Category Archives: NZ poetry book

Poetry Shelf review: Michele Leggott’s Mezzaluna: Selected Poems

 

 

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Mezzaluna: Selected Poems Michele leggott, Auckland University Press, 2020

 

 

 

people still go to cottages in moody seaside weather

to read for a week           how will we do it now?

 

when I go for walks words stalk along too

I’ll be travelling mid-February and can’t guarantee a lucid mind

 

what about a big table in a room with windows

looking over the wild and wavy event?

 

from ‘Colloquy’ Swimmers and Dancers

 

 

Michele Leggott is continuing to make extraordinary contributions to poetry in Aotearoa. I rank her with Bill Manhire: two poets who have not only published astonishing poetry, but who have also been significant mentors and teachers in university programmes and introduced poetry initiatives, and edited vital anthologies. We are in debt to Bill for his vision for the IIML and offshoot projects, and the Poet Laureateship (now administered by The National Library but established with the efforts of Bill and Te Mata Estate). Michele was the first Poet Laureate under the National Library administration. She established the NZ Electronic Poetry Centre, set up the Lounge readings in Auckland, and has organised various gatherings of poets, including symposiums in Bluff, Christchurch and Auckland. Not forgetting her diverse contributions as Professor of English at the University of Auckland.

More than anything, we are in Michele’s debt for the light she has placed upon women poets from the past, especially Robin Hyde and Lola Ridge.

 

words come so slowly

it has been lonely

a phoenix palm

and behind it

crystalline glitter

another story, waving

 

plaintain paradisiaca a bird

musey with waves

Helicon a harbour cone

here

bright

Greek

over Narrowneck

 

from ‘Withywind’ from Like This? (1998)

 

 

I have been reading Michele’s poetry since her debut collection, Like This? (1988) and have followed the thematic and lyrical contours ever since. The first word that springs to mind is heart. Michele has written within the academy, with her prodigious intellect flaring, but she is a heart poet beholden to neither theoretical trend nor poetic fad. Her poetry has always linked hands with the writing of other women, and over time has become increasingly personal and more accessible for readers.

Michele’s Mezzaluna: Selected Poems appeared mid March, just before we moved into lockdown. Its visibility suffered as our reading, writing, publishing and reviewing lives moved into upheaval.  There is an excellent interview with Lynn Freeman on Standing Room Only and a short conversation with Paula Morris as part of The Auckland Writer’s Festival online series. The highlight of the latter is hearing Michele read an extract from her poem ‘The Fascicles’ from Vanishing Points (2017) (she is the last writer in the zoom session).

 

Fine ground darkness pours into the vessel

beans and flowers adorn the fall—

ichor! ichor! drink to the eyes locked on yours

the mouth that smiles and will speak for itself

I have always done the talking and she

put the words in my mouth saying do melisma

like sunlight be melisma like no sunlight pressed

redness before dark print an iris on her

 

from ‘Blue Irises’ in DIA (1994)

 

Difficulty has never been an issue for me as a reader of poetry – I love venturing into poetry thickets where meaning might appear in whiffs, and where enigma, evasion and multiplicity are active ingredients. Michele’s mid-career poetry collections, perhaps from DIA through to Mirabile Dictu, delivered various shades of difficulty and I loved them for that. Her lexicon has drawn upon the arcane, the archaic, slang, borrowed words, foreign languages. There were highways and byways to other poems, a history of research and reading. Intimacy was as likely as distance. And even though her poetry has become increasingly personal, self confessional in parts, it has always been so. Family appears, sons, food, beloved places, a shaping of home along with a profound engagement with other writing, other stories, myths, conversations.

The poems underline the way poetry threads ideas, memory, motifs, experience, opinion, reading history. The how of writing is as crucial as the what of writing.

 

imagine     the world goes dark

a bowl of granite or a stone bird

incised by tools the nature of which

is unknown    just that they are metal

and therefore from otherwhere

just that the weight of the bowl

precludes light and lightness

of thought     my feet take a path

I can no longer see    my eyes

won’t bring me the bird   only now

has my hand found the stones

I could add to the smooth interior

of my despair     the world goes dark

I look into the eyes of my stone bird

hammers before memory

silence and the world that is not

 

from ‘mirabile dictu’ in Mirabile Dictu

 

 

Along Mezzaluna’s reading tracks you will find honeysuckle, daffodils, roses, melons, breath, the wind, stars, here, there, light, dark, heart. Always heart. Always the interplay between light and dark. Michele has dedicated Mezzaluna to those who travel light and lift darkness’. Yes reading is a fertile way of travelling, life equally so; light and dark stick to us like biddybids, but our relations with and navigation of both are unique. What do we carry with us? What do we keep placing in our personal baggage? What do we do with the dark? For Michele, with her slow movement into blindness decades back, and all the challenges that have affected every aspect of her life, blindness has understandably also seeped into her writing. She has always been attuned to the sound of words, the mobility of language, words as sound dance in the ear, in harmony and discord. But the possibilities of sound, under Michele’s deft guidance, have become a glorious anchor for everything that has mattered and will matter.

The lush terrain of the visual is also a sumptuous part of Michele’s poetry. The recurring motifs I have already mentioned range from piquant to honeyed, visual bouquets in their own physicality but players in so much more. Participants in ideas, the mythological references, the recuperation of memory, family history, personal challenges.

It is equally rewarding to listen for the other women, particularly the poets who have captured Michele’s attention and diligent rescue work: I am thinking of the way Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and Ursula Bethell have become a visible part of the network. More recently Lola Ridge. Michele’s latest project is Emily Harris, a New Plymouth poet who died in 1925 and whose work has been located in Sappho-like traces. Michele response to the missing poet is to recreate versions in Vanishing Traces.

I have heard Michele perform poems from most of her collections and it has always affected me deeply.  To listen to poems from As Far As I Can See – the poems that expose her move into blindness – these have been audience-affecting occasions. I have sat in a line of poetry fans and we have been utterly still, barely able to take breath at the daring exposure, the heartbreaking experience, the exquisite and utterly memorable poetry.

Ah, no matter what I write, no matter what I signal, I feel like I am shortchanging this rich and elegantly constructed volume. Michele told Paula Morris she had originally sent in a longer version but had cut it back and, in doing so, focused on the DNA of each book, on what was important. As she read and replayed, she carried a key question across the books: ‘What does a poem look like?’

This is such a good question to carry with you as you read – yes Michele’s poems do change, the lines shorten, the lexicon is more familiar, but there is common ground. Perhaps it comes down to a love of a sound, and how that love of sound is amplified when you can’t see the physical world. It is a rejuvenating, heart-engaging, thought-provoking read and it feels like this Michele’s poetry deserves a whole book of response. Michele Leggott warrants a whole book that navigates what her poetry does: its connections, its liberations, its epiphanies, its testings.

Mezzaluna showcases the work of one of our most inquisitive and sensual poets who ventures into the unknown, into an inhabited world, with an open heart and free-flowing mind. Glorious.

