Tuesday Poem: ‘Shipwrecker’ by Nina Powles

Kaikoura, 1844

She plants daisies in a corner plotted out with bones
pulled from the ribcage of a sperm whale.

Her favourite thing hangs by the front door –
a string of whale’s teeth polished wonderfully bright.
Her father brought them home for her eighth birthday

which was a particularly good day
for whaling. A pod of dolphin-eating whales chased
a humpback calf, breaking its jaw quite rapidly.
They are baby’s teeth, he said, that’s why they are so
white just like yours.

When whales forget their maps they strand. The first time
she thought they were rocks but the funny shapes spat air,
little cloud prints floating just above. By tea-time they had died.
The whole place smelled like sea-monster said her mother.
They had white patches on their skin where big eyes ought to be.

Her father always says a whale’s tail can knock you
right out of your boat. The most dangerous part is just when
the harpoon goes in – you can see the white of the eye,
then blood and whale-groans and big waves. So it’s very
important he says, not to scare the whale suddenly.
She wonders how you kill a whale without
scaring it suddenly, and if down there
on the beach
is the least sudden place to die.

‘Shipwrecker’ is from the chapbook Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press 2014), which I read over the summer. The book features poems about real and fictional women from New Zealand history and literature, including Katherine Mansfield and some of her creations, the first permanent lighthouse keeper, the daughter of a whaler, poets Jessie Mackay and Blanche Baughan, and a school ghost. You can read some of Powles’ poems about Mansfield in issue #1 of Starling. She certainly has a gift for creating tension in a poem, and then making that tension turn or transform at the end. I’m often surprised and always hooked.

Nina Powles recently completed her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters for which she won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. Her writing has appeared in Best New Zealand Poems, Salient, Turbine, and Sweet Mammalian.

One thought on “Tuesday Poem: ‘Shipwrecker’ by Nina Powles

  1. Sad, haunting, poignant and delightfully written, flowing effortlessly through to a logical, child-like conclusion. Thank you. Shirley B (AKA LoobyLoo)

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