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Poetry Shelf fascinations: Tony Beyer’s Friday Prayers


the moon’s reflected path on water

leads only to the moon

from ‘Island time’ Friday Prayers Cold Hub Press, 2019



For some poets poetry is a form of contemplation – a bridge to the unreachable sublime, a way of achieving inner equilibrium, even stillness amidst the arrival of words – regardless of the boundaries you push, regardless of pressing issues or wayward circumstances. Writing and reading poetry can be rewardingly untethered – a way to activate cells, to follow trails with only the haziest of maps.

For some of us poetry is something as both readers and writers we cannot do without. For me poetry is my anchor, my flotation device, my equilibrium.

This year has produced a glorious crop of poetry published in Aotearoa, some of which has been reviewed elsewhere and some which has not. I have over 30 books on my shelf I am dead keen to share over summer.

I have picked out Tony Beyer’s Friday Prayers and the chapbook fills me with joy. Everything washes to the side and I am there with the words on the page, the trails and bridges that lead beyond the font and white paper to how we live our lives, how we absorb the world.

This is a human-rich view: there’s a ghost city under Christchurch, the possibility of wisdom, broken buildings, daily chores, the chives planted, sheets on the line, a poem wending its mysterious way into being.

This is a human-rich view: ‘Crusade’ replays a rugby game with breathless momentum until full time.  The final kick though is the polemical question for the pack of gladiators and supporters.  How far does our respect and empathy go when it comes to the currency of a word?


so is Sam Whitelock

taking it on the chin

a gladiator

the Crusaders

threatened with losing their name

did it proud


The collection’s title poem, ‘Friday prayers’, is a response to the Christchurch massacre – it opens its arms wide. Its explicit call to how we proceed underlines how little bad behaviours born out of indifference or ignorance count and are ‘not small’. The last page makes me weep.


I know I

and those I love

living and dead

have done these things

and it must cease

children in my classroom

eagerly anticipated

the before and after

feasts of Eid

and wrote stories about them

the blood on the mosque floor

is human blood

like that of Christ

or of countless

helpless bystanders

everything we love

songs prayers

our children’s faces

and their children’s

gone in a gunshot



Tony’s book moves in multiple directions, traversing everyday experience with both heart and insight while facing catastrophic events both politically and personally. The overall effect is one of sublime fluency. I read this book and I am tipped into a state of profound contemplation and I am glad of it. Thank you.


Cold Hub Press author page

Tony’s previous collection Anchor Stone was a finalist in the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards for Poetry (Cold Hub Press 2018). He lives in Taranaki.


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Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Jenny Bornholdt’s ‘Crossing’




Driving across town

she feels plain

and botanical.


At a crossing

there’s a man

with a cake, girl

with a tune.

Four young people

wheel a bed,

headed for a house

where a young woman

might read, love a man/some

men, might hold their bodies

close and welcome some parts

of those bodies

into hers.


Years later

she might see these men

in suits and on television and

many years later

might pass one, a house painter,

as she drives to buy

paint, for heaven’s sake.


Now, nearing sixty,

this woman loves her husband


When she turns the compost

and finds the flat wrinkled body

of a mouse,

she remembers the time

he rang her in Scotland

to say he’d seen one in the pile

and what should he do?


She shovels the remains

of the mouse with the rest

of the compost to beneath

the blossom, which bows

low and graceful over neglect,

which abounds, as it does,

wonderfully, in the garden of the

southern house they move to

for a time.


He’s up to his ears

in sadness, both of them aghast

at landscape. Being asthmatic

he is immediately attractive

to animals – at the lake

a fox terrier pup takes shelter

under his chest as he lies down

on a towel after a swim.

In the kitchen a mouse

bumps into his foot. Drama

in the house! Not for the first

time. These were rooms

of costume, scenery,

leading ladies and men

on the front terrace, leaning

on architect Ernst Plischke’s rail,

stone warm underfoot, snowed

mountains as backdrop

while the deep, broad river passed

below them, always

on its way.


