Category Archives: NZ poetry book

Poetry Shelf questions: 7 poets name 3 poetry books that have mattered

 

 

My bookshelves are like an autobiography because books, like albums, flag key points in my life.

To pick only three poetry books that have mattered at different points in your life is a tall order but these poets have sent me chasing collectons and composing my own list.

Featured poets: Fiona Kidman, Joan Fleming, Hannah Mettner,  David Eggleton, Sam Duckor-Jones, Amy Leigh-Wicks and Murray Edmond.

 

Fiona Kidman

I was team teaching a creative writing group with my dear late friend, the poet Lauris Edmond, when she read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Fish”. I remember the electricity in the air, as the dazzling images tumbled out, wonderfully read by Lauris. And then there is the moment where the caught fish is released back into the wild. I trembled when I heard the poem, the first I knew of Bishop’s work. This was in the late 1970s. Later, I bought Elizabeth Bishop The Complete Poems 1927 -1979, and discovered her inimitable Nova Scotian poems. I was working towards a novel partly set in Nova Scotia, and I carried the book with me – there, and on all my travels for years afterwards. I had a habit of pressing wildflowers collected along the way, and eventually, I realised that I was a danger to myself at the New Zealand border if I was to continue carrying them. I read the poems at home now.

Another book I have read and re-read many times, is Marguerite Duras’s last  book (I think) Practicalities (published in 1993). I had been influenced by her fiction as a young woman. But this was a tiny book of essays, fragments, interior monologues, about desire, housekeeping, her struggles with alcohol, domestic lists of important things to have in the house, reflections on death.

And one more.  On the bedside table I keep Seamus Heaney’s Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996. I came late to Heaney’s work, but late is good, because I’m still making discoveries, there are still pleasures in store from the great Irish Nobel Prize winning writer. It’s like tracing my finger through language and feeling my own Irish blood singing its way through my veins. The collection contains, incidentally, a poem about Katherine Mansfield.

 

Joan Fleming

Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red was a gift from Amy Brown on my 23rd birthday. It blew my head off. It is the best and strangest failed love poem I have ever read. But more than that, it showed me how a book could perform an argument, and at the same time, exquisitely fracture the foundations of the kind of thought that makes argument possible.

Jordan Abel’s book The Place of Scraps is an erasure poem and a series of prose reflections, which explode and complicate the work of ethnographer Marius Barbeau. I had been searching for poetry that could do this mode of critical work all through my PhD, and discovered The Place of Scraps very late in the journey, on the recommendation of the dear and brilliant Brian Blanchfield. The book is a stunning example of a new kind of ethnopoetics – or, perhaps, counter-ethnopoetics. I was needing and seeking it, and its sensibility has offered me a kind of permission for my own work.

I wonder if all writers read as opportunistically as this? Maybe we’re all like exploration geologists, searching for those forms and sensibilities that we can mine for our own nefarious compositional purposes. The latest book of this ilk for me has been Rachel Zucker’s Mothers. What gets me about this book is the collage essay form, the candid revelations, and the way Zucker’s poetics walk the line between sentimentality and the rejection of sentimentality. I’m completely charged by the possibilities of this book’s form. Watch this space, I guess.

 

Hannah Mettner

Every birthday when I was a girl, my parents would get me an obligatory book. This wasn’t a problem, as I liked reading, but the choices were a bit hit or miss, and I was often far more thrilled by other gifts. One year though, they got me The Door in the Air and other stories by Margaret Mahy, and it has become my enduring favourite book, certainly the book I’ve re-read most. My current favourite story (it changes all the time) is about a woman who bakes her grown-up son a birthday cake, ices it, and leaves it in a glass dome for the month leading up to his birthday (I presume it’s a fruit cake, otherwise, ew). In a hilarious twist, the cake becomes the next big thing in art, when it’s “discovered” by two gallery owners. I think it’s the perfect take-down of the art scene, and I often wonder what had happened in Mahy’s life that had inspired this gentle trashing of “taste-makers”. It’s also a really beautiful allegory for women’s work, which is so often un-recognised and un-celebrated: by elevating a cake, made with love by the light of a new moon, Mahy draws our attention to how little we do recognise this work, in the usual course of things. In the end, much to the chagrin of the gallery owners, who are considering taking the cake on an international art tour, the cake is eaten when the son comes home for his birthday, as intended. And all the stories in the book are these complicated, magical-realism, gently humorous, domestic, relationship-centred stories that do so much in such a short space.

My current favourite book of poems is Morgan Parker’s There are more Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, which I bought for its provocative title. It is the perfect mix of pop culture, politics and outrageously beautiful lines of poetry. It’s the kind of book that you can’t read all at once because each poem slays you. One of the poems, ‘The Gospel According to Her’ opens with this couplet:

What to a slave is the fourth of July
What to a woman is a vote

I mean! Wow! I’m so tired of the kind of ‘flippant cool’ and ‘awkward funny’ poetic voice that’s been popular for a bit now, and this book feels like such an antidote to that. It’s really important writing about the intersections of race, gender, class and pop culture in America, and it feels fiercely genuine.

And obviously one of my all-time favourite books of poems is Mags’ (Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s) new collectiom Because a Woman’s Heart is like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean. I’ve been waiting for this book since I first met Mags in our MA course in 2012, and, though I’d seen (I think) all of the poems in it before it was published, having them gathered together in one place makes them all seem to glow a bit brighter. It possesses some of the magical realism that brings me back time and again to the Mahy, with a slightly darker, more grown-up edge. It feels like a book that has already lived a thousand lives, and lived them richly, and has picked up scraps and talismans along the way to adorn its stories, like the bower birds in the poem ‘Glamour’. It does what the best poetry does, which is to offer you something beautiful and immediate on the surface, but with more and more layers of meaning to unpick as you make repeat visits. I think what it has to say on how we define ourselves in relation to other people is genuinely complex and profound.

