Since David Eggleton's 'Painting Mount Taranaki' first appeared in the The Penguin Book of New Zealand Poetry in 1985, it has been one of the most discussed and deconstructed poems in the country's literary history. The poem is a meditation on Mount Taranaki (formerly known as Mount Egmont)--a Mount Fuji-like pyramidal volcano in the North Island, popularised on teatowels, biscuit tins and postcards for well over a century. Eggleton's poem is revisionist in character and volcanic in its gusto; it takes the reader on a break-neck tour of the farming province that wraps around three sides of the iconic mountain. Channeling Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl', the poem sweeps up ancient history, colonialism, consumerism and mass culture in a blaze of surreal observation and soulful invocation. While William Wordworth also figures in the pre-history of this poem, Eggleton's emotions are never quite 'recollected in tranquility'--his poems tend to be hyperactive, satirical and with equal parts euphoria and righteous anger.
‘Painting Mount Taranaki’
Mainly I was led to them, the casinos of aluminium,
by the gift of eyebright, whose hollow core contained
a vision of the coast and on it the cone shape,
like a pile of drenched wheat, of Mount Taranaki.
In a world covered in silica and
chucked-up alkathene, fibrolite, aluminium
it is just a peak surrounded on three sides by water.
For the Soviets, holding down a floor
of the Los Angeles Hilton is a forbidden
progression of the open society.
So, to the French, whose own symbol is an ageing Brigitte Bardot,
the mountain, just the same,
could be a logo for the butter they’ve no-noed,
dismissing a country’s living tannery with a sniff:
the hides of rain-slicked cows only acceptable
in the corner of a page by Frank Sargeson.
Corrupt innocence, a young brain, prodded Techtones,
featureless Features, a shot Texan burgerbar,
the list is endless but not one story seems complete
on its own, even tying up the numbered dots proves
less efficient than you might at first think
and, anyway, this absurd reductionist format is one
which can only begin to hint at the complex
Gossamer threads in air, truck belting down the drive,
irresistible wind urging on the silver mist threads
over the split, cheap graves and into green Norfolk pines.
During the Vietnam War Against Imperialist Aggression
I was schooled in classrooms near Mangere International Airport
as venerable millennium temples blew into
millions of fragments in lovely orange and black
negatives—in a variation on a theme
a close study of the status of stainless, chrome, plastic
superheroes revealed wild discrepancies.
Over the various eye-witness accounts
whirred the blades of gunships trailing and corpses
surfed by on an extravaganza of black Coke.
Later, as I put down another batch of jungle juice,
I began to learn that Man cannot live
on home-baked bread and granola alone.
So much up, I moved closer under the mountain
until I stood inside a convention of car dealers
in an Inglewood hotel.
Young and hopelessly flippant, I felt
I should be in an environment where it was easier
to make a buck and people were more understanding
about ‘in’ references to tribal totems.
I swan-dived through the sex shops of Wellington,
reaching towards vibrators in a glass case, only
to catch onto a picnic papercup then an electrified fence
as it threw the other way
on an elliptical approach towards the majestic
funereal mountain that figures at the violet centre
of the windscreen first dotted before being laced
by the rain caught in the drum-machine motion of Jupiter,
spearing the side of a punga with a flaming asteroid,
the cosmos being full of Hau-hau vistas.
In the snowstorm black-visored Samurai rode on
hornet-yellow Yamahas past a chipped, white,
enamel basin on a window ledge,
a plant trained to crawl up that same window,
the richly decayed caskets of autowreckers’ yards,
the tea kiosks of tourist stops
and up the winter volcano to the extinct lip.
From ash to dove to puce to brandy
the undersea turbines smashed the tints
of the glassy waves into sloppy froth and stiff whites.
A litany of rejects from dye vats,
the unwanted energy of their beauty decorated the feet
of the giant for whom the many Victorian explorers
also left souvenirs.
A string tie, cedarwood fan, lace-edged cambric,
saddlestrap, sherry glass, wristwatch, nightgown, velvet ribbon.
In the centre of ferns they were given back
the ghost images of sedated depressives in the foetal position.