Jenny Bornholdt, from Lost and Somewhere Else, Victoria University Press, 2019



Jenny Bornholdt is the author of many poetry collections, including The Rocky Shore (Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry winner, 2009) and Selected Poems (2016). She has edited several notable anthologies including Short Poems of New Zealand (2018).

Victoria University Press author page


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Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Janet Charman writes about Mary Stanley




Janet Charman has written ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?’, a scintillating essay on Mary Stanley for Women Studies Journal. She raises questions about Mary’s exclusion, particularly from Allen Curnow’s anthologies, and equally importantly opens the scope and complexity of Mary’s poetry. I am reminded of how much Mary’s poetry offers and how good it is have her placed within our sightlines.

This is must-read critical thinking – just as Mary Stanley’s Starveling Year is must read poetry. Interestingly I could not access the book cover easily on line as it is now out-of-print ( it was re-issued by AUP in 1994, the first edition appeared in 1953).

You can read the full essay here. This year marks a hundred years since Mary’s birth.


Two tasters from Janet’s essay:

Extract 1:

‘In August 1946, aged 27, Stanley married again. Her second husband was a fellow poet, Kendrick Smithyman. In ‘Put off Constricting Day’, another poem from Starveling Year, she celebrates sexual desire, but also reveals the ambivalence with which the husband of this piece responds to his passionate wife. It is transgressive material for a woman artist of any period – work every bit as ‘adult’ as Allen Curnow, writing of his high expectations of New Zealand artists, could have wished (Curnow 1945, p. 26; 1951, p. 25). On these grounds alone, Stanley should have been a shoo-in for inclusion in Curnow’s 1960 Penguin anthology. A number of Stanley’s poems had appeared in various local and overseas journals, and in 1946, three of her poems won the Jessie Mackay Memorial Poetry Award. This meant her publishing record and critical notice were equal at that time to fellow newcomers C. K. (‘Karl’) Stead and James K. Baxter, both of whom Curnow’s anthologies go out of their way to include and praise. She was also part of a thriving writerly milieu in Auckland, where she and her husband knew Curnow personally. Not surprisingly, a four-page sequence of Smithyman’s poetry was included in the second edition of Curnow’s Caxton anthology (1951), a representation Curnow then tripled to 12 pages in his 1960 Penguin volume. But Mary Stanley is conspicuous by her absence from all three of Curnow’s collections. What is more, Curnow snubs the publication of Starveling Year in his Penguin introduction with his concluding note that, ‘Nowhere in the last decade have there been any poetic departures worth mentioning’ (1960, p. 64).3 That can only have been salt in Mary Stanley’s wounds.


Extract 2:

Family is likewise at the heart of Stanley’s ‘The Wife Speaks’, a poem I read out at my own mother’s funeral. In this piece, clocks whose faces have ‘asking eyes’ mutely question how ‘The Wife’ who winds their hands now spends the time they tell (1994, p. 23). But despite her unfulfilled ambitions, she accepts that she must close her books, because hers is a setting in which even ‘Night puts/ an ear on silence where/ a child may cry’ (p. 23). To meet her children’s needs, the poet must be hyper-vigilant; her underlying desire for a change in her domestic circumstances is stifled by the horrors that she anticipates any such change could produce. Her longing to express her audacious creativity is self-rebuked by the image of Icarus fallen, ‘feathered/ for a bloody death’ (p. 23). The brutal eloquence of the poem thus subverts its ostensible theme of wifely self-abnegation.

I read another of Stanley’s poems at the funeral of my mother’s closest friend. ‘Householder’ (in Starveling Year) embraces the covert hedonism of a Kiwi summer and expresses delight in nature’s exuberant will to misrule. The pines planted around the house usually afflict it with an inveterate chilliness, but once immersed in lazy seasonal heat, the poet glories in a chill made subversively sensual. Stanley’s ability to capture a timeless cultural mood is evoked in other poems too. ‘Sonnet for Riri’ (also in Starveling Year) is an expression of full empathy for a stranger – an emigrant, a refugee. So painfully relevant to the post-war period, this poem could not be more current today.

