Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Thirteen poems about light

Light, lightness, lighting, lightly, that startling moment when it’s you on the deserted beach, and the sun appears on the horizon, a blinding glorious beauty blast that lifts you off the sand. Light, the shifting weather coming in from the coast, mapped out in shade colour daydream, storm and clarity. Yes poetry is home for the dark, but it is most definitely a place to celebrate the light.

The poems I have selected are not so much about light but have a light presence that leads in multiple directions. Once again I am grateful to publishers and poets who are supporting my season of themes.

The poems

Like Lamplight

One day when you are beside me

invite me to speak

of the secrets I never knew

I wanted to tell you, of the warmth

I never knew I owned

until you released it

by moving close as lamplight seems

to glass. Ask me

why I came to you

with the reverence of one

who sees a flower bloom

where none has bloomed before.

By saying what is

I will have said what is.

Sometimes when you are content

ask me what it is

that moves me to want to hold you so,

so often, and laugh when I tell

you the same old

indestructible thing.

One day when you are

where you need no invitation to be

I will tell you

how you flower

like lamplight in me.

Brian Turner

from Selected Poems, Victoria University Press, 2019

A swim with mum

She abandoned the boat one summer

and began to swim

a careful clumsy breast-stroke through the river. From the jetty

to the bridge, from the bridge to the jetty and

back again, patient as a beaver.

At twilight

the one light

is Mum, swimming.

She wears a black whaleskin onepiece

and her strange pale skin,

her hair a slow-moving beacon

through the mildew of trees.

She tells me the garden looks different, is smaller

from the river

and that one never grows familiar

with the soft tongues of weed that browse the skin.

Each breath when she swims is held and let go like a precious thing,

a pushed swing:

this is the only time she is not talking.

The river that runs past the house is darker, is quieter

when mum is swimming.

Ashleigh Young

from Magnificent Moon, Victoria University press, 2012

Still Life with Wind in the Trees

So much of the planet is fragile:

      things that flap on the line,

stuff on a plate, a car skidding

      over the paddocks . . .

I mean: abrupt, conditional,

       and as usual,

brief: so that you once again assume your place.

       Yet what if one day you looked out

through the open window

        and saw mortality

in the grey scribble

        of a boy holding an apple?

Fragility. Brevity. Beauty, even.

         Light in available space.

And what’s joy?

         Even a pencil will point to it.

for Joanna Margaret Paul, 1945-2003

Bill Manhire

from Lifted, Victoria University Press, 2005

A Life

The late afternoon

finds you seeking

clarity in a book

of Rilke poems, a

shortbread biscuit,

and a cup of lemon

tea—with a dash

of honey.

The honey swirls

down through the

tea, and biscuit

crumbs fall into

the book, lodging

in the spine. The

fading sun slants

across the page.

Today, you decide,

you are truly content

to call your life a

great song. Or even

a small song.

A lullaby. Something

to sing your child to


Kiri Piahana-Wong

from Night Swimming, Anahera Press, 2013

Saipipi, Savai’i, Samoa

Nana Se’ela asked me once

Eke mana’o e fai sau malu?

i turned to her, my makas widening in shock

i gaze down at the jellyfish, seagulls, and crosses

under the stars

tattooed around her thighs

in my Samoglish i questioned

me?  Ae ā Mum?

Nana’s throat made a raspy sound

like she was going to spit on the sand

true – Mum was lost to Niu Sila burdens

disguised as palagi exoticness 

had less time for village matters

she was spread between two Motherlands now

The first, native to her tongue rooted from the sands and plantations

where her mother gave birth to her.

The second, native to her offspring where she became mother herself.

Mum was fiapalagi, out of necessity

but i was palagified out of consequence.

so, was I much different?

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.

Ria Masae

from ‘Native Rivalry’ in AUP New Poets 7, Auckland University Press,

experiments (our life together)

