Monthly Archives: September 2022

Poetry Shelf Occasional Reviews: Elizabeth Morton’s Naming the Beast

Naming the Beast, Elizabeth Morton, Otago University Press, 2022

You don’t want book reviews to diminish your reading experience, to lead you up the garden path of expectation, to lay false trails and unreliable hopes. Imagine the review as a tasting room where you let a morsel of the book swirl on your tongue, releasing flavour, leaving a vital aftertaste. You don’t want book jargon, you just want an aromatic taste (precursor) of the writing, the ideas, the feelings, the connections.

Elizabeth Morton’s Naming the Beast is poetry gold. It is the kind of book you savour slowly, absorbing brocade textures, the sumptuous threads, the surprising patterns, satisfying layers. This is poetry that is sonorous, sensual, startling. It got me thinking about how enmeshed I become in certain poetry collections. How I am laid bare as a reader. How I am spiked and soothed. I get caught in a poem, no question.

Elizabeth writes about being in someone else’s poem:

In somebody else’s poem it’s goddamned desolate. I’m in a house
with no windows; just venetian blinds on blank walls. The rotary phone
bleats hircine, and I hold a real gun to my head. In a poem, the gun goes off.
I wake in another poem, planting succulents because love goes as far
as my toes, and no further.

from ‘We write what we know when we run out of things we don’t’

I could simply pitch this as a collection of beasts and wild(er)ness, because beasts and wildness are an integral part, but it is also a collection of time, mothers, luck, castles, fire, relatives. The subject matter roves and ranges, at times resembling stream of consciousness connections, lily pad leaps, edgeways writing. The music is symphonic. The lexicon is extraordinary; words feed subterranean narratives and dreamscapes, pungent fields of details. There is plainness and there is opulence. There is the off-real and there is the hyperreal.

Celebrate the richness of poetry, the allure of detail thickets, but there is too the invitation of the unsaid, the vibrating space, the reading alcoves.

I admire the collection’s invisible stitching, the behind-the-scenes craft of the poet that produces such poetic fluency. Yet at other times, the making of poetry is poignantly visible. Poetry comes protagonist, a character moving in and out of shadow and light.

Ah, I have used book jargon, kindled your expectations crazily, so I return to my idea of a tasting room – I will hold out a tasting platter for you, and let some of Elizabeth’s lines spark your reading tastebuds.

First, bark the moon. Make ceremony from a stammer,
from a steaming crockpot of two-minute noodles,
from the way the taxi driver sucks his bottom teeth as he drives you north.

from ‘Instructions on how to lose a mind’

My mother is the night owl. My father is the tussock,
I own memories, alone. My celestial object is done for.
The rust core of a lamp that was already out – a red star coughing
though light-years of average days, days spent picking lemons
and walking average suburbs, nodding at ordinary dogs.

from ‘Stolen pepeha’

We pipette soluble proteins like mothers do. Mothers are no minor characters,
who arrange herbs like rubrics, under the soft light of a kettle stove.
Home is a fume-cupboard where legend is filtered like breath.
Our mothers huddle around pantries of cod liver oils, vitamins, and bleach.
Their hands haul the sun over the eastern hillocks, like an axiom.

from ‘Immunohistochemistry’

I want to say I know this place with my eyes closed.
I can run, butt naked, through cabbage rows and dairy cows,
and the Waikato will annunciate my name with a branding iron
and an ear tag that speaks to a bloodline sniffed out by regret.
I am writing in my first language. My second is shame.
When I dream I dream words I cannot spell.

from ‘God of nations’

If I were a robot, I would be in a better poem.
If I were a person, I’d want the telephone wires to hum like stars,
and the stars to be unavoidable.

form ‘Hard sell’

Get a copy of this book, open it, pick a poem, take a road trip within its lines, inhabit as a small retreat, sojourn in a series of alcoves. This collection is gold.

Elizabeth Morton grew up in suburban Auckland. Her poetry and prose have been published in New Zealand, the UK, the USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia and online. She holds an MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. Morton has accrued many literary acknowledgements for her work, and her previous collection of poetry, This is Your Real Name (OUP, 2020), was longlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The manuscript of Naming the Beasts was shortlisted for the 2021 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award.

Otago University Press author page

Poetry Shelf Occasional Poems: Cadence Chung’s ‘mount st.’

mount st.

I am trying to love it, all of it, including the stomachaches and the scars that pucker on my legs. They say the world is poisoned but I feel like I just have to give it a go first, sample the arsenic-yellow paintbrush just to see if it might stain something bright. “That’ll be us,” my friend says when we pass a group of kids, picnic-lunched, sun-dizzy, at the local graveyard. I can’t tell which part he means: the picnic or the being-six-foot-deep-in-a-grave. He is an actor, not a poet, and doesn’t take kindly to being immortalised in a poem. His art is all glitter and stage lights and sweat. The moment all the sweeter for not being preserved. Verse erodes on the human tongue, and a tongue is nothing but a slab of meat ‒ which is to say, it will rot. But I just can’t help it. I want to taxidermy this crude human heart just so somebody down the line remembers how it felt. Oh, how it felt: too much, too much, always bursting with clotty red blood. There’s nothing in a graveyard that you can’t find somewhere in the gristle of a human. And nothing clawing in my mind that can’t be stopped by the sight of a wild sparrow-chewed blackberry, a window glowing golden at night, two friends trying on a silly hat. I keep them like sweets under my tongue, and when, as all flesh does, it rots ‒ there’ll be sugar spilling out into the grass.

