Music is the first poetry attraction for me. I am drawn to poems that sing. Poems sing in multiple keys with affecting and shifting chords, rhythms, harmonies, counterpoints, pitch, cadence, codas, crescendo. Tune your ear into the poetry of Karlo Mila, Emma Neale, Sue Wootton, Bill Manhire, Hinemoana Baker, Michele Leggott, Nina Mingya Powles, Lily Holloway, Alison Wong, Chris Tse, Mohamed Hassan, Gregory Kan, Anna Jackson, David Eggleton and you will hear music before you enter heart, mystery, experience, startle. Take a listen to Bernadette Hall or Dinah Hawken or Anne Kennedy. Anuja Mitra. Louise Wallace. How about Grace Iwashita Taylor? Ian Wedde. Tusiata Avia. Tayi Tibble. Rebecca Hawkes. Helen Rickerby. Selina Tusitala Marsh. Murray Edmond. Apirana Taylor. Iona Winter. Rose Peoples. Sam Duckor Jones. Vincent O’Sullivan. Kiri Pianhana-Wong. Jackson Nieuwland. Serie Barford. Listening in is of the greatest body comfort and you won’t be able to stop leaning your ear in closer. I think of one poet and then another, to the point I could curate an anthology of musical poets. I can name 100 without moving from the kitchen chair. Ah. Bliss.
But for this theme I went in search of poems that speak of song. The poems I have selected are not so much about song but have a song presence that leads in multiple directions. And yes they sing. Once again I am grateful to publishers and poets who are supporting my season of themes. Two more themes to go.
poem to Hone Tuwhare 08
adroit composer of
‘No Ordinary Sun’
the music grows flows
grumbles and laughs
from his pen
only the old house has fallen
to the wind and storm
death shakes the tree
but the bird lives on
from A Canoe in Midstream: Poems new and old, Canterbury University Press, 2009 (2019)
Between Speech and Song
I’m sorry, you said.
What for, I said. And then
you said it again.
The house was cooling.
The pillowcases had blown
across the lawn.
We felt the usual shortcomings
of abstractions. I hope,
you said. Me too, I said.
The distance between our minds
is like the space
between speech and song.
from As the Verb Tenses, Otago University Press, 2016
my sister is humming
the front door is shutting
and opening like lungs
to kauri trees
leaping upwards through air
my lungs are pressed
grey warblers sing like
dust moving through air
the sunflower is opening
and shutting like lungs
my lungs are shifting
from Second Person, Victoria University Press, 2020
The woman next door sings so slowly someone must have died. She practices her sorry aria through the walls. When we bump on the steps she is neighbourly, maybe, with her purpled eyes. She tries for lightness. The radio tells me it is snowing somewhere south. Drifts fall down for days. The presenter uses the word ghastly far too often. In the ghastly snow, he says, animals dig for their calves. When we meet on the path my own voice is chestnut and dumb. ‘It’s a ghastly thing,’ I say. ‘It was a ghastly mistake.’ In the dark the woman’s voice touches a sweet, high place. It’s a small cupboard where her children once hid when she’d tried to explain – which you never really can – why the animals must paw in the cold, brown slush. Where are the young? Who hears their low, fallow voices?
Sarah Jane Barnett
from Bonsai – Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand, edited by Michelle Elvy, Frankie McMillan and James Norcliffe, Canterbury University Press, 2018
The song feels like singing,
looks out the window:
clouds glued to the sky,
hills like collapsed elephants.
There’s food stuck to the highchair,
a plastic spoon on the floor.
The cat stares up in awe at the fridge.
The song opens its mouth,
but seems to have forgotten the words.
The song wakes up.
Someone is crying.
The morepork in the ngaio
shakes out its slow spondee:
more pork more pork more pork.
Back in the dream a line
of faces passes the window.
Each face smiles, lifts
its lips to show large teeth.
