Poetry Shelf review: Anne Kennedy’s The Sea Walks into a Wall

The Sea Walks into a Wall, Anne Kennedy, Auckland University Press, 2021

          On the beach, always an aftermath of a wedding
          froth and a mess of ribbon and glass,
          a runway for lost souls returning
          a regret.

          Tangaroa is like butter in the sun today.

          I love the wall. I pummel the wall. My hands are on
          the warm, grey, post-industrial wall.

          In the next storm, the sea will take the wall
          back into its real-time, moving, shining

          My heart is like a wall
          struck down in a storm.
          You didn’t even need that wall
          at all.


               from ‘The Sea Walks into a Wall’


Opening a new collection by Anne Kennedy is always a delight. Her 2021 collection The Sea Walks into a Wall confirms she is one of Aotearoa’s most inventive and assured poets. She weaves autobiographical traces along a musical clef with a roving mind and linguistic agility. She touches upon matters of the heart, political issues that demand voice, multiple themes. The Sea Walks into a Wall is shortlisted for Ockham NZ Book Awards, and it is easy to understand why her poetry has received multiple awards to date.

The opening poem ‘Flood Monologue’ features a stream as protagonist: a companion stream, a sick stream, a raucous stream. The poem is lithe and witty, complex and plain. It is the perfect gateway to a collection that renders streams and currents into poetic existence. You absorb poetic movement as process, thought, revelation. Helen Rickerby says on the back of the book, Anne has produced ‘a treasure trove’. And indeed she has.

I keep returning to the poetry as tidal movement. The poet is pausing, adding, refining. Anne plays with the melody, employing strong and weak beats, short and long phrasings. The collection’s tidal music is exquisite in the ear. Nowhere more so than in the title poem ‘The Sea Walks into a Wall’. What is said laps against what is not said, daily life ripples alongside a reading life and a thinking life. The waves shimmer with both past and future, the present a luminous constant. It is the kind of poem that keeps pulling you back in, like a swimmer pulled back into ocean enchantments.

‘In the Way’ is not water focused, yet its tidal effect is a wave-smash of feeling, hauntings perhaps, as the lines spiral and loop and cut back. This is a poem of family and home, like a curling fable, with an aromatic arrival of distractions, subtractions, contractions. How to live? How to be? Things get ‘In the way’, and as the repeating line reiterates, ‘Love fills the room like a maze’.

        For several months you hold the car door open for toddlers.

        Weeks watching the progress of mercury in a thermometer.

        Several years the pages of critical theory kept you from death.

        A poem kept you from death.

        A big wind gathers out at sea.

        There’s another thing like a box and you don’t know what’s in it.

        You walk together in the forest and the forest is a thing.


             from ‘In the Way’      


I love the way the collection as a whole cannot pinned down to narrow keys, form, lengths, and the tonal shifts and reaches (like the ocean) are exactly what adds pleasure to the reading experience. There is an ongoing sense of the poet speaking to you the reader. Alongside a plainer poem (with its own complex delights) there will be a denser treat. ‘Warp and Aho: A Part-life in Flax’, with its thatch and weave and lace holes, is a tour de force occasion. A poem that hooks you into its stitching, line after line, with linguistic deftness, multiple languages, personal musings, opinions, admissions, and again, even though this is a poem of weft and weave, I am reminded of the glorious movement of the ocean.

Anne has produced the kind of poetry collection that demands repeated readings, in multiple states of mind, in diverse reading locations. It will astonish, challenge, transport and soothe. A sumptuous and satisfying reading experience.

Anne Kennedy is the author of three novels, a novella, four books of poetry, and many anthologised short stories. Her first book of poetry Sing-song was named Poetry Book of the Year at the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. The Darling North won the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry, and Moth Hour was a poetry finalist at the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Anne has also won the BNZ Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award and has held fellowships at the University of Auckland, the IIML, and at the University of at Hawai‘i. She has taught creative writing for a number of years in Hawai‘i and Auckland.

You can read ‘Fox and Hounds’ previously published on Poetry Shelf

Auckland University Press author page

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