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Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows

Speaking With My Grandmothers

page 51

Speaking With My Grandmothers

Every day the sea grandmother
the last fringe of light lies beneath
a banner of storm
clouds the burden of hills
presses against air from out
of my window I touch the leaves of kowhai we planted
a whole quarter of a century
ago such an accumulation
of years how we guarded those saplings
from hurricanes
nothing much changes
lights aeroplane a tangle of cable wire
but the outlines of the place
we've both called home
are still here
I know you through
these hills, this horizon, tonight's
wild dark, our summer
because you are my grandmother (great to be exact)
your picture hangs in the passage way
I like the way you stand, fingers trailing
over the back of a chair before a velvet
curtain looped with braid, your eyes fierce
and direct, a hat like a guardsman's
helmet tilting on your brow, a tell-tale
ruffle of lace at the wrists
because you are my grandmother
fluted silver vases stand poised
above my bookshelves
because you are my grandmother
I wear old fine gold and mother-of-pearl
because, because of this,
I wear this hair shirt of guilt
the settlers' shame

page 52

A little history: they left Badbea, the Sutherlands, Bartons and Sinclairs, making their way to Broro, a small town on the sea coast in Sutherlandshire, here to connect with the passenger boat trading from the far north of Scotland to the south.

Picture them waiting with relatives one early morning near the mouth of the Broro River. All ready at last, the final goodbyes, the menfolk take their places.

But wait, at that moment as the keening rises, the wife of Alexander Sutherland, holding her youngest child in her arms, breaks down and refuses to enter the boat, to go one step further. We see Alexander leave the boat, walk to where his wife stands, surrounded by her people. See how he seizes the child from her arms and turns back to the boat.
She follows; she takes her place. Going, going.

Gone to New Zealand.
Did she ever flinch again?
The Oriental put down at Petone from where you were taken
by whaleboat to Evans Bay that spot
where merry ducks paddle their own canoes and darken
the clear shallows with their shit
your father brought
some books
a Gaelic bible
one or two willow pattern jugs
a blue embossed milk jug
a mahogany table
he took
one hundred acres of country
and one town acre fifty
chains of seafront at Lyall Bay
for some sovereigns and blankets
and beads and hatchets
and there's the rub
your legacy a ring a vase or two
and a label you couldn't
have dreamed I'd wear
page 53 and I've found only of late like a child
discovering illegitimacy in a certificate
hidden in the bottom of a knickers drawer,
the contrivances of that rush for the great land
grab before the Treaty of Waitangi was signed; we can thank
Gibbon Wakefield for that, the sailing ship
rushing down to Cape Verde Islands past the Cape
of Good Hope and on and on
through the harbour mouth
arrival: 30 January 1840
what a gasp of relief in the salons of London
we beat the bastards with seven days up our sleeves
look, you'd laugh if it wasn't serious,
as they say, the city mapped
out in tidy
across a terrain as yet unseen by its planners
up hill
and down dale
well, no, up mountainsides
and down passes,
this town of ours kind of flattened
across the creases
of an imaginary map
a touch of parchment surrealism here
no wonder the lights
are wavering
all over the place
not a straight town at all
All the same grandmother
how many hills are there left to stand on
because I'll tell you, it's getting quite
lonely on this high moral ground
and now that I've found you, guilty secrets and all,
I can't keep away, can't stop looking at your picture
on the wall can't stay away from the green field I've found
up the line where sheep may safely graze
between each tombstone, private people
in private graves; I always mean to bring
bunches of flowers but they end up time and again rusty
hydrangeas plucked
page 54 from the side of the road to lay on slabs
stretching in perfect line
grandmother by grandmother
all the way back to those ships

And I whisper to you. I tell you you must not mind this foreign soil. You must not mind for me. I am the robber's bride as my mother was before me. I have found my own way. I am the ordinary face of strangeness. You would not know me if you saw me. We have bitten the white throats of roses and ridden wild horses bare backed. I live here. There is no turning back. Do not call me now. Stay just where you are. Tonight I want to sit quietly by this window. There is so little silence, so many voices.