Monthly Archives: April 2019

Poetry Shelf guest spot: Rhian Gallagher selects Cilla McQueen’s ‘Low Tide, Aramoana’

 

Low Tide, Aramoana

 

Sky with blurred pebbles

a ruffle on water

 

sky with long stripes

straight lines of ripples

 

sky-mirror full of

sand and long pools

 

I step into the sky

the clouds shiver and disappear

 

thin waterskin over underfoot cockles here and there old timber

and iron orange and purple barnacled crab shells snails green

karengo small holes

 

I look up from walking at

a shy grey heron on

the point of flight.

 

oystercatchers whistle stilts and big gulls eye my quiet

stepping over shells and seaweed towards the biggest farthest

cockles out by the channel beacon at dead low tide

 

It’s still going out.

I tell by the moving

of fine weeds in

underwater breeze.

 

takes a time to gather these rust and barnacle coloured  whole

sweet mouthfuls

 

Low.

and

there’s a sudden

 

wait

 

for the moment

of precise

solstice: the whole sea

hills and sky

wait

 

 

and everything

stops.

 

high gulls hang seaweed is arrested the water’s skin

tightens we all stand still. even the wind evaporates

leaving a scent of salt.

 

 

I snap out start back get moving before the new tide back

over cockle beds through clouds underfoot laying creamy

furrows over furrowed sand over flats arched above and below

with blue and yellow and green reflection and counter reflection

 

 

look  back to

ripples

begun again.

 

 

Cilla McQueen

 

from Homing In  (McIndoe, 1982), also published in poeta: selected and new poems (Otago University Press, 2018)

 

 

 

From Rhian Gallagher

Sometime in the early 1980s I heard Cilla read ‘Low Tide, Aramoana’ on TV. I was utterly spellbound.

Cilla does not so much read her poems as enact them. They seem written to a music score, a sound choreography. Her work is also very visual and ‘Low Tide, Aramoana’ is a big canvas.

Whatever expectations the title sets up are given a tilt at the outset. For it is not the tide that is encountered but the sky. It is a simple notion, the sky being reflected in the water, but I experience it in the poem as if it were a brand new thing and

‘I (too) step into the sky’

In more than one way ‘I step into the sky’. The tides are a condundrum, taking place on earth yet the movement is being conducted by the moon and sun. The spaciousness of the poem on the page has me feeling this mystery all over again — my mind is up there with the moon and the sun.

The meditative opening lines are followed by a hurried, heaped-up rhythm, detailing forms and life-forms encountered on the sand flats:

‘thin waterskin over underfoot cockles here & there old timber/& iron orange & purple barnacled crab shells snails green karengo small holes’

This alternating rhythmn shapes the poem. It is a movement from a contemplative interior to the external world and back again, flowing in and out, almost as a tide itself.

On one level this is a foraging poem: going ‘out to the channel beacon at dead low tide’ for ‘the biggest farthest/cockles’. Foraging is also a metaphor for the making of the poem: the gathering is going on right from the first footstep onto the sandflats and the poem is, indeed, made of ‘whole/sweet mouthfuls’.

Some decades past before I heard Cilla read this poem again, at the Dunedin Writers Festival. It was almost eerie. The poem has a tipping point. It takes us there, way out to the edge – a brink of change, when something amazing (or horrendous) is about to happen. That moment when ‘we all stand still’.

I may risk overloading the achieved simplicity of the poem. The environment it brings to life, the multiple invocations it sets going in me, is why it has stayed close. Cilla’s pared-down language and accessibility belies an underlying multi-layered sophistication. ‘Low Tide, Aramoana’ has never given up all its secrets.

 

Rhian Gallagher

 

Rhian Gallagher‘s debut poetry collection Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press, 2003) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection while her second collection Shift, ( 2011/ 2012) won the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. Gallagher’s most recent work Freda: Freda Du Faur, Southern Alps, 1909-1913 was produced in collaboration with printer Sarah M. Smith and printmaker Lynn Taylor (Otakou Press 2016). Rhian was awarded the Robert Burns Fellowship in 2018.

Cilla McQueen is a poet, teacher and artist; her multiple honours and awards include a Fulbright Visiting Writer’s Fellowship 1985,three New Zealand Book Awards 1983, 1989, 1991; an Hon.LittD Otago 2008, and the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry 2010. She was the National Library New Zealand Poet Laureate 2009 -11.  Recent works include The Radio Room (Otago University Press 2010), In A Slant Light (Otago University Press, 2016), and poeta: selected and new poems (Otago University Press, 2018).

