Friday, 31 July 2009

Grandfather's Beach (A poem from 1980)

Katiki Beach, North Otago.

It’s funny the way random events can shake free old memories and allow them to float up to the surface of one’s conscious mind. A query from a man who knew my grandfather’s brother’s son back in the 1930s wrote to me recently with a genealogical query. He had holidayed with this cousin of mine at Hillgrove in North Otago – just a short bike-ride from Katiki Beach. His questions recalled to my mind the following poem, written by me nearly thirty years ago about the very same spot, and my family’s ties to the surrounding countryside. The "wink-warning light" in the poem’s first stanza is, of course, the Moeraki Point lighthouse, situated on the next headland up. And the reference to "this cannibal coast" is drawn from Trotter family history, which tells of a great cache of human bones (many blackened by fire) uncovered not far from the beach. Interestingly, Michael Trotter, the cousin with whom my correspondent explored the area all those years ago, became a noted New Zealand archaeologist, and served for many years as the Director of Canterbury Museum.

Grandfather’s Beach

The headland black
Stretched arms-length seaward.
In the cloud-banked, soft-sighing night
No stars show –
Save the man-made wink-warning light
Fingering a dark sea face.
The ocean, vast,
Turns silently with the world,
Consumed in private longing
For a hidden winsome moon
Big-bellied and cloud-skipping
On the wide sky-sprawling cloak.

Here by night,
Above the saw-toothed zig-zagging reef,
Heavy with the seaweed’s slapping rags,
I stand – Man dwarfed
By the indifferent earth-blind hills.
Transient flesh,
Where sand-strangled rock
And the fish-gulping sea
Laugh, laugh
At a human wisp of time.

My Father’s Father’s
Father’s Father
Claimed this,
This bow-taut beach.
From the silver-singing sea
To sloping gorge-gut hill
He felled the trees,
Left his blubber-boiling, barb-sharp peers
For a deeper dream inland.
Where high-keening gulls
And the Kea’s wicked shriek
Close fast about a groping hand.

Fathering sons
Upon the scarred, unflinching earth
He wrestled wealth
From raped and ravaged land.
Poured forth his blood,
Set his soul free
To pace the frothing margins
Of this, His sullen
Southern strand.

Katiki – the name lingers
Along this cannibal coast.
Bone-bleached and broken skulled,
Spirits of the murdered dead
Whisper in the sand
And bubble blood
In the gurgling, tide-tugging pools.
Obscure ghosts haunt
The bush-buried creeks.
The skylines are empty of sound.

I walk.
I walk with slow strides
At the sea’s side, singing.
A living son
On his dead grandsire’s shore.
Heavy with history
The hills look down.
I step in time.
In time with the surf’s retreat,
With the Heron’s lazy beat upstream.
Where the creek spills over
The birds scatter
Like living wind-blown litter.

Answering the stone wall’s fall
I scrawl my name,
Heart’s graffiti
And a hundred years’ claim.
The sun dark hills
Muster in a line.
Sand-strangled rock
And the fish-gulping sea
Laugh, laugh
At a human wisp of time.

Chris Trotter
27 May 1980

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