Author Archives: Paula Green

Poetry Shelf review: Jake Arthur’s A Lack of Good Sons

A Lack of Good Sons, Jake Arthur, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023

I cavorted through the Gobi Desert
I fell in love with a camel in Saudi
I poured pints in Kraków.

If anecdotes are a life, I have lived.
Otherwise, I’ve urgently wasted my time.

from “Peregrination”

The opening poem of Jake Arthur’s debut poetry collection, A Lack of Good Sons, is wow! A young boy witnesses a bizarre and startling sight through his bedroom window: the farmer who lives next door, stands naked in his gumboots, back to the window. Even more surprising is the mother who says the boy did that when he was younger. The poem is a perfect threshold into a collection that startles and twists, that is honey fluent, detail sharp, physically grounded and metaphysically sailing.

For me this is a travel collection – poetry as a means of travel through time, space, location, voice, perhaps memory. I could say “prismatic” which would make Nick Ascroft squirm with his abhorrence of the word “luminous” in reviews. But this is the collection’s effect on me. It is poetry that glints and hues variously, from dark to edge to light to edge to dark to softness to searing colour and more light. There is a fluidity of voice and representation, epitomised in an “I” that is on the move, third person pronouns that skate and shuffle, a symposium of characters that Luigi Pirandello might fall in love with, or Italo Calvino.

This is the kind of book you need to immerse yourself in without being dampened down by the expectations and limits a review might offer. I offer you a mini tasting platter of poem extracts. Some stanzas are so sticky you keep hold of them for ages. I love the weave and startle turns. In the multilayered “Confessional”, the poem navigates both an external world and internal consumption. The last verse is sublime:

On a pew I rest my head and look up,
the colonnade a forest to a stone ceiling;
in me, too, an awful lot of rock.

The speaking voice might be man woman son or daughter, but at other times it is object. I particularly loved the shifting perspective (a trademark of the book as a whole) of the tree that becomes boat mast in “Bare choirs”. Again I loved the final stanza:

The flap and licking
thrump of the sail is a beat,
the slapping waves an uneven melody,
but it is more dirge than music
and not a tune to sing too.

I ask myself whether I will locate a connective tissue across the collection as a whole, a link beyond recurring motifs and devices. I wondered, for example, if there is “sameness” embedded in all the difference, then I read this in “1588”:

Everything was animated.
It spun on a dime. It was umami.

Now I  know better.
There is a sameness in everything.

Physicality is a lure. It is there in the earth and soil that appear and reappear. In a deft subject sidestep in the poem “Encounter”, a gardener becomes springboard to a sci-fi anecdote, and is abducted by aliens.

                                                      (…) I’m used to getting soil out
of my clothes, being green-fingered, but first I looked up
in the hope of spotting their craft and
I did see a little black shape but
probably it was just a bird
oh well, I thought,
from a distance

Reading this sublime book, I am reminded of the wit and humour, the economy and richness of a James Brown collection – and heck, there is James Brown, endorsing Jake’s book on the back cover. Jake takes us on a multi-dimensional, electrifying tour that holds human to the light and then keeps twisting and turning so can we absorb human from different vantage points. So satisfying as reader. I have barely scratched the surface of Jake’s fabulously haunting poetry. Read it!

Jake Arthur’s poetry has appeared in journals including Sport, Mimicry, Food Court, Turbine, Return Flight and Sweet Mammalian. He has a PhD in Renaissance literature and translation from Oxford University.

