Happy summer holidays — may you all find a poetry book in your Christmas stocking or summer beach bag!
Poetry Shelf invited poets and fans of poetry to contribute the names of books they have loved reading in the past year from any time and from any place. The list is such a celebration of poetry, it might just become an annual event! Thanks to everyone who took time to write back. The list has certainly sent me on the hunt for books that caught my eye, but it also reminded me of the terrific range of local books published. I loved the idea of finding the right poetry book for a particular occasion (Amy Brown’s pick when going to the hairdressers). And I was delighted to see two children’s books made the list. If I have missed your contribution email please nudge me.
The List of Poetry Books That Hooked Us in 2013
A friend has recently lent me her copy of Marie Howe’s What the Living Do. Marie Howe had somehow passed me by. Her poetry is superb. What the Living Do was written after the death of her brother, and is a book that manages to be an intimate, expansive, beautiful, startling, meditative page-turner. It is a stunning collection. I particularly like the fact “my” copy has a thin, faded brown spine, but the cover – which has sat against other books on the shelf in the sun – is a deep bronze. Thank you, Anna! (I will give it back.)
1. night swimming, Kiri Piahana-Wong (Anahera Press, 2013) There are so many lovely lines where worlds merge and understanding of self/consciousness deepens. For example, from ‘This is it’:
glacing the sky capture
your attention, and you
realise, with a start, that
this is it, this is
the shape of your life.’
2. Dark Sparring Selina Tusitala Marsh (AUP, 2013) ‘The Day Amy Died’ — I like this poem because I remember exactly where I was when Amy Winehouse died. I was briefly living on Ile des Pins, an island that’s part of New Caledonia, and had walked through the bush and found an amazing hotel where I pretended to be a rich tourist for an hour or so. As I exited the hotel I heard Amy’s death announced in French on the big TV screen in the foyer. I’d been writing about Lady Day and felt both grateful and sad for these women’s lives.
‘The day Amy died
was day 89 of my sister’s sobriety
and there was wine in the house no more.’
3. Afakasi Speaks, Grace Taylor (ala Press, 2013) I like this poem because Grace observes the connection between worlds (like Kiri and Selina) in a way that’s consistent with the Samoan notion of teu le va. Seen and unseen worlds/intelligences/spirits are connected because there’s no such thing as empty space. Here in ‘Gift’ she links the world’s inside and outside of her womb.
‘He scarred her before he was even born
stretched her belly into a universe
until there was no elasticity left
carving pink shiny valleys’
I really loved Rachel O’Neill’s book One Human in Height which came out from Hue and Cry Press in October 2013. Rachel’s prose poems are entertaining, intriguing, and well-crafted.
I have read Magnificent Moon several times this year – the first was while at the hairdresser, and I can recommend it as an ideal book for this situation. Ashleigh’s shrewd and candid observations are a foil for the superficiality of the offered magazines, her images a vivid distraction from the bleach’s scent and heat; this collection made me see my reflection differently when I looked up. Best of all was the sense of serendipity when I turned a page and found the poem ‘My hairdresser and my heart’. I covered the title with my hand, afraid my own hairdresser might be reading over my shoulder.
James Brown: I’m still really enjoying Magnificent Moon by Ashleigh Young (VUP)
What I was thinking was to suggest three books I have been reading aloud to my mother, aged 97 today, who is now in a rest home (in a dementia unit). They are published by BBC Books: The Nation’s Favourite Poems and The Nation’s Favourite Twentieth Century Poems, both edited by Griff Rhys Jones; and The Nation’s Favourite Love Poems edited by Daisy Goodwin. Her memory for most things is terrible but she can still recite with me ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ or ‘Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn’ and she has even learned a few short Wendy Cope poems (‘The flowers I nearly bought you/Have lasted all this while!’). Rhythm, rhyme and humour aka poetry have lasted all this while.
