Allen Curnow

Allen Curnow, a poet often published and much admired by the LRB, died in September 2001. Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems, 1941-97 is available from Carcanet. The Bells of Saint Babel’s has just been published in paperback.

At nine fifteen a.m. on the first day of his eighty- first year. Why don’t I

first-person myself? I was hoping nobody would ask me that question

yet. The strong smell of chlorine for one thing, one thing at a time, please.

For instance, there’s always this file of exercyclists riding the gallery

over the pool. Bums on saddles, pommelled crotches. The feet rotate, the

hands grip,...

Poem: ‘A Nice Place on the Riviera’

Allen Curnow, 22 February 2001

The last act is bloody, however fine the rest of the play. They throw earth over your head and it is finished for ever.

Pascal, Pensées

1 Refuge in San Remo won’t work out. Local health officialdom rulesLa signora èmalata. Not welcome this side of the frontier. France is not far: why don’t I try cousin Connie Beauchamp? Nice place they say they’ve got in...


Engaged too long too chastely. Was

that it? Anyway, she broke it off,

my father wrote ‘Pan’, earliest verse

of his, to make it into print

over his name, the god revealed

as Tremayne M., Syrinx as Maud.

Twenty-odd pages further on, more

forgotten poems between his lines

and hers (called ‘Song’), both plaintively

lovelorn, obscurely set down between

Oceanian winds and...

Poem: ‘The Cake Uncut’

Allen Curnow, 17 February 2000


Not him – he’s where no fears can find

nor torments touch him – it’s his Mum

has the details, who told the head-

master, who talked to the press.

           Dad only just gone

for the takeaways at KFC,

when he says – quiet, sort of sudden,

you’d hardly know it was him speaking –


After those months at sea, we stank

worse than the Ark. Faeces of all

species, God’s first creation, cooped

human and brute, between wind and

water, bound for this pegged-out plain

in the land called Shinar, or some-

thing. Give or take some chiliads, I’ll

have been born there. Saint Babel’s tower

with spire (sundry versions of that)

stuck not far short of a top (Wait


Poem: ‘Ten Steps to the Sea’

Allen Curnow, 1 January 1998


Repeat this experience wilfully. Instruct this experience to repeat itself.


With or without vicarious detail for all verities of this place. Me too.


Plenty of that already. Kikuyu grass underfoot, thunderheads, purple- patched sunshine offshore, onshore the high dunes, the hollows of wetted sand, rabbit shit. Foot of a cliff, arm of a stream where fallen yellow bloom degrades....

Poem: ‘The Kindest Thing’

Allen Curnow, 3 July 1997

Rear-vision glass   knows what comes up

out of whatever   concealed exit

I’ve left behind   me. These cross-country

highways hide little   for long, and least

when driving east   one of those bright

spring mornings. Green   acclivities drop

back. Sheep with them.   What comes up next

comes fast, the ute...

Poem: ‘Pacific 1945-1995’

Allen Curnow, 19 October 1995

A Pantoum

if th’assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch, with his surcease, success; that but this blow might be the be-all and the end-all ... here, but here, upon this bank and shoal of time we’ld jump the life to come


Quantifiable griefs. The daily kill. One bullet, with his name on, his surcease. ‘The casualties were few, the damage...

Poem: ‘The Game of Tag’

Allen Curnow, 20 October 1994


Graffito, Lone Kauri Road

Seven thigh-thick hamstring-high posts,

embedded two metres and cemented

in, where the side of the road burst

into bird space, tree-toppling all

that plunging way down. A clean-cut

horizon shapes daylight. A gap.

Where the sea glares back at...

Somebody mistook the day, or how

will we have found ourselves denied

entry, by chained gate, padlocked

bolted door of an empty dark shed

of a hall, miles from the next town-

ship, as many from the last lit lamp?

The night itself unpunctuated,

no Southern Cross, no Pointers, no

cartwheeling, hand- standing giant

Orion, aka Urine (born cauled

in a sacrificial Boeotian cow’s

pelt, pissed...

