Excerpt: 'Port Manifold' by Rob Allan


Kerosene street lamps burned in 1863,
designed and cast by John Miller, Dunedin City Engineer.
On the base embossed, “Se undo curo.
I will prosper and I am cautious.”
Forward in the light of days.
Still standing metal hitching posts, the drinking fountains
with metal cup and chain, and Cargill’s monument,
a little gargoyle tower of stone embroideries.
Boundary of the modern age, its festival of speeding science,
the refreshing waters imbibed by Mr Fish the Mayor,
under hills constancy, harbour’s intake, boundary and terminus.
This the unreturning, becoming place of gap, of faraway
world’s last settled sanctuary.
Reading a poem by David Lynch, “Literary Immortality”,
summoned a memory of Riversdale between Lumsden and Gore,
Riversdale where the Matauru and Waimea flow,
Riversdale set upon a gravel plain.
Reading from the School Centennial booklet,
recalling the gyrotiller that came to school,
it was the year of Dunedin’s South Seas Exhibition,
and John A. Lee, old boy of Riversdale, spoke of the dominie Monroe.
Refreshment and toilet on the road to Queenstown,
a day in December, an unexpected silence,
a break from conscious thought,
a glimpse of time ending, and stopping nowhere.
Down George Street, Port Chalmers,
Mr Ian Church in Henry Lewis’ fishing boat,
sails into darkness, out of Bowen Dock,
into a glint of light, a streak of the Milky Way.
Historian of a settler harbour, coastal villages,
with lantern held aloft, as if to signal, as if to call to those ahead.
John Hore singing to Mungo in his one room railway house, Waltzing
Matilda, a coal range, clock that stopped at a quarter
to the hour.
Many a generation cooped inside, Shack of shells,
Mungo the story teller, Henry as shark hunter, the untold souls
of a story, the premature babies, asleep in their stone sealed
Mr and Mrs Watkin of the Methodist Missionary Society, bound for
Tonga, passing the Royal Barge at Gravesend,
King George V was told and doffed his hat.
Watkin demurred, called out, “No sacrifice, God’s will.”
Next post New Zealand, Watkin defining his position, as 800
miles from Hokianga, far off from Sydney and the
Australian Synod, this island of mountains, creeks and rivers,
impenetrable bush.
An island that could produce food for millions,
yet solitary as a church yard cough, with natives thinned by
war and infection, ruled by tribal Tamberlaines.
Bain’s hill, the hefty sheep in Spring meander,
feeding on garden flowers and roadside grass,
and Isbister’s slipway to the harbour,
a rotting shipyard, gardens of bare branches with a clear view from
Port to Heads.
Tug Rangi guides a cruise ship into Port,
from portside suites, visitors lean to view, Iona’s grey
church spire, Lean’s rock, Potakere altar place,
and below, the memorial cairn of Robert Falcon Scott,
who sailed for the South Pole in the Terra Nova, in smoky
departure, 29 November, 1910.
M.C. Escher’s, Prententoonstelling, 1956,
a boy in the print gallery, looks out to the harbour,
to the cathedral and the high rise city,
what cosmos holds and dreams awaken,
a swimming and flying world of experience,
a child’s first note to self. Name and address,
the date, on earth and universe,
in being particular, a being of substance,
a containment, a feeling visceral and palpable:
a shared life, flora and fauna,
nexus of creation, in unstoppable advance.
No single but a complex thing, a flicker here,
a chance of flame, a power and pulse to launch aurora.
Port view and the ocean’s knot length hold of seas,
kuramatakitaki, a treasured place from which to gaze,
myths that ground us, place and purpose,
under the canopy of stars and space.
Shack sorting salvage, what’s worth keeping,
on a winter morning under a crackle of sun,
his tyre tracks from beach to cottage, shed chock-full.
A storehouse of tidal merchandise, sea’s articles.