A friend sent me this poem by Sadiqa De Meijer and its been haunting my imagination so I have requested her prize winning collection, in which it appears, from the library. But as there’s no sign of it yet I may just have to buy it for myself for Christmas. Here is the first stanza:
‘Pastorals in the Atrium’
The tour has only started when
I’m ambushed by that flat-lined verdigris I’d know even
as a stumbling sleepwalker: landschap
with tin river, cleaver of sodden pastures —
Sadiqa de Meijer’s first book of poems is Leaving Howe Island (Oolichan Books, 2013). A portion of the manuscript won the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. She lives with her family in Kingston, Ontario. A longer selection of her poems (from which Pastorals in the Atrium above was pasted) can be read at: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/sadiqa-de-meijer
Two very lovely books I’ve spent time with this year have been Hello, The Roses, by US poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, and the long-awaited Collected Poems of Arthur Yap. Berssenbrugge’s marvelously fractal cycle of poems questions the borders of consciousness and will in humans, plants and our shared surroundings. The individual sentences often feel still and restful, but there’s a huge dynamism in the way the poems take in the aesthetic, the scientific and the philosophical. Arthur Yap (1943-2006) was a Singapore poet who published five collections in the 1970s and 80s. His fascinating body of work was shaped by his sensibilities as a doctor of linguistics and an abstract painter – words, colours and images as elements of composition are exquisitely balanced. The Collected Poems also treats the reader to reproductions of the original volumes’ vintage covers, painted by Yap. So the book’s a really interesting immersion in a particular time and place.
My favourite poetry book for 2013 is Clare and Michael Morpurgo’s Where My Wellies Take Me which, while published in 2012, I only discovered this year. It blends art and storytelling to present the Morpurgo’s favourite poems in a way that makes you bumping into friends, old and new, on a ramble through the English countryside. The story and art (provided by Olivia Lomenech Gill) follow a young girl on a walk near her village, with the things she sees along the way providing links into the poems. The poems themselves range from the famous (e.g. Walter de la Mare’s ‘The Listeners’) to nursery rhymes to many I had not read before, and are from mainly English, Irish and American writers. It is my favourite poetry book for this year, not just because it a good collection of some of my favourite poems, but also because it is such a beautiful book to look at and read. More books like these please! I have also found myself wondering off and on about what a New Zealand version of this book would look like (a bush walk rather than farm walk?) and what poems it would include (Glover’s ‘The Magpies’? Baxter’s ‘High Country Weather’? Tuwhare’s ‘Reign Again’?). It would make a good gift for children you know – or perhaps your inner child – especially if they have a fondness for nature, poetry and fold out maps. Proceeds from the book support the Morpurgo’s charity, Farms for City Children.
Family Songbook by John Newton
The land’s surface; its beauties and brutalities, and the way we go back to the same landscape physically or with pen or brush (the cover is Toss Woollaston’s ‘Landscape 19’) half-believing it has something intangible to give; these are the territories of John Newton’s Family Songbook that make it a standout book for me. It rings out and it rings true: ‘…its vein of blue water/ so full of nothing you could spend a life trying to drink/ from it.’
Nigh-No-Place by Jen Hadfield
I heard Jen Hadfield read at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year. She’s young and original and has lived for the past few years on the Shetland Islands. Her book Nigh-No-Place is fresh, exciting and generally rather brilliant; it has a draft-horse reciting the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Paternoster. Paternoster./ Hallowed be dy mane./ Dy kingdom come./Dy draftwork be done.’
A poetry book I have enjoyed this year is: Packing a Bag for Mars, by James Norcliffe. What I love about the book is firstly the poetry. James is a master of making ordinary life seem extraordinary, and is also very good at bringing fantasy back down to earth. One poem that is a good example of writing about real life is a poem called ‘The Attack on Baghdad.’ James uses an analogy for the wasps greedily eating peaches in his backyard to illustrate the horrors of war, but he never mentions anything about war in the poem, only the title helps to direct the reader. The title poem: ‘Packing a Bag for Mars,’ shows how fantasy can link back to reality; most of the things he takes are quite practical and in the end he decides he will need to take a friend in case he gets lonely. The second thing I love about this book is, as a teacher for the School for Young Writers, it is a valuable resource for writing — with each poem there is a ‘try this example’ to get started on a new poem. James has also been generous to give insight on how to craft and redraft poems and has included notes and definitions of some tricky words. There are also some very cool illustrations by Jenny Cooper.