 

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Poetry Shelf review: Lynn Davidson’s Islander

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Lynn Davidson Islander Victoria University Press 2019

 

 

Time goes slower in the sea

and faster in the mountains.

Physics has taken over

where poetry left off.

 

from ‘Pearls’

 

 

Lynn Davidson’s terrific new poetry collection, Islander, travels between Scotland and New Zealand, between the place she grew up (Kapiti, Wellington) and the place she now lives (Edinburgh). Divided into five parts the poems move amidst light, fire and earth. Like Dinah Hawken, Lynn pays close attention to the world about her, the physical world, the inhabited world, a world buffeted by weather, seasons, time. Her poems are layered and fluent and measured.

The opening poem, ‘My stair’, sees the speaker (the poet?) looking out, in an eerie night light, from her second-floor window onto the bus depot. She evokes a scene through pitch perfect detail and a surprising simile (‘buses lightly lumber / into the yellow depot / like bubbles back / into solution’). But the surprise for me, the point of ruffle and ripple, is the mention of the father:

 

My father’s heart is failing, he fills up

 

with fluid (like an empty bus fills up with light?)

I look for flights.

 

One of the pleasures of this collection is the eclectic movement. There is movement born from departure, from the sway between presence and absence, birds in flight, the ripple of water, the movement of a musing and contemplative mind. A number of poems struck me. ‘A hillside of houses leave’ is mysterious, magical and rich in movement. Like many of the poems, there is a link to birds that might be symbolic but that is always physical.

 

Steeped in old weather the wooden houses

remember their bird-selves and unfold

barely-jointed wings.

 

The poem holds the conundrum of life – its impermanence, its fragility and the little anchors, the necessary bones.

 

People curl inside

the bones that keep them

that will not keep them long.

 

The presence of birds is fitting in a collection that navigates islands – the birds might signal the ocean’s presence, the multiple flights, the multiple nests, the bird on the poet’s sight line, the bird carried by heart, the bird house and the bird lungs.

I began to see the collection as a poetry chain; where this poem rubs against that poem and that poem rubs against this. Here the light of this day touches the light of that day which touches the light of the day before all the way back to ancient times. Dinah has a poem dedicated to her and I am reminded of Dinah’s ability to evoke the spare and the luminous within a cluster of lines that then open out with absorbing richness. Lynn is similarly dexterous. This from Lynn’s ‘Bonfire’:

 

The mainland is rendered down

silvers and is gone.

 

My heart is green and raw – a pea not a heart –

front to the fire back to the wind.

 

The groan of stone on stone unsettles

me as I unsettle them.

 

Islands is also inhabited with daily lives, with anecdote and incident, thus rendering landscape humane as well as wild and beautiful. At times it made me laugh out loud as in ‘Lineage’:

 

I was nine months pregnant, and waiting, when the man in the

Taranaki airport shop snapped this isn’t a library you know,

 

and when I turned my great belly full of fingernails and teeth-in-bud

towards him he asked (hotly) if I was actually going to buy anything.

 

The baby made exclamation marks with its soft bones,

glared with its wide open eyes – two Os. No I said I won’t buy

 

my news from you.

 

Lynn traces family, the children who leave, the children who make home solid, the unnamed boy who names home hame, the children half a hemisphere away. This from ‘Leaving Wellington’:

 

Hours go by and elements still gather.

Each day my waking children, just by naming

assembled all the solid things of world:

the bath, stove, chair, the bed, the window,

the shoe, the dinosaur, the door, the wall.

Then in a kind of via negativa

they composed two empty rooms by leaving home.

 

I said it was an anchor but it’s not.

It’s a shadow roughly like a kiss.

 

 

This is a book to slow down with – just as you slow down when you walk the perimeter of an island – gazing into a shifting sky vista and towards the unreachable but alluring horizon line  –letting your own thoughts cascade and catch. It is a book where the view of a poem never settles but keeps revealing new lights, new joys, new surprises. I love this considered pace, this sharp revelation, this anchored heart. I love this book.