 

Auckland University Press author page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf picks from new books: Michele Amas’s ‘The Documentary’

 

The Documentary

A grandson takes a stone
from a southern Pacific coast
carries it in his wallet
across the world
to place on a grave

His fingers feel for distant music
above this limestone pit
this morbid formation
Wearing a borrowed yarmulke
his hand sweeps the soil
his head is full of old notes
the blood maps of history

We are no relation
but every relation
here amongst this baby bowl
pelvis, these anonymous thigh bones
removed of salt, more beach wood
than bone, these splinters and knuckles of pumice
you might find floating at the sea’s edge
this scattered ancestry

Bone is what bone is
a composition of elements
like air, like music
but once we were naked
at gunpoint
and I was a wife who lost her memory

Maybe you are my grandson
but I forget
Beside me a man
who clutched a satchel
of Stravinsky and Debussy
to cover his nakedness
A musician like you
that was his transport
clutched to his lungs
that was his oxygen

Hear our chorus
our bony percussion
our grandson, our grandson’s sons
hear us claim his future
and our escape
Do not be caught unarmed
bring your film, your press, your theatre
your manuscript, your piano, your pencils
bring your keepsake gift, your promise
bring your stone

 

Michele Amas from Walking Home, Victoria University Press, 2020

 

 

Michele Amas (1961 – 2016) was a poet and actor. In 2005 she completed an MA in Creative Writing at IIML and was awarded the Adam Prize. Her debut collection After the Dance appeared the following year and was shortlisted for the Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award. Ken Duncum has edited a posthumous collection, Walking Home selecting poems from across the decade, including the final poem she wrote.

 

Victoria University Press author page

Poetry Shelf review of Walking Home

 

Paula: I am completely in the grip of this poem. Phrases roll about in my head – it is in debt to the private circumstances of the poet, but it is snug in this world-wobbly moment. The poem resembles a fable designed to keep both writer and reader going. It is song and it is anchor and it is ache. It is family. I am thinking – in these uncertain and unsettling days – of pinning the the final stanza to my wall, maybe my heart, because there is so much we can bring and create and connect with. It’s strange, but this poem both fills me with joy and makes me cry. Read the book – it is breathtakingly good.

 

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Poetry Shelf review: AUP New Poets 6

 

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AUP New Poets 6 Ben Kemp, Vanessa Crofskey, Chris Stewart, edited and introduced by Anna Jackson, Auckland University Press, 2020

 

 

 

Salt my song …

I have to love you,

and this farmland upon which I live.

I evolve here.

 

One day I will journey to the sea,

become that river and dissolve into the essence of I.

 

Ben Kemp from ‘The Esssence of I’

 

 

The Auckland University Press series devoted to new poets was launched in 1999 and featured the work of Anna Jackson, Sarah Quigley and Raewyn Alexander. Each volume features three poets, a number of whom have since published highly regarded collections of their own (for example Chris Tse, Sonya Yelich, Reihana Robinson). Anna Jackson took over as editor with AUP New Poets 5 (Carolyn DeCarlo, Rebecca Hawkes and Sophie van Waardenberg).

Volume 7 will be out in August, but first I want to mark the arrival of AUP New Poets 6: Ben Kemp, Vanessa Crofskey, Chris Stewart. The collection was launched on Poetry Shelf during lockdown, level four, with a series of readings, poems and interviews. This was a challenging time for new books when many of us felt tilted as readers and writers, and our major contact with the world was via our screens. The events and mahi that did occur during this time is pretty special. There were opportunities to hear people read and talk about things beyond our local venues. Getting to hear the three poets read at the online launch expanded tha audience, and am keen to make online readings an ongoing feature on Poetry Shelf.

 

However we are now at level one, the sun is shining after endless rain and thunder, the political point scoring is on mute, I am listening to opera divas in my earpiece, the bread is cooling, and I can return to the collection with more focus. For me, reading during level four was like collecting gleams and shards. This word stuck, that phrase, this image. I had the attention span of a gnat. Now I am luxuriating in the way a sequence of poem unfolds, the way it takes you surprise and transports heart and mind. Still at a snail’s pace.

AUP New Poets 6 includes three very different poets – delivers three different reading impacts. Truth is such a dubious word, unstable, hard to pin down, we all know that, but truth seems to matter so very much in a world threatened by liars, catastrophe. I love the way the poetry moves into the truth of their experiences, thoughts, admissions. To be reading at such a human and humane level is significant. I want this complexity of comfort and challenge. Of how being human is neither formulaic nor flippant. This poetry is witty, vulnerable, challenging, complicated …. yes!

Anna Jackson’s lithe introduction (which I read after reading the poems as is my habit) confirms her role as an astute and surefooted editor of this series, with her fine eye for poetry that holds and satisfies attention regardless of the world that bombards.

 

Chris Stewart’s sequence, ‘Gravity’, navigates the miraculous within everyday settings. He faces big subjects such as birth, death and love, and rejuvenates them to the point your skin pricks as you read. He embeds the physical in order to evoke the intangible, the hard to say. There is darkness and there is light.

The title poem is a gem (well they all are!) as it stencils birth on the white page:

 

I hear nostalgia for the womb

the way light misses the hearts of stars

we glove the light in our skin

find sleep in solar wind

wrap ourselves in the gravity

of your arrival

 

from ‘gravity’

 

The agile syntax (‘we glove the light’) signals a heightened state, the sense of miracle, the wonder. I am hard pressed to think of a poet who has evoked birth, fatherhood, parenthood, so beautifully. I am reminded of Emma Neale’s power to deliver wonder and awe in a poem. Turn over the page, and again there is a shift between light and dark, a sense of awe:

 

the first time we bathed

our daughter in the lounge

it was dark except for the fireplace

she lay between us and flickered

 

from ’embers’

 

This is poetry at its rejuvenating best. There is rawness to the point of wound, such as in the poem, ‘a tooth emerges’. The father is wakened by a teething baby at night. The poem spins on the page, a spinning vignette of fatherhood, sharp, on edge, knowing. Here are the final verses:

 

now I am sore tooth pulled

from a soft bed

 

my swollen nerves erupt

you only see my crown

 

but my roots are still

embedded in the bone

 

Ah. Every poem in this sequence hits the right potent note. One poem links the health of the newborn to the health of a genealogy of grandmothers. Yes, family is the glue that holds the sequence together, along with the poet’s astute and probing gaze into experience. A couple of poems near the end situate the poet as son, and the ominous mother father portraits hold out dark hints. There are holes in the telling, dust-like veils, and startling images. These poems are why I keep reading poetry, and why I very much hope Chris has a book in the pipeline.

 

Vanessa Crofskey’s poetry was already familiar to me but her sequence, ‘ Shopping List of Small Violences’ widens my appreciation of where and how her poetry roams. She braids the personal and the political as she moves into the truths of her experience. As she does so, writing poetry is testing and playing with form, discovering form. I am reminded of how language shapes us as much as we shape the languages we use. It comes down to our mother tongue, to languages that are imposed, expectations on how we use language, and our own private relationships with how we speak ourselves. How we might stutter or provoke or soothe or struggle with words.

Just as with Chris’s sequence, the poet produces poems that matter greatly, that broadcast self along myriad airwaves. There is political edge and personal vulnerability. One poem fills a passenger arrival card, another completes a time sheet. There are white-out poems and black-out poems, shopping lists, and graphs. As she navigates form, she navigates being comfortable in her own skin.

The poem ‘dumplings are fake’ sits on the page with verses and measured space, moves with a conversational flow and that characteristic probe into self. There is wit at work, but it is also serious – reading poetry becomes a way of listening.

