Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Thirteen poems about water

‘A poem is / a ripple of words / on water wind-huffed’

Hone Tuwhare

from ‘Wind, Song and Rain’ in Sap-wood & Milk, Caveman Press, 1972

The ocean is my go-to salve. Before we went into level-four lockdown last year, I went to Te Henga Bethells Beach near where I live. I stood by the water’s edge as the sun was coming up. The air was clear and salty. Not a soul in sight. I breathed in and I breathed out, and I saved that sublime moment for later. Like a screen shot. Over the ensuing weeks in lockdown, I was able to return to that spot, my eyes on the water, my senses feeding on wildness and beauty. Look through my poetry collections and you will see I can’t keep the ocean out. It is always there somewhere.

Unsurprisingly there is a profusion of water poems in Aotearoa – think the ocean yes, but lakes and rivers and floods and dripping taps. This was an impossible challenge: whittling all the poems I loved down to a handful. I hadn’t factored in leaving poems out when I came up with my theme-season plan. Some poets are particularly drawn to water. Kiri Piahana-Wong’s sublime collection Night Swimming is like an ode to water. The same can be said of Lynn Davidson’s glorious collections How to Live by the Sea and The Islander. Or read your way through Apirana Taylor’s poems and you will find they are water rich – and his poetry flows like water currents. As does the poetry of Hone Tuwhare. Again water rich. And of course the poetry of Dinah Hawken, with her lyrical eye bringing the natural world closer, water a constant companion.

I have so loved this water sojourn. The poems are not so much about water but have a water presence. I am grateful to all the poets and publishers who continue to support my season of themes.

The poems

Girl from Tuvalu

girl sits on porch

back of house

feet kicking

salt water skimming

like her nation

running fast

nowhere to go

held up by

Kyoto Protocol

An Inconvenient Truth

this week her name is Siligia

next week her name will be

Girl from Tuvalu: Environmental Refugee

her face is 10,000

her land is 10 square miles

she is a dot

below someone’s accidental finger

pointing westwards

the bare-chested boys

bravado in sea spray

running on tar-seal

they are cars

they are bikes

they are fish out of water

moana waves a hand

swallows

a yellow median strip

moana laps at pole houses

in spring tide

gulping lost piglets

and flapping washing

girl sits on porch

kicking

Selina Tusitala Marsh

from Dark Sparring, Auckland University Press, 2013, picked by Amy Brown

The body began to balance itself

It started to rain

and it was not clear

if this would last a short time

or a long time

so I got my husband

and colleagues

and the librarian

and the owner of the local chip shop

and the humourless lady who failed me

on eyesight at the driver licence testing station

into a boat

though it was extremely cramped

and they rowed

out to the open ocean

and sat quiet

and waited.

Louise Wallace

from Bad Things, Victoria University Press, 2017

The Lid Slides Back

Let me open

my pencil-case made of native woods.

It is light and dark in bits and pieces.

The lid slides back.

The seven pencils are there, called Lakeland.

I could draw a sunset.

I could draw the stars.

I could draw this quiet tree beside the water.

Bill Manhire

from The Victims of Lightning, Victoria University Press, 2010

Train of thought

I thought of vitality,

I thought of course of a spring.

I thought of the give inherent

in the abiding nature of things.

I thought of the curve of a hammock

between amenable trees.

I thought of the lake beyond it

calm and inwardly fluent

and then I was thinking of you.

You appeared out of the water

like a saint appearing from nowhere

as bright as a shining cuckoo

then dripping you stood in the doorway

as delighted by friendship as water

and beaming welcomed us in.

Dinah Hawken

The lake

The ripples are small enough. The lake surface is the lake surface is the lake surface. All lakes exist in the same space of memory. Deep dark water. The scent of stones. I think of a swift angle to depth. I think of the sound when you’re underwater and the gravel shifts beneath your feet. I think of all the colours of water that look black, that look wine dark, that look like youth looking back at me. I can barely take it. I can see the lake breathing. I am the lake breathing. The lake breathes and I breathe and the depth of both of us is able to be felt by finger, by phone, by feeling. Don’t ask what you don’t want to know. I ask everything. I want to know nothing, everything, just tell it all to me. The gravel shifts again with the long-range round echo of stones underwater. I am separate parts breathing together. You say that I am a little secret. You say, as your brain seizes, that you have lost the way. Your eyes flicker and flutter under your eyelids as you try to find what’s lost, what’s gone forever. Nothing can really be found. I am never located when I want to be located the most. I am instead still that teenager on the side of the road with a cello hard case for company. I forget I exist. You forget I exist. I’ve forgotten I’ve believed I’ve not existed before. I’ve not forgotten you. Never forgotten your face. Could never. Would never. I don’t know how to communicate this with you in a way that you’ll understand. My mouth waters. I am back in the lake again. Except I’m the lake and I’m water myself.

