Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why Don't You Talk To Me? by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell

Why do I post my love letters
in a hollow log?
Why put my lips to a knothole in a tree
and whisper your name?

The spiders spread their nets
and catch the sun,
and by my foot in the dry grass
ants rebuild a broken city.
Butterflies pair in the wind,
and the yellow bee,
his holsters packed with bread,
rides the blue air like a drunken cowboy.

More and more I find myself
talking to the sea.
I am alone with my footsteps.
I watch the tide recede
and I am left with miles of shining sand.

Why don't you talk to me?

                                       Editor: Tim Jones

Alistair Te Ariki Campbell (1925–2009) is my favourite New Zealand poet. While Allen Curnow and James K Baxter were conventionally regarded, during the high nationalist (and masculinist) period of New Zealand poetry, as the twin titans of New Zealand poetry – or perhaps, for aspiring poets, its Scylla and Charybdis – Alistair Campbell's poetry, rooted in observation and experience rather than poetic ideology, speaks more directly to me.

Kapiti: Selected Poems 1947–71 was, if I recall correctly, the first collection of New Zealand poetry I bought. While some of the early poems in this selection, such as "The Return" (1949), are magnificent, it was the increasing simplicity, freshness and directness of address of the later poems in the book that especially impressed and (I hope) influenced me.

"Why Don't You Talk To Me?", written in 1965, has all these qualities, plus a cunning indirection. For much of the poem, the central question is present only by implication: the natural world makes its customary arrangements all around me, yet I am separate; why don't you talk to me? This poem says all that needs to be said, and no more.

For more information about Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, see his Wikipedia and New Zealand Book Council pages and his obituary in The Guardian.

Alistair Te Ariki Campbell

Publication Information

Published in Alistair Campbell, Kapiti: Selected Poems 1947-71, and reprinted in Harvey McQueen, ed., These I Have Loved (Steele Roberts, 2010). Reproduced as a Tuesday Poem by kind permission of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell's literary executor.

Tim Jones is a poet, author, editor and blogger. His latest book is his third poetry collection, Men Briefly Explained. His short story "The New Neighbours" has been included in the recently-published anthology The Apex Book of World SF 2. For more on Tim and his writing, please see his blog Books in the Trees.

Once you have read "Why Don't You Talk To Me?", please take the opportunity to read the poems which the individual Tuesday Poets have posted on their blogs. You'll see them linked from the sidebar at the left of this page.


Elizabeth Welsh said...

Oh, I love the direct confrontation of this - that repeated question. Beautiful choice, Tim.

JLC said...

So poignant without any self-pity. Beautiful.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Elizabeth and JLC!

Penelope said...

I will never look at a bee in the same way. The drunken cowboy image is so surprising.

Sarah Jane Barnett said...

Thanks, Tim. This is a fantastic poem. It made me smile today.

Helen Lowe said...


I can't hope, and so shall not try, to add anything to your excellent commentary, but I was 'surprised by delight' when I read this poem and it made me want to go out and read more Alastair Te Ariki Campbell immediately.

Juhi said...

Wow! What excellent imagery. I am going to start looking for him now. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

It's beautiful Tim. I love the way the middle verse is full of the business and belonginness of the spider the butterflies and the bees while the writer is left alone with his footsteps. Wonderful image of the cowboy bee!

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Penelope, Sarah Jane, Helen and Juhi. I am pleased that this poem has touched so many people.

I've just found a number of poems by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell online, including this poem, as both text and audio files, so this seems like a good starting point:


Tim Jones said...

... and thanks also, Helen - our posts crossed!

Mary McCallum said...

Great stuff, Tim - the image of the cowboy bee has stayed with me these past two days - and the plaintive call and loneliness at the heart of the poem - it's good to see Campbell up here, thank you.

AJ Ponder said...

how is it that one bee can ride the blue air like a drunken cowboy and steal off with everyone's hearts? - no doubt those holsters are packed with highly dangerous bread. ;)

Michelle Elvy said...

Oh wonderful poem. That cowboy bee is one I won't forget! And yes the busy-ness of nature all around while the narrator is stuck in silence is astoundingly simple and beautiful. Those wallowing poems about loneliness are often off-putting (to me) but this is something special -- almost light and airy even as it explores loneliness.

So glad you posted this Tim - and thank you for sharing your favourite NZ poet. Must get a copy of Kapiti now -- such a strong recommendation and how wonderful to see my NZ poetry collecting growing on my snug little shelf.

Kathleen Jones said...

This is another new poet for me and I'm grateful for the introduction Tim. I love the indirectness of it and the images are stunning. Particularly the bee! Your critical comments are spot on too. Thank you.

Madeleine Marie Slavick said...

Yes, I love this poem, and his poetry.

And I recommend the book "It's Love, Isn't It?" with poems by Alistair and Meg Campbell.


Tim Jones said...

Just came back here to find lots more lovely comments - thank you! I've read "Kapiti", "It's Love, Isn't It?", "Just Poetry" and the "Selected Poems" and they are all very much worth reading. If choosing this poem sparks more people to read Alistair Te Ariki Campbell's poetry, I will be very pleased!