As I scrubcut my way around a backblock wilderness
as unknown as Europe it was I who began to crack not it.
The mountain ‘Egmont’ rained down its ciphers as I slept
until I entered the psychologically tropic world
of heat and fever, lava village of the last upthrust.
Dealing with the giggling mountain, walking it,
you felt you had seen one of the quadrants,
fundament and crotch scored
between the arched legs of the world.
This province began to experience happenings.
A two-headed calf was born at Stratford,
at Bell Block at evening an old-age pensioner
hung himself by his shoelaces in a Corporation bus,
Dow Chemical Plant mutated into a radioactive centre,
firing out supernovae.
Sacred sites became fictions and sensitised scraps
of computer card in plastic envelopes were irrevocably
drawn into the throbbing whirlpool of events.
A drudge in a hotel kitchen cornered the market
in replicas of credit cards by fabricating a deception
which played on the public’s mounting fears of eruption.
His prolific operation soon saw him zooming
to the top of the money tree.
Bizarre mission for a steamy morning, hunting
through the underbelly’s growth canopy
for signs of the tribe as showers sweep down
and a rackety V8 is driven from under
a dilapidated carport overhang with the rain seeping in,
the tribe collapsed like a rusty barbed-wire fence
in front of a wedding-cake house with soft pink icing
spelling out blushes and little tears of joy
in the happy hour.
Scrawny wetas skipping across cushions of green moss
on fallen old totaras. Neat, eh, to see
ragwort, cocksfoot, fennel, catmint growing
round a shagged dinghy on a rusted cradle trailer
as wraiths ascend supplejack and the beekeeper
is rooted to the spot with a curse.
And now with the art that goes through daily life
the fundamentalist preacher, like a page of old history,
speckled, damp with mildew spots,
his Brylcreemed waffle of hair catching the morning sun,
walks in the foreground of cones of gravel,
central and terminal.
Stained stacks of Truth newspaper in the skew-whiff shed
adjacent to the off-balance dunny.
In the wool shearers’ abandoned quarters
a few stained, bloody mattresses, stuffed with kapok,
Cherubim perch on the shingle, ice-cream
types of gentlemen swing their partners
like candyfloss in a spin.
A bruised young mother,
with her mother in a trouser suit
and upswept wings of punished hair,
recalls knitting needles of the circle clicking
like train wheels
in the pink-wafer light that reminiscing imposes.
Quattrocento fanatics didn’t have it like this.
From them we borrowed cardinal red and pageboy hairstyles,
our larders and pantries stuffed with wholemeal loaves
on the rise, in ferment.
Beans swelling, sprouting out of their jars.
Nuts pouring from plastic sacks.
The stillness leads on into a chapel hush.
Grated carrot bristles.
The dinner guests shrunk
back from the gurgling wine like tarnished coins
thrown into a pocket
the questing forefinger seeks.
A Model-T Ford car hulk planted
in front of the mind like a zombie chariot before the cult of skis.
A battery of children
winding in a crocodile, candles aloft,
their seed teeth bared at the effort of the pilgrimage.
Those ropey arms and flayed legs are not
starved of sensation nor the sharp black/white
as the light snaps on.
Don’t knock yourself out,
Taranaki will be there in the morning,
the snow a gunky white blob of brilliantine,
an ornament, a gargoyle for Bat-Stud.
The town hall, pub, gymnasium, and squash court cluster
below, everything we have learnt reduces to a search
for the pyramid they burned down.
Of Fijian and European descent, David Eggleton was born in Auckland in 1952. During the 1980s he was known, both in New Zealand and on the international performance poetry circuit, as the 'Mad Kiwi Ranter'--and it was in that guise he was named 1985 Street Entertainer of the Year by London's Time Out magazine. As well as publishing numerous collections of poetry and a history of New Zealand rock music, he has written the best book to date on New Zealand photography, Into the Light (Craig Potton Publishing 2006). He is currently editor of the literary journal Landfall and the online 'Landfall Review' (see https://www.otago.ac.nz/press/landfall/currentissue.html)
Further information https://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/eggleton.html