Poetry Shelf Spring Season: Emma Espiner picks poems

Photo credit: Jenna Todd Photography

I had two introductions to poetry. The first was through my husband who insisted that my apathy towards the form was because I was going about it all wrong. Poetry had to be read aloud to be understood, he told me. He read Cassandra’s Daughter and As big as a father in the living room of our home on a hill on the south coast of Wellington and I conceded, he was right. 


The second introduction was through the arrival of Tayi Tibble. Tayi is a gateway drug, and once I’d read In the 1960s An Influx of Māori Women I read everything else she had written and, still hungry, found Hera Lindsay Bird and Nicole Titihuia Hawkins. Type Cast and Monica sit together, a matched set of sitcoms from the 90s, deconstructed and devastated, repurposed. 


These young women brought me home to J.C. Sturm, a writer whose collection of short stories I stole from my university’s library as a graduation gift to myself last year. Her poem Coming Home reaches across the years since her death into the heart of our collective ache for identity and belonging. Sturm writes with clarity and prescience and her work sits comfortably alongside the best of Aotearoa’s contemporary poets.

Emma Espiner

The poems

In the 1960s an Influx of Māori Women

Move to Tinakori Road in their printed mini dresses
Grow flowers on white stone rooftops to put in their honeycomb vases.
Dust the pussy-shaped ashtray their husbands bought on vacation in Sydney.
Walk to Kirkcaldie and Stains while their husbands are at work.
Spend their monthly allowance on a mint-green margarita mixer.
Buy makeup at Elizabeth Arden in the shade too-pale-pink.
Buy vodka and dirty magazines on the way home from the chemist.
Hide the vodka and dirty magazines in the spare refrigerator in the basement.
Telephone their favourite sister in Gisborne.
Go out to dinner with their husbands and dance with his friends.
Smile at the wives who refuse to kiss their ghost-pink cheeks.
Order dessert like pecan pie but never eat it.
Eat two pieces of white bread in the kitchen with the light off.
Slip into the apricot nylon nightgown freshly ordered off the catalogue.
Keep quiet with their husbands’ blue-veined arms corseting their waists.
Remember the appointment they made to get their hair fixed on Lambton Quay.
Think about drowning themselves in the bathtub instead.
Resurface with clean skin, then rinse and repeat.

Tayi Tibble

from Poūkahangatus, Victoria University Press, 2018

As big as a father      

I lost him the first time
before I could grasp
who he was, what he did, where
he fitted with her

and it’s always seemed so dumb:
how to lose something
as big as a father.

I lost him the next time
to the rum-running Navy
who took him and took him
and kept right on taking

and it wasn’t my mistake
losing a vessel
as big as a father.

I lost him a third time
to a ship in a bottle
that rocked him and rocked him
and shook out his pockets

and no kind of magic
could slip me inside
with my father.

I lost him at home
when floorboards subsided
as he said and she said
went this way and that way

and dead in the water
I couldn’t hang on
to my father.

The last time I lost him
I lost him for good:
the night and the day
the breath he was breathing

 and death’s head torpedoes
blew out of the water
the skiff of my father.

  Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

    from As big as a father, Steele Roberts, 2002

Cassandra’s Daughter

Cassy for short.
We’re discussing the colour green
and why.  And how last night
in her dreamtime a wooden-horse
appeared.  And look–how the wind
puts shivers in the water, shaking
the keys in their locks.
Only five years old, she is
already in love with how
one word wants another
with astonishing ease.
Inside the alphabet now,
inside the lining of a word
she asks me as we sit
on the garden wall under
plum-coloured sun: why
were you born at seven o’clock
that night?  I was a morning baby
my mum says, the best kind.
I was born with my eyes open,
you see?  Would you like to
hear me sing?  I can almost dance,
too.  Would you?  I can hear
that she knows, Priam’s daughter,
all her years to heaven–
that every word was once
a poem, isn’t it?

Michael Harlow

from Cassandra’s Daughter, Auckland University Press, 2005

                


Typecast 

I want Shortland Street
to cast us a fat brown woman
with a pretty face, wild hair
& an ass that could
clap back against the haters
when she plays T.K, Vinnie & Maxwell
sleeping with them all at the same time. 

I want Shortland Street
to cast us a girl gang of Māori women
who eat the weight 
of their feelings in cheese 
at wainanga & help each other
craft responses to
cultural appropriation, Govt. Depts & fuckbois.

I want Shortland Street
to cast us an exhausted junior Dr.
tall & thin, newly-vegan 
who still eats hāngī on the marae
Waka Blonde Ngāti Kahu Khaleesi 
fangirling over Lance O’Sullivan
addicted to kawakawa ointment.

I want Shortland Street
to cast us a fair-skinned Kāi Tahu Boss Lady
an expert in her field
who gets nominated for awards 
invited home to speak on panels
who snapchats her friends from the wharepaku 
saying she feels like a fraud on her own whenua. 

