Great Days in New Zealand Painting
They did it hard on those gravel highways—
Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury—
Christchurch to Mapua through the Lewis
on a dungery old bicycle.
The gentler route was down the Wairau;
McCahon tells Brasch that at Renwicktown
the winter mountains ‘are so blue’
(listen) ‘you know them to be
whiter than other white snow mountains’.
Woollaston, author of ‘The Death of Shelley’,
learner by heart of ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’—
chanted over the uddery slop of the separator
in a Taranaki cowshed—rides five days to Dunedin
to sit with Bob Field. At his back
the magic circle of flower and snow and the red
pine needles, hop vines taller than the eaves of
St Barnabas: all that thrilling, silent
life. What’s a bit of gravel rash, sleeping out
under a hedge in South Canterbury?
The night sky, he tells us, is ‘powdered with stars’.
With all that behind you, why wouldn’t it be?
Blitzed in the back of the Newmans bus
with a beat-up Penguin American Verse.
Rita Angus polarised plexiglass
picture windows. The People, Yes!
Same route, give or take sixty years, over
the Dashwood, the dry sierras. And a nifty
conceit that you fiddled about with for decades
but couldn’t make into a poem.
When you lifted your eyes it was all there:
the chiaroscuro of worked paddocks, wind-sculpted
shelterbelts, volumes of firewood, railway sleepers
scumbled with diesel—but somehow
it only made sense from the road.
There were spaces between people, that’s
what confused you, a silence, unfolding
like a river of shining highway.
Then 4:4 country measures
fell short. You came to, deep in the forest,
in the sudden dark of an October southerly,
scurf of snowdrops, cider apples
iced with blossom. And as if you were now deaf
even to the distant sound of the vehicle pulling away
you ran here and there like a lost dog,
scared and unreachable.
The trip down to Greymouth was a fearful
thing. The sun went down Nembutal yellow
in the black Tasman surge. Murchison
was a small plain, a dark apex, a beard
of trees. The Grey was the Hutt
but with lonelier, shabbier settlements.
One day, with luck, with ‘great violence’, in
tones out of Goya, it might be painted,
but those big ugly man-killing waterways,
how could you ever trust them? Nelson
(‘The Italy of N.Z.’, he called it)
had this trick of ruining other climates.
The river named for Matthew Arnold
soaked like stewed tea into the gruel of the Grey.
Meanwhile, back in the scenic zone
(Boyd Webb’s bathtub, von Guérard’s altarpiece)
Sigrid and Günther, saddle-sore Romantics,
tipple on a lukewarm Lucozade, easing
their hamstrings. All day into a moderate
headwind, grinding up into the throat of Southland,
but the lake edge here is a wave-lapped mosaic,
reds and ochres, olives and blues.
Now, as at only the most perfect places,
the lovers build their ephemeral shrine:
cradle of fallen, rain-softened branches;
platform of moss and old man’s beard;
then snail shells, pebbles, paradise duck feathers,
beech leaves (amber and scarlet) that find their
And look, now:
here comes a worshipper!
In ten-gallon hat and psychedelic lederhosen,
whistling a tune of his own composition,
it’s JR—angler extraordinaire—
descending to the water to commit to
sky-burial the four pound slab his exquisite
skills lately conjured from the
water hazard at the Glenorchy golf course.
A sensitive soul could have nightmares here:
these strutting black-backs, their reptile
gaze, the flush on that muscular bill
like a congenital bloodstain. But our
fröhliche campers, pumping the primus,
dispose their tender thoughts elsewhere,
while the lake water dimples
and the athletic taste-maker packs his
evacuated trophy with a flourish of wild mint.
Woolsheds were meant to be woolshed-red.
Now everywhere they’re galvanised iron.
What if the colour were to vanish from
a landscape? That oxidised crimson
like dried blood, the pond with its sugary
crust of duckweed, Jonathans ripening in April
streaked with honey. Could it be simpler?
I need this colour, as much as I need
that towering summer in the riverbed
somewhere below Ikamatua:
salmony blush on the granite boulders,
water the colour of yellow Chartreuse;
a sandy hollow, your mahogany
tan; a happy, clumsy scribble of self.
Let’s imagine it’s 1950, in Dobson,
maybe, or Stillwater Junction, a railway
house overlooking the river. The rain could be
easing, the smoke-thickened clag on the bush terraces
pulling back slightly. Drying out in front of the range,
warming his hands on cup of tea,
is the Rawleighs man—the painter
chappie, the shy one, Mr W.
Nothing odd about that, you say. You see
him through here every so often with his
weird little dog-cart contraption hitched up
to his bicycle. But here’s the thing: today
he doesn’t bother with the pleasantries.
He doesn’t produce his sample case and lay out
his rubs and tonics, his minty expectorants.
He simply unfastens a flat
tin box, with a gesture that speaks for itself.
Take it or leave it.
You stare at the labels.
Cadmium orange! And pure vermilion
and cobalt blue! Red hills with violet
mountains! Emerald + geranium
lake. The colours mix before your eyes
and images begin to appear: something
like memory, but kinder, more expansively
lit. Here are the foxgloves you noticed just
yesterday, candy-coloured in the railway cutting;
the dredge tailings with their scarlet
lichen; the lotus that blossoms in the cow paddock
blue as a gas flame.
Now, then, you have a decision to make.
Do you buy up the shop? Of course you do!
You walk him out to his bicycle, and
look, the sun has broken through, the river
has its lights back on, and the great Grey
Valley is heaving with colour and work.
John Newton is a poet, literary historian and occasional musician. He recently left the University of Canterbury, where he taught for many years in the English department, and now lives on Waiheke Island. His most recent book of poems is Family Songbook (Victoria University Press, 2013). He is the 2014 Writer in Residence at the University of Waikato.
Newton comments: ‘The question I had in mind when I was writing this poem was something like: “Is landscape (still) possible?” It interleaves more-or-less factual material from the heroic days of mid-twentieth century painting (especially the early career of Toss Woollaston) with fragments of personal autobiography and other fictional odds and ends.
‘The landscapes evoked are all in the northern half of the South Island, with the exception of Section 4, which is set near Queenstown. Boyd Webb is a contemporary photographer. Eugene von Guérard was a colonial painter. Sigrid and Günther are fictional German tourists. JR is a fisherman and contemporary art dealer.
‘The quotation from Colin McCahon (Section 1) can be found in the Charles Brasch Landfall correspondence in the Hocken Library (MS-996-2/225). Woollaston material (including several direct quotations) comes from his autobiography Sage Tea (Collins, 1980), from Toss Woollaston: A Life in Letters, ed., Jill Trevelyan (Te Papa Press, 2004), and from Gerald Barnett, Toss Woollaston (Random Century, 1991). Also in the background is Ian Wedde’s essay on Woollaston at Mapua, “The Isle of Poplars: Does Landscape Exist?”, from How to Be Nowhere: Essays and Texts 1971–1994 (Victoria University Press, 1995).’