A life is a cycle of swimming; we go from ahurumowai out into the bright lights with earthquakes and house shatters we are born brown and breathing yet again.
The center spent on land pulls us down hard as leafy things learn to grow beyond our reach. This whānau never had ladder in one season we’d wait for pecked fruit to fall rotten at our feet, soft speckled butter in the mouth.
In the other season we could fly we could climb we could breathe as unripe fruit from the highest boughs stung our tongues.
I learnt to see my body as a house from the way you cut down those trees to build me. I am soft wood and hard work. I am the family dream of four children per family – absoloute minimum.
I am girl surrounded by ghosts of elder dreams. They taught me with hand games, ring-a-ring-a-rosie showing you how many could fall to invisible soldiers, foreign bodies in the water, intruders in the rivers breathing through reeds just waiting to cut us down.
They taught me with be careful, They taught me with be quiet when known strangers asked us about how we flew one season then gifted the river a flooding the next. Now I tell them that I come from a long line of flood and draught.
Before you I am your young reflection, shaped like softness, dark eyes blue rimmed, sitting here so far from your lands knowing you will return only through me. Only through your dreaming of the dark water that connects you to a past felt but never seen.
Once you called me to your side to hold me “It is my job now to dream”, you said “It is my job to dream good dreams for you until the dreams come and take me away” And I knew then that we both came from that dark water that only we could see.
You close your eyes to me and see me better that way; both of our outlines a flickering in the black.
Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is a writer, musician and taonga pūoro practitioner living in Pōneke. She has been published in journals such as Landfall, Starling and Sport, among others. In 2020 she released her debut album, Pōneke, which looks at the soundscapes of Wellington’s past, present and future through the use of taonga pūoro, cello, and environmental sounds. She is currently completing a PhD in public health, focusing on the use of taonga pūoro in hauora Māori. Tōku Pāpā, published in Februrary 2021, is her first book.
When you were clear-eyed When your breasts burst out of you like blossoms Your legs brown willow wands Your hair like golden fire You determined to be strange Wore bad 80s tracksuits Hair in a low ponytail tied with a scrunchie Frumpy centre part and frizz, a frown Under thick eyebrows Wore old man pants Hacked off your hair Grew it back without grooming Went to the ball in jandals and your grandma’s dress Smelling like dust Wore no bra and your mum’s old skivvy Ate cake in the street Made homemade dreadlocks That stunk of skin and rotting thread Went swimming in baggy boyleg trunks Wore old sneakers from a skip bin Smoked weed out of toilet rolls, apples, plastic bottles, bits of bamboo Threw all your costume jewellery in the clothing bin Bought a pair of heels and never wore them Gave them to the opshop Slept with stoners, drunks, deadbeats and layabouts Tried to get jobs in bare feet Threw out everything made of leather Wore thai fisherman pants and no undies Refused to shave anything Hacked your hair off again Wore a bad 80s jacket Dyed it patchy pink with DYLON cold Cut your own bangs crooked Got paint all over yourself Wore clown pants Carried everything in a dirty backpack No spare change no time of day Get lost, fuck off, nothing to see here Like a tree dropping fruit On the pavers of an abandoned courtyard
Airini Beautrais lives in Whanganui and is the author of four poetry collections and a collection of short fiction. Her most recent poetry collection is Flow: Whanganui River Poems (VUP 2017). Bug Week and Other Stories recently won the Ockham NZ Book Fiction Award 2021.
We will make sure we get a good night’s sleep. We will eat a decent breakfast, probably involving eggs and bacon. We will make sure we drink enough water. We will go for a walk, preferably in the sunshine. We will gently inhale lungsful of air. We will try to not gulp in the lungsful of air. We will go to the sea. We will watch the waves. We will phone our mothers. We will phone our fathers. We will phone our friends. We will sit on the couch with our friends. We will hold hands with our friends while sitting on the couch. We will cry on the couch with our friends. We will watch movies without tension – comedies or concert movies – on the couch with our friends while holding hands and crying. We will think about running away and hiding. We will think about fighting, both metaphorically and actually. We will consider bricks. We will buy a sturdy padlock. We will lock the gate with the sturdy padlock, even though the gate isn’t really high enough. We will lock our doors. We will screen our calls. We will unlist our phone numbers. We will wait. We will make appointments with our doctors. We will make sure to eat our vegetables. We will read comforting books before bedtime. We will make sure our sheets are clean. We will make sure our room is aired. We will make plans. We will talk around it and talk through it and talk it out. We will try to be grateful. We will be grateful. We will make sure we get a good night’s sleep.
Helen Rickerby, from How to Live
I am stuck at home, not doing author trips, not catching up with friends in person, never hanging out in cafes, so I’ve been doing email conversations with poets whose work I have loved. A couple have sublime new books out, but with others it was an excuse to revisit writing I have carried with me.
Last up in this series is Helen Rickerby. Helen is a writer, editor and publisher. She has published a number of poetry collections, including Cinema (Mākaro Press, 2014) and How to Live, which won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry (Auckland University Press, 2019). Helen was co-managing editor of the literary journal JAAM from 2005–2015 and single-handedly runs Seraph Press, the boutique poetry press.
I have been a fan of Helen’s poetry for a long time, but she has also published a number of my own collections (The Baker’s Thumbprint 2013, New York Pocket Book 2016 and The Track 2019). I have loved working on each book with her.
Seraph Press’s list of publications include some of my favourite poets in Aotearoa: Anna Jackson, Bernadette Hall, Nina Mingya Powles, Anahera Gildea, Vana Manasiadis, Helen Llendorf, Maria McMillan, Johanna Aitchison, Vivienne Plumb – plus the terrific anthology, Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Poets in Translation (2018).
It has been such a pleasure to touch base with books and poetry in email conversations..
Paula: In these tilted and jagged times diversions are so important. For me, reading and secret writing projects are essential. So many sublime books are being published in Aotearoa and around the world at the moment, of all genres. What has helped you? Any books that have lifted or anchored or transported you? I can so identify with your words in Chris Tse’s new Auckland University Press book, Super Model Minority (‘these poems cut my heart before warming it’).
Helen: Yes, I’m also sticking pretty close to home just now, and while I am still seeing my friends, mostly in our own homes, I am also needing to find my joys near at hand. Over the last week while I’ve been finding a lot of comfort and joy, and also a bit of challenge, in creative non-fiction – particularly in books that could loosely be described as memoir, but which are much more. There’s something about the mixture of narrative, life, ideas and poetic writing (if not actual poetry) that’s my thing right now. Recent highlights include Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, Patricia Grace’s From the Centre and especially Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy.
During last year’s lockdown a friend left a care package of books in my letterbox. One of the books was Real Estate, the third (red) volume in Deborah Levy’s trilogy. It’s kind of about her making a new life for herself after her daughters leave home, but it’s so much more than a memoir, as are the other two books in the trilogy. It’s poetic and philosophical and, collage-like, full of quotes from other works of literature that she’s having conversations with – I felt an affinity, it felt allied with what I’ve been doing in poetry in recent years. I read my way backwards through the trilogy, borrowing the second (yellow) volume, The Cost of Living, from a friend who lives downstairs and, as soon as we got to Level 3, buying the first (blue) book, Things I Don’t Want to Know, from the lovely Volume bookshop in Nelson (because no Wellington bookshops had it and I knew Volume could get it to me quickly, and I needed it immediately). And then when I finished that, I started reading them all again, forwards this time. I found them so calming, like the eye of a storm. I was finding everything a bit hard at the time, mainly in my head, and I would just take a little bit of time with these books and I could feel myself calming down. Even though her experiences were very different to mine, I loved the way in these books she kind of rises up above her life and looks down on it, and writes about it, from a calm height. It made me feel like I could do the same.