 

Victoria University Press author page

 

Lynn Davidson is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently How to Live by the Sea (2009, VUP) and a novel, Ghost Net, along with essays and short stories. She grew up in Kāpiti, Wellington and currently lives in Edinburgh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Monday poem: Simone Kaho’s ‘Tour’

 

Tour

The crows will be her friends.
They are waiting on powerlines in the rain.
It’s exciting to be in another country with different birds even if they’re black and mawkish, and it’s only England, so kind of coming home.
‘Do they think dark thoughts?’
He comes back from training and through unspoken agreement she holds him at bay, at first.
Later, he says – ‘You held me off just the right amount’.
It’s the only kind thing he says all day.
She watches British bunnies run across the green British lawn in the British mist, into a British hedge.
That evening New Zealand loses.
Someone has scrawled a rude note for him on a napkin, he sees her looking and says
‘You’re laughing’.
She’s not.
She wishes she could.
I don’t wonder how he is doing she thinks ‘Now’.
It doesn’t even creak.
Her heart pulp; memories.
The overwhelming smell of little old ladies’ heads at mass at the Vatican.
Crouching down between acres of knees.
Him lifting her onto his shoulders, in fresh air above the churchgoers, with her battered face and oversized sunglasses.
Pope John Paul passing so close in his glass cartoon car, she could have reached out and left a fingerprint.
Her queen wave.
The ornate courtesy of him helping little old ladies over the barricades.
His beaming, bashful, face, which had gotten battered too.
Him walking straight into the Vatican while a two-mile line formed behind.
Both kneeling before the Michelangelo, not noticing marble Mary was the same age as Jesus.
Noticing nothing but the stillness of her chest
until he shifts beside her
and she wants to take it all back,
the gravel in her face,
the gravel in his.
The bottles she threw at the hostel, his blazed green eyes on the bottom bunk as the cops knocked.
The contrite blowjob in the church graveyard behind the homestay.
I can’t help being helpless, your contempt is not helping me.
She rolls her eyes as he slaps her.
That vein in his forehead is pulsing again and in a way, it has something to say and no one knows any better and
she wishes he hadn’t thrown stones at her window
and she hadn’t opened it
and he hadn’t climbed in
and she wishes she had knees instead of jelly and
she wishes she could put her heart out of her body and
let it live wild in the bush

 

Simone Kaho

 

 

 

 

Simone Kaho is a New Zealand poet of Tongan descent. She was born in Auckland and received an MA in creative writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Friday talk: Manon Revuelta on poetry podcasts

 

In the hopes of offering something immediate to those of us who can’t always afford to buy books, here are some brilliant poetry podcasts.

What a rich resource these have been for me. I listen to them most days. They have led me in so many great directions, and introduced me to some of my favourite poets.

Some days there is so much to read out there that I feel a bit flooded, unsure how to make my way in, trying to read it all at once inattentively. So it’s a total gift to be able to instantly climb inside just one poem—for free!—while on a long bus ride or chopping a pumpkin, and not only that, but a poem that has been carefully chosen, read aloud and discussed.

Writing is never really a solitary quest at all, and I want to hear about food and family and all those supposedly peripheral things. Admittedly it’s not always what you need and can even be dull; sometimes it’s important to reach out of the realm you spend the most time in. But for the most part, I find it so useful to listen to writers talking about their worlds: mundane and extraordinary rituals, who they like to read, why and how they write, their struggles and pleasures and anger and fears. By way of listening, I feel in communion with them.

It’s been difficult to narrow down my favourites as there are many and they just keep coming, but I’ve shared a few particularly memorable episodes below.

 

1. Commonplace with Rachel Zucker: Conversations with Poets (and Other People) with Rachel Zucker

 

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A series of intimate and captivating interviews by Rachel Zucker with poets and artists about quotidian objects, experiences or obsessions, Commonplace conversations explore the recipes, advice, lists, anecdotes, quotes, politics, phobias, spiritual practices, and other non-Literary forms of knowledge that are vital to an artist’s life and work.

 

A few of my highlights:

CA Conrad

Rachel Zucker speaks with poet CA Conrad about their Somatic poetry rituals, their childhood in rural Western Pennsylvania, becoming an avid reader, running away from home, the AIDS epidemic, writing The Book of Frank over an 18 year period, anti-efficiency, marketing research, the 1998 murder of CA’s boyfriend, Earth, using a somatic ritual to cure a pernicious depression, and CA’s recently published book, While Standing In Line for Death. CA Conrad describes their writing process, how to get ahead of one’s internal editor, revision, combating misogyny, animal rights activism, ACT UP, ecological disaster, ecopoetics, the vibrational absence of extinct species being replaced by the din of humanity, white rhinos, Walmart, the end of empire, teaching, the myth of writer’s block, how to write inside the hardest things, roadkill memorials, being alone, and accepting the elements.