Te Herenga Waka University Press page

Poetry Shelf Favourites: Chris Tse’s ‘Midnight, somewhere’

Midnight, somewhere

The night remembers how I made myself smaller
every time I left a mess trailing behind me—
running from the obsessive thoughts I couldn’t evade
even at midnight when I donned my counterfeit
mask to dodge my ghosts and monsters. I folded,
shrunk and compressed to fit into those slow hours
hoping it would allow me to step into joy without
being throttled by a cold open—the Previously on…
that prefaces all my terrors. I should’ve introduced
this poem with a disclaimer: Based on true events.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely
intentional. Then maybe I’d forgive myself for making
a montage with all the memories I’ve deliberately
dissected and over-analysed so I can’t return them
while they’re still warm and lit by a blood moon
while I have the time and space to worry myself sick
while I stare at my reflection and see only the past.
Sometimes the past is us watching the ‘Blank Space’
music video and me telling him I want to be that horse.
(Now I see this fantasy meant I wanted to be an accessory
to someone else’s power.) Other times the past is playing
‘Treacherous’ on loop for a week straight because he
wouldn’t return my calls. I wanted so badly to ask
the million-dollar question knowing all too well
any answer would leave me broken. It’s always
close enough or not enough when you’re constantly
running late for a rehearsal for the worst night
of your life. I like to eat alone, or go to the movies
on my own and not have to fret about having opinions
or critical thoughts to share while the credits roll.
I imagine this is the kind of thing my popular twin
would be very good at—knowing what insightful
things to say to make everyone in the world fall in love
with them. Instead I’m the sad song you only listen to
when you need a good cry in the colourless dark.
Night won’t always let me let go, but it also reminds me
of other brighter fevers: karaoke in Portland, hands
clasped under the table at Vegie Bar, the waves crashing
outside our window in Mataikona. He tried to wake me
to watch the sunset from our bed but my head was
in knots, counting down the days we had left.
Not everything gets clearer with the lights on or when
the sun comes up. It’s always midnight, somewhere.

Chris Tse

Written for Around Midnights, a seminar featuring responses to Taylor Swift’s Midnights. The seminar was organised by Victoria University of Wellington Senior Lecturer Dougal McNeill (School of English, Film, Theatre, Media and Communication, and Art History).

Chris Tse is New Zealand’s Poet Laureate for 2022-24. He is the author of three collections of poetry published by Auckland University Press: How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (winner of the 2016 Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry), HE’S SO MASC, and Super Model Minority. He and Emma Barnes edited Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ Writers from Aotearoa (AUP, 2021).

Poetry Shelf review: James Norcliffe’s Letter to ‘Oumuamua

Letter to ‘Oumuamua, James Norcliffe, Otago University Press, 2023

In these uncertain times I gravitate towards quiet poetry. It may sound corny but it is like sitting on the edge of a mountain embracing silence as a form of retreat, and then savouring the way the world is alive with sound. I find myself retreating into poetry collections as a form of balm, relishing the solitude, the complications, the edges.

James Norcliffe, recently awarded the 2023 Margaret Mahy Medal, writes with a pen fuelled by the physical world, and a sense of interiority that allows both confession and piquant ideas. His writing is witty, thoughtful, fluid and rich in movement. The opening poem, ‘Letter to ‘Oumuamua’ nails it. Dedicated to “the first known interstellar object to pass through the solar system”, the letter is as much about where it is written from, as where it is written towards. The rural scene is balm – with its hint of spring and new leaves. Yet the layers prickle as I hold onto the embedded notion that the scene is both beloved and under threat.

Poetry can be the heightened awareness of a moment, of a particular place or experience. James offers many such poems and it is impossible to hold them at arm’s length. This is a form of poetry as retreat. Take ‘The Coal Range’ for example. The poem ventures back in time to pay tribute to an aunt and a location. James slowly builds the scene with acute detail, and I am breathing in the smells, tasting the baking, and back in the embrace of my grandmothers.

The burning coal and smoke smell of Auld Reekie,
of far-away home. Pinned on the Pinex walls are
calendars: Scottie dogs, pipers and Greyfriars Bobby.

Sentiment sweetens distance, as drop scones, ANZAC
biscuits and peanut brownies sweeten the sour
pervading presence of damp coal, smoke and tea-tree.

I love the way the collection offers drift and movement, resistance to fixture. Nothing is as it seems. Everything is as it seems. “Knowing What We Are” is a gloriously haunting rendition of movement, of oscillation. The birds gather on the “shining mudflats”. I’ll share a couple of stanzas with you – then you can track down the book and read the whole poem.