 

i’m so authentic i use chopsticks to eat macaroni

watch  hentai on my huawei

and go to ponsonby central to eat chinese

 

i don’t carry hot sauce in my bag but i do bring soy to the party

my favourite movie of all time is studio ghibli

and my dad is the white side of the family

 

every time auckland council says ‘diversity targets’, my phone vibrates

i get suggested ads for the national party in chinese

and that think piece on bubble tea is a redirect to my

dot com slash about me

 

Again I am very much hoping there is a book in the pipeline.

 

Ben Kemp’s The Monks Who Tend the Garden with Tiny Scissors’ also assembles poetry as a way of listening. Ben currently lives in New Guinea with his diplomatic wife and three children. He was born in Gisborne, has Rongowhakaata roots, grew up in Manutuke and Matawhero, lived in Australia for six years and ten in Japan. For me his poems are deeply attached to home, to a way of grounding place, of establishing anchors. Of being home when home is mobile. The sequence establishes a series of bridges between Japan and Aotearoa. He carries Aotearoa into every poem, regardless of the setting, while his experience in Japan also deeply permeates his point of view. The poetry welcomes both here and there.

Ben’s poetry is alive with physical detail, sometimes ornate, sometimes shimmering with the deceptive simplicity reminiscent of haiku or tanka. From ‘Food to Song’:

 

Rekamaroa,

a bed of hot riverstones,

under the earthern blanket,

steam rises, the buttery smell of pork belly.

 

Perhaps the most  gripping poem is the longer ‘The Essence of I’, an ode to Walt Whitman. Reading this, I am hoping there is a book in the making.  I find the poem deliciously quiet, slow paced, speaking of homeplace and ancestors, oceans and rivers. Astonishing. There is love and there are longings. I keep reading Ben’s poems and adjusting what I think poetry is and what it might be. Poetry, for example, is a way of becoming. And listening. And building bridges. ‘The Essence of I’ signals a way of becoming.

 

Underground are the ancestors lined up in single file,

feathers in their hair, with paintbrushes for fingers and flutes for mouths.

In the darkness that is their light they are whole,

yet the line they form is for me,

carrying the burden of my impatience, they vent it.

I often pierce my hands through the earth, arms dug deep,

softer in the tractor tracks, we tough hands.

The movements in hand, saying we love each other …

 

The northeastern tip is the desert,

I hitched a ride on that wind-blowing orchestra,

and I found a well,

my consciousness, and perfect white sunlight on a vast bed of sand …

The well was filled with embers, breathing smoke,

I sat for days contemplating its meaning to me,

these loose and odd snippets.

Why burn? Why burn?

 

AUP NEW Poets 6 is a glorious read. Exactly what I want to be reading now. I am hungry for poetry that offers facets of humanity, of humaneness. The anthology brings together  voices speaking in multiple poetic forms, across multiple subjects, in shifting tones and hues. Glorious, simply glorious.

 

 

AUP NEW Poets 6 launch: listen to the poets read here

Auckland University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf review: Vaughan Rapatahana’s ngā whakamatuatanga / interludes

 

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Vaughan Rapatahana   ngā whakamatuatanga / interludes  Cyberwit 2019

 

Vaughan Rapatahana, Te Ātiawa, commutes between Aotearoa, Hong Kong SAR and the Philippines. He writes in multiple genres (chiefly poetry, criticism and commentaries) in both his main languages, te reo Māori and English. He graduated with a PhD (on Colin Wilson) from the University of Auckland, and has published several poetry collections both here and overseas. Atonement was nominated for a Philippines National Book Award in 2016 and he won the Proverse Poetry Prize the same year. He edited Ngā Kupu Waikato: an anthology of Waikato poetry (2019).

Vaughan is a terrific champion of poetry in Aotearoa – he shines a light on poets that deserve far more attention than they currently get, particularly in his articles posted at Jacket2. He has also edited multicultural books of poetry with poetry exercises for secondary schools (Poetry in Multicultural Oceania – Book 1, Book 2 and Book 3, and the most recent teaching resource Exploring Multicultural Poetry 2020). He is a much admired poet in his own right.

 

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from ‘te araroa foreshore, mid-winter’

 

 

Vaughan’s latest collection ngā whakamatuatanga / interludes appeared in 2019. It is a sequence of six parts that go deep into human experience, draw upon multiple languages and exhilarating linguistic effects. You will move with the sky, rain, trees, from home to home, from the Christchurch attacks to collecting driftwood, to a Waitangi dawn. I am hard pressed to find a local poet as linguistically agile and testing, perhaps Michele Leggott, although in a very different way. The aural intricacy, with its infusion of te reo and English, is like entering poetry cascades, poetic thickets, where you start with sound and are then delivered to radiant cores of experience, anxiety, ideas, feelings, observations, memory.

 

In ‘alien poet’ the speaker admits:

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The poet is linguistically on the move. Lines are kinetic: words fade, elongate, go bold, change font or size, jam against a wall of white space, cram together, relish the the pause, the silent beat, the jumpcut. The movement affects the ear and the eye, and it feeds into the poet’s admission he is so far outside the spectrum as he writes in English. The movement also links to both heart and mind, because these poems, deeply knotted and deftly crafted, present fracture alongside connectivity, jarring alongside assonance.

Vaughan is writing with his tongue in multiple worlds – we are who we speak – we are how we speak – we are, we speak. At times, the lexicon is difficult, unfamiliar words gleam on the line. It reminds me that any language can appear brittle on the tongue, with meaning stonewalled, and with vital little keyholes. But also that poetry, as this collection shows, can adopt the honeyed fluency of conversation.

 

The collection begins with the section ‘ngā wāhi/places’, the ground to stand upon, to return to, to step off from. The first poem ‘Waitangi, 2017’ transports us to a particular occasion where we hear the karanga, the karakia, where noses press in hongi. The aural movement resonates. The words tough, soft consonants, hard consonants (‘that scurfy scrub’). The poem itself is the ‘cascade escalier’. I grew up in Northland, and have had many visits to Waitangi, and always find it is a place you feel. I feel Vaughan’s poem.

 

the karanga guitar solo

sustained ethereal,

is a cascade escalier

we strive to scale

in our unkempt scansion.

 

The second section ‘ngā whanaungatanga/relationships’ is also an occasion to feel poetry. The poet moves in close to a violent father who drank, the love of his Filipino wife, grief at the death of his son, his daughter distanced in Australia. He is tracking the cycle of birth and death, and the bridges of living. The poems exude heat, strong feelings, vulnerability, pain grief love. At a time when our world feels so wobbly and uncertain, scary even, it matters to be able to read these poems, to feel these poems, where the poet is exposing his relations, wobbly and steady, with those closest to him. Intimate. Exposed.

 

let me  r e c l i n e  by  the fire

that is your heart,

insulated from

the squalling of

those squalorous hovels,

which

you never permit

to ruin,

your

magnific

haven.

from ‘inhabit’

 

What I love about this book is that it is demanding and prickly, yet utterly welcoming to me as reader, in fact to me as human being. A kaleidoscopic glorious trajectory of life and living that is scrutinised. What does it mean to be a father, an Asian father? To call several places home? To live in Aotearoa ‘with our increasingly multi-cultural crew’? He asks whether it is ‘time for a new name, stressing our interconnections?’  His relationship with issues that matter are never monotone but strike sharp and sweet, political and personal. The poem ‘Aotearoa New Zealand’ is like a blessing, ‘we are birds singing several different waiata‘. It searches for conjunctions, connections.

