2. ‘Ten Steps to the Sea’, from “The Bells of Saint Babel’s”, 2001

The initial post about an Allen Curnow poem was about the first poem published in his first book. Rather than continue in a chronological way with a comment on another older poem this post has some observations about the first poem in Allen Curnow’s last book.  A distance of 68 years separates the two poems which is just remarkable.  It really is an amazing testament to the longevity of Allen Curnow’s career as a poet.

What is interesting is that both poems involve the sea and even have that name in their titles. That first poem was called “Sea changes” and this one is called “Ten Steps to the Sea”.  When you reflect on this it is clear that the ocean was a topic that permeates Allen Curnow’s work.  References to the sea occur many times which is not surprising given that he came from an island nation.  The references include those in one of his more famous poems, “Landfall in Unknown Seas” and the line “always to islanders danger, is what comes over the sea”.  But they also appear in others such as “you will know when you get there” and poems in the book “Island & Time”.

In the 2001 documentary about his life by Shirley Horrocks he reads a poem, “At Dead Low Water”, and then he comments about this, which perhaps gives us some insight into the reason that the ocean makes many appearances:

“From childhood I think I had an extraordinary rather scary kind of curiosity about what could be underneath all that water – something of that kind of thing gets into this poem – and into one or two other poems which I call tidal poems – what is down there?  It is rather scary.”

So turning to the poem in his 2001 book, “The Bells of Saint Babel’s”, I am not going to go through on a line by line basis and discuss the poem like the last post. It is divided into 10 parts – the ten steps to the sea of the title.  It is three pages long so it is more lengthy than the last poem which was three stanzas only.   I am just going to highlight a few of my favorite parts of the poem which triggered thoughts for me.

A remark
for the rising sun. I see
by what blinds me.

I like this short little snapshot of an idea. It has an almost Haiku quality to it with the statement spread over three lines and the clever meaning in the second line being expanded on by the truth in the third line.  Coming out of the darkness of night the new dawn has cracked open the world again.  Light pours out over the landscape and it is that light which both enables the poet to see but also holds a danger for it could damage the eyes to the point of blindness.  One is reminded of the saying, “too much of a good thing” – how often in life do we overindulge in some fancy or craving only to find that we have had too much.  In the same way we can see by the light that could damage our eyes, which would mean we could never see again.  Having worked long hours in Tokyo and London before I wonder if there is some crossover here with a job where we work hard to earn money – that is all well and good but if we work even harder then we may burn out and cannot even do the job itself anymore.  The way that Allen Curnow has presented it could perhaps be interpreted then as a call to moderation.  Well, that is what it means to me.  On to the next lines.

Repeat this experience
wilfully.
Instruct this
experience to repeat
itself.

How many times have I gained some new insight or understanding and then realised it couldn’t have come without some action and so determined to adopt that as a new habit.   Perhaps that is reading a new book, attending a course, taking time out for a holiday or making space to reflect in a busy world.  For a while I usually do repeat the experience “willfully”, and yet then the habit dies away.  What I instead need is for it to automatically become something which “repeats itself”.  If only it were as easy as issuing an instruction along the lines set out above.

Telling us about
his cancer, he said, ‘They can control
the pain till there’s well really
no pain, but then there’s no reality.’
He said: ‘I try to balance
the two, as little pain
as possible, as much reality
as possible.’

The first line gives no indication of what the person is about to raise as a topic. That appears as a surprise in the second line.  This series of thoughts immediately follows the discussion about the rising sun being what blinds us.  In some ways there is a similarity here for the medicine can dull and ease the pain but in doing so it drowns out the reality.  Taking just one line from this: “no pain, but then there’s no reality”, I wonder if this doesn’t apply more generally in our culture as well with a desire for sedation through instant access to entertainment (games, movies, TV) and a resulting loss of touch with reality.  However, the specific situation of cancer that is used to introduce these concepts by the poet is horrific and having seen its impact I would not want to read too much into this part of the poem.

In reality,
A step in the right direction.
The pain is this wind, which blows the whole time, uncontrollably.
In your face.

The words reality and pain are both used in this final section of the poem again, and they were used in the section above as well about balancing pain and reality. The poem title is “Ten steps to the sea”, and yet here at the end we have reference to only “a step in the right direction”.  Perhaps it is too much to expect to reach a destination in only ten steps.  Instead it is more important to move in the way that you know you should go.  Instead of more “7 habits of highly effective people” or other self help books it is a series of smaller steps that we can implement rather than instructing our experiences to repeat themselves.  At any rate there is pain, in this case the example given is the wind which continues to blow in your face.  And it is not a coincidence that two ideas meet in the second to last line with, “time, uncontrollably”, because certainly it is one of the things in life which is truly not capable of being paused, stopped or controlled.  Instead it marches on regardless.