Hard News by Russell Brown


A Century Since

Allen Curnow, the poet, would have been 100 today. I never met him -- although I count his grandson, Nat, as an old and dear friend -- but his work has informed quite a few things I've done.

At one of the first Great Blend events, I asked Nat to read some of his grandfather's work -- they have the same rich, deep voice -- and Curnow's cultural nationalism was always in my head through the Great New Zealand Argument project.

It fascinated me that there had been a period in our recent history when important questions of nationhood were in the hands of poets. When we launched the Great New Zealand Argument book, I asked one of the authors, former chief librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library Jim Traue, to comment on that and, in particular, on the poem that provided Curnow's most resonant lines:

The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch

- Allen Curnow

The skeleton of the moa on iron crutches

Broods over no great waste; a private swamp

Was where this tree grew feathers once, that hatches

Its dusty clutch, and guards them from the damp.

Interesting failure to adapt on islands,

Taller but not more fallen than I, who come

Bone to his bone, peculiarly New Zealand's.

The eyes of children flicker round this tomb

Under the skylights, wonder at the huge egg

Found in a thousand pieces, pieced together

But with less patience than the bones that dug

In time deep shelter against the ocean weather:

Not I, some child, born in a marvelous year,

Will learn the trick of standing upright here

O'Sullivan, V. (Ed.). (1979). An anthology of twentieth century New Zealand poetry. Wellington: Oxford University Press.

They still get me, those last two lines, and I know I'm not alone in that.

Happily, I can also recommend to you Early Days Yet, Shirley Horrocks' 2001 film following Curnow through the last months of his life, which is available in full on NZ On Screen. Here's the first of four parts:

Righto. Must go and have a meeting about the new Orcon Great Blend, Thursday, August 4, at the Auckland Town Hall concert chamber, in association with the fine people at Digital NZ, and our friends at The Edge. Details presently, but you might want to book a babysitter now ;-)

PS: You can still buy the book Great New Zealand Argument: Ideas about ourselves here, for $24.95. It features work by Robin Hyde, Sir Keith Sinclair, Bob Gormack, Bill Pearson, Jim Traue and Tze Ming Mok, and the only published transcript of David Lange's famous Oxford Union speech, with a commentary by Margaret Pope.

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