Poetry Shelf Spring Season: Francis Cooke picks poems

Putting this collection together, I tried to group some of my all-time and recent favourite poems in ways where they sat comfortably next to one another – my little poetry playlist/mixtape for Poetry Shelf. Many thanks to Paula for inviting me to put it together, and to all the poets who agreed to be included (and apologies all my favourites that I couldn’t fit in – I was already pushing the limit!).

Alistair Te Ariki Campbell is one of my very favourite writers, especially his love poems. I feel like people often get self-conscious or apologetic about writing love poems – less of this, please! ‘The Fall’ is one of the reasons why it’s so good when a great poet absolutely gets in their feelings – a small, exquisite moment of tenderness, along with useful health & safety advice.

Sophie van Waardenberg is one of the people following in Alistair’s tradition as a great NZ love poet – she’s been slowly building up a collection of wonderful, open-hearted love poems across different journals over the last few years. ‘schön’ is the first of these that I read, a cascade of details and slightly askew metaphors that accumulate into something wonderful.

Cadence Chung’s ‘Hey Girls’ is similar to Sophie’s cascade of moments and images, building into a torrent – it’s one of a series of long, wild poems that have been part of Cadence’s rampage across NZ literary journals over the past two years (see also ‘Girls just wanna have fun’ in The Spinoff, ‘fight scene’ in Food Court, ‘that’s why they call me missus farenheit’ in Landfall, and much more). I’m very excited for her first book, arriving from We Are Babies press next year, giving her just enough time to finish high school in the interim.

I am a very easy touch for any poem that makes me laugh, and Caroline Shepherd is one of the funniest out there – she’s a master at telling jokes as a way to communicate something honest and sincere and sometimes painful. ‘MH370’ was a poem that I remember reading (in Mimicry journal, much loved and missed) and wanting to tell everyone about immediately. (Note: if you want to keep the theme of love poems going rather than pivoting to air disasters, feel free to substitute in Caroline’s equally great ‘Crush Poem!’ here).

I had the same response to ‘Children are the orgasm of the world’, which was the first Hera Lindsay Bird poem I ever read, and wanted to shout from the rooftops about for weeks afterwards (although I think I mostly settled for reading it loudly to my flatmates). I still think about it every time I see a bag with a cheerful affirmation on it.

Hannah Mettner’s ‘Birth Control’ is a recent favourite, one that knocked me down when I first read it in Sweet Mammalian, and then did so again when I heard her read it at Unity Books a few months ago. I love long, exploratory poems like this – something with the time and scope to tell you something new about art history and biblical studies on the way to its conclusion.

Sinead Overbye’s ‘Wormhole’ is another big, wide-ranging poem – I love Sinead’s writing in this form (see also her ‘The River’, ‘Hinemoana’ and more). She always uses her experimentations with the layout of her poem to structure and guide the reader to something deeply felt – she’s another very open-hearted writer. This was originally part of an exquisite corpse experiment for the Digital Writers Festival in Australia where it was paired with music from Ruby Solly (as well as video and coding from two Australian artists, Veronica Charmont and Ruby Quail), and I highly recommend reading it with Ruby’s accompaniment.

Chris Tse and Louise Wallace are both two of my favourite poets and favourite people, so I picked favourites by them that I think read well next to one another. ‘Spanner–A Toast’ and ‘Why we need a reunion’ are both quiet, reflective poems that still hit me hard, years after first reading them. I remember Bill Manhire once described one of Louise’s poems as being like a pebble dropped in the centre of a lake – at first it might seem small, but the ripples keep spreading further and further in your mind after you’ve read it. I think both of these poems do that.

Tayi Tibble’s ‘Karakia 4 a Humble Skux’ is the most recent poem I’ve read that stopped me in my tracks, so it’s the last poem here. It comes towards the end of her new book, Rangikura, and after all of the turbulence in that collection is an incredible moment of calm and transformation – Tayi is always shifting and surprising me as a reader, and she does it again here.

The poems

The Fall

for Meg

I had been painting the blue sky
a brighter blue.
I had been higher than I thought possible.
When I fell,
the sun wheeled spokes of light
about my head

I make no excuses for my fall –
anyone that aims at such heights
must take the necessary precautions.
He must take care
to lean his ladder against a fixed object,
preferably a star.

O love, knowing your constancy,
how did I fail
to lean it against your heart?

