Kendrick Smithyman’s Northland (1997)

Pander 1 (1997)

Kendrick Smithyman’s Northland

Kendrick Smithyman: A Way of Saying (1965)

Not as if you are invited
to remember what significantly The Poet had
to say about it, no poet has ever said
anything memorable about it
(“At the End of Another Road,” Auto/Biographies, 37)

Not true, now – or not for us, at any rate.

Kendrick Smithyman started off his own treatise on New Zealand poetry, A Way of Saying (1965), by saying that “regionalism is a leading principle of New Zealand writing.” He admitted that this was a generalisation, and that he did not care for generalisations himself; he also pointed out that “arguing for regionalism goes contrary to nationalist enthusiasm.” It is a little hard, thirty years on, to follow the intricate distinctions between “nationalism, provincialism and regionalism” which he then felt it necessary to make, but the remark has (I would suggest) a lasting validity when applied to his own poetry.

It is remarkable, in retrospect, how much of that poetry is concerned with landscape: long sequences about his travels in Britain and Canada in 1969 and 1981; celebrated poems about Coromandel (“Colville” and “Where Waikawau Stream Comes Out”); Auckland (“About Setting a Jar on a Hill”); the coast around Pirongia (“Bird Bay,” “Below Karioi”); and other parts of the Central North Island (“In the Sticks,” “Tokaanu”). Most insistently of all, though, he wrote about Northland – Puhoi, Waipu, Kaitaia, the area around Dargaville where he grew up, the Bay of Islands and Hokianga sites of Atua Wera (1997), his posthumously-published Post-modern epic about history … the list goes on.

At Easter this year I took my old Holden on a short tour of Northland, using Kendrick’s poems as my guidebook. I felt that he had said “something memorable” about it – not just in the late volumes Auto/Biographies (1992) and Atua Wera, but – as the Selected Poems (1989) make clear – right from the start of his poetic career (“The Bay 1942,” “Bream Bay”). This set of rather telegraphic impressions garnered along the way records the results.

Tuesday, April 8 – The start of my Smithymanian quest.

  • Tomarata: My directions to this fossilised lake (immortalised in Kendrick’s poem sequence, recently (1996) reprinted by Alan Loney’s Holloway Press), told me to go north to Wellsford on State Highway 1, then east – turning left at Tomarata township. I, unfortunately, went right, past the “DOG IS DEAF – Take Care” sign, to Pakiri Beach. Dirt road from 5 kilometres in. Expecting a lake, then the sea over every rise – instead I meet a blue tractor on a blind corner. One marvellous glimpse of wild sea, then a long trough of a road to Pakiri township in the drizzling rain. “KEEP the Seen [= Scene?] GREEN SURF AND Rock FESTIVAL. Pakiri Rock,” embossed on a vile pink tin shed. A long, long way round the estuary to a (convenient) public convenience. Rereading “Tomarata” in the pelting rain while munching buns and coffee. Thoroughly soaked by a ten-minute walk on the long, hard sand-dyke beyond the marram-grass dunes. North-wester. A scattering of tortoise-shell husks – fish-scales, sea-weed, tree-amber, some kind of rock? The car does leak, of course. Glasses fogged – see easier without them; hair tossed every way. Coca-Cola has penetrated this far, though, according to the signs.
    A long haul downstream, to fervid
    afternoon in the gumland sandhills.
    A quality of difference, recognized,
    is to be respected, before
    the plants – toetoe, tauhinu, dune
    coprosma – take over, usefully.
    (“Tomarata,” Selected Poems, 99)

    [I never saw the lake at all. A month later, back in town, I came across a poster in Fort St.:
    The Sun Festival – LAKE TOMARATA – 30-31 December [1996?]