The song sits at the window, humming
ever so softly, tapping
a rhythm on the table-edge, watching
the harbour slowly losing
colour. At the very far end
of the harbour slightly up to the right,
a zip of lights marks the hill
over to Wainuiomata. If that zip
could be unzipped, thinks the song,
the whole world might change.
The song strokes the past
like a boa, like some fur muff
or woollen shawl,
but the past is not soft at all;
it’s rough to the touch,
sharp as broken glass.
The song longs to sing in tune.
The song longs to be in tune.
The black dog comes whenever
the song whistles, wagging its tail.
The black dog waits for the song’s whistle.
The black dog wants a long walk.
The song croons “Here Comes the Night”
very quietly. Meanwhile the baby
spoons its porridge into a moon.
The black dog leads the song
down long, unlovely streets.
The night is slowly eating the moon.
from Winter Eyes, Victoria University Press, 2018
The crowd is seaweed and there’s always one man too tall at least or one man dancing too much or one woman touching too much. We form short bonds with each other. The man next to me we briefly worry is a fascist. But him and I set a rhythm of touches with each other as we’re together and apart from the music and the bodies. When the bassline and the drums are inside my entire body they always shake up grief like sediment in water so that I am the sediment and my tears become water. And I am the water and the seaweed at the same time and I hover in the thick of the sound experiencing myself experiencing sound and feeling and my body as one piece of a larger thing. I want to be part of a larger thing as often as I can. So many days there isn’t enough music to pull us together. We shred each other, other days. A little rip. A tiny tear. A deep cut. We curl backwards into ourselves to do the damage. I follow the line. I rise into it because it is the sea and the only thing to do is to rise. I am bread and I am fire. I am the line of the horizon as it is reflected back to you. We make our own beds and lie in them. You will have said something. To me. Later, as I think it through I remember us neck to neck, clutching.
from Sweet Mammalian 7
singing in the wire
The song is a clutch of mailboxes
at the end of an undulating road,
an unsteady stack of bee-hives
The song is the whine from a transformer,
crickets, waist-high roadside grass,
a summer that just will not let up.
The song is a power pole’s pale-brown
ceramic cup receiving a direct hit
from a clod flung by my brother.
It is looped bars laid
against the white paper of a gravel road.
Released the year and month my father died,
‘Wichita Lineman’ can still bring me the valley
where we lived,
still bring me grief, the sound
of wind through wire, the loneliness
of country verges; but does not bring
my father back. You can ask
too much of a song.
Kay McKenzie Cooke
from Born To A Red-Headed Woman, Otago University Press 2014
thursday quartet 9:15
The stairwell grew and rolled
with slackened half-night. Quite clearly
she saw how her words had become her.
When she sang she remembered; her breath was deep
letters unnudged. The stairwell hummed. Everything
smelt of other people’s hands.
One, two, three. Another life had trained her ready.
She knew these breaths. It had been a day
of near misses, daredevil secret creatures
who followed her home, a line of sight
and the road, misadventured art deco.
Had she been good enough?
At night her window smithied day.
She could see the boats as they came.
The stairwell rose and then uprising
the first notes.
When Johnny Cash
was sad he’d call
Willie Nelson and
ask for a joke.
Willie knew a
dirty joke – good
or bad – was the
secret to happiness.
Some people haven’t
yet realised that Willie
Nelson is one of the
greatest singers, guitarists
and songwriters. But
there’s time. There’s always
time. Despite it being
funny how it always seems
to just slip away. Still,
to add to the legends of
Willie smoking pot
on the roof of the White House
and blowing out interviewers
so that they couldn’t remember
where they parked their car or
where they lived or worked,
we can now thank Willie not
only for his 70 albums and for
writing the greatest jukebox
weepie of all time…
But, also, on some level, he
helped keep Johnny Cash alive
for as long as he lasted. Johnny
battled his depression
with a dirty joke from Willie
Nelson. I’m not saying it works
for everyone but it served
The Man in Black.
from off the tracks website
A tin kettle whistles to the ranges;
dry stalks rustle in quiet field prayer;
bracken spores seed dusk’s brown study;
the river pinwheels over its boulders;
stove twigs crackle and race to blaze;
the flame of leaves curls up trembling.
