From 'The Lifeguard'


You have to start somewhere 
in these morose times,

a clearing in the forest, say,
filled with golden shafts of sunlight

and skirmishes. A little later 
your itinerary will take you past

weathered churches on plains that stretch 
as far as the eye can see.

Their horizons elude you,
not just because the earth is circular

like the argument you can’t bite off 
and spit out, but also

because of your restless 
dissatisfaction with a status quo that,

more and more, reminds you
of everything you’ve been at pains

to forget. ‘Return all that stuff you borrowed 
when my better nature

was in the ascendant!’ you bark, 
but nothing ever comes back

once it’s gone. To your left, out west, 
a bitter coast of ghosts, shipwrecks,

vengeful expeditions, short rations 
and lies, lies, lies. To your right,

on the suave east, are the glittering lights 
of private properties as far

as the eye can see, pink palaces
of coral bricks and parades of people

you’ve watched before so many times 
you know they don’t exist

except as the repetitions
that fame and fortune fabricate.

Bleak indeed are the days 
that smash themselves against

the galloping thighs of lifeguards
on the western flanks of this god-forsaken place.

But sweet the dawns that gild the shoulders 
of giggling vacationers

up all night celebrating their windfall lives 
on the eastern beaches

of islands whose tides come in
and just as smoothly go, like contented but

mediocre cover bands
from the patios of three-star resorts.

Here, among the useless, easy-to-please 
recidivist idlers the lifeguard lolls,

but out west his counterpart 
watches arms upraised

where the surf breaks against its own backwash 
and the maws of hideous fate

gulp down every last gasp of air
the unfavoured sinkers ever hoped to breathe.

How can they meet, these brawny 
brothers in arms, the gaze of one

running its tongue across
the sweat-glazed clavicles of celebrity,

the other’s eyes averted
from redemption’s hopeless odds?

There’s always a middle ground,
a light-filled clearing in the gloomy forest,

where all the non-returns accumulate, 
where arguments conclude,

horizons cease to recede 
and a different silence falls.

This is not the silence that follows 
the mediocre band’s finale

or the silence
in the helpless lifeguard’s mind

when that upraised arm out at the breakers 
drops from sight

and the surf’s arrhythmic roar
pours into salty gullies behind the dunes.

This is a silence you may not hear, 
the silent silence

when it’s too late for the lifeguards 
of west and east to meet,

share a boast or two, a drink,
some platitudes, swapping yarns about

the shrieks of fear
and those of idle pleasure

commingled like the wrecks 
of either coast,

nothing to distinguish them
as their phosphorescent glows go phut.

Ian Wedde is the author of fifteen collections of poetry, six novels, two collections of essays, a collection of short stories, a monograph on the artist Bill Culbert and several art catalogues, and has been co-editor of two poetry anthologies. His work has been widely anthologised, and has appeared in journals nationally and internationally. Wedde's first novel, Dick Seddon’s Great Dive, won the New Zealand Book Award for Fiction (1977), and a poetry collection, Spells for Coming Out, was co-winner of the National Book Award for Poetry in 1978. His most recent collection, The Lifeguard, was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards.

Wedde was the Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 1972, the Victoria University Writing Fellow in 1984, and the Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton in 2005. He received an Arts Foundation Laureate award in 2006, a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Auckland in 2007, was the University of Auckland Michael King Writer in Residence in 2009 and won the Landfall Essay Prize in 2010. In 2010 he was also awarded an ONZM in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, and was New Zealand Poet Laureate 2011–2013. In 2013 he was awarded the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers' Residency.

Wedde comments: ‘The complete “Lifeguard” sequence has nine sections of between eighty and ninety lines each, organised in couplets. There’s a clue to the underlying purpose of the whole poem in this large structure. In a general way it involves an ongoing dialogue between the two coasts of the north island of New Zealand, the rugged west and the resort east. Each coast is spoken for by a lifeguard: the rough west by a character out of Theocritus, the cyclops Polyphemus (“rich in songs”), hopelessly infatuated with the water-nymph Galatea; and the east by a character out of Ovid, Narcissus, hopelessly infatuated with his own reflection in water. Neither is able to pay attention to the upraised arms of swimmers in trouble. The trouble that was worrying me while I was writing the poem was the trouble we’re in—both environmental, and the consequence of our inattention. The couplets are in themselves miniature dialogues, line-to-line, and couplet-to-couplet. The anxiety that drove this dialogue between rough west and languorous east is partly the result of having grandchildren: what looks bad enough in the short view looks a lot worse in the long one. That said, the poem is also a celebration of a place I love, which I’d come back to after many years. This first section in a sense introduces the lifeguards and sets up the dialogue.’

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