Building sonnets


Placemakers delivered the pink timber
on October the first, 2007. It was lifted
off the truck by a black and orange
winch and winch was my beginning
in the coloured world. A windlass 
operated by a crank the dictionary said.

Not cranky just friendly the young man
who made the extendable arm swing the long
planks so smoothly past the trees, over
the fence and—asking me to steady one end—
down on two supporting pieces of timber
in the courtyard. ‘Thanks, mate’ he said.

All was quiet. The builder was at the dentist.
Pink timber, and 3000 nails in a yellow box.


Dwang, dwang, dwang, dwang, a voice
announced in my dream, and I woke
chuckling. Joist, joist, joist, joist
I retorted, not knowing what a dwang did
but hoping that it sat at right angles
to a joist and made a sturdy frame.

‘A dwang is a noggin in the South Island’
said Barry. ‘Wow’ I said and later
to Bill—who looked bemused—‘don’t you
love the frames?’ They were stacked at the end
of the drive, promising, but pink. ‘It’s the treatment’
said Barry ‘LOSP, liquid, organic, solvent, preservative.
Sounds good, but I get this terrible tingling
in my arms. Can’t get rid of it. Can’t sleep.’


Destruction makes you quiver and think.
The cracking of concrete with the edge 
of the bucket on the arm of the digger
makes the house quake. Dave scoops up
the broken pieces of concrete, shakes them down
in the bucket and swings them round 
over the pohutukawa to place in the tray
of his truck. Destruction makes you grateful
for silence, for the softness of sand.
Dave tidies up the pile of concrete
in the truck with the handy bucket
as if he’s packing the boot of his car.
Destruction makes you grateful for men
who are swift and break things with restraint.


Building on sand on the Pukerua Fault.
1. Excavation—truckloads of sand and a four-metre drop
outside the front door. Access by extended ladder only.
2. Eight tantalised poles for the foundation, each
brought on site in the claw of a green tractor.
Robin springs off, gets the five-metre pole upright,
lifts it in a bear hug, leans it to one shoulder
and carries it to the hole. Thump, thump, thump,
thump: the pole driver drives. The desk 
judders. Sand walls cave in.
3. The Allied concrete truck comes to pour footings.
4. Headquarters call: ‘The computer has left 300 kilos
of cement out of the mixture.’ We’d have 
slumped. We’d have failed the slump test.


The poles have been cut to the ground.
The footings have been laid. Four pallets
of concrete blocks have arrived
and steel rods are poking up for them
to fit upon. Steel wire mesh, to withstand
shear and tensile stresses, is laid out on the sand
like a rusty crossword. It awaits concrete—
which pours like porridge down a chute
into a wheelbarrow, is spread and smoothed.
Hardened, this will be the floor of the garage,
the foundation, a base on which to stand
bristling with steely reinforcement. Friends
on earth. Food on the table. Common ground.
Ancestral land. Ten cousins. Ten tensile toes.


The hard contains the soft.
Concrete contains water and sand
both of which are runny in different,
smart, intrepid ways. To make concrete
all you need is a binder. Like love.
No, I am joking. Like cement, a fine
grey powder that I would think 
could take a run if you let it
out of the bag and never let it out
in the rain. Why on this pale earth
does something so soft, like water,
make a binder go impossibly hard?
And why is sand so amenable
when it’s made from old stones?


Block work sounds solid and it is.
Block after block. It is how they say
to get ahead and Steve does it
with a flourish. He lifts a block,
slips the pointed leaf-shaped trowel
into the mortar, flicks a dash down the edges,
places it carefully beside another,
whips any extra mortar from the joints,
smooths them with the flat side of the trowel
which he flips upside down so he can use
the wooden handle to tap the block 
a little this way, a little that.

Soon there are walls to keep us in and out.
A great job, says Barry, plumb, level, spot on.


Everyone is connected with everyone
else. Phoebe came with a yellow bucket
to damp proof the walls and then Dave
came back to back-fill with sand.
Mastic, glue, mortar, screws, wire,
trusses, zed nails and cyclone ties.
Everything is connected to everything else.
Timber is attached to concrete blocks
with Dyna bolts and a home is attached
to the land. Dyna Bolt Hawken, quips Barry,
whose surname is Binding. Bolt,
I thought, wouldn’t be a bad name—
I could be both securely here
and very quickly away.


Piles, bearers, joists, studs,
beams, ridge beams, rafters,
purlins: where would we be without
the frames and their many assembled
attached, interconnected members, where
would we be without their segments and
the space they make into an empty room
between them? ‘Then Murray came’
to fill the walls with wires and cables
to bring us light and windows came
to bring us the sea. Glen came to plumb.
Dave and Barry gave us walls, Shane
came up with an Onduline roof
and by god we had shelter.


The frame of bones we are alive on.
The shape of a single day. The light
then the dark (then the light)
that comes reliably around us.
That window. This page. The scaffold
of habit. Know-how, protocol and plan.
The fact of family. And the tree.
The frame of the tree of the family
on which we hang our coats
or go out to grow like seedlings
attached to each other by name.
The frame of the contract, the code.
The hard shape of a renovated room
in which a newborn child might lie.


Down below we have the garage, the firm,
and above we have a room to yield in.
There is a duvet and pillows on the firm bed.
You can stay there. A bed, a desk, a chair.
Like a spirit level you will be contained and free.
There is murmuring from the loyal ocean
and you are welcome to murmur yourself.
A small pohutukawa touches the window.
And don’t underestimate the diseased cabbage tree:
it has four heads and a child at its feet.
The room is the shape of a DoC hut or a whare
or a tent; a starter for memory and adventure.
I can see you now, coasting about like a gull
on the weightless and pliable alphabet.

Dinah Hawken was born in Hawera, Taranaki, in 1943. She trained as a physiotherapist and social worker and began writing poetry in her mid-30s. Her first book It has no Sound and is Bluewon the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for best first time published poet. Since then she has had five further collections published by Victoria University Press, including Oh There you are Tui!: Selected Poems and The Leaf-Ride (2011). Until recently she convened a creative writing workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters called ‘Writing the Landscape’ and she has been the poet in residence at the Wellington Botanic Garden. She now lives in Paekakariki on the Kapiti coast.

Hawken comments: ‘My writing room overlooks the site of a new garage with a room on top. The building work began after a few months’ break from renovations inside the house and I wasn’t sure how I would stand the noise and disruption of the ‘second stage’ until it occurred to me - ah, I could watch and listen carefully, I could write about it. So I took notes over the building period and eventually some lines and ideas began to take shape: the small frames of the story seemed to be around about 14 lines and they could be built nicely into a sequence.

‘I like writing poems that take their time, and that explore new language.’

Poem source details >



New Zealand Book Council author page
Auckland University Library's New Zealand Literature File author bibliography
The New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre author page