Tuesday Poem: Men At Sea


1. Puysegur

Glint of gold, horizon
proclaiming fish: familiar
warnings of gale and cloud.

He descends to the fishing boats.
One will take him tideward,
southward, a tolerated,

but far from welcome,
inspector of catches. In a pre-dawn
counterfeit of morning, they cast off

for Puysegur: the south-west
corner, the Roaring Forties’
big back yard, their hunting ground.

Three days of the sea as mountain range,
eating with the crew, sharing danger
but not profit. Three days

of soaked skin, puddled clothes, each
wooden bunk a trampoline, salt spray
in every cut and nick. At last

the turning homeward, past Solander,
past Centre Island — the Bluff
finally, blessedly, in sight.

He will make tallies, say farewells,
enact the weary rituals
of damp wharf and empty office.

He will drive a narrow highway home,
eyelids heavy, engine cold and catching
in the falling winter light.

2. Halfmoon Bay

School holidays. The ferry’s
uncertain plunging past the fishing fleets,
young feet

attentive to the scuppers. Green bile
derived from dread and remnant breakfast
flung, a final offering,

to the greedy waves. Then this
harbour long desired, Foveaux’s fingers
unclamping from my inner ear. Sudden

ease, relief; a brief reflection
that all this must be undergone again.
Boats in our wake, men at sea

raising a laconic workman’s finger
to visitors, to loopies,
to the daily irruption of other lives.

And now the island: crash
of gangways, solid ground,
davits whining as we walk away.

Men at sea, I take my father’s hand
as we approach the village, houses
hunched against the glowing skies.

The lure of escape, of absorption
into no-time, merely being
and doing. The memory of waves.

The journey back. Hands,
half-longed-for, half-feared,
reaching as we near the shore.

Credit note: “Men At Sea” is a new poem, first published in my new poetry collection Men Briefly Explained.

Tim says: My dad used to work as a fisheries inspector in Southland, the southern province of New Zealand. Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island/Rakiura, and Puysegur Point at the south-west corner of New Zealand, were two of the places on his ‘beat’. I went with him several times to Stewart Island, but the trip to Puysegur was regarded as a bit tough for a child of my age. I still haven’t been there.

You can check out all the Tuesday Poems on the Tuesday Poem Blog – this week’s hub poem in the centre of the page, and all the other Tuesday Poems on the right.

13 thoughts on “Tuesday Poem: Men At Sea

  1. I love the harsh, resigned tenderness of Puysegur- when I read that it was about your dad, that tone made sense. I had to look up irruption in the dictionary! doh

  2. Thanks, Meliors! I used \”irruption\” in the poem without checking that I'd used it correctly, so I made a nervous little check on its meaning before writing this comment … phew!

  3. Wonderful poem, Tim–I love its starkness and the juxtaposition with a slight melancholy of 'times past' and 'worlds lost' in the second, Half Moon Bay part. But am I allowed to like the first part just that little bit more–because when I read it, I was \”in\” it. In the second I was the outsider, the observer, perhaps as you were, as a child.

  4. Thanks, Helen – and you are, of course, entitled to like Part 1 more than Part 2! It's interesting, though, because I was much happier with Part 2 than Part 1 when I was working on the poem, and indeed I was still making changes to Part 1 right up to submitting the manuscript.

  5. Taking time to come to grips with this poem has borne fruit, your writing is so dense, and I think, like Helen I find the first half most compelling – the unwanted fisheries inspector doing a hard job is such a fascinating figure. \”Three days of the sea as mountain range,eating with the crew, sharing dangerbut not profit…\”nice.

  6. A lovely, lovely poem Tim, very evocative of the ocean around Southland. I like how you have naturally been able to make the affection and admiration apparent in the relationship between father and son (you and your Dad).

  7. Very evocative. I'm voting for Part 2 (not that it's a poll or anything). For six years we – Mum, Dad and my brother – were going to go to Stewart Island in the school holidays. We never got there. Part 2 is so much what might have been.

  8. Thanks, AJ, Kay and Morag! This is one of my favourite poems from the collection, so it's good to know that others like it as well -)Morag, I hope you did/will make it to Stewart Island eventually. It's nice to see Part 2 making a late run in the voting, too 😉

  9. Isn't Puysegur the most wonderful word? This is a terrific poem for its evocation of place and the tough men who inhabit it. I have to say I love the sounds in the first part, Tim e.g. the hard 'c' in stanza 3 which also has the word 'catch' which delightfully reappears near the end to describe the engine in the ride home…. But these lines stay with me most of all: each/wooden bunk a trampoline, salt spray/in every cut and nick. It so wonderfully evokes life on the sea – the hardship, the saltiness, the history. In Part 2, I love the repetition of 'Men at sea' and how it wraps around the boy holding his father's hand. And 'The memory of waves' … lovely too. Thanks Tim.

  10. Reminds me of some of Alan Gould's sea poems, such as 'Trawlermen', 'Aground', 'The Lyric Trance of Work' and so on. Beautiful poem.

  11. Thanks, Mary and Penelope.Mary, it's always nice to get such detailed, thoughtful comments on a poem! Funnily enough, I have just been reading a book about sailing in which the sailor concerned talks at length about the salt spray in every cut and nick – but the sailor concerned was Jessica Watson, the young Australian who recently sailed around the world solo, non-stop and unassisted. Tough work, whoever does it…Penelope, thanks for the recommendation of Alan Gould's poetry – I will seek it out.

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