Arrowtown: the Denis Glover version

Denis Glover

Gold in the hills, gold in the rocks,
Gold in the river gravel,
Gold as yellow as Chinamen
In the bottom of the shovel.

Gold built the bank its sham facade;
Behind that studded door
Gold dribbled over the counter
Into the cracks of the floor.

Gold pollinated the whole town;
But the golden bees are gone –
Now round a country butcher’s shop
The sullen blowflies drone.

Now paved with common clay
Are the roads of Arrowtown;
And the silt of the river is grey
In the golden sun.

It was gratifying to discover this poem again, courtesy of the NZ National Library Service and Lizzie, who’s the librarian here in Arrowtown. I don’t think it’s one of Glover’s best –the Sings Harry sequence must be the top of his particular mountain of great work – but there are characteristically lovely images, even so: like the “golden bees” pollinating the town, and the gold dribbling over the counter at the bank.

But I think the “yellow as Chinamen” is a curiously lazy image, and even for the times (I believe this was written in the early 1960s) oddly offensive for such an emotionally astute writer. And yes, I do know that the 1960s are a long way from Helen Clark’s 2003 apology for the anti-Chinese sentiments of earlier years (when she paid tribute to “the unique identity, history and strength of the original Chinese New Zealanders”) but weren’t we mostly beyond all that knee-jerk racist stuff back then? Or is that a false memory distorted by time and wishfulness?

One pleasing update: I don’t know where the butcher’s shop was in the 1960s but I do know where the butcher and his family lived, because there’s an historical plaque on the building. And guess what? It’s now home to the excellent, award-winning Provisions shop and café – no blowflies there!

Anyway, thank you National Library Service, and Lizzie, and Denis Glover.

4 Responses to “Arrowtown: the Denis Glover version”

  1. Elizabeth Welsh Says:

    Belinda, it’s so lovely to have you posting poems again! I agree that the gold dribbling over the counter and through the cracks of the floor has got to be one of the most poignant images of the poem – very apt, too! Merry Christmas and lovely to have you back!

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks a bundle Elizabeth – and have a very merry Christmas yourself!

  3. Harvey Says:

    “Gold built the bank its sham facade”: if only we’d remembered before the current great depression that many of these facades are sham! I agree with you that ‘yellow as Chinamen’ is weak–but reading this I’m reminded that mining is very much a ‘boom and bust’ affair something we need to remind ourselves of when the media look with envy at the Australian economy. Thanks for posting the poem and best wishes for the new year.

  4. admin Says:

    Thanks for your comment Harvey – you’re right about the sham facade! And best wishes to you for 2012.

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