Vituperative Verse



1. Requiem (for the member for Fendalton)

                           Sam Mahon 2009


No one cried when the big man died

No Angelus was rung

The poet stood mute as a broken flute

While words like birds fell dead upon his tongue


The leader came with his apostolic train

Judases every one

And the unfrocked priest

Made the sign of the beast

With one hand on the podium

But what’s to be said?

What’s to be penned?

That his like will never ever come again?

Ah, but let me tell you friend…


His likeness stains the hearts of men

From Bosnia to Bethlehem

His likeness is a Halloween

A harlot’s breath of nicotine

His likeness is the soldier’s creed

Where generals laugh, where women bleed

Where roses fade and poppies bloom

Where Beauty shrugs and leaves the room


His likeness is the bloody sheet

Where whores engender meat…


Ashes to ashes dust to dust

Once he was the puppy of the upper crust

But built like a bubble, he was built to bust

So no one cared, no one fussed

When the big man passed away.







2. The Model


She never forgave the cards

they gave for her to play

Her only ace, a lovely face.

And so…

she grew her hair and combed it straight

she set it in a Celtic plait

and set her sail to navigate

the sea of men…


They never leave me,

she confided…

Always, I leave them


Summer came, summer sweet

and all the fallen fruit now lay between

her lovely feet

But with the first presaging leaf of autumn

she in turn took off her clothes…


I only pose,

she confided,

for the artists

and…the undecided.


Down-town in bars and street cafes

she puts her body on display

because, she says, it’s been remarked

that Art becomes  me

or in part, it could be said

that I become the art.


She plays her cards so close

Her tight bowed lips do not succumb

as one by one

she loses all her tricks.


Now alone

the mantle of her years too seer

the winter in her bones;

Her laughter brittle as gulls

that cry and break on cliffs

of some forgotten sea…


I never leave them

she complains…

Always they leave me







  4. Jenny:


Jenny’s at her window,

the city at her feet,

a coffee cupped in both her hands,

staring at the street.

She wonders if the crowds below,

consider Michelangelo,

or Epstein, or Eliza Frink;

what do the people really think,

she wonders.

In their suburban heart of hearts

is there still room for the visual arts? 


She lays her finger tips against

the crenellated scar,

that one unlovely part,

the slow embalming of her heart.

She takes a sip

and feels the bitter taste upon her lip

of crushed black beans and cinnamon,

with a little froth to hide it in.


She shakes her head to flick away the thought

that love, like intuition, can’t be taught.

That love is paint that drips and runs

and spatters on your dress.

That love is process, love’s unfair

that love’s a mess, like morning hair.

Love’s what the artist leaves behind,

loves a poem that can’t be rhymed

love goes hobbled, love is lame

love’s a horse with a broken rein

love’s debris, love doesn’t fit

And Jenny’s having none of it.


Alone in her director’s chair,

androgynous, with close-bobbed hair,

as carefully composed as a Mondrian square,

Jenny sits and with utmost care

fits and locks

Art into its little box.


‘I have a vision,’ she declares, and it’s inarguable.

‘A vision that I’d like to spread from Auckland to Invercargill.


If it’s good enough for Wellington

it’s good enough for me;

a Price on every corner

a Dawson up every tree;

a Monument on every street in plastic, chrome and steel

to those of us who lost the lust to feel.’


She takes her coffee in her hand and, smiling at her master plan,

muses how it used to be; art societies, cups of tea,

Kollwitz, Schiele, John Millais,

All fading now, beneath the light of this so bright

And most post-modern day.


The engineers and draughtsmen are all in full employment

Making computer cut-out toys for Jennifer’s enjoyment.


But Music plays a cracked guitar in bars along the street

And Dance is turning arabesques on bruised and broken feet

And Poetry’s in the gutter which is what the gutter’s for

While Art is in the alleyway, chatting up a whore.


And Jenny’s at her spinning wheel, spinning invisible threads

to dress the city’s emperors, to bronze their egoistic heads.

