Helen Jacobs, A Habit of Writing The Cuba Press, 2020
I am being ordinary
and flying on a word
as the mist of the morning
I am being ordinary
in a community
where all are old and ordinary
and I am flying on a word
to meet the sun.
Helen Jacobs (the pen name of Elaine Jakobssen) was born in Pātea, Taranaki in 1929. She has published eight poetry collections, and contributed to numerous journals both in Aotearoa and offshore. During her time as Mayor of Eastbourne, Helen advocated for the local environment and local writers and artists. She worked at the Women’s Electoral Body and was appointed to the Planning Tribunal. Since her time in Christchurch she has been a longtime member of the Canterbury Poets Collective. Aged 91, she lives in a retirement village and is still writing.
Helen’s new collection A Habit of Writing is a delight. Here is a poet writing in old age, absorbing things, often small, but sometimes large, always captivating: an object, walking, a flower uncurling, the hills, the wind, a pot of utensils. Each poem slowly and exquisitely unfolds its subject with rivered fluency, with enviable economy.
These are poems to place on your tongue, one at a time, where they will slowly dissolve leaving vibrant aftertastes that last all day. I read the poems before I went to sleep and I got straight back when I woke up. Perhaps I am drawn to the state-of-being of a woman in her nineties, where relations with life and death shift a tad. Where age is a close companion. Words matter a lot. She reaches out for words. She writes. She celebrates.
Fluency traipsed off with the years,
shuffled out imagery.
I look at the pots on the balcony
the plants static, consonants and vowels
They do not speak in the wind.
Look to the hills. I do,
as the low cloud ends wisp
across the ridges.
This is a collection of miniature pieces that form a larger mosaic, a wider picture that holds up the poet’s lived-in world. I am acutely drawn into an experience of age that makes me see things a little differently. And that is good. When Helen was ‘young’ and in her sixties she would see the ‘oldies’ out on a bus excursion, and now when she is out on the retirement-village bus she sees the young go by on bicycles. Her steps might be slow. She might slowly examine a geranium leaf as she waters her pots. She might repeat her mother’s ritual and drink a glass of port wine at Christmas. A sonnet would never suit ‘the bowls we play’; free verse is the ticket. It is the ‘small things / as my time grows old’ she observes, that ‘remark the larger world.’
Here I am, a young one on Helen’s time scale, but I am drawn to the slow step, to the measured pace, the prolonged look, to the way a single object or activity can be both rich and comforting in reward. The poem ‘Thinking of lemons’ reminds me how we skate over the surface of things, places, people, experiences. How every person we brush against in the street has a story, a sequence of dreams and mishaps. How every view is on the move, and like a good book, or a good poem, reveals further lights and shadows.
Reading A Habit of Writing offers the utmost joy and comfort. This is a book to savour and to give away. Glorious.
A good literary journal will offer the reader an inviting range of tones, subject matter, emotional effects and cerebral demands. Familiar writers will sit alongside new voices. Landfall 240 achieves an eclectic mix of voices, especially as it favours multiple genres: poetry, fiction, memoir, essays, artworks, reviews. Such a writing smorgasbord suits my habit of devouring issues over repeated visits and the degree to which certain pieces affect me is why I am a long-term Landfall fan.
An annual highlight is always the results of the essay competition. Editor Emma Neal received 85 entries this year and A. M. McKinnon’s winning essay, Canterbury Gothic, is a little beauty. The essay begins with a great aunt, exquisitely detailed, and moves through a city’s architectural detail to the dark and moving twists in a family history.