Alistair Te Ariki Campbell

from It’s Love, Isn’t It? The Love Poems, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and Meg Campbell HeadworX, 2008

schön

my girl watered her cacti until they drowned
my girl filled my house with flowers until the house coughed and fell down

my girl ties yellow ribbons to my hair with her cold hands
and calls me beautiful in swooping german and my girl laughs

when my girl laughs she cuts my life in two and two again
where she kisses me there is love fizzing from my cheeks to the car windows

and we walk into the supermarket at midnight when the lilies have gone quiet
and hold hands past the eggs and milk and cut-price easter bunnies

when my girl wakes up she looks at me close and still smiles
my girl nearest to me in the world plucks her eyebrows and frowns and proves her face

my girl and I, here we are, refusing to decide what to feed each other
in the crumbed kitchen with the lights off

my girl and I spill our egg yolks on wednesday’s astrology
forget that we are paper boats pushed out to sea by wistful hands

my girl forgets with me the drycleaning ticket
my girl forgets with me the breakfast cost

my girl becomes a calendar and I curl up inside her
my girl becomes a tongue twister and I curl up inside her

my girl lets the spring in through her hands
she puts her hands over my ears and I remember how it feels

it is nice and nice and nice

Sophie van Waardenberg

from Mimicry 4, 2018

Hey girls

Hey girls         could we dance
    in the glister of a winter night      could we hum
along to the hazy beat of jazz?     We could be neon

we could be starlets      eyeliner like slits in our skin
     holding that little 20s powder compact    in the shape of
a gun       (with a matching bullet-shaped lipstick).

God, girls         I’d love to glow as green as
     radium glassware, discarded in the night
like a ghost’s banquet, all the dead dames and dandies

      sipping toxic wine, listening to the click of the
Geiger counter getting louder     louder      louder, girls,
   there are graves that still hum with radiation, that you

can’t stand too close to      or your cells will go haywire
    split, swirl, divide     oh girls        I’d paint my lips
fluorescent green      just to poison for 24,000 years longer.

Hey ladies       if the jazz gets too much    then how about
   we listen to the slow    descent    into tragedy 
that Chopin always reminds me of      like the blood

crusted onto a stale knife      with lapis, emerald, ruby
  on the hilt. We could waltz       far too close
at the ball       cause a scandal       come home with

our petticoats swapped around     and smelling like
       each other, so much so        that the swallows would
change their paths, mix up their routes        confused

with the exchange of souls       and lace, and love. My girls,
       I could be the humble gardener     with crooked teeth
and dirt down my nails       you could be the fair dame

who never accepts marriage proposals      and spends
    all her time planting violets       to coat in coarse sugar
make the bitter petals sweet.     Girls, we could dance 

in the dry-throated-heart-thumping mess of waiting
   backstage before a show, listen to the crowd shout
louder than the glaring stars.        We could wear huge

plastic earrings, so heavy       they can only be worn
  once a year. Girls, let’s tie the ends     of our button-down blouses
and make them into crop-tops      wear sunglasses on

our heads, but never let them blind us     to our brightness. Hey
    hey      hey     girls        if flowers bloom on my grave
then I hope they have disco lights        on their stamens

so people never forget      the sweat-slicked thumpthumpthump
     of my past; the statues        of the Greeks    were once painted
and were hideously gaudy, but we forget      that things were not always

just bronze, marble, and plaster.      We forget the click
     from the gravestones, growing louder every day. Ticktickticktick
tick, the ground is growing heavy     from the weight    of such

blistering souls it carries. Tickticktickticktick, girls, before
   it’s too late    let us paint ourselves    with the brightest pigment
  and burn our kisses    into history books    ‒     xoxoxo.

Cadence Chung

from Poetry New Zealand Yearbook, Massey University Press, 2021. The poem was the winner of the 2021 Poetry New Zealand Yearbook Student Competition, Year 12 division.