And while the middle classes scrape

and bow, before the edifice of Scape,

somehow, there’s a latent understanding;

the art of Art, these days,

is simply branding.


Jenny’s at her window, the city at her feet,

a coffee cupped in both her hands, frowning at the street.

She hears a voice complaining about beauty, form and love;

a disembodied requiem for her, four floors above.

But the window’s double glazing and the walls are made of lead;

either Art is outside is raving, or it’s God again…

inside her head.








5.  Tabitha


Tabitha was born in Merivale

on a golden afternoon

Where life was served from fluted bowls

on the edge of a silver spoon


They sent her down to Craighead,

a private school for girls

And five years later she emerged,

her porcelain face semi-submerged

In blond, cascading curls.


‘I’ve found a flat,’ she told me

And drew on a thin cigar

‘Just down from the university

You won’t even need a car.’


So we started our lives together

In pursuit of a thing called Art

I painted life as I saw it

She saw life, then took it apart


One evening I found her,

her sisters around her,

Perched on top of her bed

Reciting a Cantonese mantra

With a blanket thrown over her head


Then again, in June,

By the light of the moon,

Some anarchists came to stay

There were hairs in the bathtub

And hash on the bench

And all through the flat

That peculiar stench

Of decay


Tabitha moved in muslin,

she wore bangles in her ears

Around her toes were Bali rings,

her eyes wept honey dew, not tears


A variation of Lovers wore

a ragged path to Tabitha’s door

Hoping for her soft guitar,

hoping for a little more

than Leonard Cohen’s mournful chords

They hoped applause

and Buda sticks, would help her to undress

But most left bearing disappointment

and the latest Herman Hesse


One day she smiled and closed her eyes

‘Don’t come home early,’ she advised

‘I’ve found a man to seal this wound,’ she said.

‘All my life I felt half ruined,

all my life I’ve felt a little dead.’


I came back home at a quarter to four,

And there upon a threadbare shore

I found their bodies wrecked

As if some recent storm had drowned them


Two candles burned and somewhere near a record turned

The needle idly rutting in an empty groove

And I was moved by this peculiar medieval frieze

The slightest breeze, imperceptible, faint

Flickered the candle light and set her hair

Like the halo of a saint.

Spread like St Andrew, welcoming her doom,

her tears were poised like drops of ice.

And, nailed to her virgin womb,

the pale, emaciate Christ.


On a leafless, winter’s afternoon

I found her crying in her room.

I put my arms around her for the first and only time,

And like a wounded bird, her body trembled against mine

Then breaking free, she cried,

‘It’s too absurd, no one died!

People leave, it happens every day.

It’s just emotion, and emotion gets in the way.’


She sits among her sisters

As they contemplate their craft

And smoke black Russian cigarettes

And Tabitha remarks

That Art is not a thing to feel

Art is Das Glassperlenspiel


Many years have passed since then

I’m painting now what I painted when

I saw life from a point of view

Untainted by the pessimistic, contemporary hue


And Tabitha? Well, from time to time

I see her and she’s doing fine

She married a surgeon in Latimer Square

She tends to plaid, she’s cut her hair

And they lie on a beach at least once a year

In Biarritz, or Ibiza or god knows where


But there’s a shed set down at the end of the garden

Where an easel stands and the oils paints harden

And a palette, where paint used to run like blood,

Lies gathering dust the colour of mud

And there’re some paintings turned to the wall

And a palette knife and a muslin shawl

And an old cigar and a rusty tin

of varnish, puckering like ancient skin


Tabitha drinks cappuccinos

But, once, she drank green tea

In the autumn, now, she’s faithful

in the spring, her body was free.


