Category Archives: Aotearoa poetry

Poetry Shelf Occasional Poems: Dinah Hawken’s Speaking of Trees

Speaking of Trees

What does it take to break ground?
What does it take to carry yourself
with dignity through mist and rise?

You can see the fragility of trees
and the forbearance of trees.
You can see the agility of trees.

You know where you stand with a tree:
sheltered and strengthened,
beholden to the nature and network

of trees; the assembly of trees,
the farmland haunted by trees  
and the regiment of trees.

You can see the bearing of trees,
the felling and falling of trees,
the shipment of trees, the return on trees.

The return of trees.

What does it take to carry yourself into a forest
one valley over
from the one, right now, on fire?

                                           

Dinah Hawken

Dinah Hawken’s ninth collection of poems, Sea-light, was published by THWUP in 2021. ‘Speaking of Trees’ was written for Gerda Leenard’s exhibition of paintings at Pataka in Porirua : Regeneration – A Story of Trees

Poetry Shelf review: Frankie McMillan’s The Wandering Nature of Us Girls

The Wandering Nature of Us Girls, Frankie McMillan, Canterbury University Press, 2022

The feel of a book in hand matters. Holding Frankie McMillan’s new collection, The Wandering Nature of Us Girls, is immensely satisfying. The size and shape, the paper stock, the pale blue title pages, the choice of font and font size, the breathing space. A perfect alchemy of design and production.

The dedication page: “For Marvin, / who taught me how to wander. / Without you, I would never have gotten lost.” This is the keyhole entry into a book where wandering becomes wondering; we get lost in wonder and wander, whether reader or writer. The collection of small stories performs bridges between both, in so many delicious ways. Even me naming the pieces is a mental excursion through form and label; how we tag what we write from poetry to prose to essay to fiction to short story, and any number of hybrid marriages.

The book is offered as small stories so I am running with that. Think mouthfuls of narrative or let’s say fiction. Think past and present. Think stepping stones from the miniature to wider issues, issues hungry for human attention: love, death, loss, violence, curiosity. Think anchors in the real, and offshoots in the hyperreal, sidelines in the surreal.

Water is the connective tissue, and if you think of the ever-changing appearance and movement of water, it is extremely apt. Frankie often crafts long sentences, sentences an Italian novelist might favour, sentences that showcase the currency of water. Extended tidal rhythms, the water breathing in and out. It makes me think again of wander, and the flâneur comes to mind, the bricoleuer, with both reader and writer meandering, amassing detail, absorbing atmosphere.

Water is the connective tissue and like the ocean it is a meeting ground of dark and light. The grandmother goes swimming, others go swimming, but there are drownings, there are bodies missing at sea. This is a collection of mystery, of gaps in the narrative, of surprising turn of events, of tragedy. Most definitely tragedy, terrible twists in events. The aunt who loves sweeping stays home in the flood, sweeping out the water, until the point she is on the roof, still sweeping, still sweeping, until she and broom and house are swept away.

There is such power in Frankie’s imagination. A beaked mouth, an antlered head. A baby under a tree writing a thesis on “aerial domesticity”. There are the acrobatics of circuses, of putting on a show. There are the subcurrents of our planet under grave threat. The tragedy we must face. Along with violence against women, ‘us girls’, and suddenly, slowly, the meandering takes on a greater insistent force. We are wandering and wondering, and there are consequences, cause and effect.

The mood and ideas a book generates matters. The Wandering Nature of Us Girls is less concerned with geography than with movement, with action, with human connections. It is a handbook of curious and gut smacking things. It is a book you feel as well as a book you think. It is a book of catastrophe and a book of epiphany. Small story brilliance.

Frankie McMillan is the author of five books of poetry and short fiction. Her most recent collection, The Father of Octopus Wrestling, was listed by The Spinoff as one of the 10 best New Zealand fiction books of 2019 and shortlisted for the NZSA Heritage Book Awards, and her 2016 collection, My Mother and the Hungarians, was longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She has twice won the New Zealand Flash Fiction Day competition and has been the recipient of numerous awards and residencies, including the NZSA Peter and Dianne Beatson Fellowship (2019), the Michael King writing residency at the University of Auckland (2017), and the Ursula Bethell residency in creative writing at the University of Canterbury (2014). McMillan spends her time between Ōtautahi Christchurch and Mohua Golden Bay.