 

David Eggleton

The Walled Garden by Russell Haley, published in 1972 by The Mandrake Root, was one of the first poetry books I ever bought, and I bought it in order to read it over and over and internalise it. Its verses I found visionary, oneiric, hallucinatory. I had seen it displayed in Auckland’s University Book Shop, which was then in the Student Quad on campus. I picked it up off the shelf, began idly flicking through and became immediately ensnared by its strange chanting lines:

 

Invest the real with moths of dream

white paper is a time machine

 

and

 

six inches of semantic dust cover the carpet

he drew with his fingers

new maps of home

Grafton Road and Carlton Gore …

 

As I was living in Grafton Road at the time, just along the bustling hippie encampments in the grand old villas near Carlton Gore Road, my brain began to hum. I bought the book and it immediately became my guide to a certain state of mind a celebration of another, more phantasmal, Auckland in the decade of the 1970s:

 

Gagarin is finding a new way to walk

both the rock and the lion are starting to talk …

 

Russell Haley was a British migrant who grew up in the north of England and then served in the R.A. F. in Iraq in the 1950s, at a time when the oil wells of Middle East were relatively untroubled by the meddling of the United States, and archeological expeditions to the Fertile Crescent were proceeding in an orderly fashion, and Persian poetry was being celebrated as the ne plus ultra of the Islamic Golden Age. In Haley’s The Walled Garden, still to me a wondrous book, I was attracted to the private mythology, the prophetic quality, the dream-like imagery, the air of premonition, of the circularity of history he was invoking: a sense of time of time regained out of a kind of colourful rubble — the bric a brac of twentieth century international modernism — which seemed to me at the time seductively exotic. Moreover, he managed to make tenets of Sufi mysticism rhyme and chime with kite-flying in the small hours on Bethells Beach:

 

3.30 am …

 

There are two voices —

the first is that of the man

holding the kite string —

he says everything and yet nothing.

The second is the deep hum of the rope

linking the man and the kite  —

this voice says nothing and yet everything

(from night flying with hanly)

 

Published in Auckland by Stephen Chan’s Association of Orientally Flavoured Syndics in 1972, David Mitchell’s first, and for several decades his only poetry collection, Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby, was reprinted in a second edition in 1975 by Caveman Press, whose publisher was Trevor Reeves. That is the edition, acquired second-hand years later, that I have in my possession, knocked out by Tablet Print in Dunedin and, though in a similar thin black cardboard jacket, not quite as elegant and well-printed as the earlier one. Yet it still conveys the magic, the mojo, of a poet who celebrated the poem as spoken word. For me, David Mitchell is an exemplar of the shaman able to take a poem off the page and make it into something performative, transcendent, on a stage. In Auckland in 1980, David Mitchell established the Globe Hotel weekly poetry readings which became inspirational. Mitchell was a poet of the primal, one who had an ability to suggest and conjure up the electric atmosphere of raw improvisation. A master of syllabics, the man with the golden ear, he was actually all craft. He worked with silence, building up cadences out of short phrases and using the pregnant pause to create resonance. He was intent on emphasising the evanescence of the moment; with the use of subtle intonation and enunciation, seeking to establish an authentic encounter with the poem he was reciting, its mood, its music.

Kendrick Smithyman was another early enthusiasm of mine, in particular his 1972 collection Earthquake Weather in its drab olive green cover, containing the poem ‘Hail’ whose last lines give the book its resonantly memorable title: ‘We call this earthquake weather. We may not be wrong.’

But it is his later epic 1997 poem Atua Wera that spun my compass round as an example of what a truly ambitious New Zealand poem could be. Atua Wera, is a poem glued together out of bits and bobs. It muses on historical hearsay, folklore, museological keepsakes, and intertextual chunks of letters and journals. It requires you to latch onto the poet’s rhythms of thought, his oblique way of saying things as he tells the story of Papahurihia, a Northland Māori millennial prophet who was a tohunga descended from tohunga.

In this verse biography, Smithyman is a prose Browning, up to his elbows in the old colonial dust, breaking up journalistic reportage into cryptic fragments, into crabbed lines scattered across the page, except that where Robert Browning embroidered endlessly in his epic The Ring and the Book on a story that, as Thomas Carlyle said, might have been told in ten lines and were better forgotten, Smithyman’s effort is a superb revivification of an amazing chapter in New Zealand colonial history.

A master-ventriloquist, like his subject, Smithyman uses James Busby, Thomas Kendall and Frederic Maning to tell us about Yankee sailors encountering Moriori voodoo, and about the Garden of Eden snake in Genesis being transformed into a lizard, then a dragon, then ‘a fiery flying serpent’ who turns out to be Te Atau Wera himself, the shape-shifter. Atua Wera is itself a shape-shifting poem of ghost-riders and end-of-world portents, of the phantom canoe on Lake Tarawera before the eruption, and of a light in the sky which turns out to be a TV repeater mast. It’s a book which is a palimpest, a treasure trove, a landmark, a beacon.

 

Sam Duckor-Jones

DIFFERENT DANCES / SHEL SILVERSTEIN
This is a large coffee table book of drawings of naked men and women fucking and sucking and being impaled in various ways. There is straight sex, queer sex, and not-so-subtle nods towards fun things like necrophilia! incest! bestiality! We loved this book when we were kids, we poured over it wide eyed, impatient, tingling and desirous and competitively appalled or nonchalant, depending. A little later, ie adolescence, when my friends and I started liking boys but had no language or real world models with which to express it, we drew: cousins rutting in basements, fey teachers with debased secrets, musclemen kissing in pantries… Different Dances was my manual for lusty expression: put it on the page. To this day I still prefer a pen and paper to real life, sigh.

