To choose a small selection of New Zealand poems you like? This sounds straightforward, but I didn’t find it so. There is no shortage of poems in that category, plenty of poetry books to take from my shelves, and abundant resources to refer to, but I found no easy way in. It felt as though poems attach to particular moments, have a context which resist relocation. Where to begin then?
Sarah Broom’s collections Tigers at Awhitu and Gleam came to mind, as they often do, and so that’s where I started from. I chose ‘tender’ from Gleam; a spare, delicate filament of feeling and pain to represent both books. Broom heads the poem, ‘Cohen,’ in Gleam with the L.C. line – ‘there is a crack in everything, that is how the light gets in.’ To this light I would add a description of the value of poetry by Anna Jackson, ‘to hold open a space for feeling.’ Sarah Broom’s poetry certainly revealed both.
The heading for my selection, however, comes from the title poem of Michele Leggott’s Mirabile Dictu. A book of fifty-six poems written during the time she was the first New Zealand Poet Laureate and, in a period, when her world became progressively dark; became an ‘otherwhere.’ But that is neither a remote nor dark place, rather, full of light and glowing with a love for life.
The otherwhere of Hilaire Kirkland’s ‘Observations ii’ is a starker landscape, an unflinching confession of feeling and desire. Poetry still hot to the touch. Childhood is the otherwhere of Iain Lonie in his poem and as I read it, it’s the poet on the beach returning to his childhood home; while the poet remains watching him go. Sad.
Otherwhere is the point and place of Michael Jackson’s poetry. A traveller at home where he finds himself – and to quote the poet, there writing poems that ‘are like windows that give us a glimpse of a world we travel through all too quickly.’
Peter Olds is not facing blindness or death, nor coming to terms with place, rather he is looking for something in the otherwhere of a second-hand shop. He is not sure of what but returns home with a wetsuit to hang up in the cupboard behind the vacuum cleaner.
when I look around me
the world is very bright
it is so light and shiny
that my long bones shiver
I am not quite sure
I have what it takes
to stay alive in the world
I need to stay very still
and let the air move past
and through me
I am tired and tender
when my limbs meet each other
crossing on my lap
I want to cry
with the pleasure
of resting them
when tears come
my bones turn to water
and I sleep
from Gleam, Auckland University Press, 2013. Published with kind permission from the Sarah Broom estate.
imagine the world goes dark
a bowl of granite or a stone bird
incised by tools the nature of which
is unknown just that they are metal
and therefore from otherwhere
just that the weight of the bowl
precludes light and lightness
of thought my feet take a path
I can no longer see my eyes
won’t bring me the bird only now
has my hand found the stones
I could add to the smooth interior
of my despair the world goes dark
I look into the eyes of my stone bird
hammers before memory
silence and the world is not
that is no country
for the unassigned smell of sunlight
on skin in a darkened room cabbage tree
shadows dancing in the hologram
on the ceiling not here
and not there an in-box the size
of a house I bury my face
in his neck breathe in
butter taste of summer corn
sweet plums an apricot almost
perfect in its remembrance
I took the road to anhedonia
forgetting the child on my hip
burying his face in my shoulder
I am that child only that child
looking into the eyes of stone
because my hands surprise her
feeling for the soft coat the place to clip
lead to collar she doesn’t see too well
an old dog going deaf but selectively
the nose now only nine thousand times
more acute than mine the back legs
beginning to fold but still good
for a tip toe raid on the cat’s plate
look at her black pearl an old lady
out for a walk in the sunshine slow
and we go into the shadows stumbling
sometimes on a stone step the footing
problematic but the maps still delivering
coordinates and forecasts little dog
black weight on the bed at midnight
love uncloses your eyes the stone bird
is blind and something I must face
sits behind it making a noise like water
descant on the other madrigal
power tools shaping wood and stone
machining a filigree that falls like moonlight
on the workshop floor did I dream this
or did I walk out of the house
asking forgiveness and unable to see
anything but my feet entering the shadow
hearing small waves fall over themselves
at the water’s edge now my hand
finds the bird and my fingers trace
the incisions in fantastica replica
not here and not there an otherwhere
pouring itself through the gap
from Mirabile Dictu, Auckland University Press, 2009
daily the neighbour’s dog is withdrawn to the park
ignores his mistress and courts her
the mongrel in a canine pas-de-deux
I have a dog most like to this which bites the heels of men
I must subdue it then.
my old dog blindly whimpers in the dark
hunts for its bounding hare in dreams
through my thorned channels and deep streams
and twitches bloodwet at my feet till I am rudely woken
so I shall whip it then.