Shack incorruptible, his not-for-sale haul of treasure,
day’s delivery of strange and ordinary, a possession of
smuggled cargo, shells of hull and bilge, storms’ dislodging
A garden of daffodils, white, cream and yellow, hoop and frill, flowers
single and double, escapees on the run.
Swimming from Tonga, three humpback whales harpooned in
Waikouaiti Bay.
A cry went up, “He ika moana”, a feast from the sea,
fifty feet in length, waylaid slabs of flesh and blubber,
bone and oil, the makings of fertilizer, lipstick and soap,
light for the home.
Delight in the chase and capture, of the life and spirit,
and the subject of nature, of which I write.
A pious dread of progress, gold and diggers,
Cargill on the panning,
“Loss”, a well-known river and “Mount Difficult”,
a mate of “Mount Misery”, the sluicing and dredging,
to pay for simple pleasures, to advance not a whit,
the cause of the Free Kirk, the good life.
“Good morning, good morning New Zealand,
so pleased to be back.” Aunt Daisy on the ZB radio,
or David Stanley in impersonation,
and the smell of Gregg’s factory of coffee and spices.
A pantry full of preserves, pigeons in their coop in Dundas
a vanilla flavour in the milk pudding, pancakes fried in butter,
the copper in the wash house, salt and vinegar scrubbed out
for the brewing beer.
Mother at home, father rides his bike to work,
the rough world is creeping to run the show.
Green Island, the Kaikorai stream in winter flows chapped with ice,
and the road steams in sun by the porridge factory.
Blood and bone, tannery, burning smell, industrial and
animal, clouds hold a lid on the steaming pot.
Turning lathe, glowing furnace, a picture show
of community, a town that serves itself, to advancement and progress.
Captain Goldie and his cannon,
his flags of nations, his flagpole flying
to welcome ships of entry,
to harbour lookout, his sailor’s home.
A veranda, set upon by sun, seagulls splattering, a view of the channel
from Port to Heads and the curve of horizon.
Goldie, a Scot from Aberdeen, his neighbour, Isbister
from the Orkneys, ship builder, master maritime.
Freaking days descend in floral dress,
disordered sense, a green weed’s growing amongst the tomatoes,
a yearly search by police helicopter of section, bush and garden.
Resinous pine logs stacked in cradles,
stripped back, branchless,
cut, trimmed and chain dragged,
Pinus Radiata, from scabby hillsides,
coverall forests, companions in a rack,
a farmed utility, thirty years a-growing,
to clatter in the holds of vessels,
departures for the South China Seas and Asian ports,
leaving a perfume of export, in these green and sappy islands.
In threshold time, slow the pace, harvests, seasons, occupations fit
the patch, generations follow, with yarns and stories.
A catch of crays in wicker baskets, supplejack dried and bent.
Cockle and mussel on the hook, night skies opening a treasury
of stars, tides shift, sandy islands raise their heads.
Apple, pear and plum trees, gooseberries, redcurrants inside a hedge, ground of foundation, depression where a cottage stood and carriage
Charles Bradley, from Kent, gold miner, fisherman,
married Hinekino te Horo of Moeraki,
purchased schooners for trade between Port and Waikouaiti,
building a fleet, the Result of Otago, Trial, Mermaid, Olive
his last the Franklin Belle and The Good Templar.
A career in trade, working a way out of harbour locality,
the harbour home at Otaheiti
with a jetty and a path leading up to the gateway,
home to ancestors, who from Bluff return,
to ground and hapu, anchorage.
Bill and Adelaide Lewis of Deborah Bay,
married in 1889, a second generation fishing the harbour,
and rearing a very large family of sons and daughters;
a life in a two roomed, harbour-side cottage,
outhouse bunks, and rosters of management,
sixteen offspring to nurture and raise,
house Adelaide’s piano, dresser, her finer imaginings.
Bill the fisherman, sometimes short of temper,
his shouting heard on arrival from the Crescent, rowing against a tide,
a signal for all to scarper, climb to the barn and hide.
A kind grandfather in his forties,
a maker of model vessels, a keeper of canaries.