I confess to being someone who is looking for quite a lot of comfort in life and literature, but I also know that growth doesn’t usually come from comfort, and a bit of discomfort is really important. Super Model Minority is a fabulous book, and one that did at times make me feel uncomfortable. Some of the things he’s writing about are uncomfortable and even painful, and there’s definitely anger. But the poems make you think, and make you see and appreciate, and in the midst of it all there’s humour and hope and beauty. I’m always keen on some humour and hope and beauty.
Paula: Ah – now I am dead keen to read the Levy trilogy. And yes! That’s exactly what Chris’s collection does. And you do come away with the word hope.
I want to talk about how I love your poetry, but first, which poets would you choose to have conversations with (let’s say dead or alive, home or abroad). Poets who have affected your travels and engagements as a writer and a reader.
Helen: Hmmm, that’s a tricky question. I have a bit of a fear of meeting my heroes, in case it’s terribly disappointing, or they don’t like me (or I don’t like them), or we had a mediocre conversation. So much pressure! Also, quite a few of my heroes are women I don’t think I would get along with very well: Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, etc… I also feel that if I really love someone’s work, I don’t necessarily want to talk to them about it, I wouldn’t want to break the magic. So I would be very nervous to talk to Anne Carson, for example, even though her work has been very important and inspiring to me in showing the breadth of what poetry can do. I was reminded today of the wonderful book-length poem Memorial by Alice Oswald today, and I would be interested in talking to her about that. While it was Heather Cristle’s The Crying Book, which is not strictly speaking poetry, that really got me, she is a poet I might risk talking to. I have had great conversations about poetry with poets who are my actual friends, perhaps particularly with Anna Jackson, who I’ve run a few conferences with, though we talk about other things too. From the past, Sappho would be very interesting to converse with, though we’d need to use some kind of translator. I would be intrigued to meet Byron, but it might not be poetry we’d talk about.
Paula: Ha! I never thought of that. Yes, I feel nervous when I review a book as that feels like a conversation that could go terribly wrong on my part. I want to navigate the paths, corridors, alcoves, wide open windows of a book and make discoveries. No interest in listing all the things a poetry collection doesn’t do.
What matters to you when you write a poem? What do you want your poem to do or be or feel or activate (I keep coming up with more and more verbs)?
Helen: I probably have as many answers to that question as poems I’ve written – possibly more! And what matters to me changes over time, and maybe changes back. But some things that come to mind are to capture something – a thought, a feeling, an experience, the thinking through of an idea, an image, a memory. I want to communicate, but not too clearly or simply, I want to create layers and textures and possibly contradictions. I want the reader to get something out of my poem, but I don’t want them to necessarily be able to decode the whole poem. I don’t want to be able to decode the whole poem. I want the sound and language to feel right for the poem, and I want the words to be beautiful, even if only ugly beautiful. I want it to feel fresh to me and/or the reader, but I want it to feel true to them in some way, which is not the same thing as factual. I want the poem to be more than the sum of its parts, and I want the poem to be a bit bigger than me, maybe wiser? I want to open some doors or windows in my own head, and the heads of at least some of my readers. I want to feel like the poem doesn’t have too much, or too little – I have a bit of a thing for a long, spacious poem, when appropriate. I want to feel that it’s a bit worthwhile, in some or other way. I don’t want to reread it and think ‘Yeah, and so?’ I want to have learned something, through writing the poem, even if only about myself. I’m not sure I can do all of these things at once!
from ‘How to Live’, in How to Live
Paula: How to Live (Auckland University Press, 2019) is one of my all time favourite poetry collections. It is a book I am taking to hospital with me. I so loved reviewing it on Poetry Shelf. Like many contemporary poets you are cracking open poetic forms – widening what a poem can do – as though taking a cue from art and its ability both to make art from anything and in any way imaginable. So richly layered. In fact everything you say above!
‘How to live’ is a question open to interpretation as it ripples through the poems; and it makes poetry a significant part of the myriad answers. I haven’t read a book quite like this and I love that. The writing is lucid, uplifting, provocative, revealing, acidic, groundbreaking. The subject matter offers breadth and depth, illuminations, little anchors, liberations, shadows. I am all the better for having read this book. I just love it. (Poetry Shelf)
If windows and doors open in your head as you write a poem they open in mine as I read the collection. Particularly in view of the presence of women. What did you discover writing this book?
Helen: Aww, thank you Paula! I learned a lot while writing this book, though I finished it more than three years ago, and so have forgotten a lot! It was definitely a book of thinking through – and feeling through – and making connections. So there’s a lot of me in there, and my own thoughts and experiences and attempts at figuring things out, but there’s also a lot of research. I learned quite a bit about philosophy and about philosophers, and that got me thinking about why I didn’t really know of many, if any, women philosophers. Turns out the main reason is the same reason we don’t know about a lot of women from the past: because they’ve been erased and forgotten. I am always quite delighted to discover women from the past who have done cool things – there are lots of them. It was also while writing this book that I started thinking about the way my poetry, and the work of other poets that I’d been noticing, was crossing over with essay, and I got quite excited about that. I’m really interested in poetry that explores and thinks through ideas – that journey – I’m probably less interested in the destination. I love the way poetry can leap over gaps and fragments, happily hold contradictions and layers and non-binaries. Both/And.
Palimpsest is a word I have to look up every time A palimpsest is a parchment from which the words have been scraped off so it could be used again but the old words still show through
Earth / late summer
This is the place of intersection your life my life my time and the little I know about yours the little I know about mine the little I know
from ‘Ban Zhao’
Paula: I so love the title and the poem it references. I am wondering if poetry so often responds to this question, overtly or opaquely. It made me want to write my own version, borrowing your title. Did anything in particular prompt the poem?
Helen: It’s a question I think we all need to keep asking ourselves all the time, for our whole lives. There’s no one answer, and the answer for each of us keeps changing, but in order to be a good person in society and a happy person in our own lives, I think we need to think about this, and also to act. Everyone could write a book of this title, and I would love to read yours! Multiple books probably – I have continued developing my ideas about how to live since I finished writing this book. They now involve more fun and dancing.
My original idea for this book was quite different, but with the same title. About a decade ago Sean, my husband, was diagnosed with cancer. It turned out to be of a very treatable kind, which was very fortunate, but the whole dealing with the medical system, let alone mortality, was a bit of a thing. I was also becoming increasingly aware that I was no longer a youth, and of the finiteness of time, and wanting to make the most of that time. During all of this, especially during Sean’s treatment and recovery, I was writing poems about this experience and exploring the idea of living as in not dying, and living as in really living. These poems weren’t entirely successful, but they had something in them, and I ended up cutting them up and using them as the basis of the long title poem, which explores these same ideas, as well considering ideas about what poetry is, and, you know, everything!
Paula: Is there a poem (or two) which has fallen into charismatic place for you? Two longer poems are particularly magnetic: ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ and ‘George Eliot: a life’. Both function as fascination assemblages. They allow the reader to absorb lyrical phrases, humour, biography, autobiography, insistent questions. Biography is enlivened by such an approach, as is poetry. Ah, really the whole collection, magnetic, eclectic, electrifying.
Helen: I’m not quite sure what you mean by this question. Of my own work? This might not be what you mean, but I had a similar experience with both the first poem in the book ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ (which was the last poem I wrote for the book) and the last poem in the book ‘How to live’, where I had this idea of what I wanted to do in the poem, and I had all these fragments, but I didn’t know how to make the poem I wanted it to be. But with each, while feeling like I would NEVER get there, I had a kind of epiphany about the form, which gave me the tone, which made everything else fall into place. I have found this encouraging since – that you can feel completely hopeless, but if you keep on going you might be quite close to creating the thing you want to. I think this recent tweet by Heather Cristle evokes this beautifully: ‘I love it when form writes the book for you. It is like you are trying to screw something together and form is watching you impatiently until it says ‘just give it to me’ and you do and form puts everything together so fast while you lie down admiring its movement and shape.’
from ‘Notes on the unsilent woman‘ Hipparchia of Maroneia c. 350–c. 280 BC
Paula: I was over the moon when it won the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards – Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry. Did the judges recognise something in the book you hadn’t seen? I love it when that happens – when you look through the open windows of a poem and things surprise you. And how was it winning the award?
