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Personal Choice 26

William Hart-Smith

This was again a poem that had an enormous influence on me as a child. His description of the vessel is superb and the stunning metaphor the convict arrows of gulls’ feet. a remarkable poetic feat. Hart-Smith discovered a new species of cowrie shell in 1967 named after him: Notadusta Hartsmithi Schilder. I wrote a poem some years ago that celebrated his love of this shell and the last verse:

he never collected them alive

envied their social life; frail and sensitive-

the best marine indicators of contamination

and amongst the first to die.

It is no wonder I began collecting cowrie shells at a very early age.

Derelict Prahu

There were no nails at all: gunwales,

Outrigger, were pegged and dowelled,

Stitched with clots of fibre. Body was a log

Hallowed with knives

So that you could finger with pleasure

Every ridge, notch and unevenness

Of its perfect imperfection.

Couldn’t shift it. The receding tide

Crumbling into waves in the distance

Had left it

Half full of water

Ballasted heavy with sand.

Somewhere in warm seas very likely

A silver bird flew over you,

Over the woven sail,

Disturbing the sky with drums.

I see a man with a twist of coloured cloth

About his waist

Go overboard and swim for a line of miniature

Palms standing in the ocean.

Nose down deep in water-logged sand

Marked only by the convict arrows of gulls’ feet.

A log hollowed out with fire and knives,

Bow and stern

Not quite true. He knew you,

Knew the peculiar

Twist given to the steering paddle

To keep you from sailing in circles.

William Hart-Smith

William Hart-Smith (1911-1990) was a New Zealand/Australian poet who was born in England. His family moved to New Zealand in 1924. In 1936 he emigrated to Australia, working in commercial radio, and then the Australian Broadcasting Commission. He then did army service, returned to ABC, and resigned spending a year in the Northern Territory, becoming a freelance writer. Hart-Smith was connected with the Jindyworobak Movement. He was a prolific writer of poetry into old age. He was also a distinguished conchologist, specialising in classifying cowrie shells.

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