Old memory, new pleasure

The friend I visit once a fortnight who has severe short-term memory loss, can surprise me, and lead me somewhere I am glad to go.

The rest-home where she lives has a lovely courtyard garden and we sit there on fine days. Last Tuesday we were chatting, admiring the tree in the centre of the garden that gives lovely dappled shade reminiscent of some Evelyn Page paintings. I was talking about a trip Prue and I made to Kapiti Island with some old friends  from the UK, and mentioned the hihi feeding station. Elizabeth, with some hesitations, said,

“‘In the days when I was young,’ said Topine Te Mamaku,
Every little bough was bent with birds.’
Very old, very tired, was Topine Te Mamaku,
Hear his words.”

hihi

She knew the bird referred to was the hihi, or stitchbird, that the poet was Eileen Duggan and that she had learnt the poem at school. I knew of Eileen Duggan but not that poem. Once before I had been able to summon up an Ursula Bethell poem we talked of on my iPad, but Eileen Duggan is less well regarded than Bethel and I couldn’t find any of her poems on the New Zealand poetry sites I know. I thought I had a collection of Edith Duggan’s poems at home and promised to return with it next visit.

Eileen Duggan

I was disappointed to find my Selected Poems did not include “The Hihi”, but the Wellington Public Library did not let me down. I found it there in a small, battered book, New Zealand Bird Songs (1929), whose bird poems had been written for children. I have copied the whole poem at the end of this post (where I can’t get the rhyming lines to indent, as they do in the original).

I’m sending Elizabeth the full poem, of course. Writing this has made me realise how much I like these serendipitous encounters. My vague sense of Eileen Duggan and her poetry now has substance, from reading the introduction to the Selected Poems and a number of the poems in it. I shall tell Elizabeth this, and she won’t remember, but she has the poem in her mind for when someone else happens to mention the hihi.

THE HIHI (Stitch-bird)

“In the days when I was young,” said Topine Te Mamaku,
Every little bough was bent with birds.”
Very old, very tired, was Topine Te Mamaku.
Hear his words.

“You have seen the Kahu Kiwi,
The down of the Kiwi,
On a rangatira, proud and bold.
But oh, had you seen the Kahu Hihi
Oh, had you seen the mat of gold!”

“It was like the western sky,” said Topine Te Mamaku
“It was like a kowhai burning on the tree.
For the down of the Hihi,” said Topine Te Mamaku
Is as yellow as the comb of the bee.”

“Ah, stately the Kiwi,
The down of the Kiwi,
Though its hue is dark, and dun and cold,
But oh, had you seen the Kahu Hihi.
Oh, had you seen the cloth of gold!”

“You will seldom see it now,” said Topine Te Mamaku
“It has dipped its little wings in the stain of the sky,
And its down is cloth of gold,” said Topine TeMamaku
With a sigh.

“You have seen the Kahu Kiwi,
The royal old Kiwi,
But there was a prouder mat of old.
Like the dust of the Flax-flower was the Kahu Hihi,
Oh, had you seen the cloak of gold!”

Eileen Duggan

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Old memory, new pleasure

  1. Lovely to read this today when I’m writing fiction about someone who remembers poems she learned years ago very easily but forgets a lot of other stuff– And I love Eileen Duggan’s poems, especially Bequest, one of my all-time faves. Thank you!

Please leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s