Poetry

I’m an unknown tulip seller

I

I’m an unknown tulip seller
wasting along empty streets
delivering sweet-scent bouquets
to locked-down city doors.

II

Why did I take this chance
to walk away? I remember still
that night; the shooting stars
shot through our wilted hearts.

III

I place a weak-stemmed flower
in the deserted square, a gift
for you, with a note which says,
“Take my offering of regrets.”

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Poetry

On looking at a statue of the Buddha

She must have been beautiful, Prince,
and your love for her as the Ganges flows.

She must have hurt you, for you to wish
you’d never experienced the dream.

It’s vanity to walk beside beauty
and trust the pleasures of the heart.
All this was well known.

Did you tear the jewels from your ears
for being so duped?
And was the pain not enough?
Did your pride demand more?

You haven’t fooled me,
I know why you sat under a tree
for forty-nine days and nights.
I know why your legs
are awkwardly crossed.

The serenity chiselled on your face,
the laugh lines sanded away―
your own hand the torturer of flesh
that once caressed her…

Or was that too, poor Prince,
something which happened only
in your infinite mind?

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Poetry

Shadows preserve the frost

Shadows preserve the frost. He observes
their dark edge giving way

to a soft halo-rim
where thin white ice melts
into green-fresh trimmed grass.

The low sun has made for him
a palisade of a picket fence.

It’s the defended enclosure
he’s hiding behind, having fallen

over sideways from the world
and its familiar regrets, into the shadows

where frost still lingers.

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Poetry

Mercenary

Notes she still writes
with warm regards,
her wounded ‘I’s capitalised
with a weak hand.

Reading without feeling,
alone in a bunk-bed,
way out past the front,
in enemy barracks.

Cut-off from logistics
and support. The walls
all shot through;
the windows smashed.

No point composing
an answer now;
no knowing which way
the war will go.

You’re a mercenary
of words, who should
never have pleased anyone
to lick your sword.

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Northern Advocate Column

Embracing the ban

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There’s been a lot of banning and restricting lately. A ban on fires is in place across Tai Tokerau. In the Far North, people are having to cope with severe water restrictions. Due to coronavirus, there are restrictions on international travel. Telling people who’ve had contact with the virus to stay at home is a ban of sorts.

At another level, Ngātiwai has a temporary rāhui in place to stop people visiting the Mermaid Pools at Matapōuri Bay. At Ahipara and the Karikari Peninsula, local iwi have banned motorcycling in the sand dunes because of the damage caused.

Last year—without the world ending—disposable plastic bags were banned by the Government. And of course, in the wake of the mass shooting in Christchurch, semi-automatic guns have been outlawed.

By and large, all those bans and restrictions have had general acceptance. Not complete acceptance, perhaps, but you get the feeling they’re supported by most of us. We recognise that for public health reasons, environmental reasons, safety reasons, individual freedoms must be curtailed for the greater good. Even if motorsport enthusiasts would like to ride on the dunes, they’re too small a minority to sway everyone else who agrees that protecting dunes is important.

The key to a good ban is broad public support. It might be imposed by iwi leaders, a civic authority, or the state, but it’s willed in a sense by the majority of the population. Leaders with the power to decide on a ban or introduce restrictions will have calculated that most people are going to back us on this.

A good ban works because it’s equitable. Water restrictions in the Far North apply to all households. Rich or poor, everyone’s equally affected. Imagine the outcry if authorities decided to deal with the water shortage by imposing a high price on each litre of water piped from public dams and bores. Anyone with lots of money would be fine. The poorest in the community would have a greater barrier to accessing the water they need. You might expect widespread anger and even violence as a result.

Having made a case for bans and restrictions, and our grudging acceptance of them, I’d like to make a comparison with the dominant policy response, so far, to the threat of catastrophic climate change. It’s to put a price on carbon emissions. This is done through emissions trading schemes or via direct taxes, which add, for instance, to the price of petrol.

Almost all the policy initiatives and recommendations put forward by our mainstream political parties will affect low and middle-income people the most, and the rich hardly a jot. There are multi-millionaires concerned about global warming, no doubt. Still, there’s not one policy initiative that’s going to have any discernible impact on their lifestyles. That’s why banning something or restricting its use is fairer. A good ban, remember, is equitable, affecting rich and poor alike. It’s certainly got more chance of being widely supported.

If we are serious about doing something real to reduce carbon emissions, in a way that’s fair to all citizens, then we have to embrace the ban. Ask yourself: are you ready for restricting the number of times anyone can travel by plane in a year? Or restrictions on the use of concrete (one of the worst materials for emissions)? What about limiting the number of cows per farm?

How do you feel about allowing only one car per family? All families would be put in the same situation, regardless of purchasing power. Both would be inconvenienced, both could embrace the opportunity to get healthier through more walking and cycling. Or feel good about themselves and their contribution to saving the planet while sitting on a bus.

We’re not going to combat global warming or adjust to resource scarcity, and maintain any sort of societal stability, without bans and restrictions. It’s up to us.