Lisa Samuels, Anti M (Tucson, Chax Press, 2013) A powerful creative memoir of omitted prose; short enough to be read in a single sitting, a mind-boggling experience (try it out loud) which I recommend. As you read, you will wonder, but you will also read with wonder. It is “live.” It does say to you: “live!”
Richard von Sturmer, Book of Equanimity Verses (Auckland: Puriri Press, 2013) For this new book, a ghostly palimpsest of the 12C Chinese compilation by Hongzhi of 100 Zen koans called The Book of Equanimity, Richard von Sturmer has invented a new verse form: the text consists of 100 eight line poems. The journey from poem to poem is an improvised dance – hop jump skip pause turn run.
Wild Like Me, Elizabeth Nannestad, Victoria University Press Published seventeen years after Nannestad’s last collection, Wild Like Me has a number of recognisable traits that made her one of our most popularly anthologised writers of the nineties—a deft, quick, fairy-light touch on the page; an idiosyncratic, demotic voice that is discernibly feminine and Kiwi; the ability to write good short poems.
She also has some new tricks at fifty-seven, and thematic preoccupations that range away from love and family relationships, the subjects of her first two books. The poems in this collection are predominantly nature poems that focus on the ways in which humans and creatures observe each other at close quarters. They have an oriental influence to a degree, but also the influence of a lifetime’s reading and self-education.
Nannestad is a miniaturist and a person who looks for tenderness in the diurnal—and who usually finds it. She has also become a playwright in the years between poetry books, and it shows in the fine-tuning of the pathos-humour boundary that she treads so well in these new poems. This is a great book for those who would like to re/discover the Greta Garbo of New Zealand poetry.
The Yellow Buoy C. K. Stead AUP
This is a collection replete with cats, heart and naughtiness. It is what many collections fail to be: memorable. I can remember things about it without having to go back to the book to check.
My favourite name in the book, without a doubt, belongs to the seemingly indomitable fish, Carp Diem. The poem I recall most vividly is ‘The Dream,’ which re-imagines a mother’s passing as it should have been, and tells it so convincingly that it takes on the comforting quality of a bedtime story, which, in essence, it becomes: a narrative created to bring ease or rest to the mind, when the real story is unacceptable.
Many reviewers read Stead’s 2013 collection as elegiac when it came out in February—there is a touching poem about ‘The Old’ and all the deaths they encounter among friends; another in memory of Curnow, the ‘w’ now missing from his Kauri Rd post box, for example. However, I read the collection as extremely life-affirming. Defiantly so. Like the octogenarian poet swimming out to the Kohimarama buoy and back, in fine form.
I think it would be Sarah Broome, Gleam (AUP), which we read from on Tuesday as a memorial tribute from the Poets’ Collective. So sad and so deeply powerful.
For the past year or so I’ve been driving myself nuts trying to remember the name of the poem or the author of a work I read at university – back in the 80s when I was doing American Studies. I have an image in my head of how the poem ends: a crouching figure eating something raw and bloody – but my memory might not be accurate. I decided the poet must be Hart Crane so I bought HART CRANE – poems selected by Maurice Riordan (Faber and Faber). I couldn’t find my poem in it but it’s money well spent all the same.
One Human in Height, Rachel O’Neill (Hue & Cry, 2013). Unnerving, slantly musical, and very gently devastating, these prose poems clip surreality to miniature autobiography in sequences that leave you quickened but never sated, thank goodness.
Phosphorescence of Thought, Peter O’Leary (The Cultural Society, 2013, US). The awe and ache of incredibly lush language vivifies the religious throb and environmental grief of this book-length poem. An absolutely stunning achievement.
Kelvin Fowler: Sarah Jane Barnett’s A Man Runs Into a Woman. Okay this was a fantastic must-read. I had read a lot of reviews of this book, however nothing prepared me for the short, punchy and wonderful poems/pieces/paragraphs, such as ‘Bees’ or ‘Voices’. I also especially liked ‘Marathon Men’ and enjoyed the ‘death-row’ stuff.
Anne Kennedy’s The Darling North (AUP, 2012) is a collection of longer poems on topics that range from an extended love poem:
He’s fond of it and gives it treats, so it has grown up to be affectionate.