Helen: It was all a bit of a blur! Google photos tells me it was two years ago this week. It was also at the end of the first lockdown – quite a nice way to end it. I was in complete shock – I was pretty certain that Anne Kennedy would win, and when they said my name there was quite a lot of screaming (and a little bit of swearing) at my house. Book awards are weird things. I’m fully aware that they’re never an objective ranking, which isn’t even possible, but are just what those three judges managed to agree on at that time, but it was still very lovely that it was my book they agreed on. I don’t think there was anything the judges said about my book that surprised me, but I appreciated that they got what I was exploring. And winning meant that more people sought out my book, which was also lovely.
Paula: I find myself drawn to poems of all lengths – for a while I favoured the long poem as I could carry it in my pocket and keep adding to it as I mothered and worked and cooked. Now I quite like small poems, sweet mouthfuls that are verging on stream of consciousness. What do you like about the long poem?
Helen: There is something nice about a little gem of a poem, but I do love a good long poem the most. I love the way it has space to breathe and move and meander and be a bit messy. To look at things from a bunch of angles and maybe not favour any of them. I have come to accept that I’m a digressive conversationalist, perhaps a digressive person in pretty much everything except my day job (I’m an editor/technical writer, which is all about plain-language, clear structure, unambiguity – basically the opposite of poetry), and I really enjoy interesting digression in what I’m reading, and what I’m writing. Though, it won’t be entirely a digression, because it will almost certainly connect to everything else in some kind of way. A long poem has enough time to set up resonances within itself, it can tell stories rather than just capture moments. Not that I don’t love a great poem that just captures a moment! And because I’ve been interested in the essay poem, longer poems have more space for the essaying, the thinking through, the exploration. And I guess they have the space to be about several things at once, and about the connections between those things. Probably I should give some examples, but I’m immediately struck by everything I would miss out! Possibly my all-time favourite long poem, and all-time favourite poem, is ‘The Glass Essay’ by Anne Carson, which isn’t quite book length (it comes in at 45 pages), but which manages to be about the end of a relationship, Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, a visit to the narrator’s mother, and the decline of a father with dementia, and some other stuff, and is all beautifully written.
Paula: I am delighted to see so many boutique presses springing up – bringing us such a wider range of voices. You have published a number of my poetry collections though Seraph Press, and it has been a special relationship. I have loved the look of each book, am grateful for your editing. The collections are all so different. I love that! And I discovered Nina Mingya Powles through you! How does publishing the work of poetry impact on your own writing? You put so much love in to the books you published. What matters to you when you make the book of someone else? [do you think publishing is something you are moving away from now to give more time to your own work?]
Helen: I do love making books, both as collections of words and ideas, and also as physical objects. And I have loved working with different writers to get their words out into the world. Some of them, like you, were fully formed poets when I started working with you, while others – such as Nina, who was only 21 when I published her first chapbook containing some of the very first poems she’d written – were just beginning and I’ve got to see them bloom in close quarters. I have made some great connections and am really proud of making books that I think are beautiful and worthwhile. I try to work with each author so we’re both happy with what we’re putting out, and happy with how it looks. Because it’s something that I do in my own time and almost entirely with my own money, I have had to basically be in love with the books to make it worthwhile. It has taken a bit of a toll on my own writing sometimes, because when I’m working on someone else’s book, that has obligations and deadlines, whereas my own writing doesn’t and gets pushed back. Especially as I’m not an especially great multi-tasker, am usually also working a day job or two, and am by nature quite lazy and so my inclination is generally to just muck around instead. As much as I love publishing, or rather some aspects of publishing (because I do pretty much everything, there are definitely things I’m less interested in and less skilled at – like marketing, for example), after getting a bit burned out I am having a hiatus on the publishing front, and focusing on my own writing, and my own life, for a while. I’m sure I haven’t published my last book though!
Meanwhile, I’m really excited to see the new publishers coming through, doing things their own way, getting important work out there, and increasingly being noticed by mainstream awards. This not at all an exhaustive list, but I’m thinking right now of Anahera Press, Compound Press, We Are Babies and new kid on the block Taraheke | Bushlawyer. Exciting times!
Paula: Indeed – so exciting to see the new presses supporting terrific new voices. I feel like we have had a very long lunch, with the most delicious food and roving conversation. It means a lot, to be part of wide stretching poetry communities.
Echidna, essa may ranapiri, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022
they’re sharing takeaways next to the ocean bony butts on a park bench the Spider signs into the air did you know liking hot chips makes you gay Echidna smiles does it? there is just the sound of waves crashing and the newspaper rustling the grease making things transparent
from ‘Echidna & the Spider’
Spending extended time with essa may ranapiri’s new collection Echidna is a catalyst for contemplation, deep-seated musing, sinking into the knowable, wallowing in the unknowable, brushing against the light, scratching at the dark. All this and more. essa is writing in the present tense, that intimate prolonged precious moment when their words meet screen or page but, as their dedication indicates, are writing – for to from – their ancestors (past) and descendants (future). And past present future become weave. And writing becomes weave. And weave becomes writing.
I see the word weave is used on the book’s blurb: ‘Echidna contends with three stands of tradition; Greek mythology, Christianity and Māori pūrākau, and through weaving them together attempts to create a queerer whole.’ Storytelling is weave. Weave is storytelling. Where and how did she fit into storytelling over time? Where do they fit into story telling. Who is speaking? Who wields power according to the dominant voice? Ah the power of myth to acculturate.
For decades, we have attempted to place she centre stage, to give her necessary voice, to rescue her from shadows and misrepresentation, this complex prismatic stretching she. As a writer and once temporary academic, I wanted/want to witness and engage with her publications, performances, anthologies, critiques. And now, so long overdue, we must place they centre stage, to give them voice, the non binary, the gender fluid, to rescue them from shadows and misrepresentation, this complex prismatic stretching they. As writer and once temporary academic, I want to witness and engage with their publications, performances, anthologies, critiques.
essa draws upon so very much for this heart-startling collection. I experience it as a weave of their own self, vulnerabilities, fears, dreams, experiences. As a weaving of contemporary spaces, mythological and cultural inheritances, and above all the wounding slam of colonialism. This is the kind of book an author has given every inch of skin and blood to. I am reminded of Tusiata Avia’s Bloodclot.
Again I am also reminded that the books we write are woven out of the books that precede us, the communities we write within and beyond – as much as life, imaginings, daring. essa acknowledges this in their poem dedications and ‘Notes’ and the connective tissue of their poems. Here is part of the community they gather: Tusiata Avia, Tayi Tibble, Roman Potiki, Aimee-Jane Anderson O’Connor, Hana Pera Aoake, Tina Makereti, Sam Duckor-Jones, Ruby Solly, Stacey Teague, Whiti Hereaka, Keri Hulme, Rangi Faith, Robert Sullivan, Anne Marie Te Whiu, Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Reihana Robinson, Elizabeth Kerekere, Hinemoana Baker, Sinead Overbye, Michelle Rahurahu, Harry Josephine Giles, Carin Smeaton.
The collection. Echidna, the she-viper, cave dweller, mother of monsters, half woman half snake: she is myth and she inhabits this world. She meets Narcissus, and she starts an instagram account, plays video games, eats takeaways. She squashes sandwiches into a tupperware container and she wraps herself in cliches. She meets Ureia. She is a night cleaner. She is the pulse and tension of this collection. She will keep you reading.
standing in the shower now she scrubs vivid from her tails kids’ comics and lyrics from the radio Black Parade and a Riot! of melodrama when she gets out lifting her unruly form over the threshold she wraps clichés around herself to get dry the mirror fogged over hides a reflection she doesn’t see herself in
from ‘Echidna Goes through Her Emo Phase’
Māui and Prometheus also make an appearance or two in a steaming hot relationship. The poem ‘Prometheus Collects the Body of His Lover’ hugs the right-hand margin and the collection slows right down to heartbreak, to held-breath, to astonish us as the poem shifts vantage point and embodies grief.
he takes small sips black and bitter
there was a Prometheus who would howl at this would take up patu and strike a Prometheus who would burn the house down and leave with the body and bury him in the rich soils of his kāinga a Prometheus who would try his hand at succeeding where Māui had failed but that wasn’t him
essa offers sensual hooks so poems become tactile, aromatic, igniting taste buds. There is the physical and there is the intangible. The form of the poems shift like the shifting voice of the storyteller, the point of view swivelling. Sometimes a poem might appear like two salt pillars, sometimes ravined with space and ache, sometimes wider gaps punctuate the line, allowing room for float and drift.