Any day soon, the birds will fly
far beyond the red-rimmed horizon.

Much later they will return. Neither
here nor there is home, yet both are.

Knowing what you are, I take your hand.
Neither here nor there, I try to count the days.

‘Insomnia’ navigates the knottiness of a sleepless night; a restless mind grappling with big questions and small diversions as it fixes upon turning points in life. The what-ifs and T intersections. I muse upon the way the collection offers myriad movements from loop to overlap, from twist to slide, from spiral to scatter.

That path is no more real now than the trees on the bed. The pigeon
recovered and flew away. The child was found and lost and found again.
The woman died. The man makes you laugh and makes you weep and
makes you laugh.

He makes you weep and makes you laugh and makes your weep, but
nothing can make you sleep.

Ah, so many poems I want to share with you in this slender tasting platter. There is a sequence dedicated to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. There is a return to childhood by way of Granity Museum. There is love and tenderness such as in the exquisite “Sauerkraut”:

(…) One pace at a time:
take care of the steps so that the miles take care
of themselves; conserving ourselves, preserving, avoiding
pretty prickles, but still pressing the white cabbage
that will be sauerkraut into a bright green crock.

There are multiple pathways through Letter to ‘Oumaumau. Numerous nooks and crannies for extended sojourn. Reading this was both solace and restoration. I picked up my pen and wrote a poem. I opened the book and returned to poetry that haunts and sticks. It’s James’s best book yet. Glorious.

James Norcliffe is a poet, children’s writer and editor. He has published 11 collections of poetry and 14 novels for young people. His first adult novel, The Frog Prince (RHNZ Vintage), was published in 2022 and his most recent poetry collection, Deadpan (Otago University Press), was published in 2019. He has co-edited major collections of poetry and short fiction, including Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page (RHNZ Vintage, 2014), Leaving the Red Zone (Clerestory Press, 2016), Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press, 2018) and Ko Aotearo Tatou: We Are New Zealand (Otago University Press, 2020). He has had a long association with the Canterbury Poets’ Collective, takahē, the ReDraft annual anthologies of writing by young New Zealanders and, more recently, Flash Frontier.

Otago University Press page

Poetry Shelf poem: ‘Maghrib’ by Khadro Mohamed and Ronia Ibrahim



cotton tassels, soft in between the space of my toes
i’m carrying rosewater pearls in my belly.


unravelling like lilac tissue
cheeks the colour of scorched chilli


the thin veil of night
spreads like butter over the hills

surah Al-fatiha, like a whisper

                                     it floats on an eyelash,         
                                     skims past my fingers

            inhale, exhale,


Khadro Mohamed and Ronia Ibrahim

This poem attempts to highlight the strong presence that Islamplays in our  personal lives, but also in the lives of Muslims in Aotearoa. While our families were not directly affected by the attacks on the 15th of March, 2019, the aftermath was felt by all of us across the motu. We hope that Muslims everywhere continue to use their relationships with Islam as a source of inspiration, strength and something to always be  proud of. 

Poetry Shelf Monday poem: Michaela Keeble’s ‘all the eels’

all the eels


we took the chook fat
to the creek
spooned the gloopy food
into the shallow wash

soon you came out to us

twenty or fifty of you
showed your teeth
and snapped at wooden spoons

fifty or more of you
thrusting up the creek
to claim the fat

with your single
perfect muscles
like dancers’ thighs
you never hurt us


does it help
to be specific?


to build the road
they have to leash the river

drain the swamps
stop the banks
build the bunds

they redirect the water

in come the ecologists
to fish the tuna
trapped in sediment

jet black skins
eyes blue like humans

tuna tall as me
tall as you


all the amphibians
and all the birds
who travel beneath
and all the eels

certain kinds of water snake
gannets and shags
and all the eels

from all the hidden places
at the margins of everything

and all the eels

Michaela Keeble

Michaela Keeble is a white Australian writer living in Aotearoa with her partner and kids. Michaela’s first full-length collection of poetry, surrender, was published by Taraheke | BushLawyer in May 2022. She has a children’s book, co-authored with her son Kerehi Grace and illustrated by Tokerau Brown, forthcoming from Gecko Press in 2023. Watch out for Paku Manu Ariki Whakatakapōkai

Poetry Shelf review: Simone Kaho’s Heal!

