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The Spike or Victoria College Review 1947

Koru and Acanthus

Koru and Acanthus

Forsaking Man and Man's left-handed works—
Retiring in a temper and a shiver—
The over-goaded god, the suffering sun,
Lowers himself with a curse in the cold river;

And dusk, eliminating unessentials,
Sets out the symbols that the times contrive:
A pillar battered by a Visigoth,
A casa shattered by a one-o-five.

A lying decade, a deciduous
Epoch, splits and withers in the frost
While these acanthus leaves uncurl, asserting
Green values of the marble past.

Time does not weary or condemn
The cool acanthus, enviously viewed
By men whose common epitaph libels
The mellow pleasures of decrepitude:

To sit upon a pyramid of years,
Warming the old flesh in remembered noons!
Lucky the wise old whose spry spirit
Strives independent of their bones;

Lucky who in marble may bequeath
Works at whose defiance of decay
The great galoot, triumphant dirty death
Looks sheepish and takes himself away.

Antiquity is new to us: there's little
But Korotangi and the Tamil bell,
A Spanish helmet, certain storied axes
And venerable piles of pipi shell.

But everywhere in the over-crowdedNorth
When someone digs a hole or blasts a cliff,
Some archaeologist will fossick forth
A bowl, a bangle or a hieroglyph

And show us, after photographs are made
And gentle fingers clean away the rust,
How chipped and broken bits of beauty last
When cities full of evil fall to dust.

We have seen the smiling wise of a waste Egypt
Rise up and teach us virtues, though the hand
That wrote '1 lived' has lain three thousand years
Dried to leather in its tomb of sand.

Nor can the suffocating centuries
Conceal their present liveliness: to me it is
Ever remarkable what grace they gave
Their fox-and cat-and poultry-headed deities.

We have seen the works of faith—undivided
Faith in God and man's reasoning:
Faith that moved merchants and persuaded
Heavy stone to soar aloft and sing.

And we have found, as Florence found of old,
That new regard for the world and one another
When a sheep-dog blinked amid the glass and gold
And a figure in a fresco called us Brother.

(Brother, also, to the kid comparing
Our canned carne with his empty guts:
The possible Leonardo, senza scarpe;
The Botticelli picking up our butts.)

We have known the days of no faith and bad faith,
Confusion sown where rational credence fails,
Half-held beliefs shored up by interest
And bitter poets gnawing their finger-nails,

Dreaming of hooded hordes and dried lilacs;
A layer of lies stifled our energies
In a smothering scum, as over the clean sea lie
Acres of oil where the little blue penguins freeze.

Time has laid waste the old Egypt;
Time and long war have laid waste
Europe, evil wrecking much evil,
And much good not easily replaced.

But from the slow poison and fierce flame
Some of the old good may yet come
Through—like beauty whispering out of Memphis
When Pharaoh and his ministers are dumb;

May come through, take new life and flourish
For the young Europe now fighting free,
And new eyes behold with new wonder
My bedraggled, beloved Italy.

I hear a muted, looted fisarmonica
And voices, unmistakable somehow,
Singing.' Kua he te shape o Cinderella
I te son-of-a-gun,' they sing. And now

page 17

Among the twilight ruins I think of dawn
On a country poor in ruins, many wide
Sea-miles away, where trees on papa cliffs
Are shedding crimson stamens in the tide.

A land whose songs are yet to sing, a land
Of virgin peaks and unimagined palaces:
Whose 'possumbilities escape in tangled
Native and exotic truths and fallacies;

Where old manners lie but thinly over
A new people of uncertain promise;
Where paspalum and purple clover cover
A jittery volcano's recent pumice.

Mostly indeed there is a pleasant harmony
Of local and imported, old and new,
And in an economic, ethnic dove-cote
Diverse details amicably coo:

Farms, where the casual cabbage-tree with spritely
Asterisk enlivens quiet meadows;
Creeks with the evergreens in spring politely
According precedence to English willows;

The modern school with a motto from antiquity
(Maori or Latin) graved above the entrance;
The rail-car, the mountain-house, the hiccupping
Tui reeling in the rhododendrons.

All very elegant; very
Agreeable to visitors: few mark
How the old, the new and the mixture
Struggle with each other in the dark;

How little plump anomalies burrow,
Breed, and emit queer smells;
And a yellow perennial paradox
Blooms where we planted something else;

How the normal's derided and denied
By new facts uneasily reported:
The moose among the heifers, stupefied,
And the dog doubtful if he should have brought it.

We drain old swamps; model dairies
And snug hygienic piggeries are planned:
But as the peat sinks the old heathen
Stumps arise to struggle for the land.

The old gods hanker for the spoils
We have taken, and will not let us be:
Waiapu comes a-reeving from the hills
And sweeps our mangold-paddock out to sea.

There are new stresses threatening the concrete
We thought indubitably sound;
There are hopes whose green grass yellows
As the wire-worm wriggles underground.

