I ki paki waitara rā
I repa aitia Tunaroa
Nā Māui, ka haea ai ia
Mate ai ia, auē.
– I –
The green soul as Montale calls the eel,
a thread of water
that casts its stitches in the land,
or sister Longfin of the Pacific
who drills deep into hills and rivers,
slipping through the lowlands
with her tawny-black brother,
little muscle of the ocean, spawned
in God knows where
the sink-hole or trench, it may be
somewhere off Tonga,
or close by Sina’s pool in Savai’i,
where it is said the princess swam
with an eel, the great Tunaroa,
whose violations provoked her brothers
into such a rage, they (like Māui)
killed and cut off its head, which they buried,
only to find that from the grave
there sprang the first coconut tree,
which is why, it is said,
the coconut has two eyes,
to gaze on Sina’s flowing form
and see across the ocean
to where the eels are drawn
to the spawning holes
– wherever they are –
by a trail of scents that emanate
on the currents and so return to mate
in a writhing tangled knot,
wild as Medusa’s hair,
who was, or so we hear from Hesiod,
a creator of reefs, a sea-daemon
with gleaming unkempt coils
– as much eel as serpent –
that now transmit
a hatch of transparent
leaf-shaped larvae, given to drift
on the steady currents of the old eel road,
no more than tooth and sensory intelligence,
a submarine mouth the swells will carry
across shipping lanes, the rusty churn
of freighters plying their trade,
war-ships heading north into the China Sea,
while the larvae pass from wave to wave,
shape-changing, thinning down
to form bone structure, until they gather
offshore awaiting moon and tide
to carry them into the estuary,
the glass eel, a shard of life,
elvers that swim into the inlet’s fallopian waters,
swarming upstream to take on colour,
mottled browns and greens,
darkening, thicker, clambering up
waterfalls and dams, their teeth latching on
to stone and concrete,
making their way beneath the cold stare
of spring’s full moon, and the great anchor
of the Southern Cross on which,
like a ship, the whole world turns,
and swimming into a labyrinth of creeks,
burrowing deep into the ovum,
the earth egg, as though to force open
the watertable, the mud runnels
and silent meadows, in a shudder
of fertility’s engendering,
spermatozoid, a sexual emblem,
and yet unsexual in all their years
of freshwater life, of feeding on the land
they feed, kīnaki, taonga kai,
and slithering across pasture at dawn,
like the eel I found two mornings ago
(sunbeams at play on the heavy dew,
the moment’s jewel flaring in the paddock)
a creature I drew
from the wet grass and swampy mud
of which Aristotle thought
the eel was sprung,
if only that I might look upon
the pulsing darkness of its form
and feel its cord of sinewy skin,
this curlicue scrolling through my hand.
– II –
And though the past should vanish
like a creature into water –
lost in the creek’s subaqueous light,
a quiver on the surface, a last flicker
that leaves only weeds waving in the current,
there must yet be a trace of its wake,
a ripple echoing over the years
that remains at large, waiting for someone
to tune in to it again, to its testament
written in the sea’s great volumes. For we read
the deep swells of the ocean,
or foam of rollers breaking on a shore,
or a small wave lapping in the lee of a reef
as if each were an image, a phrase
in which something else is happening.
Somewhere beneath its surface
an angelfish swims with the blue sea star,
giant clams close on the dugong,
barracuda gleam, a moon wrasse moves,
slow and sure among the fire dartfish.
There are some things, though, we’ll never get,
that the sea only gives up with the unwilling
our nets haul from the depths.
In the reef off Ngemelis, in the Palau Islands,
scientists report a latest discovery,
a living fossil, old as the Mesozoic:
a species of primitive eel, Protoanguilla palau,
found in these islands where legends say
a woman was squatting one day
at work in the taro gardens
and felt an eel climbing
into the dark haven of her vagina.
It soon made itself at home in there
so that when her husband tried to enter,
it would bite at his penis.
These things can really happen.
We know of surgeons removing eels
from unexpected places.
Oh, and what do we learn from this? –
On Peleliu, in the same archipelago,
Japanese forces inflicted heavy losses
on US marines, late in ’44,
by defending a warren of mountain caves.
The operation to remove them was not surgical.
My grandfather was there in May of ’45,
the resistance all but mopped up.
‘Tiny’ Fell, a naval captain,
he was chasing the Americans for a mission,
his command, the secret Fourteenth Submarine Flotilla,
under orders in the Whitsundays.
Through Biak, New Guinea, Palau: he hitched a ride
on a Dakota loaded with sanitary towels.
In his memoir he writes of Wewak’s
coral strip above a swamp,
smashed planes, bones and broken trees.
Jungle fires burned in the Owen Stanley Range,
where the fighting went on.
The ruins of Manila were miles of shambles
such as I had never seen, he says.
He took refuge on the one good floor
of a bombed out skyscraper.
A stand-pipe on the roadside and all night
the noise of bulldozers working on
the great hegemony of rubble. Their lights
like lost souls picking their way
through the circles of Hell, a world gone wrong.
