Poetry Shelf review: AUP New Poets 7

AUP New Poets 7 features the work of Rhys Feeney, Ria Masae and Claudia Jardine. The series is edited by Anna Jackson.

Editor Anna Jackson suggests the collection ‘presents three poets whose work is alert to contemporary anxieties, writing at a time when poetry is taking on an increasingly urgent as well as consolatory role role as it is shared on social media, read to friends and followers, and returned to again in print form’.

I agree. Poetry is an open house for us at the moment, a meeting ground, a comfort, a gift, an embrace. But poetry also holds fast to its ability to challenge, to provoke, to unsettle. In the past months I have read the spikiest of poems and have still found poetry solace.

AUP New Poets 7 came out in lockdown last year and missed out on a physical launch. To make up for that loss I posted a set of readings from the featured poets. One advantage with a virtual celebration is a poetry launch becomes a national gathering. I still find enormous pleasure in online readings – getting to hear terrific new voices along with old favourites.

Herein lies one of the joys of the AUP New Poets series: the discovery of new voices that so often have gone onto poetry brilliance (think Anna Jackson and Chris Tse).

Rhys Feeney is a high school teacher and voluntary health worker in Te Whanganui-a-Tara with a BA (Hons) in English Literature and a MTchLrn (Secondary). Ria Masae is an Auckland-based poet, writer and spoken-word artist. In 2018 she was the Going West Poetry Slam champion. Claudia Jardine is a Pākehā/ Maltese poet and musician with a BA in Classics with First Class Honours. The three poets have work in various print and online journals.

Rhys Feeney

I am thinking poetry is a way of holding the tracks of life as I read Rhys’s sequence of poems, ‘soy boy’. He is writing at the edge of living, of mental well being. There is the punch-gut effect of climate change and capitalism. There are crucial signals on how to keep moving, how to be.

The poems are written as though on one breath, like a train of thought that picks up a thousand curiosities along the way. As an audio track the poetry is exhilarating in its sheer honeyed fluency. Poems such as ‘the world is at least fifty percent terrible’ pulls in daily routine, chores, political barbs. The combination matters because the state of the world is always implicated in the personal and vice versa. The combination matters in how we choose to live our lives and how we choose to care for ourselves along with our planet.

waking up from a dream abt owning a house

for a moment i think i’m in utopia

      or maybe australia

           but then i see the little patches of mould on the ceiling

i roll over to check my phone

    but i forgot to put it on charge last night bc i was too tired

          why am i am so fucking tired all the time

i should find some better alternative to sugar

i should find some better alternative to lying there in the morning thinking

Artificial Intelligence is a Fundamental Risk to Human Civilisation

      or what i am going to have for breakfast

           how can i reduce my environmental footprint

                but increase the impact of my handshake

 

from ‘the world is at least fifty percent terrible’

I love the way Rhys plays with form, never settling on one shape or layout; the poems are restless, catching the performer’s breath, the daily hiccups, the unexpected syncopation. Words are abbreviated, lines broken, capitals abandoned as though the hegemony of grammar and self and state (power) must be wobbled. Yet I still see this as breath poetry. Survival poetry.

I am especially drawn to ‘overshoot’; a poem that lists things to do that get you through the day, get you living. The list is more than a set of bullet points though because you get poignant flashes into a shadow portrait, whether self or invented or borrowed.

     5) give yourself time to yourself

light fresh linen candles

       & cry in the bath

           call it self-care

6) eat a whole loaf of bread in the dark

7) start working again

           the topsoil of your tolerance is gone

you break in two days

      this is called a feedback loop

your coping strategies don’t work

           in this new atmosphere

Rhys’s affecting gathering of poems matches rawness with humour, anxiety about the world with anxiety about self. Yet in the bleakest moments humour cuts through, gloriously, like sweet respite, and then sweesh we are right back in the thick of global worry. How big is our footprint? What will we choose to put in our toasters? Have we ever truly experienced wilderness other than on a screen? This is an energetic and thought-provoking debut.

Ria Masae

What She Sees from Atop the Mauga opens with a wonderful grandmother poem: ‘Native Rivalry’. The poem exposes the undercurrents of living with two motherlands, Samoa and Aotearoa, of here and there, different roots and stars and languages, a sea that separates and a sea that connects. There is such an intense and intimate connection in this poem that goes beyond difference, and I am wondering if I am imagining this. It feels like I am eavesdropping on something infinitely precious.

i tilted my face up to the stars

that were more familiar to me

than the ones on Samoan thighs.

without turning to her, i answered

Leai fa‘afetai, Nana.’

i felt her stare at me for a long pause

before puffing on her rolled tobacco.

we sat there silently looking at the night sky

until we were tired and went to sleep

side by side on a falalili‘i in her fale.

 

from ‘Saipipi, Savai‘i, Samoa’ in ‘Native Rivalry’

Perhaps the lines that really strike are: ‘Mum was fa’a pālagi, out of necessity / i was pālagified by consequence / so, was i much different?’

