Thursday, August 20, 2009

A poet passes

‘I’ve got this strong sense of self-preservation,’ Alistair
Te Ariki Campbell told me when I interviewed him for
the Listener in 2005. ‘I don’t fly apart—I get my forces
together.’ At the hot gates of Thermopylae, he said,
when the Spartans were about to go into battle with
the Persians, ‘they just leisurely groomed their hair. So
I would call on these Spartans when I was getting very
depressed—“Come, I need your help. Start grooming
yourself, start brushing your hair, come to my rescue!”’

The Spartans, together with regular medication,
helped Alistair to survive till last Sunday, the 16th of
August, when the Persians finally got him and he died
at the age of 84—though he might have gone through
the hot gates thinking he was only 82, had he not
found out fairly late in life that he was born not on 29
August 1926, as he’d been led to believe, but on 25 June
1925. Such were the mysteries attendant on a childhood
torn down the middle by the deaths of his parents
within a year of each other. The first half of that
childhood stayed in the Cook Islands, on the atoll of
Tongareva, where he had grown up in 'this little warm
atmosphere of love and care' till he was seven; the
second half began abruptly with transplantation to a
cold Dunedin orphanage, where he spent the next 10
years, learning to speak English and to preserve the self.

It took him till his mid-30s before he began to even
acknowledge that he was Polynesian, let alone how
deeply his life had been split. The two halves finally
fused into mental distress (he had a breakdown) and
then flowered into poetry, with the publication in 1963
of Sanctuary of Spirits, which Ken Arvidson later called
called the ‘first work by a Polynesian poet in English
that has the unmistakable textual richness of a major
artistic achievement.’ In his entry on Campbell in the
Companion to New Zealand Literature, Nelson
Wattie—who has been working on a biography—notes
him saying to Sam Hunt in 1969 that ‘It was almost as if
the springs of creativity had become iced over… my
nervous breakdown cracked the ice and allowed the
spring to flow.’

Even so, as Alistair told me, for a long time it didn’t
occur to him that he might go back to the Cook Islands.
Settled in Pukerua Bay in the 1960s, in that jumble of a
house looking out onto Kapiti, raising a family with Meg,
working for School Publications, he gave no thought to it.
It was his cousin Rima who, instructed by relatives in
1974 to search him out, came to Wellington and rang all
the Campbells in the phonebook till the right one
answered. ‘And that,’ he said, 'made all the difference.'
Two years later he returned to Tongareva for the first
time since 1933 and discovered not only the ‘Te Ariki’
part of his name but an even richer vein of poetry first
seen in The Dark Lord of Savaiki (1980).

Rima spoke at the funeral. So did Nelson. Nelson sang at
the funeral—a Schumann song. So did family members
from the Cook Islands, whose thrilling traditional hymn
shook the hall’s rafters; and so did Alistair’s daughters
Josie and Mary, with their setting of his poem ‘Teu’:

Mother, you were there
at the passage
when our ship arrived.

The sea, heavy as oil,
heaved unbroken
on the reef,

the stars
lay in clusters
on the water,

and you wept
when you laid
the Southern Cross

upon our eyes.

The congregation, if that’s what we were, all sang too—
‘The Lord Is My Shepherd,’ ‘Abide With Me.’ Many people
spoke—children, grandchildren, Cook Islands relatives
who all count themselves as brothers and sisters; Meg,
who died two years ago. Andrew and Greg, Alistair’s sons
from his first marriage, to Fleur Adcock, both spoke—as
did their aunt, Fleur’s sister, Marilyn Duckworth, now
Nelson’s partner. Such connections. No one glossed over
how difficult and distant Alistair could be—‘a powerful
uncompromising presence,’ Andrew called him. Yet a
tremendous love for him was everywhere; we all felt,
through his passing, the greatness and trouble of life and
the enduring power of poetry. Over and over, we heard of
how often he would speak of his parents and his island
childhood. It was a fine cold day. They took his body to be
cremated afterwards and will, I’m sure, sow the southerly
with his ashes, as he once wrote, ‘to fall in tears on Kapiti.’
The soul of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, I think, though,
will be well on its way north by now, north by north-west
from Kapiti, from New Zealand, up through the Pacific and
out across the ocean, not stopping till it makes landfall
thousands of miles from here.

It will be like this one day
when I sail home to die—
the boat crunching up on to the sand,
then wading through warm water
to the beach,

the friendly voices
round me in the darkness,
the sky dying out
behind the trees of Omoka,
and reaching out of hands.

—Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, 'Omoka'


Mary McCallum said...

Beautiful, Denis. I'm sorry I hadn't read it til now. Thank you.

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