when asked to explain the lines that lead to now, you describe /
the shape of your body as it hits water / the shape of cold water
shocking muscle / the shape of fleshy chambers forced to loosen
and acquiesce / the shape of your grandparents in their coffins /
the shape of coffins that are too small to contain entire lifetimes /
the soft and hard moments we can’t forget no matter how often we
turn our backs to the light / [you write this poem out of love / but
even love can be a blindfold] / the shape of you and your parents
standing in your grandparents’ driveway / after being kicked out
for talking to your aunty’s white boyfriend / your hand reaching
out to someone you don’t recognise in a dream / their silhouette
branded upon your brain / [you’ve tried to swallow the night and
all its inhabitants / but they weren’t designed for consumption] / the
night standing in for doubt / as you argue with your own memory /
waking up to the smell of 皮蛋瘦肉粥 / the shape of a bowl designed
to hold love / love that is never spoken of because to do so would
silence it / the shape of silence when you tell your parents you’ve
fallen in love with a white boy / the shape of that white boy pressed
against your body / both your hearts / shaped like hungry mouths /
the shape of your mouth biting into the world’s biggest egg / the
shape of years spent running before walking / your knees shredded
and bloody / even after you grew the thick skin they said you would
need in this lifetime / the years pass like a watched pot / but you imagine
steam rising from its wide open body / flashbacks to the shape of air
being forced into a lifeless body / some incisions are made to clean
blood, others to fast-forward a certain end / when your grandparents
spoke of life it was whatever came their way / no one back then had
time to hide behind the sky / to pull strings / to taste control / the shape
of control does not fit with the shape of effort / a grounded bird tries
to climb an invisible ladder to heaven / to correct a path the world
wouldn’t let it look upon / in case it traced a line too close to comfort /
we all fear the shape of comfort when it belongs to someone else /
forgetting that we all look the same buried six feet under / both your
grandparents appear before you on the night you learn how to take off
your blindfold / when you finally recognise the shape of acceptance /
and how it might fit among the ruins of your rejections / it goes like this: /
the fights, the kisses, the direct hits / unfolding yourself into a shape
the world doesn’t know how to contain / what doesn’t fit / what doesn’t
hold true / the shape of your name / the shape of a bowl that never
empties / all of these things fit together if you turn them the right way up /
you run your finger along the lip of the bowl and remember / what it
means to be laced in time and not know how to use your hands to feed
yourself / you count the years / you feel their shape flooding your
throat / making a noise / making a space for what’s to come
Chris Tse is the author of the poetry collections How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes and HE’S SO MASC. He and Emma Barnes are co-editing an anthology of LGBTQIA+ and Takatāpui writers to be published by Auckland University Press in 2021. He also edits The Spinoff’s Friday Poem.
鸣 (míng), the cry of animals and insects, rhymes with tooth, which rhymes with precipice, which rhymes with the first part of my Chinese name.
I am full of nouns and verbs; I don’t know how to live any other way. I am a tooth-like thing. I am half sun half moon, and the scissors used to cut away the steamed lotus leaves. I am honey strokes spreading over the tiles.
Certain languages contain more kinds of rain than others, and I have eaten them all.
from ‘Fieldnotes on a downpour’
I have been a fan of Nina Mingya Powles’s poetry since her chapbook Girls of the Drift (2014) through to her glorious poetry boxset Luminescent (2017). The poems are probing, lyrical, self-inquisitive, with women placed centre stage. Her new collection Magnolia 木蘭was also published in the UK (Nine Arches Press) and was shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. In 2018 she was one of three winners of the inaugural Poetry Prize, and won the Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing the following year.
Currently living in London, Nina is a poet, zine-maker and nonfiction writer of Malaysian-Chinese and Pākehā descent. I have long been fascinated with the idea that poetry is way of writing home, whether home is physical, on the move, a state of mind, ancestral connections, familial relations, an anchor, an epiphany. And if poetry is a way of writing home it is also a way of writing to / for / with / by / underneath / inside / from (home). Magnolia is an organic version of this as it shifts languages on the tongue, layers sensual detail, raises identity questions, and moves from London to Shanghai to Aotearoa. Smells and tastes of elsewhere bring elsewhere closer to the point the paper is imbued with scent and living matter, and your reading taste buds pop.
there are only dream mountains high above the cloudline
I come from a place full of mountains and volcanoes
I often say when people ask about home
from ‘Night train to Anyang’
Senses are on alert as you read a Nina Powles poem, and I love the physical sensation as you read:
After Mulan saves China / fireworks rain down in waves of multi-coloured
from ‘Girl warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) / in Englsih with subtitles
Food is an exquisite presence, often connecting you to place, a particular memory or event, love, home. But sometimes Nina lingers on food for the sheer pleasure of food itself: it’s tofu for the love and sake of tofu, lotus leaves and sticky rice ‘sucked clean’. I have felt a similar addictive tastebud reaction reading the poetry of Ian Wedde, particularly The Commonplace Odes.
for the morning after a downpour
Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly
opening under swirls of soy sauce. Each mouthful of dòufu
huā, literally tofu flower, slips down in one swallow. The
texture reminds me of last night’s rain: how it came down
fast and washed the city clean.
from ‘Breakfast in Shanghai’
Colour is equally vital, sometimes the hue of the land is evoked but, at other times, the tone of a particular painting is foregrounded. It makes a difference that I have stood in the Tate Gallery in London and felt the astonishing hum of Rothko’s colour palate, and have imbibed the colour in Agnes Martin’s equally heavenly paintings. I am curious that Nina’s poems, so active with colour, affect me as much as the artworks. It is as though the poem and the artwork are placed on my wrist like perfume and I feel the colour-pulse streaming through. Really the whole experience is both words and greater than words. Really it is as though a poem has the ability to hum inside us. Like colour.
