My thanks to those of you who may have supported and seconded my self-nomination. As a result of our actions, yesterday I received a friendly but puzzling response from the director of an organization called Situations, the arts commissioning program behind the Nowhereisland project.
In her email, the director points out — addressing my claim that Alex Hartley’s work mimics my own — that Mr. Hartley “commenced work on Nowhereisland back in 2004.”
Puzzling indeed. If we’re going to bring dates into the matter of artistic discovery (never my intention), then for the record, Res Publica was conceived in 2001, with a completed version of the poem recited before a live audience, in April, 2003 — a good year and half before Mr. Hartley’s “discovery.”
I’ve decided to publish, below, that early version of Res Publica, from April, 2003, for Situations, Alex Hartley, and the Nowhereisland expedition team (they are still awaiting the copy of Res Publica, Book One, which was sent by regular mail).
I will comment further on the email I received from Situations — and its potential significance in terms of artistic integrity, colonialism and territorial rights — over the next couple days.
The following is a true account
of seven years and fifty weeks
of my life. The thrifty reader who seeks
some greater truth from such an amount
should stop here. A visiting Kipling once said
our island nation is British fed,
but will one day repay its debt in stories. *
Rudy was known for allegories.
This is not one – it’s factual role
as firm as the streets our Capital stole *
from the sea! As far as stories go,
I suggest writers like Ngauruhoe. *
It Happened on a Practice Day
It happened on a practice day.
A lull in squalls made failing motors
of the sails. We were trailing-boaters
with nothing to do now but play.
A ray of sun had set alight our skin;
the weary umpire was first to jump in;
and the cool Gulf quickly doused
the judgements which his body housed.
A flagsman leapt, then a meal-hand,
then a sailor for Team New Zealand;
everyone but me – an unsociable seal,
who was busy sleeping at the wheel.
A knocking of the stern against
some rocks – “Come in! Are we racing
again?” By god t’was night! I was facing
the stars, which floated free, unfenced,
in the celestial sea – like spectator craft! *
I looked around: My boat was unstaffed!
The water – shiny as horse-fur, banded
with white where moonlight spanned it –
was flat as an empty stage, no props
or crops of trees, no mountaintops
piquing the horizon – which truly shocked;
for the knock told me my boat was docked.
The air was warm, my clothes were wet,
without a trace of salt. To the West
soft thunder answered in anapest
a difficult question. And new ones beget:
My mates? Perished? What absurdity!
On a different boat they must surely be!
Slowly my thoughts (I snoozed through a storm?)
diffused like water from the low landform
which caused me to stand, and from the stern climb,
and question that morning’s rapid “burn-time,”
and whether my brain had sizzled while I slept.
But lo! On ground my feet now stepped!
The land was as long as a football field
and curved like rising Te Ra across.*
Momently inhabited it was. An albatross
waived and flapped her feathery shield;
then fell forward in flight. Now I
was alone in the night; not high, but dry,
perched on drowned Poseidon’s head
as if the god were standing there dead,
blue face underwater; scalp made of sand.
A moment’s panic bade me search the land
for blow-holes. But Tinirau I wasn’t to be; *
nor is that other Robinson me.
My GPS guided me swiftly home
the roughly fifty nautical miles;
to my unknotting conjugation, where smiles
were absent as always. It was a syndrome,
this icy fever of married life.
The dawn spoke more than my gab-spent wife,
who rather than assessing her husband’s survival,
was dressing for work upon his arrival.
An affair with her paycheck! Oh how the toil
of marriage can stagnate one’s life and spoil
one’s rhymes! Enough of this despair!
Fill our wings, Muse! To Wellington’s air!
Longitude 175 58’
To the Land Office on Lambton Quay,
where nary a report of my tiny highland
by passing ship or plane or island
map was produced by the Admiralty.
The flu-sick helicopter pilot
(a woman named Meg) sought my islet
at longitude one-seven-five, fifty-eight,
beyond the swirling Culville straight
and Cuvier isles by roughly eighteen
miles, and snuffly expected a slate-scene
of liquid, with depths of fathoms forty,
but found a landing-pad for our sortie.
Land! Untrespassed land! Untrammeled
hope! Geographers appraised:
“It was,” they said, “quite recently raised.
Tectonic crusts can shift…” They rambled
on and on, while I recalled
the prior week a tremor had stalled
my wife’s soft typing a millisecond.
“Did you feel that, dear?” I beckoned.