We bury the past in lime pits and ashes,
as though it were one of the dead, who were, he says,
shovelled unceremoniously into communal graves.
The bulldozers would make it good again,
the next empire would reign. His gaze rested on
telegraph poles and bridges all going up,
pipelines and sewers down.
– III –
To know where the soul goes on its journey,
to be in on the inside of what we are
when all else is shucked away,
to go savage and naked
and not give a damn about the world on his mind:
the quest for this knowledge (the quest for sex)
the quest for the primitive –
these things propelled Paul Gauguin
on his voyage into the Pacific.
Go, Gauguin, the world might want to say,
though what the world should mean by this
is hard to know – a rallying cry, perhaps,
or, rather, Go home, Gauguin;
but go, you bad man with your gaggle of girls
and the doozie douze of your big colonial footprint,
go as you will – to listen
to the silence of the Tahitian night,
not even the cry of a bird,
though a falling leaf might rustle like
an idea tripping its way through the dark.
But, go – that we may go with you
to sit in the shade for days at a time,
gazing sadly at the sky’s primal blue. And watching
for you to make your semiotics of heightened sensuality,
the blocks of primary colour
that proclaim the virtue of nakedness
and transaction of the gaze.
Go, even as though you are not you,
but she or he or me,
the third person implicit in the work,
the one who is we – for it’s only in Tahiti
that Gauguin begins to realise
it’s all in the eyes,
the gaze that will return his gaze,
but obliquely, glancing it away
into the eyes of the viewer, of the beholder,
and holding us there as witnesses,
actors in the life and death of the painting’s deed.
This is what’s new: the intensity achieved before
only in self-portraits, and one painting of his mother,
and the sly vulpine regard
of the conqueror in ‘The Loss of Virginity’,
the creature who is, of course, himself: –
the artist who will tell us now
that we can’t live in these islands and not get to feel
the sleek muscle of the colonising eel,
the eel as it swims up into the land.
As in 1891, when Gauguin broke tapu
and wandered into the interior.
Through the valley of Punaru there is a huge fissure
which, as he tells us in Noa Noa,
divides Tahiti in two. From Tamanou,
you can see the diadem, Orofena and Aorai
which forms the center of the island
and is known as a place of miracles.
The people warned that he’d be tormented
by tupapo, the spirits of the mountain.
The riverbanks he walked were a confusion of trees –
breadfruit, ironwood, coconut, hibiscus,
guava, giant-ferns, what he calls
a mad vegetation, growing always wilder,
more entangled, until he entered the gorge.
There he made his way up the watercourse,
the river sometimes over his shoulders,
and the fissure so narrow, its walls so high,
the sun couldn’t penetrate so that (as he tells us)
he was able to see the stars burning
in the brilliance of the sky at noon.
Where was he going? –
Did he know of Māui, trickster god,
who turned himself into something sleek,
a worm (read eel) so that he might climb into the vagina
of the sleeping goddess of the night,
and goddess of the underworld, Hine-nui-te-po,
into her great cavern, on a quest
to find the cure for death.
We know what happened: he looks so funny,
the fantail laughed, its shrill piping song –
and so he was lost in there,
which is why, the story goes, we people must die,
all on account of a waiata.
Gauguin camped that night in the bush,
troubled by a powdery luminous light
that flickered around his head,
making him half believe
the mountain was alive with ghosts.
In daylight the river was now a torrent,
now a brook, now a waterfall.
Sometimes, he says, it seemed to flow
back into itself, the green of the jungle
cascading in such depths around him,
he walked as though underwater.
Crayfish in the river regarded him curiously,
seeming to question why he was there.
Then, he says, at a narrow bend in the river
he came upon a young woman, standing nude.
She was caressing a great black rock
as she drank from a spring that flowed down
the smooth surface of the stone.
He watched her cup her hands to catch the water
and let it run over her breasts.
Sly old fox, Monsieur Gauguin:
the symbolism replete,
we gaze with him upon this scene
as she, his perennial subject,
senses his presence and plunges into the river,
though not before she utters a curse
– Taehae –
meaning ‘cruel’ or ‘savage’,
even as she glides among river pebbles,
a human no more, but in the form of an eel.
– IV –
The night I heard my father was dying,
that he’d fallen into a coma,
I thought of this:
we can only leave on an ebb-tide,
and this: that he was now half-man-half-eel
and setting his course for the sea.
And already that day the poem had called with an image,
with a way I’d thought to begin not end –
it was HMS Bonaventure, built as a cargo vessel
in Greenock, on the Clyde, in 1938,
but now fitted out as a naval depot ship:
the Fourteenth Submarine Flotilla.
Grandpa, my father’s father, is on the bridge,
bringing her into Townsville.
It’s May 1945. I could see her steaming
into Cleveland Bay, Magnetic Island
on the starboard bow. Early afternoon,
the sun still high and I, like a fool,
playing with this conceit, pressing
Messrs. Google and Co. into giving up
news of that grey ship,
and thinking I’d phone my father in the evening
for the stories he would tell.
