To a Friend in the Wilderness
To a Friend in the Wildernesspage 48 page 49
For God's Sake let it rip, let go the rope,
the weight is dead against you. Toss in your hand,
the cards are stacked. You're jostled off the course,
get off your horse. Our land
is conquered, lost: homunculus supreme
sits on the world's back: the weevil is in the sack.
Come, leave the fool to his triumph. Like sand
it will slip through the bones of his hand.
I'm tired of writing, and I'm tired of waiting:
no answer—and it's six months since you wrote.
I'm pleading with you now, not just inviting.
Listen: when Kelly went he left me his boat,
the sun is on the sea and the fish are biting,
the garden is full, the fruit begins to fall.
For God's sake chuck it, join me and share my crust
the world well lost. Make life a long week-end.
Old friend, dear friend,
your voice comes to me through the scrawled words
like a bell ringing in the riotous midnight,
like news of peace through static.
I hear the leaves
rustle above your door. On the sun-baked path
the cat lies dreaming. Noon-tranced, the pig
sleeps in the shade. Your house stands,
a cavernous rock in a sea of light. In the passage
a wisp of breeze or a poltergeist stirs the cobweb.
The sun is exalted, climbs
to his throne of noon. In the crystal heat the cicadas
crackle on sunlit walls, on pea-sticks dried and splintered,
and among the macrocarpas:
from thistle to cloudless blue the world is vibrant.
Even the inner rooms are pervaded with noon,
the whole world a hot room hung with green leaves.
page 50 Beyond the pampas bushes
the sea snores on the shingle, boils lazily among the rocks.
There lie the umber weeds, combings
from the sea's hair, there sparkle
salt crystals on the pearl and amber shells.
No need to tell me of these things, no need
for letters. I am with you, and we sit again
on the old log half-buried in the sand,
sucking our pipes, happy to talk of things
we shall never understand, our smoke wreathing
on the still air in the pattern of our thoughts,
eyes narrowed in the glare
of sun and sea to watch the falling wave
that holds the summer in its green concave.
Come with me now, past the Maori grave,
past the straggling fig-tree like a map of London
along the track and over the wooden bridge.
Once more we climb the cliff-path sweating and silent
and stand at the high point, by the crumbling edge,
the sea beneath us, the winds' dancing-floor
deserted now and shining: my nostalgia
Laocöon to the giant pohutukawa.
High noon, intensity of light and sadness.
Landward the far-off hills are walls of blue
fringing the valley floor, broad map of summer. The deepening green
foretells the fall of leaves, and friendship's end,
all that we are, all that we love,
dissolved and lost in the darkness of the molecule.
Time takes us on his back and lumps us along,
hope hardens, and the wind blows from the grave;
our wound is mortal, no hand can heal us,
no fingers can unweave
the solid strands of doom. The seasons turn
and take us with them, our cycloid curve
bounds faster towards eternity. We age,
and like a beleaguered army fall to grief and rage
and curse the king we serve, the name of war.
But on that shore
despair withers in the sun, in the salt air,
love goes gloveless, faith is naked, the eye
stares at the skeleton fact, the doomed lips
smile at truth revealed, cry welcome
to the flux, the fire, the fury,
the dance of substance on the needle-point of mind,
the kiss of clay, the flame of the sea, the reek
of the flesh, the animal beauty of the stars.
Your leisure grows like a tree, wrapping its roots
round the earth to which it belongs;
and thoughts pass huge and slow across your mind
like cloud-shadows over the purple sea.
You can take time like Mithridates,
unscathed will drink eternity.
March will die into April, autumn
will age and be grey as a pensioner, May
will fade in a mist, the day come
when the tui no longer spangles the scarlet
flax-flowers with his song,
when the dawn brings sleet and the bees are quiet
and the morning thrush is dumb.
Winter will come with a blast of wind and a flourish of chilling showers,
and the sea will moan, and the driftwood, whiter grown,
be swept in heaps like bones,
and the bodies of dead sea-birds
will lie beyond the lash of the wave,
the sea will rave and the surf cast rags of kelp on the shore;
the creeks will rise and the streams with yellow water run,
and the mud be cold and deep about your door.
The wind in the dark will roar
and the midnight fill with dread,
but the driftwood fire will still
be warm at the midmost core,
at the beating heart of the storm.
Then like a smile from the dead
or a song from the granite rock
spring will come with its four
blue eggs that mirror the sky
in the nest in the privet hedge,
with a blush of green on the willow
and buds on the sycamore,
page 52 and the thrush in the macrocarpa
telling the time of life.