 

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Another poem, near the end of the book, in the section ‘ngā toikupu/poetry’, strikes a more strident note. This is a section where the poet grapples with what it is to write poetry (‘sometimes / writing a poem / is like / driving /  a / bus / under  / water’ – the words fall, stretch, flick back on page). It is writing on the edge, on the outside, face to face with ignorance. It is resisting form, going for the barbs, going for the honey, refusing the tropes.

 

I don’t want

(on the occasion of reading for p.e.n)

I don’t want to hear any more prattling lyrics about

verdant trees dancing beneath scudding clouds.

screw that shit.

                                                              kinfolk are being massacred in christchurch.

I don’t want to read any more verbose verse

rambling forever on about a lost love or three.

screw that shit.

                                                              kiribati is sinking steadily into the sea.

I don’t want to see any more pale-pampered poets

clutching a microphone like a baby’s bottle.

screw that shit.

                                                              kids continue to live in cars in winter

 

I do want us all to rage fulsome

& to rant articulate.

to highlight the brave ones,

such as Wang Quanzhang

struck and stuck in RSDL

for the past few years,

scarcely seen since:

& even then as a wan wafer

of his earlier self.

 

while Behranz Boochani

remains remote

on Manus, six years plus

thanks to Australia

& its white-folks-are-us

code.

 

ko te toikupu te waha, te kaha

kia kōrero te tika mō ā tātou ao

āke ake ake

āmene.

 

[poetry is the voice, the force

to speak the truth about our world

forever and ever and ever

amen.]

 

    1. RSDL = Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location. A recent PR China, rather sinister modification of incarceration without trial, often without evidence & certainly without informing the family of the victim.

 

 

The roots of Vaughan’s poems feed on the then, the now, and the what will be. It is a collection to spend time with, to listen to, to look up words in the dictionary, to muse on your own burning experiences, to absorb the weather that smashes, and the wind that calms. You can’t package this book in a neat and tidy review, you can’t leave yourself out of the reading, it feels like a reckoning, it is a book that glows with humanity and, at the moment, that matters more than anything. One person’s poetry, one person’s experience, one person’s views, have the ability to touch so very deeply.

 

Listen to Vaughan read a new poem

Vaughan’s ‘Aotearoa New Zealand’

Vaughan on  Poems from the Edge of Extinction

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf review: No Traveller Returns: the selected poems of Ruth France

 

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No Traveller Returns: the selected poems of Ruth France, Cold Hub Press, 2020

 

 

While Trying to Study Phonetics on a Spring Morning

 

This immense arch of sky

Is a palate, on which ring

Day’s consonantal sounds

 

Voicing the clarity of bell air

Which breaks about and above us

Like tumbled, exploding plosives

 

Tripping on the teeth; these

Rear up, far off; sharp sounding-board

Or white, guardian mountains.

 

Here all is implicit; perhaps we have

No need of such conceits;

Yet without them words remain dumb

 

Where we, tiny on the tongue

Of the plains, consider how sweet

How sweet is the taste of morning.

 

Ruth France

 

 

Ruth France was one of a number of women poets who didn’t make it into Wild Honey; not because I wasn’t fascinated by her poetry or ideas. I made it clear I was offering a provisional home that needed more rooms, more poets, and more versions written by others writers, especially Māori and Pasifika. When Ruth was writing, most women poets were not lauded to the degree men were, and too often praise was offered on the judgement scale of men. Anthologies only ever included a handful of women and ‘women’s writing’ was often disparaged, undervalued, silenced. I am sitting at the kitchen table where I wrote Wild Honey and I am feeling an overwhelming sadness at the historic invisibility of twentieth-century women poets that is still in effect today. I spent four years writing Wild Honey and didn’t have room for everyone. This has to be an ongoing project.

Ruth France (1913 – 1968) was a poet and novelist. She wrote two novels, with her debut The Race (1958) winning NZ Literary Fund’s Award for Achievement. She published two collections of poetry under the name Paul Henderson, a handful of which made it into two anthologies (not all women of her era were selected). Editor Robert McLean (himself a poet with a new collection out) has selected poems from Ruth’s published books (Unwilling Pilgrim 1955 and The Halting Place 1961) along with poems from an unpublished manuscript, ‘No Traveller Returns’. To have this lovingly edited collection of her poetry underlines what readers have missed with her work not readily available.

Robert’s introduction considers the poetry and states that as the poems do not offer explicit biographical details neither will his introduction. Yet her biography (not that we have easy access to much) is as intriguing as the poetry. Yes, we can let poems stand on their own feet and we can find our own invigorating pathways through, but autobiography can make poems glint in unexpected ways. In fact, as is my habit, I read the poetry first, wrote most of this, then read Robert’s introduction and hunted out her appearances in New Zealand anthologies. She is largely invisible.

Te Ara / The Encyclopedia of New Zealand has a biographical entry. She was born in Canterbury, her mother wrote poems and short stories and was published in the Christchurch Press while her father was a shopkeeper. Ruth attended secondary school and then worked as a librarian before marriage at 21. For over three years, she and her husband lived on a yacht at Lyttelton; she rowed her husband to work and her son to kindergarten. After the second son was born they settled at Sumner. Her father had been a devout Catholic and was incensed his daughter had married a non-Catholic.

 

Ruth published her first collection of poetry at the age of 42 as Paul Henderson. According to Te Ara she wrote letters to the press under her own name and had a strong social conscience and her poems were published in various newspapers and journals. Te Ara also suggests her contemporaries claimed she wrote under a male pseudonym as it freed her from ‘poetess mannerisms’. Crikey! I am so infuriated by these two words. Ruth is said to have held herself at arm’s length from the Christchurch writing community as she didn’t like the way women were treated as inferior. I am thinking of the Caxton Press and all the power it exerted but also of the gatekeepers at a national level (there were notable exceptions). This is what it says in Te Ara:

 

Already well known for her poetry written under her own name, it is unclear why she felt a need for a male pseudonym. Contemporary male critics suggested it freed her from ‘poetess mannerisms’ and contributed to her success. Today, the best features of her poetry are judged to be the plain, serviceable language and syntax in, for instance, ‘After flood’ or ‘New Year bonfire’.

 

I am so infuriated by this dismissiveness, I want to write another book. Ruth’s poetry is so much more than ‘plain, serviceable language and syntax’. Where do I begin? For a start plain serviceable language can offer a thicket of copious reading delights. Secondly her beautifully crafted lines offer all manner of musical rewards. Economy and richness coexist.

I am sitting at my kitchen table with a thousand questions mounting. Why wasn’t her last ms published? Her poetry had a vital political edge to it yet, for whatever reason, her poems did not raise questions about the status of women, whether as wife, mother, poet or woman. Ruth refers to ‘men’ to denote all people encompassed in her narrating ‘I’: ‘All men I, and I, living, all men’. It was the convention of the time to subsume women within ‘men’, but some women poets were resisting this tradition. I am reminded of Mary Stanley’s ‘I’ in Starveling Year (1953) as she navigated what it was to be a woman writing (see ‘The Wife Speaks’). Yes I am a little disconcerted that women (and ‘she’) do not make an appearance in Ruth’s poems but we see the world through Ruth’s eyes.  It in no way detracts from the myriad rewards her work offers. But it makes me curious about her views on the status of women.

As with many women poets, global issues mattered to Ruth – war, the bomb, atomic energy, equality of men, invasions. You will find clear evidence of her political acumen, along with heart-moving love poems and an attraction to the seas, hills, mountains, shifting tides, seasons. Her poetry is a sumptuous feast of ideas and physical layers. I think she needs a book devoted to her writings, her opinions, her life.