DEAR PRUDENCE / DAVID TRINIDAD
David Trinidad has this long prose poem called ‘Mothers’ in which he remembers all the mothers from his childhood neighbourhoods. It’s intimate and cinematic and filled with satisfyingly stifling pastels and veneers of conformity and simmering desperations and a serious deluge of kitsch, moving from comic portrait to heartbreaking confession. I read it in 2016 and immediately made David Trinidad one of my favourite poets and Dear Prudence one of my most frequently thumbed books. David Trinidad constructs his poems from celebrity interviews, soap opera scripts, trashy novels, idol infatuations, all with a serious wash of queer love and it’s associated traumas. He takes plain language and wrings it with tight margins til it becomes something crystalized. I love him.

BLISS / PETER CAREY
When I lived in Auckland I was a bad employee. I worked in a number of cafes, briefly. I was scared of the customers and didn’t have the cahones for kitchen trash talk. All I wanted to do was read and draw, why was this not allowed? On a lunch break at a Ponsonby spot where I was the lame FOH, I read Bliss in the upstairs staffroom. The barista came and sat beside me and talked and talked and would not stop talking so I picked up my book and climbed right out the window. I ran along the awnings and shimmied down a drainpipe, stormed righteously to Grey Lynn park, finished my chapter. Caught the next train home to Wellington. Ever since, Bliss has represented a real particular sort of escape to me, and is a reminder that a good book is worth it.

 

Amy Leigh Wicks

I came across Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in university. I resonated with his ability to articulate the insatiable longings of the human heart. The novel wasn’t the best written thing I’d read, but the timing of it, the casual language paired with a desperate feeling of urgency coincided perfectly with my itch for travel and spiritual discovery. Kerouac said in a later interview that the book was really just about two catholic boys in search of God. I think a lot of people might have trouble seeing it because of all the Benzedrine and riotous living, but it hit me in the guts as true.

I was in my early twenties when I read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Collected Poems. Her sonnets continue to be one great sources of inspiration and reflection. From Sonnet XXX which begins, ‘Love is not all,’ and ends in a surprising turn, to her sonnet What lips my lips have kissed and where and why, which appeared in Vanity Fair in 1920, but reads to me as if it were written now, her poems are delicious, layered, and precisely crafted.

I started studying James K. Baxter while I was working on my Masters in New York, and found a very hard time finding his books. When I moved to New Zealand and came across New Selected Poems: James K. Baxter edited by Paul Millar, I felt I had struck gold. I carry it with me in my purse most days, as it is not cumbersome, and it has a selection of poetry from all of Baxter’s books as well as a selection of previously unpublished works. I find myself coming back to Farmhand, where ‘He has his awkward hopes, his envious dreams to yarn to […]’ to later in his life, the bittersweet but undeniably beautiful He Waiata mo Te Kare where he says, ‘Nobody would have given tuppence for our chances,/ Yet our love did not turn to hate.’

 

Murray Edmond

Plants of New Zealand by R.M.Laing and E.W.Blackwell (Whitcombe and Tombs , 1906)

Shanties by the Way: a selection of New Zealand Popular Songs and Ballads collected and edited by Rona Baily and Herbert Roth (Whitcombe and Tombs, 1967)

Hidden Camera by Zoran Zivkovic, trans. Alice Copple-Tosic, (London: Dalkey Archive, 2008)

I think I was given ‘Laing and Blackwell’ (as it was always called) for my 12th birthday, at the end of 1961. I would have asked for it. I had recently joined the Hamilton Junior Naturalists Club and had begun to discover ‘another world’ in the flora of Aotearoa, which was to be a gateway for understanding many other things about the country I lived in that no one had yet mentioned. Robert Laing and Ellen Blackwell’s Plants of New Zealand was the first serious, semi-populist, reasonably comprehensive book on New Zealand plants. Ellen Blackwell, an amateur botanist in her late thirties, had met Robert Laing, Christchurch school teacher, graduate of Canterbury University College, and botanist with a special interest in marine algae, on a ship heading for New Zealand in 1903. Laing was returning from an overseas trip, Blackwell was visiting her brother Frank at Pahi in the northern Kaipara, her first (and only!) visit to New Zealand. The fruit of this meeting was the publication of the evergreen ‘Laing and Blackwell’ in 1906, with Ellen contributing photos (along with brother Frank) and much of the northern botanical information. The sixth edition I received had been published in 1957. It’s a strange old hodge-podge of a book, with reliable basic botanical coverage, mixed with Maori ‘lore’ on plant use, plus some poetical diversions to William Pember Reeves and Alfred Domett. Pretty soon us budding naturalists had graduated to Lucy Moore and H.H.Allan’s properly scientific Flora of New Zealand, but we never forgot our Laing and Blackwell. Ellen Blackwell returned to England after three years in New Zealand, never to return, but she left a little gem behind her. I wrote a poem called ‘Te Ngahere’ (‘The Bush’), using my new discoveries, and next year, 1963, my first year at high school, it was published in the school magazine.

I bought Rona Bailey and Bert Roth’s anthology Shanties by the Way, when I was a first year student at Auckland University in 1968. It might be my favourite New Zealand poetry anthology. Of the 85 songs, ballads, chants, rhymes, jingles, ditties, shanties, broadsides, protests, burlesques, etc. 21 are by the illustrious Anon. It’s a history book and a poetry book at the same time, a collection of voices, registers and, indeed, languages of Aotearoa. When Russell Haley and I wrote our satire, Progress in the Dark, on the sordid history of Auckland city, for the Living Theatre Troupe in 1971, I raided the prohibition section of the anthology for our play:

 

I am a young teetotaller

And though but six years old,

Within my little breast there beats

A heart as true as gold.

