Poetry Shelf favourites: Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s ‘Memoir’


For W.G. Sebald

The past returns as an iron kettle.
Militant statues stare right back.

If only the leaves could tell the whole story, before
they fall and strip the naked branches speechless.

Europe is a cold cauldron.
Grandfathers laid down their scythes
and shipped their horses to Mesopotamia.

Years passed: all that is left now, a palm
crested buckle, embossed
Baghdad 1919.

There is a fly sidling over
the regimental history, rubbing
its paws.

It knows the truth, it is the truth, but
one good swipe from a whisk
will kill it.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
From Blood Ties: New and Selected Poems, 1963-2016 (Canterbury University Press, 2017).

This poem surfaces from my background: a child of wartime parents, 1939-45; and my maternal grandmother, 1914-18 and WW2. Growing up in Blackball, a coal mining town where most of the men did not go to war (mining was a protected occupation), my house was an isolated bubble of PTSD. They had no name for it then, except shell shock. My adults were all walking wounded, in their psyches, in their souls. Mesopotamia reaches back into ancient history, but my father’s father fought the Turks there in 1918, and had found his way to Baghdad. My uncle, Dad’s brother, gave me the buckle. I grew up in a household of survivors – it was impossible not to have their war wounds write themselves in my DNA.

This war in Ukraine – Putin’s genocide unleashed – breaks my heart, awakening all this.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman lives in Christchurch where he walks his Jack Russell terrier, Hari, and works on whatever is current: lately, a memoir on his great aunt Lily Hasenburg, and whatever poetry emerges, over time. He has published in both these forms, and biography.

Poetry Shelf is hosting a series where poets pick a favourite poem from their own backlist.

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s