For the past three months Poetry Shelf has posted lists of books that have offered solace (first word I used) during lockdown or at any point in time, to a variety of New Zealanders. I then used the word comfort and now I am thinking much loved. We hold books close, we favour particular books for all kinds of reasons, whether in times of smooth sailing or personal catastrophe or global pandemic.
I have loved reading these lists – they have given me goosebumps, taken me back to books I have loved, got me ordering new ones (this list is no exception). Like Pip Adam I find Bill Manhire’s poetry of great comfort. He writes in myraid ways; think tone, mood, form, sharpness, balm, melody, silence, richness, surprise, humaneness. Like Julie Buiso I stack poetry books next to the bed.
The two poets I kept returning to in lockdown had new books out: Oscar Upperton’s astonishing debut New Transgender Blockbusters (VUP) and Elizabeth Morton’s mesmerising This is your real name (OUP). I posted an interview with Oscar and review of Elizabeth this week. During lockdown only scattered phrases made my notebook. I couldn’t string a sentence together. I was a drifting reader.
Here is Elizabeth reading from the new collection:
This is the last book list for now – because I am carving time for my own work – but I will involve wider communities throughout the year as a way of making connections. It feels important. To make connections. To touch base with different experiences, both imagined and lived.
Ah. The world still feels wobbly to me, but my beautiful backyard on the West Coast of Auckland feels that little bit safer. Poetry Shelf helps, and will continue its usual schedule: I will post reviews and interviews, audios and videos, commentaries, miniature festivals and when needed virtual book launches. I have other ideas up my sleeves that I will test out over the year.
Finally this list celebrates the opening of our bookshops and libraries and I wholeheartedly encourage the support of both.
A warm thank you to everyone who contributed.
T h e b o o k l i s t
Pip Adam (Fiction writer, Better off Read podcaster)
Jane Arthur (Poet)
I borrowed Jenny Bornholdt’s latest poetry collection Lost and Somewhere Else (VUP) from the library when it came out last year. There’s something about Jen’s writing I find comforting, even as she takes me through weird images and specifics I don’t understand. She’s gentle, sly and assured all at the same time. Effortlessly precise. I was surprised this book didn’t make it to the awards longlist this year – I thought it would win! I was pleased to receive my own copy for Mother’s Day mid-lockdown. My partner’s annoyingly good at presents.
Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (Academic, writer, activist)
Gerard Benson, Judith Chernalk & Cicely Herbert (eds) (1991)
100 Poems On the Underground
Cassell, London but reprinted and redesigned often.
Rather like the stout little Untermeyer we were given at school, this collection is loaded with old favourites, and newer ones, too. A great book to just pick up and lose yourself in; resonant voices from centuries ago echoed by the joys concerns anguish and excitement of modern London; a place now very much on my mind, as I spend a lot of time and enjoy many friends there, and I feel for them. I love London; I love the Underground. Reading out loud but only to myself and my bemused cat the words of Edna St Vincent Millay, Adrienne Rich, Lorna Goodson, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, Grace Nichols, amongst pages and pages of pale men, I wonder if on my next descent into the Tube, I will encounter Selina in bold type above my (not mop) head. And Tuwhare. I hope so.
Julie Buiso (Cookbook author, poet)
I keep a collection of poetry books by my bed with poems I read again and again. Some poems have been with me a long time.
I’m not always sure why a poem moves me, it’s enough that it does, although sometimes I know it’s because of a certain phrase or an image evoked, not because of the entire poem, and these are the poems that I chisel away at over the years.
I sold my house at the beginning of the year and packed my collection of poetry books in a small box and labelled it ‘Don’t Bury Favourite Poems’ and stowed it at the front of a container I had filled with my worldly possessions, and off I went for a few weeks to see family in New Zealand. I’d be back on Waiheke March 25th and could live without a book of poetry until then I reasoned. Well I wasn’t back on the 25th. I spent 10 weeks in the Wairarapa. I’m not complaining about my lockdown exile, but I was bereft. I missed my children and had no access to my favourite poems, poems that had comforted me with their familiarity, poems that had challenged me or helped me see sense, poems that had eased an inner turmoil and made me appreciate where I was at. I hankered after these poems. One of them is ‘In Memory of a Friend’ by John Weir.
