Personal Sonnets

I 446853 Private S A Campbell

Shot dead crossing an Italian stream.

You were always the most vulnerable

Of us, and the most gentle and able.

You were like a butterfly in a storm

In that foul war that destroyed you. I dream

Of you sometimes, the same improbable

Dream — that you’re alive and not dead at all!

And then I see you floating down that stream.


Dainty as your mother, did you rebel

Like her against life? Why did you bother

Then to bless me until the day you fell,

Giving encouragement like a father?

Wherever you may be I wish you well —

Forever hail and farewell, my brother.


II My Mother

Rebellion was in her character.

Sullenly beautiful, of ariki

Descent, childbearing utterly wrecked her,

So that she died young in Tahiti,

Where she was buried. (There’s a snapshot

Of her flower-strewn grave, with my sister

Morose with grief beside it.) I forgot

To cry, being puzzled, but later missed her.


Sleepless tonight in hospital I search

My memory, but I can find no trace

Of that rebellion, yet like a damp torch

It smouldered in her, lighting up her face

With unearthly beauty. What was its name

If not tuberculosis of the womb?


III Childish Pranks

I first experienced sexual love — such as

It was — on Atiu, when I was seven;

She was older — it was hardly heaven —

And her assurance mocked at my distress.

Original sin is not that we are bad

At birth, but helpless — love gives us control;

Parental love engenders in the soul

Serenity without which we are mad.


Wiser at last, I know my father’s fear

Was life out of control — that’s why he drank,

Played cards, chased women, bitterly aware

Of failing us, even when his body shrank

And he turned to the wall and died in tears,

Begging forgiveness for his childish pranks.


IV Spring in Porirua

‘He died of a broken heart,’ my aunt said.

(She knew bewilderment as well as I,

For her husband walked out and was found dead

Years afterwards by boys in bush nearby.)

How could she know? Have I the story wrong

Or she? If I had known the mother who

Loved him when she was beautiful and strong,

She might have told me what I wish to know.


Sane as the sun, I sit in the dayroom,

Thinking of that lovely man, my father,

Who died young of grief. The attendants come

And lead us out into the sun … Father,

Do you forgive me? Without any sound

The pear trees drop their petals to the ground.


By Alistair Te Ariki Campbell