Canterbury University Press page

Girls Raised by Swans on Poetry Shelf (‘Accounts of Girls Raised by Swans’)

Poetry Shelf review Tate Fountain’s Short Films

Short Films, Tate Fountain, We Are Babies, 2022

and I, well, I have had practice at this; I am far
better attuned to wanting things than I have ever
been to having them, and the day is clear, and the
scent of the kitchen of each nearby restaurant is
carrying. I am alive, and I am settling in, and I have 
in my hand at last something I could not bear to lose, 
some fibrous imperfect gift of a life in the place of
theoretical triumph: blistered heels and my mother’s 
old dress and a self I can face in the mirror; three 
long-stemmed lilies wrapped in cellophane, an 
unripe blushing hydra, five dust-pink tongues 
unfurled to catch the light.

from ‘SUNDAY, 7 NOVEMBER’

Love the idea of a poetry collection called Short Films, especially when it isn’t lifted from a poem title in the book. At the back is the director’s commentary, a HEX index and credits. Rhythm is a vital ingredient in the collection as a whole, the poet’s editing suite has resisted long slow panning camerawork. Instead there are jumpcuts and oblique camera angles, fascinating montage and hypnotic soundtracks. It is an opulent surprising reading experience, that depends upon the visual as much as the aural.

For some reason I made a leap from activated hazelnuts to activated language. Tate’s linguistic agility is spellbinding. Her language is alive, mobile, playful, inventive, active. The word activate is counterbalanced by bracketed space that is rich in possibility. At times it is a blank slate for the reader to scrawl upon, a foyer for musing points, a series of silent beats, a signpost to the unsayable, the unsaid, the gaps in the telling. They strike the eye and they resonate in the ear.

Colour is ubiquitous. Colour pops on the line, sparks across the wider scope of the book. There are individual colour poem clusters. You move from yellow-rayed blossoms to summer to pineapple, and housed in that yellow embrace is ‘a riverside lunch with my mother / We are learning again / / how to be around each other’ (from ‘Yellow’). It is the heightened power of metonymy where you place this shot next to that shot next to this shot. This frame next to that frame next to this frame. Feeling, experience, reaction is heightened.

A stripped back blackout poem uses a prose poem we have just read. I was reminded of how certain words pierced and stuck as I read. And there they were, isolated in the dark black shapes. Tate is taking a form, a convention and then playing with it, pushing it further.

In the inside blurb, the book is aptly compared to ‘a lush bouquet of poems’. I step from the flowers and the fruit, like brocaded still life, like kinetic life, finding mouth and heart, finding float and drift, the light and dark of chiaroscuro. The poetry is bouquet, held out to ignite the senses, but it is also mirror, looking glass for both reader and writer. Love is paramount. YES! These are love poems, heart poems, little outings with glints of self exposure. One poem, ‘LOVE POEM’, plays with ‘I want’, think light and serious, and you move to and fro, between need and desire.

Short films is, as Anna Jackson and Emma Barnes say on the back of the book, wonderful. It is a terrific cinematic experience, Maya Deren flashed in my head, where rhyme feeds motifs and subject matter, and rhythm performs the syncopation of daily life, of love life, of heart life. Utterly wonderful.

stop looking for me in my work /
I am not there /
you are in a hall of funhouse mirrors

from ‘ORANGE’

Tate Fountain is a writer, theatremaker, and DVD Special Features advocate splitting her time between Tāmaki Makaurau and Tauranga. She is a current member of the Starlingeditorial committee, and also works as the coordinator for samesame but different, Aotearoa New Zealand’s LGBTQIA+ Writers and Readers Festival. As an assistant director, actor, and stage manager, she’s worked with Auckland Theatre Company, Binge Culture, and the Pop-up Globe, as well as at Basement Theatre. Her poetry has been published in eel, Aniko Press Magazine, and Min-a-rets (Annexe), among others, and her screenwriting has been recognised by several feature development initiatives. She completed her Master of Arts (First Class Honours) at the University of Auckland, with a thesis on appropriations of the Eurydice myth by H.D., Carol Ann Duffy, and Céline Sciamma. Each month, she releases a new bouquet on Substack. She’s pretty much always thinking about films.

We Are Babies page

Poetry Shelf Occasional Reviews – Alice Te Punga Somerville’s Always Italicise: How to write while colonised

Always Italicise: how to write while colonised, Alice Te Punga Somerville, Auckland University Press, 2022

And then you skype with me late one afternoon to practise your speech
which begins with your
pepeha as if that is the most ordinary way to start
when you’re eleven years old.