#fee10c | saffron: pigment in medieval manuscripts
If I could step inside any Rothko painting it would be Saffron
(1957), which is different from his other yellows because of the thin
bright line that divides the colour fields, not colour shapes or colour
squares or colour blocks, none of which are wide enough to contain
the light. A line dividing two yellow atmospheres glows along the
edges, an electric current. If you stare long enough it seems to get
bigger, slowly opening at one end until it forms a bright gap that
you could just fit through by putting each one of your limbs inside,
one by one, until you are swallowed by light and your skin is the
colour of sunflower petals right before they die and you are either
floating or drowning or both at the same time.
from ‘Colour fragments’
Reading Nina’s collection, I keep fine-tuning what a poem can do. One moment it is the origami bud unfolding in my palm to expose surprising petals of feeling. The next moment she retraces her steps though a city she once lived in; walking and writing through the city and subsequently the miniature poem version. We choose how we move through the poem as miniature city, me on tiptoe, slowly, slowly. This experience is deeply affecting in ‘Falling city’, where the poet lived when young, where she is falling in love, where things have changed and things have remained constant. Nina is seeing and imagining and writing Shanghai by walking; and by reading Shanghai writer Eileen Chang / Zhāng Àilíng, by reading Robin Hyde, by reading maps (‘each person has their own secret map’), visiting ramen bars, musing on ‘New Woman’.
18. What was Chang herself like? I don’t know, but I think she
understood this moment when the dream and the real begin to blur.
She understood how the sky in Shanghai contains many different
colours at once: “At the horizon the morning colours were a layer of
green, a layer of yellow, and a layer of red like a watermelon cut open.”
19. When reading her stories in translation it’s like trying to see
her from a great distance. Or through a thick pane of glass. I am
standing outside, peering into rooms where her ghost has been.
20. As autumn deepened I expected to see your face on the street
or in the subway station. After you left I thought I might feel sad
that this possibility could no longer exist. Instead after a while the
outlines of trees looked sharper, like a fog had lifted.
from ‘Falling city’
The shortish middle sequence, ‘Field notes on a downpour’, is a favourite. There is a hunger for words that fit, for Mandarin fluency, for her mother whose name means rain and language, together meaning ‘cloud tints’. In its intimacy, small details, flâneur pace, mother closeness, disappearances, its repeating motifs, particularly clouds and rain, its naming and its confessions, its love yearnings, this sequence is succulent poetry. And I keep musing on why I am so attracted to the making of poetry, whether writing it reading it, and that it maybe comes down to poems that move into and from the heart of the matter. I don’t mean it has to be full of feeling. I don’t mean it has to fit the facts or perceived realities. I mean it navigates poetic truths: that on certain occasions, in certain places, for a particular person, radiating multiple lights and nuances, this is how it is. In this crumpled and self-challenging world – poetry flicks on the human switch. I am musing this because Nina’s incandescent poetry navigates a bundle of vital questions on who and how and where she is. On what being a particular human in a particular place means to her. On when being asked where you come from digs deep. On needing to eat words. On feeling the rain in all its colours. On being in love.
In order to make learning Mandarin easier, I started to see the
characters as objects I could collect and keep close to me.
魔 (mó), spoken like a murmur, an evil spirit or demon.
One night you said my name in the dark and it came out like a ghost
鬼 from between two trees 林. A ghost that rhymes with a path
between rice fields which rhymes with a piece of steamed bread which
rhymes with paralysis of one side of the body which rhymes with thin
In June the cicadas were so loud we thought the trees would swallow
from ‘Field notes on a downpour’
I turn to the blurb on the back of the book and see so many of the words that have guided my reading: hunger, longing, home, mixed-race, languages, women, colour, rain. Magnolia 木蘭 is origami poetry – it will unfold in your body as you read. It is miniature-city poetry that will reinstate multiple existences of home. It is rain poetry that will fall as gleaming light and stomach nourishment and tattoo your skin. It is love poetry and disappearance poetry. It is heart poetry and human poetry that, in this extraordinary year, will get you contemplating your own downpours and magnolias, and in those musings discover poetry solace. Oh, and it has my favourite cover of the year: an image by Kerry Ann Lee (Allora, 2017), and it is lovingly produced by Helen Rickerby and Seraph Press.Glorious!