 

Gabrielle Calvocoressi

Rachel Zucker talks with poet, editor, professor Gabrielle Calvocoressi, author of three full length collections, most recently Rocket Fantastic, about her new book. They also talk about wanting things, reading in New York, God, prayer, nystagmus (a neurological eye condition), practicing Judaism (but not converting to Judaism) in Los Angeles and in the South, gender identity, gender expression, sexual fantasies, gayness and queerness, butch lesbianism, bros, the symbol she uses in Rocket Fantastic instead of a gendered pronoun and how she reads that symbol, having and recovering from a nervous breakdown and panic attacks, mental health, not seeking out trouble, getting to know the animal you are, envy, jealousy, the granting and prize system in poetry, ambition, unionizing poets, and being honest.

 

Claudia Rankine

Award winning poet, playwright, professor, editor, essayist, and critic Claudia Rankine speaks with Rachel Zucker about collaboration, poetry’s role in social change, and the investigation of feeling. In this episode, Rankine discusses the importance of ideas put forward by writers such as James Baldwin and Adrienne Rich, the known unknown, the arena of consciousness, being a spectator, willed ignorance, and the illusion of difficulty in poetry.

 

Conversation between Sheila Heti, Sarah Manguso

Rachel Zucker talks with Sheila Heti and Sarah Manguso about literary friendship, Sarah’s two recent books, Sheila’s manuscript in progress, maternal ambivalence, uncertainty, sacrifice of self, envy, curiosity, being a daughter, attachment and unattachment, shame, the sickening state of wondering whether or not to have children, abandonment, money, the things we cannot choose, choosing intolerable feelings, whiteness, class, the poetics of motherhood, purity, polluted writing, and motherhood as a sexuality category.

 

  1. New Yorker Poetry Podcast

 

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New Yorker Poetry is a bit more strictly poetry business than Commonplace. During the episodes, a visiting poet chooses a poem from the New Yorker’s archives to read, as well as one of their own, in between a bit of writerly chit-chat with the host. Best to listen to these in the podcast app rather than the webpage, as if you don’t have a New Yorker subscription access is limited.

 

A few of my highlights:

 

Kaveh Akbar reads Ellen Bryant Voigt

Kaveh Akbar joins Kevin Young to read and discuss Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poem “Groundhog” and his own poem “What Use Is Knowing Anything If No One Is Around.” Akbar is the author of the poetry collection “Calling a Wolf a Wolf,” as well as the recipient of a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and the 2018 Levis Reading Prize.

 

Nicole Sealey reads Ellen Bass

Nicole Sealey joins Kevin Young to read and discuss Ellen Bass’s poem “Indigo” and her own poem “A Violence.” Sealey is the executive director at the Cave Canem Foundation and the author of the poetry collection “Ordinary Beast.”

 

Lucie Brock-Broido reads Franz Wright

Lucie Brock-Broido joins Paul Muldoon to discuss Franz Wright’s “Recurring Awakening” and her poem “For a Snow Leopard in October”.

(This was where I first heard Franz Wright’s poetry and it has led me deep into his work. It is a nice segue into the following…)

 

3. Transom: Two Years with Franz

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This is such a beautifully told and deeply moving story. I treasured listening to Franz’s muttered poems, filled with grace, alongside his curmudgeonly spiels.

“What if you have a story that’s really complicated, and you have 546 tapes to listen to, and you get obsessed and don’t know where to stop? All of those things were true for “Two Years with Franz.” The “Two Years” refers to two years of tapes recorded by the Pulitzer-winning poet Franz Wright before his death, and then, the two years Bianca Giaever spent listening to them. This is a story of art and love, of madness and beauty, of youth and age and death.”

 

4. Between the Covers

 

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Between the Covers is hosted by David Naimon, a writer, philosopher and Chinese herbalist with a brilliant mind.  These are long-form in-depth conversations with novelists and essayists as well as poets.

A few of my highlights:

 

Mary Ruefle

Ursula Le Guin (This is SO good – the best bit awaits you at the end, when Le Guin reads her marvellous piece ‘On Serious Literature’)

Rae Armantrout  Fascinating interview in which she discusses among many things her interest in quantum physics.

