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VIGNETTES OF THE MAORI WARS
Mangatawhiri Stream
Shabbier than a frontier ought to show,
this stream (one understands) could be crossed
by a General getting on in years and not up to
his job, stumping ahead with his walking stick
to lance all nodes of ambush. Stand prepared
soon to hear his enemy’s retiring signalled.
Nevertheless, for all that it was shabby,
crossing sped as sharp debate in families
as any compensation in coined suffering
which is required by largest rigid boundaries
dedicated to statecraft, when trespassed
by fashionable regiments or mercenaries.
So much talk provides its event; at some point
invention matures as act. Men who have been here
(trenching, fascining, marching, countermarching)
now are moved there – they need simply a run with a jump
across the stream. A few will not be
jumping back.
                       Rush blown away, brown wattle
prevailing at their swamp’s embankment, refer
the price of loss to men readily defeated.
Militiaman or Regular, whose was that voice
I thought was heard as I walked my beat, years past,
in blank late night of an early winter
discomforted by antics of teatree silhouetted
against a false crest? Voice I’d have sworn to,
declaring It is over. They go away.
The stream cuts furtively into peat swamp,
debouching on the swaggering River.
It was never designed to be politically
important; merely, wished to ride unnoticed.
The penalty which low ambition pays
for keeping going is to be asked to run
larger than lifesize. Can a stream regret
that on its day it did not rise in spate?
That its violator should have been old,
not happy in his job, just getting on with it?
Baptism of Fire 1862
That girl running from him who happened to fall
on her back, her skirts kilted, her knees open,
wasted the maiden state she sped. Of all
her kind warmth he dusted his hands and, sleeping
now, cannot recall – Was she a blonde lass, or black?
Her country is far. He will not be going back.
He did not care that she should be most surprised
when a forbidden delight proved rude and sore,
awkward and messy, by no means the praised
catching matching virtuous ladies die for.
He was no lady’s gallant but raw recruit then,
here corporal of parts, an infantryman
stumbling bush tracks, mud on his serge scarlet coat,
his back aching. He is to be undeceived
yet, having been virgin of death’s correct
taking rehearsed as he walked his beat or roved
on store picquet. He has conceived the final charge,
a palisade stormed, a wound which fancies enlarge.
Enlarge to the end-all: blank rounds, muffled drums,
his Company mourning while their ranks admire
and envy. Not this way it comes,
when it does come at morning’s first ragged fire
as they wade a bog and insignificant stream,
closing the trees beyond without chance to aim.
It comes. By a snagging fern, by teatree root,
by hayfoot and strawfoot’s toss, like a lover
getting his way; is awkward, messy, not
pleasant or dreadful, a thing to discover
with more amaze than fear, how you may yet survive
vaguely proposed, still as unlikely to thrive.
The Attack on Rangiaowhia
Flames sprang the bells from their churches to round
clatter-tongued as twice tolled more than in truth
dinging maudlin of a day that was to be hereafter
spiting what preacher said while stud fell and rafter
racked bleak through his pulpit’s belly to the ground.
The Bishop alien amid their corn prayed his ruth
for a Queen’s queer justice dearly given
by Terry carbines spitting in charity’s mouth.
If there is firing in the fern what may stand
safety apart? Never small mill’s grinding
nor peachgrove’s banding, not the beanvine’s blossom
should any wind’s blow turn or lessen.
None will simple occupation in their least defend
from the irregular cavalrymen descending
to let their soured guiltiness ripen
rot-red in a valley good days abandon.
How is it to fall from your God’s just hands
between clutching at your crop and the quick
stroke your reaper planned? How may these, their brown bodies cured
in unholy smoke, count the kindness you afford
them, Bishop? How, General, are your commands
to read lawful, after; but hereafter grow sick
of a warring heart’s quarrel? An old man
from mocking history resigns, served to be meek.
One old man, his muttonchop whiskers white
as respectable conscience committed
to the institutional historians and their care,
sickens of this or that ultimate disaster
which faithful service offers to the debate
between the demands of a career, and excited
conscience (call it) where what must be forgone
is conclusion, honour by honesty slighted.
And the other old man, of whom Cowan told –
foolhardy Nixon was dead as his doornail,
the house ablaze when Von Tempsky led the last stupid charge
to the door where the dead alone could emerge,
as one did, to claim his due of a death’s hold,
A tall old man with a blanket blown like a sail
His upstretched arms showed that he had no weapon
on a gust, a draught, let the good Queen’s rifleman prevail.
Bells and bullets chiming clanged and banged down
An expression of calm sad dignity
‘… he smiled a sort of sad and disappointed smile,’ Von said;
I wonder, how far was he disappointed
who went with his harvest that the troops left brown
or plague black. They their worst of summers burned dry
with distaste. They rode off, dazed and sullen.
The pyre of their Christ encarnadined night’s blind sky.
                                                                                          March-December 58
Editor's note
Vignettes of the Maori Wars: first published Flying to Palmerston; also in Selected Poems
Mangatawhiri Stream
: the tributary of the Waikato River which formed the northernmost boundary of the King Movement; Governor Grey ordered General Cameron to cross this boundary and invade the Waikato on 12 July 1863 thus commencing the Waikato campaigns of the New Zealand Wars
Baptism of Fire 1862: picquet: card game?
The Attack on Rangiaowhia: the village ofRangiaowhia was attacked in February 1864 because it was the supply line for the defences at Paterangi; Gustavus von Tempsky’sForest Rangers and Lieutenant-Colonel Marmaduke Nixon’s ‘Moveable Column’ took part in the fighting and Col Nixon was killed at the door of the whare (not a church) where most of the resistance took place; this whare was finally set on fire and it was claimed that only old men and children emerged; George Augustus Selwyn, the first Anglican Bishop of New Zealand, lost the confidence of the Maori after this incident because he was thought to have provided information and help for the British troops; the attack and the controversy are described fully by the informants in James Cowan’s history The New Zealand Wars and the Pioneering Period(1922-3)
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