 

While you are there I am nested among leaves;

As sparrows come each morning for breadcrumbs

So I look for your still face beside me;

Without your calm in the face of what wild storm

I am no longer nested, but desolate among these leaves.

 

from ‘Always, on Waking’

 

 

No Traveller Returns: The Poetry of Ruth France

 

‘Living’, an early poem from Unwilling Pilgrim intrigues me. Here is the first verse:

 

What shall I sing?

It has all been sung before

But time did not begin

Till child my mother bore.

 

The poem faces the haunting and perhaps persistent nag that however we write our experience it has all been written before. Yet when I read this potent line – ‘Tears bit me in the brief / Salt stream for the first time’ – I am on reading edge. Shortly later I read this: ‘So for each one was new / The shattering love and war’. The poem was written around  the year of my birth and I am spinning on its axis. Grief, love, war, pain – poetry has never abandoned these topics, poets have never lost the ability to affect us, to present unique versions of experience that challenge or soothe or inspire.

Ruth concludes the poem with this:

 

So let me sing for all

And sing old songs again.

 

I am filled with curiosity about this poem. Ruth is galvanised into song, and I am wondering if the reclaimed subject matter is also a reclaimed how. How we sing matters as much as what we sing. And in this context how we make poems. Is she singing the songs of men? Is she singing her own cerebral activity into poetry?

 

In ‘Object Lesson’, also from the first collection, the idea that human experience is individually unique is key (although connected by countless universals such as our need to eat and love and grieve). In this poem a hill is a hill but when a particular hill is filtered through a man’s knowing, it is ‘a hill through the eyes of one human’. I see the seeds of subsequent theory here on the role of the reader, the spectator, the creator.

 

I am finding Ruth’s poetry utterly unique – she is a poet both thinking and feeling, hiding and exposing. Her poems are intricate considerations on what it is to love, write, exist. Never fully in the open. This from ‘How Shall I?’:

 

Then how shall I do this?

Confine the mind to a reasonable process

Beguiling thought by beguiling thought through a tight

Web to a firm conviction? No moonlight

Must persuade, nor smile chance

To alter the grave march of circumstance.

 

There is song and there is not song. There is love and there is not love. There is also and always uncertainty, a mind open to movement and a resistance to absolutes. Time and time again I divert the overground ideas to the making of a poem; the way poetry is uncertain, open to multiple interpretations, steered by gut and daring as opposed to rigid maps and regulations. I love the way the landscape is a constant presence – think of it as an anchor, homeplace and a series of travel routes. The poem ‘Road Map’ reiterates the inability of a map to catch everything. The traveller’s aid may guide us across physical terrain, but equally it references the terrain of the mind. It is the blank page of the poet writing.

 

For all was unexpected that we found;

Rivers were marked, but what map could foretell

The scouring of spring floods, the changed ford,

How the great boulders fell?

 

There is no absolute of place to be drawn

In neat precision with a mapping pen:

Lakes are hemmed in by thought as well as hills,

That has branched through many men.

 

Ruth keeps returning to the idea that we are in the land and the land is in us, and how the relationships will be marked by memory, experience, uncertainty, hesitancy, predilection. Here are the final two verses:

 

Place will be integrate, but not on paper;

The mind’s net flung and hauled, it is a silver catch;

Here was the limestone bluff, the sharp bend,

There was iced snow to watch.

 

But later, in what deep valley of hesitation

We consider time, and place, and thought

As tiny scratches on what surface, an ultimate

No map, or mind, has caught.

 

The poetry of Ruth France is a treasure house of gold-nugget poems. Like any good treasury, it reveals its physical and abstract luminosity across the course of many readings. I am utterly fascinated by this writer, by her inquiring mind and her poetic deftness. Go hunt this glorious book down. Bravo Robert McLean and Cold Hub Press.

 

 

The island belonged to my father,

Or rather it belonged to nobody.

It wasn’t even real considered against

Men and Material, War and Atomic Energy.

Reality rejected too the hut I built, now ruined,

But then, so did the island. Its own core

Was a reality immune even from wind the eroding stranger.

 

from ‘The Island’

 

Cold Hub Press author page

 

My first edition copy of the second collection

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Poetry Shelf in conversation with Oscar Upperton

 

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Oscar Upperton New Transgender Blockbusters Victoria University Press, 2020

 

 

Optimism is the idea that it not always will rain.

Leave home as soon as you are free,

for everyone comes back again—

 

just never board a train

without a member of family.

Optimism is the idea that it will not always rain,

 

that between sea and plain

will always sprout a city.

For everyone comes back again.

 

from ‘Dutch instruction’

 

 

Oscar Upperton was born in Christchurch in 1991, grew up in Whāngarei and Palmerston North, and now lives in Wellington. In 2019 he was awarded the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary. His work has appeared in Sport, The Spinoff, Metro and Best New Zealand Poems. His debut collection New Transgender Blockbusters was one of two go-to poetry books for me in lockdown (Elizabeth Morton the other). It is fresh, witty, offbeat, surprising yet never loses sight of a lived-in world. As it says on the blurb: These poems are vitally human and consoling: they reframe the ordinary as something to yearn for’. This is the kind of book that I want to talk about with someone, the way the city and rural settings are both present, the way there is a degree of incantation at times, a sense of song, a jubilant relationship with words that might involve rhyme or repetition or silence. I am out of lockdown now but the world is still wobbly, I am still wobbly as both reader and writer, and I find this book the perfect retreat. Glorious is the word for it.

 

In conversation with Oscar Upperton

 

Paula: What poets, both here and overseas, have hooked your attention?

Oscar: I only really read Kiwi poets. I love Tayi Tibble’s writing. Also Jane Arthur and Ashleigh Young. My younger sibling Katrina Upperton is my favourite read at the moment though.

 

Paula: Poetry performers?

Oscar: I went on a road trip with my dad before the lockdown and read in Palmerston North, Whangārei and Kerikeri. I was lucky to see some awesome, awesome performers on that trip. I can’t name everyone (and some of the readings were private anyway) but I will single out Vera Hua Dong, who gave an amazing performance in Kerikeri. I’m looking forward to seeing her writing on the page in Ko Aotearoa Tātou when it comes out in August.

 

Years aren’t to blame. I was always old.

The garden gathers rain. I grew and grew

and broke the mould. I sat there in the rain.

 

from Garden beds’

 

Paula: Your book is like a breath of fresh air. I am drawn to the economy, the richness, the quirkiness, the surprise. What are key things when you write a poem?

Oscar: Thank you for all the compliments! I like to think I’m quirky. Sort of the manic pixie dream boy of New Zealand poetry.

Usually I start with a line or a sound I like, and just follow that. Or I start with an idea, like writing a poem with footnotes. I like to make up rules for myself, like this poem has to have every fourth line written backwards or in this poem the first word of every line rhymes. And I like to use prompts, like Pip Adam’s exercises from her podcast Better Off Read.

 

The dog is a book read over and over

The dog is a river that’s stopping for no one

The dog is a child who thinks hot is a colour

 

The book is a dog that’s waiting for water

The book is a river that cannot be forded

The book is a child who’s made out of silence

 

from ‘Song abut a child’

 

Paula: I like the appearance of lists in your poems, whether subtle or overt. What attracts you to poetry list making?

