Poetry Shelf summer reading: Pip William’s The Dictionary of Lost Words

The Dictionary of Lost Words Pip Williams, Affirm Press, 2020

Carole Beu recommended Pip William’s The Dictionary of Lost Words. I hardly ever go into the city so I tend to order from various bookshops and get the bookseller to add a few extra books to my list. I started doing this when we were going into lockdown and have a few favourite shops around the country I continue to visit online or by phone.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a little beauty (well 400 pages or so) and I read it in a day. It is set in the time of the suffragette momentum with WWI looming. I loved the premise: when the team of lexicographers were gathering words that would make it into the first Oxford Dictionary, motherless Esme spends most of her childhood beneath the sorting table. One day a slip of paper flutters to the floor beside her, she claims it (with the word bondmaid) and hides it in Lizzie’s (her friend and servant) old wooden trunk. Esme develops a hunger for words – those misplaced, overlooked or abandoned – by the men in the Scriptorium. Over time, as she becomes a young woman hungry for knowledge and important things to do, she understands that some words are valued more than others. Women’s words and words of lower classes were highly unlikely to make the dictionary cut. She begins to assemble her own version: The Dictionary of Lost Words.

The curiosity of Esme is infectious.

The novel is based on intensive research and includes the men who were involved in compiling the dictionary; the whole process and setting is fascinating in itself if you love words, language, linguistics. But what strikes me deeply about this novel are the layers upon layers of missing things. Women’s words are missing from the dictionary which means women’s experience and opinions are devalued and missing. I am reminded of the multiple ways women have been missing, invisible, muted across past centuries and I am wondering whether we still endure such travesties. Have we got it right yet?

The curiosity of the author is infectious.

The novel navigates the power of words to shape us, manipulate us, exclude us, embolden and liberate us. So many overlocking threads: the suffragette movements, a cruel school, an unconventional father, a covered market where Esme never covers her ears, class differences, a theatre troupe and a fleeting love affair, an unplanned pregnancy, an aversion to violent protest but commitment to necessary change. Friendship, love, reconciliation, loss.

The book hit several unexpected personal cords – maybe that is why I have loved it so much. Curiosity as reader bumped into pain which provoked little epiphanies. I loved that. But I also loved the lyricism, the complexity of ideas and characters, the empathy that infuses every inch of the narrative. As much as this is a novel of missing things, this is a novel of extraordinary presence. It was the perfect addition to my book-retreat holiday. So thank you Carole and the Women’s Bookshop. Yes – it has earned the word GLORIOUS!

Affirm Press author page

Pip Williams was born in London, grew up in Sydney and now calls the Adelaide Hills home. She is co-author of the book Time Bomb: Work Rest and Play in Australia Today (New South Press, 2012) and in 2017 she wrote One Italian Summer, a memoir of her family’s travels in search of the good life, which was published with Affirm Press to wide acclaim. Pip has also published travel articles, book reviews, flash fiction and poetry.

Poetry Shelf summer reading: Simon Sweetman’s The Death of Music Journalism

Simon Sweetman The Death of Music Journalism The Cuba Press, 2020

Music was such a booster shot in 2020. So many occasions where I had an album on constant replay or, when all else failed, music provided the escape hatch, the hammock swing, the blue skies and the goosebump skin. This Christmas eight of us went on a music loop picking favourite tracks in turn as we played a Norse throwing game outside. It was music warmth and chill and delight.

To begin 2021 talking about poetry that has music as its spark plugs, its honeyed fuel, seems perfect (goodness knows where this car talk came from, maybe because my car died yesterday, and I live miles from anywhere). Simon Sweetman’s The Death of Music Journalism is so good; so full of music life and verve and fascinations. I read it on the last day of 2020 and finished it on the first day of 2021. A bridge-between-years book. A book of poems that takes you behind the scenes in the life and musings of a music critic; in the scenes, between the scenes – you take your pick. It is funny and moving and immensely diverting. You get nostalgia and you get riveting anecdotes. You get family and you get confessions. I reckon you have to read the whole thing in one or two sittings because it works so well as a complete package.

The Death of Music Journalism is another one of those poetry books where I either want to sit in a cafe and discuss it with you and use music as our own personal hooks, or go to a poetry gig where Simon reads a good chunk of the poems. Safe bets that this would be a very cool occasion. Some of us will be taken back to the times we played Lou Reed, Prince, Talking Heads or Bob Dylan. Remember when. Remember how. Remember who.