There’s a heart in there,
Not a heart, a centre.”
to reworked nursery rhymes with delicious language: “Hey ho sweetsour blittymeat. Hey ho flapskillet spittyfat.”
Jackie Kay was a highlight for me of this year’s Auckland Writers and Readers Festival. Her collection ‘Fiere’ (Picador, 2011) includes poems in the Scottish dialect:
“O’er a lifetime, my fiere, my bonnie lassie,
I’d defend you – you, me ; blithe and blatter,
here we gang doon the hill, nae matter…”
and poems that explore her discovery of the Nigerian side of her heritage:
“The country holds out its own brown hands,
The lake allows me to draw some water.”
Sarah Broom’s Tigers at Awhitu is a collection I continue to re-read. Her second collection Gleam, published posthumously, is her courageous reply to death. Amy Clampitt wrote: ‘Nobody is ever ready for the feel of the raw edge/between being and nothing’. It’s this raw edge that Broom illuminates for us. I have no idea how she managed to write these poems. What a gift.
The Overhaul by Kathleen Jamie – Jamie is an alert, perceptive observer amid the rush and messiness of daily life. She writes with economy, clarity and lyrical directness. The Overhaul is a mid-life book – the poems achieve a wonderful balance between the groundswell of memory and the vividly enacted present.
The Master and the Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist. I would put this book on any recommended reading list (whatever the course!). ‘The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation.’ This would have to be a favourite read of the year.
One poetry book I have loved this year is a novel. It’s The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn. I call it poetry when words move as she makes them move, when they create a unique fabric and new ways of seeing. The whole may be imperfect but I remain totally hooked.
Sarah Broom, Gleam (Auckland University Press) uses the vibrancy of the natural world to voice a stellar meditation upon life questions and uncertainties – existence, living with illness, the engagement of offspring.
Fleur Adcock, Glass Wings (Victoria University Press/ Bloodaxe) offers a wonderfully rich poetic journey through the author’s ancestral past and historic connection to all manner of creepers and crawlers.
Amy Brown, The Odour of Sanctity (Victoria University Press) is a meaty, imaginative discourse upon sainthood, offering a range of historical figures (often women) for poetic and religious holiness.
Anything which American poet, Billy Collins produces makes my favourite books list, and his latest, Aimless Love – New and Selected (Picador) is no different – 50 new poems and a smattering of well recognised verse about love, loss and celebration.
George Szirtes’ Bad Machine (Bloodaxe) is a deep oration, part personal, part political about the dysfunctions of all things mechanical, from the corpus to the use of language.
Jeffrey Paproa Holman:
The Family Songbook, by John Newton (Victoria University Press, 2013), 48pp. $25.00.
John Newton’s latest collection ranges across time and space in a range of voices that capture a youth spent on the rural fringes of the South Island, bringing alive people and places: Beavertown in the Wairau Valley, Dunsandel in Canterbury, Stillwater and Dobson. Barry Crump makes an appearance, as does Toss Woollaston as the Grey Valley Rawleighs’ man (in one of the great West Coast poems, IMHO). Virtuoso stuff from a writer who gets better the more he produces.
Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity. (VUP) I loved it from the moment I read the contents page which is itself a very formally composed poem. Like Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, this is a book arranged on structural principles, with interlocking parts; it also covers a huge historical range by focusing on a cast of select characters: it should win the Booker prize for poetry.
Maria Macmillan’s The Rope Walk. A beautifully constructed book published by Seraph Press, every book hand-made, with an original lino-cut print. This too is a book full of history, stories of early settler life set against stories from the more recent past. The characters are vividly alive, the stories resonant, the language lovely.
Us, then by Vincent O’Sullivan (VUP) is the book that has soared for me this year. There is a reason he is the new Poet Laureate; he is simply the sharpest, most readable and most informed poet in the country. By informed, I mean that he steps far enough back from himself to see the world in all it’s hues and nuances and to truly hear the voices of New Zealanders, and turn that world into poetry. ‘Nowhere further from Belgium’ is one of the most achingly beautiful poems I have read in a long time.