Heal! Simone Kaho, Saufo’i Press, 2022

If you read the blurb, you will discover Simone Kaho’s new poetry collection, Heal!, comes with guidance: the poetry navigates sexual violence, assault, PTSD, self harm, suicide. The blurb also offers terrific reactions from three esteemed poets: Karlo Mila, Anne Kennedy and essa may ranapiri. Karlo writes: “I read this book in one sitting. Paralysed by the beauty, purpose and pungency of the writing.” I don’t usually read blurbs or reviews before I read a book, but when the book recently missed out on a longlist placing in the NZ Book Awards, to the surprise and consternation of many readers, I found I had absorbed traces of the book before I started reading it.

I am holding the book close before I begin reading and it raises questions. How do we write the unspeakable, the unsayable, the unutterable? Sometimes, somehow, someone finds a way to do so because they must, no matter how difficult it might be. And that becomes a gift for us as readers. For any number of private or public reasons.

Simone’s extraordinary collection begins with a smell, an unidentifiable smell, it is “somewhere between a food and flower smell. The source is not clear. It’s not the dash of orange flowers whose nectaries are nice to suck, not the yellow poison berries that broke up one of her mother’s children’s parties.” After listing the things the smell is not, the poet achingly concludes:

You see how life goes on?

The entire collection is alive to smell, to sight and touch. It is rugged terrain and it is hoed ground, it is dead bird and tended insect, it is wound and it is self care. Like Karlo, I am reading Heal! in one sitting, then I sit with the door wide open, hearing a crescendo of autumn crickets, wondering how I will write my reading experience.

Simone guides us into the intimate revelations of a traumatic event, to the acute ripples etching skin and heart, and the afterwards (afterwords) needing to carry on as if life is normal. She moves back and forward, in this house and that house, from this treasured father memory to that treasured father memory, from this partner to this friend. She’s releasing spiky revelations and then turning her eye to a thing of beauty, think  smashed face with sunglasses to sweetly scented flower. I am reminded of the exclamation mark that accompanies the title of the book, and the way my eye moves from flower petal to beloved bee, to wound to scar to a mother’s bedtime stories.

In every photo I’ve taken of spring blossoms the sky behind is blue.
But I’ve seen blossomed trees in storms.
Afterwards, I go look at the battered litter of colour.
New flowery faces thrust out of twigs as if bearing no relation to the fallen below.
Sex is a natural thing, like a river or tree.

The writing inhabits the page in various settings, forms, movements, fluencies, just like thinking might do, especially thinking about hard subject matter. Thinking about traumatic and tough experience involves different patterns of thought, feelings, reckonings. I enter the open, the half closed, the hidden, a need to be safe. At one point the poet remembers planting kūmara with her father, and it gets me musing that Simone’s writing is a way of planting self in the ground, in the soil of living.

There is mint in this garden, comfrey, dandelion, silverbeet, puha. In this garden.
However, there are more weeds than anything else.

His eyes are the colour of soil, hers are too.

This morning she sees herself, arms crossed on her chest, round and complete as
a kūmara, earth embracing her, eyes closed, growing, her breath slow as light
moving across the field, drawn through nutrients in soil, held in her lungs, so
rich, sweet at the back of her throat, seeping onto her tongue, nerves above her
soul prickle, how complete a leaf is, and she, all to herself, in soil soft as clouds,
soft as sea, soft as sky.

Some reading paths might suggest Heal! is a catalogue of pain, and to a degree it is, but it is also a planting of precious life in the abundant detail, both sweet and sour, of living. It considers the who and how of self, whether writer, friend, lover, daughter, woman. Simone’s exquisite artwork adds a piquant visual layer. The cover so very striking, is a poem in its own making. This is a book that is facet rich, like a diamond striking you with light and edge, full of beauty and ache. I have barely touched its surface or depths, but I love it dearly. Thank you for sending Heal! into the world Simone, we are so very grateful.

