A poem for the Earth: Thirteen Waves

an open book, blank page on the left, black and white illustration of a symmetrical island surrounded by choppy waves.
One of the Back Beach islands in Taranaki. Linocut by Michael Smither in “13 Waves.”

Give me a poem for the Earth! This time, prose is not enough.

On Radio NZ today: Robin Martin talks to Kathryn Ryan about the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s response to new research which accuses authorities of a long-standing campaign to silence evidence about the health impacts of dioxin emissions from the production of 2,4,5-T in New Plymouth during the 1960s. Give me a poem for the environment! This time, prose is not enough.

Is the law finally coming for the notorious [Ivan Watkins] Dow company? They spilled deadly poison into the glorious Taranaki land, air and sea for 20 years, starting in the 1960s. Everyone talked about lies, cover-ups, collusion and pollution. People died. Babies died. People suffered. The Earth suffered. But only half-hearted efforts were ever made pursue the company that continued to manufacture and then dump 245-T for years after other countries banned it. 245-T contains dioxin, a key ingredient in Agent Orange. It is a known cause of cancer and birth deformities. Shame, shame, shame on everyone involved in this deliberate, defiant, greedy, illegal, long-lasting evil activity.

That’s my rant. Now for something beautiful: a poem for the Earth!

Celebrating the magic of the Taranaki landscape

The radio interview has reminded me of a beautiful old poem for the environment with its very own book, illustrated by linocuts by Michael Smither. Thirteen Waves, it’s called, because it’s a sequence of 13 mini-poems and 12 images celebrate the beauty and energy of the coastline near New Plymouth in New Zealand. I wrote the poem while living in a doomed little bach beside the harbour. This particular bach had no bathroom, just a sink, and it was a chilly, flimsy old thing. (I think someone gave it to Michael in exchange for a painting.) But the splendid sea, penguins, islands, waves, birds, air, and especially driftwood together created a brilliant environment with an intense life of its own. The black spot was the Ivan Watkins Dow factory nearby. I lament their evil work in mini-poem no. ix, “You know they dumped dioxin…”

Thirteen Waves

Sunlight throbbing among the yachts;
moonlight oozing.
Waltz of a green-lipped wizard, 
hunch of a black-backed gull.
Sun makes punctual explosions
inside the meat of the heart.

Let wood spread
along a beach.
Under the moon-cloud
toe-toes will be glowing.

The sea does not need me
to say nice things about it.
Love rubs bleak in a gale.
Sap leaks, wind seals, word fails,
wood heals white and shiny.

Not many people understand that
curled up high by the tide
is the weather-front,
a rendez-vous of sticks and sand,
the aged lovers holding hands
as tight as a whelk in a shell,
and the embryo of a dune.
Look, you don’t just slap up
a concrete wall and call it
real estate.

Soon the baches will be flattened.
Fennel mashed to the roots
honks out to minahs
waddling on the road,
blackbirds straddle wanderings
of old pohutukawas.
Bread rises without any fuss.
So does the tide.

It would be better
if this bach
had a bathroom.
I think I can safely say that.
(It wouldn’t exactly 
be this bach, 
of course.)

Two girls nearby are trying
to get pregnant.
All weekend they try like mad
and also Tuesdays.
One has the mouth of a madonna.
The other one might be sorry.

A rock kneels up in the ocean;
an ocean climbs over the rock;
a fringed eye is blinking.

The first penguin peels her voice,
and the shuffle inside the wall
is a fieldmouse
rushing an octave through.
When it snows on the mountain,
they feel like improvising.
The sea brushes our earlobes:
skeins and skeins of whisking tails,
drumming with silk on the globe.

You’re asleep
and waves of air
slide in and out your lungs.
Five inspirations
for every snore of the ocean.
Once in a while, wind
bumps the overhanging tree,
and we both turn over like a wave,
and your belly warms my back
with perfect timing.

You know they dumped dioxin
and smashed the drums
and let it leak
by permanent little
on to the world’s
most musical beach?
It’s not the atmosphere
that wounds the gannet.
The air revolves in her wake,
she horns her wings,
the South Pole swivels
and gravity inflates.
The earth is an eyeball
lashed and lidded;
every stabbing shocks
the eyes that drive the beak.
The hunter, suddenly goosey,
bobs on the mound of water
that will blind her.

I should be out the porthole
surfing violet mohawks,
bursting the orange horizon.
But in this Fokker Friendship
we are dozing
over the disc of dusk, towards
the cardboard box you say
is my home too
for a while
if I like.
(One eye juicing the sunset,
one eye tasselling
wigs of pingau.)

~ poems by Rachel McAlpine, 1986

Homeprint Books: a labour of love

I think the only place Thirteen Waves has ever been published is in the superb handprinted and hand boundbook of the same name. (I could be wrong: can’t remember!) It was a limited edition of 100 and some may still be available. Most are sold to collectors and libraries. But feel free to share the mini-poems any way you like, as long as you name me as the poet. Because I hope you share my awe at a place of almost unearthly (!) beauty. (As if anything could be more beautiful and amazing than this Earth.)

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13 thoughts on “A poem for the Earth: Thirteen Waves

  1. judibwriting says:

    Powerful. Thank you- a specific lament for a specific place that is unfortunately universal.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Well said, Judi. I think of this as a core quality of poems: writing of some thing specific that is also very common.

  2. Oh my goodness, Rachel… that’s a stunner of a poem… so much to think about… so much beauty in your writing… I was particularly struck early on with ‘inside the meat of the heart’… but so many other gems, including…’the earth is an eyeball, lashed and lidded’…. xx

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Intense, I think, and I’m so glad you see that:)

  3. A complete post for the abused earth in all its locations.

  4. Mick Canning says:

    Very powerful, Rachel. I love it.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I am glad.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    I love the line that the sea doesn’t need you to write about it. Great insight. Of course Dow has a dreadful heritage especially in the Viet Nam War with napalm dropped on helpless citizens.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:


  6. I love these Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And I am glad they have found some new readers.

  7. judithhb says:

    I am going to re-listen to Kathryn Ryan’s. Interview. Isnt she a fantastic interviewer? Of course I love the poems and they really speak to me even though I wasn’t here in the 60s and was only vaguely aware of the damage that Ivan Watkins Dow was doing and continued to do for many years, to this lovely part of our country and our earth. It’s amazing that so little has been done to bring them to justice and make them account for this damage. Of course we know this is not an isolated incident. The same has happened in so many parts of our world and the damage caused can never be undone. Your poems, as usual, are beautiful and there are so many lines that reverberate. Thank you for this post Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I agree, Kathryn Ryan is a phenomenon! The way she commits to every interview, leaping from economics and politics to music and sport and books and psychology, never missing a beat. When she interviewed me about “How To Be Old”, I was blown away by her warmth and enthusiasm.

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