Ovid in the Antipodes

(after Bob Dylan, after Derek Mahon,
after Jimi Hendrix, after Geoffrey Hill,
after W.H. Auden, after T.S. Eliot,
after Osip Mandelshtam, after Dante et cetera…)

There is one song,
then always another song.

Bill Manhire, ‘Song: Alzon’

Go, little song, blow north across the burly water —
there is a city on the flipside of the world.
Seek it out. Seek out the movement of my other feet:
a cobbled street, footsteps that click on
polished white stone. Sulmona I started from.
Then, the ways and colonnades of Rome.
Next — muddy waters, bullock wagons, a shit-hole coastal
river-town: the noble savage was a shaggy-haired man —
rooftops bristled with arrows. I found out then,
my friend, how the world is pierced by a curiosity —
in the mapped-out throng of antipodal points
I fixed Terra Firma’s other feet: most of them fell
into deep sea swell, currents under sea, you know that old theme —
Phlebas picked clean, blue whisperings of distant bone.
But, go, little song, somewhere there is a place for you,
go bold as love — flip the vinyl to side one, follow an axis
to rare and rocky land, up from the skies into
Spanish castle magic, and in the churr of
a little wing, there you will find…my other feet,
‘walking through clouds with a circus mind’
exact in their long and latitude. A road runs north
out of Portugal — land of the antipode.
Seek it out. Let your voice make eddies in the trees,
let it be a cold southerly (unheard of, there!) —
an oak-clad hill above Compostela — a farmhouse, a red tiled roof,
a dog is chained to the gate, barking in the dusk
where she and her ill-fated companion — that’s me, of course —
kindle a fire to cook a small brown trout —
a last night on the road, out in the starry hotel,
wearing wide-brimmed hats and the badge of scallop shell.

There are those who say: you should only leave
a house by the door you enter.
But this is no exile’s song — we’re all exiles now,
lost in the passage of the world…
And, shit, yes… yeah, right… mine’s a bloody Tui —
there’s poetry enough in these thin islands.
When things go well, the carpenters start to sing.
I hear their hammers in the building site,
behind the concrete office block. I sleep most of the morning,
and walk in the afternoon, past the black swan on Estuary Road.
I dress, at times, in the empire’s new clothes —
ragged shorts, a baseball cap — in which I seek them out,
lingering voices of a long-gone world.
What goddess is this that sings in the smooth sea-pebble?
Which shape-shifter lifts his thunder tongue
to play in the log truck’s exhaust?
It is not hell, and is not heaven here.
But how can the city of Santiago
slip through the saltmarsh and back into my pen?
There is only one road, across the wailing river,
road those Easter pilgrims took — from a dark wood,
and through the badlands of Cocytus…
But I… I can only circle the cathedral here,
on a tarseal path. That’s me on the ramparts of the settlers’ fort,
palisade where the pa once stood, Pikimai —
Climb hither, the hilltop says, now that I’ve been fortified
with God. And listen to this fragment of a far-off song —
in stony Nelson, a notorious disaster shall befall. 
How easy — I should know — to turn into stone or tree.
I walk past the graves of those who’ve played
their octave out, from B to B Flat — O, ‘saddest of keys’,
the wind in the totara sings them back to Hawaiki,
that eternal city, with songs from the end of the world —
all of them is many, and all of them is one
 — all’s one, all’s one, Alzon —
and so it gets done, black swan, the song that wants to say…
Go, little song, blow north across the burly water —
there is a city on the flipside of the world…

September — October, 2006

Cliff Fell was born in London, UK, to an English mother and New Zealand father. His first book of poems, The Adulterer’s Bible, (Victoria University Press, 2003) was awarded the NZSA Jessie Mackay Prize for Poetry. He is currently working on a second collection, Beauty of the Badlands, for which he received a Creative New Zealand grant to travel to the US and Mexico in 2004. He lives in the Motueka river catchment and teaches creative writing at Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology.

Fell comments: ‘ “Ovid in the Antipodes” was a title I’d had in my head for about eight years, for a poem I might one day try to get down on the page — fully conscious that if I ever succeeded, the poem would contain echoes of Geoffrey Hill’s “Ovid in the Third Reich” and Derek Mahon’s “Ovid in Tomis”.

‘Other than that, I had no idea what the poem might be and not a single line or phrase for it. I only knew that it would have to feature an “Ovidian” voice — the Ovid of Tristia — speaking from somewhere in Aotearoa-New Zealand, and an underlying, inevitable theme of distance and exile from the rest of the world.

‘As I say, I’d carried the title in my head for years. When Fergus Barrowman contacted me about writing something for Bill Manhire’s sixtieth birthday, it occurred to me that the title alone might have something to say about Bill’s voice as a poet and his role in New Zealand letters, and the way in which his poetry is so engaged with, and deeply informed by the canon of western literature.

‘Obviously, a title wasn’t going to be enough. Now I knew I was going to have to make an attempt on the poem, which was a daunting prospect — it looked to me like the air was pretty thin up there — or down there, as you will. But, in early September, as a deadline for Bill’s book was set, a few lines began to sketch themselves, based around the phrase “other feet”, a play on the podes (feet) of “antipodes” — and all of a sudden things started to get a little weird.