Forrest Gander

 

Manon Revuelta (1990–) is a poet from Auckland. Her chapbook of poems and essays, girl teeth, was published by Hard Press in 2017. Her poems have been published in Minarets, Sweet Mammalian, Deluge, Brief and Turbine. She is currently enrolled in an MA in Creative Writing at IIML, Victoria University, Wellington.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf audio spot: Nicola Easthope reads ‘Kitesurfing’

 

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Nicola Easthope reads ‘Kitesurfing’ from Working the Tang The Cuba Press, 2018

 

 

Nicola Easthope is a teacher and poet from the Kāpiti Coast. Her first book of poems, leaving my arms free to fly around you, was published by Steele Roberts Aotearoa in 2011. ‘Working the tang, Birsay’ is inspired by her Orcadian roots and the etymologies and experiences of the Norse word for seaweed (among other things). She was a guest poet at the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2012, and at the Tasmanian Poetry Festival in October 2018.

The Cuba Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Best NZ Poems is now live

 

 

We both know a language is waiting inside my tongue.

Please put down the adze, the skillsaw, the file:
Speak gently to me so I can recognise what’s there.

Alice Te Punga Somerville from ‘Rākau’

 

Kei te mōhio tāua, he reo kei tōku arero.

Waiho ki raro te toki, te kani, te whaiuru:
Kōrerotia whakamāriretia kia kite ai au he aha rā kei reira.

Translation from ‘Rākau’ by Te Ataahia Hurihanganui

 

Poet and novelist Fiona Farrell selected poems from 2018 that held her attention in diverse ways  – from books, journals and online sources. She questioned ‘best’ (a vague term), ‘New Zealand’ (poets needed to have been born here or lived here for some time) and ‘poem’ (she went to the Greek and cited a poem as ‘something made’).  Poetry offered her numerous reading pleasures:

Those hundreds of poems, gathered over a single year, formed a massive anthology, and if that means ‘ an arrangement of flowers’ – as it does by definition – then New Zealand poetry often reminds me of a garden I saw once, inland from Te Horo. Its flowers were a host of golden margarine containers and tin cans tacked to sticks. It was beautiful, this New Zealand version of common or garden. It was startling and provocative. What is beauty, after all? What is form and order? Why do we choose this and not that? Why does beauty exist in distortion? Why do we find it beautiful when a person stands on one calloused toe rather than with both feet firmly on the ground? Or when an apple is reduced to a crimson cube? Or when a sequence of words is forced from the patter of everyday speech? I’ve thought about that garden while plucking the blooms of 2018.

 

The refreshed site looks good;  you can hear some poets read and you can read notes from some poets on their selected poems (love these entries into poems). We get a new anthology – a harvest of poems that spark and simmer and soothe in their close proximity.

Tusiata Avia’s ‘Advice to Critics’ is like a backbone of the poet and it makes me sit up and listen to the sharp edges, the witty corners. There is the rhythmic hit of Hera Lindsay Bird’s love poem, there is the measured and evocative fluency of Nikki-Lee Birdsey’s ‘Mutuwhenua’, and the equally measured and evocative fluency of Anna Jackson’s ‘Late Swim’. Mary McCallum’s ‘Sycamore tree’, with its delicious syncopation and resonant gaps, first held my attention in her XYZ of Happiness. Bill Manhire’s ‘extended joke’ takes a bite at social media and I laughed out loud. Chris Tse’s poem reminds me of one of my favourite reads of 2018, HE’S SO MASC (and he has the best poet photo ever!)/. There is the inventive lyricism of Sophie van Waardenberg and the aural electrics of essa may ranapiri.
Fiona steps aside from notions of community, and questions of representation but these remain important to me. Part of the impetus of my blog is to nurture our poetry communities by showcasing and fostering connections, overlaps, underlays, experiences, events, ideas, feelings, heart. I am acutely aware that certain communities have not achieved the same representation as others, so I still check anthologies to muse upon the range of voices visible. Yep community is a slippery concept, heck I am consistently asking myself where I belong for all kinds of reasons, but as a white woman I most definitely afforded privilege, access and visibility even when I feel like an outsider. I have sat on the edge of the bed this morning stuck on the word ‘community’. Over the four years of writing and producing Wild Honey it was a key word, for all kinds of reasons, and it kept me going.