 

Bert Roth, socialist, Viennese Jew, escapee from Hitler’s Austria, declared ‘enemy alien’ by the New Zealand Government, became the historian of the Union movement in New Zealand; Rona Bailey, physical education teacher, dancer, communist, activist, had studied modern dance and the collecting of folk dance and song in the USA just before World War Two. Together these two created a rich record in verse and song of the story of Aotearoa – read it, sing it, and you’ll get the picture!

Lisa Samuels gave me Zoran Zivkovic’s novel Hidden Camera not so long ago. It’s a scary, funny, dark, narratively powerful and hauntingly intoxicating tale that makes you question the very reality around you as you read. Zivkovic, who wrote his masters’ thesis at Belgrade University on Arthur C. Clarke, and latterly taught there for many years, knows his Lem, his Kafka, his Bulgakov and his Gogol. Perhaps his work evokes what a Robert Louis Stevenson thriller or a Henry James ghost story in the 21st century might read like. Aren’t we all being recorded, all the time? Are the narratives of us that are recorded more real than the lives we think we are living? Zivkovic is a writer who makes me want to record narratives myself, if only to fight back against the capture of ourselves, to escape the horror of the prisons we have built for ourselves.

 

Contributors

Sam Duckor-Jones is a sculptor and poet who lives in Featherston. In 2017 he won the Biggs Poetry Prize from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. Victoria University press published his debut collection People from the Pit Stand Up in 2018.  His website.

Murray Edmond is a playwright, poet and fiction writer; he has worked as an editor, critic and dramaturge. Several of his poetry collections have been finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards:   Letters and Paragraphs, Fool Moon and Shaggy Magpie Songs. He has worked extensively in theatre including twenty years with Indian Ink on the creation of all the company’s scripts. His latest poetry collection Back Before You Know was published by Compound Press in 2019.

David Eggleton is a Dunedin-based poet and writer, who was formerly the editor of Landfall. He is working on a number of projects, including a new poetry collection.

Joan Fleming is a poet, teacher, and researcher. She is the author of two books of poetry, The Same as Yes and Failed Love Poems (both with Victoria University Press), and her third book is forthcoming with Cordite Books. She has recently completed a PhD in ethnopoetics at Monash University, a project which arose out of deep family ties and ongoing relationships with Warlpiri families in Central Australia. She is the New Zealand/Aotearoa Commissioning Editor for Cordite Poetry Review and teaches creative writing from Madrid, where she currently lives. She recently performed and served as Impresario for the Unamuno Author Series Festival in Madrid, and in 2020 she will travel to Honduras for the Our Little Roses Poetry Teaching Fellowship.

Fiona Kidman has published over 30 books including novels, poetry, memoir and a play. She has received a number of awards and honours including a DNZM, OBE and the French Legion of Honour. Her most recent book This Mortal Boy won the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize at the Ockham Book Awards 2019. She has published a number of poetry collections; her debut Honey and Bitters appeared in 1975 while her more recent collections were published by Random House: Where Your Left Hand Rests (2010) and This Change in the Light (2016).

Amy Leigh Wicks is the author of The Dangerous Country of Love and Marriage (Auckland University Press 2019) and Orange Juice and Rooftops.

Hannah Mettner is a Wellington-based poet from Gisborne. Her first collection, Fully Clothed and so Forgetful (VUP 2017), was longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, and won the Jessie Mackay Award for best first book of poetry. She is co-editor with Morgan Bach and Sugar Magnolia Wilson of Sweet Mammalian, an online poetry journal launched in 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf review: Murray Edmond’s Back Before You Know

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Murray Edmond, Back Before You Know, Compound Press, 2019

Jonas Bones, Jonas Bones esquire,

whale-stabber, seal-clubber,

great hands held like tongs in the fire,

road-digger, gold-grubber—

JONAS: Never did have no blasted luck,

every plan came unstuck—

Always up to his ears in muck

couldn’t make two ends meet.

So one last chance to call a stop

one last throw on a crumbling life,

on the King Country line he set up shop,

with one lone child and one sharp wife.

from ‘The Ballad of Jonas Bones’

 

 

Murray Edmond is a playwright, poet and fiction writer; he has worked as an editor, critic and dramaturge. Several of his poetry collections have been finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards:   Letters and Paragraphs, Fool Moon and Shaggy Magpie Songs. He has worked extensively in theatre including twenty years with Indian Ink on the creation of all the company’s scripts.

Murray’s new collection comprises two long poems that play with other sources; with fable, allegory, history, theatre, poetics, the ballad form. The first poem, ‘The Ballad of Jonas Bones’ steps off from Robert Penn Warren’s ‘The Ballad of Billie Potts’ (1943), from Kentucky to the Waikato / King Country. Murray claims his version as a palimpsest or adaptation, leaving traces of the original version, ghost-like and haunting. We may find vestiges of place, the story that gets passed down the line from ear to mouth, the innkeepers who rob their well-off guests, a character’s return to origins, the cutting shards of history, the kaleidoscopic turns of humanity. I haven’t read Warren’s poem but I sense its eerie presence.

Murray’s fluctuating rhythm and rhymes are like shifting river currents, his poem a river poem carrying the debris of story, hand-me-down anecdote. There’s gold and there’s mud, there’s error and there’s incident, there’s greed and there’s survival. Dialogue gives it life as a theatre piece, staged to the point I invent the presence of audience and a live version runs through my head. I am watching as the past is made present and the future present is gestured at in the revised story along with the original skelton. A wider context is superimposed and hides in the seams: ‘frontier’ stories that mutate in the telling, the more significant misrepresentations that shaped our histories, the way individual stories are muffled within the dominant narratives.

Ah but alongside these fertile underground veins is the fact this is a cracking good story with its blinding twists and wounding heart. For some reason I kept thinking of Blanche Baughan’s affecting long ballad, ‘Shingle Short’.