From Pulling Point to harbour entrance,
flounder: on sandbank at Dan’s Hole, West Hole,
nine inch, one shilling a dozen, to the largest four shillings.
Flounder: silver shining in 80 metre nets,
pulled back from sand lip to shallows.
Robert Lewis and sons, John and Bruce Kenton and father Jim,
the seine net fisherman of Otago Harbour,
go beyond the Heads, to deep water fishing,
the grounds where winds blow and the groper bite, a big sea
following, run for home.
John Kenton tells of the hold weighed down with trevally and
barracuda: maybe on occasions the tugboat Plucky
was called on to pull them in to Port.
Engineer Petre of the Deborah Bay Tunnel,
oversees the blasting of Mihiwaka,
Port Chalmers’ signature and base note breccia,
the spoils removed by a train of dobbins and gang of navvies,
the judders of pickaxe, explosions shattering sense.
As Hannibal’s army blasted through the Alps, a surprise for the Romans
in 218 B.C.
and Isambard Kingdom Brunel in Victorian Britain, created route and
access, rail, bridge and road, Petre too construing Nature, working
with, for and against.
Robert Lewis of Deborah Bay, writes as Bob the Fisherman
to the Otago Daily Times,
excuses himself and his shaky writing,
“Hauling up groper at 2-0-clock.” (20 May 1871).
Father of eleven daughters and eight sons,
known in street, local tavern and church,
his offspring born in a two-roomed cottage,
garden of seaweed and shell,
a ketch hauled to the kitchen door.
“No road!” he writes, “An isolation, a feral silence,
by which we learn, measures of lack,
the disadvantages of confinement.”
The road itself a record of history,
cutting through bays,
round very tight corners, a loch-like river, a portside way.
Māori prisoners, committed to labour,
place trachyte, dressed stones,
in the harbour wall sloped exactly 45 degrees.
Straight where curved was want to be, a meandering way,
as were the Taranaki prisoners, housed in the schooner, Success.
Waiting for news and cargo,
legal tender, coins of the kingdom,
realms far-off and fair.
Hearing of Bonaparte’s Peninsula Wars,
Lawrence who defended Lucknow,
Milton’s scanning of heaven and hell,
Cobb and Co. coaches with fresh horses,
arrive at the Clutha where Captain Tsukigawa on his steamboat,
serves Tuapeka and Port Molyneux,
a face familiar in Balclutha, his offspring often sighted
in Dunedin, Palmerston and Oamaru, though less so now.
Fishermen who knew the business, the fishing grounds,
banks and pastures up and down the coast,
McDonald North Reef, Tunnage’s Patch,
Jim Daw’s Little South Reef, going out in single cylinder,
benzene powered, slow but reliable scow.
Engines cooled with salt water, Frisco Standard,
Jersey Standard, USA, the benzene fuel,
boxed like the kerosene, double tinned, four and a half gallons.
A useful container for delivering wet fish to market,
stored on a punt at the Bowen Wharf,
loaded on railway waggons for the Dunedin auctions,
at Robertson Bros and Gibbs Fish Supply, Otago.
From family business to Fishermen’s Cooperative,
fishermen’s hands bait the hooks,
long lines buoyed by floats,
or dan-lines grappling an ocean floor.
Industry at cost, labour at the behest of capital,
accounts of change and progress, a history follows,
but will not judge, closures and relocations,
move from simple to complex, from shed to plant,
trawler to factory ships, conglomerates with shareholders,
a global management at the pleasure of the Board.
It was Macandrew, first Chairman of the Provincial Council,
who insisted on the partial bypass of Port Chalmers,
to plough the channel of the Upper Harbour to reach Dunedin,
to remove the silt with the dredge Peninsula,
The Iron Age, and the Balclutha: to drop the waste upon sands
once clean, a constant irritation.
Shallow the waters of the city, the Lower Harbour
with the mole at Aramoana and the dredge New Era
clearing the channel.