 

I love Fiona’s selection – the poems form an invigorating and uplifting day trip that offers breathtaking moments, surprising twists and turns, unfamiliar voices, old favourites and a welcome reconnection with some of my favourite reads of 2018 (I am thinking of Sam Duckor-Jones’s People from the Pit Stand Up for example). An anthology-garden that is well worth a day trip over Easter! I’ll be going back because I prefer to dawdle when I am travelling so still have sights to take in.

 

see me see me
by the sycamore tree
each child a propeller
sorry each child has a
propeller & is throwing
it up  & the dead seeds
spin & spin & spin & they
shriek my little ones & pick up another

Mary McCallum from ‘Sycamore Tree’

 

Visit Best NZ Poems 2018 here.

 

 

Poetry Shelf notice board: Waiheke Live! Poetry and song evenings

 

 

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And we’ve found a new venue for our poetry & song evenings. We’ll be holding these on the last Thursday of the month as usual (except in April when we have opted for Wednesday 24th so we don’t clash with Anzac Day). Our new home is FOUND Café in Surfdale. It’s such a cool spot, upstairs in the bohemian cocktail lounge. Plenty of room folks to bring your instruments (we provide the sound system) and your poems, with food and beverages available so you can whet your beak before warbling. Waiheke is lucky to have free events like these, so don’t be shy! FOUND Café 8 Miami Avenue Surfdale

Poetry Shelf Classic Poem: Kiri Piahana-Wong picks Hone Tuwhare’s ‘Toroa: Albatross’

 

Toroa: Albatross

 

Day and night endlessly you have flown effortless of wing

over chest-expanding oceans far from land.

Do you switch on an automatic pilot, close your eyes

in sleep, Toroa?

 

On your way to your home-ground at Otakou Heads

you tried to rest briefly on the Wai-o-te-mata

but were shot at by ignorant people.

Crippled, you found a resting-place at Whanga-nui-a-Tara;

found space at last to recompose yourself. And now

 

without skin and flesh to hold you together

the division of your aerodynamic parts lies whitening

licked clean by sun and air and water. Children will

discover narrow corridors of airiness between, the suddenness

of bulk. Naked, laugh in the gush and ripple—the play

of light on water.

 

You are not alone, Toroa. A taniwha once tried to break out

of the harbour for the open sea. He failed.

He is lonely. From the top of the mountain nearby he calls

to you: Haeremai, haeremai, welcome home, traveller.

Your head tilts, your eyes open to the world.

 

Hone Tuwhare

 

Originally published in Mihi: Collected Poems (Penguin, 1987) and subsequently published in Small Holes in the Silence: Collected Poems (Godwit, 2011). Published with kind permission of the Estate of Hone Tuwhare.

 

 

Note from Kiri:

Hone Tuwhare has written so many beloved and iconic poems, but for me, this poem ­– ‘Toroa: Albatross’ – has always particularly resonated. It’s a poem about a bird that is so much more than a poem about a bird. The poem speaks of death, loneliness and homecoming. It crosses effortlessly from the physical world into the metaphysical. When I read this poem, I hear the voices of my departed tūpuna calling from the other side. I hear the ineffable beat of wings.

 

Kiri Piahana-Wong, Ngāti Ranginui, is a poet and editor, and is the publisher at Anahera Press. Kiri is currently working on the fourth edition of Māori literary journal Ora Nui, due out this September.

Hone Tuwhare (1922- 2008) was a father, poet, political activist and boilermaker. He published at least thirteen collections of poetry, won two New Zealand Book Awards, held two honorary doctorates and, in 1999, was Te Mata Poet Laureate. In 2003 he was named an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Artist.

 

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Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Gregory O’Brien’s launch speech for Richard von Sturmer’s Postcard Stories

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POSTCARD STORIES…a launching speech, VicBooks, Wellington, 12 April 2019

 

It’s over thirty years ago since Richard von Sturmer appeared on the cover of Robert Cross’s and my book about New Zealand writers Moments of Invention. Back in 1987 I remember Richard suggesting that Robert photograph him in his ‘most natural habitat’. So we went to Smales Quarry, near Lake Pupuke—a flooded, desolate, you could almost say post-apocalyptic zone—a lunar landscape with the occasional sprig of kowhai. After spending quality time in a trench-coat and mask (as the ‘Neanderthal businessman’ character, Mr Chipden), Richard donned striped overalls and a papier mache zebra-head.