The second poem, ‘The Fancier Pigeon’, is equally arresting with Murray characteristically playful. I am reading with a wry smile, every sense provoked, my reading momentum both fluid and addictive.  We meet the fancier pigeon and the pigeon fancier (she with her hair aglint) when they meet perched on stools at a bar:

 

She had hair the colour of apricot

she smelt like a cake just taken

from the oven and her father played

drums in a band in the only night club

in town

 

I am always reluctant to spoil the unfolding of a poem, long or short, in ways that ruin the reading experience, that spotlight the darkened nooks and crannies, the poem’s pauses or digressions. That dampens the joy of reading. But I will say when the two characters kiss a pigeon drops a ring at their feet – they decide they will each keep the ring for a week and then only met when they exchange the ring. Such an emblematic hook.

The poem feels cinematic (visually sharp, moody hued), theatrical (with both dialogue and action body gripping) and fable-like (overlaying universal themes of love, betrayal, mishap and destiny). The poem also feels cinematic with its smudged lighting as though we can’t quite be sure what happens between this scene and the next, with the cue to fable never far off, the characters, a quartet, shifting and sliding in and out of view.

 

and it was there

the girl had stopped her

as she walked

“Has he come asking for me”

of course he had so she said “No”

and as if she were granting wishes

she asked

“You wanna come out on the lake

with me in the canoe?”

and she had lead her down

among the bulrushes

 

What I love about the poem – beyond the supple language play and the sensual images, the addictive and offbeat characters, and the narrative tug – is the way the world adheres. As reader you can’t just stick to the poet’s diverting fable – because the real world intrudes, the hurt and broken world if you hold the bigger picture, and the miniature daily stories if you hold the way humanity is formed by individuals. Both things matter at the level of the humane.

The book’s punning title, like a cypher, a tease, is also a ‘dropped ring’. It is re-sited as the last line: ‘BACK AGAIN BEFORE YOU KNOW’.  And I am looping back on the unknown and the achingly familiar, the beginning that is ending that is beginning and so on, the switch back roads and the clifftop vantage points, the downright miraculous and the daily mundane. Ah setting sail on this poetic loop, with its blurs and its epiphanies, is sheer bliss. Poetry bliss.

 

Compound Press author page

Poetry Shelf classic poem: Tracey Slaughter picks Fleur Adcock’s ‘Composition for Words and Paint’

 

Composition for Words and Paint

 

This darkness has a quality

that poses us in shapes and textures,

one plane behind another,

flatness in depth.

 

Your face; a fur of hair; a striped

curtain behind, and to one side cushions;

nothing recedes, all lies extended.

I sink upon your image.

 

I see a soft metallic glint,

a tinsel weave behind the canvas,

aluminium and bronze beneath the ochre.

There is more in this than we know.

 

I can imagine drawn around you

a white line, in delicate brush-strokes:

emphasis; but you do not need it.

You have completeness.

 

I am not measuring your gestures;

(I have seen you measure those of others,

know a mind by a hand’s trajectory,

the curve of a lip).

 

But you move, and I move towards you,

draw back your head, and I advance.

I am fixed to the focus of your eyes.

I share your orbit.

 

Now I discover things about you:

your thin wrists, a tooth missing;

and how I melt and burn before you.

I have known you always.

 

The greyness from the long windows

reduces visual depth; but tactile

reality defies half-darkness.

My hands prove you solid.

 

You draw me down upon your body,

hard arms behind my head.

Darkness and soft colours blur.

We have swallowed the light.

 

Now I dissolve you in my mouth,

catch in the corners of my throat

the sly taste of your love, sliding

into me, singing;

 

just as the birds have started singing.

Let them come flying through the windows

with chains of opals around their necks.

We are expecting them.

 

Fleur Adcock

 

From Poems 1960-2000 (Bloodaxe Books, 2000). Subsequently published in Collected Poems (Victoria University Press); originally published in Tigers (Oxford University Press, 1967). Posted with kind permission from Bloodaxe Books and Victoria University Press.

 

Note from Tracey Slaughter:

 

When I read Fleur Adcock’s ‘Composition for Words and Paint’ I get a feeling like I’ve just stepped from glaring sunlight into a dim cool room, a blinking transition where objects shift their edges, textures and sensations blur. Things cross the retina that shouldn’t coexist – heat and cool, shade and sheen, disorientation and sharp awareness – as the dazzled eye tries to pull focus on outlines, shadows, glints. I’ve read it so many times now I could start to break down how its sheer mastery does this to me – but first I’d rather just surrender, step over that threshold, and let it return me to that liminal space it evokes, that experience of sensory eclipse.

Charted in a present tense aquiver with nowness, it’s a poem that wants to keep you in that state of dissolve, that hazy receptivity. Stanza through stanza as it tracks the movements of lovers drawing close in an intimate room, it guides the senses through concrete details that both cloud and illuminate, define and veil, observing the couple’s actions through sustained brushstrokes of metaphorical paint. It’s a poem that watches the act of love with an eye for its composition on the canvas, using the artist’s gaze to render the encounter in visual strokes and shapes, bringing bodies to slow light through questions of perspective, surface, angle, plane. As if conducting an ekphrastic exercise, analysing imagery already framed, it envisages the elements of this love scene in terms of its visual field, lining up the lovers in a studied play of light, curve, pose, dark, parallel, emphasis, depth. But if it employs the methodical and intricate tone of the artist approaching the canvas at the same time it applies the motif of paint to evoke the flooded senses of the lover lost in the work-at-hand’s erotic experience. Issues of surface, extension, colour, focus are at once used to underline the artist’s trained gaze and to wash the scene with a sensuous physical impression of the lovers’ work in progress. ‘I sink upon your image’ the speaker says – the borders of the canvas collapse. It pivots on a repeated play on ‘drawing,’ a practice which moves both brush and body – from a white line sketched around a figure, a head is drawn back, another tantalisingly down – using the term to figure both the tactile capture of the painted line and the gestural seduction of bodies, the pull and call of the lovers pacing and exploring each other in the shaded room. In that elided term, the hand that draws cannot sustain its ‘measured’ distance, it’s too coated in the palette of touch, too absorbed in lust for each line it envisages. Each brushstroke shivers on the painter’s own skin as it orders and colours objective space. It’s part of the mystery I love in Adcock’s language throughout the piece, that it can be at once controlled and lush, clinical and intoxicating – when I read it over I’m always searching for how it extracts such pulse from precision, such glistening intensity from poised restraint. Heat and chill, dark and gleam, it always keeps me blinking for how she keeps that threshold so skilfully blurred.