I suppose I should confess to how I discovered it. The poem was in a book The Sudden Sun I borrowed from Wellington’s public library in the 1970s. I never returned the book (apologies, see below) but how could I when it had this poem in it? 50 years of reading it and it still affects me. I also confess, I do not read any of the other poems in the book (it’s the first poem in the book and as far as I go!).
I have always marvelled at the language in the poem – that’s what got me hooked on the first reading. ‘When the heat spills dreams like a drug and copper glows on the maple’ and ‘now each summer when the cherry tree leans lovely over the morning …’. Certain phrases like these still affect me when I read the poem anew and I think that’s because at times it has deepened my own feelings of loss though I’m not sure anyone else would have the same reaction as me. It’s not classical in any way, but instead gathers together the threads of friendship, kindness, love, loss and grief, acceptance and hope, and it has an unpredictable somewhat quirky rhythm that I like. Sometimes I think the last few lines are the end, death, and other times I feel optimistic about them as they represent the cycle of life and endorse that spring will come again, life will continue. While it’s not a ‘go-to’ solve everything (or anything) poem, or a feel better poem – it’s a memory tinged with sorrow, death and regret after all – it fills my heart every time.
*Years ago when I tried to return the book to the library (it was only about 15 years overdue) they declined to accept it.
Karl Chitham, (Director, The Dowse)
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
I read this book when I was in high school. I can’t remember a lot of the detail of the story, but at the time it was life changing. I recall the themes of solitude and self-reflection as being both comforting and relevant during a particularly turbulent time in my life.
Sam Duckor-Jones (Poet)
My favourite place to read is at the pub. I like the chatter and music and smell and low light and being out of the house. I can nurse one beer for a very long time and get some gorgeous reading done. But in lockdown this was not possible of course. At home, which is also my place of work, I read slowly and irregularly and distractedly. So during lockdown I decided to check out the reference section. I read an atlas from the eighties with different Europe and different Africa and different Asia and different solar system, hi Pluto! I read the Oxford dictionary (not all of it!! I skimmed), which is a sort of meditation, like walking in the bush, and was useful re all the speed scrabble I’ve been playing with my mum these past weeks. I revisited some childhood hitz: The Lion In The Meadow, Angry Arthur, The Sign On Rosie’s Door…… Books I practically know by heart, some I shared aloud with friends on Zoom. Nothing charms and nourishes like a good picture book. But! The pubs are open again! And I am excited open Truman Capote’s Other Voices Other Rooms for a campy gothic southern drama post lockdown fix.
Dylan Horrocks (Cartoonist, lecturer Victoria University of Wellington School of Design Innovation)
Thrush Green, by Miss Read
I confess that when the country went into lockdown and fear and anxiety seemed to be in the very air we breathed, my reading briefly ground to a halt (unless you count endless scrolling through the news and social media). Pretty soon, I found myself yearning for comfort reads; the pile of history books and memoirs by my bed felt too dark and difficult and I longed for an easy gentle world to disappear into. I somehow remembered Miss Read, whose twee novels about idealised English village life were popular with older customers in the bookshop where I worked in the mid-1980s. Soon I’d loaded most of her books onto my Kindle and for about two weeks, they were my escape from the scary world of Covid-19.
Of course, they really are very twee – not to mention unrealistic, old-fashioned, and problematic. Nothing much actually happens and every twist – both good and bad – is so clearly anticipated and hinted at that there’s never a shock or surprise. The plots are less a roller-coaster ride and more like a simple crossword puzzle; the solutions are obvious, the only question is how long it will take to get there. Needless to say, we do eventually get there and it all works out in the end.
But at least the first book in the series, I’ve decided, is a quiet little gem. Nostalgia is not only its primary self-indulgent pleasure but also the primary theme. The book opens with the youngest character, a child, who’s excited about the arrival of an annual fair; it ends with a character close to death, satisfied with a long and happy life. In between, elderly characters meditate on the way memories enrich the present and the young enjoy the anticipation of looking back. This is no critical analysis of nostalgia (I have Svetlana Boym’s The Future of Nostalgia in my reading pile for that), but as a humble celebration of the life-affirming pleasures of nostalgia Miss Read delivers.
So Thrush Green’s charming eccentric residents held my hand through the scariest weeks of Level 4, until I was ready to return to heavier fare. I’m pretty sure most of them would vote Tory (or even worse). But for a short time in March, they offered me a strong cup of tea, some fresh baked buns, and a few kind words. And for that at least I’ll always be grateful.
