Anger sang in that house until the scrim walls thrummed.
The clamour rang the window panes, dizzying up chimneys.
Get on, get on, the wide rooms cried, until it seemed our unease
as we passed on the stairs or chewed our meals in dimmed
light were all an attending to that voice. And so we got on,
and to muffle that sound we gibbed and plastered, built
shelves for all our good books. What we sometimes felt
is hard to say. We replaced what we thought was rotten.
I remember the starlings, the pair that returned to that gap
above the purple hydrangeas, between weatherboard and eaves.
The same birds, we thought, not knowing how long a starling lives.
For twenty years they came and went, flit and pause and up
into that hidden place. A dry rustle at night, fidgeting, calling,
a murmuration: bird business. The vastness and splendour
of their piecemeal activity, their lives’ long labour,
we discovered at last; blinking, in the murk of the ceiling,
at that whole cavernous space filled, stuffed like a haybarn.
It was like gold, except it was more like shit and straw,
jumbled with their own young, dead, desiccated, sinew
and bone, fledgling and newborn. Starlings only learn
a little thing, made big from not knowing when to leave off:
gone past all need except need, enough never enough.
Tim Upperton is a writer, reviewer, teacher, and doctoral candidate who lives in Palmerston North, New Zealand. His poems have been published in New Zealand and internationally, and in anthologies such as The Best of Best New Zealand Poems and 150 Essential New Zealand Poems. He won the Bronwyn Tate Memorial International Poetry Competition in 2011, and the Caselberg Trust International Poetry Competition in 2012 and 2013. Upperton has two collections of poetry: A House On Fire (Steele Roberts, 2009) and The Night We Ate the Baby (HauNui Press, 2014).
This is, without a doubt, my favourite poem by a New Zealander. I find it difficult to say why; maybe it’s the vibrating language, or it could be because the poem is insistent, unpretentious, essential, aching, open, and shit-filled. Upperton states of the poem: ‘The poem was originally an informal epithalamion, a poem to commemorate the wedding of my sister, Katrina, and her husband, Steve. That version was, appropriately enough, a lot more celebratory than the final version you see here. The poem includes details my sister would remember, such as the immense starlings’ nest in the ceiling of our family home. I kept revisiting and revising this poem following its first publication in the NZ Poetry Society’s anthology, tiny gaps (2006), and each time it got a little darker than before – notes of elegy seeped in. A last-minute change before my first book of poems, A House on Fire, went to print last year was the addition of the word “murmuration” – a lovely old collective noun for starlings.’
You can listen to Tim read his poem on Best New Zealand Poems.