Two books I’m enjoying at this very moment: August Kleinzahler’s latest, The Hotel Oneira, and Michael Hofmann’s versions of Gottfried Benn, Impromptus. Both of them have soft hearts as well as tough minds. Plus I’ve been re-reading Seamus Heaney, and am surprised to be reminded how much his early book Wintering Out means to me.
I mourn the loss of Sarah Broom, and cherish her last book, Gleam (AUP). Three books that have excited me this year are hard to categorise, thus risky for publishers. Kathleen Jamie’s moving collaboration with artist Brigid Collins, Frissure (Polygon), leads by line and image ‘back from fear and loss into the beautiful world’. Lake Superior is a poem by the marvellous Lorine Niedecker, printed alongside her journal, some letters and other documents – almost a biography of a poem, published with severe elegance by Wave Books. J.O. Morgan’s At Maldon (CB Editions) revisits the early English battle poem and re-casts it in startling form. Hooray for small presses!
I’d name The Rope Walk by Maria McMillan (Seraph Press); for its ability to skim from distant history to the recent past with barely a pocket of turbulence between; for its enjoyment of Scots dialect so sensuous that it seems single words have texture, taste, heat and light. She has pared and honed the line to such a slim thing: an aesthetic of verbal simplicity yet psychological density.
But the collection that has had the biggest and still slow-burning effect is one published in 2012: expatriate American Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems. The New York Times called it “a monument to an aesthetic off the grid” – both for its frequent imagery drawn from rural Greek life, and its unfashionable romanticism. It uses the ironies of language but not irony as a defensive stance, a failure to commit to a belief or point of view, or a poetic mask to hide behind. It’s gruellingly honest about the dishonourable aspects of character, the drives and lusts behind the veneer of civil social relations. And there are some rending elegies to his Japanese wife, Michiko, dead at 36: a sense of music’s unresolved chords pitches through the air; the grief is palpable.
For a book I’ve loved: Ian Wedde, The Lifeguard. An easy choice — when Ian’s in this form it reminds you what the game’s all about. If any one hasn’t seen this book yet, check out the poem for Harry Martens.
Discovery of the year, better late than never, Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip. Canadian, language-y, just this side of lucidity. Robertson’s vocab makes me want to marry her.
Nevena Nikolic, Book Buyer, Time Out Bookstore:
In many ways it has been a standout year for NZ Poetry, particularly from the University Presses. Two of my favourites have to be the beautiful Selina Tusitala Marsh’s Dark Sparring (isn’t she amazing to see live?). A mirror image in many ways of my other favourite, Sarah Broom’s Gleam. Both volumes deal with cancer and mortality. Both confront death through the solace of poetry and pulse with life. Not mournful but nourishing for the soul.
‘are you in pain?
are you still breathing?
are we going to get through this?’
from ‘Noose,’ Dark Sparring, p.64
I’ve got you
from ‘small,’ Gleam, p.31
First off, Elisabeth Smither’s The Blue Coat – vintage wine, just lovely; second Bernadette Hall’s Life & Customs – perfectly pitched and wry and wise as ever; finally Sarah Broom’s Gleam — elemental, brave, stunning.
Therese Lloyd’s Other Animals (Victoria University Press, 2013) dismantles opposites like ‘mind’ and ‘body’ and offers something like visceral thought and pristine lyrics that still harbour an animal inside. With voices saying ‘yes to the wrong questions’, and observations of windows ‘greasy with salt’, this is a collection that lives the life of fire and tigers, rest and protest.
During 2013 I’ve read more plays than poetry, while I worked with Michelanne Forster on ‘Twenty New Zealand Playwrights’ – a collection of twenty interviews that’s just been launched by Playmarket N.Z., who are the publishers. My picks for poetry I read this year: Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick, Courtney Sina Meredith’s sassy, melodic lush life poetry collection (Beatnik Publishing); and the Australian Lesley Lebkowicz’s gripping verse novel The Petrov Poems (pittstreetpoetry.com). The big synchronistic surprise of the year was when I borrowed Courtney’s book from the library and found an old check-out ticket inside – and hey, someone had been reading not only Courtney’s book but also my poetry collection Crumple, so someone’s reading Kiwi poetry, and we love ya for it!
