Nothing new under the sky, 1769

If there is nothing new under sky 
but the claiming of something 
unseen, interior, fathomless, cloud- 
lined or unsightly, 
then I have found something new.

Port Egmont hens land on the mast, 
catch fish guts from the cook's bucket. 
Nick spots thick mist smelling of leaves and rot after nothing 
but days of salt and the stink of men. 
It is quiet but for the lap of waves on barnacled boards. 
Each of us waits for monsters to loom from woodland. 
Bird song thrums, thrills the dogs 
to barking. We'll take the pinnace and yawl I say. 
My mouth feels like webs, my limbs like cord. 
Does my wife sleep sound? 
The weft of me loosens, my flesh goosed. We row to shore.

I am troubled by the shooting, 
his body left where it fell, 
the spirals on his cheeks dark grey in death. 
I am troubled by the colour of the trees, 
hills shaped like teeth, scent of wood- 
smoke from village fires. I am troubled 
by who occupies me when I am left alone, 
a hollow opening wider between the ribs, 
a lullaby to blood and rule, the scent of gods 
calling from evergreens.

In the great cabin Banks hangs his hammock. 
Such a black day he says. How to scour it from my memory? 
The bay is quiet. Three native boys sit in the cabin, 
sing their hymn to Tupia, their eyes calm.

Musket grapes pimple waves, such sounds—almost music 
James! Elizabeth called. Do not forget your compass.

I have forgotten my youngest child's face. 
There is the impression of roundness, 
blue eyes near sleep.

Dawn is bright in this uncurtained cabin, 
the greyhounds rest back to back, 
the smell and heat of them fug the glass panes, 
foul the close air. Devil take them and their 
big bodies claiming every spare inch. 
The muscles in my leg spasm with the itch to kick.

How the day breaks into unsettling fragments, 
the snap of canvas; a man calling; 
the perpetual slap of waves as we sail 
past fields of sweet potatoes, cucumber, 
rows or quincunx fenced tight with reeds; 
smoke from fires seeping out to sea, 
my spit tasting of cinders.

Is this as alive as a man can get? 
Native canoes tattooed with faces, 
shell eyes oiled hues of green and blue. 
I may go mad here. I may lay down my 
coat and gun, kill or mate 
as I will, bare handed.

Tomorrow we go to a new village, 
trade potatoes and hogs, 
see men's skulls on sticks weathering by rush huts. 
The sky hurts my eyes. 
I do not recall the song of the finch. 
At night the native owl's lament 
ru ru, ru ru.

I sharpen my quill 
as if it were a blade. I think 
I might die of lust. I write with a hand 
schooled in reason: 
In the P.M. had the wind Whifling 
all round the Compass
Such blankness, such betrayal.

Alidade, plane table frame, 
magnifier—it is I in this line and ink, 
clear, shaded in parts, 
the curved land spread beneath my hands 
as I draw mountains, insistent as the breasts 
pressed beneath a man before departure, 
promising eternity, 
dying for the liberty of strange waters.

LISTEN to ‘Nothing new under the sky, 1769’ by Belinda Diepenheim

Belinda Diepenheim grew up in Wellington and worked as a horticulturalist in the Botanic Gardens and Otari Native Plant Museum. She now lives in Ashhurst in the Manawatu. She has published in a variety of New Zealand and international magazines and ezines including LandfallPoetry NZTakahe and Snorkel. Belinda was a graduate from the 2011 Iowa Poetry Workshop at Victoria University.

Diepenheim comments: ‘The poem "Nothing New Under the Sky" is a link between the first nine poems in my book Waybread and Flax, poems that appear in Woden's nine herbs charm, and the next sequence of plants, which were nine chosen to bring to New Zealand by early settlers. There's a third sequence about plants endemic to New Zealand linked in by the voice of Joseph Banks. All of the poems about plants are, in fact, my attempt to speak on behalf of my own ancestors.

‘"Nothing new" is about Captain Cook. He was a man of the Enlightenment, taciturn, reasoned, educated, and his journals reflect that. However, if "Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition" (Montaigne), then Cook was also ordinary and domestic. My poem gets to play with that a little.'

Poem source details >


Waybread & Flax at Steele Roberts