Annaleese Jochems (Fiction writer)
The Shadow of The Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski
The idea of travel books has always nauseated me. I don’t want to read about a man (or even a woman) putting their boots on and walking up a hill, then back down the hill, and having a beer afterwards. I don’t like long chatty bus rides, or drugged wild nights on the beach. But this book has opened my mind to the whole genre! By the end of the book Kapuscinski was the hero I believed in. You can just tell that he’s a nice guy, and doesn’t talk too much. He’s thoughtful. The Shadow of the Sun is about Africa, but it’s less about its geography or history, than about it’s mood. He sees absurdity with a sort of patient interest that gives it context, that makes it meaningful. He also writes thoughtfully about poverty, sickness, and colonialism. His eye is compassionate, but never mawkish. A perfect book for anytime, I think, but the best choice I can think of for when you’re stuck at home and need someone to show you how to slow down, and just think.
Erik Kennedy (Poet)
I return to the work of the short-story wizard Saki more than is perhaps healthy. In Saki’s world, it’s not that bad things happen to good people, it’s that nothing good happens to anyone except, sometimes, to his narrators when they are relieved of the burden of being conscientious, sociable Edwardians. Saki’s laughs-per-page ratio is formidable, and that is a tonic when reading his work in grim times like these, but I also appreciate the sheer dazzling macabreness of a large proportion of the stories. It puts things in a sort of perspective—things might be rubbish on the plane we move along, but they’re not (I don’t think) positively diabolical. And, technically, Saki is a poet’s prose writer: there’s a Popean poetic logic to the musings of recurring characters like Reginald and Clovis, and the tightly-executed plot twists that characterise his work are like triple axels, moves that, if you could pull them off in poetry, would mark you out as a god-tier artisan. Personal favourites include ‘The Open Window’, ‘Sredni Vashtar’, ‘Tobermory’, ‘The Yarkand Manner’, and ‘The Schartz-Metterklume Method’, but it’s essentially impossible to make a bad choice if you’re reading Saki. In the same way that even bad pizza is good, even second-class Saki is satisfying.
Erin Kimber (Kaitiaki Pūranga – Library Archivist, Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury)
On the day before Level 4 I panic-bought The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel. God knows why I thought I’d run out of things to read…I have stacks of unread books at home. I’m glad I did though. Thomas Cromwell has been an excellent (and frustrating) companion during lockdown. I’ve never been into “historical fiction”, but after many recommendations I gave Wolf Hall a go. Since then I’ve been on this weird and wonderful trip, sometimes creeping, sometimes hurtling toward that inescapable end.
Being an archivist, I think a lot about the evidential power of documents. But anyone who has spent time in an archive knows that it’s the stuff that is missing that can be just as revealing. Mantel uses the silences of history and Cromwell’s life to tell a story of class, gender, environmental violence, and the all too familiar abuse of power. All this wrapped up in a cracking yarn. Right up to the last few pages I was hoping things would turn out differently. There was an odd comfort in that. I mean it is fiction. Anything could happen. Maybe there would be a Tarantino type plot twist. But Cromwell did die. It was strangely underwhelming. I felt empty, trying, like Cromwell, to make sense of everything going on around me. I cried. I needed it.
Louise Lahatte (Head of Heritage for Auckland Libraries)
If I were to pick a book I would choose Mythos by Stephen Fry. Just before lockdown my 92 year old mother (a poet and classics lover) was in hospital for 5 weeks. As she recovered from the worst of her illness she was bored, and I brought her my copy of Mythos. I am sure it hastened her recovery, as the stories and foibles of the Greek gods were so delightfully related, and Stephen Fry’s commentary on modern parallels and lessons and the influence of these myths and language on Western thought and the English language kept her constantly entertained. The Greeks believed the world started not with a big bang, but with Chaos. In these chaotic times, Mythos was indeed a solace.
Euan Macleod (Artist)
The book that immediately came to my mind was Isinglass by Martin Edmond (another Kiwi living in Sydney). A story within a story that is both very timely and timeless. I read it while I was travelling and it made me see my new surroundings in a different way. A beautiful book.