MH370

A whole ass plane disappeared five years ago and we still
Take the bins out and get Thai takeaway

Turn on the news and they’re talking about the print on the royal baby’s bib and I
feel like dragging a really large wine glass into somewhere crowded and
politely drowning in it
to force the point that an ENTIRE plane disappeared
OUT OF THE SKY and it isn’t the first thing the Prime News guy opens with like

“Kia ora good evening, I’m Eric Young, an entire fucking plane disappeared 1825 days ago, and this is prime news”

I am no expert in planes or in flight or in anything
I am silly and stupid and stuck on this, unattractively, like a mad child

but: an airplane, gone, vanished
that flushed, roaring engine
227 passengers, 10 flight attendants, 2 pilots and a snack cart

And the world continues, which I guess is what it does
But I want to place a formal compliant to whoever is in charge of this kind of thing
that cornflakes shouldn’t go on special when a plane is missing,
or at the very least milk should also go on special at the same time

A plane leaves and we look for it and when we don’t find it, we go on. We let the world get away with being this big. Worse- we know it’s this big and we don’t spend all our time afraid. That is the point. Sorry it took so long to say so. Something should not be so large and unforgiving 

Caroline Shepherd

from Mimicry 5, 2019

Children are the Orgasm of the World

This morning on the bus there was a woman carrying a bag with inspirational sayings and positive affirmations which I was reading because I’m a fan of inspirational sayings and positive affirmations. I also like clothing that gives you advice. What’s better than the glittered baseball cap of a stranger telling you what to strive for? It’s like living in a world of endless therapists. The inspirational bag of the woman on the bus said a bunch of stuff like ‘live in the moment’ and ‘remember to breathe,’ but it also said ‘children are the orgasm of the world.’ Are children the orgasm of the world like orgasms are the orgasms of sex? Are children the orgasm of anything? Children are the orgasm of the world like hovercraft are the orgasm of the future or silence is the orgasm of the telephone or shit is the orgasm of the lasagne. You could even say sheep are the orgasm of lonely pastures, which are the orgasm of modern farming practices which are the orgasm of the industrial revolution. And then I thought why not? I like comparing stuff to other stuff too. Like sometimes when we’re having sex and you look like a helicopter in a low budget movie, disappearing behind a cloud to explode. Or an athlete winning a prestigious international sporting tournament at the exact same moment he discovers his wife has just been kidnapped. For the most part, orgasms are the orgasms of the world. Like slam dunking a glass basketball. Or executing a perfect dive into a swimming pool full of oh my god. Or travelling into the past to forgive yourself and creating a time paradox so beautiful it forces all of human history to reboot, stranding you naked on some distant and rocky outcrop, looking up at the sunset from a world so new looking up hasn’t even been invented yet

Hera Lindsay Bird

from Hera Lindsay Bird, Victoria University Press, 2016

Birth control

We begin with the viral video of the anaconda
in New England giving birth to her exact genetic copies
because she’s never even seen a male snake
in all her eight years behind glass.

The headlines are calling it a virgin birth.

I watched the video this morning—
now everywhere I turn, a Madonna, a snake.
Oh, Rome, how you worship your silk-hipped mothers!

You heap your offerings of smoke and ash, your hard heels
of bread. This church is just another Santa Maria 
with an old woman in a shawl
and a takeaway coffee cup
shaking outside.

*

At the Vatican yesterday, I wondered
if he-who-sees-everything could see the small t-shaped 
thing inside me. I walked through the metal detectors and bag-check
and had the surreal thought that the Pope
might sweep down to deny me entry
like Jesus in The Last Judgment.

When I first had it inserted, I bled for a month and ruined
all the underwear I owned, even 
though I rinsed them in cold water first
the way my mother taught me. 
Every day I’d think it’d stopped, but it kept coming—
Mary’s stigmata, Eve’s—relentless
like the blood after birth—
uterus closing like a fist
with nails cutting into the palm.

In the Vatican there is so much art, so much wealth,
but what I notice is the absence of Madonnas. 
Every wall in Rome is frescoed with Marys
except here, the holy centre.

*

At home, my daughter, who has grown
so tall so quickly it looks like someone has grabbed her
at either end and pulled, starts taking the pill
to manage her bleeding.

Six months ago she was innocent as grass. 
Seems like every initiation into womanhood is an initiation
into pain. Into seeing the other women
busying around us, bruising hips
on the corners of tables,
gasping in the bathroom as their stitches tear—

trying to hold back the knowledge of it, doing their best
always, always rubbing honey into the wound, almond
butter into the cracks in their hands, delivering us
into the knowledge of blood. 

*

In this church the colours are fairy floss and hayfever
and bubble-gum flavoured milk but Byzantine.

The gold is so bright that we glow a bit, even though we joked
about burning up as we walked in. If god made gold, it was
definitely for this—to dazzle us into a submissive kind of belief.

