Birds of Aotearoa New Zealand

The farm’s still there. Mortgage corporations

Couldn’t give it away.

And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle

The magpies say.

Bill Manhire and Harry Ricketts characterize Denis Glover’s 1941 ballad “The Magpies,” quoted above, as the best-known poem of New Zealand. Glover briefly tells a story of “Tom and Elizabeth” and their failed farm; the second half of each stanza consists of that peculiar refrain in magpie-language, nonsense words “said” rather than sung. Manhire attributes “doggedness” and “reticence” to the “stubborn, impure music” of the magpies, qualities he discovers throughout New Zealand verse. Ricketts also reads this recitation classic within a larger tradition, linking it to the traditional ballad “The Twa Corbies.” Glover’s rural matter-of-factness, the way he juxtaposes human catastrophe with nature’s persistence, makes me think of Robert Frost’s phoebes in “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things”—my poetic reference points are relentlessly American—but Glover and Frost are both talking back to those Romantic skylarks and nightingales and a flock of other bird-bard correlations. Since I’m concerned in this blog with contemporary poetic conversations, though, here’s a quick look at two twenty-first century counterpoints to Glover: Mary Cresswell’s “Travel Notes (Island Bay)” from Millionaire’s Shortbread (2003) and Robert Sullivan’s “Took: A Preface to ‘The Magpies’” from Shout Ha! to the Sky (2010).  

Cresswell’s answer to the magpies’ nonsense-language is a surface translation of the original’s first verse: “the magpies said,” for example, becomes “thème à gout pays s’assiède.” A mock-pedantic editorial note informs us of the poem’s provenance: this is a “schoolyard rhyme, recalled by Miss Maire McKay of Island Bay, aged eighty, who was taught it by a nun from the Home of Compassion. Miss McKay’s whole generation knew and loved this rhyme,” a “charming ephemeron” now forgotten. (Note the internal rhyme even in the prose note: Cresswell, who emigrated from southern California to New Zealand in 1970, writes highly sound-driven verse, often rhymed and metered.) Literally, she says, the French words refer to “the discomfort of sitting on a poacher’s pruning saw.”

“Travel Notes (Island Bay)” is a puzzle—to solve it you must be familiar with “The Magpies” and have a very good ear (unless, maybe, the poet emails you to let you in on the joke). It’s an expression of delight in sound for its own sake. It’s also a challenge to the masculine lineage of Important Poets that Glover refers back to and generates. Cresswell admires Glover’s poem enough to poach it, but she never mentions him. Her work, unlike the settler labor of Tom and Elizabeth, is schoolyard play. Poetry comes to her through a line of unmarried women. They are Unimportant but they remember how things really happened.

Sullivan, a poet with Maori and Irish ancestors, identifies “The Magpies” as a poem of settler culture immediately, through the title of his response. “Took: A Preface to ‘The Magpies”” appeared in Sullivan’s 2006 essay for Landfall about the dominance of Pakeha and male writers in anthologies of New Zealand verse. His essay plays through the possible meanings of “took” in Glover’s first line, “When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm,” and his poem picks up that issue too by beginning with a bad treaty and displacement. The magpies themselves, Sullivan observes, are a species introduced to Aotearoa by Europeans via Australia; as nest-raiders who harry native birds and threaten their populations, they become ready emblems of colonial dominance and destruction. He rhymes the magpies, “pecking and squawking, frazzled and screwy,” with the native “tui”: both species are excellent mimics whose voices define these islands’ soundscapes. Sullivan ends by translating the tui’s wardle-doodle into Maori: “Do you mean korero, uri, arero, wairua, ruruhau perhaps sir?” Talk, descendants, tongue, spirit, shelter. Take that, Mr. Glover sir.

In his essay, Sullivan writes, “I happily admit that I ‘took’ great pleasure in the task” of writing a preface to Glover’s famous verses. Both he and Cresswell genuinely honor Glover’s resonant poem even as they fault its premises, or at least, I feel both impulses in their response-poems.

Cresswell’s strategy illuminates how Glover is also making a surface translation by converting the magpies’ sounds into human syllables; there is talk out there we can’t fully understand. I have read that the song of the tui contains passages of seeming silence because part of its range is beyond human hearing. I know I often return to a poem I read or even taught years ago and discover a whole new music in it, and sometimes I’m embarrassed at my failure to hear it sooner. This is why even the cleverest readers and writers need conversation, within and beyond poems themselves. Good mimics and critics amplify notes I hadn’t heard before and that’s a great pleasure too, even if I can never catch the whole melody, much less translate it into my own tongue.