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Was the zebra outfit a uniform or a disguise—an act of self-expression of concealment? Either way, the photo on the book’s cover raised the question, for me, of how it might be that writers, more generally, fit into this world. Richard was, and still is, proposing we should all look, listen and think beyond the obvious. Maybe the lesson of Smales Quarry is that we should look for answers in the direction of archaeology or possibly the analysis of dreams, rather than in the realms of sociology, cultural history or literary theory. The cover photo of Richard, zebra-headed and humanimal (in the adjectival sense), begged the question whether the life of the writer is ultimately an absurdity, a theatrical production or maybe even an inexplicable folly. More than anything else, the image reminds me of one characteristic of all good writers: they are up to something. They ask that we follow them somewhere new and surprising. ‘I think we should go into the jungle,’ as Barbara Anderson would have put it. Their jungle.

The cover photo was taken shortly after the appearance of Richard’s We Xerox Your Zebras appeared—a book which has long been something of a cult classic and which, infamously, upon publication prompted threats of legal action from Rank Xerox Corporation, on account of copyright infringement. Still in his twenties, Richard’s creative trajectory as a genre-bending, world-expanding writer was set, as was his now longstanding allegiance with, and commitment to, the unexpected, the odd and the illuminating. He struck me then, as he strikes me now, as an improving influence not only on the world of letters but on the world itself.

Over the three decades since then, there have been collections of poems from Richard and –to much-deserved acclaim upon its publication three years ago–a memoir about his father and grandfather, This Explains Everything. Yet, as the new book reiterates, nothing is ever really explained. Explanation is too often simply a misreading, simplification or a reduction of the matter at hand. Reality is full of live circuitry and ongoingness and expansiveness. We reach conclusions at our peril.

Richard’s books are working documents of a life-in-progress, a sensibility in the making and constant remaking. Reality is put, much of the time, through a Zen Buddhist filter, yet his writing can be as rowdy and colourful as the line-dancing Filipino women on the cover of Postcard Stories. Such a paradoxical, contrary state remains at the heart of his creative project. Also worth noting is a curious propensity for the transmutation or transubstantiation of the mundane or the misguided into a state of meaningful joyfulness.

What sort of narratives are on offer in Postcard Stories? Are these stories about postcards or inspired by postcards—or are these the stories the postcards themselves might have told, if they could speak. Through the first half of the book, Richard performs a visual/verbal two-step, offering short sequences of text—a hybrid of short story and  haiku—to enhance, elaborate upon, subvert and embrace the images which they accompany.

 

Quickly enough, the book gets one thinking about the nature of postcards. It becomes a protracted meditation on that endangered if not dying species. In the era of the jpeg and digital file, postcard stands are becoming fewer and further between. Postcard Stories offers the gentlest of interrogations, a backward glance at these printed images, their industry and their format. It asks questions, but without, of course, requiring any kind of answer.

Most of the time, postcards relate to a specific location yet, as this book manifests, they often reflect a certain lostness, aimlessness, waywardness. You would not want to use them to get your bearings in the physical world. I remember, years ago when Jen and I were spending six months in the South of France courtesy of the Katherine Mansfield fellowship, Richard sent us—in Menton—an antique Greetings from Menton postcard which he had procured from a South Auckland second hand shop.  As Richard’s new book attests, postcards, like the rest of us, lead paradoxical, complex and unreliable lives. In his bright and user-friendly introduction, he goes so far as to describe postcards as ‘cells in a giant, universal brain’ then adds, instructively: ’I like to dream with postcards’.

Traversing such inner and outer realities, the texts in Postcard Stories feature a surprising number of flowers. Ditto monuments, towers, clocks and water features. In deep amidst the imagistic ebb and flow, we are asked to consider how flowers flower differently in words than they do in pictures. We are back in the quarry. We are back at the beginning of the world, and the beginning of the word. We are once again keeping company with a zebra-headed youth in his wasteland-quarry. Yet we are also in the world of a film-maker, one half of the Humanimals who is now one half of a group called the Floral Clocks (greetings to the other half, Gabriel White, here with us tonight)… We are in the world of a man- or person-of-letters, an exemplary citizen of Aotearoa, a Buddhist, activist, free radical and traveller in the universe of postcards; a surveyor also of the lives contained in these most wistful of images and of the lives that continue to swirl around them long after they have been posted, received and put to one side.

 

Gregory O’Brien

 

 

 

 

 

 

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