Poetry Shelf favourite poems: Ian Wedde’s ‘Ballad for Worser Heberley’

Ballad for Worser Heberley

for the Heberley Family Reunion,
Pipitea marae, Easter 1990


I remember the pohutukawa’s summer crimson 
and the smell of two stroke fuel 
and the sandflies above the Waikawa mudflats 
whose bites as a kid I found cruel.

At night and with gunny-sack muffled oars 
when the sandflies were asleep 
with a hissing Tilley lamp we’d go fishing 
above the seagrass deep

—a-netting for the guarfish there 
where the nodding seahorses graze 
and the startled flounders all take fright 
stirring the muddy haze.

And who cared about the hungry sandflies 
when a-codding we would go 
my blue-eyed old man Chick Wedde and me 
where the Whekenui tides do flow.

It’s swift they run by Arapaoa’s flanks, 
and they run strong and deep, 
and the cod-lines that cut the kauri gunwale 
reach down to a whaler’s sleep.

When the tide was right and the sea was clear 
you could see the lines go down 
and each line had a bend in it 
that told how time turns round.

The line of time bends round my friends 
it bends the warp we’re in 
and where the daylight meets the deep 
a whaler’s yarns begin.

I feel a weight upon my line 
no hapuku is here 
but a weight of history swimming up 
into the summer air.

Oil about the outboard motor 
bedazzles the water’s skin 
and through the surge of the inward tide 
James Heberley’s story does begin.


In 1830 with a bad Southerly abaft 
soon after April Fool’s Day 
on big John Guard’s Waterloo schooner 
through Kura-te-au I made my way.

And I was just a sad young bloke 
with a sad history at my back 
when I ran in on the tide with mad John Guard 
to find my life’s deep lack.

Seaspray blew over the seaward bluffs 
the black rocks ate the foam 
my father and my mother were both dead 
and I was looking for home.

But what could I see on those saltburned slopes 
but the ghosts of my career: 
my father a German prisoner from Wittenburg 
my grand-dad a privateer

my mother a Dorset woman from Weymouth, 
I her first-born child, 
and my first master was called Samuel Chilton 
whose hard mouth never smiled.

He gave me such a rope-end thrashing 
that I left him a second time, 
I joined the Montagu brig for Newfoundland
though desertion was reckoned a crime —

and me just a kid with my hands made thick 
from the North Sea’s icy net, 
eyes full of freezing fog off the haddock banks 
and the North Sea’s bitter sunset.

And master Chilton that said when your mother dies 
you can’t see her coffin sink 
you can only blink at the salt mist 
about the far land’s brink.

And in the fo’c’sle’s seasick haven 
where a lamp lit the bulkhead’s leak 
you’d share your yarn with the foremast crew 
your haven you would seek.

Where you came from the rich ate kippers 
or if they chose, devilled eggs. 
They didn’t blow on their freezing paws 
they favoured their gouty legs.

And if you pinched an unripe greengage from their tree 
they’d see you in the gallows 
or if you were dead lucky 
wading ashore through Botany Bay shallows.

But I was even luckier, as they say, 
those who tell my tale: 
they tell how my tale was spliced and bent 
about the right whale’s tail.

And how poor young James Heberley 
fresh from South Ocean’s stench 
and the foretop’s winching burden of blubber 
his great good fortune did wrench.

In autumn I came ashore at Te Awaiti 
on Arapaoa Island. 
‘Tangata Whata’ the Maori called me— 
now ‘Worser’ Heberley I stand.

‘Ai! Tangata whata, haeremai, 
haeremai mou te kai!’ 
Food they gave me, and a name, 
in the paataka up high.

My name and my life I owe that place 
which soon I made my home. 
From that time, when Worser Heberley went forth, 
I didn’t go alone.

I raised a considerable family there, 
with Ngarewa I made my pact: 
from him I got my summer place at Anaho, 
my home from the bush I hacked.

I summered there in the mild weather 
and in autumn I went a-whaling 
from the boneyard beach we called Tarwhite 
where Colonel Wakefield’s Tory came sailing.

And I guessed from the moment I saw their rig 
that we had best take care: 
not the Maori, nor Worser Heberley’s mob 
stood to gain from this affair.

With fat Dick Barrett I went as pilot 
on the Tory to Taranaki. 
From Pukerangiora and Te Motu descended 
Te Atiawa’s history —

a history already made bitter once 
in the bloody musket wars, 
that might be made bitter yet again 
for Colonel Wakefield’s cause.

Worser Heberley was never a fool 
else I’d not have lived that long: 
I could see the Colonel meant to do business, 
I could hear the gist of his song.

He was singing about the clever cuckoo 
that lays her egg elsewhere 
and fosters there a monstrous chick 
too big for the nest to bear

so the other chicks must be all cast out 
for the greedy cuckoo’s sake. 
The Colonel sang this song I heard 
as he watched the Tory ‘s wake

tack up the South Taranaki Bight 
with Kapiti falling astern, 
and I, James Heberley, stayed close 
to see what I could learn.

And what I learned has since been written 
in many a history book: 
that you’ll find little enough of our record there 
however hard you look.


And now Worser Heberley’s story ceases, 
I hear his voice no more 
though my line still bends by the notched gunwale 
as it had done before

when I was just a kid gone fishing 
in my old man’s clinker boat 
and hadn’t learned that it’s history’s tide 
that keeps our craft afloat.

And now I see as I look about 
in Pipitea marae 
at the multitude here assembled 
that your line didn’t die —

and though old Worser Heberley was right 
to fear Colonel Wakefield’s song, 
he didn’t have to worry about the family 
which multiplies and grows strong.

I thank you for your kind attention 
the while my yarn has run. 
I wish you all prosperity and peace. 
Now my poem is done.

Ian Wedde
from The Drummer (Auckland University Press, 1993) also appears in Ian Wedde: Selected Poems (Auckland University Press, 2017)

In 1986 my novel Symmes Hole was launched at Unity Books in Wellington. An historical character I appropriated for the book is James ‘Worser Heberley’, a whaler who came ashore in Tōtaranui Queen Charlotte Sound in 1829. He married into local iwi and at the book launch tuhanga of James Heberley introduced themselves and suggested it would be appropriate, given my borrowing of their ancestor, if I could donate some copies of the book and also write and share something for their upcoming hui at Pipitea marae in Wellington. This is that poem, a favourite of mine for diverse reasons.

Ian Wedde

Ian Wedde’s latest poetry book was The Little Ache — A German notebook. Victoria University of Wellington Press, 2021. The poems were written while he was in Berlin researching his novel The Reed Warbler.

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