
who made the trip himself many years
past. The old rust-bucket gets up steam.
Frequent sailings from where we live.
Winched aboard still warm over the for’ard
hatch the morning’s bread hangs by a breath
of its own. It smells of bed.
An enriched air. The urinal under
the wharf drip-feeds, the main steam below
sweats. Darky Adams, deckhand
engineer stoker bangs his firebox
open, slings in a shovelful, slams
the insulted flame back home,
thick acrid riddance topples the way
smoke rolls by its own weight, in an air
that barely lifts, off the stack.
One jump clear of the deck the plank dips
with a short uneasy motion, deep-
sea talk to the paddler’s foot
out of my depth, deeper yet, off the Heads,
our Pillars. Pitching like a beer-can.
I’m hanging on tight, can’t hear
clashes from the stokehole for the wind
yelling, crossed on the wheel he’s yelling
back, ‘Ay, bit of a stiff breeze’.
Eyes that last I saw in tears can read
abstruse characters of waves, on course
between them, our plunging bows.
©Allen Curnow Early Days Yet (Auckland University Press, 1997) published with kind permission from the Curnow Estate.
Note from Elizabeth: This is one of the wonderful poems recalling moments of his childhood that Allen Curnow wrote in the last years of his life. They move me especially because I too had a Canterbury childhood and can also remember sailing out from Lyttelton through the Heads, ‘our Pillars’. Curnow captures the excited anticipation of this birthday treat with his father but at the same time the child’s perplexed and disturbed glimpses of grief and death. (It seems the skipper’s wife has just died.) The voyage becomes the voyage we all make from birth to death; he ‘follows [his] father down’ not only into the bowels of ‘the old rust bucket’ but also towards death, ‘who made the trip himself many years/ past’. The famous time ball drops as it always did at 1pm but also to signal the passing of time, the course of his life and of his father’s. The two perspectives of small boy and elderly poet merge; precise details of sight, smell, sound blend with an almost mythic vision in this great poem.
Terry Sturm’s biography of Allen Curnow, Simply by Sailing in a New Direction, and Curnow’s Collected Poems were published at the end of September.
Elizabeth Caffin was formerly director of Auckland University Press, which
published Allen Curnow’s poetry over many years. She is also the co-editor,
with Terry Sturm, of the recently published Collected Poems of Allen Curnow (Auckland University Press, 2017).
Allen Curnow (1911 – 2001) published numerous poetry collections – from his debut with Valley of Decision (1933) to The Bells of St Babel (2001). He also produced criticism, plays and anthologies that contributed at both national and international levels. Among numerous awards, he received the Commonwealth Prize for Poetry and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.