Church bells clang, and sea foam frays;
there’s distant stammers of revving engines,
a procession of cars throaty in a cutting,
melody soughing in the windbreak trees,
sheep wandering tracks, bleating alone.
Sunday sings for the soft summer tar;
sings for camellias, fullness of grapes;
sings for geometries of farming fence lines;
sings for the dead in monumental stone;
sings for cloud kites reddened by dusk —
and evening’s a hymn, sweet as, sweet as,
carrying its song to streets and to suburbs,
carrying its song to pebbles and hay bales,
carrying its song to crushed metal, smashed glass,
and fading in echoes of the old folks’ choir.
from The Conch Trumpet, Otago University Press, 2015
My brother says that he doesn’t
understand poetry. He hears the words
but they all intersperse into a polyphonic
whirl of voices; no meaning to them
beyond the formation and execution
of sounds upon lips, pressing together
and coming apart. I cannot touch or feel
words, but I see them ‒ the word ‘simile’
is a grimacing man, poised on the edge
of polite discomfort and anguish. ‘Dazzled’ is
a 1920s flapper with broad, black eyes
and lank black hair around the edges of
her face. A boy in my music class hears
colours ‒ well, not hearing as such, he says,
but images in his mind’s eye. People play
tunes and ask him what colour it is, but
they play all at once, and he says that it is
the indistinguishable brown of all colours
combined. I think of a boy I used to know
called Orlando, and how this word conjures
the sight of a weathered advert for a tropical holiday
in my mind ‒ a forgotten promise, just ephemera
and not to be mentioned. The History room at school smells
like strange, zesty lemons, like the smell when you
peel a mandarin and its pores disperse their
sebum into the air, or when you squeeze the juice
from a lemon into your hands, and feel it dissolve
the soapy first layer of skin. I always think of
a certain someone when I smell this, even though
they wear a different perfume, and when I listen
to soft guitar ballads I think of them too, even though
I know they wouldn’t have heard them. All
of the sounds and smells and thoughts blend
into ephemera, scorched postcards of violets and
swallows, etched with the perfect handwriting of
old, consigned to antique stores that smell of
smoke. Things of the past with no value, no
substance, just air filled with citrus mist. I collect
each word and strain of what was once fresh in
my mind, in a forgotten jacket pocket, to be discovered
on some rainy day, years later. I’ll pull out the
postcard and think of the way I always look twice
when I see someone with curly hair; the word ‘longing’
is a blue wisp that creeps between the cracks
in my fingers. That wisp hides in these things,
tucked away, like the 1930s train tickets I found
in an old book. I wonder if their owner ever made it
to their destination. I wonder who they were.
first appeared in Milly’s Magazine
Love songs we haven’t written
Within the warm wreckage of me,
I’d never dare to ask you, but
in that moment when pain finds it plowing rhythm,
would you want me dead?
It’s a startling thought.
So round and whole and ordinary.
But you can’t know these things until
you’re sunk deep in the geometry of them. Of course,
the bed I lie on would be lily white and threatening levitation.
I would imagine the emptiness I leave and
you would think of all the ways to fill it.
That is the grotesque version.
It should of course be the other way around.
I don’t need misery to write poetry.
For me words come only after precarity passes
and there is safety in sitting still for long stretches.
Words, eventually, have the thickness of matter
left out too long in the sun. My love,
If we had a daughter, I’d be more dangerous.
She’d lick words whole out of the air.
I would recognize her tiny anthem.
Like you, she’d need two anchors, and only one mast.