I want to know the names of the trees in all other languages too so
that I find out what they taste like to other people. But my mouth
can only hold so much.
from ‘Magnolia, jade orchard, she-wolf’
Nina Mingya Powles is a poet, zinemaker and non-fiction writer of Malaysian-Chinese and Pākehā heritage, currently living in London. She is the author of a food memoir, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai (The Emma Press, 2020), poetry box-set Luminescent (Seraph Press, 2017), and several poetry chapbooks and zines, including Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press, 2014). In 2018 she was one of three winners of the inaugural Women Poets’ Prize, and in 2019 won the Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing. Magnolia 木蘭 was shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Nina has an MA in creative writing from Victoria University of Wellington and won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. She is the founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a risograph press that publishes limited-edition poetry pamphlets by Asian writers. Her collection of essays, Small Bodies of Water, is forthcoming from Canongate Books in 2021.
For the first time ever, we are running a Phantom Poetry Open Mic contest!One winner will see their poem published in a campaign across the Phantom network.We want to give a voice to the unheard. An audience awaits your creativity.
*Must be a previously unpublished poet living in NZ.
*Submit as many poems as you like until January 15, 2021.
Chris Tse discusses Bill Manhire’s Wow with Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon. I loved how Chris said reading the collection reminded him of strolling through the emptied city in lockdown. Yes! Strolling through Bill’s poetry – everything sharpens, the birds are returning, it affects you on so many levels, the invisible is present, fleetingly, lyrically.
This poem is in response to NZQA using a poem by white supremacist and murderer Lionel Terry in a Level 2 History exam. Terry’s poem was part of a source which included testimonials from people who had received treatment at Seacliff asylum, which I feel disregarded his actions as ‘madness’, and extended sympathy to him. I also feel that the source didn’t properly contextualise Terry as a person, which downplayed the seriousness of his actions and views. Many other members of the Chinese New Zealander community also feel the same, and have lodged complaints against NZQA.
Shadows / shades
White: the colour of truth
the colour of enlightenment
the colour of the religion Lionel Terry
thought that he had found
in guns and Chows and murder.
The colour of purity
the colour of the purest skin
the colour of Terry’s hair
stripped bare with age
the colour of his chasteness
painted in portraits with white light
shining behind him, like a painting
of a god.
The truth: on September 24th, 1905
Lionel Terry shot Chinese man
Joe Kum Yung on Haining Street;
a cold, unremarkable Wellington night
(a Chinaman bleeding to death)
a man walking down the street
(a killer escaping his crime).
White, the colour of the starched
computer room, white screens
flickering with exam codes, white
clock on the ticking wall, time
sliding like a body to the ground.
White pages, neatly printed
with a poem by Lionel
He pleads on the page
from Seacliff Asylum
for his case to be considered
that he is not insane
that murder is not always insanity.
The exam question asks me
for two different perspectives
I ask myself why I should have to
write about a murderer’s
a white supremacist’s
why I should have to slip myself
into such rotting, fetid
All the exam says about him
is he was ‘known for his views on immigration
and racial segregation’.
Across the room, I catch eyes
with my friend
she gives me a loaded look
the whites of her eyes
the edges of her white teeth
flickering on a grimace.
Red: thought to be the colour of blood
but that’s a little cliche
it’s more the colour of heat
the colour flickering behind
searching for a Chinaman
the colour of fingers
closing in on a trigger
blood vessels beamed together.
Red, the colour of the pen
that grades work
the colour of a failed paper
the colour that means stop
The lucky colour in China
the colour of red envelopes
and paper lanterns
and prosperity and joy
and good things.
The colour of the borders
on the NZQA website
each letter rimmed in crimson.
I find the full poem online
the frothing frenzy of
Crowds of Russian Jews and Chows
that invade your peaceful land
and spread a few diseases of
an extra special brand.
I find it strange that this part
had been cropped out of the exam
and by strange, I mean
all too predictable
and by all too predictable
I mean so, so tiring.
Black: The colour of yesterday’s blood
the colour Joe Kum Yung
would have left on the streets
for lonely citizens to clean up
the colour of the ink on the page
the colour of a shadow: Terry’s
manifesto was called The Shadow
about the dark and lecherous men
with black hair and eyes
taking over the country
shouldn’t be allowed in
(should be killed).
The colour of the scribble
my friend made under Terry’s poem
I HATE U in bold teenage chicken-scratch
the dark stains of the numbers
on the clock
the bloated body of the fly
beating against the window.
My father’s hair is black
his eyes are black
mine are too
our mouths rounded in
the Kiwi accent
yet people still ask us
where we’re from.
He scrolls through Terry’s Wikipedia page
face screwed up
a contortion of black lines.
He was a real piece of shit,
this Lionel guy, he says. What were they
thinking, putting him in the exam?