Tabitha lives in Merivale in her golden afternoon

Where life is served from fluted bowls at the edge of a silver spoon 






6.  Antonyms of trust


There’s a time bomb in the water

it’s ticking underground

It’s ticking in the aquifers so quietly

it doesn’t make a sound


And steadily it makes its way between the shingle and the clay

a million tonnes of nutrient floating down the river

from the Canterbury highlands to our children’s spleen and liver

And I wonder if they’ve told you yet that, when you pay your rates,

your paying for the water that the farmer gets for nothing at his gates


Yes, the farmer’s paying nothing for the water that he takes

to trade among his fellows at the highest market rates

And when he’s finished using the water he gets fro free

he sends it down the ditch, my friends,

a drip for you, a drop for me;

undrinkable, unfishable, eutrophied and mottled,

‘till the only water potable is water that’s been bottled.


Once upon a better time, the poor man’s wine,

flowed beneath our feet, bubbled up between the streets

on which we stand, brief case in hand, pack on back, shopping in a sack…

It was heady stuff, clear as air and half as rough.


And no one owned it, no one thought

one day it could be bought,

and sold…as marketable as gold


So, what has happened, who can point and say,

‘It was he who stole our water rights away.’

Who was it in particular filled our waterways with shit

And left our tawny river boulders smothering in it?


Who was it stole our rivers from the mountain to the sea

And gave them to the corporations?

Certainly not me.


No one came with a salesman’s smile

to borrow the river for a little while

No one phoned me, no one wrote;

there is no invoice I can quote



Still, my brother and I, just the other day,

wandered down to the river to play

and found someone had stolen it…

entirely away.


Just stones and sand where the river once ran

and the sound of the wind in a rusty tin can

And a busted old car with its gusts hanging out;

Crank-case blood, mingling with the bones of the very last trout


Yes, the dairy farmers took it and they didn’t pay a cent

They sucked the bloody rivers dry, they didn’t even offer rent

They did it cause it’s legal and they did it with consent


And mournfully they spread their hands

while all around, the pivot irrigators stand;

‘Please don’t put the blame on us,’ they say

‘Ecan gave it lawfully away.’


Yes, legally they took it from us, legally it stands

that the water from our rivers flows abundantly through private hands

and turns the corporate wasteland into cattle feed and milk

so a New York banker’s whore can lay her body down on silk;

so some Ponsonby accountant can afford a brand new Porche

who has never seen the sun set in the Waimak river gorge


Yes, legally they took it all;

the lake, the stream, the waterfall

They gave away our legacy,

a treasure that our children’s children will not grow to see


Or know

that where the river flowed

you once could dip your hand

and drink the water clean from an unspoiled land


So sip it now and try to savour

that unique artesian flavour

Enjoy that O and H2 blend

‘cause pretty soon it’s going to end


And so I write this map of grief

from the Accuser to the Water Thief

for you to idly read or feel,

or trace a finger down this tarnished steel


And I will name them,

I will write them here

a scattering of letters

black as crows on the winter air


Black as the alley where the deals go down

on a moonless night on the shady side of town

where the alley-cat screams

where the east winds blow

where the promises of office wither like petals in an autumn snow


So mark them well, these antonyms of trust

who turn our children’s legacy to dust

These men, these women of the democratic state

who steal from our children’s children as they wait


…still unborn

the chord untorn,

their thoughts unspoken…

the waters…already broken






7.   The Artwhores


Bonnie was born in the country

She went to the local school

She wasn’t the brightest kid in her class

But she certainly wasn’t a fool


She was tall, she was blond, she was slender

And she kept her emotions on ice

And the one thing the boys still remember

That for Bonnie, all things had their price




But time turned around and one day she found

Herself married to Davy McCall

With two kids, a cat, and a shed out the back

And a hate in her heart for the dice she had rolled


For the hills float away in an ocean of grey

each summer the nor-wester blows

And Bonnie just stands alone weeping

As the dust settles over her clothes

And a tractor that burns like an embre

Sends clouds of it up from the tines

where the gulls flap along like the white sheets of washing

She nails to the number eight line


And the winter brings no reprisal

The sheep suffocate in the snow

And Bonnie, herself, has run out of breath

She’d escape if she could, but there’s no where to go




At the A and P ball with a gin in her hand

She stands all alone and she studies the band


Hell is a near horizon, she thinks, 

with music on Saturday night

Where a Dunsandal rousey’s the singer

And the drummer’s the publican’s wife


And it’s Aertex and Moleskins and Canterbury ale

And fish and chip dinners, and love grown stale

It’s hell, she decided, her eyes growing pale

It’s a slow dismembering, an open grave

It’s the throat of the lamb on a rusty blade.