How were we to know – even to guess – that this language would be your weapon
Your strategy
Your bullet-proof vest

from ‘Anchor’

Alice Te Punga Somerville’s new collection offers four vital sections: reo / invisible ink / mahi / aroha. Sections in their own right but the discrete boundaries blur as movement and connections abound. The categories strike a chord, deep seated, poignant, as though this exquisitely designed book becomes a register of life – how we speak, how we are unseen and unspoken, how we work, and how we love. Importantly, how we become.

Alice was once told foreign words need to be italicised, to be rendered apart from standard English. This alienating process includes te reo Māori. Yet some words are adopted by English and slip off tongues without e-strange-ment: think pizza, pasta, cappuccino. Think haka and marae. Inconsistent. Alice puts the shoe on the other foot and italicises the English language leaving te reo Māori as notforeign. It is poem performance yes, but more importantly it is action.

The overturned italics convention, carried across the length of a book, is an insistence. It is personal, it is political and it is ancestral. We are what and how and why and where and who we speak. The historical and contemporary silencing, the historical and contemporary othering of language is inexcusable.

Alice’s poems are writing on the breath, breathpoetry, utterly fluid; it is writing on the breath of memory, story, change, ideas, feeling. Her poems carry the rhythm of life – of reo, invisible ink, mahi, aroha. There is the rhythm of prayer and the rhythm of waiata. The poetic rhythms and crafted fluencies carry the reader across eclectic subject matter.

Alice is spotlighting indigenous worlds, an indigenous presence, replying to colonised worlds. She is building a poem space and a poetry home. Many poems are dedicated to other people, underlying the idea we write within nourishing communities of readers, writers, thinkers, mentors. And for Alice, this includes the academic, acknowledging her poetry is in debt to her life as an academic. The academy is joy but it is also challenge, with settings that are racist, privileged, biased.

Books reach us at different times and in different ways. As readers we establish myriad travel routes through a book, we bring our own experience close or hold at a vulnerable distance. Books are my life rafts at the moment. With the road ahead still bumpy, still uncertain, I hold language and love close, I work and take little steps each day. I see Alice’s glorious, ground-establishing poetry collection as her mahi, her aroha. It is a book spiked with anger and it is a book stitched with love. It has made me smile and it has gripped my heart. It is the most affecting book I have read this year.

Pick up coffee cup and printed pages, open the screen door, walk back inside.

My eyes take longer to arrive than the rest of me:
they’re still adjusted for the brightness outside;
I bump into things, blind, while I wait for my whole self to arrive,
and realise this is the only worthwhile way to proceed anyway –

All of me, all at once:
anger, frustration, cynicism, hope
and, in the centre as well as the outer reaches, love.

from ‘Too’

Alice Te Punga Somerville, Te Āti Awa, Taranaki, is a scholar, poet and irredentist. She researches and teaches Māori, Pacific and Indigenous texts in order to centre Indigenous expansiveness and de-centre colonialism. Alice is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literatures and the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies at the University of British Columbia. She studied at the University of Auckland, earned a PhD at Cornell University, is a Fulbright scholar and Marsden recipient and has held academic appointments in New Zealand, Canada, Hawai‘i and Australia. Her first book Once Were Pacific: Māori Connections to Oceania (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) won Best First Book from the Native American & Indigenous Studies Association. Her most recent book is Two Hundred and Fifty Ways to Start an Essay about Captain Cook (BWB, 2020).

Auckland University Press page

Poetry Shelf Occasional Poems: Emma Neale’s ‘Little Fibs’

Little Fibs

Let us praise
the small evasions:
the missed call
the slight sore throat,
the prior engagement;
the short works of fiction
that act like the turn of a key,
the snib of a front door’s fly screen
which mean we can try to forge the silence
that ferries us to the hinterland of the wildest interior.

Emma Neale

Emma Neale is the author of six novels,  six collections of poetry, and a collection of short stories. Her novel, Billy Bird (2016) was short-listed for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and long-listed for the Dublin International Literary Award. Emma has received a number of literary fellowships, residencies and awards, including the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry 2020. Her first collection of short stories,  The Pink Jumpsuit (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2021) was long-listed for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The mother of two sons, Emma lives in Ōtepoti/Dunedin, where she works as a freelance editor.

