the kids are smoking


beyond the balcony
the bush in the breeze
their clumpy round heads
are moving clouds of green

olearia paniculata smoky
olive yellow and crinkly
hiding the paths and follies

down there
the kids are whistling
taking the piss out of the birds

they’re cutting across the diagonals
leaving treadmarks scars and blazes
stripping lacebark petticoats
from the ribbonwoods

they squat on the rocks
squint up through
dusty shafts through the sway
to the vapour trails

down there the kids are smoking
small clouds of white
and they are proud
of their brown fingers


the kids are digging
beneath the road
it is their one hope
to see a car vertical

its back wheels spinning
like chocolate wheels
like rubber mandalas
like a movie

the kids lift their hands
in supplication
small white birds
fly from their fingers

James Norcliffe was born in Greymouth but has lived in Christchurch most of his life. He returned to the city in 1998 after spending nearly three years in Brunei Darussalam, a sultanate on the island of Borneo. He has also lived for an extended period in China. He currently teaches in the Foundation Studies Department of Lincoln University.

He has published widely in New Zealand and overseas, and in addition to a collection of short stories The Chinese Interpreter and four children’s novels has published three collections of poetry: The Sportsman (Hard Echo Press), Letters to Dr Dee (Hazard Press) shortlisted for the NZ Book Awards 1994, A Kind Of Kingdom (Victoria University Press 1998). Rat Tickling (Sudden Valley Press) was published in 2003.

James has twice won the NZ Poetry Society’s International prize and he has won the Lilian Ida Smith Award and the Dunedin Library’s Centennial Award for short fiction. He was the 2000 Burns Fellow at the University of Otago.

As well as featuring often in NZ journals and anthologies, James has published widely in New Zealand journals and anthologies and has appeared in magazines and reviews in many countries, including the UK, Australia, Canada, USA, and France.

He is a longstanding member of the Canterbury Poets Collective and has been both a poetry and short story editor of Takahe magazine. He has judged major poetry and short story awards for, among others, the NZ Poetry Society, the Aoraki Festival and for Takahe, and has been a category adviser for the Montana NZ Book Awards.

He has read his work at Festivals and occasions throughout NZ.

Norcliffe has this to say about his poem: ‘It really talks about the subversive/destructive nature of kids. The Tom Sawyer that lurks in hearts of smallish boys, most of whom love big bangs and many of whom still love them when they’re grown up and should know better. As a kid myself I lived on a hill and we (I cringe in memory) played games in the bush that often involved destroying trees and trying albeit unsuccessfully to kill birds with rocks. Only our ineptitude saved them. The police came to our house once to ask whether we knew anything about a cave-like hole dug under the road that could have collapsed on the person who’d excavated it, or even collapsed the road itself. I did not confess. There are references to NZ trees: olearia paniculata is a small tree, sometimes called the golden ake ake, popular as a wind-break or hedge plant, and I’ve conflated two similar trees lacebark and ribbonwood (Hoheria species) that grew in the bush. Smoking of course is the ultimate mud in your eye to the adult world.’

Poem source details >



New Zealand Book Council writer file
Queen's Quarterly