Oscar: It’s easy! Also I like repetition. Also I like juxtaposition. Like if you put one image beside another, unrelated image, what happens? Lists are useful for that.

 

Paula: Yes- I love the connections between things on a line and in the poem. That is where surprise and quirkiness can take root. I also like the musicality – the rhyme. Sometimes I am reminded of Bill Manhire’s poetry palette as I read your poems (final word in book might be referencing his poem ‘Kevin’). Any poets that feel like close writing relations?

Oscar: This is a funny question to me because some of my closest relations are poets (my dad Tim and my sibling Katrina) and they are probably the writers that I am the most similar to, for obvious genetic and environmental reasons. I definitely am very influenced by Bill Manhire. I like his relaxed approach to sound and rhythm, and how a lot of his poems are jokes or riddles. He seems to be having a lot of fun when he writes, and it’s infectious. I aspire to be like that.

 

Paula: I so see that in your writing! Your poetry seems assured to me, crafted with a deft hand, but do you suffer doubt as you write?

Oscar: Yes, all the time! But I chuck out poems or lines I don’t like, so I am usually happy with a poem by the time it is published. There are some lines in my poems I really don’t like. For example, I think the ending of ‘Child’s First Dictionary’ is really bad. And I even dedicated that poem to my sister! How rude.

 

 

We like mushrooms best when they taste of thieving.

At home we turn the Beatles up to eleven.

This bag of mushrooms was not a given.

We don’t like Kevin but we both like ‘Kevin’.

 

from ‘Two thieves’

 

Paula: Some poets currently favour massive self-exposure in poems – there are heart-punching examples I adore. I find your collection a complex weave of human experience that might be invented or real, intimate or restrained. How do you feel about revealing your private life in a poem?

Oscar: I have a lot of childhood poems in my book that I guess you could say are autobiographical, but they are more about mood or tone than describing a particular thing that happened. Although ‘Two thieves’ is entirely truthful.

I don’t think I’m interesting enough to merit too much self-exposure – all the poets I love who write about themselves, they seem to get out of the house much more often than I manage to. I’d much rather write about something I haven’t done or haven’t experienced, and I don’t tend to write in my own voice. The only poems I have written that I consider to be in my voice are ‘New transgender blockbusters’ and ‘Carmen’. I wrote them because I had two very specific emotional experiences (one after watching a terrible movie, one after listening to people talk about Carmen Rupe) and I was interested in the challenge of recording those experiences accurately. I like both those poems but I wouldn’t want to write a whole book like that.

 

A juggernaut is anything sour, sour cabbage.

Why do you hide your head beneath the bedclothes?

A juggernaut is anything at all, air and beans.

Why do you keen? Why throw yourself against the porch light?

A juggernaut is anything sitting on a rooftop not a bird.

 

from ‘Juggernaut’

 

Paula: Ha! Poetry is a way of writing yourself out of the house in any way or voice you care to invent. The blurb lists questions. ‘Juggernaut’ is a sequence of questions. I began musing on the idea of questions shadowing poems, like furtive ghosts that help bring something into being. What’s your take on poetry and questions?

Oscar: I like questions because they invite the reader in and suggest an answer without me actually having to come up with one. I don’t like being too definite or conclusive when I write, and questions are useful for that.

 

Paula: That is another plus about your poetry. In fact I could have used the word ‘openness’. Porous poetry that is like an open home for the reader. Was there a poem that was particularly tough to write?

Oscar: ‘Caroline’ was hard to write because it contains a lot of repetition. The same lines had to make sense in six different contexts, over six stanzas. I wrote it in Excel with formulas set up so that if I changed a line in one place the change would flow through the rest of the poem. It took ages and was a weird time but I really like that poem now.

‘Prudence’ was hard to write because it’s about a cat and therefore ran the risk of becoming too cute.

 

 

Last year’s trees are dropping.

They drop like sticky fruit.

They drop as the flies rise.

Last year I woke up differently.

This year is the same old mess.

 

from ‘Atlas’

 

Paula: Is there a particular poem – or two – where you feel you have nailed it?

Oscar: ‘Atlas’ is the first poem in the book because it’s my favourite. I wrote it about ten years ago, when I was at my peak.

 

Paula: Hmm! More peaks on the horizon please! Slowly we return to live poetry events. If you were to curate a session with poets from any time or place who would you invite?

Oscar: I would like to see Bashō and Sappho read. Also Robbie Burns. I wonder if they would be baffled by the experience of a modern poetry reading or if they would just go with it.

 

Paula: Wow. What a combination. I have no idea how Sappho would deliver a poem and we could get to see gaps filled if she moved beyond fragments. Finally there is more to life than writing poems. What else feeds you?

Oscar: Right now I’m helping out with an online writing workshop run by InsideOUT. Being the ‘teacher’ is super weird but has given me a new perspective on writing. And it is so cool to see what the writers are coming up with.

 

Victoria University Press page

Oscar in conversation with Karyn Hay RNZ

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf review: Elizabeth Morton’s This is your real name

 

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This is your real name, Elizabeth Morton, Otago University Press, 2020

 

There were days I spent gulping sky,

picking every star off the plate

with the stub of a thumb.

 

from ‘The eating of sorrow’

 

 

Elizabeth Morton grew up in Auckland. Her poetry has been published in various journals, both in New Zealand and internationally, and has achieved a number of award placements, including the 2015 Kathleen Grattan Award. Her terrific debut collection, Wolf, was published by Mākaro Press. She recently finished an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow with Distinction.

This book was one of two poetry collections that I kept returning to during lockdown (plus Oscar Upperton’s). I found I could drift in and out of a poem, I could write phrases on sheets of paper, but I couldn’t string sentences together, let alone articulate a reaction to a book. What I could say was I loved it.

The epigraph felt uncannily fitting: ‘For people who wait and people who are alone.’

I had written down the word ‘detail’. Elizabeth’s deft handling of detail forms the visible stitching of a poem. It offers hue and texture to the multiple poem threads. The detail is a gateway to threads that are personal, universal, engaged in storytelling, recollection, contemplation, association, inquiry.

There are reading footholds and there are wobbly boards, especially in poems that are a mix of real life, memory, fable, fiction, enigma.  The real is often elusive, but lands in shards, both striking and evocative. In ‘After’, two lines in particular catch this movement, and echo throughout the collection as a whole (and with me during lockdown):

 

Night comes apart, like everything else.

We know the landmarks for their hardness.

 

At the poem’s start, the speaker suggests closing one’s eyes is enough. Shutting one’s eyes is contemplative, an escape device, a pause. This is me in lockdown. I keep shutting my eyes and waiting. The poem features the last polar bear cage-pacing at Auckland Zoo and a butterfly caught on a truck’s windscreen. Two sad notes that alter the way we view the ‘you’ whom the poem addresses. It is the kind of poem you keep reading to absorb the dislocation, the absences, the mournings, the complexities. The ending catapults you back to the beginning which then returns to the eyes closing at the start. The ending:

 

When I open my eyes I’m in the same cage I was in yesterday.

I am the same yellow bear driving the same haulage truck

over ice sheets, thin as a prince’s hairline.

What night is this? We talk about the butterfly like it got away.

We talk abut you, like you are here. Like you never left.

 

Every poem works its magic on me – and the breathtaking effects are now heightened by lockdown. I am musing on how I have read this book before, during and after levels 3 and 4. I am writing this review in level 2, and I am wondering when everything I read and write won’t be touched by my Covid experiences. Yet this was the book that held my fuzzy attention.