Mary Ruefle has kept me astonished since her brilliant reading in Wellington this year – her Selected Poems are endlessly enlivening (but how is it done?). The book I’m currently enjoying is Lucie Brock–Broido’s elegant Stay, Illusion (which also has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve seen).
New Zealand poet Elizabeth Nannestad publishes one volume a decade, but they’re worth the wait. This decade’s book, Wild Like Me, is like water from a mountain stream – bracing and refreshing.
I think people should totally be able to nominate your book! It was certainly one of my favourites of the year, along with The Rope Walk, but as the publisher of both I’m obviously very biased. I’ve been mostly having a novel and non-fiction year I think, but probably my other favourite poetry book of the year would be Rachel O’Neill’s One Human in Height.
Oh, but also, Kate Camp’s Snow White’s Coffin. How could I forget! It was such a chewy book. A lot to get my teeth into, and it needed a bit of a mull too. And I would like to have said Red Doc by Anne Carson, but for an unfathomable reason, I started it while I was away for the weekend, only got half way and haven’t picked it up again. I was enjoying it too.
Purdy, Al, & Sam Solecki, ed. Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy. 2000. Madeira Park, BC, Canada: Harbour Publishing, 2001. I picked it up in Jason Books, and have really enjoyed getting to know this very interesting man Al Purdy. Another Canadian poet said of him: “the Emperor has no clothes” — I disagree. To me he seems like a kind of a strange cross between Raymond Carver and James K. Baxter.
I want to mention several poets that I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year and I’m going to be unashamedly partisan as several are from the Hagley Writers’ Institute where I am the Director. First is Bernadette Hall, our Patron, whose new collection, Life and Customs, is a sheer delight – full of sly humour, dancing rhythms and clever observations. Then there is Marie McGuigan who has just won the Margaret Mahy award for the best portfolio at the Writers’ Institute – she will be a poet to watch out for. Her work really sang to us and shows great promise. And the wonderful Kerrin P Sharpe who tutors at the Institute – she wrote a poem for me when my old canine companion of 17 years, Jacko, died not long ago – you can read it in our new online journal, The Quick Brown Dog, http://journal.hagleywriters.net/?p=151. It’s such a privilege to have a poem written for you and it says so well things I never could. Finally I just have to mention a delightful collection hand-delivered to me this week by my neighbour, Roger Hickin of Cold Hub Press. It’s Ruby Duby Do, a perfectly formed little book of poems celebrating grandmotherhood and the endless joy of a little granddaughter. It has a scattering of watercolours by Kathryn Madill, one of my favourite artists, which complements the text with their delicate, almost ephemeral lines.
Bill Griffiths, A Book of Spilt Cities (Etruscan 1999): line-love, eye-dialect, exhortations, and social engagement on large pages: e.g. ‘they are parading and are unblithe perpets / the vixen in the wet-black-wood / of Noel’
Stacy Doris, Fledge, a Phenomenology of Spirit (Nightboat 2012): six-syllable lines ‘to push musicality-duration and naively literalize nonduality’: e.g. ‘you as a state of touch / for demolished, to laugh / face to face puzzling / solidity I bang / your head as merriment’. This is Stacy’s last book.
Txus García, Poesía Para Niñas Bien / Tits in my bowl, graphics by Cisco Bellabestia (Cangrejo Pistolero 2011). A strong book, bared feminism: e.g. across from ‘TocToca’ and its typewriterly ‘y’s and smudged red paint is ‘Animal de ternura’: ‘No te lo pienso decir, / lo tendrás que adivinar.’
aodán mccardle, IS ing (Veer Books 2011): transcriptions from performances, CD included, very present and open, e.g. ‘we wrent if in space of energy some surface’ and ‘belonging to has yet a risk more after the world wars I’m not sure’
I’d put Poetry NZ 47, edited by Alistair Paterson, at the top of my list as it has a wide variety of interesting poems. Reading the poems inspired me to write four new poems after being in the doldrums for several weeks. In fact I’d recommend reading a lot of the back copies as well.
Another one I’d recommend is Kiri Piahana-Wong’s night swimming, which is full of beautiful images, such as ‘Night /sinks into /the bones The cliff face /looks weary. the new year /opens its arms before me.’
And I definitely would recommend The Baker’s Thumbprint.
