Father's axe, grandfather's machete

Swedish steel, drop-forged, lighter than many
the hickory handle elegant, its long honey-veined grain
polished with use, its balance perfect.
A homemade leather sheath for the head, like those
hoods fastened over the heads of
Persian hunting falcons, secreting the fierce
intent of the blade’s naked gaze…

In awe, the awkward boy I was back then
made a sentence: How can such a thing of beauty
be? I did not know what I was saying.
My father laughed and said: So you want to be a poet?
I did not know what he was saying.
But towards the end of his life again I admired his axe
and he said, eyes shining: Well, it’s yours, chum.

It came to me with my grandfather’s machete
an altogether different kind of implement.
He’d been an engineer, able to turn things to other uses.
Handmade from the leaf-spring of
a Model A Ford’s suspension, the ball-peen hammer
marks prominent still on the steel, its edge
jagged, savage, its handle scarred with spokeshave
and rasp strokes, just two staves of mahogany
held by hammered brass rivets
and tightly whip-bound with waxed string.

The thick leather scabbard promised exactly
what would be unsheathed into my hand. I’d draw it
forth, feel its weight. A brute of a thing, its heft
and heave well-nigh unstoppable.
A masher a smasher more than a slasher…
Yet that rough-tempered blade when honed to cold
brightness was really something to see.
Though it was not at all beautiful
through hard use in time I learned its lesson
that beauty’s not the only thing to be.


John Allison was born in Blenheim in 1950 and lives in Heathcote Valley near Christchurch, having returned in mid-2016 from 15 years in Melbourne. During the 1990s three collections of poetry were published, and poems appeared in numerous journals both here and overseas. He was the featured poet in Poetry New Zealand 14.

Balance (new and selected poems) was published by Five Islands Press in Melbourne in 2006. His fifth collection, A Place To Return To, was published by Cold Hub Press in August 2019. A chapbook of new poems, Near Distance, came out from the same publisher in October 2020.

Allison is active on the committee of the Canterbury Poets Collective and curates their Facebook page. Music (he plays guitar, lute, and oud) and photography are creative adjuncts to Allison’s writing.

Allison comments: 'A number of fascinating objects have come down to me from my grandfathers and my father: a telescope from a sextant; a compass set in mahogany and brass; a surveyor’s tape measure in its leather case; a pocket-knife with blade honed to a narrow spike; an axe; and a machete. And a ventifact. I’ve written about most of these at some time or another.'

​Poem source details >


Cold Hub Press author page

Artist credit: Wayne Seyb