His thick fingers pause on the photos
the charming headshot
or the one of him playing cricket
or the portrait where he’s bearded
and anointed, imposing
on my father’s eyes, and I think,
here’s another Chinese man
who has the taste of Lionel Terry
in his mouth
and here I am, another Chinese person
with my name now linked
Yellow, the yellow peril, yellow fever
yellow on the outside
white on the inside
yellow, the colour of piss
the smell of the streets
yellow, the supposed colour
the colour Joe Kum Yung
was killed for
the colour I am trying to bear
The colour of the sun
shining when I left the exam room
the colour of something
on the horizon
the colour of the sunset
the promise of a new day’s kiss
a hope that something better
from all of these shadows and shades
Cadence Chung is a student at Wellington High School, who is tentatively trying to be a poet. She first started writing poetry during a particularly boring Maths lesson when she was nine. Outside of poetry, she enjoys singing, songwriting, reading old books, and perusing antique stores.
The poem is from the sequence ‘Attempting to Land’, runner up in the 2020 Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poetry. Judge Siobhan Harvey’s words re the sequence: ‘Stunning. A beautifully crafted ode to migration.’
This is my equal favourite review of the year (along with Selina Tusitala Marsh’s review of Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book – also at ANZL site).
Here is a taster of Anna Jackson’s review of Wow (VUP:
This is a collection full of birds and full of song. It opens with a ballad telling the story of the huia – ‘I was the first of birds to sing / I sang to signal rain / the one I loved was singing / and singing once again’ – and the last section of the collection ends with a poem almost in prose, ‘After Surgery,’ in which ‘A small bird flies out of the body, out of a blink perhaps, / maybe out of the lungs.’ This poem is followed by the final poem in the collection, ‘Little Prayers (15 March 2019)’, which is both a lament and a hymn, and a kind of a round, in which the closing line is also the opening line. A boy and girl sing, terribly, in another poem in the collection; in another, a robot, who also has a narrative function, makes music from deep within its machinery (and poetry out of typos); omens and similes sing together in another.
Bill Manhire’s poetry is always lyrical whether the lyricism is the lyricism of the ballad or the lyricism he finds in ordinary, unmetred New Zealand conversational speech. Sometimes it seems as if you can hear a poem tuning up, finding its rhythm before it turns itself into song. As it lifts into song, it lifts, too, into meaning.
For end-of-year Poetry Shelf wraps, I have usually invited a swag of writers to pick books they have loved. It has always turned into a mammoth reading celebration, mostly of poetry, but with a little of everything else. This year I decided to invite a handful of poets, whose new books I have loved in 2020, to make a few poetry picks.
My review and interview output has been compromised this year. I still have perhaps 20 poetry books published in Aotearoa I have not yet reviewed, and I do hope to write about some of these over summer.
The 8 Poets
Among a number of other terrific poetry reads (Oscar Upperton’s New Transgender Blockbusters for example), here are eight books that struck me deep this year (with my review links). Tusiata Avia’s The Savager Coloniser (VUP) is the kind of book that tears you apart and you feel so utterly glad to have read it. Tusiata has put herself, her rage, experience, memories, loves, prayers, dreads into poems that face racism, terrorism, Covid, inequity, colonialism, being a mother and a daughter, being human. An extraordinary book. Rhian Gallagher’s Far-Flung (AUP) is a sumptuous arrival, a book of exquisite returns that slowly unfold across months. Her poetic craft includes the lyrical, the political, the personal and the contemplative in poems that reflect upon the land, experiences, relationships.
Rata Gordon‘s Second Person (VUP) is fresh, layered and utterly captivating. This is a book of birth, babies, death, the universe, love, motherhood, water, sky, wildlife. It is a book that celebrates the present tense, the way we can inhabit the now of being. Reading Mohamed Hassan’s new collection, National Anthem (Dead Bird Books), opens up what poetry can do. It widens your heart. It makes you feel. It makes you think. It gets you listening. It makes you think about things that matter. Humanity. Family. Soil. Ahh!
Bill Manhire‘s Wow (VUP) will haunt you – so many of these poems have joined my list of memorable poetry encounters. The baby in the title poem says ‘wow’ while the big brother says ‘also’. This new collection sparks both the ‘wow’ moments and the ‘also’ moments. Get lost in its glorious thickets and then find your way out to take stock of the ordinary (and out-of-the-ordinary) world about you. Like Rhian’s collection this is a book of poetry astonishments. Natalie Morrison‘s (VUP) debut collection Pins is exquisite, both melodious and tactile, economical and rich. There is both a quirkiness and a crafted musicality, resonant white space, yet perhaps a key link is that of narrative. I filled with joy as I read this book.
