Harry Martens

from Elegies


It’s time to find work for the word
‘paltry’, Harry, though I know

even before I’ve started that
this urge will take me places

I shouldn’t go, where
my worst nature will prevail

and what I say I’ll regret later.
On the other hand,

why regret what we say 
in anger, or irritation, or

just ennui – itself a paltry emotion.
Any way I look at it, our feelings

reach down into a terroir the way
the vine does that then 

swells the grapes that make
the wine we drink, which makes us happy

or sad, or sentimental, or
sometimes fanged with rage.

That deep rooted taste of where
anger comes from was what 

Mahmoud Darwish knew how to write 
and how to broadcast on the radio

to the early morning coffee shops 
at the bus terminal in Amman, where 

breakfasters wiped tears away 
with the ends of their keffirs.

The rage he uttered came from
somewhere in the stony ground

like that around the makeshift homes
at Baqa’a where, in spring,

I saw the freezing hills covered all over
by ranunculus, anemone, and iris,

whose corms lay underground
during the baking heat of summer

and pushed their tough flowerstalks
out as the snow melted after winter.

This rage of colour
was beautiful, and that’s why

the bus driver wept, turned
the volume of his radio up,

and floored the accelerator
as we outpaced our dust cloud

on the road to Baqa’a – and that’s why
his passengers wept, hearing the poet’s

beautiful rage spring from the ground
where it had seemed nothing could grow

whether the ground was hot or cold.
Another poet wrote, ‘Subject matter,

how I hate it,’ and I know what
he meant, that paltry

stuff that grows anywhere
without ardour or effort.

Ian Wedde was born in 1946. He is a poet, novelist, and essayist. His most recent books are the novel Chinese Opera (Victoria University Press, 2008), the art monograph Bill Culbert: Making Light Work (NZ: Auckland University Press; UK: RGAP, 2009), and the poetry collection Good Business (AUP, 2009). A new novel The Catastrophe, will be published by VUP in 2011. A new collection of poems, The Lifeguard, is in preparation; the long title sequence was runner up for the Kathleen Grattan Award for poetry in 2010. The introductory chapter of a book about the meaning of home, The Grass-Catcher, won the Landfall Essay prize in 2010. He was awarded an ONZM in the 2010 Queens Birthday Honours.

Wedde comments: ‘This poem is from a sequence of elegies. I met Harry Martens in Amman, Jordan, in 1969. He was a classic outsider figure – a Polish war orphan brought up in England during World War Two, a crippled victim of child polio, a polylinguist and poet, a devious risk-taker, and an inveterate and restless traveller. He was fluent in spoken and written Arabic and had translated the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, whose work I’d been introduced to by the scholar Fawwaz Tuqan. In the evenings in Amman, Harry would take off his leg braces, drape his useless spaghetti-legs over the arm of his chair, pour arrack, and hold court. He was one of the most entertaining and infuriating people I’ve ever met. He turned up unannounced at our place in Port Chalmers, Otago, in 1972, and then disappeared again. I heard that he’d died in the USA, where some of his several children lived. For me he was a rare and precious intermediary between the large public passion of poetry in the Arab world, and the politesse of the literary salon. On my way to work via the transport hub in Amman I used to see people paying close attention to radio broadcasts. I thought the broadcasts were news, but later found that many were by poets such as Darwish. “Another poet”, the one I’ve probably misquoted as having written “Subject matter, how I hate it,” is Frank O’Hara.’

Poem source details >



New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre author page
New Zealand Book Council author page
Arts Foundation of New Zealand artist page
Scottish Poetry Library author page
Kamate Ka Ora 09'Does Poetry Matter?'
Cultural Icons episode 8: Ian Wedde interviewed by Kevin Ireland