Bill Mcnaught (CBE National Librarian)
Two books spring to mind when I think of comforting reads. Both have strong connections to the land of my birth. First of all, I think of Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie. I picked up my copy of the book in a charity book sale here in New Zealand. Published just after WW2, it’s set towards the end of that war. It’s a well-known story of a cargo ship, laden with crates of whisky, that runs aground during a storm in the Outer Hebrides. By coincidence, the island community nearby has run out whisky. The novel’s plot revolves around the tussle between the authorities who want to confiscate the whisky and the locals who are determined to make the most of this heaven-sent opportunity to replenish their supply of this essential drink. It is not the plot itself that gives me comfort.
The characters in their dialogue frequently use Gaelic phrases that take me back to my childhood. My mother often told me stories about her father, William, who was a master mariner from the Isle of Skye. He was the last in our family to have the Gaelic. He moved to Glasgow as a young man to pursue his career in the merchant navy. My mother was brought up listening to stories and songs about the Hebridean Isles of Scotland and she passed some of them on to me, quoting phrases in Gaelic that she’d heard her father use. One of those phrases was uisge beatha which literally means ‘water of life’ and it is the name for whisky, capturing the importance attached to the drink.
This short excerpt from Whisky Galore paints the picture of the crisis caused by the shortage of the water of life:
“Water! Chust [sic] nothing but water … there hasn’t been a trop [sic] of whisky in the two islands for twelve days… and I was handing it out for a month before that like my own blood, we were that short.”
“Fancy the Government running out of whisky just before Lent. What a Government!”
“Do you think Winston Churchill knows they’ve run out of whisky?” Roderick asked.
“I don’t believe he will,” Joseph replied.
“It’s a pity he wouldn’t be saying something about it on the wireless,” Roderick observed savagely, for he was a profound admirer of the Prime Minister’s oratory. “You never know what these Covernments [sic] will be doing next.”
The soft consonants and turn of phrase that Roderick uses remind me so much of my mother’s mimicry of the gentle, accented way her father apparently spoke in English. My grandfather died when I was two years old but my sister tells me she can remember him singing to me in my pram!
Speaking of prams takes me to my second book choice of comforting memories. This book takes me back to my early career when I was branch librarian at Bridge of Allan library. I had the pleasure of hosting a visit from author Mairi Hedderwick who held the gathering of young children in the library spellbound as she described the plot of the picture book she was working on at that time. The book was Katie Morag and the Tiresome Ted. It’s a heart-warming story featuring Katie Morag’s worse for wear teddy bear. The children were delighted when Mairi told the story using her delightful original sketches for the book. She then produced the battered old teddy bear from her bag, bringing gasps of amazement from her young audience.
Fast forward to the year 2000 – I’d been working in the NorthEast of England as Director of Libraries and Arts in Gateshead for nine years. Our paths crossed again when Mairi was a guest author at the Northern Children’s Book Festival that year. A signed copy of her book was auctioned and I determinedly outbid all my rivals to secure that copy. Mairi then kindly embellished her original signature with a lovely comment referring to the time when I saw the real Ted in Bridge of Allan! All these years later it still gives me a sense of satisfaction that, as a librarian, I played a small part in helping children to discover the joy of storytelling and reading.
Paula Morris (Writer, host of current AWF series, teaches Creative Writing University of Auckland)
I don’t know that this is ‘comfort reading’ exactly, but after Hurricane Katrina, when we evacuated to central Louisiana and couldn’t go home for months, I read quite a lot of Neruda, and also Rilke’s ‘Requiem for a Friend’, written in 1908. It’s a long poem rather than a book. Rilke was close friends with the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, and she’d died after having a child the year before: it begins ‘I have my dead, and I have let them go’. I’ve returned to it at various times in my life, not just at times of grief or sadness. One line – ‘For somewhere there is an ancient enmity between our daily life and the great work’ – is one I think about a lot. Too often I pick the wrong side.
Morrin Rout (Bookenz, PlainsFM)
Like many people, I had grand plans for reading during the lockdown. I was resolved to revisit Middlemarch and had amassed a pile of books to last me through the period and beyond. I don’t know what I did with the time but it passed quickly and my pile of books remained largely untouched. I did manage Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light but Middlemarch will have to wait for another Level 4.
Anne Tyler has always been one of my favourite writers so I was delighted during lockdown to hear her being interviewed on RNZ about her latest book. She is rarely interviewed and does not do festivals, as I discovered when I was organizing literary events at the Christchurch Writers’ festival. Listening to her thoughtful, measured responses to the questions, I was reminded of Breathing Lessons, the book of hers that I treasure above all.