Jackson Nieuwland‘s I am a Human Being (Compound Press), so long in the making, lovingly crafted with the loving support of friends, with both doubt and with grace (think poise, fluency, adroitness), this book, in its lists and its expansions, moves beyond the need for a single self-defining word. I knew within a page or two, this book was a slow-speed read to savour with joy. Nina Powles‘s Magnolia (Seraph Press) is the book I am currently reading. I have long been a fan, from Girls of the Drift to the glorious Luminscent). Nina’s new book is so immensely satisfying as it navigates home and not-home, identity, history, myth, the lives of women – with characteristic nimbleness, heavenly phrasing, open-heart revelations, the senses on alert, the presence of food, multiple languages. Reading bliss!
The poets and their picks
I’m a terrible book buyer. I tend to read books given to me (because I’m cheap like that) and the shopping-bag full of books my cousin, playwright, Victor Rodger, lends to me on the regular. He has the best taste! I should probably be a better reader of New Zealand poetry in particular, but I reckon I’ve got enough things to feel guilty about.
The top three on my list of books I have read this year and love:
Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)
I love the way Hinemoana uses language to make the ethereal and the mysterious. I’m happy to not immediately be able to pin down meaning; her language allows me to be suspended between what it does to me and what it means. Poems like the incantatory Aunties and Mother – which I think of as more ‘rooted’ – make me want to sit down immediately and write a poem. In fact that is exactly what I did do when I read this book. I love a book that makes me write.
An American Sunrise Joy Harjo (WW Norton & Co)
An American Sunrise is Joy Harjo’s most recent book of poetry. Joy is Poet Laureate of the United States. I love everything Joy Harjo has written. And I mean everything. She Had Some Horses (from an early book of the same name) is one of favourite poems of all time. Elise Paschen says of her, “ Joy Harjo is visionary and a truth sayer, and her expansive imagination sweeps time, interpolating history into the present.”. I would add to that she is taulaaitu, mouth-piece for the ancestors, gods and spirits. While you’re reading Joy Harjo’s poetry, read Crazy Brave, her wonderful autobiography. It will stay with you forever.
National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books)
When I was looking for favourite lines in this book, I couldn’t decide, sooo many – like small poems in themselves. Mohamed speaks with an iron fist in a velvet glove. His poetry is elegant and beautiful and it tells the damn truth. Someone needs to tell the damn truth – about March 15, about being Muslim in New Zealand (and in the entire western world), about the things that happen so close to us – and inside us – that are easy (and more comfy) to avert our eyes from.
Some favourite lines from White Supremacy is a song we all know the words to but never sing out loud: ‘Please come and talk on our show tomorrow/ no don’t bring that up/…
‘This isn’t about race/ this is a time for mourning/ this is about us/ isn’t she amazing/ aren’t we all’…
‘Let us hold you and cry/ our grief into your hijabs’…
Who can tell these stories in this way but a good poet with fire in his fingers, love and pain in equal measure in his heart and feet on the battleground?
There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce Morgan Parker (Tin House)
I have to add, There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker to every list I write forever. In my opinion, no reader of poetry should miss this. If it doesn’t grab you by the shoulders, the heart, the brain, the belly – you might be dead. From the epigraph: ‘The president is black/ she black’ (Kendrick Lamar). Morgan Parker is PRESIDENT.
The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (HarperCollins) edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris features translations of 20th century poets from around the world and is packed with surprises.
Amidst all the books I have enjoyed during 2020, this is the one that I have read and re-read and continue to come back to. It was first published in 2010. I have been slow in coming to the book.
When a poem in another language is re-cast into English, through the empathy and skill of a translator, it seems to unsettle notions of line, rhythmn, word choice and form. Translation pushes and tugs at the boundaries of the ‘rules’ and introduces a kind of strangeness. This strangeness I experience as an opening; a feeling of potential, slippery as a an eel to articulate. It recalibrates predetermined notions and generates excitement about what a poem can do or be.
There are well-known names here: Cavafy, Lorca, Akhmatova, Ritsos, Milosz, Symborska among others. There are also many poets previously unknown to me, and many whose work is either out of print or difficult to source. It’s a diverse, inspiring array of poetic voices and, as Kaminsky says in the introduction, puts us ‘in conversation with a global poetic tradition’.
Making discoveries is one of the great pleasures of anthologies. I now have a brand new ‘to read’ list.
When I’m reading something that inspires me, I have the urge to inhabit it somehow. I find that entering into a creative process by writing with, and around, another’s words helps me to absorb them into my internal landscape. This poem was created with snippets of some of the poetry I have met recently.
