Helen McNeil – The place of returning

McNeil LE Aotearoa NZ P&W April 2023

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Live Encounters Aotearoa New Zealand Poets & Writers April 2023

The place of returning, poems by Helen McNeil

The place of returning

Three shags surf the wave
Flying in formation
Placed in precision
To call the foam back home

I can hear myself listening
To the spaces between
Wing rhythm and sea flexing

And the shags have moved to another ocean

While I stand, the tide pooling, the water purling
In cochlear swirls, in bathroom twirls, in tendril curls
Of self referring reverence.

In another ocean

Three shags pull the wind
Winging in precision
Beating the decision
To bring the foam back home.

The turning tide

This morning, her high hills threw the grey heron
Down her flank, to ride a long wing, a long smooth wing
Over the bumping, contested sandhills
And on her high hills the drying grasses call to the sea
She sends up the sun-drunk larks
To remind him in lavish liquid song

She is waiting.

Her veins seep and pool at the estuary to tempt him

Remember, she says, remember

At the edge, where he left her bleached, broken tree
The shags face North, wistfully watching for another shore,
They hold vigil with the wind, wings wide, (blessed art thou)
Through spaces in the grasping, greedy gusts

Come back, they call, come back

So the sea stills.
He stops his hurry to another shore.
His wrinkled skin smooths in the breathless wind.

He cannot leave her long.

Then softly, he fingers the long sand chevrons,
Replenishes the pools where crabs, moonwatching,
Are surprised again.
The dotterils whistle to waves
Wheewhee, this way, this way
And, heads down, they rush like commuters in the rain
Towards the shifting dunes

I will take you, he says, remember, I will pare you to bones

And he sends in the foam.
To tell her, he is coming home.

Trees in time

Just a plantation of gums, planted for firewood by someone
– and forgotten – left to live in a place


Caught when the sun golds in the west
Between two hills
Each tree a golden circlet, reaching for the sky
Then an eastering moon silvers the sentinels

Holding the stillness
Nailed in timeless love

But in the dark, finally
The morepork fights over the spaces held by branches,
Screeching insistently

And to me, the bark is warm as woolly mammoth skin
Stretched on a cave floor

© Helen McNeil

Twenty-five years as a psychologist has lent Helen McNeil’s writing both insight and compassion. She writes about ordinary people dealing with deep questions: Where is home? What does family mean? Are my beliefs worth the pain? Who am I? Her poems are love songs to our land. She has had a number of short stories published in New Zealand. Cloud Ink Press has published two of her novels; ‘A Place to Stand’ in 2013 and ‘A Striking Truth’ in 2016. ‘A Striking Truth’ won the Bert Roth Labour History Award in 2018. She is currently working on a trilogy that explores what family means in an age of surrogacy and egg and sperm donation.

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