In the longish opening poem, ‘Simon Sweetman, this is your life’, the speaker (well let’s say Simon) has to sell CDs to pay the flat electricity bill so he can keep playing CDS, and then later when he is a father he sells LPs, which gets him wondering how it will work for a streaming generation.

I thought you had to have it all, every

album – the good and the bad. The terrible,

the silly, the magical, the miserable.

And then a guy in a shop told me that

a collection was like a garden, it would

only bloom after a good prune.


I am thinking I have rarely pruned my album or CD collections.

Part of the magic of Simon’s poems is in the shifting notes, like he’s putting a new album on the turntable. In one poem we are reading about his connection with a Sam Hunt poetry performance (and a shared love of Lou Reed). Simon later gets to be Sam’s opening act, swap poems and drink wine together. There is an underlying story of fanship but it is all in the telling. The story twists include crosswords and cross words, Wordsworth, and Sam avoiding the fans and showing Simon his son’s photo, and Simon with his signed book lost but the coveted snapshot still looked at, stepping up to be a poet too.

A year after taking this photograph of

Sam shaking the poems from his shoulders

I was his opening act. Nervously I read a

poem about how ‘history’ and ‘opinion’

were both seven-letter words, but only

one fits correctly into the crossword- and

this was inspired by the cross words

me and my wife had been having

as she focused on completing

the newspaper puzzle, and I

became Sermon Sweetman –

going on about how Elvis really

was the best, the greatest, the first, the one.


from ‘I took a photo of Sam Hunt in Upper Hutt / 20 years ago’

Simon highlights his favourite album (Prince’s Batman soundtrack), a favourite Bob Dylan album, the time he saw two Simon & Garfunkel concerts in a row, had a dreadful phone interview with Mark Knopfler, mused on antipathy towards the Beatles, and how great the Beatles are, on getting nervous before talking about a book with Kim Hill, or the time his bad review of a Robbie Williams concert went viral and got Robbie tweeting and apologising and putting it in his biography. It’s poetry as story, as music anecdote, as free-flowing lyric. Feels like this is performance gold.

But The Death of Music Journalism also goes behind the family scenes – usually with a music hook. His mother, father, grandparents, wife and son make appearances, sometimes centre stage, often reached by way of particular music. I especially love the layered and somewhat moving ‘Father and Son’. Music binds a relationship, it can carry multiple messages that alter depending upon the listener. The dad plays Cat Stevens constantly. The son says he likes ‘Father and Son.’ The dad looks for the hidden message. The son no longer likes ‘Father and Son’. Families, hey.

The 13-year-old Me struggled

to convince him it was just a

good song. And in the process of

doing that I fell instantly out of

love with it. Never to have

any interest in it ever again.


The curse being I would play in

a covers band on and off for

about three years – that song

was part of the nightly repertoire.


My mum told me that

the reason I got out of the

car and Dad stayed in the

car that night was because

he sat and listened to

the song three times to

try to understand what he

thought was being said

to him.


This is poetry that will divert you on so many levels: get you trawling through your own music archives, your memory banks, and simply loving the behind-the-scenes tour. Stories unfold unpredictably, relationships will move you, acerbic comments satisfy. With this book and with music, I toast the year to come. Glorious!

Simon Sweetman is a blogger, reviewer, podcaster, and author of On Song: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics. The Death of Music Journalism is his first poetry collection. Simon has been writing poems since he was first listening to bands on his Walkman, but then began sharing them via social media and open mic nights. Word got around and he was a sleeper hit at LitCrawl’s Lit-Sync For Your Life and the 2020 Variety for Fierys. He blogs at Off the Tracks, and lives in Wellington with his wife, Katy, and his son, Oscar.

The Cuba Press page

Simon talks with Jesse Mulligan @RNZAfternoons

Poetry Shelf audio: Simon reads from Death of Music Journalism

Poetry Shelf summer reviews: Helen Jacobs’s A Habit of Reading

Helen Jacobs, A Habit of Writing The Cuba Press, 2020


I am being ordinary

and flying on a word

as the mist of the morning


I am being ordinary

in a community

where all are old and ordinary

and I am flying on a word

to meet the sun.