But, later, all these churches later, what I remember
is the fresco of the one woman with her arms held wide
trying to call her companions
to order, like Bitches, please,
and that poor woman
on her left with a toddler and a baby on her lap
each clamouring for a breast.

Another woman seems to be resting a sandalled foot
casually on the decapitated head of a man. Her robe
drapes a bit in the blood, but she’s too deep in conversation
to notice that. On the far side of the group 
the woman in blue has her arm raised
to receive a raven while she whispers in her friend’s ear.

This is the pastel chaos of womanhood. And behind them
all in black, a neat semicircle of men.  

*

What’s helpful is to know what the line ‘Blessed be
the fruit’ actually means. It’s what the serpent said to Eve
just before she bit—what Eve said to Adam
juice dripping down her chin. 

*

In Rome, outside every church are four or five
armed soldiers and a jeep, spilling ash from their cigarettes
between the cobblestones, watching. Kitset boys in camouflage
and blood-red berets.

I sit on the steps of the fountain and google the church—
the first church in Rome dedicated to Mary, it holds the head
of the virgin martyr Saint Apollonia. But before that 
it was a pagan temple dedicated to Carmenta —
goddess of childbirth, prophecy and technical innovation.
Inventor of the Latin alphabet.

And the old woman, begging outside? One of the soldiers
calls her Maria and hands her a bomboloni
wrapped in a paper napkin.

*

The light around the broken temple of the virgins
is orange and thick. If the flame went out, the women
were blamed for being unchaste. Whoever the culprit—
she was buried alive with just enough apricots and milk

to make the death a low-angled wasting. What would her heart
do, while her face was pulling back into its bones? She
would cry, and you would too, for spending your life
a servant to fire, and never knowing
how it felt to burn. 

*

Parthenogenesis is the ancient word for a virgin birth—
not magic, but a well-documented biological process
in many plants and animals. Typically, what has happened

is that if men can’t explain a thing, they call it witchcraft
and destroy it. There is a hymn for everything here 
and this is the hymn for days made narrow through lack
of sleep. This is the hymn for the good-bad gift
of knowing.  

       

Hannah Mettner

from Sweet Mammalian 7, 2020

Wormhole

Sinead Overbye

from Scum, July 2020

Spanner—A toast

To be the sun.
To be locked in the care
of glass.
                 To show, then offer.
To know that love
is the most dangerous
sting yet to still give up an arm.
           To wake from machines
and know your hope will
never be yours alone.
To take to those machines
as an unexpected spanner.
To fill a touch
with a complete
backstory.
To leave sugar
at my door to keep
you close. To crave

                but not seek.
To know the future and
avoid it. To accept that
after silk comes rain
from dark, honest clouds.
To lose a smile
at a storied game of chance.
To let the morning
sweep away
the last nine months.
To wrong no other
even when the line’s
                   gone dead.
To family and friendship.
To starts, to ends,
to towers
we go.

Chris Tse

from He’s So MASC, Auckland University Press, 2018

Why we need a reunion

Something about long driveways,
wizened trees sprawling
overhead, the stew
and the yeasty bread. Country comes
from the stereo. I like it, I admit –
but only in this house.

At the lunch table it’s
the same old stories – comforting
like the meal. What will you do?
My family’s favourite question.
I try to think of a new answer,
one they might not mind.

Nana broke science.
She overpowered our genes –
wrestled them to the floor. Let’s forget
about who got the coffee table
she made from shells. But who did?
Let’s forget that.

I could have used a funny uncle
growing up. Call me ‘Boss’, he said,
and we did, but never saw him much.
Other than that, I can’t mention names –
everything is touchy still.
We won’t be here forever you know,
the gorse will eat the hills.

Louise Wallace

from Since June, Victoria University Press, 2009

A Karakia 4 a Humble Skux

I take a bath in my body of water
I take a bath in my body of water

I know I am the daughter of rangi papa tangaroa
I know I am the daughter of rangi papa tangaroa

& every yung god who fucked it up before me.
& every yung god who fucked it up before me.

Every day I breach the surface cleanly
Every day I breach the surface cleanly

& step out dripping so hard
& step out dripping so hard

ya better call a plumber.
ya better call a plumber.

God I’m a flex.
God I’m a flex.