‘For a few weeks before that I’d been trying to fix where the antipode of Nelson lay, but the upside down back-to-front mirror world of the maths lay tantalisingly beyond my grasp — I just couldn’t figure out for absolutely certain if the antipodal point lay a few degrees east or west of the Greenwich meridian. Then, while reading Jenny Bornholdt and Gregory O’Brien’s anthology of French and New Zealand writing, The Colour of Distance, (Victoria University Press, 2005) I came across a note explaining that Bill’s poem “Song: Alzon”, from Lifted, (Victoria University Press, 2005) was inspired by a visit to a French village that is the exact antipode of the Chatham Islands.

‘I was immediately reminded of that zen saying: “When you get to the source, you’ll find the master’s footprints already there.” It seemed to ring so true — and delighted me, as now I had the feeling I was really on to something. I also had an epigraph, and a theme to respond to.

‘A day or two later, with the help of an antipodal map I’d confirmed that the antipodes of Nelson, the top of the South Island and most of the North Island, are to be found in Portugal and Spain — west of the Greenwich meridian, of course. It pleased me greatly to know that if I suddenly dropped straight down through the centre of the earth, directly through its core, I would emerge in northern Portugal. I had lived there for a year and once made a pilgrimage of sorts to the holy city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where it is said that James the Apostle is buried.

‘It should also give comfort, I think, to those of us who live in the North Island and the Top of the South — to know that our mythical doppelganger’s other feet have the good fortune of somewhere on terra firma to stand, a turangawaewae in the northern hemisphere.

‘That is rare. Most people would need to be good swimmers. For the map had shown me something else, a little-known — and no doubt useless — piece of information: apart from Greenland, parts of Antarctica, Spain, New Zealand, parts of South America and S.E. Asia, the world’s larger land masses locate their antipodal points in the ocean. It’s obvious really — there’s far more ocean than land on the planet. My mind wandered from there into a memory, a digression that didn’t make it into the poem, but probably underlies the whole enterprise. As a child in England I was told I’d get to Australia, if I dug far enough. My brother and I tried it once. We got about three feet — not a bad effort for an eight and a six year old. But, how wrong we would have been! We would actually have emerged thousands of meters under the ocean, somewhere around the Auckland Islands. It wasn’t a great leap from there to “Phlebas the Phoenecian, a fortnight dead”, one of my favourite passages from Eliot.

‘Something else seemed to connect. Every time I thought of “the antipodes”, the word “axis” popped into my mind and I couldn’t dissociate axis from axis bold as love, the title of what I consider to be Hendrix’s finest studio album. Check out the track list — the association made a kind of geographical sense.

‘Then things started to get a whole lot weirder. All this time I’d been reading Ovid’s Tristia, in the Peter Green translation. I also happened to be listening to Bob Dylan’s latest recording, Modern Times, which had just come out. Sometimes I’d be doing both at the same time. At some point I began to notice connections there as well. The coincidence underlying that discovery seemed extraordinary, mind-blowing almost. For a week I pondered whether to “go public” with what I’d found. There was something sweet and intimate about being in possession of secret knowledge. But then I decided, what the hell — someone’s bound to blow the code sooner or later, so it might as well be me.

‘I wrote an article for The Nelson Mail. There followed a flurry of interest on the internet and other media. I’d found four or five connections between The Poems of Exile and Modern Times. In Albuquerque, a Mr. Scott Warmuth — who had already noted the influence on Modern Times of an obscure American poet, Henry Timrod — took up the pursuit and uncovered several others. All I really knew, though, was of some kind of unexpected link between my “other feet” and the “just walkin’ ” of Dylan’s lone pilgrim in “Ain’t Talkin’ ” .

‘The poem was shaping up. Throw in an allusion to Dante and Virgil emerging from their journey through Hell and the centre of the earth, on the shores of a Mount Purgatory located somewhere in the southern hemisphere, add an obscure reference to a line from Mandelstam’s Tristia and you’ve pretty much got it.

‘There’s only one other thing, really. A few days after I’d sent the poem to Fergus Barrowman, I took Auden to bed with me. Totally at random, I opened the book at “Song for St. Cecilia’s Day”:

In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm…

‘That black swan… I emailed Fergus the next day. Could you add Auden to that list at the top of the poem, please, between Hill and Eliot? He said that would be OK, but added in upper case, NO MORE CHANGES! No worries, I said… though I sometimes wonder now if that after W.H Auden shouldn’t be before W.H.Auden — though, of course not, I’m only joking — “after” really is the nature of the beast, as Bill Manhire’s lines so succinctly and beautifully put it.

Note on some Maori — and New Zealand — terms:

Aotearoa: land of the “long white cloud”, one of the Maori names for New Zealand… O.K., I know — you all already knew that one, of course…

Hawaiki: the land, perhaps mythical, from which Maori migrated to Aotearoa, where the spirit is said to return in the afterlife

Pa: Maori fort or stockade, usually a hill-fort

Pikimai: “climb up here” in te reo Maori, the Maori language; also the name of the former pa in Nelson/Whakatu

tui: a New Zealand song-bird; also a New Zealand brand of beer

Turangawaewae: literally the position, site or foundation of the feet (waewae means “foot” or “feet”); more figuratively: significant, personal or tribal place, often the place experienced as a child’

Poem source details >



Victoria University Press author page
New Zealand Book Council writer page
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre
Nelson Mail article (PDF)
Oral Tradition 22