I am so affected reading these poems on the page but I long to hear them sounding in the air because the harmonics are sweet sweet sweet. ‘Intersection’ is an urban poem and it is tough and cutting and despairing, but it is also stretching out across the Pacific Ocean and it is as though you can hear the lip lip lap of the sea along with the throb throb throb of urban heart.

She sits at her window

staring down at the city lights.

Her scared, her scarred, her marred wrists

hugging her carpet-burnt knees.

The waves in her hair

no longer carry the scent of her Pacific Ocean

but burn with the stink of

roll-your-own cigarettes.

Ah, enter these poems and you are standing alongside the lost, the dispossessed, the in-despair, you are pulled between a so often inhumane, concrete wilderness and the uplift and magnetic pull of a Pacific Island. I find these poems necessary reading because it makes me feel but it also makes me see things afresh. I know from decades with another language (Italian) some things do not have a corresponding word (for all kinds of reasons). ‘There is No Translation for Post-Natal Depression in the Samoan Language’ is illuminating. There is no word because of the Samoan way: ‘be back home that same evening / to multiple outstretched brown hands / welcoming the newborn baby into the extended alofa.‘ How many other English words are redundant in a Samoan setting, where ‘isolation’ and ‘individualism’ are alien concepts?

At this moment, in a time I am so grateful for poetry that changes my relationship with the world, with human experience, on the level of music and connections and heart. This is exactly what Ria’s collection does.

Claudia Jardine

Claudia Jardine’s studies in Ancient Greece and Rome, with a particular interest in women, have influenced her sequence, The Temple of Your Girl. I was reading the first poem, ‘A Gift to Their Daughters: A Poetic Essay on Loom Weights in Ancient Greece’, in a cafe and was so floored by the title I shut the book and wrote a poem.

The sequence opens and closes with the poems inspired by Ancient Greece and Rome, with a cluster of contemporary poems in the middle. Yet the contemporary settings and anecdotes, the current concerns, permeate. There is sway and slip between the contemporary and the ancient in the classical poems. History isn’t left jettisoned in the past – there are step bridges so you move to and fro, space for the reader to muse upon the then and the now. The opening poem, ‘A Gift to their Daughters’, focuses on the weaving girls/women of ancient Greece, and the threads (please excuse the delicious pun) carry you with startle and wit and barb. I am musing on the visibility of the work and art women have produced over time, in fact women’s lives, and the troublesome dismissal of craft and the domestic. Here is a sample from the poem which showcases the sublime slippage:

Weaving provided women with a means to socialise and help one

another, strengthening their own emotional associations to the oikos and

to textile manufacturer itself.

The school is filled with Berninas, Singers, Vikings and Behringers.

Our mums are making cat-convict costumes for the school musical,

a mash-up of plagerised Lloyd Webber and local gossip.

I already hate CATS – The Musical.

from ‘The Importance of Textile Manufacture for the relationship of Women’ in ‘A Gift to their Daughters’

These lines reverberate: ‘My dad is furious when I decide to take a textiles class in Year 10. My mother has a needle in her mouth during this conversation.’ The characters may be fictional or the poet’s parents but the contemporary kick hits its mark. How many of us know how to sew? How many of us were frowned upon for selecting domestic subjects at secondary school? So many threads. The speaker / poet muses on ‘all the queens on Drag Race who do not how to sew’.

At times the movement between then and now borders on laugh-out-loud surprise, but then you read the lines again, and absorb the more serious prods. I adore ‘Catullus Drops the Tab’. Here is the first of two verses (sorry to leave you hanging):

there were no bugs

crawling under his skin

where that Clodia

had dug her nails in

rather

The middle section gets personal (or fictional in a personal way) as the poems weave gardening and beaching and family. Having read these, I find they then move between the lines of the classical poems, a contemporary undercurrent that contextualises a contemporary woman scholar and poet with pen in hand. I particularly love ‘My Father Dreams of His Father’ with its various loops and lyricisms.

My father dreams of his father

walking in the garden of the old family homestead at Kawakawa Point

I have not been back since he passed away

 

As decrepit dogs wander off under trees

to sniff out their final resting places,

elderly men wait in the wings

rehearsing exit lines.

 

Claudia’s sequence hit a chord with me, and I am keen to see a whole book of her weavings and weft.

Anna Jackson’s lucid introduction ( I read after I had written down my own thoughts) opens up further pathways through the three sequences. I love the fit of the three poets together. They are distinctive in voice, form and subject matter, but there are vital connections. All three poets navigate light and dark, self exposures, political opinions, personal experience. They write at the edge, taking risks but never losing touch with what matters enormously to them, to humanity. I think that is why I have loved AUP New Poets 7 so much. This is poetry that matters. We are reading three poets who write from their own significant starting points and venture into the unknown, into the joys (and pains) of writing. Glorious.

Poetry Shelf launch feature: Claudia, Rhys and Ria talk and read poetry

Auckland University page

Review at ANZL by Lynley Edmeades

Review at Radio NZ National by Harry Ricketts

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