“No” – click-click, her thoughts well-railed,
while mine across great oceans sailed
on maritime bail from marital prison;
not knowing, off shore, my new home had risen.
My home! No prints of human feet
or vision were stamped upon that ground
before mine! Yes, such spots are found
by children and lovers and other discreet
explorers of secret places daily.
The earth, like skin, impermanent, scaly,
replaces wounds with scars, and erases
others. Imagine the infinite cases
of ownership, were deeds dispersed
for all things traversed or sighted first!
Boundless kingdoms in every town –
but none of that matters to the Crown.
What is ownership alas? One kind
alone is vital to the poet: the title
of Uniqueness! For each new recital,
a copyright of style is legally assigned,
making tycoons of many a bard
who once found paying creditors hard.
Lord Byron owns the ancient East.
All paradise from Coleridge is leased.
Couldn’t I divine within me some song
to build my empire loud and long – *
Oh foolish bards! Get real! A purse is
worth more in bank notes than verses!
“Sweetheart, I need some money. It’s urgent!
The emergent country I staked with a flag
(when set aground by ‘Helicopter Meg’)
needs protection from government insurgents
who claim our recently risen stone
lies within their Economic Zone!
Our lawyers, however, tell a different story:
The rock’s outside the territory
of this nation by a distance fixed
at a quarter league. Everything betwixt
that point and Peru is blue free land!
And therein sits our New New Zealand.”
Notice my choice of “our” and “we.”
My tight-lipped wife’s a shrewd investor;
the issue of “returns” have long obsessed her,
making loans her choice of charity.
Even the way she drafted our prenuptial
was less kind-hearted and more cleanuptial.
I bravely signed her contract then
and — once I produced a schedule when
she’d be five-times repaid or more
(then moved it forward a decade) and swore
to slavery should my promise prove cracked –
she savorily agreed to my contract.
Amends to the Albatross
I embarked on a life of solitude.
I packed a boat; I farewelled friends.
I brought some herring to make amends
to the albatross (a waste of food.
She had fled when I arrived).
On clams and mussels and seaweed I thrived.
There was plenty of rain. By the time November
came and went, I was a member
of parliament – of parlia-tent
I should say, just me to represent
myself, a population of one,
to protect the liberty and joy I’d won.
Indeed, it’s hard not to rejoice
in a country which breaks from Johnson’s rule
(that Republics are governed by more than one fool) *
and gives Res Publica a singular voice.
Matters of nationhood could be debated
in sleep’s chamber. On a mattress inflated
I could sign, or veto, then take a swim
and check all imbalances according to whim.
I remember once composing a treaty,
then floating it, bottled, to Tahiti,
and voting all regulations to reject!
And then came my wife, her debt to collect.
Where were the profits from oil I’d promised?
The fisheries and pearl farms? The rich investors?
The earl from England? Or was he a jester!
“You’re worse than Madam Scary, my palmist,
who predicted our pairing would be marital bliss!
Only” – lifting a paper – “she never signed this!”
I couldn’t argue. The truth was plain.
The same contract; my same bloodstain.
I offered to repay nearly ninety percent
of what remained of the funds she lent.
But she refused, and demanded in one year
I double her investment – or disappear.
Alone in my air-bed I tossed and raved
and schemed and dreamed of my Xanadu.
An army. A gold-mine. A Sultana, too?
In the end I commissioned the island paved
by a handsome Kiwi-slash-Turkmenistani
with thick mustache, who was such a good man he
offered to work for a negative sum
if I’d let seventeen of his relatives come.
And why not? He arranged the ship and sloop
and life-vests for the entire troop.
By the time his family paddled ashore
he’d imported from Auckland provisions galore.
He built the first level. There’d be many more
added above – but the first was incredible!
A Byzantine structure with divans that were bed-able;
pink satin cushions littered the corridor,
where children, saddled with Micky Mouse bags,
rode bicycles streaming with Warehouse tags *
through vibrant smoke-filled lands indoors,
with Persian carpets lining the floors,
to a bright-eyed teacher near Entrance Eight
whose Turkic words they’d enunciate.
Indeed — since Cook’s Endeavor arrived
no better breed has ever thrived.
Such thrift! Such industry! Such zeal to adapt!
How eager they were to perform some labor
which met the demands of our western neighbor:
A swift tapestry. A stuffed seal well-wrapped,
and boxed and shipped to a buyer in the U.K.
with plastic flowers wired in a bouquet.
