Poetry Shelf Classic Poem: Therese Lloyd picks Dinah Hawken


Talking to a Tree Fern




You’re not ashamed of your past.

It hangs there in rust-coloured layers

and you curve out of it

fully at ease.




Behind you the bay

sports expensive speed boats. More and more

they force their vibrations right up

your root-tips.




You used to live here with other natives.

Now willows and poplars flickering gold

have proudly established themselves.




I’ve heard you discussed as an item

of our international trade. They

conceive of you standing in each

pebble garden of suburban Los Angeles.




The man at the back

has asked how much I care about you.

He says you impede his view.




In the bush near here

you gather in tight bunches

your pasts hanging down and spreading

over the ground like soft mats.

I want to crawl under there

I need to know what you’re chatting about.




Rowing out as usual

to the calmest part of the lake

I hear a chain-saw preening itself

and sense the spikes stiffening on your trunks.




Once I saw you at a Marist Centre

stiff and brittle like an empty erection,

no fronds, no flow.

Mary was cramped into a grotto nearby

totally into pleasing God.




I was just wondering whether

Christ had risen again this year or not

(Good Friday was April Fool’s Day)

when I saw three fantails fooling around

in your fronds, in the rain.




Under your dark arms

that night with no moon

I decided to let my life

climb up quietly

like the rata on your trunk.




It leans so superbly

your long black trunk

perhaps it is frightening

the man at the back.




Suddenly, in the city,

staked into a neat fence

you poke out your black tongue.

Keep coming and coming

back into my life.



©Dinah Hawken, from It Has No Sound and Is Blue, VUP 1987



Therese Lloyd writes:

“Talking to a Tree Fern”, like so many of Dinah Hawken’s poems, is one of those gentling breathing poems that I find myself returning to again and again. Despite the quiet, contemplative place this poem smooths out for the reader, it is also studded with glorious sparks of irony and cynicism. But make no mistake, this is also a fiercely political and feminist poem.

Broken into twelve discrete stanzas, each one acts like a tiny meditation, similar to a haiku, that brings the reader right into the present. The sections create a natural pause after each one before moving on to the next.

Part of the immense appeal of this poem is the way Hawken seamlessly weaves together such hefty concerns as spirituality, the natural environment, sexuality, patriarchy, and capitalism.

The fourth section for example, reads:


I’ve heard you discussed as an item

of our international trade. They

conceive of you standing in each

pebble garden of suburban Los Angeles.


While Hawken’s relationship with her tree fern is personal, here she ends each line with a distancing word, a way to remind her reader of the commodity humans have made of the earth.

The poem is also gorgeously sensual. Words like ‘curve’, ‘flickering’, ‘soft’, and ‘leans’, are peppered throughout. But then there’s the striking simile in Section 8 that always stops me in my tracks: ‘stiff and brittle like an empty erection’. It always makes me wonder, is this a sexy poem? I think it is. There’s Mary, that once pregnant virgin of course, ‘totally into pleasing God’, and the repetition and urgency of the final two lines, ‘Keep coming and coming/ back into my life’, have an undeniably seminal urge behind them.

Poems that resonate with me are the ones that change with each reading. Reading this poem now as a 44-year-old woman is a completely different experience to the one I had when I first read it in my 20s. Back then I was attracted to the poem’s gentle touch, the soft earth that the speaker wants to crawl under. When I read it now, in the light of huge global events such as #Me Too movement, and children marching for climate change, I’m inspired by its quiet bravery. Dinah Hawken’s poems have always found fascination in the way the natural world shapes our everyday human consciousness, and this poem is a brilliant example of that. But its power is in its gentle but firm insistence. Like the fern in the poem, it pokes out its tongue at us.


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Therese Lloyd is the author of the chapbook many things happened (Pania Press, 2006), Other Animals (VUP, 2013) and The Facts (VUP, 2018). The Facts has been shortlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Dinah Hawken’s first book, It has no Sound and is Blue, won the 1987 Commonwealth Poetry Prize for ‘Best First Time Published Poet’. Her seven subsequent collections include Oh There You Are Tui: Selected Poems and her most recent, There is no harbour, (2019). Four of her books have been shortlisted for the New Zealand book awards. In 2007 Dinah was named the winner of the biennial Lauris Edmond Award for Distinguished Contribution to Poetry in New Zealand. She now lives in Paekakariki on the Kapiti Coast.


Poetry Shelf review of There is no harbour

Vitoria University Press author page






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