Poetry Shelf occasional Poems: Ian Wedde’s ‘Six dreams’

Six dreams

Torn

In last night’s dream I was a gridiron professional in L.A.
and ‘in a relationship’ with no-nonsense Aussie actress Rachel Griffiths

whom I dislike as the gawky Sarah in Brothers and Sisters
but adore as crazy Brenda in Six Feet Under. ‘Brenda’ and I

couldn’t persuade the puppy to romp on the bed
with us. When I tried to crawl home through the wire mesh tunnel

that led from our place to the street torn up for gun emplacements,
I ripped my best suit. The puppy was whining, ‘Brenda’ was in the window,

but I was snagged, there, in full view, the rip in my Boss
making a noise like icebergs breaking loose.

Flowers falling

Tūī grawking and dial-toning in the Green Belt
among the obliging Aussie eucalypts

whose red dirt nectar they relish more
than the pale citrus, herbaceous local drop.

Was this a dream? Who cares. ‘And then I woke up’ is such
a cop-out. Sipped flowers falling before us as we walked.

Wild turkey at the back of the driving range

It sits up nicely for you under unbelievable azure
but keep your head down. Hang on to your turkey sandwich.

After dark they floodlight the range and you see
red eyes down there at the back. Trajectories, they go up

and over, they sky then earth, a line that can’t be straight
because it’s too full of meaning. A thoughtful pause.

I see where you’re coming from, but settle down,
earthed and ready for impact.

Black

Ten minutes in The Warehouse is enough to make me want
to kill myself. It’s the material inertia of New World aisles

that makes me want to end it. You’re doing well
if you can even find the Modern Tretchikov in Moscow. Tusiata and I

walked for hours over a bridge and finally
through a kind of art store.  Our shoes were made of cardboard

and fell apart in the rain. There was a sculpture cemetery, and a tent
for drinking beer and vodka. In the art warehouse

Malevic’s black square was barely displayed at all
but my entire past rushed eagerly into it. In the Palazzo Rosso in Genoa

the opposite thing happened. The darkness at the back
of Caravaggio’s Ecce Homo just kept redeeming it.

Film treatment

The klieg lights, the dark,
dripping forest, the rank flanks

of horses, a sneery hound pissing
on wet tents. The collapse

of public transport, the unhygienic
orphanage, the barracks, the unpredictable

success of tour discounts. A lake
in which a lake

is reflected. A mountain
superimposed on another where

thoughts race along the boardwalk
losing touch with their bodies.

Ian Wedde

Ian Wedde’s latest poetry book was The Little Ache — A German notebook. Victoria University of Wellington Press, 2021. The poems were written while he was in Berlin researching his novel The Reed Warbler.

Poetry Shelf Occasional Reviews: James Brown’s The Tip Shop

The Tip Shop, James Brown, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022

Alex Grace writes on the back of The Tip Shop: “Funny, dark, insightful and nothing close to a chore to read. Poetry, but it doesn’t suck.” Ha! Some poetry must suck, even be a chore to read, like a school assignment! James Brown’s poetry is cool – ok a lazy-tag adjective children are often forbidden to use as what does it actually mean? It means James’s poetry is hip, electric, agile on its poem toes, lithe on its heart beat, and is immensely readable.

The opening poem, ‘A Calm Day with Undulations’, places visual waves on the page and sets you up for all manner of undulations as you read the collection: wit, heart, life. In the poem, James uses an ocean metaphor to write about cycling which is a way of writing about living. Think surf / swell / naval surface / roll up and down / wave length / lull / pool.

It’s a calm day with undulations.
My tyres flow freely
across the naval surface.

The Tip Shop appraises and pays attention to scenes, moments, events, potential memory, language. The detail ranges from measured to madcap. Questions percolate. Poetry rules are invented. Words are played with. Dialogue is found. Poems stretch and poems repeat. Herein lies the pleasure of poetry in general, and a James Brown collection in particular: there is no single restrictive model when it comes to writing a poem. Within the collection as a whole, and within the frame of an individual poem, James resists stasis.

A poem that epitomises intricate delights is ‘Schrödinger’s Wife’. It delivers a miniature story laced with wit and puzzle. Here is the first stanza:

Mary didn’t walk with us Sundays. She ran.
With earbuds, she could keep reading. Her shop,
Schrödinger’s Books, was a tough mistress.
‘Are you working today?’ we’d ask. ‘Yes and no,’
she’d reply. She just needed to ‘finish the books’.
Can the books ever be finished? They wink at us
as though there are uncertain things
they think we ought to know.

