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
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
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’:
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