When and Where
Where the big crowds come, the street,
the stadium, the park where the young
go crazy to the beat
and the heated bubble of the song,
thoughts running loose, I tell
myself, the years will have blipped past,
one by one the lot of us here present will
be gone into the dark. Someone’s last
hour’s always next, right here and now.
Deep under the bark of that great oak
my father’s lifetime’s told in rings, which grow
to outlive me too. Gently as I stroke
this child’s head, I’m thinking, ‘Goodbye!
It’s all yours now, the season’s crop —
your time to bud, and bloom, while my
late leaves wither and drop — ’
And which day of which year
to come will turn out to have been
the anniversary, distant or near,
of my death? Good question. The scene,
will it be wartime, on a trip,
or at home or in some nearby
street, crashed coach or a ship-
wreck that I’m to die?
Cadavers couldn’t care less where they rot,
yet the living tissue leans (as best it may)
toward the long-loved familiar spot
for its rest. Mine does, think of it that way.
Freshly dug. Young things, chase your ball.
Nature’s not watching, only minding,
by its own light perpetual
beauty of its own fact or finding.
Allen Curnow was born in Timaru in 1911 and died in Auckland in September 2001. For more than 60 years, he was at the forefront of New Zealand poetry and literary debate. The anthologies he edited in 1945 and 1960 were seminal in shaping New Zealand’s poetry canon. After training for the Anglican ministry (his father was a clergyman), Curnow turned to journalism instead and later lectured in English at Auckland University. His first collection, Valley of Decision, appeared in 1933. His last, The Bells of Saint Babel’s, won the 2001 Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry.
Bill Manhire comments: “‘When and Where’ is a version of an untitled poem of 1829 by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). It is one of four translations made by Allen Curnow for Elaine Feinstein’sAfter Pushkin, a book of translations, versions and responses to Pushkin by a range of contemporary poets, including Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, Carol Ann Duffy and Edwin Morgan. After Pushkin was published first by the Folio Society and then by Carcanet (Allen Curnow’s UK publisher) to mark the 200th anniversary of Pushkin’s birth. In New Zealand ‘When and Where’ appeared in The Bells of Saint Babel’s (Auckland University Press, 2001).
“The contributors approached by Elaine Feinstein were free to choose their own poems, and to arrive at their English texts as they wished. She did suggest, however, that translators might like to use as their starting point Walter Arndt’s Pushkin Threefold, a compendium of Pushkin’s verse which contained the Russian originals along with linear and metric translations. It is likely that the linear translation which Allen Curnow worked from is the Arndt text which begins, ‘Whether I wander along noisy streets/Or step into a temple dense with people,/Or sit among fervescent youth,/I give myself over to my fancies.’ Arndt’s metrical version went thus: ‘As down noisy streets I wander/Or walk into a crowded shrine,/Or sit with madcap youth, I ponder/Bemusing reveries of mine’. The transformations effected by Curnow are dazzling.”