‘Stewart Island’ by Fleur Adcock is an eighteen line poem which is written as one block of text and is constructed in free verse. This means that the poem reads like a conversation, rather than structured lines of verse.
Before reading this piece it is important to note that the speaker is more than likely the poet herself, Fleur Adcock and that the children mentioned in lines 12 and 14 are likely Adcock’s own. Adcock is from New Zealand, and this island, which is located to the south is somewhere she felt represented all that was wrong with her homeland.
Though it may be filled with beauty, when one looks closer there is a lot more under the surface. All that being said, a reader should decide whether to acknowledge this contextual detail or to read the poem at face value, as both methods of analysis have value.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that Steward Island seems to be a beautiful place. There are many physical reasons one might choose to visit the island, but underneath, a number of things are not as they seem. One character the poet uses to enhance her descriptions is the “hotel manager’s wife.” At the beginning of the poem, she is quoted saying how she enjoys the beauty of the island. By the end of the piece, it becomes clear that she left her husband for a Maori fisherman with whom she escaped the island.
The poem continues on with the narrator describing a few of the things she sees as being wrong with Stewart Island. The aboriginal Maori fishermen have “Scottish names,” there are sandflies in the “white sand” beaches, a seagull attacked her son’s head, and the water is too cold to swim in. These moments that she recalls are part of the reason that she decided to leave the island, but not all of it. She had already reached the decision to move long before these experiences occurred.
You can read the full poem Stewart Island here.
Analysis of Stewart Island
‘But look at all this beauty’
said the hotel manager’s wife
all hills and atmosphere; white
sand, and bush down to the sea’s edge;
The poet begins this piece by providing her readers with a statement that encapsulates her feelings in regards to Stewart Island, a small island off 30 kilometers south of the South Island of New Zealand. The speaker, and poet, if one is to approach this poem from that perspective, knows that Stewart Island is beautiful. But as the poem will explain, there is much more to this place than that.
The first voice that the reader hears in this poem is that of the “hotel manager’s wife.” She has been asked, presumably by the narrator, how it is that she can “bear to / live there.” It is easy to assume when considering the reaction of the hotel manager’s wife, that she is surprised by this question. From the following lines, it becomes clear that Stewart Island is a very superficially beautiful place, so much so that most people would be caught off guard by the question.
The poem continues with the speaker asserting her own voice into the conversation. She is able to accept that the island is beautiful. She knows that the landscape is pleasing to visitors, and to most of those who live there. When she looks around she can see the “fine bay” and the “hills and atmosphere.” There are the beaches covered in “white sand, and bush” that runs all the way down to the “sea’s edge.”
oyster-boats, too, and Maori
As for me, I walked on the beach;
In the next set of lines, the speaker continues to name off a couple of other elements of the island that are appealing to locals and visitors. It is at this point that a reader is able to interpret some of the failings of this place. There is another layer to the island, and the people who live on it, which is not as easy to see.
She speaks of the “Maori / fishermen” who have Scottish names. This is a reference to the aboriginal peoples of New Zealand who either, through necessity or historical colonization, have changed their names in an attempt to blend in. This feels like an unfortunate loss to the narrator and something she cannot help but see.
In the parentheses which follow, the speaker refers to “she.” This is most likely a reference to the only other “she” mentioned in the poem, the hotel manager’s wife. There is an element of irony in this naming as she absconds from her stated role to start a new life somewhere else. This makes clear that even the wife who said at the beginning of the poem that the island was beautiful, eventually saw that it was not all it seemed to be and found a way to escape.
After this brief aside, the speaker returns to her own life and the time she spent on Stewart Island.
it was too cold to swim. My
seven-year-old collected shells
his head. I had already
decided to leave the country.
While in an ideal world, which is how many see Stewart Island, the water should be warm, in reality, it is “too cold to swim.” No one is able to set foot in it.
Two more characters are introduced into the scene, two children. The speaker’ “seven-year-old” spends his/her time on the beach “collect[ing] shells” rather than playing or swimming. Even this task is not as simple as it should be, as the sand is infested with “sandflies.” They bite his feet and make it impossible for him to dig in the sand.
In the following lines, the speaker describes that her other child, a four-year-old boy, was attacked by a “mad seagull” which flew down from the sky and “jab[bed] its claws and beak into / his head.” This is not something that happens in paradise, but it does happen on Stewart Island.
These are just a few small examples of the things the speaker sees as being wrong with Stewart Island. All in all, it is the deceitful appearance and reputation of the place which is the most problematic. She sees it as being harmfully deceptive.
In the final line she states that before her children were bitten by sandflies, or attacked by a seagull, she had “decided to leave the country.” As an additional point of interest, the poet, Fleur Adcock left New Zealand a few years before this piece was written. She was most likely reflecting on her time there, safely from her new home.