reading room
e-mail us
about us
reading room
               > Wystan Curnow's Place > Castor Bay > On Volcanoes
nav description

On Volcanoes 

Take a position.
                        Rangitoto: at 854 feet above sea level
                        it is the highest point around here.
Take a position.
                        This reading: latitude nineteen degrees
                        forty-eight  minutes South, longitude one
                        hundred  and seventy-five degrees four minutes

In the Tongan group.
                It mounts some fifteen hundred feet above
                Sea  level from a submarine ridge West of
                a great graben 34,000 feet deep, a ridge
                which  stretches North, to Samoa, and South
                to the volcanic plateau of the North Island
                of New Zealand.
A hot  dawn. April 28, 1798.
Tofua glows baleful now in aftermath of eruption the night before.
This is Matt Quintal, Matt who had his head
bashed in by John Adams and Ned Young –
sole survivors then of ten years’ sex and race murders
on Pitcairn among mutineers, Tahitian wahine and
slaves. But not before Matt’s woman, Big Sullee,
had brought into that world:
Matthew, Arthur, Jane and Edward. Arthur married Katharine,
daughter of Matt’s alcoholic cobber Bill McCoy who’d thrown
himself off a cliff in 1976, and later Mary Christian, daughter to
Fletcher and Fletcher  October’s younger sister. Arthur’s eldest son,
Arthur, married Martha Quintal in 1837 and moved, with the others,
to Norfolk, then a penal colony administered from Australia. That
was 1856. Their first born, Edward, married Angeline McCoy, whose
fourth son,” Louis, born in 1880s, settled eventually in New Zealand.
As did Hedley Quintal, whose great-great-grandfather was a brother
of Louis’s. Hence,  Auckland’s Quintals.
                  Len, especially, whose name, hand-painted
                  is still on our letter-box, though Mrs.
                  Denney, the landlady, bought the place from
                  his widow a good five years ago.
He’s in D’Arcy’s biography: “... a fisherman, boatman,
water-acrobat  (like the pet duck that used to fly after him from his
workshop  under the house).”
                 A real beach person,
                 says  Mrs Denney.
                 Easy and warm – like his
                 daughter, Tui; she was
                 the youngest.
Len went blind.
                 First the Pacific, then the Gulf, even Rangitoto,
                 until eyesight was beached for good.
Your eye can take you as far as you can see.
From coastline.
From mountain. 
                 Here the prospects are largely volcanic. It’s 1858,
                 Herr Dr. F. Von Hochstetter of Vienna writes: “The
                 Isthmus of Auckland is one of the most remarkable
                 volcanic districts of the earth ... In a circumference
                 of only ten miles from Auckland I had to note down no
                 less than sixty-three points of eruption.”
(All of them post Ice Age. Mt. Eden, 19,000 BC, Rangitoto, 1200 AD.
Upstarts against Waitakere’s and Coromandel’s, East and West of
them, with their twenty-five million years).
                 Magma that made them
                 Moves in fractured greywacke
                 even now.
Warms the bowl
of Ta-whau-ho
                 Today I eye the Isthmus like a hero.
                 Sea gone green  with sulphur. Suburbs sunk
                 in salt mud. Sky crimson, lightning  fissuring it.
                 Just shifting my weight has repercussions. Bombs,
                 hundreds and thousands, pepper the city. Lava takes
                 to the streets.
April 24, 1975. Ruapehu erupts at 3.50 a.m. Continues for 3 days.
Julp 21, 1975. Earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale on
                      Bougainville Island in the Solomons.
August 19, 1975. Taihape hit by earthquake, 5.9 on the Richter scale.
October Zl, 1975. White Island erupts.
December 27, 1975. Tonga, 5 a.m. Earthquake in  seabed nearby. 7.6 on the Richter Scale.
Take this reading.
               Genoa, 1823, Byron, having not got wind of Adams with
               His head in Bligh’s Bible and presiding over the
               best-behaved  island in the South Seas – Byron has his
               atheist  Christian take his life in Tahiti:

                      But Christian, of a higher order, stood
                      Like an extinct volcano in his mood;
                      Silent, and sad, and savage, – with a trace
                      Of passion reeking from his clouded face;

Take this reading.

