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.
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’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.