I have a hound too weak and too afraid to bark
which cringes for the flesh that I withhold
and aching nuzzles me when nights are cold
till I allow my animal to feed and thrive again
it will devour me then.
from Blood Clear & Apple Red, Wai-te-ata Press, 1981, also in An Anthology Of New Zealand Poetry in English, eds Jenny Bornholdt, Gregory O’Brien, Mark Willliams, Oxford University Press, 1997
The house of childhood
I watched you walk along that mile of beach
to the house at the end of the beach
the home I’d pointed out, the house of childhood.
How well I remembered the garden, its grey stone wall
the stone rest in the garden, overlooking the sea.
And so you set off bravely, to walk that mile
staggering now and then in the sand that ran to you until
the sun blazed overhead, to the right the sea shimmered
I watched you walking that mile, your figure grew smaller and smaller.
Out of the sea’s shimmer came the faint crying
of voices subdued by the sea and the view.
I remembered the stone rest, the thyme scent of the garden
and beyond the stone wall, the sea splashing in the evening.
I pointed all this out to you, this house of my childhood
and watched you set off towards it, staggering slightly
not looking back, growing smaller and smaller
until you passed into the sand, into the stone wall
and under the garden, the earth of the garden, under the sea.
from A Place to Go on from: The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie, ed. David Howard, Otago University Press, 2015. Published with kind permission from the Iain Lonie estate.
Three Key West Poems
Between the satisfaction of frivolity
and the austerity of exile, I had to choose
and it has cost me my life’s happiness
– José Martí
1: Hemingway House
He had everything, or so it seemed,
the biggest house, the largest
swimming pool, one best seller
after another, money no object,
a writing room above the Carriage House
in which a lesser writer
might aspire to genius,
heads of trophy animals,
shelves of books,
backpack and barometer,
a table for his portable Remington,
and ever the lighthouse in his line of sight.
But the photos of the old man reeling in
500-pound sailfish or marlin from Pilar,
his custom-built fishing-boat, belie
the hazardous currents
and heavy seas he could not quell,
the one opponent he could not KO
in his backyard boxing ring
or drown in his blue pool,
something impervious to drink
and fame, that it would take a shotgun
in Idaho to kill.
What demonic ripples cross
our minds as we drift through his house,
now a national monument,
peering at photographs of his four wives
and his aging face,
the carved bedstead he bought from Spain,
the six-toed cats whose lineage
thrives beneath the Christmas and Traveler’s palms,
the banyan and flamboyants
on Whitehead Street, where after the tour
we walk to where a bollard
marks the southernmost point in the United States
and across the water, embargoed
and invisible, the island that Cuban exiles
once waited to reclaim.
2: The Idea of Wallace Stevens at Key West
I am walking beside the sea that fluttered its
empty sleeves and whose dark voice spoke
to one who made it an image of inconstancy.
On a coral key you cannot dig a grave,
therefore these whitewashed, stacked
sarcophagi. A tour bus passes as I try to read
the names through black iron railings, urns
with artificial flowers, decaying foliage;
a breath of wind in the bedraggled palms
like incessant rumor-mongering. Most
are Cuban names, names of those who
never made it back, but sat on wooden porches
in Olivia Street as roosters crowed,
chickens scratched, and the click and clack of dominoes
presaged their sepulchers,
bookending birth and death with a woman’s name –
Mary Louise Baez (“the sunshine of our home”)
or Angelina P. Oropeza (“No greater mother ever lived”),
sentiments echoing in my head when I stop
at the Dollar Store on Truman Street for water,
glimpse the strip club opposite
called Bare Assets, and push on
to Reynolds Street where Wallace Stevens
Only the sea remains the same,
its answering yet unavailing constancy
at the end of a nondescript suburban street,
no hint of money as “a kind of poetry,”
and the Casa Marina across from the tennis courts
like a prison for white collar criminals.
The same black wrought iron railing
that surrounds the cemetery encloses a white sand
private beach, but there’s no Pale Ramon,
accompanying a businessman in a Panama,
finding order in the ocean’s ambiguity,
only a freshening wind
and a shrimp boat on the Gulf
as full throttle, jet skis buck the broken waves
and thunderclouds like anvils
build toward evening when they may
or may not break, and the man in espadrilles
and his ghostly companion pad back to their hotel
with an image in mind that will
in another generation overwhelm
a poet in the antipodes
inhaling the smell of kelp
and facing the same reality
of which direct knowledge is impossible.
3: The Waterfront Playhouse
the question of how you were to find your way between
the house with Italian chandeliers and the grand hotel
with its hymns and prayers.
Was it our task to reconcile
the view across the Gulf
with that weed-choked, plastic-littered sea within a sea
or integrate the two, discovering ourselves
reborn in palm-laced shadows and splintered light,
between what did not eventuate and what befell
when the sea’s cross currents were too dangerous –
the fringing reef and its lagoon,
the raked sand, the decomposing wrack,
the drunken bar,
the garden by the pool
the rainy night the poet and the novelist
came to blows, one breaking his hand
on the other’s jaw, their lame apologies?