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Poetry

Us

after Pablo Neruda

A difficult time
for twos,
when the number
is many.

Our four hands
cannot clasp
to form one circle.

Our four eyes
cannot lock
space between us.

Instead, we must
reach sideways
with our four hands

to grasp
who we can,
to form a circle
so large

its curvature
cannot be seen
by just one of us.

We can only trust
it will bring us
to completion.

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Poetry

A scene created from bits

A scene created from bits:
the slant of one blade of grass
pulsing with van Gogh’s eye;

the shadow of a gum tree
passing through textured strokes
of wind and hooves towards

your ghost, walking the line
of the old wooden fence―what is
perpendicular or parallel ever

in the leaning years? The fence
holds shape in memory only;
the order we overlay.

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Poetry

Lucky are the forgotten

Lucky are the forgotten, they live on
in violet and jasmine. Until death
the sun is always setting, never gone
from the sky; the golden light through
a high window, always on the wall.

The forgotten sip daily from a cup
dipped once in an alpine stream;
they transverse tussock and rock
to find one small flower to press
like the ancients into a book.

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Poetry

Charles Bukowski talking to my wife in bed

“We’re much better at that than when we started.”

“Isn’t that true of anything?

“Not running, we’re worse at that.”

“I’d rather get better at what we just did, than running.”

“People who run all the time are stupid.
They’ve no creativity, not like poets.”

“Is that right?”

“All those runners, bench pressers,
body combaters, jazz-a-sizers,
they probably think they’re the only ones
any good at it—
but they’re wrong.”

“You know you’re narrowing
your audience.”

“Well, they were never going to open up
to this page anyway, so no loss
—but I have to see them
in public
running, riding their bicycles
in expensive fluro shirts;
I have to see
their dumb faces
walking down the street after 3 hours
at the gym,
so
I should be able to say
in my own poem
hardly anyone
will read, that poets
do it best.”

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Northern Advocate Column

Covid-19 and the contagion of cheap credit infecting the global economy

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Reading stories about the spread of Covid-19, it’s the contagion that might infect the economy that’s worrying many.

The virus is bad from a world health perspective, but the actions to be taken are relatively straight forward. What governments should or can do about the economic impact is less certain.

Donald Trump, attempting to give leadership, told us there’s no problem and even suggested buying stock in the share market. The Dow Jones promptly fell.

Such misguided optimism obviously doesn’t square with reality. Clearly there’s an economic impact when multitudes of Chinese factories are shut down, supply lines disrupted, and planes grounded. New Zealand’s Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, has said there will be a “serious impact on the New Zealand economy in the short term.”

What New Zealand’s government will be doing, like others around the world, will be considering what action they can take to keep the economy growing. Government stimulus spending is being talked about. Tax cuts will be considered.

But no government wants to act too heavy-handed, because that could exasperate nervousness. People might conclude that things must be dire if the government’s dropping this amount of stimulus. Therefore I should pull back spending, cancel my weekend away, put off hiring another staff member.

Economic uncertainty and contraction is not unlike a virus, it can spread from household to business, from farm to tractor importer, from tourism to the retail sector. All this is well known, which is why business owners, global investors, and politicians who want to be re-elected will be quietly worried.

If the economy goes south for a sustained period, we’re in recession territory. Officially that’s when GDP, the measure of all economic activity, decreases for two quarters or six months.

If a recession on a global scale were to occur, some might attribute it to Covid-19. But that would be a narrow and misleading view to take. It would be like saying the spark from a farmer’s chainsaw was the cause of a devastating wildfire. Might not the fire be better explained by acknowledging the severe drought and amount of dry flammable material about?

In the case of the economy, the bigger problem, and likely cause of any recession, will be the record amount of global debt. At last count, a cool $257 trillion in US dollars. Three times the size of the world’s total economic output in 2019. New Zealand’s private debt is also at record levels, approaching 500 billion dollars. 156% of GDP. A Mount Cook sized debt compared to China’s Everest of debt: 40 trillion US dollars and 300% of GDP.

Since the 2008 Financial Crisis, banks and governments worldwide have conspired to keep interest rates low and encourage consumers and businesses to borrow. Cheap credit might look good in the short-term, but you’re still taking a punt with your ability to pay it back in the future. Bound by the agreement you’ve entered into with a bank, servicing debt becomes the first thing you must do with any money you have. That leaves less to spend on consumer items, from i-phones to coffees, if income becomes constrained. For a business, if you haven’t got enough cash coming in to service debt, then you’re going to struggle to stay in business.

The global debt mountain now looks like a massive problem. The credit which has been used to stimulate growth is now the thing that could constrain growth. A situation that smart economists have been warning about for years. The global economy is a parched landscape strung out on debt. Making the recession risk “high.”

There’s another question to ask though: why, with all the cheap credit, has the real economy (minus the boom in house prices and other asset stocks) been so sluggish over the last decade? My bet is that the global economy is coming up against the limits of what this finite planet called Earth can sustain. Record debt is a symptom of something much bigger unfolding.

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