From an eye scrutinizing the shades and planes of love, the perspective slips to a place where the deeply implicated speaker can only ‘melt and burn’; I imagine that Adcock must have known the work of other women trying to depict female desire around this era: I always hear a tinge of Plath and Sexton in that phrasing. Perhaps there’s an echo of those poets present in the voice of this piece too, its commanding first-person, an ‘I’ intent on fixing and tracing the interaction with ‘you’ in a potent, honed, hypnotic tone. The slow processional sound of each line moves like brush or fingertip savouring the detail, like an entranced hand lingering on the contours of all it draws to light, tasting and positioning each syllable that ‘discovers’ the body with its palpable paint. It is unconventional glints of the lover that are touched upon too, the odd raw details an ordinary love-poem would read as flaws lifted into luminosity – flashes like ‘thin wrists, a tooth missing’ stand in contrast to the points of perfection a love ode would usually pick out, but the ‘tactile reality’ of this encounter sets them alight with ache and lustre. The final blur is ultimately the blur of fusion, of bodies merged and dissolved in such a close-up all sense of scale is lost from the visual field: ‘We have swallowed the light.’ The paint of the scene now spills into the speaker’s throat as she drinks in the lover: it’s a slyly rapturous depiction of orality which could have been a terrible paean to pleasure, but which Adcock’s lyric language manages to sculpt to a sultry and mutual release. Could any other poet pull off the miracle of birdsong ‘flying through the windows’ at climax? Sometimes I wonder if there’s a tint of darkness caught in the opal chains around the necks of those birds – but if there is, it is set against the tender domination of the voice, its soft imperative immediacy: ‘Now I dissolve you.’ It’s been said that a love poem always appeals as much to the reader as it does to the lover, using its language to pull and lure their senses too into a sweet-talking thrall. Consider me dissolved. ‘Composition for Words and Paint’ always has me at ‘This darkness…’

 

 

Bloodaxe Books page

Victoria University Press page

 

Tracey Slaughter‘s latest work is the poetry collection Conventional Weapons (VUP, 2019). She is the author of the acclaimed short story collection deleted scenes for lovers (VUP, 2016), and her work has received numerous awards, including the 2015 Landfall Essay Competition and the 2014 Bridport Prize. She works at the University of Waikato, where she edits the journal Mayhem.

Fleur Adcock, a New Zealand poet, editor and translator, resides in Britain. She has published numerous poetry collections, her most recent being The Land Ballot (2014) and Hoard (2017). This year Victoria University Press published her Collected Poems. She has won many book awards and has received notable honours including an OBE (1986), the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (2006) and a CNZM for services to literature (2008).

 

 

 

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Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Jack Ross launches Tracey Slaughter’s poetry collection

 

 

 

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Tracey Slaughter, Conventional Weapons, Victoria University Press, 2019

 

You can read Jack’s launch speech with bonus images here, but here’s a taste:

 

‘So while it is technically true that this is Tracey’s first stand-alone poetry collection, it’s very misleading to see her as any kind of newcomer to the game. She’s been publishing poetry for more than two decades now, and it’s high time that we started to see her, like Raymond Carver, as someone equally adept at poetry and the short story.

But what kind of a poet is she? Words like ‘bodily,’ ‘visceral’, ‘grimy and dirty’ have frequently been used to characterise her work, and particularly these poems. There is a lot of sex in them. There’s also lot of desperation, pain, and sheer horror of the void. As Hera Lindsay Bird remarked on the dust jacket of another recent VUP book, Therese Lloyd’s The Facts, ‘it won’t make you feel better.’

But all that implies a kind of shock value: a quest for extremity for its own sake. But you have to read deeper and better than that if you want to begin to understand some of the many things Tracey is trying to do in these poems.

As always, she’s extremely, wonderfully literary. Mike Mathers’ Stuff article about this book states that: “If the collection had an overarching theme, it would be one of giving voice to a group of strong female characters of different ages.”’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf Friday talk spot: Bernadette Hall on Mister Hamilton’s Library

 

Mister Hamilton’s Library

 

The cat is curled on the poet’s lap. It’s very happy there. It licks its paw and rubs its ear with it. Scrinches up its eyes. He’s talking poetry again, the poet. He’s testing some of the lines he’s written. Tasting them, listening to the music. ‘For many years I lived in Southland. / In fact I am from Southland. / Some people say my speech is slow. / I say it’s deliberate, just.’   ( from the poem, Plainsong’. )  ‘My lawn’s a rocket, / a multinational bearded lip bound by corsets. / It wrote the Bible and Mickey mouse / but being modest always blushes green.’    ( from the poem, ‘Sixties relic surveys his lawn’.) The cat’s name is on the cover of the book. It’s the title. Mister Hamilton. Yet there’s no reference to the cat inside the book. Nor is its name mentioned again within the pages.  People ask the poet, ‘Why is your book called “Mister Hamilton?”‘ And he replies ‘It’s the name of my cat. And I love my cat.’