Helen Jacobs

Helen Jacobs (the pen name of Elaine Jakobssen) was born in Pātea, Taranaki in 1929. She has published eight poetry collections, and contributed to numerous journals both in Aotearoa and offshore. During her time as Mayor of Eastbourne, Helen advocated for the local environment and local writers and artists. She worked at the Women’s Electoral Body and was appointed to the Planning Tribunal. Since her time in Christchurch she has been a longtime member of the Canterbury Poets Collective. Aged 91, she lives in a retirement village and is still writing.

Helen’s new collection A Habit of Writing is a delight. Here is a poet writing in old age, absorbing things, often small, but sometimes large, always captivating: an object, walking, a flower uncurling, the hills, the wind, a pot of utensils. Each poem slowly and exquisitely unfolds its subject with rivered fluency, with enviable economy.

These are poems to place on your tongue, one at a time, where they will slowly dissolve leaving vibrant aftertastes that last all day. I read the poems before I went to sleep and I got straight back when I woke up. Perhaps I am drawn to the state-of-being of a woman in her nineties, where relations with life and death shift a tad. Where age is a close companion. Words matter a lot. She reaches out for words. She writes. She celebrates.


Fluency traipsed off with the years,

shuffled out imagery.

I look at the pots on the balcony

the plants static, consonants and vowels

straight up.

They do not speak in the wind.

Look to the hills. I do,

as the low cloud ends wisp

across the ridges.

This is a collection of miniature pieces that form a larger mosaic, a wider picture that holds up the poet’s lived-in world. I am acutely drawn into an experience of age that makes me see things a little differently. And that is good. When Helen was ‘young’ and in her sixties she would see the ‘oldies’ out on a bus excursion, and now when she is out on the retirement-village bus she sees the young go by on bicycles. Her steps might be slow. She might slowly examine a geranium leaf as she waters her pots. She might repeat her mother’s ritual and drink a glass of port wine at Christmas. A sonnet would never suit ‘the bowls we play’; free verse is the ticket. It is the ‘small things / as my time grows old’ she observes, that ‘remark the larger world.’

Here I am, a young one on Helen’s time scale, but I am drawn to the slow step, to the measured pace, the prolonged look, to the way a single object or activity can be both rich and comforting in reward. The poem ‘Thinking of lemons’ reminds me how we skate over the surface of things, places, people, experiences. How every person we brush against in the street has a story, a sequence of dreams and mishaps. How every view is on the move, and like a good book, or a good poem, reveals further lights and shadows.

Reading A Habit of Writing offers the utmost joy and comfort. This is a book to savour and to give away. Glorious.


You said, ‘Write me sonnets,’

perhaps –

If I squeeze the day,

wring the hours, spin-dry the minutes,

perhaps the drips will swell dry words.

There will be watercolours,

washes of light.

The Cuba Press author page

ODT review

Rachel McAlpine piece

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Paula Green reviews Landfall 240 at Kete Books

A good literary journal will offer the reader an inviting range of tones, subject matter, emotional effects and cerebral demands. Familiar writers will sit alongside new voices. Landfall 240 achieves an eclectic mix of voices, especially as it favours multiple genres: poetry, fiction, memoir, essays, artworks, reviews. Such a writing smorgasbord suits my habit of devouring issues over repeated visits and the degree to which certain pieces affect me is why I am a long-term Landfall fan.

An annual highlight is always the results of the essay competition. Editor Emma Neal received 85 entries this year and A. M. McKinnon’s winning essay, Canterbury Gothic, is a little beauty. The essay begins with a great aunt, exquisitely detailed, and moves through a city’s architectural detail to the dark and moving twists in a family history.

full review here

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Chris Tse’s ‘Identikit’