Like me, she’d be immovable, a miniature old woman
by seven years old.
my singing teacher says yawning during lessons is good
it means the soft palate is raised and air circulates the bulb of your skull
to be pulled out between front teeth like a strand of taut hair
gum skin or yesterday’s nectarine fibre
in empty classrooms my body is a pear, grounded but reaching
the piano is out of tune, its chords now elevator doors
a shrieking melody that says: relish the peeling off
floss til you bleed and watch through the bannisters
voices merge like a zip ripped over fingers
reeling backwards and thrown to the wall
are all the arcades, rubber children
midnight sirens and birds sounding off one by one
the sopranos cry out offering forged banknotes
while the altos bring the alleyways
you crash through the windscreen, thumbs deep in pie
laundromat coins with that rhythm
Emma Barnes lives and writes in Te Whanganui-ā-Tara. She’s working on an anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ writing with co-conspirator Chris Tse. It’s to be published by AUP in 2021. In her spare time she lifts heavy things up and puts them back down again.
Sarah Jane Barnett is a writer and editor from Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Her poetry, essays and reviews have been published widely in Aotearoa. Her debut poetry collection A Man Runs into a Woman (Hue + Cry Press) was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Her secondcollection Work (Hue + Cry Press) was published in 2015. Sarah is currently writing a book on womanhood and midlife.
Kay McKenzie Cooke’s fourth poetry collection was published by The Cuba Press in June 2020 and is titled Upturned. She lives and writes in Ootepoti / Dunedin.
Cadence Chung is a student from Wellington High School. She started writing poetry during a particularly boring maths lesson when she was nine. Outside of poetry, she enjoys singing, reading old books, and perusing antique stores.
Lynley Edmeades is the author of two poetry collections, most recently Listening In (Otago Uni Press, 2019). She lives in Dunedin and teaches poetry and creative writing at the University of Otago.
David Eggleton is the Aotearoa New Zealand Poet Laureate 2019 – 2022. His most recent book is The Wilder Years: Selected Poems, published by Otago University Press.
Rata Gordon is a poet, embodiment teacher and arts therapist. Her first book of poetry Second Person was published in 2020 by Victoria University Press. Through her kitchen window, she sees Mount Karioi. www.ratagordon.com
Lily Holloway is a queer nacho-enthusiast. She is forthcoming in AUP New Poets 8 and you can find her work on lilyholloway.co.nz.
Pippi Jean is eighteen and just moved to Wellington for her first year at Victoria University. Her most recent works can be found in Landfall, Starling, Takahe, Mayhem, and Poetry New Zealand Yearbook among others.
Harry Ricketts teaches English literature and creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka. His Selected Poems appeared in June, Victoria University Press.
Simon Sweetman is a writer and broadcaster. His debut book of poems, “The Death of Music Journalism” was published last year via The Cuba Press. He is the host of the weekly Sweetman Podcast and he writes about movies, books and music for a Substack newsletter called “Sounds Good!” (simonsweetman.substack.com to sign up). He blogs at Off The Tracks and sometimes has a wee chat about music on RNZ. He lives in Wellington with Katy and Oscar, the loves of his life. They share their house with Sylvie the cat and Bowie the dog.
Apirana Taylor, Ngati Porou, Te Whanau a Apanui, Ngati Ruanui, Te Ati Awa, is a nationally and internationally published poet, playwright, short story writer, novelist, actor, painter and musician. He has been Writer in Residence at Canterbury and Massey Universities. He frequently tours nationally and internationally visiting schools, tertiary institutions and prisons reading his poetry, storytelling and taking creative writing workshops. He has written six collections of poetry, a book of plays, three collections of short stories, and two novels. His work has been included in many national and international anthologies.
Catherine Trundle is a poet and anthropologist, with recent works published in Landfall, Takahē, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook, Not Very Quiet, and Plumwood Mountain.
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
Thirteen poems about light
Pingback: Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Sixteen poems of land | NZ Poetry Shelf
Pingback: Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Eighteen poems about love | NZ Poetry Shelf