The typical tidal range, or difference in sea level between high and low tides, in the open ocean is about 2 ft(0.6m), but it is much greater near the coasts.

Desk encyclopedia

Our beach was never so bare. Freak tide, system fault, inhuman error, will it

never stop falling? After dark, said the tables of high water and sunset

pasted on the wall, which don’t deceive. Come on down...

Turn left at the sign. Lone Kauri Road winds down to the coast. That’s a drop of about five hundred feet. Look out for the waterfall, the wooden bridge, the mown grass, the pohutukawa glade.

The western horizon will have slid behind the mask of an eye-levelled next eyeballing wave. Park here. Proceed on foot. The spot has barbecues with MALE and FEMALE dunnies in a figtree


At nine fifteen a.m. on the first day of his eighty- first year. Why don’t I

first-person myself? I was hoping nobody would ask me that question

yet. The strong smell of chlorine for one thing, one thing at a time, please.

For instance, there’s always this file of exercyclists riding the gallery

over the pool. Bums on saddles, pommelled crotches. The feet rotate, the

hands grip,...

Poem: ‘An Unclosed Door’

Allen Curnow, 27 June 1991

Freshened by any wind, sanitised with pine and cypress, the slaughterhouse

is cool as a church inside. High rafters too. A gallery. The hooks hang ready.

Nothing else intercepts the day’s late blaze across the Seven Sleepers’ chins

and Cooper’s Knobs, on this point between adjacent bays, only a blotched light

can get past, as the wind in the trees, fidgeting to the doorway....

Poem: ‘A Scrap-Book’

Allen Curnow, 7 December 1989


The light in the window blew out in a strong draught only to return wearing a black mask, behind William Woon’s chair, which he draws up close

to the desk. A roundhouse swing from the nor’east rocks the plank walls from blocks to purlins. He trims the Miller Vestal’s ragged flame, lays the scrap-

book open by the burning oil, finds a clean pen, writes Detained (flourishing...

Poem: ‘An Evening Light’

Allen Curnow, 4 August 1988

The sun on its way down torched the clouds and left them to burn themselves out on the ground:

the north-west wind and the sun both drop at once behind the mountains. The foreground fills

with a fallen light which lies about the true colours of absconded things, among

which I place this child whose tenth birthday happens to have been my father’s, that will be

a hundred years next...

Poem: ‘A Time of Day’

Allen Curnow, 7 January 1988

A small charge for admission. Believers only. Who present their tickets where a five- barred farm gate gapes on its chain

and will file on to the thinly grassed paddock. Out of afternoon pearl-dipped light the dung-green biplane descended

and will return later, and later, late as already it is. We are all born of cloud again, in a caul

of linen lashed to the air-frame of the age, smelling of...


Three Degrees

10 June 1999

A friend who writes from Germany evidently likes my poem ‘The Bells of Saint Babel’s’ (LRB, 10 June) but points out the navigational impossibility of ‘West/Longitude one-/eighty-three’. I wouldn’t excuse myself to her, or to any other reader similarly troubled, by arguing that a poem which submerges Mt Everest in the Pacific may be allowed a small liberty in fixing...


10 June 1993

In a more or less rapturous review of Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America, by Robert Hughes, Scott Malcomson (LRB, 23 September) credits the celebrated art critic with having written, among other surprising things: ‘Eliot’s rude line about Christ’s “offending feet" springs to mind whenever one looks at such a picture.’ A picture (it could only be) of Christ’s...

Hugging the cats

John Bayley, 14 June 1990

Good writing, in prose or verse, can seem a sort of visible distillation, brandy-like, of the anima vagula blandula, the tenuous and transparent daily self that produced it. Another kind of good...

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Second Wind

C.K. Stead, 16 February 1989

Much of the best poetry in English at least since the Romantics, is, in a controversial phrase used by Allen Curnow in the introduction to one of his two anthologies of New Zealand poetry,...

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