Tuesday Poem: ‘The bottle of oil I was late sending John’ by Ian Wedde

From Three regrets and a hymn to beauty

This poem will mimic ordinary speech
So well, you won’t tell the difference,

Even though ordinary speech would never say
Something like that. Ordinary speech

Does not know it is ordinary
Until we make it say extraordinary things.

Is that true? For a start, ‘ordinary speech’
Doesn’t know anything, it is we who know things

Which we express using speech both ordinary and
Unusual, in the way a great athlete can make

Running across the South Island appear achievable.
This morning a grey, slab-shaped mountain

Appeared above the domestic horizon of rooftops
At the southern end of our street. It was there

And then it wasn’t. While it was there
I was not surprised, because it appeared so

Naturally, and when it was gone I was also not surprised
Because things had returned to normal. Ordinary

Speech can do that.
I’d have to say, John, that running all the way

From west to east across the Southern Alps
Would be a day at the office if a garberdine alp

Can materialise at the southern end of the street
I turn the western corner of

Every day on my way to work, or somewhat earlier
Every day, the eastern corner, when I walk the dog.

Every day I know I have a choice.
I can be the docile servant of

Ordinary speech, even of ordinary speech
Describing the southern traverse of icy tarns,

Matagouri, lichened rocks, and rabbit bones
Freeze-dried in the hawk’s nest, I can have my day

Project-managed by human resource clerks,
I can put a two-dollar coin in the slot machine

That dispenses chocolate bars
And get twenty cents change, I can say yes

When I mean no, and when I come home in the evening
Turning east at the end of the street

Where the dun mountain appeared and
Disappeared that morning, I can remain unsurprised

By ordinary speech’s failure to make something
Unusual appear so. Or

I can choose to be reborn.
Let’s face it, ordinary speech does not have the cunning

To trapeze around the end of a line of poetry
Stranding ‘or’ on the other side of the hyper-dramatic line

‘I can choose to be reborn’.
What right have I got

To make ordinary speech say things like that?
I should know better, as I turn west (but earlier, east)

Every morning, and east every evening,
Half expecting the slab-like shape of Mount Martha

To be there above the roofline of Wareham House
At the bottom of our street, the ‘Functions

Venue’ where bridal cars draw up festooned with ribbons,
And whose balcony fills with

Singing drunks. Later, the ‘happy couple’
(in the language of ordinary speech)

Depart in another car encouraged by boastful cheers
From the balcony, and I sometimes wonder

If the brides have, for a moment at least,
Seen the slab-like form of Mount Martha

Rise up behind the noisy balcony of
Their pissed cousins, and if just for a moment

They have imagined their newly wedded lover
Running tirelessly, with evenly panting breath, across

The high screes and hawks’ nests like bell-jars
Of specimens—lean, grinning with fitness, his

Skin the thin papyrus of quasi-Biblical survival, his
Sponsors the makers of tents and kayaks

In which the happy couple could live comfortably
In Antarctica, their adventure rendered plausible

In the ordinary speech of Discovery Channel.
But then the honeymoon car drives on, it

Changes gears at the end of the street, as
History seems to some days, lurching forward into a future

Not yet ready for consummation, like an athlete
Getting too far ahead of the

Record books, implausible in his own present, isolated,
Lonely, and finally embittered—accelerating

Towards the bridal suite in
A motel at Pekapeka. They may be in time

For sunset over the Cook Strait horizon, they may
Walk the salty tideline feeling good about

The way their footprints in the damp sand are
Close together and pointing in the same direction, and

They will feel diminished together by the
Grandeur of the sunset display on streaming clouds

Above Mana Island—whose plain, altar-like bulk
Is like a memory of something dark glimpsed,

Briefly, looming above the
Brashly lit balcony of singing wedding guests. Romance

Is good, and the language of ordinary speech
Does a good job for it, making articulate

What the young lovers know matters more than anything
They have ever done, this moment with the plume tips

Of toitoi aflame as the sun sinks into
The red and black sea. It’s probably a relief when

The prospect of resurrection fades, the memory of
The blunt mountain reminiscent

Of Lazarus’s ‘gentle sister’ fades into the lovers’
Dreams, and is gone for good in the morning

When he hands over the keys to the Honeymoon Suite
And goes whistling to the car. Why, John, does this story

Fill me with horrible rage and sadness, and a vengeful desire
To take ordinary speech by the neck

And choke the life from it? Why, despite what I’ve learned
Over the years, do I want the young lovers

To drive straight from their love motel into the dark
Shadow of the mountain they fled, and to

Wake every morning of their lives with a refusal
On their lips, like those mad athletes

Refusing to lie down? The deal was, you’d give me tips
On quirky titles addressing the Sublime, like the almost-

Forgotten Ernest Tuveson, and in return I’d send you
Obscure treats, like Columela Picual oil. You kept

Your part of the bargain, but half way through the
Turgid Tuveson I got distracted by the term

‘technocalypse’ and lost interest in
Moral philosophy, especially Ernest’s version of it,

And I regret to say I forgot
To send you the thick green oil in its heavy bottle, and I regret

That it’s taken me this long to confront
The spooky mountain beyond Wareham House,

To refuse the comfort-stops of ordinary
Speech, and to keep on running past the

All singing all dancing balcony
Across a kind of darkened upland plateau.


first published in Sport 31: Spring 2003.
I heard Ian Wedde read this poem last Tuesday at Auckland’s Poetry Live.  Wedde is New Zealand’s present Poet Laureate. 


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8 Responses to Tuesday Poem: ‘The bottle of oil I was late sending John’ by Ian Wedde

  1. Elizabeth says:

    This is incredible – I am very jealous that you got to hear it read by Ian. I find the almost surreal image of the looming, run-able Mount Martha so powerful, so frightening. Should I? Hmm, fabulous stuff. Thanks so much for posting!

  2. gurglewords says:

    I can totally relate to his mountain and I love it when it is gaberdine . Although it is definitely not ordinary it sounds very familiar and quite logical. I admire its energy! Did Ian mention John’s response to the oil being late? Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. marydanae says:

    Oh wow – what a poem!! Thanks so much Michelle – a great way to start a Friday. It must have been wonderful to hear it read. The collection it comes from is rather wonderful isn’t it?

  4. A J Ponder says:

    I love the last three lines, I imagine it would be great to hear this read.

  5. Yes, Mary and AJ — it is a great poem and wonderful to hear live. Yes indeed. It was surreal too, with the near-brawl out back and the rowdies on the street as well. Ian was the picture of composure throughout.

  6. marydanae says:

    Michelle, just returning on our Tuesday Poem birthday to thank you for joining our community – for the poets and poems you bring and for your support of us all. It’s lovely having you! Happy Birthday to us. Mary & Claire.

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