And the sound. There is the music of the storytelling voice, a voice attuned to holding a listener entranced, to composing aural connections, undulating chords. Yes, it is music for the entranced listener.
Books find you. You find books. Poetry, like storytelling, has an incredible ability to invigorate every body pore, in ways that both heal and challenge. We need poetry in these turbulent times. We need this book. This remarkable groundbreaking Echidna.
essa may ranapiri (Ngaati Raukawa, Highgate, Na Guinnich) is the author of this book. Their first book, ransack, was published in 2019. They will write until they’re dead.
Te Herenga Waka University Press page Poetry Shelf Monday poem: ‘Echidna & Nafanua’
Yesterday the world emptied out. I don’t remember a flood – just a perfect summer’s day that had gone a bit far. Nothing was left except three donkeys and two pigs – and a hawk that began her serene hunt, wings spread, for prey. I don’t think I was there. I was floating downstream or plucking away at something in someone else’s vacant apartment (where had all the furniture gone?) with not a hell of a lot to say. A caterpillar might crawl across my path, if I was lucky, or a heavily-breathing man, intent on making it to the top. There are bigger gaps between the stepping stones now, as well as peach trees, pumpkins, apples and apricots. They offer quiet advice that hangs just out of reach.
Susanna Gendall’s writing has appeared in a number of journals, including JAAM, Ambit, Takahē, Landfall and Sport. Her debut novel, The Disinvent Movement (THWUP), was published last year.
Tūnui | Comet, Robert Sullivan, Auckland University Press, 2022
I’d written ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’ because it reminded me of buses in Honolulu
at the airport and Waikiki. The open-air buses aren’t like decolonisation though. Decolonisation
is not worrying about cultural identity, and not translating and not having to explain
things like a family and hapū do such as wānanga because the wānanga is the explanation
or learning mōteatea by our ancestors, or prophecies of our spiritual tūpuna, or sadness
at the fighting on the other side. These decolonisations make up life.
from ‘Te Tāhuhu Nui’
Robert Sullivan belongs to the iwi Ngāpuhi Nui Tonuand Kāi Tahu. His debut collection, Star Waka (Auckland University Press, 1999), marked the arrival of a significant poet, and has been numerously reprinted. Robert has published a number of collections since, and with Reina Whaitiri edited Puna wai Kōrero, an anthology of Māori poetry, and with Reina and Albert Wendt, Whetu Moana and Mauri Ola, anthologies of Polynesian poetry in English.
Robert’s new collection, Tūnui | Comet, stands on the shoulders (hearts, lungs, mind) of everything he has written and edited to date. Voice has carried his poetry, his family, his whakapapa. Voice is the weave that remembers the touchstones of his previous collections: Tāmaki Makaura, the Far North, colonisation, Cook, family. I have never forgotten his premise that voice carries us. And voices carries this collection, all that it holds close, all that it challenges. It is there in ‘Kawe Reo / Voices Carry’:
Voice carries us from the foot of Rangipuke / Sky Hill / Albert Park to the Wai Horotiu stream chuckling down Queen Street carrying a hii-haa-hii story—from prams and seats with names and rhymes, words from books and kitchen tables.
In writing poetry, Robert is speaking to for with from. He is conversing and he is voyaging, and his writing is the river flowing, the currency of water and air vital. Each poem sits in generous space on the page, each poem given ample room in which to breathe, in an open font, allowing space for the reader to pause and reflect.
The collection weaves in past, present, and future – who he is, was and will be – mythologies, histories. There is the drive to write in te reo Māori, to nourish the language’s roots, to write poems without English translations, to insist upon a need to speak and grow with his own language.
Robert acknowledges he writes within a community of poets who have shaped him. He carries a history of reading, of considering the work of others, particularly Māori and Pasifika poets. There’s a homage to Alistair Te Ariki Campbell. An imagined barbecue with Hone Tuwhare. A reminder the notDeclaration of Independence was actually yes, an assertion of mana by the rangatira (for Moana Jackson). There’s walking on Moeraki sand to remember Keri Hulme’s place names.
Voicing: colonisation decolonisation. The poem ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’ reminded me of the caution I bring to facts and figures, to encyclopaedic entries, to the way statistics can be hijacked, research findings manipulated. I am reminded of the hidden narratives, the misrepresented experiences, the sidelined voices.
I have visited once and seen a hilly field from memory—hard to take the scene in without props. There was a church service and worshippers fled out beyond. Never swarmed the bunkers and trenches. Flicked between ancestor Wynyard and out neighbouring great chief Kawiti. I do not know the buried knives. We gathered in this hill of ash, dead bees and pollen. We left carvings in the earth and flowers there.
from ‘Decolonisation Wiki Entries’
Tūnui | Comet is poetry of acknowledgement. It is poetry of challenge. And it is profoundly moving. In ‘A.O.U’, the poem sings a mihi for Ihumātao. In ‘Feather’s’, the speaker is wearing blood and mud splattered trousers at Parihaka (‘we’re a little band of brothers /marching hundreds strong’) and the feather is in flight:
Whiteness of the mountain the ploughs and feathers the children’s singing witness
I say challenge, do I mean voice? Voicing different versions. Wanting to wrap Old Government House in Treaty pages and lavalavas and knock on the door and ‘say open sesame’. Or stepping back into the sailing boots of Captain James Cook and twisting the eyeglass to imagine afresh the what if.
Or what if I stayed in Aotearoa and shared our science, our medical knowledge, our carpentry and animal husbandry, our love of books and conservation values? What if we had gained the friendship, love and trust of the Natives, and returned that equally at the time, not needing to constantly gaslight and to make amends?
from ‘Cooking with Gas’
Reading Robert’s intricate, sweetly crafted poetry affects me on so many levels. There is aroha in the pen’s ink, there is fortitude and insight, there is history and there is future. There is uplift, and the need to refresh the eyeglass, the mouthpiece. Read the excellent reviews of Anton Blank and David Eggleton (links below); they celebrate the arrival of a new book by a significant poet in multiple ways, and how it inspires on so many levels. My head is all over the show now, and reviews are getting harder and harder to write, but I hold this book out to you. It is a beacon of light on the horizon, and I am grateful for its presence.
Auckland University Press page Anton Blank review at ANZL David Eggleton review at Kete Books
anomalia, Cadence Chung, We Are Babies Press, 2022
scrapes and yellow bruises on her knees, she is learning the terrain, learning that some things cut and some things stain, she is learning that the sky above is full of balls of light that you can’t touch or feel or taste she is getting used to the injustice of it all.
from ‘specimen ‘332: the astronomer’
anomalia is Cadence Chung’s debut collection, and was written during her final year of secondary school in Wellington. She has been writing since she was young, and began publishing in her teens. Cadence has made two demo albums and her musical Blind Faith was staged at her secondary school in 2021. She hit the poetry headlines with ‘Shadows / shades’, a poem she wrote in response to NZQA using a poem by white supremacist and murderer Lionel Terry in a Level 2 History exam.