This play of life, the claimed and reclaimed,
the flow of yin and yang and Nature’s substantial reckoning.
Maersk, Starline, Hamburg, containers stacked five high,
and in the channel a raking claw,
stoops and wobbles from a barge,
a grip on tides, the swirling silt and sand,
shimmer of shell, seaweed up for air, to deepen the channel, to contest
the constant eddy,
to compete for trade, to live, survive and prosper.
Sun’s consuming, Nature blazing fire,
life as mimic regarding sense,
what stellar, what compiling,
what compounds of currency, what returning finance.
A gateway to the street, an opening scene,
to find that luck runs in and out, rides on chance,
through archway, harbour, port of entrance.
Te Atua-o-Taiehu, a spirit in the harbour,
tides swell and depart, ships enter in the darkness,
depart in the light: keep up your lively record,
live by small account.
Shells rare and various, arrive into Shack’s safe keeping,
a tide delivered post, patiently awaited.
Offers from a museum, from interested parties,
and comments, questions, unwelcome opinion.
Every shell with a local provenance?
Slights unforgiven, each shell, protecting its own story.
Ernie, Herbie and Shack go to the Picture Palace
to see a 1940s film, “Dead of Night.”
Time goes around itself, a “Ground Hog Day”
with no beginning, end or way out.
“S’truth, I’m telling you. A bloody nightmare.”
Sand flies down the worm-hole,
salt sea spray creates its own chaos,
how to compose the miracle of familiar sequence,
tide’s ebb and flow.
Composing and drawing the connections of Nature,
power’s blasting centre that drives this sovereign coast.
Words are my delight, a sense of safe and sound,
corporal of the inside out, marshal of meaning,
what’s to be known of endless and edgeless,
harbour and port, galaxies unrevealed, measures of certainty,
enumerations of the imagined, a world of the possible, evocations of
slow step, fall-back, passages ahead.
Foragers dig around the whare house posts,
near windbreak grass that holds the dunes in place,
a face to the ocean, back to the hillside,
it was here, a boy working for the Driver family,
found pathways to clearings and outlooks,
old tracks, in bush and around the coast.
A village abandoned,
treasured items left to strangers,
hei tikau and mere, still warm to touch.
First to arrive the giant people, Kahui-tipua,
followed by the canoe, Araiteura from Hawaiki,
swathed in a mist, emerging into daybreak,
and the canoe Uruao, carrying the great Rākaihautū
who journeyed the South Island, with his digging-stick.
It was the Te Rapuwai who left middens of shell and bone at Shag
Point, and the Waitahu, Kati Hawea, Katiraka,
who came before Ngāti Mamoe and Ngāi Tahu.
At the river mouth, on the rocky shore
the sand dune bounded estuary of hooks, bangles, pendants,
where time was taken and the first seasons of our present claim.
Tangata pora, the men of ships arriving as the expeditions for
weka begin, a move inland from coast, and the eels, ti roots and
ferns, ducks for preserving, flax curling green to the
scrape of shell.
There’s trade and tracks to follow South, the mollymawk and
good meat of seals and dog,
and islands of mutton-birds, shearwaters, petrels.
Barracouta on smooth bright days, flashing lures above the
shoals and gulls that wait to congratulate. 
By way of command of word and whip,
bullocks in a team drag sledge, dray, waggon on early runs to
backblocks, up the Shag Valley to Macraes and the Rock
and Pillar.
Bullockies who knew the grades of easement,
marked out the roadways of today.
Donald Reid’s wool packed waggoner, held on in fear that the foggy
morning’s high grass rough track tussock hid the poisonous tutu
Bullocks locked in stubborn obduracy, slow backed thigh and meaty
buttock leverage,
a piston of industry, awaiting shrill displacement.
Koputai, deep fathoms below and a ridge above,
where the whalers and sealers sat waiting for the tide.
Koputai – their sailor’s joke,
a fire was lit, a billy boiled, and tea’s black brew,
a “Cuppa tea,” enjoyed.
