Tuesday Poem: Shetland Ponies, Haast Beach

Forest and sea have had their way
with memory. A few houses — silent,
locked — remain. Between car and beach,
a field of Shetland ponies, already
calling her by name. But I’m
facing inland, bush not far beyond,
mountains piled like thunderheads
across the morning light. Was this
our house, or this, or this now empty field?
For eighteen months, we lived here
while they built the road. I was two, then four.
What I have are barely memories:

my mother at the washing line. My father’s
longed-for homeward stride. Grader drivers
lifting me onto their knees to ride.
Work done, we drove away, the new highway
bearing our fortunes south, over spilling streams,
across the Main Divide. Now I’m back, reclaiming

what may be reclaimed. The forest

has no answers. The sea lies past the ponies.
“Look,” she says, “they’re eating from my hand.”

Credit note: “Shetland Ponies, Haast Beach” was first published in my latest poetry collection, Men Briefly Explained (IP, 2011) – available in lots of places online, through bookshops, and from me!

Tim says: After Tim Upperton’s broadly positive review of Men Briefly Explained in Landfall, I thought it would be a good idea to post another poem from MBE. This one is taken directly from personal experience. I lived at Haast (now called Haast Beach) on the West Coast between the ages of two and four, when the Haast Highway was being built – Dad was the pay clerk for the project, and once married quarters were built, Mum and I moved across from Christchurch to join him.

In due course we shifted to Invercargill. I didn’t return to Haast for many years, and when I did, it was in a hired car with a female friend who had never been there before.

The Tuesday Poem: You can read all this week’s Tuesday Poems at the Tuesday Poem site: the hard-hitting hub poem selected by Helen Lowe in the centre, and the other poets’ poems linked from the left.

13 thoughts on “Tuesday Poem: Shetland Ponies, Haast Beach

  1. I loved this poem from the first time I read it. Longing and the difference in perception due to memory or its lack are so vividly conveyed. The direct speech by the first time visitor emphasises the different perspectives.Now tell me,Tim, do you refer to this area as Westland, or did I just make that up?

  2. Like Penelope, I also loved this poem the first time I read it. For me, it is one of the finest in a collection of many fine poems. Good to read it again today, Tim.

  3. Lovely, thanks Tim. I've never been to Haast Beach, but I know it's even further off the beaten track than Haast, and that's the middle of nowhere!

  4. Yes, I agree with everyone – I love the way you acknowledge the suppleness and impossibility of memory. The image of the ponies between the sea and land – beautiful. I visited Haast about 5 years ago for the first time – what a fascinating experience for your parents. It must have seemed, like the poem, like such a brief whisp of time.

  5. Agree with all the foregoing Tim. This is a superb poem that captures perfectly the experience of longing for time and memory that can't be recaptured. One of the best in the collection.

  6. Thank you, Penelope, Helen L, Helen R, Elizabeth and Kathleen!I'm glad this poem has struck such a chord. It's one of my own favourites in the collection, but whenever I have tried it in front of a live audience, it has been met by blank faces – so I'm glad it comes across in print!Penelope, Westland is quite correct – Coasters may correct me, but as far as I can see \”Westland\” and \”the West Coast\” are use interchangeably to refer to the western coast of the South Island north of Milford Sound and south of, I guess, Abel Tasman National Park.I don't believe the West Coast of the North Island is ever referred to as \”the West Coast\” – is there a generic term for that coast?

  7. Like Penelope, I enjoy this poem every time I read it. It brings back vague memories of Haast as a child – mostly green – as if the forest was keen to reclaim the road.

  8. I have only visited this beach once way back in 1980. You could stand on the beach with vast swathes of driftwood, some recently deposited, some sun-bleached with history, and imagine no European had ever set foot on it nor perhaps any Maori. It was as though you could travel back to a NZ without humans.How many places can you feel like that?What did your Dad do there when you were a child, Tim?

  9. Thanks, Andrew! I visited in 1989, if I recall correctly, and the swathes of driftwood, and that feeling of isolation, certainly still remained.Dad was a pay clerk for the Ministry of Works – he did the pay for the roadbuilding crew.

  10. My apologies, AJ – I didn't respond to your comment. Your description is very accurate – the forest stands ready to reclaim everything but the sea.

  11. Lovely that you returned Tim. it must have had a huge impact living in a place like that as a small boy. It shows in the poem. Is it imprinted in the land as well as in your head do you think?…those memories?

  12. Thanks, Helen and Michelle.I think the main impact living in Haast had on me was to give me a love of the New Zealand bush – so it probably started me on the path of being involved in the environmental movement – which, although I don't often refer to it on this writing blog, takes up a lot of my time.I think it would be a bit presumptuous of me to think my memories are imprinted in the land – although \”there are more things in heaven and earth…\”

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