Cadence Chung

Cadence Chung is a poet, student, and musician currently studying at the New Zealand School of Music. Her original musical In Blind Faith premiered at BATS Theatre in August 2022, and her debut poetry book anomalia was published by We Are Babies Press in April 2022. Her poetry takes inspiration from Tumblr text posts, antique stores, and dead poets.

Poetry Shelf Occasional Poems: Rebecca Hawkes’ CEMETERY LAWNMOWER


“When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. … Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.”

—Robert Macfarlane in Underlands

tomb with a view – earthed on a volcano’s seaward slope
I kneel in fresh-cut lawn – not knowing whose bones
decompose below – only interested in the sheen
of this headstone – a slab of flashing feldspar
hewn in loving memory – my mother the geologist

surveys well-kempt lanes – reading the names
on strangers’ graves – the cemetery lawnmower
hums around us – clippers licking to and fro
constant as the waves – eroding the basalt cliff below
that threatens all our bones – even diamond gravestones aren’t forever

nor this rich labradorite – it births aurora borealis
in the right light – glints of scintillating indigo
blue morpho – sips of methylated lavender
a happenstance of kissing crystal facings – turned brilliant
in crushing heat – how we are all made

anew through strain – the only constant thing is change
in this restless earth – my mother sees these shifts
like a slow-motion picture – technicolour aeons
on the geological map – this is her gift to her children
she invented two new deaths – but gave us all of time

etched on a headstone – if we can learn to read igneous
glints of a frenzied planetary history – continents stretch like cats
and we are very small fleas – we do not live for long
we make our homes – in the fertile shadow
of the volcano – we build cities on fault lines

that fell cathedrals – we pray for everyone we love to live forever
then where there are graves – the lawnmowers graze
where there are cemeteries – there are rising stones
and women – who want to know the names not written on those monuments
but inside their very substance– ancient incantations in crystal language

tonight after the wake – we will gather on this hillside
to light fireworks – with a stray roman candle
the dry cut grass will blaze – brilliant as lava on this dormant caldera
and through it all the cemetery lawnmower – will hum darkly among the graves
tending to them – until the real volcano wakens

from a dream beyond all naming – reclaims the fallen and their stones
sowed like seeds beneath the lawn – returns us all
to the molten cradle – where the start of all life flows in liquid light
the sound of shifting continents – sure and steady as a mother’s heartbeat

Rebecca Hawkes

Rebecca Hawkes is a poet, painter, editor. Her first chapbook of poems Softcore coldsores appeared in the reignition of the AUP New Poets series (2019). Her debut collection Meat Lovers (AUP 2022) was awarded The Laurel Prize Best International First Collection 2022. Rachel edits the poetry journal Sweet Mammalian with Nikki-Lee Birdsey, and has co-edited an anthology of poetry on climate change, No Other Place To Stand (AUP 2022). Raised on a Mid-Canterbury sheep and beef farm, Rebecca now lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara / Wellington. She is a founding member of popstar poets’ posse Show Ponies and holds a Masters degree in nonfiction creative writing with Distinction from the International Institute of Modern Letters. 

Rebecca Hawkes website

Auckland University Press author page

Poetry Shelf an occasional poem by Anna Jackson

Shine, there’s shine and starlings 
and I’m starting to wake up 
to a series of occasional 
poems, so far a series 
of one, the first in a procession 
I look forward to as the starlings, 
nesting as usual in the wall 
behind the fridge, start again with  
a new season of fledging  
and flights.  Yesterday  
Susan came over 
from next door with pastry 
that needed baking in our oven 
because hers has broken down and  
Lucinda was soon summoned to check 
on the state of the pastry while  
Robert was left on speaker-phone  
stoking his fire. He had been  
out gathering clay – but was it clay  
or had he been gathering mud, he  
wondered – to make a koauau  
to improve his poetry readings by 
layering in taonga pūoro.  I like 
his poetry readings because 
of the way they sound just like 
him talking and how  
talking to him on the phone is  
like a poetry reading I am invited 
to interrupt when occasionally 
I have something to add, a sudden  
flight, but poetry readings  
have taken on more and more shine  
and dimension these days with  
music and dancing, even in  
my dreams.  Last night, I dreamed   
of Robert’s koauau before waking  
to find a new series of occasional poetry  
launching on Poetry Shelf 
with Robert’s poem 
about gathering clay – but 
was it clay or was it mud, he  
wonders in the poem  
as he wondered on the phone, when 
he must have already been echoing  
the poem I read as an echo of the call, 
the poem he must have written  
before he talked to me about  
the mud, no the clay, and the koauau 
which is not yet made but one 
day will sound its sound  
into the air.  I feel it echo in me 
before its first sounding and  
I want to mark the occasion of the  
dream-sounding of the koauau and to mark 
the occasion too of the occasional  
poetry series launch, and the occasion of  
the clay-gathering and the pastry 
baking and the phone call  
and the reading of Robert’s poem,  
so I am writing an occasional  
poem of my own, this poem, if   
it is a poem, not just a muddy  
stream of words, probably needing  
music backing it, or back-up dancers 
feathered and shining, sounding  
a sound beyond the words, beyond 
the work, beyond the occasion, 
beyond the writing first thing  
in the morning, the new moon  
(Tirea now, we have passed Mutuwhenua) 
still quietly auspicious  
though invisible now as the sun  
rises, rises and turns, has been rising  
for a while now, rising as I write, the birds  
quietening and my shoulders  
stiffening, and I still  
in my pyjamas – I don’t  
even know the time.