Allan Coburn, son of the Port policeman,
Kerry Thorn, his life lost early,
the Church boys, Jock and Ian, and the Agnews
of Arts and Letters.
Cameron, Boswell, McCormack and Mal Grenell,
who kindly handed the bat to the new boy
on his first day at the Otago Boys’ High School.
Those who gave Port’s welcome,
a dog town, dock town, openness to travellers, strangers,
the new arrivals.
At peace with things,
the rock of earth, the turning around the sun,
the making of a fitting place,
what could have been, what silence reigned,
if life had not arisen and looked upon itself.
Nameless precedence, the ever to be plumbed far off cosmos, the
inherent nub as centre of ourselves and distance,
this considerable elaboration.
It was the wrecking of the harbour ferry, Pride of the Yarra,
and the loss of life:
on board, the first Rector of Otago Boys High School,
carefully selected by a panel of Scots and English educators
from the Edinburgh High School, Rugby and Oxford.
Only the best was acceptable, a public education to be offered to
the boys of Otago.
A tragedy engraved; the prefects of 1963, stand reverent in
uniform, grey suits, white shirts, black shoes and blue ties.
On this winter day at the Southern Cemetery:
Mike Linzey, Jock Church, Barry Cameron, David King,
Colin Anderson, Peter Nelson, Ross Johnston, Don McKinley,
honour the life unpredictable.
Robert Lewis, seine fisherman of Deborah Bay,
settler, 1862, from Norfolk, by way of Melbourne,
bringing his ketch Blanche Barkley and wife Emma.
Robert and Emma and their very large family,
eleven daughters and eight sons, three daughters and a son who died in
infancy and Harry drowned at Kakanui, 1891.
The Great War and another son, Robert, killed in France.
Alfred’s spectacular and tragic departure,
playing with explosives from the Taipo Explosives Company,
a misplaced adventure, a barely lived life.
Of the surviving adults all but two moving elsewhere,
Thomas Edward and William John, fishermen,
working the coast from Cape Saunders to Moeraki.
Bill Lewis married Adelaide Hawthorne Brown in South Dunedin 1899, Adelaide, daughter of
a butcher,
Bill a fisherman, son of fisherman, Deborah Bay.
The couple signed the banns and made their home up river, portside.
Adelaide of talents and refinements, needlework embroideries
and illustrations, playing the piano, collections of china.
There were children, born into cottage confinement,
and a life of barter and exchange, a garden, livestock, fish and rabbits,
the time of storytellers and the subjects of myth.
Generations of the memorial name, Lewis, on the district road,
Shack, Buff, Harry, Russell, Jock, Mungo, Mick, Bob, Digger,
Bert, Herbert, Eva, Betty, Biddy, Vi and Emily,
born in a two room cottage, Bill and Adelaide’s branch of family
separated by the years,
the eldest sister Emily, a distant memory to youngest Mungo,
unable to remember Emily’s marriage,
and at a once only meeting, their father’s funeral, the head
and tail of family, were finally together.
With space to fit Adelaide’s piano, table and dresser,
china and needlepoint: hold fishermen’s parties, entertain late
night visitors, girls in their beds, most anxious to be not sat upon.
The Port in sight, and what seems now, a drift of ghosts,
a spirit of emptiness.
Tamakanui, a small headland of inner harbour,
and Lewis house with tin shed, bunk-house,
family on a roster, timetables of infrequent meeting.
Front door facing farmlands, bush sloped Mihiwaka,
a smell of eucalyptus, sea smell invasion,
the baffling crackle of seaweed and the plaintive gull.
Sea wall memorials to several lost babies,
a mooring for the Duke of York and the Sea Hawke,
choice from a list of occupations, time floating, landlubber days
or the drift upon seas’ gentle buoyancy.