I am drawn to repetition, to a concatenation of detail, especially in list poems, overtly so or nuanced. Three examples in The Tip Shop, establish A to Z lists. Another poem juxtaposes ‘I must not’ and ‘I must’. A found poem, like a form of canine play, lists dog owner dialogue. And then the delight in repetition dissolves, and time concentrates on the washing and peeling of fruit. In ‘Lesson’, a single elongated moment becomes luminous when caught in the poem’s frame. We are implicated, and are returned to an (our) apple: “When was the last time you / washed a green apple”.

Three longer poems stretch into telling a yarn, spinning a story, as the repeated indents mark the intake of a storyteller’s breath. Glorious.

‘Waiheke’ pares back to an ocean moment, and I am imagining the scene imbued with love. So much going on beneath, on and above the surface of the poem, whether in the breaststroking, in the prolonged looking.

You yearn so much
you could be a yacht.
Your mind has already
set sail. It takes a few days
to arrive

at island pace,
but soon you are barefoot
on the sand,
the slim waves testing
your feet

The Tip Shop is piquant in its fleet of arrivals and departures. It is poetry as one-hundred-percent pleasure – it makes you laugh and it makes you feel. It encourages sidetracks and lets you rollercoast on language. What a poetry treat.

James Brown’s poems have been widely published in New Zealand and overseas. His Selected Poems were published in 2020. Previous books include The Year of the Bicycle (2006), which was a finalist in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2007, and Go Round Power Please (1996), which won the Best First Book Award for Poetry. His poems are widely anthologised and frequently appear in the annual online anthology Best New Zealand Poems. James has been the recipient of several writing fellowships and residencies, including the 1994 Louis Johnson New Writers Bursary, a share of the 2000 Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship, the Canterbury University Writer in Residence, the Victoria University of Wellington Writer in Residence. James works as an editor and teaches the Poetry Workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. 

Te Herenga Waka University Press page

Poetry Shelf Occasional Reviews: No Other Place to Stand

No Other Place to Stand: An Anthology of Climate Change Poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand, Jordan Hamel, Rebecca Hawkes, Erik Kennedy and Essa Ranapiri, Auckland University Press, 2022

Auckland University Press is to be celebrated for its stellar poetry anthologies. No Other Place to Stand: An Anthology of Climate Change Poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand offers an eclectic, and indeed electrifying, selection of climate change poetry. The editors, Jordan Hamel, Rebecca Hawkes, Erik Kennedy and Essa Ranapiri, are all frontline poets themselves.

The dedication resonates and stalls your entry into the book because it is so apt: “To those fighting for our future / and those who will live it.”

A terrific foreword by Alice Te Punga Somerville establishes a perfect gateway into the collection. Alice wonders, when climate change is such a mammoth issue, “about the value of the particular, the specific, the local, the here, the now”. What difference will reading and writing make when the world demands action? Alice writes: “Every single poem in this anthology speaks to the relationship between words and worlds.” That in itself is enough of a spur to get a copy of the book, and open up trails of reading, wonder and challenge.

I am spinning on the title. I am turning the word ‘stand’ over and over in my mind like a talisman, a pun, a hook. I am thinking we stand and we speak out, I am thinking we stand because we no longer bear it, and I am thinking we stand together.

The poems selected are both previously published and unpublished. The sources underline the variety and depth of print and online journals currently publishing poetry in Aotearoa: Minarets, Starling, Spin Off, Mayhem, Pantograph Punch, Poetry NZ, Blackmail Press, Overland, Sweet Mammalian, Turbine | Kapohau, Takahē, Stasis, Landfall.

No Other Place to Stand is an essential volume. You can locate its essence, the governing theme, ‘climate change poetry’, yet the writing traverses multiple terrains, with distinctive voices, styles, focal points. I fall into wonder again and again, but there is the music, the political, the personal, the heart stoking, the message sharing. There is the overt and there is the nuanced. There is loud and there is soft. There is clarity and there is enigma. You will encounter a magnificent upsurge of younger emerging voices alongside the presence of our writing elders. This matters. This degree of bridge and connection.

Dinah Hawken has long drawn my eye and heart to the world we inhabit, to the world of sea and bush and mountain, stones, leaves, water, birds. Reading one of her collections is like standing in the heart of the bush or next to the ocean’s ebb and flow. It is message and it is transcendental balm. Her long sublime poem, ‘The uprising’, after presenting gleams and glints of our beloved natural world, responds to the wail that rises in us as we feel so helpless.