No one saw him sauntering into the room

Looking like a thoroughbred recently groomed

And, leaning his back against a nearby wall

his sleepy eyes appraised them all


A lonely cockerel with pig dog eyes

He sipped his beer and scrutinized

Bonnie, where she stood like a four leaf clover

He grinned, filled his glass, and wandered over


I’ve watched you dance, he said to her

You seem to dance alone

You want to leave, I know,

But it’s a hell of a long way home

You’d like to talk to someone

But it’s a language that nobody speaks

If you like you can whisper it all to me

But we need to dance cheek to cheek.


So he waltzed her around that old weatherboard hall

and he kissed her outside by the granary wall

And he talked about love, he talked about fame

He talked about winning, then told her his name


My friends call me Clyde, I’m your incoming tide

I can wash away all of this sand

But I’m leaving tonight for the city lights

I’ve had all of this hillbilly town I can stand.


In the morning sun they hit highway one

There was nothing more to be said

Their future lay somewhere before them

Behind them the recent lay dead


Bonnie and Clyde had dreams to follow

They had schemes inside their heads

But they left behind them an aching hollow

in two matrimonial beds


Clyde worked a while in real-estate

He worked in the money game

While Bonnie filed numbers for a finance firm

slowly turning insane


Then one day he took her to the middle of town

To the National gallery and made her look round

See the stuff, he said, that they hang in here

That spatter of paint

That monotone square

The man who owns these is a millionaire.


I’m going to rob a bank, he said

And here’s the funny part

The bank I’m going to rob

Is Art.


He grabbed her arms and nailed her eye

Give me a year or maybe five

And the usual bag of salesman’s tools

And one day, my dear, we’re going to be rich

as any damn one of these fools.




At every charity art event

Clyde was there to represent

The people we aspire to be

giving our time for Art for free


But time like this was well invested

As Clyde sequestered

all the gold

by writing a list on the back of his wrist

Of those who bought and those, of the artists,

who sold




Now Bonnie runs a gallery on the wealthiest of streets

And Clyde remembers every name of the clientele he meets

They’ve learned to speak the language from a magazine on arts

Like tourists with their phrase books stranded in foreign parts


And Bonnie buys her clothes now

From a Merivale boutique

Where once she wore blue denims,

now she’s considered chique


And Clyde is showing his gay side

With a man-bag of his own

Yet once he just wore overalls,

stained with blood and bone


Bonnie and Clyde keep their past inside

Far from the Cheviot plains

They live in a villa in Naseby street

Where no body knows their real names


Bonnie and Clyde by their fireside

Plan for a brand new start

But nothing exceeds this contemporary greed

for Art


So they open a bottle of pinot noir

And toast the remains of the day

The market can crash and we’ll all go to hell,

they say…


But Hell is a distant horizon

where a band plays each Saturday night

Where a Dunsandal rousey’s the singer,

and the drummer’s the publican’s wife

Its Aertex and Moleskins and Canterbury ale

and fish and chip dinners at seven;

But Art’s a revolving fairytale

And for these two,

it’s simply heaven.










8.  Denis Dutton


My uncle lived in London, with a semi-detached point of view

a little to the left of Menachim Begin, like any unorthodox Jew

He had a Rolls parked up his driveway, I had holes in the soles of my shoes

I was returning from a spell in Fontainebleau and I needed my visa renewed

I’d been too long drenched in inadequate French, I was starved for polemics,

And I think that my uncle was too.  