When the poet dies, hundreds and hundreds of books are found in his house, in bookshelves, in cupboards, under the bed, in boxes in the garage. Dante is there and Yannis Ritsos, Francis Ponge, Pablo Neruda, Frank O’Hara. Along with R.A.K. Mason, Bill Manhire, Cilla McQueen and Peter Olds. His friends miss the sound of his voice. They remember ‘the ‘slow’ reflections  – ‘the kind that imply the presence of a companion, and a habit of conversation.’ (quote: Ian Wedde) The way he made poetry ‘ visible and desirable in his very being.’ (quote: Bernadette Hall. ) The cat remembers the comfort of the poet’s lap, the sound of his voice. The playfulness of all those pages turning. Finally the poet’s books are dispersed among those who will love them. Some, water-stained and mouldy, have had to be destroyed. The bulk of them, however, are out there, doing work that’s timeless and important, refreshing the way we talk to each other.

 

Bernadette Hall

 

Mister Hamilton by John Dickson (1944 – 2017). Published by Auckland University Press, 2016. All quotations are taken from this book.

Auckland University Press page

 

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Bernadette Hall is an award-winning writer who has published ten poetry collections and edited several poetry anthologies (including for Joanna Margaret Paul and Lorna Staveley Anker). Her latest book, Maukatere, Floating mountain, with artwork by Rachel O’Neill, was published by Seraph Press in 2016. In 2015 she was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry, and in 2017 she was invested as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature. She lives in Hurunui, Canterbury.

 

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Poetry Shelf interviews the 2019 Sarah Broom Prize finalists: Nina Mingya Powles

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Photo Credit: Sophie Davidson

 

 

If you were to map your poetry reading history, what books would act as key co-ordinates?

My poetry reading history – by which I mean paying attention to poetry and seeking it out on my own terms – begins with Anne Carson, whose long poem “The Glass Essay” was introduced to me by Anna Jackson in my final undergraduate year of uni. Her translations of Sappho in If Not, Winter and her shadowy, hybrid work Nox suddenly split open for me the limits of what poetry could mean. That’s when I began to feel at home in poetry, maybe because I’ve always been drawn to things that can’t be explained.

Very quickly in my literature degree I realised that the ‘Western literary canon’ we studied was the product of a violent colonial legacy. Instead I felt a pull towards the fringes of contemporary poetry, where I found poets doing extraordinary things with poetic form and linguistic boundaries, especially in The Time of the Giants by Anne Kennedy, The Same as Yes by Joan Fleming, and Lost And Gone Away by Lynn Jenner.

But it wasn’t until I discovered Cup by Alison Wong during my MA year that I recognised something of my own childhood and background in New Zealand poetry. Loop of Jade by Sarah Howe, published in 2016, was the first poetry book I ever read by someone half-Chinese like me. Ever since, I’ve been building my own poetry canon made up of works that negotiate displacement, loss, diaspora, living between cultures, and the ongoing damage caused by European colonisation. Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, Whereas by Layli Long Soldier, and Poukahangatus by Tayi Tibble are all books that I would like to carry around me at all times like talismans to keep me safe.

 

What do you want your poems to do?

I want a poems that are spells for curing homesickness, I want poems that are notebooks and witness accounts and dream diaries, I want poems that create a noticeable shift in the temperature of the air and transport you to your grandma’s kitchen.

 

 

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Which poem in your selection particularly falls into place. Why?

I knew that when I saw a kōwhai tree in full bloom in a garden in north London, close to where I was working at the time, I would need to write about it because it was the only thing I could do. It was spring and in spring I tend to feel really melodramatic about things. I don’t think the poem is melodramatic, though; I think it ended up somehow capturing what I was feeling, in fragments: both very far away and very close to home at exactly the same moment.

 

There is no blueprint for writing poems. What might act as a poem trigger for you? 

Recent poem triggers: silken tofu, being near the sea, tracking sunlight across my tiny garden in order to figure out where particular plants will grow, a house on fire by the side of the motorway, chocolate ice cream, dreams about whales, Chinese supermarkets, reading, reading.

 

If you were reviewing your entry poems, what three words would characterise their allure?

(This is too difficult and I wish I could ask someone else). Dreamlike, downpour, heatwave.

 

You are going to read together at the Auckland Writers Festival. If you could pick a dream team of poets to read – who would we see?

It would have to be a few American and British poets who I’ve discovered only since moving to London, because I want them and their work to travel as widely as possible. But I wouldn’t want to read alongside them because then I would be too nervous / too in awe / tearful to listen properly. Ocean Vuong – because sometimes at poetry readings he bursts into song. Also Tracy K. Smith, Raymond Antrobus, Bhanu Kapil, and Rachel Long.

 

Nina Mingya Powles is of Pākehā and Malaysian-Chinese heritage and was born in Wellington. She is the author of field notes on a downpour (2018), Luminescent (2017) and Girls of the Drift (2014). She is poetry editor of The Shanghai Literary Review and founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a new poetry press. Her prose debut, a food memoir, will be published by The Emma Press in 2019.

 

You can hear Nina read ‘Mid-Autumn Moon Festival 2016’ here

Poetry Shelf review: From Cold Hub Press – Owen Leeming, Ruth Hanover and Victoria Broome

 

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Owen Leeming, Through Your Eyes: Poems Early and Late Cold Hub Press, 2019

 

Owen Leeming has a fascinating bio on the back of his new poetry collection: he was a radio announcer, briefly studied musical composition in Paris, lived in London, published his poetry in various English magazines, became a UNESCO expert in Africa, settled in Provence, was the first writer to receive the Katherine Mansfield Menton fellowship (1972), joined Club Med in Spain where he met his future wife, worked as a translator for the OECD in Paris. He has remained based in France. His debut poetry collection, Venus is Setting, was published by Caxton Press in 1972.