I’m God’s best sex.
I’m God’s best sex.

I am made in the image of God.
I am made in the image of God.

I am made in the image of my mother.
I am made in the image of my mother.

I am made in the image of
I am made in the image of

my mountain
my river
my whenua

my mountain
my river
my whenua

Yeah I’m as fresh as my oldest tipuna.
Yeah I’m as fresh as my oldest tipuna.

Even when I’m lowkey I’m loud.
Even when I’m lowkey I’m loud.

Lil, but a million years old.
Lil, but a million years old.

I’ve been germinating like a seed
I’ve been germinating like a seed

been on my vibe like an atom
been on my vibe like an atom

& I am wilder than anything
& I am wilder than anything

my ancestors could have imagined.
my ancestors could have imagined.

So release the parts of me that call for change
So release the parts of me that call for change

but the energy is stale.
but the energy is stale.

I’m switching it all up
I’m switching it all up

fishing stars into the sea
fishing stars into the sea

and painting the skyful of whales.
and painting the skyful of whales.

Keep it humble, keep it skux.
Keep it humble, keep it skux.

Keep it pushing, keep it cute.
Keep it pushing, keep it cute.

I be in the marae doing the dishes
I be in the marae doing the dishes

cos there’s mahi to do.
cos there’s mahi to do.

Creator and Creation.
Creator and Creation.

I am made of the same
I am made of the same

star matter as legends.
star matter as legends.

Āmene.
Āmene.

Lesh go.
Lesh go.

Tayi Tibble

from Rangikura, Victoria University Press, 2021

Francis Cooke is a Wellington author and co-editor (with Louise Wallace and the editorial committee of Tate Fountain, Claudia Jardine and Sinead Overbye) of Starling journal.

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

Alistair Te Ariki Campbell (1925 – 2009) was born in Rarotonga and lived in Aotearoa from the age of eight. During his writing career of sixty years, he published 20 poetry collections along with novels, plays and an autobiography. His many honours and awards included a NZ Book Award for Poetry (1982), an Honorary DLitt from Victoria University of Wellington (1999), the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement (2005). He was made an Officer of NZ Order of Merit (2005).

Cadence Chung is a poet and student at Wellington High School. She has been writing poetry since she was at primary school, and draws inspiration from classic literature, Tumblr text posts, and roaming antique stores.

Hannah Mettner (she/her) is a Wellington writer who still calls Tairāwhiti home. Her first collection of poetry, Fully Clothed and So Forgetful, was published by Victoria University Press in 2017, and won the Jessie Mackay Award for best first book of poetry at the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She is one of the founding editors of the online journal Sweet Mammalian, with Sugar Magnolia Wilson and Morgan Bach.

Sinead Overbye (Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata) is a poet and fiction writer living in Wellington. In 2018 she completed her MA in creative writing at the IIML. She founded and co-edits Stasis Journal. Her work can be found in The Pantograph Punch, Tupuranga Journal, Turbine | Kapohau, Starling, and other places.

Caroline Shepherd is (still) a Victoria University student whose work has appeared in the Spinoff, Starling, and Stasis, along with some other places that do not start with S. She is based in Wellington and likes mint slices, actually. 

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.

Chris Tse is the author of two poetry collections published by Auckland University Press – How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (winner of Best First Book of Poetry at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards) and HE’S SO MASC – and is co-editor of the Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ Writers From Aotearoa (AUP, 2021).

Sophie van Waardenberg is a poet from Tāmaki Makaurau and a current MFA candidate at Syracuse University, where she serves as an Editor-in-Chief of Salt Hill Journal. Her first chapbook-length collection, does a potato have a heart?, was published in Auckland University Press’s New Poets 5 (2019).

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. She spent the level 4 lockdown at home with her partner and young son on the Otago Peninsula.

Poetry Shelf Spring Season

Tara Black picks poems
Victor Rodger picks poems
Peter Ireland picks poems
Emma Espiner picks poems
Claire Mabey picks poems
Sally Blundell picks poems

 

2 thoughts on “Poetry Shelf Spring Season: Francis Cooke picks poems

  1. Pingback: Poetry Shelf Spring Season: We Are Babies pick poems | NZ Poetry Shelf

  2. Pingback: Poetry Shelf Spring season: Kasandra Hart-Kaumoana and Bridget van de Zijpp (AWF) pick poems | NZ Poetry Shelf

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