Most of the poems are dense thickets, interconnected threads, offbeatness and misty bits to get lost in. The beginnings of poems are exquisite hooks:

 

You might make it, if you sprint.

 

from ‘Gap’

 

 

I’m not going to cry. All winter the television

sulks in the corner of our love. You put the lentils

in a colander to flush the ugly bits.

 

from ‘You can’t, always’

 

Here I am turning the pages of the book, writing a review with my thoughts and feelings close up, because I stall on every poem and want to set up a coffee club in a cafe so we can talk about how we move through the poem thickets. Take ‘Aubade with hold music’ for example. You start with the image of a phone booth: ‘The phone booth was skull-cracked, / and caulked with soggy directories.’ Again the uncanny link. The reference to all the people we never know reverberates acutely in lockdown because that’s how I feel about the global Covid statistics. And how I have often felt when I drive down streets and wonder at the lives of the people I see.

The poem moves about a phone call to a mother, but then a central cluster of lines ‘shake’ the phone booth and you wonder what is going on behind the scenes of the poem:

 

The morning smelled like fire,

like the sun projecting simple stories

against the warehouse brickwork

and I wonder whether you know

you are melting.

 

Yes I could say this poem is about a phone call, a phone call about to be made; there is a small boy with coins, there are the White Pages, but then there is this: ‘This poem sets you apart, and / you are a small forest pressed against the city’. So mysterious. So ripe with meaning and possibilities. Each poem is like a little forest. Each poem is like a little forest pressed against us. How can we not stall and wonder. These lines stand out.

 

Writing a poem is a political act.

I want you to know, what you feel

is more than politics.

 

This is the joy of poetry: you think a poem and you feel a poem. It might be political or personal or a dense thicket, with multiple pathways and myriad connections to a peopled world. Elizabeth’s subject matter is wide ranging. Stories appear like neon lights or fleeting shadows or veiled self exposures. Sometimes it feels like the sun is out and sometimes like pitch-black night. The reading rewards are glorious. Find the book, make a coffee, and then let me know what you think. I am ever so grateful for the arrival of this book.

 

Otago University Press page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf video spot: Frankie McMillan reads ‘ The Winter Swimming of my Grandmother’

 

 

 

Frankie reads ‘The Winter Swimming of my Grandmother’  (first published by New Flash Fiction Review, 2019)

 

 

 

 

Frankie McMillan is the author of five books, the most recent of which, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions was listed by Spinoff as one of the 10 best New Zealand fiction books of 2019. Her previous book, My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions was long listed for the NZ Ockham Book Awards, 2017. She was awarded the NZSA Peter and Dianne Beatson Fellowship in 2019. Frankie currently teaches at the Hagley Writers’ Institute in Christchurch.

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf congratulates the Ockham NZ Book Award winners – and showcases the poetry

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Warm congratulations to all winners! This is a year where well-deserving and much-loved books have taken the winning spots – each book is worthy of a place on our book shelves.

I look at this list (and indeed the shortlists) and it reminds me that NZ literature is in good heart. These are heart books. These are books born from love and labour, by both inspired and inspiring authors and publishers.

The Award’s poetry section  was a drawcard for me. I loved each shortlisted finalist so much, but I leapt for joy at the kitchen table to see Jane Arthur win Best First Book and Helen Rickerby win Best Book.

Yes, some extraordinary books did not make the longlists let alone the shortlists – but this is time to celebrate our winners.

I toast you all with bubbles and bouquets and can’t wait to see what you write next.

Right now we need to support our NZ book communities, so I strongly advocate putting an Ockham winner in our pile, the next time we visit our local booksellers.

In these strange Covid times my email box has has never been so full of poems – we’re making sour dough and we’re writing poetry, and it has been such a connecting comfort.

Long may we cherish poetry in Aotearoa.

 

My toast to the Poetry Winners:

 

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Craven, Jane Arthur, Victoria University Press, 2019 Best First Poetry Book

 

 

I have a broth at a simmer on the stove.

Salty water like I’ve scooped up some ocean

and am cooking it in my home. Here,

gulp it back like a whale sieving plankton.

Anything can be a weapon if you

swallow hard enough:

nail scissors, a butter knife, dental floss,

a kindergarten guillotine, hot soup,

waves, whales.

from ‘Circles of Lassitude’

 

 

Jane Arthur’s debut collection Craven inhabits moments until they shine – brilliantly, surprisingly, refractingly, bitingly. Present-tense poetry is somewhat addictive. With her free floating pronouns (I, you, we) poetry becomes a way of being, of inhabiting the moment, as you either reader or poet, from shifting points of view.

It is not surprising it has won Best First Book at 2020 the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

The collection title references lack of courage, but it is as though Jane’s debut collection steps across a line into poetic forms of grit. This is a book of unabashed feeling; of showing the underseam, the awkward stitching, the rips and tears. Of daring to expose. The poems are always travelling and I delight in every surprising step. You move from taxidermy to piano lessons to heart checks and heart beats, but there is always a core of exposed self. And that moves me. You shift from a thing such as a plastic rose to Brad Pitt to parental quarrels. One poem speaks from the point of view of a ship’s figurehead, another from that of Constance. There is anxiety – there are dilemmas and epiphanies. The poetic movement is honeyed, fluid, divinely crafted – no matter where the subject travels, no matter the anxious veins, the tough knots.

An early poem, ‘Idiots’, is like an ode to life, to ways of being. I keep crossing between the title and the poem, the spare arrival of words punctuated by ample white space, elongated silent beats that fill with the links between brokenness, strength and pressing on.

 

Idiots

I’ve known people who decided

to carry their brokenness like strength

idiots

I’m a tree

I mean I’m tall, I sway

I don’t say, treat me gently

No¾I say, cool cool cool cool

I say, that really sucks but I guess I’ll survive it

or, that wind’s really strong

but so are my roots, so are my thighs

my branches my lungs my leaves my capacity to wait things out

I can get up in the morning

I do things

 

 

I heard Jane read for the first time at the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize session at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2018. Her reading blew my socks off, just as her poems had delighted American judge, Eileen Myles, and it was with great pleasure I announced her as the winner. Eileen described Jane’s poetry: ‘poetry’s a connection to everything which I felt in all these [shortlisted] poets but in this final winning one the most. There’s an unperturbed confident “real” here.’ In her report, Eileen wrote:

The poet shocked me. I was thrust into their work right away and it evoked the very situation of the poem and the cold suddenness of the clinical encounter, the matter of fact weirdness of being female though so many in the world are us. And still we are a ‘peculiarity’ here and this poet manages to instantly say that in poetry. They more than caught me. I like exactly how they do this – shifting from body to macro, celestial, clinical, and maybe even speaking a little out of an official history. She seems to me a poet of scale and embodiment. Her moves are clean and well-choreographed & delivers each poem’s end & abruptly and deeply I think. There’s a from the hip authority that inhabits each and all of these poems.

I am revisiting these words in view of Craven’s multiple poetry thrills. So often we talk about the way a poem steps off from the ordinary and blasts your heart and senses, if not your mind, with such a gust of freshness everything becomes out of the ordinary. This is what happens with Craven. A sense of verve and outspokenness is both intoxicating and necessary:

 

I’m entertaining the idea of never being silent again,

of walking into a room and shouting, You Fuckers Better Toe the Line

like a prophylactic.

from ‘Sit Down’

 

 

A sense of brittleness, vulnerability and self-testing is equally present:

I’ve been preoccupied with what others think again.