here is my experiment with the dark

we run to the top of the street and crossing it

become aware of the fountain’s lip and mosaics

under water pink blue hyaline we step through

the foot bath yes the gold leaf is holding on

here is my experiment with stars

it is a dormitory on the top floor this two o’clock

the babies wrapped loosely in sheets asleep

and somehow not falling out of their little moulded beds

the blinds drawn down the afternoon heat

here is my experiment with humours

aqueous the home movie

tears on the lens and always the return

to rivers their flumes and fumaroles

so plural so carrying so carried away

here is my experiment with light

which leaves me now the dear shapes

gone to sound the end wrapped around

the beginning a piano in a dark room that is

quite what it is like and never the same

here is my experiment with river

memory and the wind ruffles her hair

there are no fences on the sun only a truck

bouncing on the flood its wheels gone and us inside

scared to death and still steering

here is my experiment with rain

we swim and let the current take us

where it will which is some toehold around

the corner under cliffs of black honeycomb

the saltwater pool afloat on its concrete rim

here is my experiment with amygdala

in the morning we find a bar and marmelata

as the sun comes up and the streets are cool

a slice of duomo at the end of each stony block

an orchestration a theatre of the mind

here is my experiment with immanence

who was waiting there who was asking me

to look at heaven from the end of a dark wharf

and when I did when I raised my empty eyes

the city was there a necklace of light a horizon

here is my experiment with periphery

who was asking me not to forget

rippling scales in another room a gallery

at the top of the stairs a cupola a vault

a canopy a river of light on the ceiling

Michele Leggott

from Heartland, Auckland University Press, 2014

Into the Blue Light

for Kate Vercoe

I’m walking above myself in the blue light

indecently blue above the bay with its walk-on-water skin

here is the Kilmog slumping seaward

and the men in their high-vis vests

pouring tar and metal on gaping wounds

the last repair broke free; the highway

doesn’t want to lie still, none of us

want to be where we are

exactly but somewhere else

the track a tree’s ascent, kaikawaka! hold on

to the growing power, sun igniting little shouts against my eyeballs

and clouds come from Australia

hunkering over the Tasman with their strange accent

I’m high as a wing tip

where the ache meets the bliss

summit rocks exploding with lichen and moss –

little soft fellas suckered to a groove

bloom and bloom – the track isn’t content

with an end, flax rattling their sabres, tussocks

drying their hair in the stiff southeasterly; the track wants to go on

forever because it comes to nothing

but the blue light. I’m going out, out

out into the blue light, walking above myself.

Rhian Gallagher

from Far-Flung, Auckland University Press, 2020

Lantern light

Cannon room. Soft delight.

Rattling fight. Mud platoon. 

Fighting fit. Parlour’s floor.

Blind allure. Iron bit.

Head device. Treasured caul.

Blank morale. Not advice.

Mighty fall. Good to go.

Aching slow. Dead appall.

Acre of snow. Dead applaud.

Nightly call. Goodbye go.

Back in old. Noted vice.

Head of lice. Threatened more.

Binding law. Lying wit.

Crying quick. Hole in wall.

Rat in flight. Bloody moon.

Crayon gloom. Lantern light.

Oscar Upperton

from New Transgender Blockbusters, Victoria University Press, 2020


he moves his hand

down the dip of her back

over her buttocks

then up again

each stroke

the sound of a wave

over shingle

it’s like your skin has a grain he says

like the scales of a fish

oh she says feeling the world turn


she turns and there

it is — a touch

of rainbow in her skin

as he catches her

in the right


Alison Wong

from Cup, Steele Roberts, 2006


A wet shrub drips a thousand tiny mirrors.

Cows climb from the blue-veined clay.

The sea’s monster lung trembles.

Ocean lilies of yachts spread sail.

Sunlight bubbles on the purple cloudpane.

Time lies in its sunburn.

A knife cuts open a grapefruit’s centre.

Pips sparkle like summer boats.

David Eggleton

saying your names

after Richard Siken

the earth has names in every language / in

body language, an unravelling, the self offered,

open-faced and blushing, leaves flat and

extended, tender / since the beginning of human

thought / we’ve been drunk with naming,

with godly names, secret names / true names

with absolute power / animal names, not scientific

but the names wild beasts give the world, guttural

and warm, worn in the throat, irresistible /

inexpressible, but we’re trying, gesturing

at the sky and the ground, like babies learning

to speak, imitate, repeat, we learn the sounds

other people respond to / the more we love

a thing the more names it has, like the sun,

my emotional support star, my long-distance

lover, the original hot girl, the inventor

of sunsets, distant world in a sci-fi novel,

wildfire / if you look directly at it everything

dissolves / each name gets closer but refracts /

like looking through a prism, light glancing

everywhere, refusing to be held

Ash Davida Jane

from How to Live with Mammals, Victoria University Press, 2021


Our son, nearly one, has one near-word:

another determined birth

the sound stutters, gutters

then rushes and floods





He points to lamp and torch,

to LEDs on clock, computer, answer machine,

to sun-strike – on sash windows, ignited

from an old ute’s wing mirror, firing

a red beech leaf as it falls, flares,

flaught – like torn newsprint in a grate

as it spasms into flame….

“That’s right!” we say, “A light, a light.”

And as he points to hyacinth, door, cat,

and tries,




say, “No, that’s a flower, a door, a  cat,

but he, small and earnest professor,

cranes forward a little on his rump,

to repeat slowly and with extra care




until we look again.

It gathers in thick cones,

rods of bee caves

dozens of lilac oboe mouths

peeled back into stars.

It hovers on one wall

like a vertical lake

that rapidly drains

to miraculous views

(a dog! a tree! a car!)

then fills again with itself

hard, white, stilled.

It unfurls, blackbird-blue,

to arc and vault

from windowsill to garden

where discs and glints of it

flock, merge, and wheel apart

into hedge, clothesline, pegs, water,

frost on red roof, green blade, yellow grain:




“Ah,” we say, “We see.  There. 

