In company with Cutty Sark at sea
only once, on Himalaya off Brazil.
They sailed into the doldrums.
Day after day another sail came into sight,
would lose the wind, then idle.
Forty-two ships counted from the masthead.
Sent up with a glass at daybreak
to mark if anything stirred, reported
a clipper coming from the south carrying
canvas, the mate observing from the poop
later was first to say ’That’s Cutty Sark.’
They watched her through the day.
At last she was hull down, northing,
had sailed right through the might as well
have been derelict fleet, forty-plus of them,
some getting on for four weeks there.
That’s what poetry may be about, the impossible
part of it which achieves insubstantial
fact, as little material as Sybil Sanderson’s
G in alt or Fonteyn’s unpredicted change
(‘if you didn’t see why I did it when I did
it then it didn’t work’) not to be described;
when seen, if seen, in a kind of dumbshow
to strike dumbstruck any who looked out
hearing something beyond likely hearing,
seeing something not likely seen, gone
without leaving words for.
©Kendrick Smithyman from Imperial Vistas Family Fictions (AUP, 2002)
On the poem
If you’ve ever been aboard Cutty Sark at Greenwich your head will be full of
legends. The figurehead of Nannie, the witch, clutching the tail of a horse in
her fist; The fabulous races with its rival tea clipper, Thermopylae; the romance
of sail before the advent of steam. Kendrick Smithyman has captured all this
and more in his wonderful poem. It begins with the facts: location, doldrums,
number of ships becalmed. Then the manifestation, like an opera star, a
ballerina assoluta. Cutty Sark appears and those lovely nautical terms: ‘carrying
canvas’, ‘hull down, northing’; the other ships might as well be derelict; Cutty
Sark cuts right through them. The last stanza, the longest, turns to the mystery
of poetry, the sighting which not everyone sees, the thing ‘not to be described’
that strikes dumb anyone who is looking or hearing, something that is moving
away as fast as Cutty Sark.
Elizabeth Smither, an award-wi9nning poet and fiction writer, has published eighteen collections of poetry, six novels and five short-story collections, as well as journals, essays, criticism. She was the Te Mata Poet Laureate (2001–03), was awarded an Hon D Litt from the University of Auckland and made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004, and was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2008. She was also awarded the 2014 Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature and the 2016 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize. Her most recent collection of poems, Night Horse (Auckland University Press, 2017), won the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 2018.