Anna Jackson

Anna Jackson’s latest collection of poetry is Pasture and Flock: New and Selected Poems (Auckland University Press, 2018). She also recently released Actions and Travels, a book on poetry (Auckland University Press, 2022). She is based in Wellington.  


Poetry Shelf Occasional Poems: Robert Sullivan’s ‘Rākaihautū’



thinks about driving to Waihao 
to fetch some uku
to make a koauau. 
It’s at Waihao Box
where you said the local boaties
couldn’t stand walking 
around your group of mana whenua
collecting uku for taonga pūoro.
I want to play taonga pūoro
like you. It’ll improve my poetry
readings where I need to lean
against the fourth wall to be heard.

It ain’t easy. I still can’t
click my fingers properly
let alone make a clay flute
in my head. It’s the idea
that some non-Māori boaties
are out there waiting
to troll me for holding up
their kayak adventure 
when this billy goat
wants a koauau journey
for healing. Āuē. I’m still 
in my dressing gown. 
If only Tangaroa
would be my valet.
Tomorrow it’s 
I don’t even know
the tides.

Robert Sullivan

Robert Sullivan belongs to the Ngāpuhi and Kāi Tahu iwi. He has won awards for his editing, poetry, and writing for children. Tunui Comet is his eighth collection of poetry. Robert’s an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Massey University. He is a great fan of all kinds of decolonisation.

Poetry Shelf update

up the road: the top paddock

Dear Poetry fans

It’s almost a month since I celebrated the arrival of glorious poet, editor and mentor Chris Tse as our National Poet Laureate.

Time then to give a blog update. I feel like, as I just said on Twitter, I have emerged from the stables after the past months, and my mind is like a horse galloping cantering dancing around the paddock before settling in for a long nap. Glorious. A bone marrow transplant is such a refresher for the mind.

I have read so much this year – and in my time back home pretty much a sublime book per day. It got me musing on how I had to hunt hard for good children’s titles as so few of them had been reviewed in New Zealand. I was musing on how I love our local children’s book communities, what they are producing, and how in my experience children still love books: reading and writing, stories and poems! Against my better judgement, with my energy tank far from full, still coping with physical challenges, I decided to transform Poetry Box into a celebration hub for children’s books, for adults and for the young, all book categories. To challenge children to write poems. To challenge adults to share children’s books. To make as many connections as I can.

I am motivated to support our young readers and writers, to support our wonderful local children’s authors, and to showcase our fabulous librarians, booksellers, and publishers.

I am also doing my own secret writing projects because words are what hold me on an even keel at the moment – writing and reading make my heart sing and allow zero room for negativity or ‘if only’ or ‘why me?’ or glumness in my head. No matter what challenges I face.

But crazily madly a part of me also wants to wake up Poetry Shelf. And yes madness as this blog has always taken such a big bite of me. Not just the posts I assemble and write but all the communications and responses to requests – and even at times, aggressive emails. I can’t cope with demands at the moment, or deadlines, or even feeling like I am failing. When I don’t get to celebrate all your magnificent books, even when I have loved reading something, or when I have loved a book a little less, I feel bad. That becomes a form of failing for me. Not good.

So I am trying to make a plan where I can wake up Poetry Shelf just a tiny bit. What I want to do is occasionally review a poetry book I have loved or post a poem I have loved – or even post a notice now and then. Without rigid commitment or tight schedules or comprehensive coverage or worrying about what I don’t do.

So this is what I am thinking. I might never answer your emails or the phone. But slowly, step by step, I will start to shine little lights again on our fabulous poets and what they are doing. To share the way poetry is a source of joy and challenge, is balm and solace, refreshment – is re-engagement with our fickle and vulnerable and beloved world.

Watch this space!

Oh and keep an eye out for Roar Squeak Purr (my big anthology of animal poems by adults and children, out mid October thanks to the wonderful team at Penguin).



PS I can’t tell you how much your cards and poem choices and the books (and chocolate!) you popped in the post have meant to me. I still have three envelopes to open for days when I feel fatigue and pain and glumness settling in. A thousand times thank you for your support and care and generosity. It has mattered so much.