Emma Barnes

Flow

To the stone, to the hill, to the heap, to the seep,

to the drip, to the weep, to the rock, to the rill,

to the fell, to the wash, to the splash, to the rush,

to the bush, to the creep, to the hush;

to the down, to the plain, to the green, to the drift,

to the rift, to the graft, to the shift, to the break,

to the shake, to the lift, to the fall, to the wall,

to the heft, to the cleft, to the call;

to the bend, to the wend, to the wind, to the run,

to the roam, to the rend, to the seam, to the foam,

to the scum, to the moss, to the mist, to the grist,

to the grind, to the grain, to the dust;

to the core, to the gorge, to the grove, to the cave,

to the dive, to the shore, to the grave, to the give,

to the leave, to the oar, to the spring, to the tongue,

to the ring, to the roar, to the song;

to the surge, to the flood, to the blood, to the urge

to the rage, to the rod, to the rood, to the vein,

to the chain, to the town, to the side, to the slide,

to the breadth, to the depth, to the tide;

to the neap, to the deep, to the drag, to the fog,

to the stick, to the slick, to the sweep, to the twig,

to the roll, to the tug, to the roil, to the shell,

to the swell, to the ebb, to the well, to the sea.

Airini Beautrais

from Flow, Victoria University Press, 2017, picked by Amy Brown

as the tide

i am walking the path

around hobson bay point

nasturtiums grow up the cliff face

and the pitted mud has a scattering

of thick jagged pottery, bricks

faded edam cheese packaging

and a rusty dish rack

all of the green algae

is swept in one direction

i am only aware of the blanketed crabs

when a cloud passes overhead

and they escape in unison

into their corresponding homes

claws nestling under aprons

my dad talks about my depression

as if it were the tide

he says, ‘well, you know,

the water is bound to go in and out’

and to ‘hunker down’

he’s trying to make sense of it

in a way he understands

so he can show me his working

i look out to that expanse,

bare now to the beaks of grey herons, which i realise is me

in this metaphor

Lily Holloway

Ode to the water molecule

 

‘Our body is a moulded river.’ Novalis

 

Promiscuous, by some accounts,

or simply playing the field—

     indecisive, yet so decidedly

yourself, you are

 

all these things: ice flow,

cloud cover,

     bend of a river,

crystalline structure

 

on an aeroplane window, fire-

bucket or drop

in the ocean, dissolver of a morning’s

     tablets or

 

mountain range. We envy you

your irresolution,

          the way you get along

with yourself, as glacier

     or humidity of

 

an overheated afternoon. A glass

of pitch-black water

               drunk at night.

Catchment and run-off. Water,

         we allow you

 

your flat roof and rocky bed

but there are also

          tricks we have taught you:

papal fountain, water

feature, liquid chandelier and

     boiling jug. It is, however,

                 your own mind

 

you make up, adept as you are

          —‘the universal solvent’—

at both piecing together

and tearing apart. With or

 

without us, you find your own

structure, an O and two H’s

                    in the infinity

 

of your three-sidedness, your

     triangulation, at once trinity

and tricycle. Two oars

and a dinghy, rowed.

 

Colourless, but for

‘an inherent hint of blue’,

     molecule in which

we are made soluble, the sum

of our water-based parts—

 

resourceful, exemplary friend

      kindred spirit – not one to jump to

conclusions

as you would traverse a stream, but rather

 

as you would leap in. Fluid,

by nature—given to swimming more than

being swum—

    with rain as your spokesperson,

 

tattooed surface of a river’s

undiluted wonder,

          snowfall and drift,

you enter the flow

 

of each of us, turn us around

     as you turn yourself around

as tears,

     sustenance,

          more tears.

 

Gregory O’Brien

first appeared (in a typeset and ‘drawn’ version) in PN Review 252, in the UK, March-April 2020.

First dusk of autumn here and i swim

through fish flicker through

little erasing tails

 

that rub the seafloor’s light-net out

that ink in night

 

down south winter warms to her task and 

will arrive smelling of wet shale in 

a veil of rain     

 

bats flicker into leaves 

to rub the tree-cast light-net from the grass

to ink in night 

Lynn Davidson

Waiheke

You yearn so much
you could be a yacht.
Your mind has already
set sail. It takes a few days
to arrive

at island pace,
but soon you are barefoot
on the sand,
the slim waves testing
your feet

like health professionals.
You toe shells, sea glass, and odd things
that have drifted for years
and finally
washed up here.

You drop your towel
and step out of
your togs, ungainly,
first
your right foot, then

the other
stepping down
the sand
to stand
in the water.

There is no discernible
difference
in temperature.
You breaststroke in
the lazy blue.

A guy passing in a rowboat
says, ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’
And it is. Your body
afloat in salt
as if cured.

James Brown

from Poetry, 2018, picked by Frankie McMillan

Mere Taito

Isthmus

Write the sea in your heart, write the rain.