I was wandering along towards Wimbledon when the tennis crowd came out

And I was caught in a flow of humanity, everyone seemed to be heading south

The stream flowed round me threatening to drown me

and I stepped in and out of the trees,

as the people turned their collars up against the autumn breeze


And I was washed up at last on the crest of a hill

where the people seemed to spill in all directions.

And there in the middle of an intersection

a man stood like a crucifix, at each wrist, a ragged sleeve

And in a voice grieved by some past atrocity

He directed us with this simple philosophy;


‘All heading west, go east,’ he said

‘All going east, go west.’

‘All going south, go north,’ he said, ‘if you think going south is best…’


His face was as worn as a blanket at dawn after a night of heavy dreams

There was tobacco caught in his whiskers and his heart was breaking apart at the seams

And nobody spoke to him, nobody joked with him, it was as if he couldn’t be heard.

But however absurd, I sat on the curb and weighed in my mind each delicate word.


Again, one day in Fontainebleau I stood at the edge of the road

And watched the lorries and cars flow by

and wondered why I had no place to go

in such haste. It seemed like waste.


It’s the same today as it’s always been,

watching the universe caught

in its vortex of dreams.


I prefer to stand on the opposite side,

I tend to leave as the people arrive

And every time they go away,

I stay.


It seems to be a nobler thing to stand alone,

not to cast the first stone,

but take sides with the few very good

who question the many who would.


So I’d always liked Denis, I’d always admired

the way he stood out from the mass

and drew their attention to the wider dimension

less tended, less voiced, less crass.

But that was a long, long time ago now

and the Skeptic Society has morphed somehow.

Chomsky was right, I would say,

when he talks about education these days

and how the Right has taken the socialist’s role

of nurturing the embryonic soul.


Now Denis the menace comes to school

a member of a high society of fools.

In his three pointed hat he dances around

but with the undertones of The Joker’s clown

who always has a weapon up his sleeve,

Do you believe? He says, Do you believe?


Gentlemen, he says, do you really think

the USA would shrink

from invading if there was no good reason?

Why, Al Qaeda and bug-eyed Jack

are just waiting to launch their missile attack

and we’ll be gravy in an atomic stew

if we don’t let America do, what a man has to do.


Gentlemen, the way that war is won

is by delivering democracy 101

even if we take it to them

at the point of a gun.


Five years have passed since that great debate

and a lot of Americans have died

And America has engendered a lot of hate

As the coffins fly home in the quiet of night


And women and children of the Christian war

Don’t ask for freedom any more

They ask America to go back home,

they ask America to leave them alone


It was all a lie, it was all deceit

but Denis still warms his professional seat

Dispensing wisdom to girls and boys

While soldiers are still deployed

Dispensing the hypocrisy

Of Denis’s philosophy.


‘For those going north, go south,’ he said,

that old man of the street

‘And those going south, go north,’ he said,

through gritted tobacco-stained teeth

And no one gave him anything for what he told us that day

He was no free-market philosopher growing fat on a professor’s pay


But the street’s the true university

from here to Basra town

Where the kids crawl by on broken limbs

And the free world’s bombs rain down


And Denis sits in his ivory tower teaching kids from nine to five

And they dance to his tune on a Hamlin pipe; it’s the Milton Friedman jive

And Norman Rockwellian mothers kiss their little kids goodnight

As Mesopotamian children die, beneath the clouds where bombers fly

In a livery of bone white stars and bloody stripes.














9.  Just another Christmas:


How was it? You never said. Everyone, I trust, was substantially fed?

Was it family, his, hers, people you don’t usually meet,

a drive in the evening to see the lights all along Bleaker street?

Cafe tables clotted, people idling on the fulcrum of the year

like swimmers turning at the wall, changing gear,

drawing in their strength to kick away down one more length.


