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Poetry Shelf connections: Ruby Solly premiers a video for her new album Pōneke and a wānanga with essa may ranapiri

 

Today we have a poetry and music video premier from Ruby Solly with film created by Sebastian Lowe and Viktor Baskin, as well as a wānanga around toi kupu, music, and writing into place between Ruby Solly and essa may ranapiri.

 

The video can be watched here:

 

 

 

Pōneke can be streamed and purchased here

 

essa may ranapiri Kia ora Ruby

I’ve been reading your poetry forever (since before I even knew you) and have been so privileged to hear you play and sing in public, and these songs on Pōneke are just giving me so much life recently! Just stilling those anxious jitters I’ve been struck with after the end of lockdown. It feels so of the outside as well. To me the songs create this river where you dip in and out of such a strength of emotion, I go from chilling and vibing to crying and humming along; face wet! It feels like something I’ve been needing for a long time. And there also poems that go with each one!

Before I ask you anything about the album could you talk a bit about how you got to where you are, your whakapapa and journey here to this time/place?

 

Ruby Solly Kia ora Essa!

Kā mihi nui for opening this wānanga space. I was a reader of yours before we met too! I love how we get to be woven together in this way, it’s very special to me. I really like the idea of these pieces forming a river as when I was recording them, I looked at a lot of old river routes from pre-colonial times. I like to think of the water under the concrete and how it can be heard in these pieces. After I finished the album I was actually gifted some of the original river stones from the Te Puni Stream which runs under my street, which joins up to the Waimapihi which features on the album. Was a perfect taonga to be given to mark being able to bring those songs and sounds out into the world again.

I whakapapa to Kai Tahu and Waitaha on my taha Māori, but I also have Jewish, Irish, Scottish and English whakapapa within me. I whakapapa back to Waihao as my tino marae in Te Wai Pounamu, from the Rōpa whānau. I was really lucky to grow up on the foot of Mount Ruapehu where I learnt koauau from my primary school teacher, Maria Kuppa, which was my first time meeting ngā taonga puoro. I started playing cello when I was about seven when we lived in Taupo, which also features on the album.  I started playing taonga puoro again at university under the korowai aroha of mentors such as Al Fraser, Ariana Tikao, and Rob Thorne. I’ve lived in Pōneke for seven years and over that time have been lucky to receive teachings on our whakapapa here from Kai Tahu kaumātua, as well as learn from locals and historical records about this place and how my histories are placed within it.

 

essa Sounds like the album is such a culmination of things for you, everything is of course, but it’s cool to pay attention to the whakapapa of our mahi so thank you for sharing that e hoa.

So the songs are lyricless but you wrote these little pieces of toikupu to go with the waiata (which i love!) it really gives context to the music but they work so well as pieces of music themselves. They are full of stories from around the region, what was something (or some things) you learnt that really stuck out to you and why?

 

Ruby Completely, I think with me when I get an idea it’s not necessarily a poetry idea or a music idea or an art idea; it’s just an idea in and of its self and I get to grow it into whatever direction I choose depending on how I treat it and feed it.

I did! It was hilarious because I wrote these very dry factual explanations of each track and then showed one of my cousins who pointed out how academic and dry they were. I’d just finished my masters so I was in this very academic Pākehā writing frame of mind and it reminded me to break out of that. I thought about how so much of our histories have been given to us and passed down through toikupu and song, and that maybe this work is adding to that tradition. I wrote all the poems in one big day during lockdown, but I had all the info in my head from the descriptions I’d written previously which took a lot longer. That’s often how I work as a writer anyway with a research and thinking phase taking up a lot of time and the actual writing just coming in at the end, I call it the internal blackboard a lot to explain it. The original descriptions can still be seen on the bandcamp page though in case that style suits people better.