Foucault. Foucault says there’s a simple reason why biology was
unknown to the eighteenth century: “... life itself did not exist.
All that existed were living beings, which were viewed through a grid
of knowledge constituted by natural history.” Each being classified
according to how, in its visible parts, it differed from all the rest on
the grid. With God as Grid-giver.

                   So Cook
                   so Banks
                   Solander & Co.: first of their sort to lay eyes on these
                   volcanoes, these islands in most of their visible parts.

Which is to say: those Enlightenment Astronauts
on their way round the world taking (was it giving?)
names, making

                    lines for Linnaeus’s System
                    Mercator’s Projection
                    Mad George’s Empire

adding, in 1769, New Zealand, and its 400 previously unclassified
botanical specimens, TO THE COLLECTION

                    Pressed with the rest in Banks’ copy
                    of Addison’s Paradise Lost.

Skirting these shores
filling logs with what went on
in the order of its going on
telling the truth of it.

                    Here’s Banks discovering the pohutukawa: “Seems well
                    adapted  for the Cogs of Mill Wheels.” And Solander,
                    giving  it its true name: “Metrosideros Tomentosa.
                    And  moving on.

                                                                                        Finders users.

That fast
                   Had to be if you’re to discover that much world;

                   plus 1300 plants
                   plus  550 birds
                   plus  fish
                   plus  animals
                   in two years!

And make no mistake, at that time we (God, Man and Nature Inc.)
were of a Mind. Of a Mind to bring it all to  Light. And let the
blessings flow.

(Pity then the botany never did get
published till 1900.)

                 Attention please. Pitcairn Queen Mother Sheets will be
                 available at the Australian pavilion at 4.35. Please form a
                 queue. Limit of one Sheet  per person.

“Japan controlled 2141 Pacific islands from 1914 through World War II.
Until now Japan has refused to deliver any more Micronesian war
claims money. When it paid the $5 million, o8icials said that was the
end of it. The Micronesian Claims Commission has placed
compensation  values for claims on everything from coconut trees and
ukuleles  to human lives. The value of a human life was established at
$5000 for a 21-year old person, with the value progressively
decreasing  to $1000 for  someone 61 or older. The price of a home was
figured  at  34 cents a square foot; land, $50 an acre for each year of the
occupation.  A coconut tree was  valued at $4; a banana tree 55 cents; a
sailing  canoe, $50; a chair, $1; a ukulele, $5.

Banks headed up the Royal Society. A  would-be global gardener.
Ex-colonies can’t be counted on to supply cheap slave food for his
West Indies  sugar  plantations. Which is why Bligh, I discover, goes to
Tahiti for the Society. He’s got to get some breadfruit trees and take
them to Jamaica. There’s the Mutiny; incredibly Bligh makes it back
to London and, backed by Banks, clears himself, sets out a second time
and brings the breadfruit through. And they grow. As Banks
knows they will. But the  slaves? Coloured like, barbaric as,
Polynesians – well, turns out the bastards have no stomach for
breadfruit and minds of their own. What can you say? All that
trouble. Anyhow Napoleon’s set up a beet industry on the continent.
And the prospects for tea in India look great.

... in the shape of a shark I attacked you (for a sign), yet you pressed
on to Tofua where my black devils beat you from the shores with
stones,  beat in the head of Norton, your Quartermaster, till the
shallows  ran with his blood …

DAVE: You know these hills, Gary, were once known as
            Te-Tatua-a-Rui-kiuta; that is, the war-belt of Ruikiuta. There
            were three linked cones. It’s said that the big King was the
            only one of all the pas in Auckland that was partially defended
            with stone walls, and for this reason was called
            Nga-pare-a-Ruikiuta, the rock headland  of Ruikiuta. Now, a
            we’re standing here all we can see of the Three Kings is just a
            wilderness  of bulldozer terraces and scoria pits. Why are we
            using this scoria?
GARY: It’s very good for cheap fill. It’s hard. It’s easy to mine. It’s
            available – which is the main thing – right in the middle of
DAVE: What’s it used for basically?
GARY: It’s used as a road sub-base – that’s one of its major uses, ah,
            As  such, you know, you can get an economic life of a road at
            about  ah, 20 or 30 years – that’s about the life of it. The other
            thing is ah – back fill. Backfills behind walls, this sort of thing.
DAVE: ... There were once 36 volcanic hills in the Auckland district.
            Now, today, there are nine more or less intact. Soon the cones
            of Auckland – Gabriel’s (Waitomokia), Ellet’s Mount
            (Maungataketake), will be gone.