But he had stumbled on a root in the woods,
out walking his dog, and would never speak again.
What could I say or do?
I only knew that I knew so little about the soul,
that other that maybe I have sensed at times,
gazing into the stillness of pool,
or in a child’s cry on a winter evening,
or the great hook that holds us to the sky at night.
And I knew I’d make the journey
from the island of his birth to the city of my own,
crossing the ocean and land in a day,
and the shadow of my flight would fall upon
the course of eels returning to spawn
(so few of them, now we’ve drained their land)
and returning to the source of all,
for as Māori say:
Tēnā te puna kei Hawaiki
– the source is at Hawaiki –
fabled place to which the eels return,
as though they took the souls of those
who’d go with them, greening them
in the green of what they know.
But even as I saw that I must go
to my father, I found myself
listening as Townsville’s citizens
welcomed Bonaventure to their streets.
In the scrub behind the beach
there arose the otherworldly calls
of the bush-stone curlew,
plaintive cries that locals believe
the ghost-keening of ancestors.
And now a muffled tread is coming
through the dunes, a rustle of chiffon:
a town-girl leads a young sailor
to a hollow in the sand,
where he will hoist her petticoats
as her fingers guide him in.
– V –
I flew to Hong Kong beside a monk
who wore the sky-blue robes of Shaolin,
the monastery of martial arts.
All the way across the Pacific
he played Angry Birds on his iPhone,
a beatific, childlike smile composing his face,
so that I wondered: who would have known,
at the end of that war,
the new world they were making
would be in thrall to a game?
Then, Frimley, near London: the flap
of yellow curtains in the summer breeze,
my father’s panting breath.
You’ve made it in time, they said,
to say your farewells. Though it seemed to me,
he’d already slipped his mooring,
was making for open water.
His face thinned down by hunger,
craggy and translucent now,
but still the bushy riot on his brow.
And Grandpa’s Townsville mission
was six midget submarines:
Bonaventure’s secret cargo,
to enter stealthy into harbours.
Their operations in the last days of the war:
cutting communication cables, a ship in Singapore.
And some days among the Dyak in Borneo –
where he came bearing gifts: lipstick for the fighting women,
for, as he writes, Bonaventure was never defeated
for store articles. Half-smoked heads,
Japanese, dangled from their hips.
It was the day of Hiroshima.
He skippered Bonaventure for two more years,
plying the Pacific as a transport ship.
A love-boat, at times – or so Messrs. Google tell me.
The first ship’s manifest: nurses from Sydney,
bound for Hong Kong’s hospital.
The war was over. They’d survived. Almost all –
so many the women to climb into.
From the blog of Ric Ellam, ship’s signaller:
VAD’s, Voluntary Aid Detachment. (We nicknamed them Virgins Awaiting Destruction.) They were housed in the officers’ quarters, all fell for Fell, and other officers too of course. The Radio Room had a porthole opening onto the promenade deck just below the bridge. That deck became ‘cuddles corner’ and with lights dimmed, porthole open, we sparkers inside the darkened office were privy to the many chat up lines given by both sides of the sexes.
Submariners. (For the record, my father
was one, too. After the war,
partially blind, he was invalided out.
Earlier, aged eighteen in 1942, he took the helm
of the last launch to leave Tobruk.
The rat run, they called it. He wasn’t brave,
he said, no, not brave, but lucky.)
– VI –
As for my grandfather, who would have made Admiral
– this was said by Hairy Brown –
if he’d had a decent suit –
in those months in the Pacific, like an Odysseus
glimpsing Ithaca, he was only days
from his home, from Wellington and Mahina Bay,
but didn’t make it there.
Not for another fifteen years. And with another wife.
I walked the creek, looking for eels.
Nothing but crayfish, who seemed to ask of me,
as of Monsieur Gauguin, what I was doing there.
But the soul is what we cannot see
or know, though there was a kingfisher today,
in the poplar, feeding its young.
And even as I write, in the way the past can play
upon the memory, the day comes back to me,
when my grandfather left –
1959. I was just four. Early morning.
He must have been off to Southampton,
to the P&O, was drying his flannel underpants
on the fireguard, when they caught.
A scorch-hole in the bum: I stood there
watching in childish wonder.
Liar, liar, pants on fire –
was that the last he said to me?
In the garden that night, under a big moon,
my father set up the telescope Grandpa had left.
The light seemed to pour into its tube,
the moon a fiery white,
the colour of those underpants,
but many more the holes in it.
Is that where Grandpa’s gone? I asked.
No, my father must have laughed,
New Zealand isn’t on the moon.
But I was off and bounding down the lawn,
and making the moon run away with me,
with its sparkle on the frost.
And for those
who believe in Pure Land practice,
there is always this thought:
that among the most adept of monks
there are some who learn
to visualise the soul
so that in the moment before their death,
they will eject it through the skull.
I looked to my father when he died,
for something like a sign.
There was nothing on his head
but this: a strangely looping line
of freckles in a scrawl
upon the fontanelle, a curlicue –
the fountain and the source.