Poetry Shelf talk spot: Tim Upperton on hidden lives


A lifted stone

Much is hidden from us. Behind the smooth, painted and plastered lining of the walls of my living-room, where I sit and write, less than a metre away from me, creatures are stirring, and have their secret life. Sometimes I hear the dry scuttle of a mouse, but other, smaller creatures – woodlice, whitetail spiders, click beetles, ants – these creatures are silent, and seldom reveal themselves. Occasionally I notice a daddy-long-legs swaying slightly in the corner of the ceiling, or, in the early hours, as I trudge to the bathroom, a solitary chocolate-coloured cockroach spreadeagled on the wall, stunned by the light. The borer chews a hole in the skirting board, with only a little brown dust to show for its industry. I imagine it deep in the wood, nestled like a rabbit in its burrow, its scrap of life ticking.

When I was a child I was obsessed with these hidden lives. I would carefully remove the pale, pupating huhu grubs that lay buried in rotting stumps like pharaohs in their tombs, and keep them in jars of damp sawdust until they emerged as winged beetles, still white and frail-looking, their long antennae testing the air. I would turn over planks of wood to see what lived under them, brown beetles, black, shiny, soft-bellied spiders with white egg-sacs, grey hump-backed slugs, orange slimy flatworms. On the windswept beach where my family camped each summer, I would crouch on the reef at low tide, the sea a distant, uneven roar, like traffic, and I would lift the weed-encrusted stones in the rockpools to expose the creatures that teemed underneath. Glassy shrimp, almost invisible, would dart backwards. Brown cockabullies would flash past the cautiously retreating hermit crabs. Anemones would wave their thin arms among the inert kina and cushion starfish. It seemed very strange to me that all these creatures coexisted under the stone, as in a darkened house, in a kind of dormancy, until I lifted the roof and the light fell upon them.

Now, as I turn on the tap to fill the kettle, I hear a gurgling in the plumbing, and I remember the water-supply at the street has been turned off for some hours as contractors are digging a trench for the installation of fibre-optic cable. The cable – really many cables bundled together, each insulated in bright blue sheathing – lies along the grass berm, but soon it will be buried and I will never see it again. Beneath the ground it will ferry data between my computer and the world beyond. The water is back on, and in a sort of convulsion it bursts from the tap, orange with rust, and flecked with clots of green-black algae. And this has always been there, the flakes of rust and the algae, inside the pipe that leads to the tap – if I look closely, I can see a rind of green algae at the spout, surviving despite the chlorine-treated water that rushes through it every day. It has been there the whole time, the outside of the tap is gleaming chrome but this belies what it is like inside, where no light shines, where rust collects and algae grows.

My eldest child, an adult now, writes poems. His poems are sometimes enigmatic, they evoke a feeling, a mood, but I don’t always understand them. I want to, perhaps out of a desire to understand him. It’s as if the poems might reveal to me something about him that is hidden, as if they are a stone that might be lifted. But it’s no good me asking what they mean. He just shrugs and grins. We both know the strangeness of poetry, the impossibility of paraphrase, it’s what makes us come back, to read the same short poem again. There it is, the poem, on the white page with nowhere to hide, yet concealing some of itself. And this is true of all the poems I love most. I memorise these poems, even as they withhold their meanings, to take them into myself. They feel a part of me, just as my liver and kidneys and heart are parts of me, hidden inside my body, working in ways I don’t understand to help me live.


Tim Upperton

(excerpt from a longer work that will be published in a collection of essays, Strong Words, by Otago University Press)


Tim’s second poetry collection, The Night We Ate The Baby, was an Ockham New Zealand Book Awards finalist in 2016. He won the Caselberg International Poetry Competition in 2012 and again in 2013. His poems have been published widely here and overseas, and are anthologised in The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (2011), Villanelles (2012), Essential New Zealand Poems (2014), Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century (2014), and Bonsai (2018).












Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s