The dangers that patriarchy and its unacknowledged phallocentric discourses continue to represent for woman-identified artists are epitomised by the critical marginalisation of Mary Stanley’s life and work. However, the acuity of her poems also suggests that it is now time to consider her not as a solo, sacrificial, and silenced victim, but as somebody whose (pro)creative sensibilities can be a touchstone for any artist determined to treat feminine-generativity as both inspirational and unhidden. What is more, to encounter and share Mary Stanley’s poetics on these alternative Matrixial terms employs a model that collegially recognises the writer herself as a she-Hero.








Poetry Shelf noticeboard: ‘This Joyous Chaotic Place: He Waiata Tangi-ā-Tahu, Celebrating the life and work of Heather McPherson’, Mokopopaki Gallery and Spiral, 2019



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This Joyous Chaotic Place: He Waiata Tangi-ā-Tahu, Celebrating the life and work of Heather McPherson, Mokopopaki Gallery and Spiral, 2019

This magnificent book & catalogue was launched at dawn today at Mokopōpaki Gallery on Karangahape Road in Tamaki Makaurau.

It contextualises Heather McPherson’s poetics in terms of her involvement with Spiral and The Women’s Gallery. It’s wonderfully illustrated. A meticulously referenced legacy document and a most luscious record of a period of cutting edge aesthetic ferment.

So much of the art and literature we enjoy today in Aotearoa~NZ is indebted to the groundbreaking innovators chronicled here.

Here’s a link to the gallery website.

Associate Director: Jacob Rāniera





Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Gregory O’Brien and John Pule in conversation

An exhibition of collaborative etchings by John Pule and Gregory O’Brien to celebrate the publication of Always Song in the Water



You are invited to an exhibition of collaborative etchings by John Pule and Gregory O’Brien to celebrate the publication of Always Song in the Water – An Oceanic Sketchbook, recently published by AUP.

John Pule and Gregory O’Brien will discuss the collaborative works they have made together over the past ten years, in Aotearoa and in numerous other locations around the Pacific. Many of these works feature in O’Brien’s Always Song in the Water.

Always Song in the Water ($45) is a book of encounters, sightings and unexpected epiphanies. It is a high-spirited, personal and inventive account of being alive at the outer extremities of Aotearoa New Zealand. ‘This is my field notebook, my voyaging logbook,’ Gregory O’Brien writes, ‘this is my Schubert played on a barrel organ, my whale survey, my songbook.’ It features works by John Pule, Robin White and Laurence Aberhart among others.

Tuesday 10 December
5.30 – 6.30pm
Conversation from 6pm

Gow Langsford Gallery
Corne of Kitchener St and Wellesley Street East, Auckland

Contact us for further details.

Poetry Shelf Classic Poem: Alison Glenny picks Rachel O’Neill’s ‘The Kafka Divers’





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Note from Alison:


The Kafka Divers comes from One Human in Height, the debut collection by poet, artist and film-maker Rachel O’Neill.  Published by Hue & Cry Press in 2013, the book contains a number of candidates for ‘classic poem’, including some that have been anthologised elswhere. I’ve chosen The Kafka Divers because I admire how much it fits into a small space, and because reading it always makes me smile.

The Kafka Divers is a prose poem – that deceptively simple form which is really a chameleon, with a sneaky ability to impersonate more apparently informational/straightforward kinds of prose. The poem’s style evokes taxonomy, a form of classificatory and descriptive writing associated with the natural sciences. It’s a genre with its own distinct language and way of looking at the world, which the author, who identifies as queer and non-binary, appropriates for her own purposes.

The poem invents a new thing – a plant called the Kafka Diver. At least it seems to be a plant, although it could be other things as well. A young person with a sense of isolation for instance, or even a poem that immerses its readers and draws them into its faintly ‘reptilian’ interior, an experience from which they will emerge after a period of time unscathed, if not unchanged.