The starling in the gutter
will splash in the shining air,
and spiders make of their spittle
great cities in the grass,
the fantail flit in the tea-tree,
turn cartwheels over the mare,
young violets charm the wind,
even the dun unsmiling
bush at the head of the stream
hold up its darling flowers
to kiss the robe of the sun.
The time of doubt will pass,
faith and fact will be one.
I have no wish to circle the globe,
have no desire to travel
beyond my chosen acre: would choose
to live in peace in one place
and make my life one stay:
there is much to unravel, and much to piece together.
I would pick up a shell and scan it for half a day,
wander the paths of childhood, traverse the way
that is lost for ever;
I would think of the living, so restless in their sleep,
I would dream of the dead with their quiet faces,
see in my little room
the world stretched on the great rack of doom.
I could be happy, in blue and fortunate weather,
roaming the country that lies between you and the sun,
over the hills, fold after fold,
following the gradual sheeptracks, winding slowly
past gullies flecked with the ragwort's curse
or golden with the uneconomic gorse
to the tops of the skyhills where in time of drought
the danthonia shines like a flame that consumes the summer.
I could be happy roaming chancefoot
over those hills in the soft autumn rain,
or wandering in winter wildness. I would come again
like a shot from a gun, like a train,
like a stallion with streaming mane,
like a woman wild with the pain
page 53 and the joy of love. I would come
and live on the land, live off it,
go fishing with terns and shags,
set snares for pheasant and rabbit,
if need be walk in rags—
I would come if it were not so
that something says to me, No.
Is it hope, or fear, or habit
that has this power to restrain,
or the dim voice of a prophet?
Or a ghost within my brain?
But me no buts! You're leading me a dance.
Now what have you been reading, to queer your guts?
Ralph Waldo Trine? A sentimental tract
aiming to prove that miracle is fact,
or saying that modern men, given a chance,
are better lovers than haters? Or some sermon
drooling of Christian witness, moral fitness?
Philosophers and priests and men of letters
are the Devil's politicians on the stump,
gulling their betters,
history a running sore on Nature's rump,
the world a den of madmen. Let's be spectators
on this other planet, governed by us alone,
broad as desire, yet small enough to be
reflected in the eye of gull or gannet.
Let them steal watches or wives, cut throats or capers,
kill time or cousins german,
light beacon-fires of progress, or stinking tapers,
while we transmute the metal of their folly,
turn all their leaden doubts and self-communings,
their servile posturings, attitudes of conscience
to golden shuttlecocks, and have some sport.
Raffle your birthright, sell your chattels, come,
be quit of it all: the maggot heap of money,
the haunted room, the desperate street,
the revolving wheels and the withered hand,
the tedious week, the circular task; the cheapjack
building Utopia, the salesman bleating of Christ,
the unhappy poor envying the unhappy rich,
evil barring the door, the sorner in the sun-room,
despair in every heart, the world at the mercy
of a maniac with a comic moustache, or a peasant
page 54 riding the Apocalypse; or of the smooth
cut-throats in black with their balance-sheets and Bibles;
law married to madness, knowledge to error,
our children numbered for the shambles.
Will you escape these things? Or will you endure them?
Who will cure them? Tell me, when terror
lightens the sky, what will you answer then?
Again? Old friend, you're clever,
you know my thoughts. You tempt me with your talk
when the mood is blackest and I think of waves
breaking for ever.
How can I make this difficult decision
who have children to rear to the same
most difficult decision? Shall I teach them
to inhabit this world, to inherit
the slough of my doubt, the fury of my despair,
patiently to repeat each crime and blunder,
get knowledge piecemeal and too late, lose wonder
staring at the mocking image each generation
holds up to the next; breeding, begetting their kind,
or bleeding and dying
in a lunatic war in a distant land for a lost cause?
Shall I endure these things? Or shall I
break the circle,
bring them to live in the innocence of your world,
train them in stone-age crafts, using
such simple gear as might be stored in a cave,
or stowed in an ark? Facing absolute power,
shall I become the absolute economist,
the dark philosopher, to circumvent the Devil?
The way would be hard: but a harder may emerge
from speeches, campaigns, and talks-at-the-highest-level.
Safe in your wilderness of sea and mountain,
far from this wilderness that men have built,
you need not fear the universal plague,
terror and mortal madness, need not hear
that sound the heart makes when the mother grieves
for the murdered child, the voice of helpless guilt.
Your days are not mixed with violence, the years
suffer a gentle death, die slowly, fall like leaves.