And there.

Light.  Light. 

All shapes of light.”

Emma Neale

First published in Spark, Steele Roberts, 2008


I like the light that comes up

from down beyond the land.

I like the human light

yellow in windows.

The people moving about

in them. I like, too,

the way they amplify the light

beyond the land.

The way it will not last too long,

The way it will be extinguished by

another light we call the dark,

where everyone goes to recall

the light & the way it was,

among the fall of shadows.

Richard Langston

from Five O’Clock Shadows, The Cuba Press, 2020

The poets

David Eggleton is a poet and writer of Palagi, Rotuman and Tongan descent based in Dunedin. He has published a number of poetry collections, and has also released a number of recordings with his poetry set to music by a variety of musicians and composers. He is the former Editor of Landfall and Landfall Review Online as well as the Phantom Billstickers Cafe Reader. His book The Conch Trumpet won the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. In 2016, he received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry. His most recent poetry collection is The Wilder Years: Selected Poems, published by Otago University Press in May 2021. He is the Aotearoa New Zealand Poet Laureate for 2019 – 2022.

Rhian Gallagher’s first poetry collection Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press, 2003) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection. In 2008 she received the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award. Her second poetry collection Shift, (Auckland University Press 2011, Enitharmon Press, UK, 2012) won the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. A collaborative work, Freda: Freda Du Faur, Southern Alps, 1909-1913, was produced with printer Sarah M. Smith and printmaker Lynn Taylor in 2016 (Otakou Press). Rhian was the Robert Burns Fellow in 2018. Her most recent poetry collection Far-Flung was published by Auckland University Press in 2020.

Ash Davida Jane’s poetry has appeared in MimicrySweet MammalianStarlingThe Spinoff and elsewhere. Her second book, How to Live With Mammals, was published by Victoria University Press in April 2021. She lives and works in Wellington.

Richard Langston is a poet, television director, and writer. Five O’Clock Shadows is his sixth book of poems. His previous books are Things Lay in Pieces (2012), The Trouble Lamp (2009), The Newspaper Poems (2007), Henry, Come See the Blue (2005), and Boy (2003). He also writes about NZ music and posts interviews with musicians on the Phantom Billstickers website.

Michele Leggott was the first New Zealand Poet Laureate 2007–09 under the administration of the National Library. She received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2013. Her collections include Mirabile Dictu (2009), Heartland (2014), and Vanishing Points (2017), all from Auckland University Press. She cofounded the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (NZEPC) with Brian Flaherty at the University of Auckland where she is Professor of English. Michele’s latest collection Mezzaluna: Selected Poems appeared in 2020 (Auckland University Press).

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.

Ria Masae is a writer, spoken word poet, and librarian of Samoan descent born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau.  Her work has appeared in various publications including, Landfall, Takahē, and 2020 Best New Zealand Poems Anthology.  A collection of her poetry, titled, ‘What She Sees From Atop the Maunga’, can be found in, AUP New Poets 7.  She is currently working on a sole anthology of poems for publication.

Emma Neale is a writer and editor. Her most recent collection is To the Occupant. In 2020 she received the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry.

Brian Turner was born in Dunedin in 1944. His first book of poems, Ladders of Rain (1978), won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and was followed by a number of highly praised poetry collections and award-winning writing in a wide range of genres including journalism, biography, memoir and sports writing. Recent and acclaimed poetry collections include Night Fishing (VUP, 2016), and Just This (winner of the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry in 2010). He was the Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate 2003–05 and received the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry in 2009. He lives in Central Otago. 

Oscar Upperton lives in Wellington. His first collection New Transgender Blockbusters was published by VUP in March 2020. His second collection, on the life of nineteenth century surgeon Dr James Barry, is upcoming. 

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

Alison Wong is the coeditor of the first anthology of creative writing by Asian New Zealanders. A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand (AUP, 2021). Alison’s novel, As the Earth Turns Silver (Penguin/Picador, 2009) won the NZ Post Book Award for fiction and her poetry collection Cup (Steele Roberts, 2006) was shortlisted for the Jessie Mackay Award for best first book of poetry. She was a poetry judge at the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. 

Ashleigh Young is the author of Magnificent Moon, Can You Tolerate This?, and How I Get Ready. She works as an editor at VUP.

Ten poems about clouds

Twelve poems about ice

Ten poems about dreaming

Eleven poems about the moon

Twelve poems about knitting

Ten poems about water

Twelve poems about faraway

Fourteen poems about walking

Twelve poems about food

Thirteen poems about home

Ten poems about edge

Eleven poems about breakfast

Twelve poems about kindness

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

  1. Pingback: Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Thirteen poems about song | NZ Poetry Shelf

  2. Pingback: Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Sixteen poems of land | NZ Poetry Shelf

  3. Pingback: Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Eighteen poems about love | NZ Poetry Shelf

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