The Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Poetry shortlist

 

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All shortlists here

Book awards draw attention to books that hook judges for any number of reasons. Hopefully the awards attract new readers and generate new conversations. Check out reactions at The Spin Off to all four lists. In 2017, and I seem to say this every year, New Zealand published an astonishing array of poetry from a diverse range of presses. I loved so much of it, I would have turned down an invitation to judge an award. Yes there were books I utterly loved that didn’t make the long list. Yes there were books from the long list that I utterly loved that didn’t make the short list.

I am really familiar with three of the books on the short list, while the fourth is a pleasing discovery. Each of these books contain poems that gave me goosebumps. So in the spirit of generosity I celebrate the judges’ choices.

What do these poets have in common? Attentiveness!

 

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Elizabeth Smither’s Night Horse   (Auckland University Press)

Last year I read through the captivating stretch of Elizabeth Smither’s poetry: from Here Come the Clouds published in 1975, to the new collection, Night Horse. I was drawn into melodious lines, pocket anecdotes, bright images and enviable movement. Harry Ricketts talked about the transformative quality of Elizabeth’s poems in an interview with Kathryn Ryan, and I agree. As you follow reading paths from the opening line of the first poem — ‘Once, near nightfall, I drove past my mother’s house’—there is always  some form of transformation. The poetry, from debut until now, is meditative, andante, beautiful.

I see a continued poetic attentiveness and an ability to assemble detail that both stalls and surprises the reader. I was thinking the poems are like little jackets that can be worn inside out, and outside in, because Elizabeth offers stillness in movement, and in movement stillness. She generates musicality in plainness, and in plainness there is music. In the strange, there is the ordinary, and in the ordinary, there is strangeness.

Elizabeth so often slows down the pace of her poems so we may linger upon an image, a word, an anecdote, a side-thought to see what surfaces.

I especially love the ongoing friendship and granddaughter poems, but I particularly love the first poem, ‘My mother’s house.’ Kate Camp and I heard Elizabeth read this at the National Library’s Circle of Laureates last year and were so moved and uplifted that we asked for copies! In the poem, unseen, Elizabeth observes her mother move through the house from the street (she told us this autobiographical fact) and sees her in shifting lights. The moment is breathtaking; are we are at our truest self when we are not observed? There is characteristic Smither movement through the poem, slow and attentive, to the point of tilt and surprise. The final lines reverberate and alter the pitch of looking: ‘but she who made it/who would soon walk into the last room/of her life and go to sleep in it.’

 

It was all those unseen moments we do not see

the best of a friend, the best of a mother

competent and gracious in her solitude

 

from ‘My mother’s house’

 

 

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Sue Wootton’s The Yield  (Otago University Press)

Sue Wootton’s shortlisted collection is a sumptuous read, a read that sparks in new directions, while clearly in debt to everything she has written to date. You enter a sumptuous feast of sound and image amongst other glorious things. Several poems feature knitting, and knitting is a perfect analogy for the way Sue’s poems interlace the aural and the visual to produce sensual patterns. The poems have enviable texture and that texture engages both mind and heart.

As I read, the poetry of David Eggleton and Michele Leggott comes to mind.  They both write out of their own skin in ways that are quite unlike the local trend to write conversational poetry. I can see a similar idiosyncratic pulse driving Yield poems as though Sue is pushing boundaries, resisting models, playing and challenging what she can do as a poet.

I am also struck by the heightened musical effects. Sue has always had an attentive ear, but this collection almost feels baroque in the leapfrogging alliteration, assonance and sweet chords. There are traces of the personal in the poems—deaths, a family picnic, illness, a declaration to live life to the utmost, friendship—but I would suggest Sue hides in the crevices. Some of the poems (‘The needlework, the polishing,’ ‘Pray,’ ‘Priest in a coffee shop,’ ‘Graveyard poem,’ ‘Poem to my nearest galaxy’) engage with some kind of spirituality, either through a church building or prayer.

So many poems in the collection stand out for me (and indeed there are a number of award-winning poems here). I especially love ‘Calling,’ ‘Wild,’ ‘Lunch poem for Larry,’ ‘Admission,’ ‘Picnic,’ ‘Unspooling,’ ‘Strange monster,’ ‘A treatise on the benefits of moonbathing,’ ‘The crop,’ ‘Daffodils.’ Ha! Quite a list of poems that matter.

The alluring cover befits the allure of the poems within.

 

Measure my wild. Down to my last leaf,

my furled, my desicated. This deciduousness,

this bloom. Calculate my xylem levels,

my spore count, fungal, scarlet

in a bluebell glade. Whoosh,

where the foliage closes on a great cat.

 

from ‘Wild’

 

 

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Briar Wood Rāwāhi   (Anahera Press)

Briar Wood’s poetry collection gathers, with a wide embrace, details of travel and living, and as the lived-in world grows on the page, the poems set up all manner of conversations. This book draws upon whakapapa, love, relations, ecology, the past and the present. Its warmth and its empathy are infectious.

Briar offers poetry that is both spare in delivery and rich in connection because people and places matter. The book cover glitters white on blue – and for me that is a treat of reading within. Words shine out like little gold nuggets on the line, layering and overlapping, and never losing sight of what matters deeply to the poet.

Poetry can be a way of laying down roots and setting up home in the poem, and on these occasions, it is as though Briar sings home in to being.

 

The sea at night is blacklit,

kikorangi, kōura, topazerine, pango,

a haul of images pouring from nets,

darker than oil underground

 

from ‘Paewai o Te Moana’

 

 

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Tony Beyer’s Anchor Stone (Cold Hub Press)

Tony Beyer was such a discovery for me, I now need to track down his back list. Anchor Stone offers a distinctive voice with each poem judiciously layering detail that animates people, places and events. I am drawn to the measured pace, the slow and steady revelations that beguile and compound. The mix of economy, surprise, wit and physicality is glorious. You get linguistic agility, askew slides and a touch of daring.

No subject is redundant when it comes to poetry – think the land, friendship, trees and stones –  as Tony underlines. ‘Paths’ demonstrates such poetic fluidity, in a sequence of 100 small poems that furnish the outbreath and the inbreath of writing. It is as though each little poem walks its way into thought. Contemplation. The title suggest that these poems are miniature anchors but they are also kite-like in their imaginings and renditions and our need to attend to the physical world we inhabit.

Poetry can embrace beauty, flawed or otherwise, along with ways of belonging.

 

there is someone

everywhere in this house

living or

having lived here

their presence preserved

by a window fastening

the way a door

closes or partly closes

 

from  ‘Paths’

 

 

Each of these collections generates distinctive and diverse poetry pleasures. A big hug to the poets and big hug to all those who missed out on either list. Poetry awards can be tough times when you write, especially when exceptional books don’t make lists, long or short. But for these deserving four poets, it is time to crack open the bubbles and celebrate.

 

 

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