The collection’s opening poem, ‘abstract’, underlines how anomalia heightens a sense of the imprecise, the irregular. Stare at a word long enough, say it often enough, and it slips into the unfamiliar, the unpredictable, the unsteady. The word ‘abstract’ may reference a summary that acts as prelude or doorway. It may be ideas that stand as theoretical window. Or the removal that signals a clearance from expected settings. The word/idea/flashpoint bounces me back to the title of the book, and I am musing on how a word wobbles on the line, how this thought or that gesture, this appearance or that choice, deviates from expectation.
Poetry is a perfect place to contest everyday anomalies. The word may wobble on the line, but the word on the line can emit light, can resist subjugation. And Cadence’s poetry demonstrates this.
Poetry is a perfect place to celebrate the present tense, to make use of the gerund, the present participle, in order to keep moving: to keep searching, collecting, surrendering, dissecting, loving, pretending, existing, recurring.
Cadence’s collection is a curious curiosity cabinet with its recurring motifs and themes: cicada, vivisect, blood, science, anxiety, specimens, antique shops, milk(y), love. But it is more than that. It is more than physicality. Cadence has probed into the tender flesh of being human, with scalpel and penetrating lens, and laid the seeping wounds and insights into the clearing that is poem.
There is the insistent and constant need to classify, sort, catalogue or vivisect the specimen. The specimen may be a gathered object, a body’s organ, but I also see it as self. The poet is driven to sort, classify, catalogue, vivisect self. It is the beating heart, the fragile state. It is elusive and unknowable. Self is placed in display cabinet. Self becomes cabinet. Self becomes poem. And if the specimen is dismembered, split open, if the self is vivisected, this is poetry of pain, hurt, danger, vulnerability.
The floating and ambiguous ‘me’ is more than body parts. It is astonishing to peer into the glass cabinet of the poem and hit the sharp edge of anomaly. Where the most important things (I love you) are incommunicable. Where sorrow is easily categorised but matches no category. Where uncertainty is a certainty. Where life is sonnets and getting tender about mushrooms, a flirting moon. And life is ‘patching together / every scrap and semblance i know of’. Also from the poem ‘that’s why they call me missus fahrenheit’: ‘Because everything’s too bitter / to not suck on the sweet bits’.
Oh and scientist poet, poet scientist, becomes dissident. They long to subvert the results, the order – and gore becomes glitter cluster. From ‘anatomy’: ‘keep trying to understand the strange strange anatomy / of existence’.
The collection has hooked onto my skin, down my breathing passages. The poetry is provisional anchor. Searchlight. Distress signal. Gritty field. Self reflection.
anomalia is a breathtaking debut.
like i have admired everything in my life with recklessness and without hesitation
how could i not? when there are drawers full of herbs pictures of distant towns
ripped waistcoats long-gone family crests love letters to dispense from heart-covered machines
for a penny each how could i not? when i am so used to being collected
like dust between pages like sludge in a gutter like eyeliner on skin left to sit
how could i not? when i am lonely so everything reminds me of love
Before Cara Delevingne there was me bushy-browed and proud ready to walk down the catwalk at Burwood Primary (down by the silver birches where we played tree tag).
My eyebrows were so big and black they could knock out the scrawny blonde kid at Intermediate, the one who followed me and hit my legs with a stick as I walked away the one who called the only other brown girl in our class skidmark.
My eyebrows were so wild they could radiate waves of anger to the stranger at the bus stop who said, “just smile, it’s not the end of the world”.
My eyebrows were so thick they punched through my voice spoke so loudly that our Social Studies classroom rumbled and everyone turned to listen.
In my dreams I have a sidekick – with my beastly brows and Kajol’s unibrow we are unstoppable.
Watch out tweezers and threaders and assorted brow shapers we refuse to be plucked or trimmed into shape. We bow only to the brow goddess for long luscious fluffy brows.
Neema Singh is a poet from Otāutāhi. Her work appears in Ko Aotearoa Tātou: We Are New Zealand(2020) and A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand (2021) and she is currently working on her first collection of poetry. Neema is an experienced secondary school English teacher and holds a Master of Creative Writing from The University of Auckland.
although the flighty vampires suckling so obscenely are the only creatures that really belong in this scene not the dogs or the willows or the girl or the gorse with its raptures of yellow
that invasive stellation annexing the slopes to wrestle black beech at the bush boundary the smells of pollinated combat mingling by the water sultry as marzipan and honeydew casting a heady spell
over the colonised valley the weeds like her very presence here a legacy of other people’s blood and money though she has yet to understand this history is her own still finding a place in her bones let alone the land
from ‘Noonday gorsebloom’
Rebecca Hawkes caught my attention in AUP New Poets 5 (Anna Jackson’s reboot of the series). I became an instant and avid fan. Rebecca’s debut full collection Meat Lovers is now out in the world and is attracting a solar system of love. Freya Daly Sadgrove wrote this for the blurb: ‘Rebecca Hawkes is the unmatched empress of viscera. Thrillingly, perverse, utterly compelling – you eat these poems like overripe peaches, or your own tongue.’
To celebrate poetry, and the arrival of Meat Lovers, Rebecca and I have an ongoing email conversation over the past month or so.
Paula: Before we discuss your sublime debut collection, these are strange and challenging times. I am finding books help. Writing helps. I just read Rachel O’Neill’s stunning Requiem for a Fruit and it was such an uplift. Inspiring. Have you read any books lately that have stuck with you?
Rebecca: Lately I’ve been disappearing into gaming a fair amount -dystopian epic sequel Horizon Forbidden West just came out and I’ve been abandoning our world for the tragic beauty of that story. I’ve also been reading a lot, enjoying the first releases in the bounty of local poetry arriving this year. The Surgeon’s Brain by Oscar Upperton stuck in my craw, as an incisive testament to an extraordinary life. It’s a powerful reminder of the ongoing need for rediscovery of queer history, and how we continue to fight for our place in the record. It inhabits the character of James Barry, a brilliant transgender military surgeon in the 1800s. Oscar’s work is precise and immersive – it felt like being dropped right into Barry’s whirring mind at various moments throughout his storied life. Reading the book is like speedrunning a novelised biography in a way that fits my fractured attention span, while also having plenty of room to breathe with Barry through his gnarliest thoughts.
I’ve also just read Chris Tse’s much anticipated Super Model Minority. Rainbows and rage, passion and pride, it meets my pent-up energy in the pandemic. This book evolves Chris’ previous work reckoning with racist and homophobic violence, and the radical possibilities of joy in a doomscroller’s world.
I’ve also been lucky to receive a copy of I got you babe, the first publication by new publishing collective Taraheke/Bushlawyer. I’m so glad to see this in the world. I got you babe includes poems and essays by the five writers, holding their power and care and grief. Importantly, it places the forthcoming anthology No Other Place To Stand (which I’ve been co-editing with essa, Erik and Jordan for the past few years), in a richer, wider ecosystem of critical and creative work around climate, capitalism and colonisation. As we get closer to the anthology launching at last (it has gone to print!), it’s daunting how little has changed since the start of this project and the pandemic – the poems sent to us in 2020 have only become more (alarmingly) prescient. The critical urgency of I got you babe is a breath of fresh air.
2022 is, despite all the overall horribleness of Current Events, set to be a killer year for poetry. I’m eager for the new books by Anahera Gildea, Michaela Keeble, Anne-Marie Te Whiu, Erik Kennedy, Jordan Hamel, essa may ranapiri, Cadence Chung, Khadro Mohamed, Michael Steven… My bundle from Titus Books just arrived and I’m reading Chris Holdaway’s Gorse Poems tonight!
Meatlovers Rebecca Hawkes, Auckland University Press, 2022
Paula: How was it, writing your sublime Meat Lovers?