No enterprise eluded; no wage-law intruded;
no permit was needed or passport disputed!
I recruited an accountant. He was impressed.
We bought a generator for our concrete nest.
From boxing to xeroxing — our work was transformed,
and the saffron pilaus were microwave-warmed.
When Limping Sunlight’s Journey Ceased
Then came “Island Babes,” the game
on TV where bikini-clad ladies seduce
a castaway sailor, racing to produce
his child. (The show won great acclaim;
Not one of the seventeen infants was hurt!)
The producers saw a chance to convert
the roof of our massive island home
into a kind of open-walled dome
for scenes which called for clean conditions
(and off-screen advice from obstetricians)
with ample sea-views. Three mothers stayed.
The sailor married our first-floor maid.
My Turkmeni friend’s acuity,
his global sense for timely invention,
his noble bent – not to mention
consent for promiscuity
(he built a bordello on level five) —
brought wealthy fellows to our hive.
Oh unfaithful Muse! How many men
you’ve inspired before me and my pen!
Higher we rose without delay;
no code of compliance, no laws to obey.
Lottery stalls and cyber-cafes!
A maze of walls and malls to amaze!
Level ten was reserved for the King (of burgers)
and the rest of his estimable court (of food).
Oh the untiring, unfathomable fortitude
of aspiring Punjabis and Beijing-born workers!
An Irish pharmaceutical rented
levels twelve through twenty in which it invented
(in vacuo that ingredient – tax)
a range of aphrodisiacs.
Homes and clubs took a higher view,
and all the people of Waikawau knew *
when limping sunlight’s journey ceased; *
our tower’s orange embers ignited the East.
With the U.N. we were quick to enlist
our high-rise nation. Our intrepid free will
earned a capitalization of ninety three mil –
but again! These royal thoughts persist!
I say “our” – but was my life enriched
by a roof-top tent (same tent!) now pitched
one hundred and twenty meters higher? *
I am just a versifier,
whose hard-earned highness in life or title
won’t spurn the slyness of a wife’s requital.
To be Queen, she said, our contract had bound her.
While her heart enthroned my mustached co-founder.
Through the skylight of their royal penthouse,
I observed their polyandric cult.
Despite rain, or Thor’s sky-whitening bolts,
I remained, above all, a loyal tent-spouse.
A great queen she was! On each new graph
our empire scored in the upper half! *
How often I wished to congratulate her,
but her button wouldn’t glow in the elevator
no matter how slowly I depressed it.
Depressed it? I meant “pressed it” – lest it
falsely ascribe a wise introspection,
to scribes with horizons stretched every direction.
The sails and whales; the magic levity
of cormorants in flight; the pelagic grace
of sea-clouds trailing their silvery lace,
— they stirred illusions of longevity!
And just as the crescent moon is ignored
by sun-bright noon, incessant Time soared
so high and quiescent, no clear terminus
beamed through my azure. I determined thus
never to look down, but to worship infinity
and for years I was true to my timeless divinity;
and for years I considered my peace well-earned,
until the albatross returned.
Quick! Out of Bed!
It landed on the balustrade
(which helped to keep me safely caged
when nighttime walks were sleep-engaged).
The early morning gulls, afraid
of their giant sibling, grew upset
when I approached the para-pet
and offered it food, which it refused,
its transfixed eyes were well-transfused
with something wicked, reader! I shivered!
And had my voice by cell-phone delivered:
“A head-cold,” she sniffled, but that didn’t stop her.
I was whisked away by Meg and her chopper.
How great our building appeared from a distance –
only slightly besmeared by national flags
like the pulled-out pockets of a poor man’s rags,
and the soot-black stains from someone’s insistence
on firing crackers for every last sixer
(struck not by our New, New Zealand Elixers,
but by the bat of the Indian team!).
Such flaws would be fixed. The Queen’s regime
would import new migrants to clean below:
the hemorrhage of oil, the waste-paper snow;
hot sewage boiling in a yeasty sand-brew!
“Say Goodbye!” said my pilot, “to East-Sealand Zoo!”
“How could you fail to notice?” asked Meg,
plucking from her bed-side dresser
the tissue burlesquing its predecessor.
“I don’t know, Megan; to mask some vague
understanding of masses? Money-seeking
betrays the spirit – oh look at me! I’m speaking
in cliches!” “What goes up, they say…” “Perhaps;
but our Queen would never allow such a lapse.”