I think the things that stuck with me the most were the places that I could whakapapa too, which says a lot about representation within arts and the importance of it. Pieces like the two Karaka poems / songs, and the ones with tohu from ōku mātua tūpuna like Koukou are so special to me. Something I love about taonga puoro is the presences that show up for you when you play, and learning to not only read those tohu but play with them.

I thought about you for this wānanga because one, I love your work, and two, because I’ve heard you read some hōhonu, beautiful pieces about place and your connection or disconnection with it. I love the way you unpack these things like taking things out of a messily packed suitcase, then show us everything inside then pack it neatly so we can see the whakapapa behind these feelings. It really inspires me as a writer and an artist. For you personally, how does writing about place affect you as a Māori writer?

 

essa I just want to speak to something you were saying at the top there before answering your question. It’s so true that the lines between forms are colonial constructions and it makes so much sense for me for this art to take on many forms, I often have paintings and poems and songs that speak to similar things like a little family work. I don’t know I just think that smooshing of form is really cool!

Writing about place is everything really, it hurts a lot, it challenges me, it makes me feel everything I lack, but also it’s everything we are and will be and have been. Because it’s all about place right? The whole state of things is due to where we are placed, where we are displaced. I wrote a poem about my marae, a place I have only passed on the highway or “visited” via the google maps and the work really does summon something, like just putting words into the world establishes some tenuous connection point. Like a little gift from my ancestors. But also I do worry I fetishize that disconnect sometimes, make my life about the things I don’t have rather the opportunities and connections that I can make. It’s also funny as well because growing up I feel like a lot of things teach you that place doesn’t matter like all the names of the streets are some dead colonizers from Britain and the shows on TV are American, none of us present on the box. It has really been a learning experience for me over the last ten or so years finding place or even coming to see it.

And that is another thing about Pōneke that I really love is how it seems to cuts through that noise – that hypermarketed, hyper commercialised, there is always an ad waiting noise, especially with the melodies that keep returning and returning (we see that spiral again) and the all that incidental sound of place itself. And also it’s so layered, taonga puoro, instruments, found sounds, voice, and bird’s song. Would you be able to talk a little bit about the recording process?

 

Ruby Yes! The idea of art, or just expression in general being placed into different categories is really colonial when you boil it down. Being able to communicate across mediums and languages is a strength we have inherited from our ancestors that we continue to build upon.

I feel that sense of being challenged. Place is so… present in te ao Māori, we’re asked where we’re from before we’re asked who we are which is both a beautiful thing, and a very complicated thing for those of us who have not been privileged to have that relationship with turangawaewae cultivated in the physical sense. Writing into a place is a very Māori way of creating I think, and yes, it hurts to do it and to move through it. But it definitely gave me a deeper sense of understanding and helped me work through the kind of fetishizing that can happen with any diaspora. I’ve heard it referred to as “competitive pain” within our Jewish diaspora, and I really wanted to be able to choose how I presented that pain and how I wove it with all the other emotions that come with it, the full spectrum of it.

Thank you! When I create complete works like a book, or album, or a large piece without a major prompt I like to try and have it so even if no one was ever to see it but me (and my descendants possibly); we would still grow and learn from it. Then I decide whether I want that to be shared wider. I think in many ways that can cut out the subconscious desire to make something to fit the norm or to serve others, which in many ways serves people who don’t always have their needs met in media usually.

For the recording process I recorded taonga puoro within the different environments, responding to them in real time. Then I layered up cello at home afterwards to support the taonga puoro. Some tracks have some extra layers of sounds from the places when I wanted to really tune in to particular sounds like the gulls on Matiu-Somes island for example (they were also dive bombing me so I had to have a few goes). The whole thing was actually recorded on an iPhone four which I haven’t told anyone until now because I was super whakamā about it! But I learnt a lot about recording and took principles from how jazz bands recorded around one singular microphone in the 1920s with things being placed different distances from the mic. The mixing really added to the sound too which was done by Al Fraser.

