Today marks ten years since the Marriage Amendment Act passed, allowing all people the freedom to marry, regardless of their gender. Aotearoa was the fourteenth country in the world to legalise marriage equality, and the first in the Asia-Pacific region. The law took effect on the 19th of August, with the country’s first marriages under the new act taking place that day.
To celebrate ten years of marriage equality, we’re thrilled to publish ‘Lord Somerset departs the Cape’ from Oscar Upperton’s second poetry collection, The Surgeon's Brain. The collection follows the life of Dr James Barry, 19th Century surgeon, dueller and trans man who was romantically linked with Lord Charles Somerset, Governor of the Cape Colony, South Africa. In the poem, James Barry tries to understand how he could fit into the Somerset family. The anonymous quotation that begins the poem was a typical rhyme at the time, making fun of the connection between the two men.
Lord Somerset departs the Cape
With courteous devotion inspired
Barry came to the temple of prayer
But quickly turned round and retired
When he found that HIS Lord was not there.
As you leave in your ship, and I stay on your land
I imagine a home for us in England, perhaps in Edinburgh;
a room that catches the cold morning sun.
We take tea and talk about the things we have seen,
terrible things, beautiful things, or maybe because it’s morning
we only sit and no words pass between us because we know
we have the whole day set aside just for talking.
I take out my notes and lay them across the table, hospital improvements,
staffing, procedures, supplies, and you tap a finger on each page,
grunt in that way you do when you are surprised by a line of thought,
but you defer to me on matters medical
(yes, in my imaginings we live without conflict my dear,
none of these raised voices or shattered windows)
and the children welcome me as a loving
. . . Here, you see, is the problem, what do I look like in this imagining,
what am I to be called? And where is your wife,
is she bound behind a wall hanging?
Does she haunt the kitchens, the stairwells?
There aren’t words for what I want, and my mind stumbles.
I give Lady Mary a garden, a green English garden
with white roses and high walls, so high she won’t think about you again
or try to come to your door. In the night a thought creeps into my head
unbidden, a terrible thought, of shipwreck and lives lost in the windy Cape seas,
and you washed onto shore, sea-clogged, dying. I revive you.
There is no one else around and you shrug off your coat
heavy with medals and water and say that you are no longer Lord,
and I am no longer Doctor, we may meet again as men.
But in this happy moment my mind is still busy
building rafts for the children to cling to, a rope must be woven
for Lady Mary to clutch, and there were others on that ship,
a whole flotilla must be summoned to drag them from the deep
and then there are procedures for chasing away the cold,
the rescuers will not know the correct methods,
even if they are medical men they will be lamentably ignorant,
at least the children I must attend to myself
as they will be cold and frightened
and they must be warmed and calmed
but not too quickly; that is the common mistake
and you understand I cannot entrust strangers with the life of Poulett,
with the lives of Augusta Anne and Mary Sophia.
Oscar Upperton lives on the Kāpiti Coast. His first poetry collection, New Transgender Blockbusters, was published in 2020, and The Surgeon's Brain, his second collection, was published in 2022; both were published by Te Herenga Waka University Press.