Here we are a skinny country
in the largest ocean on earth
spell-bound, windswept, lashed.
The land is like a canoe heading south
to an icy continent or heading north to equatorial islands.
No one seems to know.
On Tuvalu the ocean is rising, in San Fransisco
the ocean is rising, in Sydney the ocean is
rising, in Nagoya the ocean is rising
and here, in Paekakariki, outside my window
the Tasman Sea, moon-bound, rises and falls.
It breaks up on the sea wall and falls.
The land is like a sea-bird but where
are its wings? The land is like a fish.
The fish of Māui, hauled up from the sea floor, writhing.
The ocean is a road, a table and a bed.
It takes our bodies up to air and floats them.
The ocean is an open question.
The ocean is an open sewer. So far it takes
what it gets : toxins, dead zones, blasts,
oil, blooms, waste, drugs, radiation …
Our country is asleep—dreaming of a gull
that circles the Pacific, and circles every island.
Our country has forgotten where it lies.
In Santiago the Pacific is rising,
in Majuro the Pacific is rising:
people leave when they cannot stay.
Around the rim, it calms and livens
human beings while we, its offspring, resourceful
and distracted, give back plastic and acid.
Fishing nets on the high seas are fifty kilometres long.
In the freedom of the high seas
a mass killing goes on, expertly, and on.
Today the sea came gently to the sea wall
and pulled back into itself
in the overall global uprising.
With no motive and no name, the whole
indivisible ocean fits over the earth like a blessing:
it slips around, between and over
the territories we have made.
In its streams and drifts, free-range creatures
come and feed—and maybe go.
It shows up outside my window and,
though spell-bound and moon-bound, is unbound
with a swell and momentum of its own.
It’s hard to have a mind for its envelopment
and treachery. Its weight, sheen, depth.
And its frank, cold-blooded flow.
Our country is a park. We have the high
ground and the low ground. Our mountains
are peace flags and we’re free
to break out of bush, flax, pingao
or any dead-end ideology
onto a charged and open-ended coast.
The land is like a knife, out
of its sheath and glinting in the sun.
I’d like to hold that pointed knife.
I’d like to speak with that knife.
I’d like to save a home, a tribe
and a heritage with that knife.
But all I can do is rise:
both before and after I fall.
All I can do is rally,
all I can do is write
—I can try to see and mark
where and how we are.
All I can do is plant,
all I can do is vote
for the fish, the canoe, the ocean
to survive the rise and fall.
All I can do is plead,
all I can do is call …
I’m getting warmer like the ocean
with this thin-bladed knife. I’m a full-time
mother with a fish-wife’s tongue.
Under my grip is helplessness
and under that grip is an earth-bound love
for this particular place in the ocean
whose shadow is on the wall
in my firmly gripped hand.
I vote with the hand that holds
this knife. I vote for the fish, the bird,
the ocean and a raised land shaped
by explosion, erosion and willful life.
Dinah Hawken was born in Hawera, Taranaki, in 1943 and after many years of living in Wellington and seven years in New York now lives again on the west coast of New Zealand at Paekakariki. She has worked as a physiotherapist, social worker, counsellor and teacher of creative writing. Her first book of poetry, It Has No Sound and is Blue, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Best First Time Published Poet and three of her subsequent collections have been finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards. Her seventh book, Ocean and Stone, will be published by Victoria University Press later in 2015.
Hawken comments: “The American poet Gary Snyder, who has lived a life of environmental activism, was apparently asked how we can come to terms with the damage we have done to the world around us. He said something like “Don’t feel guilty. Keep caring for your environment because you love it.” Love of the natural world was my motivation in writing “The uprising”, even though the poem was also a response to a commission by Lloyd Jones for the Griffith Review edition of New Zealand writing, Pacific Highways. So the Pacific theme was set. It happened that I had just read a very good, and alarming, book about the world’s oceans (Ocean of Life: How Our Seas Are Changing by Callum Roberts) and so issues of pollution, climate change and overfishing were strongly in my mind and in my feelings.
‘Sometimes for me the process of writing a poem is a process of facing up to facts and discovering the layers of feeling I have in response to those facts. Although I like the deadline of a commissioned poem, this one was tight and I did not have time to let the poem “sit” as I usually do. When I came back to it after publication I wanted to tidy and add. The main revisions have been to add some lines about fishing earlier in the poem and to add the last stanza. Often when I write a strongly felt poem like this one I come back to it and need to tone it down. This time I wasn’t prepared to settle for the passivity of the last stanza and needed to get “the knife” and “earth-bound love” back into my hand and, through my hand, into the poem.’