I’ve been trying not to let people down.

Nights are not long enough.

Lately there’s been more sun than I would’ve expected.

I keep the weather report open in its own tab and check it often.

 

From ‘Situation’

The movement between edge and smooth sailing, between light and dark, puzzle and resolution, and all shades within any dichotomy you might spot – enhances the reading experience. This is a book to treasure – its complexities and its economies, its confession and its reserve. It never fails to surprise. I am delighted Jane read as part of my Poetry Shelf Live session at Wellington’s Writers Festival in March. It was a divine reading.

 

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf Monday poem: ‘Situation’ by Jane Arthur

Poetry Shelf audio spot: Jane Arthur reads ‘Snowglobe’

Poetry Shelf: Conversation with Sarah Broom Prize finalist, Jane Arthur

 

 

 

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How to Live, Helen Rickerby, Auckland University Press, 2019 Best Poetry Book

 

Helen reads ‘How to live through this’

 

 

When that philosopher said life must be lived forwards

but can only be understood backwards

he was not thinking of me

I have lived all kinds of lives

from ‘A pillow book’

Helen Rickerby’s latest poetry collection How to Live is a joy to read. She brings her title question to the lives of women, in shifting forms and across diverse lengths, with both wit and acumen. Like many contemporary poets she is 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.

Reading this book invigorates me. 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.

 

6.   It seems to me that poetry usually begins with the self

and works its way outwards; and the essay, perhaps, starts

outwards and works its way in towards the self.

from ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’

 

Thinking of the silent woman I am reminded of Aristotle’s crown of silence that he placed upon she. I then move across centuries to Leilani Tamu’s poem ‘Mouths Wide Shut’ where she sits on a bus with her mouth taped shut silent. The skin-spiking poem (and the protest) considers silence in the face of racism. Even now, even after the women’s movements of the 1970s and the explosion of feminism and feminisms over ensuing decades, men still talk over women, still dismiss the women speaking (take women in power for example, or a young woman at the UN challenging climate-change inertia).

What Helen does is remind us is that silence is like snow – it is multi-hued and deserves multiple names and nuances: ‘Silence isn’t always not speaking. Silence is sometimes / an erasure.’

Ah the stab in my skin when I read these lines. In ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ Helen draws me in close, closer and then even closer to Hipparchia of Maroneia (c 350 – c 280 BC).

5.    But I do have something to say. I want to say that she

lived. I want to say that she lived, and she spoke and she

was not silent.

 

Helen gathers 58 distinctive points in this poem to shatter the silence. Sometimes we arrive at a list of women who have been both audible and visible in history, but who may have equally  been misheard, misread and dampened down. At other times the poet steps into view so we are aware of her writing presence as she records and edits and makes audible. In one breath the poet is philosopher: ‘Silence might not be speaking. It might be / listening. It can be hard to tell the difference.’ In another breath she apologies for taking so long to bring Hipparchia into the picture.

Elsewhere there is an ancient warning: ‘”If a woman speaks out of turn her teeth will be / smashed with a burnt brick.” Sumerian law, c. 2400 BC.’

A single line resonates with possibilities and the ‘we’ is a fertile gape/gap/breathing space: a collective of women, the poet and her friends, the women from the past, the poet and I: ‘There are things we didn’t think we could tell.’ Yes there are things we didn’t think we could tell but then, but then, we changed the pattern and the how was as important as the what.

Another single line again resonates with possibilities for me; it could be personal, it could equally be found poetry: ‘I would like to be able to say that  it was patriarchy that stopped me talking on social media, but it wasn’t, not / directly.’

I read ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ as a poem. I read this as an essay. I am tempted to carry on with my own set of bullet points as though Helen has issued an open invitation for the ‘we’ to speak. Me. You. They. She quotes Susan Sontag: ‘The most potent elements in a work of art are, often, its silences.’

 

The other poem I dearly love, ‘George Eliot: a life’, is also long form. Like the previous poem this appears as a sequence of numbered sections that are in turn numbered in smaller pieces. It is like I am reading a poem and then an essay and then a set of footnotes. An assemblage of fascinations. Biography as fascination allows room for anything to arrive, in which gaps are curious hooks, reflective breathing spaces and in which the personal is as compelling as the archives. Helen names her poem ‘A deconstructed biography’ and I am reminded of  fine-dining plates that offer deconstructed classics. You get a platter of tastes that your tongue then collates on the tongue.

To taste ‘George Eliot: a life’ in pieces is to allow room for reading taste buds to pop and salivate and move. This is the kind of poem you linger over because the morsels are as piquant as the breathing spaces. It delivers a prismatic portrait of George Eliot but it also refreshes how we assemble a biography and how we shape a poem. Helen brings her acerbic wit into play.

 

10.7.1.  But the fact is, and I don’t want to give you spoilers, that for such an

extraordinary woman she sure did create some disappointing female

characters. Even the heroines don’t strike out – they give up, they stop,

they enclose themselves in family, they stand behind, they cease, they  die.

They found nothing.

10.7.2.   Did she think she was too exceptional to be used as a model for her

characters? Did she think that while she was good enough to be involved

in intellectual life, and she could probably even be trusted to vote, the same

could not be said for her inferior sisters?

 

A number of smaller poems sit alongside the two longer ones including the moving ‘How to live though this’, a poem that reacts to an unstated ‘this’. ‘This’ could be anything but for me the poem reads like a morning mantra that you might whisper in the thick of tough times or alongside illness or the possibility of death.

‘How to live’ is a question equally 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.

 

I slept my way into silence

through the afternoon, after days

of too many words and not enough words

to make the map she needs

to find her way from here

I wake, too late, with a headache

and she, in the garden wakes up shivering

from ‘Navigating by the stars’

 

 

 

Auckland University Press author page

Helen‘s ‘Mr Anderson, you heartbreaker you’

Helen on Standing Room Only

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Lounge: VUP launches Natalie Morrison’s Pins

 

PINS front cover final.jpg

 

If all the pins in the world were gathered together
you would be very much pleased.
But all the pins in the world
cannot be gathered
together.

 

 

Welcome to the Victoria University Press launch of Natalie Morrison’s Pins.

Time to pour that wine and draw in close to celebrate a book-length poem I am ultra excited to read.

First some words from editor Ashleigh Young:

 

 

 

Chris Price launches the book:

 

 

 

 

NATALIE MORRISON - WEB - 2020 EBONY LAMB PHOTOGRAPHER-8.jpg

 

 

Natalie gives us a wee taste of the book:

 

 

‘I found Pins extraordinarily witty, perceptive, and moving. The family narrative unspools around two sisters whose pointed obsessions bring us something that echoes Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ and Anne Kennedy’s 100 Traditional Smiles.’

—James Brown

 

Screen Shot 2020-04-28 at 5.21.07 PM.png

 

 

If you feel like me after these speeches and readings, you will have written down the title as a must-have book. I love the premise. I loved the intimate reading, with glimpses of the kitchen showing in the background. Oh and I love the cover by Todd Atticus.

Sadly you can’t stroll over and tell Natalie how much you loved the reading and get her to sign a copy.  But now that we can get books online from our magnificent independent booksellers – I highly recommend you order a copy of this!

PG

Poetry Shelf and Victoria University Press declare this spellbinding poetry book officially launched.

 

VUP author page