 

essa I have listened to a lot of pro stuff recorded on phones there is a lot of life in those kinds of set ups I think! There is even a strange ideology I think behind those pristine soundproofed spaces set aside for recording, it benefits the subject matter so much for the recordings to done in the spaces they’re responding to!  The mix is awesome, brings it all together so well, Al did a great job!

Some final questions, what would you want people to take from this record if just one thing?

Also you have a book of poetry coming out next year do you feel there is an overlap between that work and this?

 

Ruby Completely! It’s given so many people so many more options! I think as well it can be used as a tool to remove the ’sacred room’ element of recording where we try to eliminate all noise in a studio, and through that it can bring the environment back into the music as a contributor. I think acknowledging the space you’re in and all that brings is a big part of te ao Māori and it feels really good to be able to look at recording in that way as a method of decolonizing the recording process. Al is awesome! We both had finishing off the album and all its components as a sort of lockdown project, and it was so good to have someone who really understood the work and how I’ve developed as a player and a person through it.

I think if I could pick one thing for people to take away… it would be an increased ability to listen to and feel histories in places, with more of a sense of presence. To show people that idea that the repercussions of the past are still here, and we kind of get to look back at them in a way where we see the good and the bad all mixing together, and we get to decide where we go with that information. I’ve had lots of conversations with friends and whānau recently about matakite and te ao wairua, and I think my path into that world is being able to hear places and their histories. It’s deep work to be able to share that and I feel grateful to be walking on that path.

I do! I think for me there again is that creative process where there is a seed of an idea or an experience, and I get to choose what I feed it with and how I grow it. With the book, I started writing it long before I realised. So many of my pieces were about growing up on mount Ruapehu and Turangi, or my family histories and relationships, and then I just saw this thread with my connections to Kai Tahu and all these other people and places through my Dad and that was what was growing as the book. I’m excited for people to read the book because it does that same thing I think, it acknowledges that there is the good and the bad and all of it is our history and has lead to us. There’s a real narrative of me starting to see and hear that through my childhood and figuring out how I choose to live with it. I’m super fascinated too with the parts of our culture we don’t always acknowledge. Things like how we raise children, or the things we value, or the way we structure our speech. I think those things are often the parts that colonisation struggled to remove, and through them that’s often how we find and reclaim our ways of being and so much of our matauranga. Dad used to get me to swim down this river every summer, while everyone else had boats and life jackets, because he wanted me to be a strong swimmer because it was a survival skill for us and our environment. Little pieces like that are often misunderstood, but can be great gifts. I’ve saved myself from drowning many times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf poets on own Johanna Emeney reads and discusses ‘Night Nurses’

Each week Poetry Shelf invites a poet to read and discuss a poem of their own that has mattered to them.

 

 

 

Johanna Emeney reads ‘Night Nurses’ from Family History Mākaro Press 2017

 

 

Johanna Emeney’s two collections of poetry are Apple & Tree (Cape Catley, 2011) and Family History (Mākaro Press, 2017). Her nonfiction work focuses on medicine and poetry: The Rise of Autobiographical Medical Poetry and The Medical Humanities (Ibidem, 2018) “Disability in Contemporary Poetry” in Routledge’s Companion to Literature and Disability (2020). She was 2020’s editor of Poetry New Zealand, and judge of the Open section of the New Zealand Poetry Society’s annual competition. Jo has a background in English Literature, Japanese and Education—subjects which she read at Pembroke College, Cambridge. She is a senior tutor at Massey University, Auckland.

 

 

 

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 Monday poem: Airini Beautrais’s ‘Last days’

 

 

Last days

 

In the last days of the supermarket

I walked through the fresh section,

wet-stained bins where there used to be fruit.

 

In the bakery my son said ‘Can we have meringues?’

They looked dubious but I said OK.

The coffee was long gone, the only tea was herbal.

 

I had better leaves at home.

‘Can we have Fanta?’ the kids asked,

‘Yeah ok,’ I replied, no use worrying about teeth.

