Roadside trees

Just as the ants in their dark troop will touch
muzzle to muzzle—as they ask the way,
perhaps, or how the day goes—it was such

with these, who, ending their brief interplay,
continued on their solitary paths,
had somewhere to be, and all the long day

to get through, bodies itching in their clothes,
the coffee break, the lunch eaten alone,
and in the cold evening air their breaths

suspended above their heads like cartoon
speech bubbles yet to be captioned, the words
elusive, making a silence someone

might fill, as the roadside trees darken. Birds’
cries subside, a car engine coughs, backfires.
Home, a glass of wine, a second, a third,

pizza delivered, TV. The slow hours
pass. Trudge to the bathroom, brush, spit and floss,
squint in the mirror, run a warm shower.

What was it you waited for? Was it this?
You lie in bed, blinking at the ceiling.
What was never quite yours you lately miss,

a tune your mother would hum while dealing
cards, four of you at the dining table,
or three and a dummy hand, that feeling

you had no name for then, impossible
it couldn’t last, impossible it could.
The Reader’s Digest, a cracked brown Bible,

Zane Grey westerns, an atlas of the world—
your father would point and say, you are here.
Tonight you feel lost, as in a dark wood,

here is not what you wanted, or hoped for.
Hard truth is that you never asked for much,
and got less. How far still to go, how far.

Tim Upperton's second poetry collection, The Night We Ate The Baby, was an Ockham New Zealand Book Awards finalist in 2016. He won the Caselberg International Poetry Competition in 2012, in 2013 and in 2020. His poems feature in numerous anthologies, including The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (Victoria University Press, 2011) and Essential New Zealand Poems (Godwit, 2014). He lives in possibly the oldest house in Palmerston North with his dog, cat, and two chickens.

Upperton comments: '"Roadside trees" was first published in More Favourable Waters: Aotearoa poets respond to Dante’s Purgatory (The Cuba Press, 2021), an anthology to commemorate the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. Poets were invited to write a 33-line poem incorporating a quoted excerpt (the first four lines of my poem) from Clive James’s translation of Dante’s Purgatorio. I departed from James’s rhymed quatrain structure, opting for Dante’s original scheme of linked rhyming tercets. So the poem began as a kind of technical exercise but became something more, as technical exercises often do.'

​Poem source details >


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Ōrongohau | Best New Zealand Poems 2008 and 2009