In a book-club meet up recently I was reminded that lots of people, even extremely well read and clever people, feel like they need some kind of special knowledge or language to be able to talk about poetry. But I think what I love about poetry (and all art basically) is that you don’t have to have special anything for a poem to say something wonderful to you (or confronting, or funny, or unexpected, or thrilling). I chose these particular poems because they simply stuck with me for reasons I’m not sure of. They all contain certain images that attached themselves to the walls of my internal world and now I stroll past them on my daily rounds and they make me pause and think. I like that about poetry. Poems are like the tequila shots of the literary world: potent, dizzying, give you a buzz. And the good stuff is head and shoulders above most of the other options on the shelf.
‘Feagaiga/ Covenant’, Tusiata Avia
I chose this poem because I heard Tusiata read it (I can’t remember where) and the image of siblings knitting themselves together, interlocking their pyjamas, just, I can’t explain it, it nailed me. It made me want to cry and be joyously grateful at the same time. Something about it spoke to what being a sibling is and it made me feel pain and happiness simultaneously.
‘For a Five Year Old’, Fleur Adcock
This poem is one of the first I remember having to learn for Speech and Drama. S & D seems like a weird old fashioned thing these days but, actually on reflection, I think that the early lessons on poetry and making images, and appreciating words, were foundational for me. And I’ve never lost the love for this poem and its gentle severity. Of course I understand it completely differently now I am a mother.
‘The feijoas are falling from the trees’, Louise Wallace
I love this poem because I love feijoas and also inherited my grandmother’s anxiety about not wasting fallen fruit. I heard Louise recite this at the Festival of Colour in Wanaka years ago and loved its domesticity and its vividenss and its humour. Like lots of Louise’s work it is plump with the understanding that the human condition is inextricable from the small comic drudgeries of daily life.
‘Spent’, Sugar Magnolia Wilson
I love this poem because it feels dark and dangerous and beautiful. Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s work appeals to a certain aesthetic, and thematics, that I love to read. There is something of the fairytale, of the supernatural lurking in every line. I love the sense of the night sky mirroring the dark face full of teeth, and the rustle of the ‘wide-mouthed egg-swallowers’. Thrilling.
For a Five-Year-Old
A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
it might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful hand,
to eat a daffodil.
I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still be words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.
from The Eye of the Hurricane, Reed, 1964. Also published in Fleur Adcock: Collected Poems, Victoria University Press, 2019.
The feijoas are falling from the trees
The feijoas are falling from the trees –
a fresh bag-load every day.
Winter is on its way.
I am in the kitchen
shucking feijoas like oysters –
filling ice-cream containers to freeze.
Won’t it be nice to eat them in July?
Rory is a good man, who hates feijoas.
I see a strong gust outside
and I imagine the sound of a feijoa falling.
Crashing into branches on its way down,
waiting to be plucked
from the leaves and soil.
Winter is on its way.
I try to think of how I could earn
more money; work harder, get ahead.
There is never enough
and it would be nice to get ahead.
I write a list of all the things
I need to make –
stewed feijoas, feijoa crumble –
another gust: feijoa cake.
from Enough, Victoria University Press, 2013
I tell my brother about the boy at school
I make him tickle my back
and every time he stops
I tell him about the boy at school
who can do it
The Best In The World.
My brother and I are Siamese twins
I graft him to me
his pyjama holes to my buttons
and we sleep face to face.
When they try to lift me out
I keep my eyes shut
my mother has to call for help
the surgeon is delayed till morning.
Grandpa comes on Thursdays
when they are at counselling
he watches Dad’s Army.
My brother and I eat pancakes
I tell him how stupid he is
how much I hate him
and how I have hollowed out little caverns
in the pancakes and filled them with ants.
At 7pm on Wednesday night
when the Love Boat is on
they ask me who I think should get the house.
I make my brother an ice-cream sundae
with secret passages for the Resistance to hide in
I fill them with curry and chilli and shoe polish.
My brother goes missing
I check back-yard, front-yard, park, neighbours’
wardrobes, bathroom, toilet, wash house
I know deep down he is dead
and I am a bad person
I even ring my mother at Weight Watchers –
he turns up in the warming cupboard.
My brother doesn’t know what a magistrate is
We go to The Muppet Movie
and then Ice Castles
and then Bambi (again)
my brother eats too many ice castles
and falls asleep.
We walk back to the courthouse
which is by the tearooms
and I eat a custard square.
My brother goes next door
The girlfriend comes round
and won’t go away
and threatens to cut her wrists
with the windows or mayonnaise jars.
I tell my brother to go next door and stay there
I tell the girlfriend to go ahead and kill herself
but first , Get in the taxi, just get in the taxi.
The day we meet our other brother
At Bishopdale shopping mall
we all look the same
but he looks more like our father
and tells us his life is fine
as if we might be robbers
who will break into his house
and remove everything he has.
I take my friend round to my brother’s
I’m nervous about seeing him on my own
but he’s hungover and gentle
and shows us the tiny box of ashes.
His wife gets home with a new jacket
she puts the box back on its stand
So you’ve shown them our son? she says
and rips off all the buttons.
first appeared at The Spinoff Review of Books 2016
The night sky is full of
we are more clever than
most – we know
they are just
Nothing beautiful –
not space sailors blown
from their ships – the light from
treasure quickly grasped
in their fists
only reaching us now.
It’s a useless kind of light –
The palm of your hand lies
on my knee
like a gold coin
trying to free up my joints
but I don’t feel like
And your voice has had
its heartwood cut out
a woodpecker taps a hollow
the bark casing where
other things dwell
now – rats and
In the dark your face
is different – you have more
teeth than normal and
Sugar Magnolia Wilson
from Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean, Auckland University Press, 2019
Claire Mabey is founder of Verb Wellington which is an organisation dedicated to supporting Aotearoa writers and readers. Verb has a Readers & Writers Festival this year between 3 – 7 November and the programme is out now. She is also curator for the Aotearoa New Zealand Festival of the Arts’ writers programme 2022 and is mum to Charlie.
Fleur Adcock, born in Auckland in 1934, is a highly acclaimed New Zealand poet, editor and translator who resides in Britain. She has published many collections of poems, most recently Glass Wings (2013), The Land Ballot (2014), Hoard (2017) and The Mermaid’s Purse (2021). Her awards include the 1961 Festival of Wellington Poetry Award, the Jessie Mackay Prize in 1968 and 1972, the Buckland Award in 1968 and 1979, the New Zealand National Book Award in 1984, an OBE in 1986, the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2006, and a CNZM for services to literature in 2008. In 2019 she was the recipient of a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement.
Tusiata Avia is an internationally acclaimed poet, performer and children’s author. She has published 4 collections of poetry, 3 children’s books and her play ‘Wild Dogs Under My Skirt’ had its off-Broadway debut in NYC, where it took out The Fringe Encore Series 2019 Outstanding Production of the Year. Most recently Tusiata was awarded a 2020 Arts Foundation Laureate and was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry and the arts.
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.
Sugar Magnolia Wilson is from the Far North of New Zealand. She completed her MA in creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington in 2012. Her book Because a Woman’s Heart is like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean was longlisted for the 2020 Ockham book awards. Her work has been published in most of the usual NZ literary journals.
Poetry Shelf Spring Season
Tara Black picks poems
Victor Rodger picks poems
Peter Ireland picks poems
Emma Espiner picks poems