A small woman returning in a blue urn

I lost my sister
and I found her ashes.

I know she is lighter
I know she has lightened


Take her, my nephew said,
as if it was urgent.
So I did. I held her.
I held the urgency
and the urn.

From a small woman
has come three grown men.


She was safe in the urn
as I was safe in her house,
the one on stilts amongst palms
that she loved as if her life
in the end
depended on it.

She depended on its beauty
as she depended on the love
that urged us up the outdoor stairs into her room.


I held the urn against me
as if my sister was unborn
and walked with her
on the closed-in verandah
of her last worldly home.

Everything surprised me.
My sister was in pieces.
She was at our disposal.

I turned into a kuia
and filled the house
with the echo
and groundswell of grief.

We knew by then
that from a small woman
can come a tall order.

She’d been giving us a way to live
while she was dying:

acceptance, courage, faith,
love for one another,
the fine, hard-earned story.


The photograph of a grandchild
and some small stones
were what she held on to
while she was dying.

She was letting us let her
turn light and boundless

so that a smile of completion
could fall and truly settle
on her human face

Dinah Hawken was born in Hāwera in 1943 and now lives in Paekākāriki on the Kāpiti Coast. The poem selected for Ōrongohau is from her ninth collection of poetry, Sea-light, published by Te Herenga Waka University Press. Her first book, It has no Sound and is Blue, was chosen as ‘best first time published poet’ in the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1987 and several of her collections since then have been short-listed for the New Zealand book awards.

Hawken comments: 'My sister had a difficult life but was in quiet command of her needs - both physical and emotional - while she was dying. She brought out the best in those of us who were caring for her and gave us the gift of "dying well." Like many New Zealanders she lived in Australia, in a home she loved – a Queenslander, raised on stilts above flood-prone ground. She had strong aesthetic instincts and insisted that yellow flowers only (and no roses) should fill the house after her death.'

​Poem source details >


Te Herenga Waka University Press author page

Photographer credit: Siaosi Photography