This new collection is in debt to a trip back to New Zealand with his wife, Mireille but also assembles earlier poems from previous visits home. David Howard endorses the book, likening it to a vessel with two masts (the poems ‘Sirens’ and ‘Khalwat’) that set sail from Owen’s classic poem ‘The Priests of Serrabonne’. That poem was first published in Landfall in 1962.

Owen travels across four decades worth of fascinations, anchors and connections to place, people and ideas. The poems offer deft musical keys, lapping and lilting like little oceans, an undulation of consonants and vowels, assonance and rhyme. The sequence of physical returns form an elastic stretch between homes – France and Aotearoa. The poems often act as surrogate translations as though Own is translating his country of birth for Mirielle but also, and equally importantly, for himself transplanted at a distance.  As he says in the terrific opening poem, ‘Crossing the Tasman’: ‘A sea still flows and Morse / messages stutter from a place you still call home.’

In a book that offers a measured pace, an attentive ear and evocative images, the opening poem is my favourite poem:

 

Bracing yourself against your life, you gaze

across ten years’ chop and swell:

That water widens still from then to now,

from home to now—(but where is home?)—sprays

on bitter wind the rail, your knuckles, eyebrow

and eye, pouring between your past (…)

 

 

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Ruth Hanover, Other  Cold Hub Press, 2019

 

Ruth Hanover, with a degree in English and a background teaching ESOL to refugees in Cairo, Stockholm and New Zealand has published a collection born of this experience, along with the experience of travel and years in therapy.  Her poems have been published in London Grip, a fine line, takahē,  Poetry New Zealand and Manifesto Aotearoa: 101 Political Poems (Otago University Press). Her poem, ‘The Tent’ gained the Takahē Poetry Prize 2017 and a new work was longlisted in the Peter Porter Prize in 2019.

To be reading the collection in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks is to be acutely aware of certain issues. What do we mean when we say ‘we’ or ‘us’ or ‘them’, for example? To what degree should we voice the lives, pains, joys of others? Ruth’s book is dedicated to ‘the seekers of asylum and for those who reach towards them’. It is a timely arrival as we grapple with tragedy and how to reach out and indeed how to speak.

Ruth’s poems are not a matter of speaking on behalf of but a speaking towards, a speaking out of imagining, placing light on dislocations, violences, deprivations, catastrophes, inhumanity. They poems are written along a pared back line, with exquisite economy, as a sequence of voices, other voices – perhaps imagined and perhaps experienced – speaking from real situations.

 

I had gone in for oranges     early persimmon —

the lush fruit     the abundance. Behind me

‘but Europe — the réfugees   did-you-see?

 

‘They       were     everywhere

 

The reply. The tone. I turn     unstable

unable to bear the weight

 

of the oranges     drop them     drop

them in among the persimmon      feel —

complicit as if I had committed

 

some act. (…)

 

from ‘The oranges’

 

We move from Nauru to Syria to Paris to Stockholm. We move with refugees, with the displaced and, as I move as reader, I feel other. Moved yet motionless in my state of privilege.  I feel the helpless slap of what I can do in the face of intolerance.

Poetry can be the occasion of listening; Ruth offers subtle melodies in her finely crafted poems but she also offers other points of view.  Both melody and viewpoint employ gaps on the line, fragments, with punctuation adrift to underline the difficulty of  speaking of catastrophe. With an alluring blend of grace and sharpness, ease and discomfort, I can’t wait to see what else Ruth writes.

 

 

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Victoria Broome, How We Talk to Each Other, Cold Hub Press, 2019

 

 

We are quite separate in this big house. Nana is a

good cook but she doesn’t hug, it’s hard to know

what makes us such companions. I think there are

things we know about each other we don’t know.

A bit like the mysterious chemistry of placing

flour and butter and eggs and sugar into a bowl

and then an oven and then a plate and then a mouth.

 

from ‘Nana  in the Upstairs Bedroom’

 

Victoria Broome has published poems in literary journals and anthologies, was awarded the CNZ Louis Johnson Bursary (2005) and has twice been placed in the Kathleen Grattan Award (2010, 2015). How We Talk to Each Other is her debut collection.

The poems in How We Talk to Each Other arc over ten years, drawing upon familial experience, particularly memories of her parents, hooking the luminous detail that has endured. Poetry becomes a family imprint and like Ruth, Victoria pares back a scene until it shines. Big events are viewed on the fringes; how the young child witness feels, what she does, the glinting physical detail.

Victoria’s collection shows so beautifully the power of domestic poetry – poems that connect at the level of family – to slip under your skin and stay.

 

 

Sunnyside

 

Grandad went to the Mental Hospital

when we were in Wellington, he made us

sheep’s wool slippers, mine were royal blue

they came in a brown parcel in the post.

Then on a Sunday Mum got a phone call.

I heard her cry, ‘Oh no, oh no.’

At first she said, ‘He had a heart attack.’ The Dad said, ‘No,

he killed himself in the garage, he drank some poison.’

I aw the Irish Peach tree by itself at the back of the long yard.

Mum flew down and cleaned out the house. Nana came to stay.

I wore Mum’s rage, she chased me round and round the house

screaming while Nana stood with her hands up to her face.

Some nights I went riding on the train in the dark lit up by the yellow

light of the carriages, past the harbour to the city and then back again.

I stopped when Dad said I’d be made a ward of the state.

 

This book filled me with a warm glow – yes poetry can do anything and can affect us in so many vital ways, including the discomfort I felt reading Other – but on some occasions the deft translation of life, of everyday goings on, the view out the window, the family behaviours along with the losses, the absences, the deaths – produces poetry that is like a gold nugget. I need this. It restores me, it nourishes me, it reminds me that in poem empathy we witness humanity.

 

 

Owen Leeming  Cold Hub Press author page

Ruth Hanover  Cold Hub Press author page

Victoria Broome  Cold Hub Press author page