Hopes: common cargo since the first
Arrivals made out their future home,
Saw the kura flaming on the coast
And cast their parrot feathers on the foam;

Beginning long ago the first changes
In a changing, astonishing New Zealand:
Bringing a land acquainted with the seasons
The fun and colour of a coral island.

Came the pakeha, the bumptious and the timid.
Some brought useful luggage, others not:
Hopes and albums, rabbits, prejudices
Parsons, roses, measles and the bot.

People of Europe's most insipid period:
Heavy Fathers, snivelling Mary Anns,
The County Failure, the odd revolted Butler,
But no sinful colourful Gauguins.

Believers who had never built cathedrals,
Unbelievers feeling weak and beaten,
Brought alike the old family furniture:
Not antique, but thoroughly worm-eaten.

The rich, the down-at-heel, the poor-genteel—
The old strata—settled down together,
Replaced the pleasant pagan aroha
With a circumspect loathing for each other.

And the songs unsung, the gold imaginings,
Were banished with a wet, dimmed radiance
To the wry life of slum window-boxes,
A pestered little hope of red geraniums.

The tune changes. In a vision once
I saw a certain Polynesian maid—
Ano te kiri! me he kotuku—
The poi flying from her shoulder-blade.

The words you sing, e hine, the waves utter
Moving along channels among the rocks,
And in the swirl of the wind, the swirl of your dress,
I have heard the same frisk and rattle' of flax.

But the tune is one known in tall cities
And the arcs light you with the same carbons
That even now transfix night bombers
And sweep nightly mine-infested harbours.

You are given our grief by a world ever devising
New beauty to embitter each new hour,
Designing love to deepen hate, opposing
Honey and poison in the phormium flower.

You are fallen upon an age past singing
And past caring for the poi's magic—
Will you be there in the new age, bringing
Your words like ferns to grace the new music?

Or be remembered only as one who strayed
Awhile among our griefs, and only traces
Record your passing, as there wandered once
Among the river reeds a weeping Isis?

You who carved the acanthus, you who raised
Rebellion against death in the pictogram,
You who dug ideas from the ruined forum—
You, my neighbour on the Wadestown tram—

You who manned the little ships, and painted
Riverside madonnas in their blue
Dresses—you who reasoned about planets,
You, my comrade in the cactus—you

Whom people honour when they suddenly
Caress the green marble of San Miniato,
You who sailed fantastic miles with nothing
But nerve and the edible rat and sweet potato—

page 18

You today the soiled, unshaven
Ulysses, rise! Outface
The yogi and the well-dressed bourbon
Who sit in the brave man's place,

Thriving on each bold blunder,
Spreading the story you are dead—
you the mocker of gods, fire-finder
And fisher-up of islands, lift your head.

I know you, saw you stand undefeated
Beside the maquisard and partisan.
I recognise in you the frustrated,
Illimitable love of man for man,

The love that sang in epics or cathedrals—
The same love, banished from the state,
That stammers back violent in machine-guns
And explodes under viaducts of hate.

I know, far away from these sad
Civilisations, a place where that love
Could find scope without dynamite;
Where there are few ruins, and room to move.

Room for the good of thunder-struck Europe
Without its errors; room to use the new
Life rising under the falling towers
And the beautiful hopes of steamer and canoe;

To build the white wharves of a new Carthage;
To gladden a sky more vast
With the lost constellation of virtues
Men wept for in the widowed past;

To reconcile in the one rich design
The old and the new with forms entirely ours,
And find a new beauty in our own
Unemphatic but insistent flowers.


The koru is the spiral design used in Maori art.

A Sheep-dog blinked, etc. Giotto. I believe, was the first European artist since classical antiquity to paint a dog, or. for that matter, a real-looking man. The life of St. Francis was the main subject of his frescoes.

Carne—Meat; senza scarpe—without shoes. Very familiar words to N.Z. soldiers in Italy.

Hooded hordes, and lilacs: See "The Waste Land."

Kua he te shape, etc: "The shape of Cinderella has been changed by the son-of-a-gun." A low Maori song.

Kura: Red feathers for the hair were prized in Hawaiki. but on seeing the bright red (kura) of the pohutukawa. the members of one expedition threw away their plumes.

Aroha means more than our word "love" usually conveys. It includes the ideas of charity and sympathy.

Ano te kiri, etc: "How beautiful. Like a white heron." A remark applied to Hinemoa in Grey's "Nga Mahi a Nga Tupuna."

San Miniato: A twelfth century romanesque church which anticipates by some centuries the spirit of the Renaissance.

Falling towers: See "The Waste Land."

Lost constellation: See Purgatorio, Canto I. "I considered the other pole and saw four stars never seen except by the first people. The sky seemed to delight in their burning. O widowed northern region, deprived of these." Dante identified the four stars of the Southern Cross with the pagan or cardinal virtues