I want Shortland Street
to cast us an overworked
social science teacher
wearing Hine & Whitewood to work
teaching Harry, Ula & Jasmine
Whare Tapa Whā & The Native Schools Act
her passionate tangents hashtagged #WhaeasRants.

I want Shortland Street
to cast us a solo Mum in her 40’s
whose babies are to different men
rose quartz, ratchet 90’s home done
tā moko on her big boobs
spilling from a pilling lace bra from Kmart
as she rushes late from school gate to mahi.

I want Shortland Street
to cast us a long-grey-haired Kui
with a moko kauae 
who talks to our tīpuna 
in her dreams, by night
kaumātua kapa haka, 
rewana bug feeding, by day. 

I want Shortland Street
to cast us a Ngāti Porou Aunty
who sets Marge, Kirsty & Leanne straight 
when they mispronounce her reo 
takes her own time to teach them
then vents to Vasa at Box Fit
that they complained to the boss she was telling them off.

I want Shortland Street
to cast us a co-sleeping
breast-feeding Māmā
who laughs at the Plunket nurse
when she tells her to leave her 
baby to cry in a cot
calling it sleep training.

I want Shortland Street
to cast us a young emerging talent
raising eyebrows even higher than her skirt hems
rubbing shoulders with the 
top surgeon’s fathers
Chris Warner wrapped around
her dusky middle finger.

Nicole Titihuia Hawkins

from Sport 47, 2019



Monica

Monica
Monica
Monica

Monica Geller off popular sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S
Is one of the worst characters in the history of television
She makes me want to wash my hands with hand sanitizer
She makes me want to stand in an abandoned Ukrainian parking lot
And scream her name at a bunch of dead crows
Nobody liked her, except for Chandler
He married her, and that brings me to my second point
What kind of a name for a show was F.R.I.E.N.D.S
When two of them were related
And the rest of them just fucked for ten seasons?
Maybe their fucking was secondary to their friendship
Or they all had enough emotional equilibrium
To be able to maintain a constant state of mutual-respect
Despite the fucking
Or conspicuous nonfucking
That was occurring in their lives
But I have to say
It just doesn’t seem emotionally realistic
Especially considering that
They were not the most self-aware of people
And to be able to maintain a friendship
Through the various complications of heterosexual monogamy
Is enormously difficult
Especially when you take into consideration
What cunts they all were

I fell in love with a friend once
And we liked to congratulate each other what good friends we were
And how it was great that we could be such good friends, and still fuck
Until we stopped fucking
And then we weren’t such good friends anymore

I had a dream the other night
About this friend, and how we were walking
Through sunlight, many years ago
Dragged up from the vaults, like
Old military propaganda
You know the kind; young women leaving a factory
Arm in arm, while their fiancées
Are being handsomely shot to death in Prague
And even though this friend doesn’t love me anymore
And I don’t love them
At least, not in a romantic sense
The memory of what it had been like not to want
To strap concrete blocks to my head
And drown myself in a public fountain rather than spend another day
With them not talking to me
Came back, and I remembered the world
For a moment, as it had been
When we had just met, and love seemed possible
And neither of us resented the other one
And it made me sad
Not just because things ended badly
But more broadly
Because my sadness had less to do with the emotional specifics of that situation
And more to do with the transitory nature of romantic love
Which is becoming relevant to me once again
Because I just met someone new
And this dream reminded me
That, although I believe that there are ways that love can endure
It’s just that statistically, or
Based on personal experience
It’s unlikely that things are going to go well for long
There is such a narrow window
For happiness in this life
And if the past is anything to go by
Everything is about to go slowly but inevitably wrong
In a non-confrontational, but ultimately disappointing way

Monica
Monica
Monica
Monica Geller from popular sitcom F.R.I.E.N.D.S
Was the favourite character of the Uber driver
Who drove me home the other day
And is the main reason for this poem
Because I remember thinking Monica???
Maybe he doesn’t remember who she is
Because when I asked him specifically
Which character he liked best off F.R.I.E.N.D.S
He said ‘the woman’
And when I listed their names for him
Phoebe, Rachel and Monica
He said Monica
But he said it with a kind of question mark at the end
Like……. Monica?
Which led me to believe
Either, he was ashamed of liking her
Or he didn’t know who he was talking about
And had got her confused with one of the other
Less objectively terrible characters.
I think the driver meant to say Phoebe
Because Phoebe is everyone’s favourite
She once stabbed a police officer
She once gave birth to her brother’s triplets
She doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks about her
Monica gives a shit what everyone thinks about her
Monica’s parents didn’t treat her very well
And that’s probably where a lot of her underlying insecurities come from
That have since manifested themselves in controlling
And manipulative behaviour
It’s not that I think Monica is unredeemable
I can recognize that her personality has been shaped
By a desire to succeed
And that even when she did succeed, it was never enough
Particularly for her mother, who made her feel like her dreams were stupid
And a waste of time
And that kind of constant belittlement can do fucked up things to a person
So maybe, getting really upset when people don’t use coasters
Is an understandable, or at least comparatively sane response
To the psychic baggage
Of your parents never having believed in you
Often I look at the world
And I am dumbfounded that anyone can function at all
Given the kind of violence that
So many people have inherited from the past
But that’s still no excuse to throw
A dinner plate at your friends, during a quiet game of Pictionary
And even if that was an isolated incident
And she was able to move on from it
It still doesn’t make me want to watch her on TV
I am falling in love and I don’t know what to do about it
Throw me in a haunted wheelbarrow and set me on fire
And don’t even get me started on Ross

