Monday, July 26, 2010

Tuesday Poem: Cheers

I wrote this poem in 1978. There’s further explanation at the end.


………My last letter signed!
Be nice to have a chat before I go.
As far as I know most things
are up-to-date. My belief: better
never than late; rather twisted
but I'm sure you catch my drift.
Sorry, I haven't any ice.
Your good health.
                           Well, well. The job's
yours now; you're welcome to it. No.
No regrets: a few successes, lot more
failures. Before I forget - one final
plug - here's my pet project, rejected
again; could you take it up with them,
just one more try, you never know,
new blood just might scrape it through.
Have another one.
                                          I'll miss
this entertainment grog. What a waste;
reckon I could’ve lasted a few more years.
Ticker's sound, blood pressure's O. K.,
not dog tucker yet. Just get the run
of things when down wallops the chopper.
             keep your options open as long
as possible, and guard your flanks,
that's the main thing.
                               Yes, yes.
It's a good drop.
                         You know, in all
my hopes I never aimed for the top –
it just happened! The race goes to the lucky,
not the strong nor the swift, not even
to the crafty, though I wouldn't bank
on that. Remember poor old Smart? Set
his heart here, but never in the right
place at the right time. Reminds me;
keep an eye on young Browning - ambitious
sod. Don't trust him. Quality doesn't
quite match achievement.
Now Costello spoke his mind too much...
just as you have once or twice; you'll
have to watch that. Top brass wouldn't
wear him. Too bad. Bright chap. Suppose
I should've pushed...
                                Have another,
Easy after the event to be wise. Don't
get me wrong. It's like the war; where
and when you're posted. Did I ever tell
you about the long pee I had in the Po?
Jerry really on the run then. Most vivid
recollection of the whole stupid show:
a thousand blokes, each one full flow.
Same again?
                         Sal's a good secretary.
Indispensable. They'll try to shift her.
Don't let them. Place'd fall apart. Keeps
fools off your back, brains, well-stacked,
picks up your grammar ...what more can
you want? Watch their writing. Most of them
are too wordy. They complain that I
don't trust them but it's true, most of
them can't write. I've been too lenient.
Always a soft touch; they say that now
as I retire.
                 Yes, it's a nice room.
Chose the prints myself. When I came in,
Picasso, period; most depressing,
only one tit on the whole lot. Quickly
changed that.
                    Ministers? Can't complain.
They come and go. First one I had knew
what he wanted. Did we slog, but they
kicked him sideways. Since then I've kept
my moustache away from the fire.
                                                  A refill?
Was it worth it? In a funny way, yes.
We've lurched forward, but it has been
forward. Pleased you agree. You'll bring
your own strengths as I did mine. You
know, there was a time when I couldn't
stand you; thought you were too ambitious
for your own good, but now I must say I
was wrong:
                The Ngati Porou gave me that.
It's the only thing I'll take; the rest
are official.
                 Come here to the window. See
that bed of tulips? Spring, it'll be a blaze
of colour. Time's gone so fast ...I've
watched them bloom for over a decade.
             Hell, I'll miss this room.

In my early 40s, I had not long been promoted from being a secondary school inspector to a head office desk position in Wellington when I found myself in a bizarre situation. The recently retired Director-General of Education popped in for an unexpected visit. Busy officers didn’t know what to do with him. Get ‘new chum’ McQueen to brief him on developments in the field some bright spark suggested. I had never met him before but sensed his hurt and frustration at being shunted into my office; but being a loyal public servant he didn’t criticise peers or masters or successors.

About the same time a few other prominent heads of government departments retired. Sixty was the arbitrary cut-off vintage. One evening, wondering what it would be like to give away forty years of service having risen to the top, I began to write a poem. Like Topsy, it quickly grew.

Aware that my skills did not prepare me for that position, I was not ambitious enough to anticipate getting to it. But my new job meant a growing realisation of the ‘poisoned chalice’ nature of the post. New thoughts and theories jostled into my writing. My educational idealism was being challenged by many unexpected realities. In the classroom I had been king. At my office desk I was subject to many forces and conflciting factors, most beyond my control. Looking back I think my writing reflects a sub-conscious wrestling with this fact. I had changed career paths and there were unexpected consequences.

I’d been reading Browning’s poems so the dramatic monologue seemed a good vehicle for a person to reminisce about their experience. Novelists tell me every now and then a character takes over, swells in dimensions and takes on his or her own unexpected traits.

This happened here. He had a wife, (and marital strife), five children, went to Mass most Sundays, except for the war, resented the lack of overseas travel, loved his holiday trout-fishing, had unfulfilled ambitions for Treasury. He was much cruder and coarser than I was for his language reflected the ethos of the time – this was an ex-soldier generation. People ask was he ‘me’. The answer is no. There were aspects – rural upbringing - but this older guy took on his own life.

He gets maudlin towards the end as the whiskey takes effect. (There were tulips in bloom at the time outside my office window). My career path to that date had been upward. What would emotions be like at leaving the last post twenty years ahead with no anticipations. What I wrote felt real.

I looked at what I’d produced – far too long. It either had to be developed and turned into a novel, or trimmed back as a poem. On the novel’s side was the other participant, the listener, the successor, I had more than glimmerings as to his nature. (Note the ‘he’ – the top public service then was entirely ‘he’). Rather scornful in his silent thoughts he tolerantly and superficially listened to the ramblings of this old ‘has-been’ on his way out.

Sensibly I turned it into a poem; heavily cutting, I only left in those passages that gave the character, setting and scene. The majority of my poems are spur of the moment thoughts. Not this one. It's been disappointing that critics, with the sole exception of David Hill, have ignored it. It’s unique, a one-off, a glimpse of a road not travelled, and a piece though dated very reflective of its period.

The Tuesday poem website is


  1. I really enjoyed that poem, Harvey. I can just about see it.

  2. A great 'voice', Harvey - the poem's speaker has some wonderful turns of phrase - I can see him elbowing past you to get into the room.