The White Dress

How the skin loves to be touched,
light strokes on the surface like a bird stroking
the blowy air, the windmill like a back-stroker
in the wind water.

                                 Tell me who I am,
the way the body is a book, a famous French
novel with the pages cut, maybe Paul et Virginie.

How we hope to hang onto things forever,
wrapping them in creamy hand-washed shawls,
laying them in a series of polished drawers:
the land title, a man’s title in a dying institution,
a tobacco pouch made from the blue inked skin
of an enemy, the white dress.

                                                   How it fills
and billows in the air that rises from damp ground
from the river at the edge of the clearing,
moonlight in the flounces, so lovely, so European.
Te Keepa, in his scarlet jacket, watching.

Bernadette Hall was the 2006 Writer in Residence at Victoria University, Wellington. Her seventh collection of poems, The Ponies, completed during this residency, was published by Victoria University Press in February 2007. There are many Antarctic based poems in this new collection, arising from her trip to Antarctica in December 2004 on an Artist in Antarctica Award. Like Love Poems; Selected Poems by Joanna Paul, edited by Bernadette Hall, was published by Victoria University Press in 2006. In July 2007, Bernadette begins a six month residency at Rathcoola in County Cork, Ireland. Her project is to complete a book of essays and write a collection of poems arising from her Irish experience.

Hall comments: ‘I was very moved by Vincent Ward’s film, River Queen. The film did not receive rave reviews nor did it last long in cinemas around the country. Critics complained about the story-line, seeing it as a bit of a romantic cliché, I suspect. But I loved the visuals of the film, the lushness of the images, the atmosphere dominated by the bush and the Whanganui River of old. It felt as if this could be something close to the experience of being there, in the times of the Land Wars.

‘Maori were shown not as noble savages who inhabited a kind of Garden of Eden and were thus spared the evils of ‘civilisation’ — that old dream of human innocence that St Bernadin was exploring in his novel. But they were rather energetic, complex communities trying to position themselves to best advantage in a world fast changing under the pressure of European settlement. As for the British forces, they were shown, not as a homogeneous bunch of brigands but as English, Scots and Irish soldiers in a situation as unfamiliar and bewildering as Iraq must be for many young professional soldiers today.

‘Te Keepa Rangihiwinui was a high-born Maori chieftain, born in the 1820’s. As Major Kemp he was a hero of the colonial forces. In later years, he was a significant in Kotahitanga, the movement for Maori unity. And that’s what I wanted to catch in the poem, the complexity of the historical and the personal in our stories and in our lives. The violence and confusion that seem to abound. The beauty and the allure.’

Poem source details >



nzepc — New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre
Victoria University Press author page
New Zealand Book Council writer file