Hera Lindsay Bird

from Hera Lindsay Bird, Victoria University Press, 2016

Coming home

for Peter

The bones of my tupuna
Safe in secret places up north
Must wait a little longer
Before they claim me for good
             The love of my second parents
             Unconditional from the beginning
              Unrelenting to the end
              Never quite made me theirs
That tormented paradoxical man
Father of my children
Convinced me we belonged together
But then moved on.
               The young ones (our young) he left behind
                Claimed my castle as their own
                Being themselves a part of me
                Always, bone of my bone
Years earlier, a much younger self
Lay face down in the hot dry sand –
                 Salt on her skin, the smell
                 Of green flax pungent in the heat,
                 Summer a korowai
                 Around bare shoulders –
And felt in her bones
Without knowing why
She belonged to that place.
Nearly a life-time later
On another beach –
                                             the sea
           A blinding shield at our feet,
           Behind us a dark hill fortress
           With sentinel sea birds
           Circling and calling –
I lay down beside you in tussock
And felt without warning
I had come home.                  

J. C. Sturm

from Dedications, Steele Roberts, 1996, published courtesy of J. C. Sturm estate

Emma Espiner (Ngāti Tukorehe, Ngāti Porou) is a doctor at Middlemore Hospital. Emma hosts the RNZ podcast on Māori health equity, Getting Better which won best podcast at the Voyager media awards in 2021. She won Voyager Opinion Writer of the Year in 2020. Emma’s writing has been published at The Spinoff, Newsroom.co.nz, Stuff.co.nz, The Guardian, and in academic and literary journals.

Hera Lindsay Bird was a poet from Wellington. She hasn’t written a poem in a long time, and no longer lives in Wellington. 

Michael Harlow has written 13 books of poetry, and was awarded the prestigous Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement for Poetry in 2018.  A collection of his poems, Nothing For It But To Sing was the Kathleen GrattanAaward forPoetry, and in 2014 he was awarded the Lauris Edmond Memorial prize for Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand poetry.  He has been awarded a number of Writers’ Residences including the Robert Burns Fellowship, the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship to France.  This past year The Moon in a Bowl of Water was published by Otago University Press.He lives and works in Central Otago as a writer, editor, essayist and Jungian Psychotherapist.

Nicole Titihuia Hawkins (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Te Wairoa, Ngāti Pāhauwera) is an emerging writer, avid home-baker and pro-level aunt. She lives in Te Awakairangi, hosts Poetry with Brownies and runs side hustles with her besties. She is most commonly found teaching English, Social Studies & Māori Activism at a local High School. Her debut poetry collection will be published by We Are Babies Press in 2021.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman is a poet and non-fiction writer, most recently, Blood Ties: selected poems, 1963-2016, Canterbury University Press (2017); a memoir, Now When It Rains, Steele Roberts (2018); Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2021, an essay on prison reform; poetry in More Favourable Waters – Aotearoa Poets respond to Dante’s Purgatory, (The Cuba Press, 2021).

J. C. Sturm (1927 -2009), of Taranaki iwi, Parihaka and Whakātoa descent, is thought to be the first Māori woman to graduate from a New Zealand university (First Class Hons, Philosophy, Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka). She initially wrote short fiction, and her work was the first to appear by a Māori in an anthology. Her debut collection, Dedications (Steele Roberts, 1997), received an Honour Award at the 1997 Montana NZ Book Awards. She published further collections of poetry, and received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka.

Tayi Tibble (Te Whānau ā Apanui/Ngāti Porou) was born in 1995 and lives in Wellington. In 2017 she completed a Masters in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University of Wellington, where she was the recipient of the Adam Foundation Prize. Her first book, Poūkahangatus (VUP, 2018), won the Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award. Her second collection, Rangikura, was published in 2021 (VUP).

Spring Season

Tara Black picks poems
Victor Rodger picks poems
Peter Ireland picks poems

3 thoughts on “Poetry Shelf Spring Season: Emma Espiner picks poems

  1. Pingback: Poetry Shelf Spring season: Claire Mabey picks poems | NZ Poetry Shelf

  2. Pingback: Poetry Shelf Spring Season: Sally Blundell picks poems | NZ Poetry Shelf

  3. Pingback: Poetry Shelf Spring Season: Francis Cooke picks poems | NZ Poetry Shelf

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