Girls turning the corner in Cranford street wear Santa hats in varying styles,

Christmas stockings, bourbon smiles.

Paper angels, pole dancers a-swinging in the wind,

from street lamps, while beneath them buskers sing

familiar aching songs, nothing new

A celebration of a simple man who came to right a wrong or two.


And seated at an inebriate angle, Saint Nick, the giant Christmas whore,

welcoming us all to his mega store, his paint beginning to flake,

and in his hooded eye the glint of take, take, take.


Last year we hid among the hills like refugees,

and from some Christ-forsaken alpine ridge we could see

the threading road where cars like drops of dew slid by

to camp grounds in the sounds, to busy beaches;

we seem to be such congregating creatures.


But not this year...

Ali’s stranded like a whale waiting for the tide to turn.

She’s waiting for her passenger to disembark.

She’s an arc, and the doves have not returned.

We suspect there are no olive trees anymore

…nor rainbows anywhere.















10. Tristan:


Tristan at his seat by the window

turns away and sags willingly into oblivion.

But there she finds and wakes him.

He stares up at the blacknight shapes.


A rooster cries as the flaccid Skywomb stretches

and another Day breaks the waters


Winter now, clotted-milk sky

He lights the fire for company


He lays her against his easel

her body tight in black

Her hair catching the light


With the smallest touches,

his own hair brushes hers

His own hair bound to a wooden stub

runs softly across her cheek


He sits and stares

and inner fears

rise like blind chicks straining


He leans forward

Ear to the board

he stares unseeing

and listens











  11.  Sunday; Waimak river gorge


Sleep is a flimsy business when you sleep out rough

The mind slides and flickers like a lure

drawing creatures from the deep, obscure

dark forms, unnamed

that turn and sink away again

And then;


the morning pours at last its broken flask of milk across the sky;

the trees are grey with honey dew, the boulders lie like hips and thighs

the river runs through everything, the poor man’s wine

running through this ancient coliseum

The river as its bottom line


I’m sitting here beside my fire

wood smoke drifting round my shoulder like a friendly arm

the morning calm, a fantail flicking in the branches like a piece of ash

and in the pool a salmon lies, waving like a heavy pennant;

a temporary tenant, waiting for the final dash


A shattered face of rock strikes up toward the sky

while at its feet the silken river whispers by

singing songs beneath her breath, an infinite caress

a fatal mistress in an emerald dress


If this one river, soft as air, can break a mountain down to silt

then surely words in rivulets of ink, you’d think

could wilt the will of mortal men

who live their lives like bloody-minded salmon


of that great orgasmic final curtain


Unfortunately we haven’t got a million years to do the job;

these Neros in Armani suits and cotton ties

are playing tunes on fiddles while the natural world subsides

These men who live behind a tinted wall of glass

who never ask, who take because they can

who take because they have a lawyer and a plan

and oatmeal in their pockets

to feed the mules of public office…


These men are made of harder stuff than greywacke and granite

so if we’re going to save these last few acres of our planet

we’re going to have to put aside our subtle toys

I think we’re going to have to load the rifles, boys.









12. The age of communication



Daryl‘s got an SUV, a cell phone and a stretch TV

Daryl’s a Twitter, Daryl’s a Skype

Daryl’s got an Apple with a zigabyte.

And the I-pod in his pocket’s got more Ram in its socket

than NASA could have dreamed of

when they launched their Saturn rocket.

Daryl’s down on Facebook as an educated man;

you’ll find his point of view all over Googleland.

Daryl had a latte once in a café with Ritchie McCaw…

Daryl can quote you the latest rugby score.


Einstein rides a bicycle beneath the Aarau sky

and counts the birds in the Sycamore tree

as, relatively, they pass him by.

Einstein uses a fob watch to measure the speed of time

as he watches the leaves, which like galaxies, swirl along the Rhine.

Einstein wears a cardigan and recites Herman Hesse verse

and rearranges the building blocks of the universe.