Overture: Aotearoa

I'm not aware that anyone has yet documented why so much of our best creative intelligence should have to be drugged. 

– Douglas Lilburn



Like the light in a wardrobe
your dream of nationhood without nationalism, always
drawing the moths that destroy uniforms

without lasting. Open the drawer
on rugby socks, jockstraps, polyester shirts
monogrammed with the silver fern.

One size fits all. Your father's clothes fit
a scarecrow, your mother's stitch-in-time gives
way to a tin of buttons and one blunt needle.

This song includes special ukulele accompaniment.


Their cri de coeur I Was
McCahon Glover Baxter and Tuwhare
snore for the afternoon that is New Zealand

making it new: Aotearoa. You
unscrew the top, sip through a litre,
sing Shall we gather at the river?

Your bottle rolls like the 'r' in redemption.
Thumbing through a foreign grammar
you find aroha and set up house in its vowels.

The bellbird sings out of tune with Western tempered scales.


To justify your life in others' eyes
you must become the telling
glance. There they are in triplicate: the authorities

directing the wind that crumbles the black stump until, breathless,
you guess there must be one reason
the heart beats faster the closer you get

to nowhere: Aotearoa. Expecting to see
the birthplace of your grandfather, you find
your granddaughter's totara christening bowl.

Repeat as required.

Born in Christchurch (1959), David Howard retired from a career as SFX supervisor for acts such as Metallica and Janet Jackson in order to write from his isolated studio at Purakanui. His collaboration with photographer Fiona Pardington, How To Occupy Our Selves (HeadworX) was published in 2003. A draft of the opening poem 'There You Go' featured in Best New Zealand Poems 2002; the full text was set for mezzosoprano, narrator and piano trio by the Czech composer Marta Jirackova. 'The Harrier Suite' appeared in both Best New Zealand Poems 2004 and The Word Went Round (Otago University Press, 2006). In 2007 David worked with Brina Jez-Brezavscek on a sound installation, 'The Flax Heckler', in Slovenia. On 18 September 2009 soprano Judith Dodsworth premiered Johanna Selleck's setting of his lyric 'Air, Water, Earth Meld' at Melba Hall in Melbourne. In December 2009 he received the inaugural New Zealand Society of Authors' Mid-Career Writer's Award. His poetry has been translated into German, Italian, Slovene and Spanish. 'Overture: Aotearoa' first appeared in Takahe 68 (December 2009).

Howard comments: 'In one of those comic accidents that constitute history, Douglas Lilburn's 'Overture: Aotearoa' (1940) premiered at His Majesty's Theatre in London; it was not performed in New Zealand until the year of my birth, 1959. I misappropriate the title in order to work issues of equivocation, the persistence of memory/continuity of identity, and the capacity of (English and Maori) language to evoke the unspoken. The epigraph, which is from a letter by Lilburn to W.N. Rogers (2 March 1984), sets up the tension between a nationalist ideal and its failure to sustain (English and Maori) 'iconic' figures.

Informally introduced to Maoritanga by the Ngai Tahu artist Jenny Rendall, I still feel the diffidence of many Pakeha writers in 'appropriating' the local – the more so for living near the site of Mapoutahi Pa, which was destroyed by a raiding party in the late eighteenth century. Despite my dislike of his Catholic histrionics – one part St John of the Cross, one part Rimbaud – I admire Baxter's prescient incorporation of Maori words and their underlying concepts; it constitutes an enlargement of the world that is more pertinent to me than that offered by the likes of John Ashbery, Billy Collins and Robert Creeley. I'm still stunned by cloddish embarrassment and leery admiration when Bernadette Hall sings waiata. Yet nearly fifty years have passed since Barry Mitcalfe published Poetry of the Maori (Paul's Book Arcade, 1961). What is going on?'

           Expecting to see
the birthplace of your grandfather, you find
your grandaughter’s totara christening bowl.

Repeat as required.

Poem source details >



Trout Press: Shebang
nzepc – New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre: online work
New Zealand Book Council writer file