    – FHOLE


    We are not called to value, to judge
    or be judged.
    A life other than ours goes
    on neighbouring, near while not of the pond.
    (“Tomarata,” Selected Poems, 95)]

  • Waipu Cove, 7.45 p.m. So ends a day destined to live long in infamy as one of the worst of my life. Got a flat tyre on the way back from Pakiri but the road was so bumpy that I didn’t realise, so drove the wheel down to the rim. Stopped, finally, at the junction of Tomarata Valley Rd and Tapu Bush Rd. Went to a nearby farmhouse and summoned the AA, as I turned out to have no jack [actually there was one, adroitly hidden in a recess of the boot]. Wheel changed by the AA man (miraculously, given the state of it), and I continued to Whangarei to get a new spare and dust-guard to protect the wheel-bearings (extensive dusty roadworks halfway there). On arrival at a “Smash Palace” look-alike, all going swimmingly until I realised my wallet was gone. Looked for it. Nowhere. Had to drive back to Wellsford (78 km), then 10 km inland, to find that it hadn’t been left behind at the farmhouse (It was, in fact, adroitly concealed in the boot – beside the jack). Started back, now too late to pick up the new wheel, and realised that I was no longer sceptical about the existence of curses. Finally turned off short of Whangarei (more dusty road-works for the wheel-bearings) and came to this motor-camp, where I burnt my finger quite badly on the mantle of the Gaz lamp.

    So bad omens so far include: 1/ bad weather; 2/ flashed by a speed-camera; 3/ saltless scones; 4/ various wrong turnings; 5/ blow-out; 6/ missing wallet; 7/ scorched finger.

    Is it Te Atua Wera himself, the burning god? Perhaps?

    “Bream Bay College Seniors: Drink + Drive = Die.”

Wednesday, April 9 – A disturbed and fitful night, but by some miracle it appears that I was the only thing in the tent not soaked by the pouring rain (thanks to a fortuitous arrangement of tarpaulins). Really soaked, I mean: money, books, clothes. When the office finally opened, back to Port Whangarei to get my wheel, jack, and new hub-cap ($75). Not too bad, I thought. I greet the sunny new day now with some apprehension. More heavy rain tonight, as the garagiste so cheerfully opined? Or worse horrors of invention? We shall see. Waipu Cove is lovely, stretching round past the craggy islands to Marsden Point. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, all of this is Kendrick’s Bream Bay:
What does a traveller see, looking north
from Brynderwen over the arc of Bream Bay,
through summer’s lens defining
distance from places under turning
habitual cloud, steeped in his casual day?

… What place means is always a turning
ignorantly, beyond defining?
We have no right words to speak by that Bay
where the dead rise on their hills, looking north.
(“Bream Bay,” Selected Poems 25-26)

The Bay of Islands now? I really should turn back with this concatenation of omens. In Waipu, there is a stone column with a rampant heraldic lion dedicated to “Margaret: Highland Lassie.” Margaret Edgcumbe, Kendrick’s wife, tells me that he used to allege that the lion really was once “rampant,” until the locals took action, and that there were evident marks of the chisel on one part of its anatomy. Margaret and Highland Lassie were the names of the two ships which transported the settlers from Nova Scotia.

  • Russell. Hubris. Drove up to Paihia, rejecting the lure of a dirt road leading to Glow-worm caves (“Blind Date at the Glow-worm Caves”), and am now sitting by the old Kororareka waterfront, watching the clouds beginning to drift in over the sunny channel, having just scaled the perpendicular road which leads up to the Flagpole. Great view of
    the far
    reaching Mediterranean light which crept
    around the islands of the Bay.
    (“Witi, 1829,” Atua Wera 20: 15)

    German tourists disporting themselves on the mosaic map. Passed a Methodist Church on the way up, but the Anglican Christ Church is still to find. Coke not cheap [the drink, I mean].