Soon, we are night sailing (Hunter, p. 71)
This is the closest you can get to it:
the void, the nothing,
the black lapping mouth of the sea
and the black arching back of the sky. (Hunter, p. 71)
One still maintains a little glimmer of hope
Deep down inside
A tiny light
About the size of a speck
Like a distant star
Is spotted on the horizon this dark night (Boochani, p. 26)
Swish swish swish
as quiet as a fish. (Ranger, p. 13)
… holy women
on the shore –
long having practiced the art
of replacing hearts
and song (Walker, p. 7)
Today you are tumbling towards her like the ocean.
… you are becoming nearer and nearer to someone other
than yourself. (Hawken, p. 49)
I have … imagined my life ending,
or simply evaporating,
by being subsumed into a tribe of blue people. (Nelson, p. 54)
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017, Picador). (Not strictly poetry, but the book feels so much like a long poem to me). Line breaks added by me.
No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani (2020, Picador).
‘Autumn Leaves’ by Laura Ranger. In A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children edited by Paula Green (2014, Random House).
Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning by Alice Walker (1975, The Women’s Press).
Small Stories of Devotion by Dinah Hawken (1991, Victoria University Press).
Bluets by Maggie Nelson (2009, Jonathan Cape). Line breaks added by me.
Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book (Victoria University Press)
A few weeks ago, I sat in the audience at a WORD Christchurch event and watched our former poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh read a poem from Tusiata Avia’s new collection. It began as such:
in the white wig
in that big Endeavour
sailing the blue, blue water
like a big arsehole
FUCK YOU, BITCH.
The hall fell pin silent and a heavy fog of discomfort descended from the ceiling, and I sat in the corner brimming with mischievous glee. It was a perfect moment, watching two of the country’s most celebrated poets jointly trash the country’s so-called ‘founder’ in the most spiteful way imaginable. The audience squirmed and squirmed and I grinned and grinned.
This is how Avia’s book begins, and it never lets up. As the title subtly implies with a hammer, Avia has things she wants to say, and doesn’t care how people feel about them. She delights in the spiteful, burrows down into the uncomfortable and the impolite and pulls out nuggets of painful truths with her bare hands. They are all truths that must be said bluntly and Avia drills them home.
In Massacre, Avia reflects on her youth fighting the demons of Christchurch, and asks us if our ‘this is not us’ mantra is divorced from the history carried in the land, haunted instead by the white spirits that rose to claim lives on March 15.
The book crescendos with How to be in a room full of white people, a dizzying poem that traps us in a single moment in time and forces us to witness and squirm and eventually, hopefully, understand what it is like to be the only brown body in a foreign space, in all its literal and metaphorical significance.
This has been my most cherished book this year, bringing together Tusiata Avia’s firecracker wit and her uncanny gift of conjuring worlds that feel vivid in their weight and poignancy. Abandoning all diplomacies, this is a blazing manifesto for honest and confrontational poetry that speaks with an urgency that puts me as a writer to shame, and demands more of me at once.
Jenny Lewis, Gilgamesh Retold, (Carcanet)
I love the way poetry re-visions the past, especially the deep past. I’m thinking of books like Matthew Francis’s reworking of the Welsh epic The Mabinogi and Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a book that abandons the main storyline of Homer’s Iliad in favour of narrating the death scenes of minor characters, accompanied by extra helpings of extended simile. I’d always known about the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I have owned for about 40 years in a yellow 1960 Penguin paperback. I’ve hardly opened it, but it’s one of some nine translations of the poem that Jenny Lewis has consulted for Gilgamesh Retold, published by Carcanet some four thousand years after the stories first circulated in oral form. (Her publisher at Carcanet, Michael Schmidt, has himself written a much admired book about the poem’s origins and afterlife)
Locally Dinah Hawken has worked with this ancient material, particularly writing about Inanna, the goddess of beauty and fertility and, sometimes, war, who is one of the major figures in the Gilgamesh cycle. Dinah’s feminist sense of the ancient stories accords with Jenny Lewis’s decision, as the blurb says, to relocate the poem “to its earlier oral roots in a Sumerian society where men and women were more equal, … [where] only women were allowed to brew beer and keep taverns, and women had their own language – emesal.”