“Biblical then?” “No, we arrested
Babel’s fate. Our builders were tested *
in typical English.” Bewildered cough,
then a kiss; we continued from where we left off.
“Did you feel that, Megan? The earth just trembled!”
“Oh yes.” “No, I mean, really shook!
Quick! Out of bed! We need to go look
and see if my nation has come unassembled!”
“Your nation? Why? Its emphasis
is height! Which means its genesis
is written in those stories, right?”
I said nothing. We took a flight
in her thunderous Muse. My nation approached
like a flea-ridden giant, leewardly broached
by waves! The sea rose levels four!
The fifth-floor bordello becoming the shore!
And the fleas – the fleas were people falling!
“Take me down, Megan! Down, I say!”
— as a waiter leapt from a tenth-floor cafe
and gamblers trapped in casinos were calling
for rescue! Quake-born – but not shake-proof!
“Down,” I demanded, “down on the roof!”
As loyal Megan vainly searched
for level landing, plainly perched
atop the rail like sculpted stone –
just one unruly feather blown
about by our dragon’s approach (a quill
taking notes) – the albatross was still.
“Didn’t you hear me? Down I insist!”
I made as if to exit my door,
while furious Megan swerved and swore
and reached aside to hold my wrist
— but missed! Now I was bold enough
to jump, so I did, with a landing rough
and just as Megan was coming my way,
the building started to crumble and sway.
Then tumble and crash. I sunk last,
like Melville’s native on Pequod’s mast; *
and only knew I wasn’t dead,
when I saw a white cloud with wings wide-spread.
A thousand worlds are born each day.
(Whoever says the world is shrinking
suffers from a lack of thinking).
Every set of eyes conveys
a country different than our own!
But if my fallen nation be known
to future readers, I thank the nurses
who served as midwives to these verses
by copying a notice every morning
and giving it to my neighbors. Its warning:
“All talking and pop-culture is restricted,
lest from this library you’ll be evicted!”
— Takapuna, April 3, 2003
Notes on the text:
1.7 – Kipling’s story, “My Lady of Wairakei,” in which Kipling makes this point, first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on January 30, 1892.
1.10 – Several streets in downtown Wellington are built on land which rose out of the sea during an earthquake in 1885.
1.12 – Ngauruhoe refers to an active volcano in New Zealand’s central North Island.
Canto 1 — It Happened on a Practice Day
1.2.5 – Uncontrolled spectator craft in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf have been known to cause delays for Americas Cup races.
1.4.2 — Te Ra is the Maori sun god.
1.4.11 – According to Maori legend, Tinirau rode on the back of a whale.
Canto 2 — Longitude 175 58’
2. 4.10 – Taken from Coleridge’s poem, “Kubla Khan”: “Could I revive within me / Her symphony and her song / To such a deep delight ‘twould win me / That with music loud and long…”
Canto 3 — Amends to the Albatross
3.2.3 – Samuel Johnson, In his Dictionary of the English Language (London, Walker and Co, new edition, 1853, page 536), defines the word Republick: “state in which the power is lodged in more than one.”
3.5.6 – The Warehouse is a popular discount department store in New Zealand.
Canto 4 — When Limping Sunlight’s Journey Ceased
4.3.10 – Waikawau is located on the Eastern side of the Coromandel ranges, the only town in New Zealand which could have seen New New Zealand.
4.3.11 – The sunlight is most likely “limping” because in Maori legend, Maui slows the sun by injuring it
4.4.7 – Had the builders followed the New Zealand Building Code, 1991, this would make the structure approximately thirty stories tall – but, of course, as the author makes clear, no such code was followed.
4.5.6 – Some literary scholars, such as Alberto Cross, in his book, Kingdom by the Sea: The World of ______ (Stanton and Gross, 2001), claim the author is satirizing New Zealand’s efforts to rank in the upper half of the OECD countries. In interviews, however, the author has categorically denied such intent.
Canto 5 — Quick! Out of Bed!
5.3.11 New New Zealand followed its neighbor’s example of instituting a mandatory English language test for immigrants.
5.6.10 The three “natives” of Moby Dick – Tashtego the native American; Queequeg the Maori; and Daggoo the African Negro — ascend the three mast-heads of their ship, the Pequod, as it sinks. Befitting the boat’s native American name (and the author’s nationality), Tashtego, the native American, takes the mainmast and is therefore last to sink.