    What else? Rain came on. Epiphany in the Conservation Centre, watching the video there. Subsequently discouraged by the video in the museum, narrated by (I think) Ian Mune. Then back on the stormy ferry, and off to Waitangi. A moving place. Felt proud to be a NZ’er as watched yet another video, this time 3-screened; then on to Meeting House for son et lumière, marred by loud talking Brits who did not understand the gravity of it all (who can rationally blame them?) Determined to take the “scenic route” around to Haruru Falls – but stopped when I realised it was another dirt road. These I have foresworn. On, northwards, but turned back when I saw a sign to Waimate North (that poem with the Bishop and his library in the Stone Store), and am instead cabining (to dry out my stuff) upstream from where we stayed last time I was here. Actually, Waimate looks more accessible from the west coast. No more off-road adventures. A friendly kitten got locked in by mistake as I took off to Paihia for (finally indifferent) fish’n’chips, then to Kerikeri for the stone store, and (unexpected bonus) Hongi Hika’s pa.
    Stepping out at a rattling good pace
    the Bishop is off to read some works of reference.
    He keeps them upstairs between stones stored at Kerikeri.
    A long hot haul between one page and another
    (“Beginnings,” Auto/Biographies 25)

Thursday, April 10 – Beautiful morning. Waitangi River chattering over the stones like malt whisky, ducks appearing through the mist. “C’est si bon,” as Louis Armstrong was wont to sing. Graffiti in Bay of Islands Holiday Camp loos:

all blacks must
die by the end
of July

comme c’est charmant! As counterblast, someone has added “sux shit” to the triple initial.

Between Wellsford and Whangarei, I saw a sign: “SIGNS AND WONDERS.” It seems to sum up what I am looking for up here – a series of increasingly bizarre inscriptions on the landscape:

  • Before Kaeo: “You have missed the water gardens.”
  • In the town itself: “Zealandia Masonic Lodge Kaeo.”
  • “Whangaroa Municipal Swimming Pool” beside a rugby playing field.

  • Whangaroa Harbour, along from the Duke of Wellington’s Nose: charming in sunshine. No post office for the various post cards I have accumulated. Very peaceful. Launches, charter fishing boats. I love harbour cruises, but can’t really spare the time waiting till the next one leaves.
    “Did You Catch SEA FEVER at Whangaroa?
    We Did … Phone …”

    “Sea Fever” is, it appears, a boat, not Masefield’s celebrated anthology piece. You know the one: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky …” There aren’t many people in Kendrick’s landscape poems, either, and they’re usually overheard rather than speaking direct (“Blind Date at the Glow-worm Caves”):
    People are what they see:
    twin-face Lechery soulfully eyeballing, Greed stuffing
    a fast gob while Sloth just can’t be bothered;
    an uptight superior loner off in a corner –
    everybody knows this script.

    … what part am I
    not playing? And you,
    and the three old ladies
    with (we decide) their longsuffering niece
    who are so ladylike though God knows such bores.
    (Auto/Biographies, 44)

    What part am I playing? People are not what they seem, but what they see. I certainly see myself in the “uptight superior loner.” More driven by Lechery than Greed or Sloth nowadays? Perhaps that’s the point.

  • “Waitaruke Marae HOUSIE.”
  • “Do da Coruba” on a faded weatherboard sign, faded itself.
  • “2 Potteries Signposted from Taipa.”
  • “Play Croquet, Mah Jong etc.”

  • So many games, amusements, listed. So easy to slip on by.

  • Manganui, gateway to Doubtless Bay, stuffed to the gills with tourists, hotels, ice. I didn’t stop, though I am anxious to see the anchors left behind by de Surville in 1770 at some stage.
    Anchors have been recovered, you can see
    the point of them, upright against museum walls,
    severe ability to latch on, and get stuck in, to.
    They did not hold. So what?
    (“Today with Anchors,” Collected Poems XI: 1990-95 [Unpublished] (25/5/93))

  • Awanui – they all look like James K. Baxter up here. Strange cabalistic signs on a corrugated iron barn just out of town. “Northern Headstones” – on an empty building, quite new. “Try rifle shooting” (a novel suggestion) further south.

