Poetry Shelf celebrates 2021: Emma Neale picks favourite books

The Pink Jumpsuit, Emma Neale, Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2021

Rather than do my annual list where I invite loads of poets to pick favourite books, I opted for a much smaller feature. I have invited authors whose work I have loved (a book of any genre, a poem, a website) to share favourites. No easy task as I have read so many books I have loved in the past year: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, children’s, local and international. On Friday 17th I will post the feature but, between then and now, I am posting some authors who have produced longer contributions.

Emma Neale’s collection of short fictions is one of my favourite reads of the year. In my short review, I wrote:

Any book by Emma Neale underlines what a supreme wordsmith she is. At times I stop and admire the sentences like I might admire the stitching of a hand-sewn garment.

Like Emma free-falling into memory, sideways skating after looking at ‘Wanderlust’, I am free-falling and sideways skating with this glorious book. I am free-falling into the power of truths, diverted by fiction, the dark the light, the raw edge of human experience, and this matters, this matters so very much.

Emma Neale, a Dunedin based writer and editor, is the author of six novels and six collections of poetry. Her most recent collection is To the Occupant (Otago University Press). In 2020 she received the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry.

Emma Neale’s Picks


I’m disoriented when I realise how few full poetry collections I’ve read this year. Lockdown, and then major surgery, altered my reading habits more dramatically than I was aware of until I sat down to look at my (scrappy) reading journal. I feel a bit like the dreamy kid who hasn’t done all her homework: there are so many 2021 titles that I haven’t managed to read yet. But books should last so much longer than their year of publication, shouldn’t they?

Selima Hill’s Gloria: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books) stands out, for its gorgeously bewildering fusion of the surreal, the direct, the subversive and sharp; she writes tiny, acid drop poems that sting you awake with their dark and often tragic accounts of male-female relationships and family, and their sardonic skewering of contemporary consumerist culture.

The Selected Poems of Tomaž Šalamun – edited by Charles Simic (The Ecco Press), with an introduction by Robert Hass, was a new discovery for me: I ordered it on the strength of the opening  poem ‘History’ – which is wacky, subversive, swerves from apparently self-aggrandising to irreverent and bitterly self-mocking with rapid, comically dislocating speed. 

Pascale Petit’s Tiger Girl (Bloodaxe Books) in which many poems explore her grandmother’s Indian heritage, and the natural world in subcontinental jungles, was a delight to read, as her work is exuberant with metaphor and simile, even when she deals with grim  psychologically tough material. I feel like she is a bit of a soulmate poet, as she doesn’t necessarily agree that less is more. Lush is more, here, and there are times I just want to soak up to my chin in the warmth and prismatic light of this generous, capacious voice.

Between us Not Half a Saint, co-authored by Rushi Vyas and Rajiv Mohabir (Gasher). This collection astonished me with its discipline, the dialogue between the two poets, the way it manages to embrace the political and the spiritual; how well the dialogue about responsibility, power, identity, territory, belief, self vs ‘community’ operates.

Siobhan Harvey’s Ghosts (Otago University Press) was an intellectually and emotionally challenging editing job I was lucky enough to work on; the poetry often stretched the ‘literal-minded’/logic-tracking compartment of my editing brain while we were at the dialogue stage of author-and-editor; and I think (I hope!) it made me a more open reader. The final book, which includes a profound personal essay, is intensely philosophical, and another striking achievement from the author of Cloudboy

Prayers for the Living & the Dead by Lindsay Rabbit (SP) was a refreshingly sparse, quiet, and reflective collection: somehow it helped to still the babble, clamour, the torrent of words from other non-literary sources pouring in to my head and home this year.

The Wilder Years: Selected Poems by David Eggleton (Otago University Press) – as I said at the Dunedin Writers and Readers festival event on the politics of poetry: David’s work ranges from the piercingly lyrical, to epic postcolonial tsunamis of language, that exhibit a zany abundance of imagination and, I think, an extraordinary capacity to hold wild contraries together, in work that often has the spring and salt of satire. The poems condense such a vast general knowledge, comment on so many social phenomena, that often when reading his work I’ve thought, ‘David is basically the internet’.

I’m still reading both How to Live with Mammals, by Ash Davida Jane (VUP), and Rangikura by Tayi Tibble (VUP). In the first, I’m enjoying the interleaving of vulnerability, humour, intriguing facts slipped in like quick sparkles of energy, a youthful spritz and yet a piercing nostalgia for the planet as it once was, a filmic sense of what it’s like to be young and in love and still frightened of how it all trembles on the brink of loss and collapse. With the second, I’m finding it shares some of the qualities of Ash Davida Jane’s work, and yet the unpredictable power dynamics of desire, the history of imperialism, colonialism, and the dance of contemporary and mythic references are a bright, looping needle-and-thread running through it all. 

Bird Collector, by Alison Glenny (Compound Press) seems both somehow more humorous and more absurd than  The Farewell Tourist, yet it still has a kind of atmosphere of loss and melancholy. Elliptical answers to elusive questions; nostalgia for an impossible past; large tracts of knowledge erased; definitions from a dreamlike dictionary; the melancholy of lost, exquisite creatures, moments, and even of self-recognition …. this collection is intriguing. As I’ve said elsewhere, ‘it  reads as if a Victorian composer, carrying her valise of new operetta libretti, collided in the street with a watchmaker, his briefcase of sketches for a new time-keeping device, and a genderfluid astronomer toting the patent forms for a mechanised orrery made of blown egg shells and  bird skulls. Their papers, shuffled together by misdirected desires, unspoken and even unconscious intentions, lead to an entirely new work — a sheaf of pages where the negative space of silence speaks as pressingly as the shape of song.’

