A letter to Sam Hunt, on his 70th birthday

Steve Braunias raises a toast to New Zealand's true poet laureate.
New Zealand poet Sam Hunt. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand poet Sam Hunt. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Happy 70th birthday on Monday, Sam, though I've wondered sometimes whether you'd make it this far and I suspect you have, too. You always did exceed the recommended dose. A little bit of recklessness never hurt anyone, so you went in for a lot of recklessness. But you're still standing, still singing. That calls for a toast.

Everyone loves you, Sam. You're part of the landscape now, part of the furniture of New Zealand life - you're the lounge bar. There's music playing and a drink to be had. It's late. The liquor is talking and sometimes the talk is brilliant.

There's more to come. Your father lived till he was 90. He left other things late, too: he was 60 when you were born. Some of your very best poems have been about him, or rather they have been about his absence. That great poem of yours, My Father Scything, talks of someone

who has

never been

around very much, neither at the mast

round the world; nor when I needed him most.

He was somewhere else

He was alive when you wrote that. My Father Today was a poem for a funeral.

They buried him today

up Schnapper Rock Road,

my father in cold clay.

Look at all those little words, the steady monosyllables, firm as posts. Why the hell haven't you been given a turn yet as New Zealand's poet laureate? It seems like an oversight, at the least; a missing certificate in your collection of honours.

There's a hilarious photo of you in an unbuttoned waistcoat and loose tie posing with John Key when you were given the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in 2012.

Key, as ever, is doing something awkward with his hands; there's a Christmas tree in the background; and you look like you're about to get up to no good. The award and the $60,000 loot that went with it was a due mark of respect.

Sam Hunt, resplendent in waistcoat - without notes. Photo / supplied
Sam Hunt, resplendent in waistcoat - without notes. Photo / supplied

You've made some beautiful art, the poems quiet and still - the words walk softly on to the page, and exit with equal stealth.

People associate you with noise - the live readings, the smoke and whiskey voice - but a lot of your verse has such a calmness about it. "The lake," wrote James Joyce, "lying grey like a shield." You have always been a creature who needed to be close to water. Childhood at Castor Bay, then something like 30 years measured by tide slipping in and out at the Pauatahanui estuary in Wellington, then Waiheke Island, now Kaipara harbour.

I called by a couple of times at the boatshed in Paremata. It was my occasional habit in the mid 1980s to take the train from Wellington, book a motel for the night, and take long walks around the inlet. It's a gorgeous part of the world. Placid. You were a good fit. It wasn't suburbia, which you couldn't have stood for a second; it was on the edge of things, the world floating away. You had everything you needed. You had Minstrel, and a Yank tank which in memory was a Chev Impala with red leather upholstery. You had company, too, as a strange story by Wellington musician Jon McLeary can attest. He posted it on Simon Sweetman's blog last year.

It described how he got a job rebuilding a neighbouring boathouse: "That first morning we worked hard pulling down the old structure in the heat of summer and decided to have a swim at lunchtime. I dived in and came up facing back towards the boathouse where Sam was having intercourse in the window.

"He looked up, as shocked as I was, then he reached for a flutterboard and placed it in the window as a blind and then carried on ... "

As you wrote in your email alerting me to that tale, "Is there no privacy?" Still, quick thinking with the flutterboard.

You've made some beautiful art, the poems quiet and still - the words walk softly on to the page, and exit with equal stealth.

My visits were brief. I won't ever forget them. You made tea and rolled up, played records, and talked. You were something else, like no one else I've ever known - kind, generous, a good listener, crazy, exhausting, vulnerable. A loner, really.

But I always loved the idea you had of literary kinship, how the first thing you did when you left St Peter's College and hitched south was to visit the grave of poet Rex Fairburn. You rode with Tuwhare, Baxter, Glover.

You're just as happy with any good bastard, though; there's a lovely memoir online by Meg Mundell, who recalls how you'd often row your boat across Paremata harbour to visit former All Black Ken Grey, and help him paint his woolshed or do some haybaling.

You don't give much away. Loners generally don't. "I'm working on my epitaph," you said with unusual candour in an interview in 2013. You intimated that the end was not exactly nigh but making itself known. "Death," you said, "is prowling the town."

There's a poem you wrote last year and sent my way as literary editor at the Spinoff. "This one came knocking this morning," you emailed.

"S'pose I feel like 'sharing it' - a term that finds me chundering." It was posted at the site yesterday. It's very good, but I think it whispers intimations of mortality.

The poem is titled My father's waistcoats. More lines for Percy Hunt. He was a barrister, and your poem says that he wanted you to follow him into the law. Well, you kind of did. You chose poetry, something just as disreputable, and delivered it in public with the flair of a great courtroom lawyer.

The poem says that your father's waistcoats didn't have notes; he didn't need them, the words were all in his head. That sounds like you, Sam. You don't write poems. You hear them.

All the best for Monday. And the rest of the days, too. Keep giving death the slip, like these lines from another poem you wrote last year:

Death called by the other day -

no one was home at the time.

• Salt River Songs by Sam Hunt (Potton & Burton, $24.99) is published on Monday.

- NZ Herald

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