Rebecca: Well, I’ve been working towards Meat Lovers for some while. After Softcore coldsores came out in AUP New Poets 5 in 2019, I wanted to do more with some of the down-home-on-the-farm poems, and build a more cohesive full-length collection set firmly in the rural gothic. The title Meat Lovers came early on. It led to the eventual bisected structure of the book, the two halves of one cracked geode. But getting there was a meandering process…
I bloody love to write a poem, any poem, as a wry joke or full-throated cry. The puzzle and thrill of tinkering with verse ‘til it moves on its own steam and I get to watch the poem skitter off in its own chosen direction is reason enough to keep writing them. And each poem is only one weeny little fragment in the churning vortex / hot mess of whatever’s going on in my head, so a lot of them live in completely different parts of my world that would never touch outside of a word document. A lot of poems therefore ended up on the cutting-room floor for this manuscript, as I had to corral a more cohesive set of little machines that could work as a pack for a more focused sequence. I had so many ‘spare’ poems that there were more than enough for another rather different manuscript – which in a funny turn of events was a runner-up in the Kathleen Grattan Award at OUP last year. Maybe I could have published that altogether more playful and girl-gamerish book first instead, but Meat Lovers holds the work I was most compelled to delve into, mining some darker recesses of my home and heart, and way to still live in some places from my past that I can never really return to.
Once I’d gold-panned for the vibes/themes of this book (food, farming, foolish love) and gathered my first set of poems, structuring it was the challenge – I’d never tried to be so purposeful in a manuscript order before this. I’m grateful for the early eyes of friends like Rebecca K Reilly and essa ranapiri who helped me zero in on what really mattered for the shape of this work. And then of course I kept on writing fresh poems and trying to find places for the new darlings, even as the manuscript really needed to be pruned. How has writing this book been? What is it ever like to make art, to do something freeing but also serious, disarmingly ironic but nonetheless excruciatingly sincere? At turns it has been deep work and easy fun, therapy and tomfoolery, surfing the ecstasy of creation or gruelling arduous labour. Writing the book was humbling, cos making art always kicks my ass, but obviously it’s me doing the kicking as well as my buttcheek with the boot print on it.
‘Frenzy’, Rebecca Hawkes, 2021
Paula: Love the idea that incongruous things in the world co-exist in the neighbourhood of the page! And love how we can never pin the writing process down to one easy answer. Yet for me it is the best thing in this wild and challenging and complicated world. Energy boosting. Heart easing. Body uplifting. Whether reading or writing. I get a similar reaction when I look at your paintings. I have lived with an artist for over thirty years and we inhabit a shared space, but also private and utterly necessarily separate spaces each day. How is it for you both painting and writing? Reading your poems and sinking into your art it is a yin and yang experience for me – the one electrified by the other.
Rebecca: For me the painterly and poetic forms are so intertwined, you could never ask me to choose one, or to go without them. That was why it was so important to me to do my own cover art, even if digital painting isn’t my main medium… and even though what I mostly see in my own paintings is how much learning I still have to do! My necessary poetry-space is laptop-sized and portable, so it’s a more readily accessible art than the ritual of setting up paints and solvents, and then cleaning brushes when I’m bleary-eyed past my bedtime. Sometimes I go months without having – or making – time to paint. But I somehow find the hours when exhibitions are coming up, like right now …
When I’m not both writing and painting I’m not my whole self. They’re things I’ve always done. As a child I constantly drew chimeras, collaging together the most interesting limbs from my gen 1 and 2 Pokémon handbooks and the dinosaurs I was obsessed with – an Arcanine head and mane on a Houndoom’s punk pup frame, equipped with the wings of a Charizard and an Ankylosaurus club tail for bashing. What’s it called when you’re a horse girl but for dragons? I was that. For me a dragon is still the ideal animal, an impossible assemblage of apex attributes, wise and prideful and wild… While my art subjects are often less creaturely now, dragon-building is still basically how I approach both paintings and poems. I rip little shreds of potent detail out of life or dreams, and solder them together to make something that has its own new roar.
Painting is where I most keenly feel the gap between the work I aspire to make and the limits of my capability. I’m not a planner, working out decent compositions in thumbnail sketches. Instead I dive right in with colour and a couple of starting images, then see what happens. Same for poetry, but with poems nobody can see the smudged under-layers lurking beneath the surface of the finished piece… Word docs are forgivingly blank behind the text, so no-one sees my orphanage of random lines, loose chimera limbs waiting to be assembled.
Right now I’m in that horrible gulf between expectation and reality where I’m blocking in a painting, waiting for images to emerge from the mess, knowing that every mistake will be baked in forever, making slapstick attempts to shield the hideous draft with my whole body when friends visit. But when I am actually at work on a painting I let go of all that shame. I get so absorbed I might forget to breathe, eat, drink, urinate – lost in flow-focus, crouched over my canvas between the TV and the couch. As you say, artists need necessary space, to focus and to dream… but I find I get by with surprisingly little of it.
When I paint I kneel on the carpet because there is no space in my apartment for a studio (see: me having feelings about this when I went to see Hilma af Klint’s stupendous body of work), and because painting is a kind of prayer activity anyway. It’s an act of faith, isn’t it, to scratch out some small artwork in response to the shabby miracle of the world? Writing is like that too, a deeply interior creative practice that requires me to be open, curious, trusting and responsive to whatever drifts up from my subconscious. Don’t get me wrong I don’t think my processes are all that spiritually glorious, or my artwork particularly accomplished, but when the going’s good it is transporting, and as I give my energy over to a work it breathes life back into me. Am I a pompous loon, indulging in surrender to my own bad art, while the signals of my partner’s PS4 controller and sounds of gamer swordplay beam through my body as he slays monsters in Elden Ring? Sure. But I can’t not do it.
In painting and poems I’m meditative and open, but also working hard in pursuit of something that mainly eludes me – but maybe I’ll get it next time, and this is what keeps me growing (I hope) as an artist. It also keeps me hungry for others’ work. Yes to everything you said about the energising and uplifting nature of sinking into others’ art! Reading outside of myself is crucial to my writing, and looking carefully at other people’s visual art is essential to my painting. Even though making my own art is a solitary act, if I was in a vacuum without others’ work to delight in and explore, I doubt I’d make much of anything. Do you feel this with poetry?
Paula: Absolutely. The sheer joy that the poetry of others gives me is immeasurable. I thrive on it. Like an extreme vitamin boost. For me, the process of writing is intimate, secret, unfathomable, but it is in debt to writing communities past and present. Thus my continued drive to keep Poetry Shelf alive. And I know the doubt, that aching gap between reality and expectation, I don’t know if it ever goes away. I don’t know if I can ever bear to be published again, aside from children’s books. Tell me about your connections to poetry communities. I am thinking of Show Ponies for a start! I asked Chris Tse if he was a social poet, a hermit poet or something in between!
Rebecca: I totally agree on writing being a personal activity but also inextricable from communities around and before us! Even the solitary work of writing is not completely alone… I’m always reading so my writing is inevitably in conversation with other people’s work, and eventually a handful of trusted first-readers who are the unfortunate recipients of my little jokes. Often my poems are elaborate jokes for my friends. I don’t mean to diminish the poetry by saying that… But my Wellington poet-pals are the people whose response most matters to me, and whose support buoys me along, people I trust completely with my beautiful dark twisted fripperies. I also tend to be most motivated to write when there’s a deadline, which is often some event where I know (or hope) people will show up. So even though I’ve written alone for most of my life, I’d characterise myself as a social poet these days, and am so grateful to be part of a lively community.
Show Ponies is its own beast – Freya is the horsepower behind that. But it reflects the creative connections that are possible in a community like ours, where people are good sports with open hearts. There’s a lot of trust involved in doing something big and silly. It’s as vulnerable and sincere as any earnest confessional poem. But a bunch of poets who aren’t afraid of looking like fools together is a powerful thing. To manifest your popstar destiny you have to commit to the bit!