    WELCOME to Kaitaia

  • (11.30 am) Ahipara is an amazing beach, open to Tasman breakers. I watched them rolling in as I munched on a passion-fruit doughnut. But once one has one’s plywood bach with wide windows open to the sea, what then? For artists only, I fear. The Maoris along the road, one dreadlocked to his waist, another old komatua scrubbing at a corroded caravan, looked as though they’d agree.
    … a crotchety vine
    along with some skinny hand-me-down shrub
    which struggles up for light to breathe,
    barely visible signs of what never had grace
    but made do with hardihood, a smidgen of faith.
    (“Field Theory above Ahipara,” Auto/Biographies, 29)

    The poem “Field Theory …” must be set inland and to the north. I seem to have missed the Church of St. Cyril and St. Methodius and the junk-shop of “An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia” (Selected Poems, 89):
    You must change
    your life, Rilke’s archaic Apollo urged.
    They have done so. They have put by.
    Between a sea and an ocean
    the farmlands lie low
    without a hill to comfort them.

    “The ancient Kauri Kingdom. Awanui” beside a scruffy whare, beat-up truck, scrubby trees. Okahu vineyard stands just a bit down from the road. The names are incantations.

    FAREWELL to Kaitaia

    As I drive, I listen to Ngaire discussing Netball, Waitangi Day, Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation and other assorted topics on Kaikohe Radio.

  • Mangamuka scenic reserve – a hawk pecks at carrion in the middle of the road. And then, on the other side of the range, the same again – identical, reversed. A fetch? An omen?
    Mangamuka – windy hill road (hawk)
    — rest area
    Magamuka bridge – (hawk) windy hill road

    I stopped for a pie at a little shady (dungy) nook above some pines. Farmer on horseback (shorts, boots, hat) mustering Friesians. Raised his whip to me in greeting. I one forefinger in return. A volley of barking over the hill.

  • Waimate North – beautiful, Greyfriars-like church with tall spire. Mission founded 1830. Many old gravestones in Maori, some Gothic in style. Mission building closed for lunch, so I saved $5.

    [Inland from Kaikohe: “Hub of the North”]: The items in Kendrick’s landscapes – a church, a marae – are always representations of something. Of what, exactly? – something “intangible as menace” (Selected Poems, 75); something which cannot be accounted for in any other way; something perhaps adding up to a NZ’er: seal in the dolphin pool. Stalled the car to write these thoughts. Weather promises foul, said the nice woman in the Kaikohe Shell station.
    Misled or blinded by whatever’s in the air
    we take our time over coffee at the cafe/tearoom
    which used to be general store and local centre.
    In a paddock behind, the country’s oldest oak;
    nostalgia is relevantly hardgrained and persists,
    or has a knack something of the kind like that.
    (“Beginnings,” Auto/Biographies, 25)

  • “Zion Market” sells vegetables in Taheke, where a bozo with an open door almost killed me on a corner (a bread-truck was coming round the bend).

  • The Hokianga is known as “the River” by locals (since Kupe’s time) cf. Kendrick’s “The Last Moriori.”
    taken for a slave when a boy, taken
    again in some other raiding, passed
    from band to band, from place to place
    until he washed up on the River.
    (Selected Poems, 140)

    And what is the significance of this latter? “He endured,/ already myth, beyond legends of his kind,/ a poor fact. But the fact was, and the myth/ was, and they endure together.” (141) I fear I am conveying little of my sense of these poems in a landscape. “The Poet Smithyman” – our Northcote Neruda, our Kaipara Cavafy – “the fact was, and the myth was.” Not just for those of us who knew him, but (now) for anyone who can read.

  • Drove quickly through Rawene, straight onto the vehicular ferry which plies the muddy waters across to Kohukohu. Very bouncy trip. $12 return. My father, born here, says the thing to do in Rawene in the early ‘30s was to spend all day watching for the milk ferry down by the wharf: “a nice day’s entertainment.” The ferry is the Kokura of Whangarei.