Sometimes at night the cries of wild birds seem
the inward voice of doom, sometimes you dream
page 55 the hills fall down, the sea comes rushing in,
but morning brings the sunlight on the sill,
the blackbird shouting. Yours
is the weather shore, where many windless dawns
of mist and cloud take root upon those hills
and flower in sudden storm: but hail and thunder
are Nature's rhetoric, lifting the spirit up
heaven-high, re-kindling wonder.
Why am I not beside you, flesh and spirit?
I could be happy serving my time to the earth,
living in luminous poverty, apprenticed
to a blind, unthinkable future. I could be happy
even when the house had fallen, its rotten eaves
tangled in blackberry; well content to sleep
under the raupo hearing the rain on the leaves
rustling in darkness; glad to sweat in the sun,
and wash my body in the sea.
But I am held like the constant moon;
though chaos is my earth I hold my orbit.
Let me speak bluntly: no man, essaying sanity,
putting off vanity,
looking calmly at the world, looking it in the eyes,
could find in soul or sense an innocent love.
The fool prospers, the coward lies in silk,
the pimp is full of honour; the brave and wise
stand silent at the crowd's edge
while liars fumble with their lies.
Fate is witless: the irrational bolt will fall
where least deserved, or most, or not at all:
and at the last
we are lost in abstract death. Leave the matter there
and the hand would freeze on the instant, the heart stop,
the breath melt into air. Why
do we struggle to hold the heat of this fire of being
against the chill of Nothing, wrestle in pain
to sustain this tension between the ideal
and the real, between desire and defeat; to square
beauty with bounden duty, the innocent act
with the metaphysical fact? The heavens are silent.
Doctrines are many and doctors two a penny.
Truth in her time-flight scatters a million fragments,
and the paper-chase is endless. Knowledge is bought
page 56 and sold on margins. Mirrors,
of fear concave, of power convex, distort.
What we are taught is often
tautology, or Yes. We are fools if we think
that an absolute absolves, or that it will soften
the impact of brute fact. Neither priest nor sage
scanning the skies, neither sacred nor secular page,
gives a standard spelling for Ought; and many who save
their breath for their porridge are virtuous and wise,
while others who are most voluble
practise in error. All this I admit
out of my mother-wit. We are come of age
this side of death when we know that in terms of thought
these problems are insoluble.
What is our lodestar, then? All that is human,
kin to us, born of woman (O sea ever-living,
mother of all, falling in sunlight, breaking
over the rocks for ever, taking and giving!);
whatever knows it is mortal,
and shapes a god out of nothing, an image of beauty
from paint or stone or air; whatever is bound
by the phallic will, by the logic of generation,
and having at heart an irreducible faith
is impelled to gamble against statistical truth;
whatever hurts and is hurt, and knows about pain
as a devil sitting at the end of the bed or the brain;
whatever is gay and has courage to travel by night—
this is our map and compass and destination.
We must make our chart from the record of measurements, soundings,
the remembrance of wrecks, and follow our changing course
by the stars, and the set of the tides, and the slant of the wind;
we must yield to the terms of our being, allow
neither Church nor State to establish patent rights
over our natural joys, the heart's affections.
We know in the instant of joy that our warrant is sure,
our faith not vain, our being not belied by death.
Old rebel, what is there left for me to say
This only: till at length
I reach the end of action, the last of my strength,
I cannot sever the bond,
destroy the documents, cut the cord
page 57 of my origin and being. This is my world.
These people are my clansmen, my accomplices.
I share the crime. This guilt is my reprieve:
I am alive, and I do not mean to leave
till the game is up, and my hand has lost its power.
These are my people. Till seventy times seven
I am committed to them,
which is neither a matter for pride nor a cause for grief:
does the shaken leaf
lay claim to the earth, or condemn
the wind that blows out of heaven?
These are my flesh and blood since time began,
their folly is my folly, their joy my joy,
caught in this mortal predicament, girl and boy,
busy matron, sad-faced successful man,
prim saint and puzzled sinner,
grim loser and bad winner, pimp and peeping Tom,
snotty-nosed cherub, anonymous letter writer,
sleek parasite and host, master and slave,
owl-eye, chew-cud, wolf-jaw, ferret-face,
all of them one in the image of man
which I bear in my heart a burden to the grave.
Old friend, dear friend, some day
when I have had my say, and the world its way,
when all that is left is the gathering in of ends,
and forgathering of friends,
on some autumn evening when the mullet leap
in a sea of silver-grey,
then, O then I will come again
and stay for as long as I may,
stay till the time for sleep;
gaze at the rock that died before me,
the sea that lives for ever;
of air and sunlight, frost and wave and cloud,
and all the remembered agony and joy
fashion my shroud.
This poem, which was written in 1949, has been broadcast in the same form in which it appears here.