Rebecca: I’ve missed in-person events dearly through the pandemic, and it feels miraculous that Chris and I got to launch our books to people live and in the flesh. I’m interested in what you said here about bearing to be published. Stacey Teague recently asked posted on Twitter I’m trying to figure out why I should try to get my manuscript published and what motivates other people to get their books published and several people have just said “so you can have a party!” which obviously is something you can just do (well, depending on relative pandemic risk) without all the work of writing and vulnerability of publishing at all. For my sins, I was one of the people who’d said ‘party’ right away. But the launch party for a book is so important to me, bringing all someone’s solitary work into a shared public sphere – where the book now exists as its own object and something that will literally belong to other people, outside of the writer’s brain and screens. Aside from getting to celebrate the launch, the meticulously considered process of putting a manuscript together and then having the book itself exist in hard-copy for real has been so rewarding. I’ve been publishing poems around the place for ages, but this first book feels so precious. It’s been a very different process from blatting out last-minute poems and has taught me so much more about this craft. But the blessing of poems is that we can do whatever we want with them, right? There is no requirement to write books, or to publish the poems in any format.
lambs explode onto the scene like popcorn kernels such freshly detonated fluff antigravity mammals no heart leaps higher than the skipping lambs flocked in dozens barely touching the ground for the joy full fortnight in which they invent their limbs before they settle down to their true vocation grazing themselves into flesh factories babies babies babies babies the loin the chop the shank the juicy vacuum-sealed rack and great value barbecue meat pack stunned slit hung bled gutted skinned
from ‘Hardcore pastorals’
Paula: Exactly! I was out on a rare road trip across the harbour bridge this morning and it felt like the route was lined with poems! Just the sensation of travelling got miniature poems roaming in my head. Who knows what I will do with them!
I reviewedMeat Lovers for Kete Books and absolutely loved it. First up I loved its music. Like I really love it like I might love a breathtaking album. Do you play a musical instrument? What music do you have on repeat at the moment?
Rebecca: Gosh this is so lovely of you to say! Alas I can’t claim to be a musician. I hammered away on the piano as a child and can mimic several convincing barn animal noises… Maybe I could have a go at being a heavy metal singer, but realistically that’s because my friends are just staggeringly supportive at karaoke.
I’m charmed by the sounds of words, which I guess is why I like lush OTT poetry – where it’s permissible to load up the adjectives just because they’re delicious, and make subtle music in that way. I truly was trying to think of Meat Lovers as a concept album, actually, with a Side A and Side B, and poems that can be heard alone but build something bigger when they’re experienced in order.
Lately I’m revving songs about sad cowboys and/or the devil. I love a broody lyric. Orville Peck, Nadine Shah, The Veils, Warren Zevon, Julia Jacklin, that sort of thing. The song I was trying to keep up with while running today was Sinnerman (Nina Simone), and the song I’m looping now to tune out and write this is called I just wanna lie in bed and drink my wine (various artists), which is a mood, and just before that it was Head alone (Julia Jacklin)
you have one job which is to hold
this disturbingly large moth battering the woven basket of your fingers
every instinct whining to close your fingers and crush it
or open your palms set the fluttering insect loose free your hands for other tasks
but this is your job the having and the holding
from ‘Poem about my heart’
Paula: I also love the way your collection has heart. If I pick up a collection at the moment and it is devoid of heart it feels like a remote unreachable island. Yours mattered to me. What matters to you when you write? Does heart matter?
Rebecca: For these poems, certainly. This book is one big folded stained paper heart, clumsy and earnest. It’s anchored in my foundational love for the land I grew up on, gratitude for the life my parents gave me, and care for the animals we lived with – and also the felt complications in all those things. Then there’re my attempts to write about the frustrations and discoveries, failure and bliss of eros and romance – about which there’s nothing new to say under the sun but when has that ever stopped a poet? To be honest, usually when I write I try not to worry about whether a poem has heart. Something I’m doing as play might well turn into something true, but only if I don’t try too hard!
In both writing and reading, different modes call to me at different times, from the sentimental to disaffected… Recently I was bowled over by Frank: Sonnets by Dianne Seuss, which is an often devastating book – poems of desperation, poverty, motherhood, addiction – but often dryly funny. Just observing things, reporting without telling a reader what to feel. Her poems often have a sting in the tail that makes my guts churn, like this one. I’m drawn to gutting poems, just as I am doleful music.
In poems I’m interested in humour and irony and the sardonic, too – how the heartfelt can be reprocessed into more distanced ways of engaging with our feelings. In editing No Other Place to Stand, I was really interested in the poems that did this. The causes, effects, and injustices of climate change, colonialism and capitalism evoke big primary emotions – Fear, Anger, Grief, Hope, Etcetera – so sometimes the only way into these subjects without getting washed away by those feelings can be to approach through slant wit. Those poems have their place in the body of climate writing alongside the activist battle cries, mourning songs, and stirring polemics that they sit with in the book. Sidling away from pure emotion doesn’t imply a lack of care to me, necessarily – the poems are still being written! And the more I learn about the pressures facing our planet and peoples, the less inclined I am to believe there’s any one right way to respond in our heads and hearts. Plus the sentimental can be treacherous too – I was trying to be careful with this in writing my book, not glorifying my nostalgia or delivering undue condemnations, especially in how I speak about aspects of farming life.
it’s not real cottagecore unless you are up to the elbow in it blindly groping down the blood-slick canal as another contraction ripples around your knuckles the cow is lain on her side licking a mud angel
your hand clutching at the calf’s limp hoof head torch slipping over your brow as you affix the chain and brace yourself to pull and pull until an amniotic spill
when the calf’s head breaches unbreathing still you pull and bring the whole body wetly into the cold world you drag the whole darkness drenched newborn around so the mother can lick
caked salts from her motionless baby
from ‘Sparkling bucolic’
Paula: So few women have returned to the farm in their poetry. I am thinking Ruth Dallas and Marty Smith. Ruth had a nostalgic yearning for rural life so wrote farm poems from her Dunedin home to make up for not being there! Marty grew up on a farm and returns to farmland inHorse with Hat. Your return is electrified by edgy realism, razor-edged fantasy, the whole glorious mash of childhood, ‘a rural gothic’. What pulled you back?
Rebecca: Can any of us grow out of our childhoods? The longer I spend away from the farm the more strongly I feel how that land, that life, has shaped me. I have loads of long-winded thoughts about how we live and work and eat and consume and produce on these colonised islands. In my poems it was important for me to write critically and lovingly about these things – to challenge the assumptions I absorbed about the ordinary/natural state of the world as a child, while also celebrating the gifts of my upbringing, the cruelly beautiful lessons and earthing sensory experiences and many ways of relating to other animals. I carry all this with me –I am never without it. I’m glad you registered that not all the book is straight reporting on my life though – there’s plenty of fantasy and fiction in there. Let poets tell lies!
I think often about Ruth Dallas’ Milking Before Dawn. And Marty’s book made an enormous impression on me – she really encouraged me not to worry too much about being macabre! Rural gothic, as you say, is where I’m most at home. And I was so blessed to journey ‘home’ to the farm through these poems, as well as honour previous selves formed in that place – the girl encountering a mythical panther, the adolescent queen of weed-killers, the teen rapt in agonies finding reasons to fight in the rampant gorse in the riverbed… And I hope some of this work rings true for other queer rural kids, farmhands with a taste for verse, or anyone else seeking poems with bloody dirt still fresh under their fingernails.
Paula: When I first held a copy of my debut collection I burst into tears. There was an overwhelming gap between the poetry in my head and the object I held. I can’t explain it. Something to do with a physical thing and a mental thing. Your collection has just been launched into the world – in a venue with friends and family! How is the book’s arrival for you?
Rebecca: Agh, the tears! The gap between the final proof PDF being sent off to print and the arrival of the first book was hardest for me. I’m always spelunking new depths in the elaborate limestone cave system of my self-doubt (though thankfully have enough robust arrogance to keep making art regardless). Downing tools was difficult because I knew that from here on, the book wouldn’t get any better. I wanted this book to have a wholeness between the art and writing and fussed over it for aaaaages. But at some point the endless incrementally different PDFs became a blur, so it was time to end my meddling. The months away were tough because it was when the book was most abstracted from me, just some soulless files in the ether that I couldn’t ever touch again.