Take this reading: “Mel Bochner on Malevitch, An Interview.”
                           Artforum, June 1974.

                           Of course, South Auckland has many of your
                           poorer  class of suburb, mostly Maoris and
                           Islanders. The North Shore’s Mt. Victoria and
                           North Head were preserved by the military.

On June 9, 1886 the eruption of Mt. Tarawera was heard as far away
as Auckland, where it was thought the Russian invasion had begun.

                           Mt. Victoria’s crater concreted in 1885, equipped with
                           13-ton 8 inch disappearing gun and crew because the
                           Russians were coming, housed, while Hitler overran
                           Poland, 26 men of the 18th Anti-aircraft Battery and their
                           two 3inch twenty hundred weight high-angle ex-naval

“The stink is what I remember most,” recalled John Gundry.

                           North Head, close by Fort Cautley where Maoris and
                           recruits from the South Seas, quote unquote, got their
                           Great War training, likewise’s a maze of sealed up tunnels
                           in one of which there’s a 1916 Boeing Curtiss-Wright float
                           plane, said to be the first Boeing ever built, buried in 1925
                           for posterity’s sake. In 1969, a sailor scrambled 50 feet
                           down a concrete shaft, worked his way along a side tunnel
                           till finally he came upon a heavy steel door. At first it
                           wouldn’t budge. Finally, when he’d almost given up hope,
                           he got it ajar. Shining his torch into the darkness, he
                           caught a glimpse of aircraft wings.
                           Since then two search parties have failed to find the tunnel.

                           Rangitoto’s highest point is an old bunker roof; it, too, was a
                           defense area. Until 1973.


The year I’d said to myself: Where are the true Spacemen? Where are
the Spacemen good and true? Remembered Malevitch, Kasimir,
                I have broken the blue boundary of colour
                limits; come out into the white beside me
                comrade pilots, swim in this infinity.

Climbing Rangitoto, walking tracks cut by prison labour (Mt Eden
gaol) in the 1930s, eyeing black rivers of rock coked in volcano throat
and erupted up and out by explosion.

              “White on White tried to intimate
              a direct experience of reality.”

“His Black Square doesn’t derive from the
edge of the canvas ... The exterior of
the shape comes from its interior: it moves
 out from the centre.”

              Mel Bochner snaps scoria beds, worries over
              the recentness of eruption here.

September 4, 1978: “Bikini Islanders were evacuated from
their  contaminated atoll homeland yesterday for the second
time in 32 years. And in the United States a retired naval
commander,  suffering from leukemia believed caused by radiation
during Bikini atomic bomb tests, said he had no regrets about his role
in the testing.”

                      Then this one: he who jumped ship
                      at  the Marquesas, escaped on the Lucy Ann,
                      Australian whaler, out of Sydney which 10
                      years  before had co-incidentally carried
                      Pitcairnese (every man jack) back to
                      Tahiti on the first abortive attempt to
                      escape their over-populated rock.

And yes, mutinied, got stranded in the
stocks  on Tahiti, escaped with his mate,
Doctor Long Ghost, to Eimo, where he got
a labourer’s job on Zeke and Shorty’s
kumara farm.
Which gets us so far.
He, Herman Melville, swam through libraries
before he, from America, shifted the center


“This mysterious divine Pacific zones the world’s
bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it, seems
the tide-beating heart of earth.”

                                                                                        Like that.

Source of pure feeling, New Cytherea, Mr Bligh
half crazy over that handsome Fletcher. And Mr.
Christian himself? Him in  Hell.

                          Or, Hawaiiki, far  place, origin.
                          Whence came Kupe to Aotearoa,  Land
                          of the Long White Cloud, New Zealand.

Coming ashore, so it’s said
at North Head.
“According to information from Japan the
meteorological  rockets are aimed at an area
north  of New Zealand. The Japanese Foreign
Ministry has already protested to Moscow about
the danger to its tuna fishing fleet.”
“ The (New Zealand) Foreign Ministry is seeking
urgent confirmation of the target area
from the Soviet Union and other unnamed sources.”