when asked to explain the lines that lead to now, you describe / 

the shape of your body as it hits water / the shape of cold water

shocking muscle / the shape of fleshy chambers forced to loosen

and acquiesce / the shape of your grandparents in their coffins /

the shape of coffins that are too small to contain entire lifetimes /

the soft and hard moments we can’t forget no matter how often we

turn our backs to the light / [you write this poem out of love / but

even love can be a blindfold] / the shape of you and your parents

standing in your grandparents’ driveway / after being kicked out

for talking to your aunty’s white boyfriend / your hand reaching

out to someone you don’t recognise in a dream / their silhouette

branded upon your brain / [you’ve tried to swallow the night and

all its inhabitants / but they weren’t designed for consumption] / the

night standing in for doubt / as you argue with your own memory /

waking up to the smell of 皮蛋瘦肉粥 / the shape of a bowl designed

to hold love / love that is never spoken of because to do so would

silence it / the shape of silence when you tell your parents you’ve

fallen in love with a white boy / the shape of that white boy pressed

against your body / both your hearts / shaped like hungry mouths /

the shape of your mouth biting into the world’s biggest egg / the

shape of years spent running before walking / your knees shredded

and bloody / even after you grew the thick skin they said you would

need in this lifetime / the years pass like a watched pot / but you imagine

steam rising from its wide open body / flashbacks to the shape of air

being forced into a lifeless body / some incisions are made to clean

blood, others to fast-forward a certain end / when your grandparents

spoke of life it was whatever came their way / no one back then had

time to hide behind the sky / to pull strings / to taste control / the shape

of control does not fit with the shape of effort / a grounded bird tries

to climb an invisible ladder to heaven / to correct a path the world

wouldn’t let it look upon / in case it traced a line too close to comfort /

we all fear the shape of comfort when it belongs to someone else /

forgetting that we all look the same buried six feet under / both your

grandparents appear before you on the night you learn how to take off

your blindfold / when you finally recognise the shape of acceptance /

and how it might fit among the ruins of your rejections / it goes like this: /

the fights, the kisses, the direct hits / unfolding yourself into a shape

the world doesn’t know how to contain / what doesn’t fit / what doesn’t

hold true / the shape of your name / the shape of a bowl that never

empties / all of these things fit together if you turn them the right way up /

you run your finger along the lip of the bowl and remember / what it

means to be laced in time and not know how to use your hands to feed

yourself / you count the years / you feel their shape flooding your

throat / making a noise / making a space for what’s to come

Chris Tse

Chris Tse is the author of the poetry collections How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes and HE’S SO MASC. He and Emma Barnes are co-editing an anthology of LGBTQIA+ and Takatāpui writers to be published by Auckland University Press in 2021. He also edits The Spinoff’s Friday Poem.

Poetry Shelf review: Nina Powles’s MAGNOLIA 木蘭

Nina Powles, MAGNOLIA 木蘭, Seraph Press, 2020

鸣 (míng), the cry of animals and insects, rhymes with tooth, which rhymes with precipice, which rhymes with the first part of my Chinese name.

I am full of nouns and verbs; I don’t know how to live any other way. I am a tooth-like thing. I am half sun half moon, and the scissors used to cut away the steamed lotus leaves. I am honey strokes spreading over the tiles.

Certain languages contain more kinds of rain than others, and I have eaten them all.

from ‘Fieldnotes on a downpour’

I have been a fan of Nina Mingya Powles’s poetry since her chapbook Girls of the Drift (2014) through to her glorious poetry boxset Luminescent (2017). The poems are probing, lyrical, self-inquisitive, with women placed centre stage. Her new collection Magnolia 木蘭was also published in the UK (Nine Arches Press) and was shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. In 2018 she was one of three winners of the inaugural Poetry Prize, and won the Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing the following year.

Currently living in London, Nina is a poet, zine-maker and nonfiction writer of Malaysian-Chinese and Pākehā descent. I have long been fascinated with the idea that poetry is way of writing home, whether home is physical, on the move, a state of mind, ancestral connections, familial relations, an anchor, an epiphany. And if poetry is a way of writing home it is also a way of writing to / for / with / by / underneath / inside / from (home). Magnolia is an organic version of this as it shifts languages on the tongue, layers sensual detail, raises identity questions, and moves from London to Shanghai to Aotearoa. Smells and tastes of elsewhere bring elsewhere closer to the point the paper is imbued with scent and living matter, and your reading taste buds pop.

there are only dream mountains high above the cloudline

I come from a place full of mountains and volcanoes

I often say when people ask about home

from ‘Night train to Anyang’

Senses are on alert as you read a Nina Powles poem, and I love the physical sensation as you read:

After Mulan saves China / fireworks rain down in waves of multi-coloured


from ‘Girl warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) / in Englsih with subtitles

Food is an exquisite presence, often connecting you to place, a particular memory or event, love, home. But sometimes Nina lingers on food for the sheer pleasure of food itself: it’s tofu for the love and sake of tofu, lotus leaves and sticky rice ‘sucked clean’. I have felt a similar addictive tastebud reaction reading the poetry of Ian Wedde, particularly The Commonplace Odes.