But then receiving that first copy of the book was magic. Tearing into the courier package with my teeth in the work elevator to find this actual book, its own thing, with its own weight and colour and scent, an actual living object in the world freed of my brain and screens… My favourite part of the physical book is the inner covers, with a meaty marbling that I learned to do on a version of Photoshop Elements so ancient that I actually own the program (rather than subscribing annually to “creative cloud”, ew). The pinkness peeps out when the book is read, and radiates onto the creamy paper of the pages. I loved the book so much from first sight, and am so grateful to everyone at AUP for helping manifest it. And the urge to tinker further has ceased. I accept it for what it is, now – a polaroid snippet of part of my work. I no longer worry that it doesn’t contain everything I could ever put on the page, or that the gap between the work preserved in the book and the work I’m presently more interested in making will only get wider.
Launching with Chris was a dream come true. I admire his work so much, and it’s inspiring to see how his poetic interests have developed from book to book. As fellow Show Ponies, we both love the energy of a real crowd, especially in a space like Meow. We were on the same buzz about wanting to share a live event with our loved ones and communities. There’s something so special about Wellington’s poetry scene – the city is big enough for stuff to happen, but small enough to hold a close-knit community. I’m shriekingly aware that we are not post-pandemic and there was still risk looming over the event (not least cos we were both meant to fly to the Brisbane Writers’ Festival a few days later), but I’m glad we were able to gather, for my dearest mum and Razz to travel there, for Chris and I to thrive on costumes and theatrics, to demand that a handful of people offered us some obligatory praise, and, most importantly, to perform our dramatic recital of Dragula by Rob Zombie.
Rebecca Hawkes grew up on a sheep and beef farm near Methven and now maintains a tenuous work/work balance in Wellington city. With poems widely published in Aotearoa journals, Rebecca’s debut chapbook ‘Softcore coldsores’ was published in AUP New Poets 5 for the reignition of the series in 2019. Meat Lovers is her first full-length collection. Rebecca is an editor for literary journal Sweet Mammalian and the climate change poetry anthology No Other Place to Stand (Auckland University Press, forthcoming). She is a founding member of popstar poets’ performance posse Show Ponies and haphazard coordinator of the Pegasus Books poetry reading series.
The Surgeon’s Brain, Oscar Upperton, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 202B
A life needs rinsing out, once in awhile.
from ‘Code name’
Oscar Upperton has followed New Transgender Blockbusters, his terrific debut poetry collection, with a book that is equally sublime.
The Surgeon’s Brain is the story of Dr James Barry, a biography say, that is in debt to research, imagining, poetry, more imagining. According to the collection’s blurb, Dr Barry was “a pistol toting dueller, an irascible grudge holder, a vegetarian, an obsessive cleaner – and a brilliant military surgeon who served throughout the British empire, travelled the world with a small menagerie of animals, and advocated for public health reform. Barry was also a transgender man living in the Victorian era when ‘transgender’ was unknown in Western thought.”
Oscar’s new book is essential reading. Marvellous, startling, heart-jolting reading. Poetry, in my view, is a perfect process in which to take risks, to step into the shoes of another, to challenge historical misconceptions and regulations, to enable words to sing. The Surgeon’s Brain does all this and more. It strikes a mark, and then another, and lights up on so many levels. The story is divided into three sections: ‘Dura Mater | Tough Mother’, ‘Arachnoid Mother | Spider Mother’, ‘Pia Mater | Tender Mother’. A baby born, a life lived, a life goes missing. At one point, the doctor admits:
I am not a writer. I am a soldier. I am a surgeon.
Sometimes I write reports. I write in straight lines and use straight language. I would never dream of writing a poem.
And here is the doctor speaking from the straight lines of a poem. He is infused in the ink of the excavating poet. And the straight lines of poetry are judder bars, potholes, side roads, scenic views, the unforeseen, the exhilarating downhill cycle ride. And if the doctor only ever wrote reports, would never dream of writing poems, the young girl dreamed of busting apart the straight lines of a girl’s future. She sews herself into another gender. She makes the physical garment and codpiece that renders her man, and he steps into a different set of expectations and outcomes. He studies, passes exams and practices as a surgeon. Dr Barry, for example, is the first surgeon to perform a caesarean where both mother and baby survive.
The rules are different now. I travel unchaperoned; I enter public houses; I attend a university. Once I hid my hair and people would talk to me differently, but now they listen differently too. Before they didn’t listen but now their ears are opened. I am worth teaching now. I can be of use beyond myself. There is no question of my right to board a ship, or take a room. It is as though I were a ghost and I have now been give form.
from ‘The rules’
It is joy reading this as story, moving through beginnings middles and endings, but it is not pure delight. It is discomfort, corrugated musings, because the world has not yet dismantled the structures and behaviours that denigrate and deny women. That perpetrate blind ignorance of all genders as opposed to equity and openness. I carry a degree of mourning as I read, thinking of heart-numbing dichotomies: men women slave master rich poor literate illiterate hungry full. Yes Victorian times, yes 21st century.
It is joy reading The Surgeon’s Brain as poetry, moving through the lilt and economy of voice. And yes, it is voice, think speaking voice: confessing, exploring, refining. It is the musicality of conversation that is poetry. It is images and it is wisdoms. Fluidity and fluencies. Tenderness. It is the arrival along the plainness of line that forms another stitching of self. The poem as self-dress. Precious buttons and warm threads. Lines stand out and it is like you are gut-winded. Here I am falling in to a hole in the world, like we might fall into a hole in the poem, into a life. And I am imagining the floor of the poem. And it is this:
Mamma fell ill; an ill wind blasted; a will drawn up; the trapdoor swung down: a rope ladder descending into darkness; a hole in the floor of the world—
from ‘The idea’
So much to say about The Surgeon’s Brain. I wish we were in a cafe, having invented a poetry bookclub so we could share espresso and our favourite lines. Quoting this bit, and warm musing on that bit. I want to share how the doctor builds a room in his head with a bookshelf and chair, dust in the air and London light. We could talk hesitantly about the rooms we build in our own heads, for whatever reasons, that help keep us safe and on track, strengthened.
I want to tell you as you sip your coffee about a particular poem (‘Journey to the university’) that has a shadow version in the footnotes, little refinements, because we cannot take a face or an action or a statement for granted. Because behind this poem is another shadow poem, and behind that another.
Or the forest. I am thinking of the power of metaphor to get us along the straight line. Through the living of the life, the reading of the poem. How this life and this book is effervescent with metaphor.
Some things I keep secret even from myself. I’ve never seen a forest but sometimes I walk in one in my dreams, great black trees with twisted branches and underfoot wet earth and spiders’ nests. This is a forest that covers the world,
and in it live three things: the red foxes that dislike rain, the innumerable silver spiders, and me, numerable I think, but when I turn to regard the path behind me I am there. Each step of me is frozen in place, curls of earth sticking to the soles of my feet.
Some things I keep secret even from myself. I didn’t want done to me the things that were done to me. But the sun rises and you say, well. Only you don’t say it. You never say it
from ‘Into the forest’
But most of all I want to share the well. The well that ends ‘Well’, the straight line poem I have already mentioned (aside from the appearance/echo in ‘Into the forest’ above). I will leave you with the well, leave this metaphor for you to become entangled in, and say as an opener, how Oscar’s quiet and extraordinary poetry collection taps into another life, and how in doing so, it also taps into your life, my life. You and me and poetry are in this upheavalled world together. And know that as you read thorough marvel and wonder, mourning and wound, poetry is the lamp we can hold high and share.
I am a well. Or there is a well in my mind, clean stones, broad wooden bucket, rope. The water at the bottom of this well is so clear and cold it makes men drunk. It is black, because it takes the darkness with it when it is pulled from the well.
I would like to intoxicate. I would like to be a well-frequented well.
Oscar Upperton’s first poetry collection was New Transgender Blockbusters (VUP, 2020). In 2019 he was awarded the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary. His work has been featured in Sport, The Spinoff, Metro and Best New Zealand Poems.