The Lewises of the Lower Harbour, their tale of the century,
to list with Fred and Myrtle Flutey’s Paua House in Bluff,
the giant Cromwell peach, apricot and plum, the Mayor of Invercargill,
Tim Shadbolt, Gore’s gigantic trout a-leaping, Southland’s gold
guitars, Lawrence’s windmill gardens, Riverton’s teapot display,
Cardrona’s fence of bras, the Seine Bridge lockets of love, Postman
Cheval’s, Palais Ideal du Facteur, the put together oddments,
curios and eccentricities, charms against losing time and life,
engaging imagined places, the distant sanctuaries, a thumbs up to
rejig the wayward drift.
Giving due warning, shouts are heard across the bay,
rowlocks protesting an uneven stroke,
a summons to the night that drinking’s done,
and that mother and children climb to the neighbour’s barn,
safe from the storm.
Domestic interiors and the world’s forced entry,
day may find, doors flapping, broken crockery,
a rattling snore from an outgoing breath.
A quiet appraisal of the morning, the terms and conditions
of what was agreed, one to the other.
Bertie and Chris, Whistling Bob and Shack,
sitting on the veranda, watching the road and harbour,
where traffic and people pass, the retired workers
from wharves and farms, Cook and Stevenson’s, Union Steam Ship Company, road
and wall builders, fishermen, boilermakers, stevedores,
engineers, a mind on days gone past.
Bertie and his father, from a long line of fishermen,
fishing on the Marian and the seine boat Julia,
seven days a week alongside Bill Ledgerwood.
Recalling the day Bertie caught the groper,
196 off Cape Saunders and the biggest shark,
the Great White pulled into Deborah Bay,
a photo of the children as witness, preserved in grainy landscape,
who saw the shark and Bertie with his catch of the century.
A building demolished as Winter passes,
a fading impressions of a wall’s foundation, a shed, a doorway.
Present events shade, thoughts move ahead,
characters who filled a scene are casket closed.
People of Port like Cuckoo Green, Portugee Joe
once well known, commanded attention on the village street,
performed upon a sunlit stage another spontaneous performance.
Tastes, scents, flavours lost to passing generations,
high country grass rich with wild herbs, giving taste to
Summer in the memory, the swimming pool built over many
weeks, set in the harbour below the cattle tracks.
A slip of sand tipped at Carey’s bay taken from Spit Beach,
a child’s rope left swinging in the gum trees,
autumn mushrooms, blackberries and crab apples, pleasure’s
equinox of recurring passage, the unrepeatable solstice of earth
and sun.
An absence in the public record,
women in the Port, a mention of the drunkard,
an argument amongst neighbours, marriages, divorce.
Of women in business, listed in a Stone’s Directory,
Mrs Eileen Chick, a widow of publican George,
Mrs Annie Coleman, boarding house,
Mrs Mary Gray, restaurant, Mrs Eliza M Shakesby, fruiterer,
Mrs Ann Dove, laundress, Mrs Susan Kennedy, storekeeper.
Mrs Lear-month Dalrymple, living in Magnetic Street,
took up the cause of girls’ education,
gathered the support of local politicians,
set up Otago Girls’ High School, kindergarten,
and promoted women’s entry to the university.
Koputai, Otaheiti, Otawhiroko,Te Mapou and Waiparapara,
headlands, bays, and landing spots, the salt-lick coast of
harbour, seas’ watermark.
Port Chalmers, Lean’s Rock, Grassy Point, Cromarty’s Corner,
Pulling Point, local residents call out to land and water, sky and
rock, smell of inlet, sharp tang of bush.
Under the ridge of Cargill-Mihiwaka and mounts of Chalmers, Kettle,
Martin, Cutten, Holmes, settlers of a shifting politic,
guardians of Otakou-Otago, lay claim to harbour,
Port and entrance, caught up in their own company,
by this and by no other place.
The latest Bell Colman refrigeration machinery installed on
the steamer Dunedin with fresh meat from the Totara
Estate, frozen on board ship, 7 December, 1881.
Unplanned, unforeseen, a trade of pasture, New Zealand lamb, butter
and mild cheese.