for the morning after a downpour

Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly

opening under swirls of soy sauce. Each mouthful of dòufu

huā, literally tofu flower, slips down in one swallow. The

texture reminds me of last night’s rain: how it came down

fast and washed the city clean.

from ‘Breakfast in Shanghai’

Colour is equally vital, sometimes the hue of the land is evoked but, at other times, the tone of a particular painting is foregrounded. It makes a difference that I have stood in the Tate Gallery in London and felt the astonishing hum of Rothko’s colour palate, and have imbibed the colour in Agnes Martin’s equally heavenly paintings. I am curious that Nina’s poems, so active with colour, affect me as much as the artworks. It is as though the poem and the artwork are placed on my wrist like perfume and I feel the colour-pulse streaming through. Really the whole experience is both words and greater than words. Really it is as though a poem has the ability to hum inside us. Like colour.  

#fee10c | saffron: pigment in medieval manuscripts

If I could step inside any Rothko painting it would be Saffron

(1957), which is different from his other yellows because of the thin

bright line that divides the colour fields, not colour shapes or colour

squares or colour blocks, none of which are wide enough to contain

the light. A line dividing two yellow atmospheres glows along the

edges, an electric current. If you stare long enough it seems to get

bigger, slowly opening at one end until it forms a bright gap that

you could just fit through by putting each one of your limbs inside,

one by one, until you are swallowed by light and your skin is the

colour of sunflower petals right before they die and you are either

floating or drowning or both at the same time.

from ‘Colour fragments’

Reading Nina’s collection, I keep fine-tuning what a poem can do. One moment it is the origami bud unfolding in my palm to expose surprising petals of feeling. The next moment she retraces her steps though a city she once lived in; walking and writing through the city and subsequently the miniature poem version. We choose how we move through the poem as miniature city, me on tiptoe, slowly, slowly. This experience is deeply affecting in ‘Falling city’, where the poet lived when young, where she is falling in love, where things have changed and things have remained constant. Nina is seeing and imagining and writing Shanghai by walking; and by reading Shanghai writer Eileen Chang / Zhāng Àilíng, by reading Robin Hyde, by reading maps (‘each person has their own secret map’), visiting ramen bars, musing on ‘New Woman’.

18. What was Chang herself like? I don’t know, but I think she

understood this moment when the dream and the real begin to blur.

She understood how the sky in Shanghai contains many different

colours at once: “At the horizon the morning colours were a layer of

green, a layer of yellow, and a layer of red like a watermelon cut open.”

19. When reading her stories in translation it’s like trying to see

her from a great distance. Or through a thick pane of glass. I am

standing outside, peering into rooms where her ghost has been.

20. As autumn deepened I expected to see your face on the street

or in the subway station. After you left I thought I might feel sad

that this possibility could no longer exist. Instead after a while the

outlines of trees looked sharper, like a fog had lifted.

from ‘Falling city’

The shortish middle sequence, ‘Field notes on a downpour’, is a favourite. There is a hunger for words that fit, for Mandarin fluency, for her mother whose name means rain and language, together meaning ‘cloud tints’. In its intimacy, small details, flâneur pace, mother closeness, disappearances, its repeating motifs, particularly clouds and rain, its naming and its confessions, its love yearnings, this sequence is succulent poetry. And I keep musing on why I am so attracted to the making of poetry, whether writing it reading it, and that it maybe comes down to poems that move into and from the heart of the matter. I don’t mean it has to be full of feeling. I don’t mean it has to fit the facts or perceived realities. I mean it navigates poetic truths: that on certain occasions, in certain places, for a particular person, radiating multiple lights and nuances, this is how it is. In this crumpled and self-challenging world – poetry flicks on the human switch. I am musing this because Nina’s incandescent poetry navigates a bundle of vital questions on who and how and where she is. On what being a particular human in a particular place means to her. On when being asked where you come from digs deep. On needing to eat words. On feeling the rain in all its colours. On being in love.

In order to make learning Mandarin easier, I started to see the

characters as objects I could collect and keep close to me.

魔 (mó), spoken like a murmur, an evil spirit or demon.

One night you said my name in the dark and it came out like a ghost

鬼 from between two trees 林. A ghost that rhymes with a path

between rice fields which rhymes with a piece of steamed bread which

rhymes with paralysis of one side of the body which rhymes with thin

blood vessels.

