Rhian Gallagher

Rhian Gallagher

Guest poet Rhian Gallagher’s first poetry collection, Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press, London, 2003) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection. Gallagher received the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award in 2008; her second collection, Shift, (Auckland University Press, 2011; Enitharmon Press, 2012) won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry in 2012. Gallagher is also the author of a non-fiction book, Feeling for Daylight: The Photographs of Jack Adamson, (South Canterbury Museum, 2010).



River bucks and veers
taking the boulders at a glance
– I am a child of the river
small in my parts and barely audible.
Yet I too may grow into a bed of gallons

under the sway of sky
sending rain, overnight, like breath,
till my body expands

and you can say
you knew me
when I was only a trickle.


Courier of bloom powder
so that the river meadow is agog with flower head;
low-lying daisy wakes with the sun and turns
till dark hushes each petal and all the hubbub dies down.
Even sandfly, vampire of the light, gives up
his head-butting crawl across glass while moth
is up all hours with her deliveries.

As if the night had lost its way

and the sun might never lower
the crop kicks up its heels and it feels like forever
and forever and the combine harvester
sounds out on the townland edge – stalks
scooped up in the threshing, grain
shaking down a chute – and a dust cloud
rolls in the wake and the gulls agitate
and the small birds follow in the flung seed-spree.

The Waitangi Weekend Weddings

The bay is a sort of theatre,
parties gather here. A fine day this one.
The small yachts
skimming their hearts out,
the water corrugated
like a freshly ploughed paddock and the kids
slapping themselves into the surf.

The sun has come through
with its best lighting; the brides
struggle into the scenery.
One takes the hardest route to the sand,
shoes abandoned, skirts raised,
she shimmies across a basalt boulder.

Dressed for a distant century
and as if fear of early closing –
the grooms and best men
cutting a dash against the ragged dunes
– break out a beer or two

while the photographers
coax and encourage. All of the brides
intent on the lens
as if seeing themselves
backwards through the eye of an album.

And the rest of us, out for a walk,
minding the kids, take toll
of our own unions – the retreat, advance

retreat, gorgeous and gay
convoys of retro cars, flashing
chrome and ribbons, depart.
The bay settles.

The sea is a great absorber.
Somewhere out there a future weaves
to abseil back to earth – a hangover,
honeymoon, here-after
working it out together.

The Wahine Storm

We cut through the paddocks for home
and the wind came, it grew
like an animal, our voices drowned in the roar.
Clods flew up from their bed,
the little ones got scared,
we tried to keep our heads
above the air, a sheep lorry went past on a lean
then my dad swooped in from nowhere
pulling me out of the wind, ‘thank God’ he said.

*   *   *   *

The wind kept coming for more, the shed roof
sailed over the lawn, everywhere was drag and claw,
it felt like the house might surrender.
The transistor voice was our centre, the ferry
was the size of a street. ‘These night prayers,’
mum said, ‘are given up for the rescue’.
But wasn’t God steering the storm?
A horn blew, a judder, behind the window
where I lay, spooked by the air waves.
The sea would never be the same
and the people, the people.

Farewell to the School House

Iron on iron scrape, squeak of the spring
the gate swings and I’m in
adjusting my stride to the paving stones’ short-legged gap
and my eyes to the handkerchief size of the pool.

Shouts and waves and their names
floating into my mind: Linda and Sally
who had a go at every game,
charged for that oblong ball;
played all the parts
in the boundary pine huts,
the resin that stuck to our skin
— toughing our girlhoods out.

My mates. We wore tracks on the earth
with our sprints – let loose each day
into the gullies and distances,
light frames on light foundations.

A bell resounds and the school house
is ready to roll, to be raised to the bed of a lorry
escorted out to the highway
rocking its timbers and flashing its windows
and stalling the lanes to a crawl.


for Jane Duran

August Snow

The long straight roads
crossing the plains, fences
staking the distance, a distance
that has never been straight –
the way back or the way to
– horizons open and close, open and close,
the wipers swing snow drift from the screen.

Softening lines, freighting the windbreak trees;
a musky earth-scent not yet risen –
the wide openness I drive out into
the where to live, how to live
unresolved as ever.

While the Light Lasts

To reach the small town
while the light lasts
before the freeze
sets black ice on the road
or a stag, driven down
from its high place
by hunger, looms
in the headlight and I’m
too late

not to mistake
(as I have often done)
freedom for safety
as the dark
blankets a farm house
marries into the land
nothing to withstand it
– the going, the gone.

The Roost Trees

Two shaggy old macrocarpas
break into morning song, the birds
having sheltered the night freeze
one body to another in a hug of green;
come spring, they will claim their territories
but we’re not there yet.

The big red mail truck out on its rounds
travelling miles between houses
and as if harsh weather worked like a burnish
the sky freshly minted, the pitched roofs glitter
facets of snow with the spark of opal.

It’s this southern light that knows me
I can’t hide in the gaze of it
though I’m claimed by the distance
– leaving home long enough to be a stranger
sets a yearning in motion, life-long
so they say, while those who stay
never think of home
a morning like this between seasons
exposed as the ridge line in the west
and across that span to meet half-way.

The roost trees breasting with call,
call and response – hurries
with a kind of happiness, a coming
round,   a coming to.


After it was over
you went about in a restless haze
hurting to know
life still flickered
in those months
the world shouldered its load
neither asleep nor yet awake
you followed your shadow into her shadow
numb and with vines
wrapping your arms and ankles
walked the entanglement
into the streets and hills and valleys
the voices making their judgment again
and again until you were infamous
even to the stars and the rain.
You hollowed yourself to the ‘After’
where music comes faint to the ear
you hosted the demons of death
till the world ran its course
breath followed breath
gravity came to the fray
and attachment
gave way to something
like nothing
and you slept.

First published takahe 87
August 2016