Scoop Review of Books

A Poet Passes

By Denis Welch

‘I’ve got this strong sense of self-preservation,’ Alistair Te Ariki Campbell told me when I interviewed him for the Listener in 2005. ‘I don’t fly apart—I get my forces together.’ At the hot gates of Thermopylae, he said, when the Spartans were about to go into battle with the Persians, ‘they just leisurely groomed their hair. So I would call on these Spartans when I was getting very depressed—“Come, I need your help. Start grooming yourself, start brushing your hair, come to my rescue!”’

The Spartans, together with regular medication, helped Alistair to survive till last Sunday, the 16th of August, when the Persians finally got him and he died at the age of 84—though he might have gone through the hot gates thinking he was only 82, had he not found out fairly late in life that he was born not on 29 August 1926, as he’d been led to believe, but on 25 June 1925. Such were the mysteries attendant on a childhood torn down the middle by the deaths of his parents within a year of each other. The first half of that childhood stayed in the Cook Islands, on the atoll of Tongareva, where he had grown up in ‘this little warm atmosphere of love and care’ till he was seven; the second half began abruptly with transplantation to a cold Dunedin orphanage, where he spent the next 10 years, learning to speak English and to preserve the self.

It took him till his mid-30s before he began to even acknowledge that he was Polynesian, let alone how deeply his life had been split. The two halves finally fused into mental distress (he had a breakdown) and then flowered into poetry, with the publication in 1963 of Sanctuary of Spirits, which Ken Arvidson later called called the ‘first work by a Polynesian poet in English that has the unmistakable textual richness of a major artistic achievement.’ In his entry on Campbell in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, Nelson Wattie—who has been working on a biography—notes him saying to Sam Hunt in 1969 that ‘It was almost as if the springs of creativity had become iced over… my nervous breakdown cracked the ice and allowed the spring to flow.’

Even so, as Alistair told me, for a long time it didn’t occur to him that he might go back to the Cook Islands. Settled in Pukerua Bay in the 1960s, in that jumble of a house looking out onto Kapiti, raising a family with Meg, working for School Publications, he gave no thought to it. It was his cousin Rima who, instructed by relatives in 1974 to search him out, came to Wellington and rang all the Campbells in the phonebook till the right one answered. ‘And that,’ he said, ‘made all the difference.’ Two years later he returned to Tongareva for the first time since 1933 and discovered not only the ‘Te Ariki’ part of his name but an even richer vein of poetry first seen in The Dark Lord of Savaiki (1980).

Rima spoke at the funeral. So did Nelson. Nelson sang at the funeral—a Schumann song. So did family members from the Cook Islands, whose thrilling traditional hymn shook the hall’s rafters; and so did Alistair’s daughters
Josie and Mary, with their setting of his poem ‘Teu’:

Mother, you were there
at the passage
when our ship arrived.

The sea, heavy as oil,
heaved unbroken
on the reef,

the stars
lay in clusters
on the water,

and you wept
when you laid
the Southern Cross

upon our eyes.

The congregation, if that’s what we were, all sang too— ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd,’ ‘Abide With Me.’ Many people
spoke—children, grandchildren, Cook Islands relatives who all count themselves as brothers and sisters; Meg, who died two years ago. Andrew and Greg, Alistair’s sons from his first marriage, to Fleur Adcock, both spoke—as did their aunt, Fleur’s sister, Marilyn Duckworth, now Nelson’s partner. Such connections. No one glossed over how difficult and distant Alistair could be—‘a powerful uncompromising presence,’ Andrew called him. Yet a tremendous love for him was everywhere; we all felt, through his passing, the greatness and trouble of life and the enduring power of poetry. Over and over, we heard of how often he would speak of his parents and his island childhood. It was a fine cold day. They took his body to be cremated afterwards and will, I’m sure, sow the southerly with his ashes, as he once wrote, ‘to fall in tears on Kapiti.’

The soul of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, I think, though, will be well on its way north by now, north by north-west
from Kapiti, from New Zealand, up through the Pacific and out across the ocean, not stopping till it makes landfall
thousands of miles from here.

It will be like this one day
when I sail home to die—
the boat crunching up on to the sand,
then wading through warm water
to the beach,

the friendly voices
round me in the darkness,
the sky dying out
behind the trees of Omoka,
and reaching out of hands.

—Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, ‘Omoka’


Denis Welch is a Wellington journalist and author. His most recent book is Helen Clark: A Political Life

The above article first appeared on Denis’s blog Opposable Thumb