On the Shelf: A Monthly Poetry List

This is the first of a regular feature on NZ Poetry Shelf. I cribbed the idea from The Poetry Foundation (which I follow on Twitter). Each month I will invite a handful of NZ poets and poetry fans to share a handful of poetry books they are currently reading and loving. Where it is relevant, I will flag any new venture, project, award, book, event or news associated with them.

 

First up this month is Emma Neale, a Dunedin poet and novelist that currently holds the University of Otago Wallace Residency at the Pah Homestead. She will be reading at an event at the homestead on March 20th.  Details here.

Three poetry books I have on the go:
1. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth  by Warsan Shire (London: Flipped Eye, 2011). Shire is a poet born in Kenya to Somalian parents, who now lives in London. This collection works less through the music of the language and the dramatic potential of the line break than it does through a strong sense of narrative, and sexual and political frankness. Her real strength, it seems to me from this book, is in the prose poem. It confronts the trauma of civil war, diaspora, the conflicting demands of Islam and secularism, traditional and contemporary views of women’s sexuality. The men are almost uniformly brutal; the women assert themselves mainly through sexual defiance: there are deeply troubling themes here, but Shire’s gifts for sensuous imagery and the vividness with which she captures the shock and dislocation of war’s effects, particularly on women and children, is unforgettable. It’s direct and disturbing; leaves you with a contrail of sadness over the ongoing shame and trauma of witnessing family members complicit in nationalised violence.
2. The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton (New York: New Directions, 2006.) Quiet, lyrical, pared back contemplations of the relationship between humans and landscape, and pushing on the borderlands between the subconscious and conscious mind. I love his explorations of the dreamworld, the half-waking state, and moments of silence and suspension when the social word seems to have been softened, turned down, by dusk and the colder seasons.

3. New Collected Poems by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Manchester: Carcanet 2008.) Not the New Zealand educationalist, Sylvia Ashton Warner, but the English author, who lived from 1893-1978, and who was in a relationship with another woman for about 40 years. I’ve just started this, and it’s a borrowed copy, recommended by friend and academic Pete Swaab, but already I’m reminded of Robin Hyde and the way she seems to move between Georgian and modernist aspects of style; and I’m amazed at how dexterous she is with very simple rhymes; and at the range of characters within her poems. She seems to fuse all the traditional aspects of prosody with a good sense of psychological narrative.

 

Second is Ian Wedde, our previous Poet Laureate:

1. Michael Hofmann‘s great Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology (Farrar, Straus and Giraux, 2005). Ends with the laconic Jan Wagner (b. 1971) and begins with the equally astringent Else Lasker-Schuler (umlaut u) (b. 1869). In between, of course, Rilke et al, not always so terse.

2. Am in pursuit of my remote nineteenth century relative Johannes Wedde‘s long poem in praise of the Paris Commune of 1871. Johannes (b. 1843) was a German Socialist Workers Party member, newspaper editor, and scourge of Bismark, who corresponded with Engels in London in the 1880s. The poem may not be much good but I’m enjoying looking for it.

 

Thirdly Marty Smith whose debut collection, Horse with Hat, was recently launched by Victoria University Press. I will review this book shortly.

1. I love D. A. Powell’s  Cocktails  (and Tea and Lunch ) because I can go for a wander through the New York of cocktail bars, and cinemas and The Gospels. The poems are really horrifying and funny and sad. They’re fragmentary, and there’s a breathless quality, a breath-taking stop-start set of startling images that pull you through each poem,

when you touch down upon this earth/
little reindeers
 
hoofing murderously at the gray slate roof/
I lie beneath
 
dearest father xmas: will you bring me another/
17 years

 

2. Anne Carson’s If not, Winter   Fragments of Sappho  is always in the back of my mind, for the sheer brilliant power of the lining. The original fragments are reproduced on the left of each page, with Carson’s translations on the right, so you can see how she’s used brackets and space to illuminate the fragments that are present, lifting them out of profound absence into startling beauty.

 

Finally Martin Edmond on what he loved about editing the new Alan Brunton anthology:

Beyond the Ohlala Mountains Alan Brunton; eds. Michele Leggott & Martin Edmond (Titus Books, March 2014). The pleasure for me is in seeing such a handsome presentation of a selection of poems from a corpus I have been speaking in my head all my adult life; and that these resonant, intelligent, strange and resolutely engagé poems are now available for anyone to read.

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