Into Extra Time


There are times (not many) when your whole life seems
an open book. Whatever takes place takes words
              and the words are telling you

something. A biographer’s wanting your life?
You read her letter as a word of warning.
              You want to improve your French?

Why not say so in verse? You battle your way
to the yellow buoy and feel an undertow—
              the lovely pull of language!

Nothing it seems is empty quite of meaning,
and meanings not given their due in nouns and
              verbs are inclined to complain.

But when the thought comes to you from a poem
by Jaroslav Seifert that—for all your words—
              what you really want is death

you say the time has come to stop this scribbling.
It’s late. You’d like to sleep, but behind closed eyes
              the words, like rats, are working.


Your books have read you too often. The songs of
your youth have forgotten you. This world’s an ear
              that listens for something new.

Your pictures that have stared down at you so long
see scarcely even the one that once you were—
              and sometimes the yellow buoy

as you swim towards it murmurs to its chain
‘Here he comes again,’ but without excitement.
              How easy for Captain Oates

to ‘step outside for a moment’ through that door
marked ‘Hero’s End’. But did he hesitate there
              in the battering white-out

straining to catch a voice calling from within
‘Oates, don’t do this! Come back!’ and hearing nothing—
              nothing at all but the wind?

C.K Stead b. Auckland 1932.  Has published 13 collections of poems and two of short stories, eleven novels, six books of literary criticism, and edited a number of texts.  His novels are published in New Zealand and the UK, and have been translated into a dozen European languages. He was Professor of English at the University of Auckland for twenty years, before taking early retirement in 1986 to write full time.  His novel Smith’s Dream became Roger Donaldson’s first movie, Sleeping Dogs, and Sam Neil’s first movie role.  He has won a number of literary prizes, including the Katherine Mansfield Award for the short story, the Jessie McKay Award for poetry, the New Zealand Book Award for both poetry and fiction, and the King’s Lynn Poetry Award.

He was awarded a CBE in 1985 for services to New Zealand literature, elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1995, and Senior Visiting Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford in 1997.  He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Letters by the University of Bristol in 2001.  His latest novel, My Name was Judas  was first published by Harvill Secker in 2006 and his latest collection of poems, The Black River, by Auckland University Press in 2007, the year in which he received his country’s highest award, the Order of New Zealand (limited to twenty holders), an honour he and Margaret Mahy are currently the only writers to hold. His new collection of essays, Book Self, is appearing in March 2008.

Stead comments: ‘Clearly this poem fits into the dark memento mori theme of The Black River, all of which was written after I had a stroke.  In the long run the stroke seems to have had no dire consequences, but it left me, very briefly, dyslexic, and therefore shook me up and made me feel vulnerable and uncertain.  “Into Extra Time” retains some of the sense of dislodgement from “normality” induced by the stroke.  Jaroslav Seiffert, mentioned in the second part, was the Czech poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984.  I have one collection of his poems, An Umbrella in Piccadilly (translated by Ewald Osers), given me by Alan Ross, editor of the London Magazine, who published it in 1983.   The yellow buoy is one I swim out to most days of the summer from Kohimarama Beach in Auckland.  It takes me between 23 and 30 minutes there and back, depending on wind and waves. In form this is a syllabic poem, with the syllable count 11, 11 and 7 in each triplet.’

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