Simone Kaho is a Tongan and Pākehā poet, creative non-fiction writer, and director. Her first poetry collection Lucky Punch was published in 2016. She has a master’s degree in poetry from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) and was awarded the IIML 2022 Emerging Pasifika writer in residence. Simone directed the 2019 web series ‘Conversations’ for E-Tangata and now works as a writer/director for Tagata Pasifika. She is an active voice in Alison Mau’s #metooNZ project.

Saufo’i Press page

Poetry Shelf favourite poems: Bill Manhire’s ‘The Prayer’

The Prayer

What do you take 
away with you? 

Here is the rain, 
a second-hand miracle, 
collapsing out of Heaven. 

It is the language of 
earth, lacking an audience, 
but blessing the air. 

What light it brings 

with it, how far 
with it, how far 
it is. 

I stayed a minute 
& the garden 
was full of voices. 

I am tired again 
while you are crossing 

the river, on a bridge 
six inches under water. 

Small trees grow out of 
the planks & shade the water. 

Likewise, you are full of 
good intentions 
& shade the trees with your body. 

Lord, Lord 
in my favourite religion 
You would have to be 
a succession of dreams. 

In each of them  
I’d fall asleep, 

scarred like a  
rainbow, no doubt, 
kissing the visible bone.

Bill Manhire
from The Elaboration (Square & Circle, 1972, with drawings by Ralph Hotere)


I’ve always loved ‘The Prayer’, I think because it manages to seem fairly straightforward while maintaining a resistance to paraphrase. Or maybe it’s because the poem’s so plainly concerned with mystery and miracle. I think I was 23 when I wrote it. It was in my first published book of poems (The Elaboration, 1972) and also appears on Ralph Hotere’s Song Cycle banners. It’s been in my mind lately because the first section has found new life as the opening movement of Victoria Kelly’s Requiem, which is about to be presented at the Auckland Arts Festival. You can hear Victoria’s glorious setting of Sam Hunt’s contribution to the text here. The other contributing poets are Ian Wedde, Chloe Honum, and James K Baxter. It’s a good feeling, being resurrected in a requiem!

Here’s a little note I wrote on the Requiem text for the CD booklet:

Lost for Words 

Before it is music, it is words – texts from five writers brought together to make a single poem. 

The poem tells us that we are among the perishable things yet it also makes us feel better about this difficult truth. 

Poetry, some people have said, aspires to stop time, but these words are on the move. They ghost each other, reach out a little, and then reach further out. 

The smallest words evoke cosmic dimensions: light and sky echo and rhyme their way from page to page. 

There are also stars. 

At the very centre are the great horizons – earth and sky, sea and sky – which remind us of our own great longing to touch and be touched. 

On each side are particular deaths, while the work as a whole begins with the mīharo of the natural world and ends with the surrender that awaits us. 

Five separate voices – touched by wonder and strength and grief and frailty – brought together in a single work, which now adds a chorus to gather us all in.  

Sometimes poems (and poets) end up lost for words. 

They tiptoe towards silence. 

On the other hand, here come the singers and musicians.

Bill Manhire

Bill Manhire‘s last collection of poems, Wow, was published in 2020, and was a Poetry Book Society Selection. An interview subsequently appeared in PN Review. A recent collaboration with Norman Meehan and others, Bifröst, has been released by Rattle.

Poetry Shelf is hosting a series where poets pick a favourite poem from their own backlist.

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Ockham NZ Book Award Poetry shortlist

Full details and other categories here

Congratulations to all the deserved finalists, I have loved all these books. Poetry awards are a time for joy and whoops for some, and slump and self doubt for others. I never forget this. I always say that good books attract readers and good books endure, regardless of awards. As a writer, it is the writing that matters – I loved the poets that missed out on a shortlist spot – and please do not let this damage your faith in your own writing.