6.a.

But all I can do is rise:
both before and after I fall.
All I can do is rally,

all I can do is write
– I can try to see and mark
where and how we are.

All I can do is plant,
all I can do is vote
for the fish, the canoe, the ocean

to survive the rise and fall.
All I can do is plead,
all I can do is call . . .

from ‘The uprising’

I am reading the rich-veined ancestor currents of Tayi Tibble’s ‘Tohunga’, the luminosity of Chris Tse’s ‘Photogenesis’, the impassioned, connecting cries of Selina Tusitala Marsh’s ‘Unity’ and Karlo Mila’s ‘Poem for the Commonwealth, 2018’. Daily routines alongside a child’s unsettling question catch me in Emma Neale’s ‘Wanting to believe in the butterfly effect’. I am carried in the embrace of Vaughan Rapatahana’s ‘he mōteatea: huringa āhuarangi’ with its vital, plain speaking call in both te reo Māori and English.

Take this heart-charged handbook and read a poem a day over the next ninety days. Be challenged; speak, ask, do. I thank the editors and Auckland University Press for this significant anthology, this gift.

Auckland University press page

Jordan Hamel is a Pōneke-based poet and performer. He was the 2018 New Zealand Poetry Slam champion. He uses poetry and performance to create awareness and discourse about environmental and political issues. He is the co-editor of Stasis Journal and his debut poetry collection Everyone is everyone except you was published by Dead Bird Books in 2022.

Rebecca Hawkes is a poet/painter from Canterbury, living in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Her chapbook ‘Softcore coldsores’ was published in AUP New Poets 5 in 2019. Her first full-length poetry collection, Meat Lovers, was recently unleashed by Auckland University Press. Rebecca edits Sweet Mammalian and is a founding member of popstar poets’ posse Show Ponies.

Erik Kennedy is the author of Another Beautiful Day Indoors (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022) and There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (Victoria University Press, 2018), which was shortlisted for best book of poems at the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He lives in Ōtautahi Christchurch.

Essa Ranapiri (Ngāti Wehi Wehi / Ngāti Takatāpui / Clan Gunn) is a poet from Kirikiriroa. They are part of puku.riri, a local writing group. Their book ransack was published by Victoria University Press in 2019. Give the land back. It’s the only way to fix this mess. They will write until they’re dead. And after that, sing.

Poetry Shelf Occasional Reviews: Sudha Rao’s On elephant’s shoulders

On elephant’s shoulders, Sudha Rao, The Cuba Press, 2022

Poetry books are so often objects to treasure, physical treats to hold.

Sudha Rao’s On elephant’s shoulders is exactly this, with its exquisite, embroidered cover image (sorry no acknowledgement of source or creator). The interior design is equally appealing; a perfectly sized font with ample space for the poems to breathe and readers to sojourn. The title also captivates, and I especially love the fact there is neither definite nor indefinite article to support ‘elephant’. I am pirouetting on the title, imagining elephant as both anchor and viewing platform. Falling into the title, over and over. I am both grounded and liberated.

The opening poem, ‘Warp and weft’, establishes the collection as a book of arrivals and departures. It sets the scene for recurrent motifs, ideas, words, images – and I love that. The poem is divided into three parts: passages, shadows and braids. The three terms are an excellent guide to the book as a whole. I am particularly captivated by the recurring ‘braids: there are plaits, the father’s hands, the grandmother’s hair, the South Island rivers, a way of writing, a way of living between here and there, this home and that home.

“I am a bracelet of memories bearing the weight of your bones.”

from ‘Threads across waters’

The poetry, in keeping with braid notions, exudes both economy and perfumed richness, an evocative serving of detail. The detail enhances a scene, a series of relationships, poetry as musical score. The detail may be repeated, as in echoey ‘braid’, you might move from the scent of turmeric to a ‘sunflower flowering’.

What renders the collection poignant, especially in its poetic tracing of a migrant’s experience, is the presence/absence braid, whether we are talking geography, kin, food, gestures, memories. Everything feeds into a braided version of home that is near and far, intimate and longed for.

