Six feet for a single, eight feet for a double

My father leaves school to dig graves.
The first break is the hardest.
The pressure of foot on steel,
the smell of earth rising.
Koia koia, e tau e koia.
The men sit with packed lunches,
talking about the weather
next to holes they have dug themselves.

When he leaves the job, he keeps his shovel.
Always comes home to dig for the whānau.
Koia, koia, e tau e koia.
He keeps me playing graveside,
tells me off for climbing the pile of earth.
Sends me to find things;
the grave with the lamb,
the grave with the clasped hands.

He says this is how the dead speak.
A lamb for a child,
clasped hands pulling each other up to heaven;
but this is not the only way.
The atmosphere traps us in our bodies,
holds our teeth and tongues in place.

My father says he has no rhythm,
but when he digs you see it in his body,
the flow through the earth into the feet, contracting the calves
through the spine, to chiselled arms,
through ageing hands, into the shovel
and back into the whenua.
Koia, koia, e tau e koia.
With each beat he piles up dirt higher and higher,
making a lofty mountain
for us to bow to.


LISTEN to ‘Six feet for a single, eight feet for a double’ by Ruby Solly

Image of Ruby SollyRuby Solly (Waitaha, Kai Tahu, Kāti Māmoe) is a writer and musician living in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. She has been published in journals such as Landfall, Sport, Starling, Minarets, Mimicry, and Brief, amongst others. As a musician Ruby has played with artists such as Whirimako Black, Trinity Roots, and Yo-yo Ma. She has recently been a featured writer in the Columbia Journal and her first book Tōku Pāpā is to be published by Victoria University Press in 2021.

Solly comments: For me, this piece serves to blend time and ritual by looking at what traditions, kawa, and tikanga change over time, and which stay the same. By investigating this, we can learn so much about our identity and the forces that have shaped us for better or for worse. The refrain in this poem Koia, koia, e tau e koiacomes froma Kai Tahu mōteatea about both the legend of Māui and giving instructions for kūmara planting.

​Poem source details >


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Photographer credit: Daniela Butterfield.