I think it’s been a pretty strong year for local poetry with The Baker’s Thumbprint, The Lifeguard, The Odour of Sanctity, Family Songbook, Snow White’s Coffin, The Blue Coat et al.
Because I was having so much trouble choosing between them, I’ve decided to take another route and opt instead for an English book that has given me pleasure in the last week. Here goes:
My Christmas present to myself, Christopher Reid’s book-length poem Six Bad Poets (Faber & Faber, $30) reads like a compressed novel satirising a ghastly crew of London-based literary careerists. Reid’s seemingly off-the-cuff conversational manner masks a formidable technique whereby the poem divides into six suites, each of which contains six poems, each of which consists of six stanzas, each of which is six-lined – the whole held together by cunning assonantal half-rhyme.
I’m looking forward to Sam Sampson’s new book in 2014 and perhaps we’ll get to see Michele’s edition of the collected Alan Brunton (which should be a knockout).
Kerrin P Sharpe:
I very much enjoyed Life and Customs by Bernadette Hall. I loved its variety, surprises and the way it has folded itself around me.
Seamus Heaney’s death sent me back to re-reading his work, particularly Human Chain and Opened Ground: poems 1966-1996. I watched replays of his funeral service and delighted in his re-affirmation of love for his wife on his last ambulance ride and the last words he texted her: Noli timere. Heaney was (is) responsible for 2/3rds of all UK poetry sales: who will replace him to encourage people not to be afraid of poetry?
Of the books we’ve published this year, one stand-out is Saradha Koirala’s Tear Water Tea. She’s often daring and always breathtaking; has even written some modern psalms.
A book at home I often like to pick up and open at random is Roger McGough’s Selected Poems; if I had to choose one word to describe him it’s be irreverent and funny. Okay, two words.
Richard von Sturmer
Rilke’s Book of Hours, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (Berkley Publishing Group, 2005)
Although he had already published several collections of poetry, Rilke regarded The Book of Hours as his first enduring work. Part Russian icon painter and part cosmonaut of the soul, in this excellent translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Rilke illuminates the inner world with a poetic intensity that would later reach its full brilliance in the Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus.
In Life & Customs, Bernadette Hall goes back to her roots in Otago, with lots of different voices bringing the poems to life –often poignant & often with her wry wit. She is willing to take risks & so there are many surprises. Love this collection.
I’d like to single out two poetry books that have tickled my brain and heart this year: Gleam by Sarah Broom, and Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me by American poet Mark Leidner. Both books address the joys and complexities of everyday life with unique points of view. The images can be stark and confronting, but the unshakeable hope that grounds both books carries the reader into places of warmth and surprise.
Brian Turner: I bought Helen Heath’s Graft the other day. Lots of strong, sometimes poignant, poems about real things, things that matter. And Vincent O’Sullivan’s Us, then is impressive.
To me the best NZ poetry holds up very well alongside what’s written elsewhere, but elsewhere doesn’t know that. Probably never will.
This is a hard ask as I read a lot of poetry over the past 12 months or so. However a book I loved and admired greatly was the venerable David Ferry’s extraordinary Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations (University of Chicago Press, 2012). His poems always move with simple, modest finesse between and across translation and whatever might be called original let alone personal. It’s when Eurydice turns and goes back down into the dark in Ferry’s and our own time that what he’s called ‘furious clarity’ allows us to understand it’s his wife’s death he’s writing about. These are perhaps the least self-centred poems you’ll ever read, and yet they manage to be utterly forthright about the grief that has bewildered this poet.
I discovered the astonishing fiction of Dermot Healy a few years ago and then went in search of everything he’d written. It turned out he was also a poet. My pick is his debut collection, The Ballyconnell Colours, from 1992. Healy, a lover of remote landscapes, birds, and brevity, is somewhere between Brian Turner and Geoff Cochrane. His terseness sometimes breaks into ecstatic longing or comic dialogues but mostly he works a deep vein of plain description: cliffs, houses, wings, dogs, beaches, pubs.
Vincent O’Sullivan’s Us, then (VUP 2013). A collection firmly grounded in life on Earth, but untethered always to the ineffable, thought-provoking, rib-tickling, spirit-warming and musical.