  • Kohukohu: “Heart of the Hokianga.” Rawene’s ancient rival. The general store is marked “KK Supplies,” a little like the graffiti further south. “Dope 4 eva” in the public toilets; in the little shelter at the end of the long pier, an odd drawing of a merman’s head on top of a hairy foot – Taniwha? Submariner? The man from Atlantis? The hotel is called “The Korner”. Mangrovey. Peaceful. Sleepy. A man on horseback in a parka leading another saddled grey looked a trifle self-conscious. There is a “Maning Street” – after F. E. Maning of Old New Zealand fame? Getting off the vehicular ferry, one sees a sign pointing towards Mitimiti on one side, and Kaitaia on the other, but the Kait is obscured. Did this suggest the title “Mitimiti and Gaia”? The “Hokianga Arch of Remembrance” is paired, just along the road, with the “Hokianga refuse disposal facility” – similar size and status. Nice views of Rawene from a short way in the other direction before the road branches off into the hills.
    The coast road burns out
    in sunset, no one to see beach-wise
    as the sea darkens, nobody seen for miles back
    as wind darkened. Land stepped away east and north
    looking like primeval forest; it was forest,
    a dying forest, root-rot stricken,
    sickness drained out of hills
    into old middens and coloured then
    (“Mitimiti and Gaia,” Auto/Biographies, 18)

    Back in Rawene, I listened to a nice older and nice younger woman discussing, with the aid of a map, “where [the latter would be] playing next weekend.” Ohia, north of Kaitaia. I had been trying to find the spot half an hour before on my own map.
    What you hear most is the wind and you cannot tell
    if it is sound or something that’s inside your head.
    It’s the sound of my childhood.
    (“Lake Ohia,” Auto/Biographies 38)

  • On to Opononi, staying (cowardly) in another cabin – a most charming one – in the last motor-camp before Waipoua State Forest. A beautiful view of the Heads, which I must go out now and examine more closely in the evening light [Caught by the rain while walking to get an “Opo Burger” (chicken, cheese and pineapple) which gave me severe indigestion]. I was, I think, right to invest in a cabin. A horribly rocky beach, not at all the setting I had imagined for “this summer’s dolphin.”

Friday, April 11 – Quite a good night, especially hearing the rain pelting down outside. Off, then, to Waipoua Kauri Forest, where I stopped for Tane Mahuta. The forest almost succeeded in entrapping me. I took a turning towards the putative lookout, and found myself going miles along a metal road. Didn’t the same thing happen before? The mist certainly came down in an ominous way as I tried to turn back.

  • In Dargaville’s maritime Museum – interesting junk, well displayed:

    The place where we grumble the most
    and are treated the best

    This piano was used
    by Katherine Mansfield
    whilst learning to play

    The Wairoa river runs very brown.

    Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior masts outside the museum. I remember my friend Michael Dean showing me the photographs he had taken of it that morning (10/7/85), in the Auckland Bar where he was working at the time. The sharp thorn of Tokatoka is visible on the other side of the river.

  • Te Kopuru. Kendrick’s birthplace. The first street we come to is called “Wordsworth Ave,” then Norton St. (for the critical editions?) & Agnes St. (Eve of?) follow. I walked around and tried to map it, for some obscure reason. No fewer than two AA signs pointing to the deadest shopping area I’ve ever seen. “The road goes through to somewhere else” (Selected Poems, 75) – Poutu, in this case. It’s all pretty much “Bleenk and you’ve missed it,” as they say in Australia. The town reminds me a little of Richmond in Tasmania – only without the bridge, the jail, or any of the historic sites:

  • Empty plastic 2 litre drink bottles form an ornamental driveway.
  • An old faded hopscotch pattern on the road.
  • Three white doves fly up to avoid me. A black dog barks.
  • Nice view of that needle-nosed peak, Tokatoka, from the “shopping centre.”
  • I neglect to speak to an old lady sunning herself outside her bungalow.
  • Neglect to look at cemetery, too. Driven out by a sudden gust of rain, as at Rawene.

  • Rubrics of childhood’s country …
    Through Saturday’s serial evenings beside a glum river
    I walked out of forever
    on whose furthest side small wrong
    frowned sombrely malcontent …
    (“Te Kopuru,” Collected Poems I: 1943-50 [Unpublished] (1946))

    Smithyman, echoing “Fern Hill” in mode rather than mood, seems to have little positive to recall about this town through which “noseyparker I saunter.”

