On the Shelf: April’s picks by Albert Wendt, Caoilinn Hughes, Amy Brown, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

1. Albert Wendt

 Just finished reading Coconut Milk by Dan Taulapapa McMullin (University of Arizona Press).

A beguiling collection: the poems are open, innovative, humourous, and compassionate.

Also Afakasi Speaks by Grace Taylor (Ala Press, Hawaii, 2013).

Vigorous, honest, energetic poetry that wraps you up in its arms and carries you along into complex emotional depths and tensions.

Albert Wendt is one of most New Zealand’s most treasured writers, in both poetry and fiction.


2. Caoilinn Hughes

Bevel by William Letford (Carcanet Press, 2012)

The marketing of this book draws attention to the fact that young Scotsman Letford is a roofer by day. Although that might seem like a bit of a cute hook, the language, labour and sense of humour of being a roofer are central to the tone of Bevel: Letford is just that bit closer than the rest of us to the sky and, though he might be physically kept in his place by the hammers, nails and vernacular of the tradesman culture, he is imaginatively and creatively unobstructed, uplifting. What’s more, the novelty of a roofer-poet is topped by the novelty of the poems. The writing is so rivetingly different! The poems engage in witty repartee with one another and relate a refreshing, funny, honest, sometimes cheeky perspective. I love this book, and have read it a half-dozen times. I subject non-poetry enthusiast friends to recitations from it because he is a poet who, through sheer joy, novelty and humanity—and despite his use of Scottish phonetics throughout—translates. He’s worth checking out on YouTube too, as his performances do justice to the poems. This is my favourite:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyHWqdIEtb0


Graft by Helen Heath (Victoria University Press, 2013)

Graft is Helen Heath’s debut collection of poetry, and it was the first book of poetry to be shortlisted for the Royal Society of New Zealand’s science prize in 2013. It’s a bit like cronyism to rave about this book (as we happen to be in the same university and share a publisher!), but when I think of poetry books that I really enjoyed over the past couple of years, Graft is definitely up there. The prize nomination is a result of the book’s strong interest in science, as Heath’s parents were scientists and it informs her philosophies, but I recall the relationships portrayed most distinctly. The interactions between people; the meeting points between ideologies. What stands out in this book is the poet’s generosity: Heath lets the reader in, and rewards her—by no means a given in the genre. These poems are accessible, while being finely crafted and finished.

Caoilinn Hughes’ debut collection Gathering Evidence was recently published by Victoria University Press. My review here. You can see her at the Auckland Writer’s Festival on Saturday May 17th 2.30 pm – 3.20 pm in Matters Of Discovery.


3. Amy Brown

Ephemeral Waters, Kate Middleton (Giramondo, 2013)

Kate Middleton is a brilliantly talented young Australian poet, whose recent book (what I would call a contemporary epic poem) took her the length of the Colorado River. What I most enjoy about this book-length meditation, complete with its own tributaries and dams, is its brazen ambition and generosity of attention. In an essay about the writing of Ephemeral Waters, Middleton says, “At a distance, even after the task is done, my faith that the impressions could add up to the poem seems crazy . . . writing this poem has taught me to try impossible things. I wonder, should a long poem always develop with the suspicion that it is unpublishable? Did Ephemeral Waters teach me that I should only try impossible things?” I find this sentiment especially resonant and inspiring.


Phosphorescence of Thought, Peter O’Leary (Cultural Society, 2013)

I confess that Phosphorescence of Thought is still on my bedside table, having just arrived from the U.S. late last week. I wanted to mention it, though, because I have been looking forward to reading it even since Joan Fleming recommended it on this blog last year. As another contemporary epic poem, with enormous empathy for a specific physical environment, I think it will follow nicely from Ephemeral Waters. In a few months I’ll be visiting Chicago, where O’Leary lives, and am tempted to go to Des Plaines, which features in the poem.


Autobiography of a MargueriteZarah Butcher-McGunnigle (Hue & Cry Press, May 2014)

It may seem nepotistic to list here a book that I have edited, but in honesty it is the poetry that I have been most struck by so far this year. Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s Autobiography of a Marguerite (another book-length poem) is a unique and indelible reading experience. In its adventurous structure and raw openness, it is comparable to Anne Carson’s Decreation and Beauty of the Husband. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to spend the last few months reading Zarah’s debut, I would be eagerly anticipating its launch this May.

Amy Brown has a cluster of poems in the latest issue of Sport (42) that I love—richly detailed, poignant, evocative. I particularly love ‘Names.’


4. Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

 Anamnesis, Lucy Ives (Slope Editions, 2009)

I’ve been coming back to this book-length poem since late 2012. The poem uses the repetition of imperatives “Write” and “Cross this out”, inviting the reader to participate in the process of writing the poem. The enactment of revision becomes the poem.


What you did was wrong

Cross this out

What you did was right

You can write again about the tiger that fed itself

A great mystery

The owl that stepped forward one step

Cross out “tiger,” write, “present”

It goes on the cover of another book

What are you so depressed about?

Cross this out



Poemland, Chelsey Minnis (Wave Books, 2009)

This is a book-length poem about writing poems, what a poem is, and what it means to be a poet. There are lots of similes, over-the-top metaphors and exclamation marks as the poem addresses the reader directly, seeming to be sincere and ironic at the same time.


This is supposed to be an independent thought…

But it is just a strained leash…

This is a poem!

You should be able to figure it out alright…

The first theme of it is “old fashioned drinking”…


Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s debut collection, Autobiography of a Marguerite, will be published by Hue & Cry Press. This book is being funded through a Pledge Me request. You can pledge here (ends 6th April 14 at 7pm).


1 thought on “On the Shelf: April’s picks by Albert Wendt, Caoilinn Hughes, Amy Brown, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

  1. Pingback: The giveaway copy of Gathering Evidence by Caoilinn Hughes | NZ Poetry Shelf

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s