In June the cicadas were so loud we thought the trees would swallow

us whole.

from ‘Field notes on a downpour’

I turn to the blurb on the back of the book and see so many of the words that have guided my reading: hunger, longing, home, mixed-race, languages, women, colour, rain. Magnolia 木蘭 is origami poetry – it will unfold in your body as you read. It is miniature-city poetry that will reinstate multiple existences of home. It is rain poetry that will fall as gleaming light and stomach nourishment and tattoo your skin. It is love poetry and disappearance poetry. It is heart poetry and human poetry that, in this extraordinary year, will get you contemplating your own downpours and magnolias, and in those musings discover poetry solace. Oh, and it has my favourite cover of the year: an image by Kerry Ann Lee (Allora, 2017), and it is lovingly produced by Helen Rickerby and Seraph Press. Glorious!

I want to know the names of the trees in all other languages too so

that I find out what they taste like to other people. But my mouth

can only hold so much.

from ‘Magnolia, jade orchard, she-wolf’

Nina Mingya Powles is a poet, zinemaker and non-fiction writer of Malaysian-Chinese and Pākehā heritage, currently living in London. She is the author of a food memoir, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai (The Emma Press, 2020), poetry box-set Luminescent (Seraph Press, 2017), and several poetry chapbooks and zines, including Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press, 2014). In 2018 she was one of three winners of the inaugural Women Poets’ Prize, and in 2019 won the Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing. Magnolia 木蘭 was shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Nina has an MA in creative writing from Victoria University of Wellington and won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. She is the founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a risograph press that publishes limited-edition poetry pamphlets by Asian writers. Her collection of essays, Small Bodies of Water, is forthcoming from Canongate Books in 2021. 

Seraph Press page

Poetry Book Society review

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: A Phantom Billstickers competition for unpublished poets

***Calling all UNPUBLISHED POETS***

For the first time ever, we are running a Phantom Poetry Open Mic contest!One winner will see their poem published in a campaign across the Phantom network.We want to give a voice to the unheard. An audience awaits your creativity.

*Must be a previously unpublished poet living in NZ.

*Submit as many poems as you like until January 15, 2021.

*Use this link to enter

*Share with your poet friends*

Poetry Shelf radio review of the year: Chris Tse reviews Bill Manhire’s Wow @ninetonoon

My favourite 2020 poetry review on the radio:

Chris Tse discusses Bill Manhire’s Wow with Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon. I loved how Chris said reading the collection reminded him of strolling through the emptied city in lockdown. Yes! Strolling through Bill’s poetry – everything sharpens, the birds are returning, it affects you on so many levels, the invisible is present, fleetingly, lyrically.

This is just wonderful! Listen here.

Poetry Shelf’s speaking room: Secondary school student Cadence Chung responds to NZQA with a poem

This poem is in response to NZQA using a poem by white supremacist and murderer Lionel Terry in a Level 2 History exam. Terry’s poem was part of a source which included testimonials from people who had received treatment at Seacliff asylum, which I feel disregarded his actions as ‘madness’, and extended sympathy to him. I also feel that the source didn’t properly contextualise Terry as a person, which downplayed the seriousness of his actions and views. Many other members of the Chinese New Zealander community also feel the same, and have lodged complaints against NZQA.

Shadows / shades

White: the colour of truth

the colour of enlightenment

the colour of the religion Lionel Terry

thought that he had found

in guns and Chows and murder.

The colour of purity

the colour of the purest skin

the colour of Terry’s hair

stripped bare with age

the colour of his chasteness

painted in portraits with white light

shining behind him, like a painting

of a god.

The truth: on September 24th, 1905

Lionel Terry shot Chinese man

Joe Kum Yung on Haining Street;

a cold, unremarkable Wellington night

(a Chinaman bleeding to death)

a man walking down the street

(a killer escaping his crime).

White, the colour of the starched

computer room, white screens

flickering with exam codes, white

clock on the ticking wall, time

sliding like a body to the ground.

White pages, neatly printed

with a poem by Lionel


He pleads on the page

from Seacliff Asylum

for his case to be considered

that he is not insane

that murder is not always insanity.

The exam question asks me

for two different perspectives

on asylums.

I ask myself why I should have to

write about a murderer’s


a white supremacist’s


why I should have to slip myself

into such rotting, fetid


All the exam says about him

is he was ‘known for his views on immigration

and racial segregation’.