  • Baylys Beach is amazing. I’ve never been so alone in my life – like the end-sequence of Planet of the Apes, only with a shipwreck for the Statue of Liberty.
    You cannot
    predict the bones rising where L’Alcmène
    the French corvette drove ashore,
    eighteen hundred and fifty-one, in winter.
    Twelve men drowned, maybe ten, others
    were badly injured, they say one woman.
    And were buried, where? That is
    a possible something for unease as you go
    (“Baylys Beach,” Landfall 191 (1996): 110)

    There is an inscription in French and English, put up by the Rotary Clubs of New Caledonia and Northland, commemorating the 1977 rediscovery of the L’Alcmène. The woman at the motor-camp told me that there was a shipwreck three kilometres up the beach, which was periodically covered and uncovered by the storms. It proved to be only an old fishing-boat, though. At any rate, it gave me a destination in the otherwise featureless expanse.

    When found, the wreck had lines like a beached whale or a great fish.

    A dune-buggy just went past. It’s 4 p.m.. Time, perhaps, to return. On the way back I saw an interesting optical illusion – what I took to be a person walking his dog was actually a figure superimposed on the empty metal can I saw coming down the beach. What I took to be a man walking towards me was in fact a woman walking away.

Saturday, April 12 – Early (ish) start from my soaking wet tent. I do seem to be “open to experience” (“Tomarata”) this day.
Open, to experience that satisfying
feeling of what goes unexplained.
(Selected Poems, 98)

That poem really has one of the most resonant openings I know, difficult to read unmoved in this West Coast context:
Open as experience, this day, this
high-flying island coast, opened
a mile beyond the top of noon’s arc

I used to mock at editions of the poets which would point out the beauties of individual lines, but doesn’t that express exactly the feeling of elation as one moves up these coasts towards the sun? And then the descent into the valleys, the scrub, the particulars:
an indrawn quiet, stiff
as doctrine revised or contracted to
the essential. Maps call it a lake.
(Selected Poems, 94)

  • First stop: Matakohe Kauri Museum: “THE BUSH COOK: This Dutch cook is calling the Bushmen to a meal using a bullock’s horn, the sound from which would carry for great distances. This was also the call for assistance in the case of an accident. Note his pets and the clogs he is using.” The “pets” are a collie and two tortoise-shell cats. A terrifying display of works by A. H. Reed. He didn’t begin writing till he was sixty, it appears, but published 73 books.

    Sign outside the “Kumara capital,” Dargaville: “Did ya? Catch ya? Milk ya? No? Then call again.” Heaven knows what it means. What else? A model of Bean Rock lighthouse made out of Kauri Gum.

And so, somewhat inconsequently, we end. For me, it’s back to the East Coast Bays. I leave the last word for Kendrick, from one of his oldest poems:
outside, ocean chanting the coast
up, down, its rock-drowned scale …

Sunday morning, smoke, haze, a bell
ringing close to the teatree, smell
of the sea, another bloodier smell
not far away, not very far away

something spoken, not needing speaking
or heard, hearing, not needing to tell
(“Bay,” Collected Poems I: 1943-50 [Unpublished] (1945))

Read them yourself. Go there yourself. You’ll see.

Works Cited:


  • Smithyman, Kendrick. A Way of Saying: A Study of New Zealand Poetry. Auckland & London: Collins, 1965.
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. The Seal in the Dolphin Pool. Auckland: Auckland UP & Oxford UP, 1974.
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. Selected Poems. Ed. Peter Simpson. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1989.
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. Auto/Biographies. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1992.
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. Tomarata. Afterword by Peter Simpson. Tamaki: Holloway P, 1996
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. Atua Wera. Auckland: Auckland UP, 1997.

  • Unpublished

  • Smithyman, Kendrick. Collected Poems I: 1943-50.
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. Collected Poems V: Journal 69.
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. Collected Poems VII: Festives People Places Pictures Book (Oct 1981-Oct 1982).
  • Smithyman, Kendrick. Collected Poems XI: 1990-95.


Pander 1 (1997): x-xiii.

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Pander 1 (1997)

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