It’s as well Inanna has such a significant role in Gilgamesh, for otherwise it would be a tale about male adventuring and bonding (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and the discovery that even the greatest heroes can never overcome death. The world of Gilgamesh also gives us a Flood, which matches and in some ways outdoes the Old Testament. I love the way Jenny Lewis has retold these stories. She doesn’t try to pad them out to produce the sorts of coherence and pacing that contemporary readers and movie-goers find comfortable, while her phrasings have an unreductive clarity and a genuinely lyrical grace. The most audacious thing she has done, and has carried off brilliantly, is to use different metrical forms to reflect the ways in which a range of different custodians/retellers have voiced and revoiced the story. You admire the 21st-century poet’s craft even as she inducts you into a baffling and unfamiliar world. All stories, Gilgamesh Retold tells us, are made by many voices, and the best of them will journey on through many more.
And now I must try and summon up the courage to give the latest version of Beowulf a go!
Gregory Kan, Under Glass(Auckland University Press)
My esteemed colleague, with one hand around his Friday swill-bottle: ‘I hate poetry – no one cares, no one reads it anymore.’
Gregory Kan, with two suns infiltrating the long ride on the train to Paekākāriki, illustrates otherwise: Under Glass lulls like a really disquieting guided meditation.
After lockdown, it is the first book I read outside our ‘bubble’. Threading through an internal landscape, somehow a place I recognise. ‘Here, there are two suns. The ordinary sun is in the sky overhead. The other sun is eating its way out from inside me.’
Certain lines, with their mystical insistence, snag on me and come back again from time to time: ‘Everything that surrounds the second sun is not part of it but nonetheless makes it what it is.’ It’s as if some lines have been dreaming of themselves. The book invites a gentle inspection. A glass bead held right up against the eye. A shutter flipped open over a stark interior.
‘When you move a look moves inside me and eats there what I eat.’
Once, a kind individual in Paekākāriki, their hands busy with a teapot, told me: ‘Those who know what it is, fall on it like starving people.’
When Litcrawl comes, we make our way to some of the events. The room has sucked a crowd in. Spells for 2020, with Rebecca Hawkes, Rata Gordon, Stacey Teague, Arihia Latham, Rachel McAlpine and Miriama Gemmell (thank you for your entrancing words), reminds me of how poetry is still something people might come in search of. Visitations of bees, airline heights and morphing walls. There is a sense of relief.
A crowd still feels like a dream, and a dream still feels like the sea. Gregory writes that ‘the sea is a house made of anything. The sea is a story about anything, told by someone unfit for storytelling. More than what I can know, and much more than I can understand.’
Under Glass, which wasn’t exactly written for this year (no ordinary year), seems to slot into it.
My steamed colleague, with one hand steadying the banister: ‘I guess Bob Dylan is okay, though.’
Note: I asked my colleague’s permission for quoting him. He said he was fine with it, as long as a mob of angry poets didn’t come knocking.
2020 was the year we finally got a book from Hana Pera Aoake (A bathful of kawakawa and hot water Compound Press). I had been waiting for this for so so long. It’s a taonga that I am incredibly grateful for. Ever since I first read Hana’s work they have been one of my favourite writers. Their writing is both clever and wise, of the moment and timeless, pop culture and fine art, Aotearoa and international.
This is a book I will be returning to over and over again for inspiration, electrification, nourishment, and comfort. I would recommend it to anyone.
Other poetry books I read and loved this year: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, The Book of Frank by CA Conrad, hoki mai by Stacey Teague, Hello by Crispin Best, and Head Girl by Freya Daly Sadgrove.
Nina Mingya Powles
For most of this year I could only read things in fragments. I could only hold on to small parts of poems, essays, short stories in my head before they floated away. This year I sought out poetry by Indigenous writers. Of these two books, the first I read slowly, dipping in and out like testing the surface of cool water. The other I read hungrily all at once.
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Graywold Press) reminded me why I write poetry, at a time when writing anything at all felt impossible. Diaz’s heavy, melodic love poems circled around my head for days: “My lover comes to me like darkfall – long, / and through my open window.” But it is her writing about water and the body that changed me. In this book, water is always in motion, a current that passes through time, memory and history. Her long poem “The First Water of the Body” is a history of the Colorado River, a sacred river: “I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving with me right now.”
A bathful of kawakawa and hot water by Hana Pera Aoake (Compound Press) came to me when I needed it most, nourishing me and warming me. I haven’t yet held a copy of the book, but I read it on my laptop over two days and have carried parts of it around in my body ever since: “I speak broken French and Português into the broken yellow gloaming.” A bathful of kawakawa and hot water is a searing, lyrical work of poetry, memoir, and political and cultural commentary. Like the title suggests, it was a balm for me, but also a reminder of the ongoing fight for our collective dream of a better world, and most importantly, that “racism is not just a product of psychological malice, but a product of capitalism.”