Two L tt s fo Lo d uth fo d

My Lo d, I will w it  you a way
th ough th  willows,
wh    that old jok   th  mo  po k
—midnight’s da k sta —
still sings th  song of its lf;

a song to b ing you back to this plac ,
to a  oadsid  monum nt of conc  t  and ma bl , 
clad in  os s (blooming y llow now)
and a vin  of ivy that twists a ound
th  coat of a ms ca v d fo  you on th  wall

wh    H  m s T ism gistus and a Mao i chi f
stand s ntin l
b fo   a sp ay of  glinting moons.


A way that will b ing you back th ough th  alphab t
and so   sto  , my Lo d,
(restore, my Lord)
the ghost of the letters to your name—
that rise like plumes of radiation,
the unseen energies
drifting from the half-life tombs of lead
and shafts of deep strata casing
—Rokkasho, Sellafield, Yucca Mountain—
(etc, my Lord)

or the letters scattered in your scattering formula—
the e that is electron charge,

the r that stands for ‘target-to-detector distance’—

those energies drifting across the Pacific
and all the other test sites
where the world has fallen
through the holes in its languages

—its sweet languages—


And so restore you to the orchards and rose gardens
of this midnight village,
to bring you back
through the atom’s great empty spaces—

a way I will imagine for you
to weave among the orbiting electrons
(the trick is to zig when they zag, my Lord,
as a wise man once said)—

or to be like the silence
that hangs between two drops of rain
falling on the roofing iron

the intervals of space that give form
to the structures of 
almost nothing.


Though why I should want to raise you 
from the dead, my Lord, 
to have you step out of that ‘low joke’ 
that is death
and back under the big blue sky, 
and look both ways into these fragments 
of a life that is not quite—
the old road running east across the river,
the sweet smell of hay 
in the paddocks of Spring Grove,

why should I wish to do this?—
if not to say that you were the one
who wanted to know 
too much

who gave radiation its alphabet

—those ancient letters—

and unlocked the thunder from its box . . .


which was made of brass
back in those days of handmade instruments
and scintillation screens

and test tubes glowing eerie (   i , my Lo d,)

a box you filled with nitrogen
to fire alpha particles (helium nuclei, source: radon gas)

into the architecture of matter . . .


it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the long- 
range atoms arising from collision of [alpha] 
particles with nitrogen are not nitrogen but probably 
atoms of hydrogen . . .  If this be the case, we must 
conclude the nitrogen atom is disintegrated

On the side of caution, or on the risky side—

to err, my Lord, is only human

though was it error, my Lord (   o , my Lo d)

(or was it superhuman?)—
to seek the philosopher’s stone
and show the pursuit of alchemy
not the stuff of dreams
and prove an ancient poet both right and wrong—
for somewhere in The Rose Garden
—or was it The Orchard, my Lord?—
Saadi, the Sufi master, says

the alchemist dies in sorrow and frustration 
while the fool finds beauty in a ruin


Beauty in a ruin,
or in a worn-out holey boot—
there are form and disorder in both, my Lord—

as in the laws of thermodynamics, let’s say, energy shifts 
from thing to thing, 
as a ghost might slip away—though: 
in any process, the total energy of the universe remains at large 
and disintegrates, becomes th  shap -chang r 
that re-forms itself in another turn of the wheel

as in these letters for you, my Lord,
I see your shade slip away again,
things shift, the poem completes its circle—
wh r in th  first l tt r falls from th  lin  again

losing its plac  as th  l av s in autumn
will flutt r down from th  willows of your childhood riv r

and slip through th  airy atoms of th  simpl  chap l,
th  villag  susp nd d in cold moonlight 
and th  first wint r frost falling in str  ts and all ys

and in th  f ost falling
th  oth   l tt  ’s lost, my Lo d,

lost and uns  n
it  adiat s th ough th   mpty  xpanding spac s    
of th   ndl ss univ  s
out th ough th  v ss l of  n  gi s—
of all that is and  v   was 
and  v   t i d to b

—and all that always wants to b —

and n v   to b  gon —

my Lo d.

Cliff Fell lives and works in the Nelson region. His second book of poems, Beauty of the Badlands, from which ‘Two L tt  s fo  Lo d  uth  fo d’ was selected, was published by Victoria University Press in 2008.

Fell comments: '“Two L tt  s fo  Lo d  uth  fo d” is a poem that I was in pursuit of for most of the time I was working on Beauty of the Badlands. To be honest, that long pursuit was the main reason why the book was four or five years in the making. I’d always known a poem about Lord Rutherford was going to be the lynch-pin of the collection, connecting the “Brightwater Blues” sequence of New Zealand-based poems to the American road poems (and two England-based poems) of “Dead Man’s Journey”, and of course with each passing month the very necessity of writing it made the prospect all the more daunting. Not that I didn’t have a good few shots at it. My writing books and computer hard-drive must contain at least fifty false starts, in addition to pages and pages of notes culled from Rutherford biographies and websites, and various research trips I made to Brightwater, Christchurch and other places associated with him. I was hoping, I suppose, for supernatural assistance, to somehow tune in to a voice coming at me out of the silence. But mostly it was only the silence I heard, though there was a moment on a lone first visit to the Rutherford laboratory, in the basement crypt of the old University of Canterbury building—now rigged up as a museum—when the sensor-activated hologram and voice recording burst into life and spooked me for a few seconds.

'Another research trip sent me down what was probably my blindest alley. It was my second visit to the Rutherford memorial in Brightwater, when I found some joker had inserted the roach of a joint into the lips of the schoolboy statue that commands the strangely Dante-esque circles of the monument. That inspired a fruitless month or two as I tried to make sense of something I’ve long known: the coincidence that the atom was finally ‘split’ in the same year as Hoffman synthesised LSD and took his famous bicycle ride. I found myself getting into something along the lines of simultaneous internal and external cultural explosion. Oh, ok, I know . . . maybe it wasn’t exactly the same year. Anyway, it wasn’t taking me anywhere. Nonetheless, for all this apparent hopelessness, and all my circling the subject like some erratic electron losing its atomic pull, my false starts had gained one small degree of progress. They had garnered me a title for the poem. I was now sure that I wanted to call it “Letter to Lord Rutherford”, and as time passed a few images and lines started to firm up. But I was still waiting for a breakthrough. And when it came, well, in the end it seems I wasn’t so wrong to have been looking to supernatural agency for aid, though it wasn’t the voice of Lord Rutherford that spoke. It was late 2007 and I’d reached a point where most of the book was pretty much done. For a long time prior, I’d had a quote from An Angel at my Table firmly fixed as an epigraph for the whole collection, because it seemed to talk to at least one other poem in the collection. The passage I’d selected included the sentence: “I imagined the ravines in the landscape where the lost letters had fallen”.

'As I sat pondering the blank screen of my Rutherford page, I would often, all too often, scroll aimlessly back through the rest of the poems until I came to that epigraph. And then I’d stop there and amuse myself with the thought that at least one sentence in the manuscript was beautifully shaped and cadenced. Until one day came a moment when those words simply flew off the screen at me and seemed to sink in somewhere deeper. Within seconds, I had deconstructed the Rutherford working title and an hour or two later most of the poem was done. And so I can say with absolute conviction, that as I quietly worked that afternoon away, presumptuous or preposterous as this may seem, the shade of Janet Frame was there at my table, nudging me gently along.'

Poem source details >



Victoria University Press author page
New Zealand Book Council writer page