Tuesday Poem: Inheritance, by Jennifer Compton



The country station was as good as deserted, the train was late.
The stationmaster was keeping to himself, as if he didn’t exist.
Bored, beside myself, I kicked gravel, walked up and down.
It’s always when I’m bored. As if it is not allowed.

My great-great-great grandfather stood up in my mind
as the sky came down and pinned me to the ground.

He was clothed in a book of about 20,000 words.
But sometimes a story won’t become a book.
The book it could be roars through you, like a train
not stopping at a station, bucketing, as loud and brief
as a breath, pushing a turbulence before it, a great wind.


The hobgoblins of local drama, the gossips, cobble
a likely story together – just for the hell of it – for free.
– There was one, who was seen going on a ship,
never seen again. He sailed away, left his kin.
Left his white kin and his black kin.

His father before him left his land, was shipped in chains,
or pressed, or, an illiterate man in a uniform, fetched up
on the island that hangs like a teardrop below the map.
To father him. To father me. Perhaps he made a choice.
He chose to leave the known world, a religious, a madman.


And that man’s son left. I’d like to think that a relative of mine
could see the way things were going, on the beach, scanning
the craft of summoning technology putting in and putting out.
– I’m out of here. I can pass for white in another country.
During the journey I will be reborn as someone else.

And he left his blackfella on the shore and boarded like a white man
with perhaps an Andalusian grandmother, or one of the dark Irish,
worked his passage suspecting there would be a place
that was not so (if he even knew the word) adamantine.

Or maybe destiny picked him up by the scruff of the neck
and put him on the ship. Scurvy had wrought havoc or
flogging had killed more than it cured. Or his curiosity
killed the cat as he checked out all this fabulous machinery,
the latest thing, a teenage boy keen to know the cutting edge,
and then he felt the new world lurch under his feet as it took off,
set sail and, perforce, took him too.


Was he silent in later life, morose at the kitchen table,
as his wife set the bread to prove above the range in a
valley black with punga and fern, dripping, with speaking
water and puffs of mist like smoke and the sound of the trap
in the road and the grown children and their children arriving?
Did he rouse himself to their language he had given them
or did he nod and rise and go out the back to smoke,
did he go to the bottled spirit secreted in the thatch?
To speak with his own. Was there one, a little girl?
White as a toheroa shell on a midden, who always sought him out
and sat next to him speaking and not speaking, with that immemorial
electricity, the pulse, and another, a boy perhaps, who sat far off
and stared and saw it but was afraid. As it gathered around them.

Tim says: I’ve been reading Jennifer Compton’s recent collection Barefoot over the past few days. There are many fine poems in it, but “Inheritance” really stood out for me, so I decided to ask Jennifer whether I could use it as a Tuesday Poem. Then I discovered that Jennifer has just been announced as the winner of the Kathleen Grattan Award for 2010, so that made the request even more timely!

I hope you like this poem as much as I do.

You can read all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem blog.

3 thoughts on “Tuesday Poem: Inheritance, by Jennifer Compton

  1. I can understand why you savoured this poem Tim. There is a narrative pull to this piece, although not so much that it detracts from the silent simplicity of the poem. It is beautiful. Thanks for posting, I will check out Jennifer's collection!

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