                                                                                        I’ll say it:

Melville’s Pacific’s true pakeha  discoverer. Not
for  his cetology – though his classifications were
the best. Nor for his  American speed, so ambivalent.
It’s how he figured forth the fear Cosmos’s not of a
Mind with our own,

                                                                                        Terra Australis Incognita
                                                                                    Hole in the World
                                                                                        Gap in the Grid
                                                                                    Missing Counterpoise

as an object of hatred, monster White Whale who’s
Death is Discovery – in pure form.

                                                                                        Why not Melville?

There’s a simple reason why the Human Sciences did
not exist in the 18th century says Foucault.

                                                                                        Man did not exist.

Where’s Cook?

                                                   asks Beaglehole, leafing through the logs.

And what else?

                                                  Pym, Voyage of the Beagle, The Sweet Potato in Oceania,
                                                  The Beach of Falsea.

Over-arming it in the library, New Zealand and Pacific Room,
University of Auckland – Rangitoto, Mt. Eden in eyeshot, left
and right. Bruce, he brought books to Mt. Eden:

                                                   Guerilla Television, Secrets of Chinese Cooking,

                                                  Clinical Psychiatry, Purity and Danger.

For cross-crater broadcast, in phrases all day caught, echoed,
learnt, on the wind. As an art activity.

Like a  landscape coming in.

Dave, in the caldera, finds, he says:
“A Dream of Quiet.”
                                      Myself: I’d scramble up
                                      glad to reach the rim
                                      sea breeze coming up
                                      and all the isthmus
                                      Tamaki of 100  lovers.

Dream on, man.

          Darwin reckoned coral atolls grew from the flanks of
          sinking  volcanoes. And drilling on Eniwetok – near where
          Moby Dick stove in the Pequod as a matter of fact – for
          Operation Greenhouse, first H-Bomb test, finally proved
          him right.

“Of the fruits and vegetables  which grew in
profusion  on the islands of Eniwetok, only
coconut  trees, located on plantations formerly
operated  by Germans and Japanese, were growing
on Ujelang when the U.S. Navy resettled the islanders.”

                                   In the Pacific. So here’s where – and South America –
                                   Darwin did his fieldwork. Though, again, it took
                                   twenty years in the study to spring Species, and Nature,

into History. To dismantle the Grid.
September 21, 1976. “Eniwetok, tiny group of Pacific
islands where the United States exploded its first
Hydrogen bomb, has been officially returned to the
former inhabitants after 29 years, it was announced
here today.”

                                    Glad again of open air.
All that’s breath-taking and pre-occupied.
                                    Sky at rip-tide, city in its swoop from these flanks.
Look for that father of mine in Parnell there:
                                    he walks his dog, minds his business.
Look for that wife on Castor Bay beach,
                                    looking after the boy, Barnaby.
There she lies, in her body, in the sun.
                                    Bruce in the city makes sandwiches:
That’s one sliced corned beef on rye with cheese and pickles.
                                    I walk off the rim.
Down slopes of the great terraces, store pits, pa ground.


Titahi, builder, of whom it’s said
he made marks, he sculpted the hills
of Tamaki like he was making his own tattoo.

                                                  These were storepits for kumara.

See Falstaff Merry Wives of Windsor, Act V, sc.v:
“ My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain
kumara...” etc. etc.

                                      Impoea Batatas (Lamarck, 1791)
                                      superceded linnaeus: Convolvulus
                                      batatas (1753), as organic structure
                                      began to determine taxonomic description
                                      Chromosome analysis of experimental
                                      hybridization leaves its evolution

First found in South America, as Polynesians weren’t,
how they came by it’s anybody’s guess, says Yen. Only
Maoris stored it. First in Pani’s womb. Rongo it was,
god of Moon, Peace and Cultivation, son of Rangi and
Papa, who’d put her in the sweet potato way. And later,
underground, for the winter.

                                Because the moa were eaten extinct, taro, coconut,
                                breadfruit, bananas, yam – none of the them took, only
                                kumara (perennial no more) was left to supplement
                                seafood, fernroot, and a bird or two.


First published in Climate 32, 1981