I was curious about whether any particular model (field guide? botany lecture?) prompted The Kafka Divers, so I asked Rachel if she could comment on the poem’s origin. She replied that at the time she wrote it she was reading anthologies of nature, garden, and landscape writing published in the 1950s that she kept in her bathroom, and added:

‘In the anthology excerpts there is an exultation of the human longingly observing the non-human, yet the distinction between human and non-human collapses in the entanglement of gaze, mystery and desire, and in the tensions around whether order and/or chaos dictates attention and preference. I think The Kafka Divers taps into the whole mutual yet fragile (and potentially queer and erotic) performance of looking and being seen, bringing to the fore queer circuits of desire.’

In The Kafka Divers the potential for fascination to undermine the separation between observer and observed is figured as literal engulfment – the act of ‘diving in’.  But a sense of ambiguous or permeable boundaries is also conveyed by the description of the Kafka Diver as a kind of hairy plant/umbrella/reptile assemblage, with a human (and very queer) capacity to succumb to loneliness/isolation, learn patience, or startle strangers with its singular appearance.

A similar ambiguity surrounds the roles of host and visitor, hospitality and predation, the description of ‘diving in’, which makes it unclear who (or perhaps both) or these actors is the ‘Diver’, and the relating of their encounter, with its alternating shocks of disappearing and emergence, creepiness and delight, horror and comedy.

You could argue that the coexistence of these contrasting emotional possibilities, whose resolution is left to the attention and preference of the reader, is signalled by the plant/poem’s title. After all, ‘Kafkaesque’ is a term we use to evoke the kind of bizarre and disturbing world in which a man might conceivably wake to discover he is an insect – the human subject turned, by a mysterious act of identification, into an ‘object’. But if the name ‘Kafka’ evokes a somewhat nightmarish state in which humans can lose their humanity or be subjected to inexplicable persecution, ‘Diver’ has connotations of commitment, courage, strength and grace. As Rachel comments,

‘I . . . set about to queer observational details and centred everything in Aotearoa, while still recruiting Kafka – though in the poem I question what might be perceived as Kafkaesque/nightmarish, so what ‘nightmarish’ might look like from a queer perspective.’

Read queerly, The Kafka Divers turns what might have been a horror tale of abduction in the sub-alpine zone of Aotearoa into a fable about the quiet or even ‘secretive’ triumph of connection over loneliness, hairiness, and a sub-prime position.

For me, another pleasure provided by the form the poem uses to explore issues of seeing and being seen is its reminder that histories of queer identifications (like those of other minorities) are entangled with the classifying gaze of science – whether sexology, medicine, psychiatry, or biology – approaches that have characteristically viewed queerness as, at best, a puzzle to be explained (‘gay gene’ anyone?) and at its most damaging, an aberration to be condemned or ‘cured’. In this sense the poem’s queering of perspective includes the suggestion that viewing human sexuality through the same set of field glasses used to study other species has the potential not only to reinforce stigma, but to open an Aladdin’s cave of specialisations and oddness, whose diversity and utopic potential remind me of Bruce Bagemihl’s concept of ‘biological exuberance’:

‘an affirmation of life’s vitality and infinite possibilities. . . at once primordial and furturistic; in which gender is kaleidoscopic, sexualities are multiple, and the categories of male and female are fluid . . A world, in short, exactly like the one we inhabit.’



Bagemihl, Bruce: Biological Exuberance: animal homosexuality and natural diversity (1999) Profile Books, p 262.

O’Neill, Rachel: email



Alison Glenny’s Antarctic-themed collection of prose poems and fragments, The Farewell Tourist, was published by Otago University Press in 2018.

Rachel O’Neill (pronouns: she / her / hers / they / them / theirs) is a Pākehā Non-binary queer filmmaker, writer and artist who was raised in the Waikato and is now based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Aotearoa. Their debut book, One Human in Height (Hue & Cry Press) was published in 2013.


Hue & Cry Press author page


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