Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Not up to it? (More on borders)

The other day I saw a report on BBC news about Israel's plans to push its army north to the Litani River, around thirty kilometres into Lebanon. I'd heard the Litani River mentioned numerous times before, as a key strategic objective of this and previous invasions of Lebanon. The BBC told me that 'Every invader since the Pharaohs has aimed for this river', and showed some footage of the river shot from a moving car.

What amazed me was not the arrogance of the Israelis in thinking they could fight their way past Hizbollah to the river in a few days, but the sight of the 'river' itself. It was a narrow muddy stream - only a little wider than some of the streams that flow out of the hills behind my parents' farm, and narrower than Slippery Creek, the main waterway in the Drury area. In New Zealand, nobody would dignify something of the Litani's width and volume with the word 'river'!

I suppose I had expected something a little more grand from such an historic waterway. The great New Zealand poet Kendrick Smithyman had a similar feeling when he visited the Mangatawhiri Stream, which flows into the Waikato River near the town of Mercer just south of Auckland. The Mangatawhiri was the aukati, or boundary, which was crossed by the British army when it invaded the independent Maori kingdom in the Waikato on 12th of July 1863. (You can see a photo of me looking daft at the point where the invasion took place if you visit this post and scroll down. The Mangatawhiri looks about as wide as the Litani...)

Smithyman connected the underwhelming nature of the Mangatawhiri with the person of General Cameron, the man who led the invasion of the Waikato without much enthusiasm. After the war 'Camerontown' was proclaimed on some of the land confiscated from the Maori near the Waikato River - like Peach Hill, the place would become a 'ghost town' and a curiousity on maps.

Mangatawhiri Stream

Shabbier than a frontier ought to show,
this stream (one understands) could be crossed
by a General getting on in years and not up to
his job, stumping ahead with his walking stick
to lance all nodes of ambush. Stand prepared
soon to hear his enemy’s retiring signalled.

Nevertheless, for all that it was shabby,
crossing sped as sharp debate in families
as any compensation in coined suffering
which is required by largest rigid boundaries
dedicated to statecraft, when trespassed
by fashionable regiments or mercenaries.

So much talk provides its event; at some point
invention matures as act. Men who have been here
(trenching, fascining, marching, countermarching)
now are moved there – they need simply a run with a jump
across the stream. A few will not be
jumping back.
Rush blown away, brown wattle
prevailing at their swamp’s embankment, refer
the price of loss to men readily defeated.
Militiaman or Regular, whose was that voice
I thought was heard as I walked my beat, years past,
in blank late night of an early winter
discomforted by antics of teatree silhouetted
against a false crest? Voice I’d have sworn to,
declaring It is over. They go away.

The stream cuts furtively into peat swamp,
debouching on the swaggering River.
It was never designed to be politically
important; merely, wished to ride unnoticed.
The penalty which low ambition pays
for keeping going is to be asked to run
larger than lifesize. Can a stream regret
that on its day it did not rise in spate?
That its violator should have been old,
not happy in his job, just getting on with it?


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