 

There weren’t many shoppers, and no one re-stacked shelves.

In the frozen aisle all I could hear

was the low growl of the freezer motors

 

and my son saying ‘Ice cream!’

Whaddya know, they still had his favourite.

We could eat it before it melted.

 

No such luck in the wine and beer.

I knew I had a bit of whiskey in the cupboard.

‘Can I have a Turkish?’ my son said

 

in the confectionery section, ‘Yeah, you can

have a Turkish,’ I said, and his eyes lit up.

It was still so good to see that.

 

When the internet went down there was half an hour

of screaming, and I said maybe we’ll try again later,

although I knew that was bullshit. Then the phone

 

network dissolved and we lost touch

with the grandparents.

When the power blackout came I said let’s pretend

 

we’re camping and we got out the gas stove

and made a fort out of blankets.

I made them each a milo.

 

No bath so we went straight to bed

and read Harry Potter seven with a candle

up to where Harry sees the silver doe in the forest.

 

Every time they said one more chapter I said OK.

When the candle burnt out I said snuggle up.

One head on each of my shoulders.

 

‘Tomorrow can we go to the pond?’ asked the eldest.

‘Sure,’ I said. I’d told him fantastical things

in the past, like that there really are fairies

 

inside trees, that willow is a magic wood,

and that crystals can calm us.

The sky seemed thicker than I’d ever seen it,

 

and I didn’t like the noise, or lack of noise maybe,

that hovered behind the car alarms and occasional dog.

I knew the streets were lined with rubbish,

 

I heard the wind breathing in the last leaves.

‘Sleepytime,’ I said, and the boys slowly went quiet.

I missed the cats, the way their feet would press into my back

 

as I lay in bed. My arms were going dead

from the weight of my children’s minds.

I lay there and breathed.

 

Airini Beautrais

 

 

 

Airini Beautrais is a writer and teacher based in Whanganui. She writes poetry, short fiction, essays and criticism. Her work has appeared in a range of journals and anthologies in NZ and elsewhere. Her first book Secret Heart was named Best First Book of Poetry in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2007; it was followed by Western Line (2001), Dear Neil Roberts (2013) and Flow: Whanganui River Poems (2017).

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf – poets on their own poems: Karlo Mila reads ‘For Tamir Rice with Love from Aotearoa’

 

 

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Karlo Mila reads and responds to her poem: ‘For Tamir Rice with Love from Aotearoa’

 

 

Dr Karlo Mila (Tongan / Pākehā) is an award-winning poet, mother, writer, activist and researcher. She is the Programme Director of the Mana Moana Experience at Leadership New Zealand. The kaupapa of this programme is to vitalise and prioritise Pasifika ancestral knowledge in contemporary contexts. Karlo lives in Tāmaki Makaurau with her three sons. Her third poetry book, “Goddess Muscle” will be launched this year by Huia Publishers.

 

 

Poetry Shelf update

 

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Today I am launching a new feature on Poetry Shelf that will usually appear on Wednesdays. I have invited Aotearoa poets to read and talk about a poem of their own that matters to them. First up is a breathtaking and utterly necessary poem by Karlo Mila.

Monday features Monday poems – previously unpublished and by invitation from me. I wouldn’t be able to keep the blog going if I opened up to unsolicited material.

Tuesday I post reviews, poems, interviews linked to new Aotearoa poetry books (by me).

Wednesday poets on their own poems (audio or video)

Thursday I post reviews, poems, audios of poems from new books, interviews linked to new Aotearoa poetry books (by me or others).

Friday pieces on poetry, reviews of international poetry books, poetry podcasts by me and others, themed festivals, poetry questions among other things.

Poetry noticeboard daily.

 

You are welcome to propose reviews of local and international books, interviews with local poets, poetry podcasts, written pieces on poetry.  I can give you a slot on my schedule.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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