The narrative takes place over a day and provides an extraordinary scrutiny of a marriage. I remember first reading it back in the late 1980’s and finding welcome reassurance that good relationships are not all about dramatic gestures of love but also about routine, often overlooked actions that may mask the affection behind them. In her seemingly simple but subtle prose, she lays bare the minutiae of the day to day dealings of Maggie and Ira as they go about their lives and exposes the love that develops and binds them together. Reading it over thirty years later, a widow now and in a time of pandemic, I found it as moving, wise and engrossing as ever.
Helen Taylor (Children’s author)
When asked which book or books in my case that have given me comfort at any point throughout my life, I was immediately transported to Narnia. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S Lewis was the first collection of ‘grown-up’ books I read as a child all-by-myself. I remember I had a yucky dose of the flu, so while stuck in bed for days, covered in camphor and eucalyptus oil, I eagerly stepped through the wardrobe door. That is the beauty of mythical lands, you can leave everything in your world behind – even the flu!
Although a visit to Narnia is not always a smooth journey, C.S Lewis’ warm gentle conversational style allows the pages to become a comforting place to hide. Narnia is a pure and magical place to be. Children can become kings and queens and animals talk back! What better way is there to combat all your worries than to have the King of the Beasts by your side!
John Walsh (Artist)
The settlement of the Pacific is the last great story of human migration, and thousands of years before other humans were confident enough to sail regularly beyond the sight of land.
Vaka Moana is a dense 360 pages, it is richly illustrated and the latest findings from world authorities has eyebrows dancing. Nuances of archaeology, genetics, linguistics, canoe building, sailing techniques, pre-instrument navigation, early European encounters, create visions of extraordinary times and people.
Sections are written by different authorities. Some have you at sea and in the minds of the people. Others plod, but it’s scope is huge and has you darting back to reconsider this point or those people.
It is a wonderland, a trip back through our whakapapa. I am biased though, I sailed with the Tahitians on their super, traditional vaka Fa’afaite as part of the Tuia 250 commemorations last November.
Geraldine Warren (Māori Resources, Mātauranga Advisor/ Auckland Museum).
As a Librarian I tend to borrow books and not buy. During the first weeks of level four COVID -19, I read, re-read and read again the small pile of borrowed science fiction novels and Contemporary Māori Writing: Selected with an introduction by Margaret Orbell. The blurb on the jacket describes it as the first generation of Māori writers to make use of literary forms that are European in origin. I suspect my mother slipped it in onto my bookshelf next to The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. The inscription on the front endpaper reads Pleasant Rd, Titirangi and I imagine my mother promising the previous owner to look after it. It has become a taonga. Many of the stories were first printed in publications such as Te Ao Hōu with my favourite in 1964.
The introduction says, a constant theme is the closeness and warmth of community life and the support that the social group has given the individual. However the writers also revealed their own individual worlds of isolation, exclusion, loneliness, death. All the writers are appreciated, although I pay special attention to the Wāhine Māori, the stories by Rose Denness, Rora Paki, Arapera Blank, Patricia Grace and Katarina Mataira.
I know a part of the world of my parents (and grandparents) from Māori fictional writers. Like other rural Māori migrating into the cities, my parents worked long hours in low paid jobs, hosted whanau, saved for a state house and a second-hand car. This book, published fifty years ago, invokes respect for Te Ao Hōu, Te Ao Hurihuri, the continuing journey of Aotearoa.
Faith Wilson (Kaiwāwāhi Ahurei | Co-Editor The Pantograph Punch)
The peace you offer like ebb-tide
Draws to the last meter
Of white sand
Leaves bare the cockle tongue
To the sun warmth
That wakens things to be
Never to be again
Thus begins ‘The Opening’, the first poem in Talosaga Tolovae’s poetry book The Shadows Within. My mum gave this book to me a couple of weeks ago. Talosaga is a Samoan poet who lived in Tokoroa, where my mum grew up, and I where I lived as a child. I think I might have quite a rare specimen in my hands, as it was printed by little known Hamilton publishing company Rimu Publishers in 1984. The poems lend themselves easily to an exercise in introspection, familiarising yourself with your own interior shadows, something that we’ve all been doing a bit at this moment, perhaps. This book reminds me that your mark on the world doesn’t need to be a monumental bang, but a quiet hello in the darkness.
The other lists: