Poetry Shelf review: A Vase and a Vast Sea, ed Jenny Nimon

An island

If a man was an island,
I’d walk his spine and pick his heart –
a black black blackberry in a field.
The trees would stitch his trousers.
The rain would nibble at his skin all night
and water would catch in his beard.
I’d cut the shape of his hip bones with a spade
and let the whir of insects get inside my ears.


Rata Gordon

The publication of A Vase and a Vast Sea, edited by Jenny Nimon (Escalator Press), is both a sad and glad occasion. The collection marks the end of 15 years of the Whitireia Creative Writing Programme and its online journal 4th Floor. A number of much-loved writers have been though the programme (Hera Lindsay Bird, Tusiata Avia and Alison Wong), while editors of the journal include Mandy Hager, Lynn Jenner, Renee, Lynn Davidson, Hinemoana Baker, Jackson Nieuwland.

Pip Adam has written a foreword to the anthology, stepping off from the title, to acknowledge the the things we can hold (blackberries, scissors) and things we can’t (loss, joy). She suggests ‘the collection is always awake with a focus-pull between the close and the huge’. And indeed it is.

A Vase and a Vast Sea offers poetry and prose from the journal’s history. As Jane Arthur states on the back of the book: ‘It quivers with life – a fitting memorial slab to a vibrant, unpredictable and inventive creative writing programme.’

I have been dipping and delving into this keepsake over the past few weeks, and three poets in particular have kept me returning. They each have two poems selected and each offers a deft interplay of the intimate and the large. Perhaps I am loving the poems as musical compositions, with contemplative undertones, physical markers, in an exquisite marriage that pulls me back, and makes me keen for new collections.

I began this small review with the poem that opens the anthology, Rata Gordon’s exquisite poem, ‘An island’, but her second one, ‘I find slaters’, is equally magnificent. I recently reviewed and loved her debut collection, Second Person. Rata is a poet to watch. This from ‘I find slaters’:

If I write about trees

I have to write about everything –


blue cheese and pink grapefruit.

A small gold bell ringing over moss.

Politicians’ billboards discarded on the side of

the road.

Bill Nelson is the second poet whose ability to surprise and keep it real is a poetry drawcard. This from ‘What the sea knows’:

Even though she believes

the world is not an oyster,

she knows it has a crust,

an incredulous centre.

Bill’s second poem, ‘Describing home’, is a heart poem. Read this poem and you can feel the similes and the jumpcuts, and way home is a beloved person, and home stretches to include heartbreak. And how you see a beloved person in everything at hand. Put this poem tablet on your tongue and it will fizz all day.

Those old trees touching the grass

are all the people who take the risk we took.

Lynn Davidson’s two poems have also worked poetry magic. You get ideas and you get real life, and you get effervescence in the zone between. This opening stanza from ‘Pearls’:

The physicist says the world

is not a world

of things, it is

a world of happenings.

More a kiss than a stone.

Lynn’s second poem, ‘A hillside of houses leaves’, is equally alluring. It’s a cascade of personifying surprise down the page. Here are the first lines:

Steeped in old weather the wooden houses

remember their bird-selves and unfold

barely jointed wings.

Alison Glenny’s ‘Notes for a biography’ is also a poetry treat. Ah, enter the terrain of her poem and you will want to set up camp.

Invited to describe her childhood, she confessed to

being haunted by the images of a dead bird and a


So many treats in this anthology, writers you will be familiar with, and perhaps like me, writers you will not. I will leave you with this enduring image from Cushla Managh’s terrific grandmother poem. I want to track down more of her writing.

We eat mutton off blue willow plates

and wash the dishes with Sunlight soap,

play Scrabble, fighting over the words.

I sleep in a bed that holds my shape.

I have been musing on how things hold our shape, and wondering if when we write or read a poem it holds our shape. How we nestle into some poems, and then, at some later date, nestle back in again.

About the authors

A Vase and a Vast Sea features much-loved New Zealand poets and authors connected to Whitireia’s Creative Writing Programme:

Renée, Donna Banicevich-Gera, Bronwyn Bryant, Lynn Davidson, Natasha Dennerstein, Romesh Dissanayake, Nicola Easthope, Barbara Else, Helen Vivienne Fletcher, Anahera Gildea, Carolyn Gillum, Alison Glenny, Rata Gordon, Rob Hack, Trish Harris, John Haxton, Adrienne Jansen, Kristina Jensen, Marion Jones, Tim Jones, Rachel Kleinsman, Cushla Managh, Lucy Marsden, Tracie McBride, Kathy McVey, Fiona Mitford, Margaret Moores, Bill Nelson, Ralph Proops, Maggie Rainey-Smith, Tina Regtien, Miriam Sagan, Lorraine Singh, Tracey Sullivan and Charmaine Thomson.

Foreword by Pip Adam.

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