[…] When you crossed

old waters, did you know

how cold new waters would be?

from ‘Cradle’

I talked about stitching when I recently reviewed Elizabeth Morton’s terrific collection Naming the Beasts, and stitching seems appropriate here, especially bearing in mind the sublime cover. Stitching is a way of talking about poetic craft, about the little threads that are both visible and invisible parts of the art and craft of a work, in the edge and the tension. Sudha has stitched her poetry in threads that gleam of the everyday, the detail so alive with living, epiphany, challenge, but that also work behind the scenes as the poems flow like little exhalations. Measured. Mesmerising. Magnificent.

This is a collection to treasure.

“‘There is rhythm in the cabbage tree when it combs clouds.”

from ‘Keeping time’

Originally from South India, Sudha Rao migrated to Dunedin with her parents and trained in classical South Indian dance. She moved to Wellington to establish Dance Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ). Sudha’s poems have appeared in literary journals and anthologies in New Zealand and overseas, including Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand and Best New Zealand Poems. Sudha was a participant in the International Bengaluru Poetry Festival 2019 and performs in Wellington with Meow Gurrrls.

The Cuba Press page

Poetry Shelf occasional Poems: weekend diary and Janet Newman’s ‘Goodbye Kukutauaki Road’

The rain is dampening down the day before it has even started, but I plan on reading books in bed, making fish tacos for dinner, eating cheese scones and writing some more poems for children. I posted Claire McLintock’s cancer thoughts from Canvas on social media and felt so many connections. YES to living each day fully. It may be sleep or dream or reading or writing. But the choices I make – I know some of you might think I am crazy busy but I’m not – mean I live in a state of unbelievable happiness, calm and strength. It is like a miracle, and that I love words helps no end.

Claire and her husband are selling fundraising TShirts for Sweet Louise with Workshop.

This morning I was thinking about how important conversations and connections are when you are cut off from ‘normal’ life. I can’t imagine getting on a plane for a long time, or laughing in a crowded cafe. Or even going to festivals and launching books. But I can imagine connections and conversations through the exquisite reach of blogging. Even doing my own secret writing!

With these words drifting in my head, I read Janet Newman’s email. She writes:

Reading Robert Sullivan’s Rākaihautū there [on reawakened Poetry Shelf] and Anna Jackson’s response made me think of a poem I wrote after another poem from Tūnui / Comet. My poem reflects on the loss of productive farmland to lifestyle blocks, an old issue that is finally starting to seep into national and political consciousness. I thought you might like to read it. 

I loved reading Janet’s poem – and I love how conversations and connections keep rippling out from Robert’s poetry, from the poem that relaunched Poetry Shelf, and from Anna’s. Poetry has the power to forge links with who, where and how we are in the world, the way we connect with and care for the land, the way we connect with and care for our own wellbeing. It is wonder and it is joy.

Goodbye Kukutauaki Road

“… there’s only a certain percentage of elite soils in this area, or even around the country. And once those are gone, they’re gone forever. You can never get them back.”

––Pukekohe farmer Stan Clark

 

my old friend.
I know how far you travel.
            Back to my no-gear,
pedal-brake bike tyres
catching in dull gravel,
school bus
turning in smoky dust, Dad milking Jerseys
in a walk-through shed: six sheds, six houses
and a sheep farm at your end.
Back to war veterans clutching
marbles in your land ballot.
Back to Te Rauparaha’s boundary:
Kukutauaki Stream near Paekākāriki,
a snare for catching kākāriki.
           Out west, sunsets
over Waitārere Beach. East, rainbows
over the Tararua Range, colourful
as your jam-packed letterboxes jostling with wheelie bins 
for shoulder space.
Yet why do I see your bitumen shine
as loss my friend, your slick curves
as enclosure?
           You’re smooth
as a black cow and our vehicles slide down
your spine all the way to Wellington,
coast nose-to-tail through the gully. Return
to pūkeko stalking lifestyle blocks, kererū
ghosting rural retreats.
           I wave as my car swings past
your long, blue sign. Bye, bye
no exit Kukutauaki Road.

 

Janet Newman

(after ‘Hello Great North Road’ by Robert Sullivan)

 

 

Janet Newman is a poet and scholar. Her debut poetry collection is Unseasoned Campaigner (OUP 2021), the manuscript of which was shortlised for the 2019 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award. Her poems have been anthologised in Manifesto Aotearoa (OUP 2017) and No Other Place To Stand (AUP 2022). Raised on a Horowhenua dairy farm she now farms beef cattle. She holds a PhD in English from Massey University for her thesis Imagining Ecologies: Traditions of Ecopoetry in Aotearoa New Zealand (2019).