Portrait: Pahiatua, 1942
They pose for their portrait in summer.
(No bombers cross those blue skies.
When a siren goes, workers at the sawmill
break off, dusty, for lunch.)
He leaves as leaves begin falling
This is the photo he carries
Creased by a wallet’s fold
Each day he studies these faces
Each day they slide from sight
as his ship moves north
under strange stars. He stares
at the sepia print – his wife’s hair
so perfectly set in coils,
the tiny child on her lap,
his own face that he hardly knows –
faces silent as an empty wharf.
She is learning an art long practiced
by women in time of war.
Like Penelope, she is waiting
for her stranger to return.
Straining to recall his voice,
she cannot unscramble the static
months, then years interpose.
She forgets the rough surface of serge.
Hope slumps into apprehension
She pulls her hair back in a scarf.
I was five when my father came home.
When he tried to hug me, I hid.
This poem is from Kerry Popplewell's debut collection Leaving the Tableland, which was just published by Steele Roberts. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get the formatting quite right (the limits of formatting on this blog) but you can have a look at the book itself to see how it is.
I went to the launch of this book a couple of weeks ago at the Mt Victoria Tramping club - a very cool, old hall, with charming windows - which was very appropriate because Kerry is a keen tramper, and many of the poems are set out in the landscape, often during a tramp.
I choose this one, because it's my favourite in the collection, and because it spoke to me. War stories are familiar to us all - and sometimes that familiarity turns them into cliche. But what I like about this poem is its specificity. When I read it I get a feeling of 'Yeah, it would have been like that' - these people becoming strangers.
Leaving the Tableland will most likely be available from Unity Books in Wellington, and probably some other bookshops around the place, and from the publishers.
You can read the official Tuesday Poem and find links to the other Tuesday poems here: http://tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com/.