Sold with an image of braiding rivers, wide spreading plains, sheep
fleece white, mountain crests, the paddocks green.
After the Gold Rush, Great War, flu epidemic, Great
Depression and slump,
at the bottom of Harbour Terrace, in a cove called
Isbister’s, a unique slipway turned its rollers, cogs and
There in the tidal waters, in the photograph, the bones of the
Moa and Prince, Alfred, Otokia, Mokoia and Kahika,
and the hulks of Monowai, Atu Navua. Moeraki and Shaw Savill’s
Done for, sluiced away in grit grinding tidal flush, vessels of abandoned
lives and livelihoods.
A Port harmonica band from bass to treble,
and troops of actors, fashion evenings, balls and dinners,
sailors who rush the gangway reclaiming kisses,
a meal at the Sailor’s Rest, evenings of drunkenness.
A dance and the Wheeler Boys on guitar, sax and drums.
What was in the air, the fishy odours, diesel, generator hum,
a gush of water filling tanks, crane rumbling, bump of cargo,
the shunt of waggons under wharves’ night-light.
Earth turning spiral, stellar, in sphere drift distances,
percussion of hoist and lift, night songs, drumming of
trade, vessels ready for passage through Heads and channel.
Flora and fauna of rock and reef,
scab-weed on greywacke, outcrop on hill,
green moss in shadow, bugloss floppy leaf, stonecrop brilliance,
a living blob of brown or ochre,
swirling green on the rock sea shoulder,
familiars of composition, arts’ composure,
sited here in common place.
To take in and give out what sense uncovers,
solidity of stone in contracted mass,
the pouring of air, slipshod waters, the swirling
intention, to continue this way, this way.
Koputai and Deborah Bay, a harbour tide runs
three miles an hour, flood-tide and ebbing, a useful fact for
vessels entering and departing.
Talk of notable characters and personalities,
those who lives filled out a paragraph of history,
and those whose days fell beneath account.
Woebegone, drifters, no- hopers,
ordinary jokers, strange coves, old chooks, noisy roosters,
all who gathered about the harbour, worked and waited,
dressed in the clothes of rag-bag nations,
sailors, residents, their names on graveyard stone.
Loading a cargo of spuds, turnips, oats and frozen mutton
in a hold’s death trap,
a cranky foreman sees and remembers a sideways look,
there’s a job cleaning bilge tanks, greasy engines to scour and scrape, breathing dust, in seasons hot and cold.
Rats, spiders, cockroach and seagull slime,
smells of rot and sea-smuts’ gaseous glaze,
wharves and ships, odours of tarry rope, nets, fish, seasick slipways.
These hard worked days with a porthole view,
of channel, sky and drifting clouds,
aboard ships sailing for Pacific ports and the South China Seas.
The Pride of the Yarra and the Favourite,
plying the harbour from Port to Dunedin,
on July 6, 1863, they came upon each other, with no time to turn.
There were drownings and the tragic loss of the first Rector of
Dunedin’s High School.
Details in the Daily News,
the faults of the ferries, signals and seamanship, everything
was scrutinized, and a sentence served,
the ineptness of the captain,
the unseaworthy vessel, forever in the memory, sad days as these.
A few more words about William Isbister,
who patented a slipway with pulleys wheels and rails,
to pull up a ship of size or lower away.
His plans of a ship unsinkable,
ten watertight compartments steel walled and right angled,
bulkheads with a system of storage,
unfortunately finding no backers and was never built.


Excerpted from Port Manifold, by Rob Allan. Published by Katsura, 2017. Excerpted with permission from the author.

About the Author:

Rob Allan (b. 1945) is a New Zealand poet. He won the PEN (NZSA) Best First Book of Poetry award in 1992 for his book Karitane Postcardsand has been published in several anthologies including An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry in English (Oxford University Press, 1997) and elsewhere.

Cover image: Tunnel Beach, St Clair, Dunedin. Photograph by Albert Percy Godber, c. 1901. Courtesy of Godber Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library.