Bird Collector increases the absurd humour and the sense of literary pastiche found in The Farewell Tourist,  as it both flirts with voices of disembodied wisdom and scholarship, and exposes so much of what is surreal in human behaviour, by creating an alternative, credible epoch and society that seems bound by strange rules, to contain weird and uncanny juxtapositions, yet is as riven by unpredictable desires and sudden disappearances as our own. A plangent strain of loss might rise from the pages: yet when we wake from their trance, we’ve seen such entertainingly strange and marvellous things.  


I’ve written elsewhere about how much I Ioved Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book (Penguin), and Doireeann Ni Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat (Tramp Press) this year; both psychologically profound and lyrically composed books, which explore the construction of identity, and the sometimes subtle (but often glaringly overt) cross-tides of internalised and institutionalised misogyny. They variously examine narcissism, parenthood, motherhood, marriage, and in Ni Ghríofa’s work, the erasure of women’s experiences historically: in the sense that archival records of their lives, in the past, weren’t kept as clearly or as diligently as those of men. The books are very different stylistically, yet in my mind, they mirror or ghost each other. 

Another memoir that I rate really highly this year is Deborah Levy’s Real Estate (Penguin), for its exploration of ideas of independence and motherhood after children have left home; singledom after a long marriage; and the politics of heterosexual relationships. One of the paragraphs that beams out illumination runs:

Is it domestic space, or is it just a space for living? And if it is a space for living, then no one’s life has more value than another,  no one can take up most of that space or spray their moods in every room or intimidate anyone else. It seems to me that a space for living is more gendered and that a space for living is more fluid. Never again did I want to sit at a table with heterosexual couples and feel that women were borrowing their space. When that happens, it makes landlords of their male partners and the women are their tenants.

Local fiction that I’ve lost myself in this year includes Sue Orr’s intricate, sensitive, thoughtful Loop Tracks (VUP); some of the  quiet, elegant stories in Elizabeth Smither’s The Piano Girls (Quentin Wilson Publishing), others in Tracy Slaughter’s The Devil’s Trumpet (particularly the extended piece published as the novella-in-flash, If there is no shelter) (VUP) and Kirsten McDougall’s comic eco-thriller, She’s a Killer (VUP), which I’m celebrating for its tense and ominous cameo from a blissfully unaware-yet-also-wary four year old, towards the end … argh!!! Do not drink strong coffee immediately just before this scene. 

I came late to Catherine Chidgey’s Remote Sympathy (VUP), which was published last year: but it absolutely knocks it out of the book-park for me in terms of New Zealand fiction I’ve read lately. It’s skilfully constructed, managing several different narrative voices; it somehow deals with traumatic, terrifying cruelty with a superlatively light hand, which enables us to keep looking at the heart and mind of evil. Chidgey has a gift for choosing the right metaphor or simile to encapsulate a situation at exactly the right moment: the way she balances plot and poetry is exquisite for the reader. For me as a writer, it makes me want to throw up my hands and quit and yet at the same time it makes me want to work even harder. It’s a bittersweet confusion to have.

I’ll limit my raves to two other novels I read this year. One is David Vann’s Halibut on the Moon (Text Publishing), an immensely strong fictionalised version of the last days of his father’s life before he committed suicide. It is a remarkable achievement, as we want to keep reading, even though the main character’s actions and desires are often deeply repellent. There’s such compassion in the narrative, somehow, and I found myself comparing it to the unlikeable narrators in two other books I read this year: Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin) and First Love by Gwendolyn Riley (Allen & Unwin); both books I failed to engage with fully. I think Vann’s novel is so effective because  we see all the other characters in Jim’s family so clearly struggling with him, and trying to bring him back to some kind of moral centre. The way Vann handles a painfully direct, honest, bitter, revealing conversation between the suicidal Jim, and his lifelong-monosyllabic father, is cooly devastating, for the way it pulls in massive unspoken, suppressed intergenerational trauma for indigenous (Cherokee) people.  

Oh really only one other rave?? Okay,  Susanna Clark’s Piranesi (Bloomsbury). A wonderful, crisply written, strange fantasy about a character who lives in a mysterious labyrinth that contains various classical marble statues, and whose vast chambers fill and drain with ocean tides. He is trying to piece together his own identity through reading shredded notebooks and trying to recall the oblique dialogues he has with the one other inhabitant of the labyrinth. At one point I thought perhaps the labyrinth was the delusion of a man terrifyingly trapped by another man   … but … if I say any more, I will tear and mangle the magic for other readers.

3 thoughts on “Poetry Shelf celebrates 2021: Emma Neale picks favourite books

  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    A Ghost in the Throat is excellent, my top read of 2020 having ordered it immediately I saw Irish readers talking about it. Your summary makes me want to start Remote Sympathies straight away, I might make it a new year though, when things slow down enough to indulge a chunkster.
    Thanks for sharing your favourite reads across genres.

    Liked by 1 person


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