Walks and days

I wait for Liz and think about the voices of the late Devonian extinction
water in the clam shell from the storm on Monday night
I imagine the cat drinking delicately
the dog not at all    which dog
the one who runs onto the veranda to be first at the water bowl
of the giant clam    see how she dips her head
splashes water all around the way dogs do
what else    glowing purple interiors of the boxthorn hedges
Elizabeth saw on the coast road to Hāwera
Frances in her writing place on the island
Penny in Philadelphia looking after small children
is that the European greenfinch in the trees next door
Susan on the river with Henry   Libby looking out to the mountain

seagulls in Vancouver scream over a house on Waterloo
where Jenny sits on a couch in the summer afternoon and tells me
what has changed and what is the same
there was an immense cherry tree across three yards on East 23rd
East 24th and Quebec St a long time ago
Deborah and Roberto built a walkway following the carousel of the branches
neighbours could cross between gardens to view patterns of sunlight and falling blossom
two sets of stairs a ladder a bridge    and a petal catcher / viewing frame
I imagine at this distance the walkway lifting over fences   and dropping into the next yard
where someone is coming the other way

tūī all over the two Taiwanese cherries in Church St
They inspect the cerise tips    pinched-out ifs of feasting to come
in a week there will be a dozen birds   drinking nectar from these most bounteous of trees
a screen of blossom     flashing wings     indescribable noise
happy spectacle    and bottom left
low tremolo in the garden   where I sit beside a hole being dug
to fit the curled limbs of the dog under the blanket
thunk of spade    low frequency of crickets   bottom left of the flowering world

no wild swimmers this morning on the waterfront
but swallows dive and flit in front of the sunny wall near the beach
there must be good insect life here
a mower on the rugby field
a foot of snow on the inland road behind Kaikōura
word of the five boys killed in Timaru settles over the winter land
five mothers grieve

Maire appears at the door with Ivy of the soft black ears
we have two weeks to catch up on
four degrees and the writing days at Whangapoua
take us to the top of North Head
I register some breathlessness on the ascent
but we keep going for the momentum
for the forward-pushing hopes under the surface of our conversation
Maire says they dipped in the ocean at Whangapoua
and her writing pushed into I remember
and (more interestingly) into I don’t remember
what is it about the tips of memory     the pinched-out ifs
unforgettable in the poem from another world
no swallows though I ask in case they are there
on silent wings    Ivy of the soft black ears stays close
good girl Ivy     Ivy come    Ivy cross
now we are at Chateaubriant low sun spreading across our shoulders
there’s a swan in the crema of Maire’s flat white
pains au chocolat warm from the oven
around us the coffee drinkers affirm their support for the sun
hearts go out to the bereaved families in Timaru
how much detail is enough detail    one voice recalls the phone in the driver’s hand
that was used to call his mother    the other voice
forty-four years in the job    screens detail
I remember    I don’t remember

Richard on the doorstep    we seek out the northerly sun at each turn of the road
wind whips around the corner and batters the sad house
no longer home to the son who cared for his elderly mother
soft voice greeting neighbourhood walkers   and taro in the back yard gone
we agree that Doggerland     is a peak experience among the 900 hours of In Our Time
we note rosellas rattling in the plane trees along the Domain
unlikely to be the red-tailed tropic bird leading up to the pips this morning
I see the bull terrier     a huge piece of driftwood in its jaws
charging the narrow gateway again and again
how many stories can you trust
the reviewer went looking online for the paintings attributed to my mother
they weren’t there because I invented them both
and made my mother an artist of the floating world
would she have liked what I have done    impossible to say
but she would have recognised each detail
because I drew them all from our life together in that house on the hill at Urenui
its view of the river and the sea
the cloud of dust rising as the truck disappears from the frame

white-bellied storm petrel on the wing at seven o’clock
we set out around the perimeters of Doggerland
a mackerel sky overhead    magpies gurgling in the trees
Miss Millie Wilson has chewed up the bamboo needles
that were to produce socks for Nigel
I see my grandmother knitting socks for us through the winters of childhood
four short needles      picking up and casting off
and once a whole layette for the doll named Anne
with melted plastic hair at the back of her head
where we leaned her on metal mesh and danced wildly in the firelight
but the knitting
why didn’t I catch on to this work in the distaff line

late summer and we are in lockdown again
a morning walk to the top of Maungauika and back down the spiral road
on the white shell path leading to the reserve she is suddenly on the ground
all of a heap    scrambles to her feet
shaking   we get her to the seat under the big macrocarpa
and Mark goes for the car   are you OK someone asks
I see you and your dog often   is everything OK
no it’s not    Mark carries her to the car
26 kilos    helps her into the front footwell
at the vet we must stay outside while they examine her
she sleeps all day and drinks a lot
the next day passes quietly but with too many trips to the water bowl
she sleeps through the night then morning brings distress
at the emergency clinic they bring a stretcher and take her in for examination
fluid on the lungs and around the heart
the possibility of more tests but no hope of recovery    at her age
they bring her to us    calm now a little wag of the tail
we weep and talk to her   then they administer sedative and lethal injection
we have killed our dog
take her home wrapped in a blanket
Robin and Ellis arrive to make their farewells
to the good and faithful dog curled on her bed
paw the same familiar shape but the pads are cold
we take her to the hole in the back yard
low frequency of crickets in the hot afternoon
a handful of frangipani flowers to scatter on the body
tremolo of crickets    earth falling

