Ian Wedde


4 Theocritus: Idyll 11

Deep inside he bore a cruel wound,
the one-eyed lifeguard of the west,

half blind with salt the surfer
blinks away, or is it tears

pushed out by the thudding damage
in his chest, whose only cure

is the high place where he sits
watching the surf break

for the first time, out where the sea
darkens with turbulent grit

and the rip sweeps curds of
yellow foam along the coast.

This is the song he sings,
the heartbroken lifeguard, blinded by love

for the mermaid who punishes him
with catastrophic hope.

‘Why do you come
just as sweet sleep claims me,

why do you depart just as
sweet sleep lets me go?

You will see that life
can be just as good

if you leave the murky sea
to crash on the beach back there.

I wish my mother
had born a freak with gills

so I could have dived down
and kissed your hand

and its slender stem
smooth as the kelp’s wrist.’

O Cyclops, Cyclops, where
have your wits flown away?

Love is not the same as hope,
they mutate each other

so that each drowns
where the other wants to live.

In between is our coast of wrecks
where the ribs of boats

stick up out of the sand,
and the shrieks of gulls

mimic those of revellers
on the eastern Corniche

teetering on brinks
as the sun comes up

over balconies that might as well
be those black basalt shelves

on the sunset side, the ones
awash with windblown foam

the lifeguard watches,
just in case his mutant Venus

strands there, his long odds,
his hope, his tolerance,

her shining kelpy arm
upraised one last time

in what might be a salute,
a question, a plea, a final wave

foreshortened by the lifeguard’s
monocular hope:

that he will learn to see her
swimming in her depths

and learn to breathe again
the thick fluid he spat out

the first time he climbed up
to his high place and commenced

his vigil, which only ends
when his eye shuts.

A man waves from the window
of a passing bus

but he is not the bus and it’s not
the bus that waves to me

as I push ahead through chilly sunlight
towards the fish market

whose goggle-eyed produce
stares up through melting ice

and a pinkish tincture of blood,
whose hairy clumps of mussels

rattle into my bag,
and whose compliant tentacles,

slithering across my grasping hand,
are not the long cool fingers

of the lifeguard’s dream
of going back to the depths

where he can be ‘other than’ himself,
‘at one with’ the sea

whose arm he waves
as if from an icy sunset window.


5 Ovid: Metamorphoses Book III
—‘Narcissus and Echo’

Will the lifeguard of the vain east
live long enough

and live to see his children’s
wave-blue eyes

that are the eyes of his water-adoring mother?
‘If he shall himself

not know,’ is the answer to that question.
It’s what the infatuated

pool-side loafers gossip about
while they watch their tanned dream

ogling his own reflection in filtered water
whose iridescent sheen

has leached from
the oily limbs of bathers

stroking the water’s surface
where his reflection breaks up

just when he thinks he’s real this time.
So may he love

and never win his love,
sinking his arms to clasp

the phantom of a mirrored shape,
an echo like the echoes

of the lovers he’s disdained,
repeating himself in the ripples

that wash back and forth
from the pool’s edge.

Beautiful in repetition, white petals
clustered around cups of gold,

spring’s fresh flower-beds
nod under night’s dew

and ranks of blushing mirror glass
echo the dawn’s false hopes

as the day’s first fitness freaks
eject themselves from revolving doors

and hit the beachfront running,
their showers of sweat

seeding the sand from which ranks
of sun-worshippers sprout.

It’s that time of day when
dreams repeat themselves

and the spa’s lifeguards get cracking,
clutching paper cups

of elixir as they sprint for busses
whose shining flanks,

bedecked with budget
vistas of golden sands,

themselves resemble
mobile flower-beds of narcissi

forever fresh, fated to
echo their schedules.

The shoe-of-the-week emerges
in a different guise today

but the same really,
branding the foot inside it

as a suitable breeder willing
to toe the line—either that,

or a dangerous bastard whose
wild blue-water gene

rides ashore in board-shorts
under the rip-curl, repeating himself

through some nymph who
sees her chance and takes it.

Livid jet trails rake the blue
as the day advances

past dawn’s bleary
somnambulists in back streets

whose doors blink open and shut
on the DJ’s last rites,

his surfline forecast cut up
into recovery beats, metronomic

the way history seems to be
most days on this coast,

the lifeguard back on watch
at the mirror pool’s edge

while clubbers poleaxed
behind thick, sunblocking drapes

sleep off the dance-floor’s
predictable sub-woofer thud

and that sense of déjà vu that always
hits them between the eyes.

Then spare a thought for lovelorn Echo,
fated to repeat

the clichés of conversations
she’d have joined in if she could,

only what was there to say
that hadn’t been said already?



Ian Wedde is New Zealand’s current poet laureate. His most recent collection of poems was Good Business (Auckland University Press, 2009). He writes: “These two poems are from a long sequence called ‘The Lifeguard’, which owes a tenuous debt to the Idylls of the 3rd century BC Greek poet Theocritus (with occasional visits from Ovid).” ‘The Lifeguard’ sequence is part of a new collection currently in preparation.