Only that. Words are a poor habit. Let

the wind slide under your ribs let the rain,

for no one will love you the way

you write to be loved,

and your name only a name – but the green

edge of a wave made knifish by light

or some hurtful winter clarity in the water:

a bright sheet of sky against the horizon as if

breathing, as if the air itself

is your own self, waiting. Only there.

And know how your heart is the green deep sea,

dark and clear and untame,

and its chambers are salt and the beating

of waves, and the waves breaking,

and the waves.

Olivia Macassey

from Takahē, issue 90

Deep water talk

In honour of Hone Tuwhare

& no-one knows

if your eyes are

blurred red from

the wind, too

much sun, or the 

tears streaking your

face that could be

tears or just lines of

dried salt, who 

can tell

& you never can tell

if you are seasick,

drunk, or just

hungover—the 

symptoms are the

same

& sea and sky merge

until the horizon is

nothing but an

endless blue line

in every direction, 

so that you are sailing,

not on the sea, as you

thought, but in a

perfectly blue, circular 

bowl, never leaving

the centre

& you wonder who 

is moving, you or

the clouds racing

by the mast-head

& you wonder if

those dark shapes

in the water are 

sharks, shadows, or

nothing but old fears

chasing along behind

you

& the great mass of

land recedes, you 

forget you were

a land-dweller, 

feeling the pull 

of ancient genes

—in every tide, your

blood sings against

the moon

& food never tasted

so good, or water

so sweet—you’ve 

never conserved water

by drinking wine

before—and rum;

and coke; and rum 

and coke; and can

after can of cold

beer

& your sleep is

accompanied, not

by the roar of traffic 

on the highway,

but by the creaks

and twangs of your

ship as she pitches

and moans through

the dark ocean,

all alone

& you wonder—

where did that bird,

that great gull perching

on the bowsprit,

come from?

Kiri Piahana-Wong

from Night Swimming, Anahera Press, 2013

The Poets

Emma Barnes lives and writes in Pōneke / Wellington. They have just released their first book I Am In Bed With You. For the last two years they’ve been working with Chris Tse on an anthology of LGBTQIA+ and Takatāpui writing to be released this year by Auckland University Press. They work in Tech and spend a lot of time picking heavy things up and putting them back down again. 

Airini Beautrais lives in Whanganui and is the author of four poetry collections and a collection of short fiction. Her most recent poetry collection is Flow: Whanganui River Poems (VUP 2017). Bug Week and Other Stories recently won the Ockham NZ Book Fiction Award 2021.

James Brown’s Selected Poems was published by VUP in 2020. He is working on a new book.

Lynn Davidson’s latest poetry collection Islander is published by Shearsman Books and Victoria University Press. She had a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2013 and a Bothy Project Residency at Inshriach Bothy in the Cairngorms in 2016.  In 2011 she was Visiting Artist at Massey University. She won the Poetry New Zealand Poetry Award, 2020 and is the 2021 Randell Cottage Writer in Residence. Lynn has a doctorate in creative writing and teaches creative writing. She recently returned to New Zealand after four years living and writing in Edinburgh.  

Dinah Hawken lives and writes in Paekakariki. Her ninth collection of poetry, Sea-light, will be published by Victoria University Press in August, 2021.

Lily Holloway is a queer nacho-enthusiast. She is forthcoming in AUP New Poets 8 and you can find her work here.

Olivia Macassey’s poems have appeared in Poetry New ZealandTakahēLandfallBriefOtolithsRabbit and other places. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and The Burnt Hotel (Titus). Her website

Bill Manhire founded the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, which a little over 20 years ago became the International Institute of Modern Letters. His new book Wow is published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK.

Selina Tusitala Marsh (ONZM, FRSNZ) is the former New Zealand Poet Laureate and  has performed poetry for primary schoolers and presidents (Obama), queers and Queens (HRH Elizabeth II). She has published three critically acclaimed collections of poetry, Fast Talking PI (2009), Dark Sparring (2013), Tightrope (2017) and an award-winning graphic memoir, Mophead (Auckland University Press, 2019) followed by Mophead TU (2020), dubbed as ‘colonialism 101 for kids’.

Gregory O’Brien recently completed a new collection of poems Streets and Mountains and is presently working on a monograph about artist Don Binney for AUP.

Kiri Piahana-Wong is a poet and editor, and she is the publisher at Anahera Press. She lives in Auckland.

Mere Taito is a poet living and working in Kirikiriroa. She is interested in the way poetry can be used to revitalise minority Indigenous languages like Fäeag Rotuạm ta.

Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press, most recently Bad Things. She is the founder and editor of Starling, and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Otago.

Ten poems about clouds

Twelve poems about ice

Ten poems about dreaming

Eleven poems about the moon

Twelve poems about knitting

3 thoughts on “Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Thirteen poems about water

  1. Pingback: Poetry Shelf review: Emma Barne’s I Am in Bed with You | NZ Poetry Shelf

  2. Pingback: Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Twelve poems about faraway | NZ Poetry Shelf

  3. Pingback: Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Fourteen poems about walking | NZ Poetry Shelf

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