Taliban fighters sit in the Presidential Palace
in Kabul this morning
a woolly mammoth walked twice around the world
in its 28 years of life on Alaskan surfaces
chemical signatures of oxygen from rocks are laid down in its tusks
a map of its wanderings over vast distances comes as a surprise to scientists
a walk on the dark waterfront     one fisherman on the wharf half moon over the city
terns murmuring from moored boats     woodsmoke drifting from closed houses
a cat strolling past on its own business
unearthly voices through the open door of Holy Trinity

WH Auden and Federico García Lorca
were my travelling companions last night    but their predecessors have gone
one returns hissing like an angry diamond    The Great Gatsby
I remember This Side of Paradise
The Beautiful and Damned Tender is the Night The Last Tycoon
the summer of 1979    red poppies on a straw hat
look over there    a young woman reading on the sand
she works a night shift at a local restaurant
tucks up her wedding dress and bikes to Calliope Rd
where they want her silver service   brings home scraps of fillet steak and scallops au gratin
she is waiting for news of the scholarship that will take them to Vancouver
pushes the bike up the steep part of St Aubyn St
unaware of their future selves masked and booted
turning in at the gate in Domain St

lines of traffic snake around testing stations    lines of people snake around city blocks
what’s all this snaking    then I remember the story from Sydney
a woman in the spice aisle of her local supermarket
surprised by the head of a big snake eight inches from her own
she is a trained snake-catcher   goes home to get her snake bag
captures the snake and releases it in nearby bushland
hissing     a 10-foot-long diamond python
often found in roof spaces and good for keeping down rats and mice
Samuel Beckett wrote code for the French Resistance
the notebooks of Watt are clear indications of enigma
in a nursing home in 1989 he thought the Berlin Wall was coming down too fast
what’s behind language if you pierce it full of holes
what is nothing when it comes around twice
we have the fragments now for the connections
Auden’s high green hill    Miranda’s song
we can be hopeful but not confident   hopeful but not happy
sound bites from Kabul Airport disturb the bulletins
I open Dinah’s Sea-light and begin to read
I download Jack’s Oceanic Feeling and pick up the phone

my young father   engaged to be married
is knitting bed socks   purple and green
for my mother    they are living in Stratford
he boards in Portia St    she lives in the family home
a few doors away    gentle rain falls
on the iron roofs    in Portia St
some days later    snow falls
and my mother writes in her diary     Jock has knitted me
a lovely green purple & fawn    pair of bed socks
the following winter    she sends a wedding invitation
to 35 Portia St    Henry Joe Leggo from Ben
“             “              “        NEW SHIRT
“             “              “        HAIRCUT
“             “              “        SHAVE
“             “              “        SHOE POLISH
“             “              “        DATE AND TIME
“             “              TO CHANGE YOUR FLYING BOOTS

xxx Marion Dulcie
on the section at 115 Cordelia St    the house is almost finished
she’s his builder’s mate   evenings and weekends
they count down the days    to 1 September 1951
the ring is in a drawer to my left    the wedding photo
hand-coloured    hangs in the hallway
lily of the valley    and her green eyes

the Botticellian trees    are all about us
pinched-out ifs of colour    in the alphabet of branches
I remember Flora but not Primavera against the dark green of the grove
I want to remember the trees and why they caught the poet’s attention
there in Rutherford New Jersey    what came first    winter or the painter’s trees
on with the day and Jenny replies
so you’ve sent me to look at Primavera    and what a different scene from New Jersey
lush fruit-bearing and simultaneously    little white flower-bearing trees
the leaves are evergreen    dark    a bit like citrus leaves
silhouetted against the light    are leaves that look like mountain ash
sprays of elongated leaves    except they issue from bushes lower to the ground
Botticelli was far away from plein air     Primavera herself wears a gorgeous filmy dress
(hugging her limbs of course)    patterned with primroses
no ifs in Botticelli    his spring is full of certainties

a suicide bomber at Kabul Airport     the curve is not flattening
three kingfishers squabble in a tree  tomorrow two of them will be gone
the pain has returned     we sock it with morphine
a scan at Waitakere 30 minutes away on empty roads
floods in West Auckland     the lakes and dams leap 9% overnight
the scan shows a 3–4 mm growth    enough of a worry to fast-track admission
the tests are clear    we go in at 10 a.m.
hard to know what happens after that

author photo Michele Leggott credit photographer Mark Fryer

Michele Leggott was the New Zealand Poet Laureate 2007-2009 and received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2013. Recent books include Mezzaluna: Selected Poems (Auckland University Press, 2020) and Face to the Sky (AUP, 2023).  Michele coordinated the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) with colleagues at the University of Auckland 2001-2021. In 2017 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.  

Michele comments: '"Walks and days" was written in the winter of 2021 ahead of the lockdown that confined everyone to their homes as the pandemic ramped up. Before that moment I was walking morning and afternoon with neighbourhood friends who gave me their time and talk through the months of waiting for a stem cell transplant. The procedure, when it came, was unsuccessful. But the walks gave me space and material for sorting out what was important in the detail going by and in the memories some of it provoked. I would like to dedicate the republication of the poem to my dear friends Frances Edmond (1950-2023) and Penelope Creeley (1950-2024), travellers both. Ringing in my ears are Edna St Vincent Millay’s words: 

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

— "Recuerdo" (1912)'


​Poem source details >



 New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) 


Photographer credit: Mark Fryer