Across the room, I catch eyes

with my friend

she gives me a loaded look

the whites of her eyes


the edges of her white teeth

flickering on a grimace.

Red: thought to be the colour of blood

but that’s a little cliche

it’s more the colour of heat

the colour flickering behind

calculating eyes

searching for a Chinaman

the colour of fingers

closing in on a trigger

blood vessels beamed together.

Red, the colour of the pen

that grades work

the colour of a failed paper

the colour that means stop

or fail

or end.

The lucky colour in China

the colour of red envelopes

and paper lanterns

and prosperity and joy

and good things.

The colour of the borders

on the NZQA website

each letter rimmed in crimson.

I find the full poem online

the frothing frenzy of

Crowds of Russian Jews and Chows

that invade your peaceful land

and spread a few diseases of

an extra special brand.

I find it strange that this part

had been cropped out of the exam

and by strange, I mean

all too predictable

and by all too predictable

I mean so, so tiring.

Black: The colour of yesterday’s blood

the colour Joe Kum Yung

would have left on the streets

for lonely citizens to clean up

the colour of the ink on the page

the colour of a shadow: Terry’s

manifesto was called The Shadow

about the dark and lecherous men

with black hair and eyes

taking over the country

ruining it

burning it

shouldn’t be allowed in

(should be killed).

The colour of the scribble

my friend made under Terry’s poem

I HATE U in bold teenage chicken-scratch

the dark stains of the numbers

on the clock

ticking away

the bloated body of the fly

beating against the window.

My father’s hair is black

his eyes are black

mine are too

our mouths rounded in

the Kiwi accent

yet people still ask us

where we’re from.

He scrolls through Terry’s Wikipedia page

face screwed up

a contortion of black lines.

He was a real piece of shit,

this Lionel guy, he says. What were they

thinking, putting him in the exam?

His thick fingers pause on the photos

the charming headshot

or the one of him playing cricket

or the portrait where he’s bearded

and anointed, imposing

on my father’s eyes, and I think,

here’s another Chinese man

who has the taste of Lionel Terry

in his mouth

and here I am, another Chinese person

with my name now linked

to his.

Yellow, the yellow peril, yellow fever

yellow on the outside

white on the inside

yellow, the colour of piss

the smell of the streets

yellow, the supposed colour

of cowardice

the colour Joe Kum Yung

was killed for

the colour I am trying to bear

with pride.

The colour of the sun

shining when I left the exam room

the colour of something

on the horizon

the colour of the sunset

the promise of a new day’s kiss

a hope that something better

will come

from all of these shadows and shades

of bruises

Cadence Chung

Cadence Chung is a student at Wellington High School, who is tentatively trying to be a poet. She first started writing poetry during a particularly boring Maths lesson when she was nine. Outside of poetry, she enjoys singing, songwriting, reading old books, and perusing antique stores.

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Sophia Wilson’s ‘Foreign’


We have given ourselves to the westerly —

endured ferocious welcome: swoop, pound, shriek.

There are other inhabitants: thorny and bawdy, 

clutch-clambering boundary lines, colonising dreamscapes:

gorse, thistle, ragwort, broom — invasive as their forebears.

The bulk of mountain in whose lap we land —

magnificent, fresh rebellion, is both protector and destroyer;

the one on whom we depend for passage of rain-bellied clouds —

for we have settled in its rain shadow.

In summer we draw water painstakingly from

a small vein — scarce, essential source,

undergo marathons — days bent,

sweat-sewn, hack and pull, rip and carve

corridors through thorn’s terrain

to impregnate, in gorse’s womb, a softer future:

kōwhai, kānuka, shining karamū.

The toll — toil-weathered spine, skin, skeins,

old age peering through our cobwebbed pane.

Sophia Wilson

Sophia Wilson has writing recently published, or forthcoming in Love in the Time of COVID (A chronicle of a pandemic), NZ Poetry Society Anthology, Blackmail Press, Flash Frontier, Landfall, Australian Poetry Anthology, Mayhem, Intima, Poetry New Zealand, Not Very Quiet and elsewhere. She is based in Woodside, Otago.

The poem is from the sequence ‘Attempting to Land’, runner up in the 2020 Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poetry. Judge Siobhan Harvey’s words re the sequence: ‘Stunning. A beautifully crafted ode to migration.’