Into the First Cold

Once his sight and bones didn’t know the four seasons
He was born into Samoa’s two seasons of wet and dry
and the air’s wrap that rarely dropped below 22 degrees
The lush forests did not ever shed their green
and crops sucked up the soil’s precocious blood all year round

No need for fur or other animal skin or fabric
Apt nakedness was adequate clothing for the times
despite the Victorian taboo of covering from neck to toe
Not one inch of erect skin shine to be exposed
Sex was only for procreation and in the sin-chocka dark of night

His first taste of ice water was a shocking burn around his teeth
then round his mouth and down his gullet and chest
as a long-nailed finger that scraped up choking tears
Ice cream was the only cold he loved but his family couldn’t afford it
He learned about snow and ice from books and films

Across the Pasefika on the banana boat out of the sun’s cling
into a cold that seeped down into his marrow and wouldn’t let go—
a journey from warm ease into seasick body crunched up
in his first ever woollen clothes and shoes  the seas and skies turning
wilder  darker  predicting a New Zealand locked in the loneliness of cold

First at boarding school  under cone-perfect Taranaki beanied
with ice  snow and tapu  the cold and homesickness gripped his every bit
The teachers ordered early morning runs and cold showers afterwards
to toughen the will against the invading winter and shape them
into men who wouldn’t flinch from any kind of pain

Rugby and military drill were the other manly prescriptions
Twice weekly rugby practice and the game against another school and winter
Tackle and tackle  attack and attack  the pain was exhilarating and beat
the cold and forged the ideal team that would die for one another
Winning wasn’t everything—it was the only thing

Military drill in prickly uniforms with his courage as steely as the rifle
he carried erectly at the epic school parades with their much medalled
headmaster in splendid command and some of his teachers mimicking
the decorated heroes they’d been in the Second World War  others with silence
refusing to glorify the futile leap into colonial wars’ insatiable gobs

Left-right  left-right  left-right  halt! Young  fit  acclimatised he now lived
comfortably with the cold weather and being away from home
But every morning when he walked in Taranaki’s compass to breakfast
the mountain signalled not all was well with the path
His history teacher praised Te Whiti’s stand at Parihaka

He researched that and discovered almost 200 years
of settler invasion  fraud  and theft of iwi land
A deadlier cold slid into his throat and held him hostage
to an anger as rich as Taranaki’s beauty and defiance
of colonialism  injustice and greed behind the eyes

Maualaivao Albert Wendt is considered internationally as one of New Zealand’s and the Pacific’s major novelists and poets. His work has been translated into many languages and published and taught round the world.

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