Will we say on leaving Florida
that this was where we were happiest,
preparing our packed lunch of salad greens,
French bread, and pitted olives from Kalamata
whose groves I knew by heart?
that we discerned the difference
between desire and what we simply need,
slaking our thirst with water,
making love in an air-conditioned room
Bolero playing on the radio
and no question of life or death,
not even when we had to leave
the place they advertised as Paradise?
from Walking to Pencarrow: Selected Poems, Cold Hub Press, 2016
I go into a second-hand shop:
there’s something I want to buy
I don’t know what.
CDs, surfboards, stuffed guitars,
something that talks?
not a phone
not a TV,
a radio, perhaps? —
something small & shiny
you can tuck in your pocket
hide in your hand,
something that has a tongue in it
something that talks?
not a couch,
not a sandwich-maker that’s been through
a Castle Street fire.
I wade through the usual crap:
stuffed cameras, mouth organs,
music posters, ski boots, dark glasses
I don’t want —
a 12-bar heater, a wedding dress,
a mountain bike I don’t want …
Is it sex?
Is it sex I want? —
I’m in the wrong shop.
A man in a bright blue shirt approaches,
“Can I help?” he asks politely.
“I’m looking for something — I don’t know what.”
He shows me a PC, a DVD, a TV LCD, a car stereo,
a cellphone you can photograph yourself on
& send the picture to your friends, hands free —
I reject them all …
“You’re out of date,” the man says
after I tell him I still use a typewriter.
“What you need is a computer: email,
on-line, text, photo i.d.,
Trade Me.” (Woe is me!)
I buy a wetsuit & head home.
“And what do you think you’re going to
do with that?” my partner asks sarcastically
as I hang it in the cupboard behind the
vacuum cleaner — “You can’t even swim!”
“Oh, I thought it would come in handy
in the garden when it’s raining,” I reply —
“& I’ll be ready if Maori Hill ever gets
hit by a tsunami.”
from Under the Dundas Street Bridge, Steele Roberts, 2012 and in You Fit The Description: The Selected Poems of Peter Olds, Cold Hub Press, 2014
Peter Ireland works for the National Library. He has worked on exhibitions for forty years or more, and has also had the good fortune of helping to look after our Poets Laureate since 2007.
Sarah Broom (1972 – 2013) was born in Dunedin and grew up in Christchurch before completing an MA at the University of Leeds and a doctorate in modern poetry at Oxford University. She subsequently published Contemporary British and Irish Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). Sarah lectured at Somerville College, Oxford, at the University of Otago and held a postdoctoral fellowship at Massey University (2000). When she was pregnant with her third child she was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. She published her debut collection Tigers at Awhitu in 2009 and Gleam, a posthumous collection, was published in 2013 (both AUP). Her husband Michael Gleissner established the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize in her honour in 2014.
Michael Jackson is internationally renowned for his work in the field of existential anthropology and has been widely praised for his innovations in ethnographic writing. Jackson has done extensive fieldwork in Sierra Leone since 1969, and also carried out anthropological research in Aboriginal Australia, Europe, and New Zealand. He has taught in universities in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and is currently Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. His most recent books include The Varieties of Temporal Experience (2018), Selected Poems (2017), and The Paper Nautilus: A Trilogy (2019). Cold Hub Press author page.
Hilaire Kirkland (1941 – 1975) attended the University of Otago in the 1960s and travelled through Europe in the early 1970s, teaching English in Portugal. She published a poetry chapbook and poems in journals, and frequently performed her work. Her poems appeared in several anthologies posthumously, and a collection of poems, Blood Clear & Apple Red, was published by Wai-te-ata Press in 1981. She was awarded an aegrotat BA at National Women’s Hospital shortly before her death.
Michele Leggott was the inaugural 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. In 2020 Mezzaluna: Selected Poems was published (also by AUP). She coordinates the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc) with Brian Flaherty at the University of Auckland.
Peter Olds was born in Christchurch in 1944, he left school at sixteen and after meeting James K. Baxter in Dunedin in the 1960s, began writing poetry. He was a Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 1978. In 2005 he was an inaugural recipient of the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award for Poetry. He lives in Dunedin. His previously published collections include Lady Moss Revived (1972), Freeway (1974), Beethoven’s Guitar (1980), It Was a Tuesday Morning: Selected Poems 1972-2001 (2004), Poetry Reading at Kaka Point (2006), Under the Dundas Street Bridge (2012), and You fit the description: The Selected Poems of Peter Olds, with an introduction by Ian Wedde (2014, Cold Hub Press). His most recent collection is Taking My Jacket for a Walk (2017, Cold Hub Press).
Poetry Shelf Spring Season
Tara Black picks poems
Victor Rodger picks poems