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Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low WaterAllen Curnow
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Vol. 16 No. 1 · 6 January 1994
Poem

Looking West, Late Afternoon, Low Water

Allen Curnow

The typical tidal range, or difference in sea level between high and low tides, in the open ocean is about 2 ft(0.6m), but it is much greater near the coasts.

Desk encyclopedia

Our beach was never so bare. Freak tide,
system fault, inhuman error, will it

never stop falling? After dark, said
the tables of high water and sunset

pasted on the wall, which don’t deceive.
Come on down for a walk while there’s light.

A wall of pale green glass miles above
head high alongside, complete with fish

crossing, is what will have been the wave
once it has broken. Leviathan is

the beached cachalot we left Bob Falla
filleting for science, the ebb to wash

away these fifty years, each one smaller
than the last. Come down, this is today

delivered factory fresh, in colour
heated by the late sun. Time to try

looking on the bright side, or join those
Great God!; (says the poem) who’d rather be

suckled in a creed outworn: but whose
cast-off cult’s to be the lucky one?

Great waters, unfinished business, done
blind to the deadline. From that rock to

this tree was tapu and it sticks. Thin
pickings, Tangaroa, this is pakeha

story time, only Okeanos and
sister Tethys having it off: the way

they love makes hairy cliff-hanging seas
roll drums on the sand, the three-metre swell

flat on the seabed bangs the pubes,
very ancient and fishlike they smell

close to. Divine all the same. Dangerous,
not to be approached, least of all by

mortal man whose years are four-score plus
tomorrow night. While I count the three

strong swimmers carried past out of sight
round the North Rocks the whole shoreline shakes

underfoot again, dead friends call out
not to be heard. Look west, what looks

back is blood-orange nightfall, the stooped
sky drowning another sun overboard

where the horizon was: till it snapped
those deep-sea moorings and will be heard

oncoming, the sound of a scream, tsunami!
tsunami! splintering deadwood of the boat

I lost half a life ago, swept
away with a judgment on the work

she’s amateur built but your friends won’t know.
Last seen, one inflatable rescue

craft stood on its tuck, bows to skyward
in fast failing light, a turning tide.

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