Poetry Shelf review: Nina Powles’s MAGNOLIA 木蘭

Nina Powles, MAGNOLIA 木蘭, Seraph Press, 2020

鸣 (míng), the cry of animals and insects, rhymes with tooth, which rhymes with precipice, which rhymes with the first part of my Chinese name.

I am full of nouns and verbs; I don’t know how to live any other way. I am a tooth-like thing. I am half sun half moon, and the scissors used to cut away the steamed lotus leaves. I am honey strokes spreading over the tiles.

Certain languages contain more kinds of rain than others, and I have eaten them all.

from ‘Fieldnotes on a downpour’

I have been a fan of Nina Mingya Powles’s poetry since her chapbook Girls of the Drift (2014) through to her glorious poetry boxset Luminescent (2017). The poems are probing, lyrical, self-inquisitive, with women placed centre stage. Her new collection Magnolia 木蘭was also published in the UK (Nine Arches Press) and was shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. In 2018 she was one of three winners of the inaugural Poetry Prize, and won the Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing the following year.

Currently living in London, Nina is a poet, zine-maker and nonfiction writer of Malaysian-Chinese and Pākehā descent. I have long been fascinated with the idea that poetry is way of writing home, whether home is physical, on the move, a state of mind, ancestral connections, familial relations, an anchor, an epiphany. And if poetry is a way of writing home it is also a way of writing to / for / with / by / underneath / inside / from (home). Magnolia is an organic version of this as it shifts languages on the tongue, layers sensual detail, raises identity questions, and moves from London to Shanghai to Aotearoa. Smells and tastes of elsewhere bring elsewhere closer to the point the paper is imbued with scent and living matter, and your reading taste buds pop.

there are only dream mountains high above the cloudline

I come from a place full of mountains and volcanoes

I often say when people ask about home

from ‘Night train to Anyang’

Senses are on alert as you read a Nina Powles poem, and I love the physical sensation as you read:

After Mulan saves China / fireworks rain down in waves of multi-coloured

stars

from ‘Girl warrior, or: watching Mulan (1998) / in Englsih with subtitles

Food is an exquisite presence, often connecting you to place, a particular memory or event, love, home. But sometimes Nina lingers on food for the sheer pleasure of food itself: it’s tofu for the love and sake of tofu, lotus leaves and sticky rice ‘sucked clean’. I have felt a similar addictive tastebud reaction reading the poetry of Ian Wedde, particularly The Commonplace Odes.

for the morning after a downpour

Layers of silken tofu float in the shape of a lotus slowly

opening under swirls of soy sauce. Each mouthful of dòufu

huā, literally tofu flower, slips down in one swallow. The

texture reminds me of last night’s rain: how it came down

fast and washed the city clean.

from ‘Breakfast in Shanghai’

Colour is equally vital, sometimes the hue of the land is evoked but, at other times, the tone of a particular painting is foregrounded. It makes a difference that I have stood in the Tate Gallery in London and felt the astonishing hum of Rothko’s colour palate, and have imbibed the colour in Agnes Martin’s equally heavenly paintings. I am curious that Nina’s poems, so active with colour, affect me as much as the artworks. It is as though the poem and the artwork are placed on my wrist like perfume and I feel the colour-pulse streaming through. Really the whole experience is both words and greater than words. Really it is as though a poem has the ability to hum inside us. Like colour.  

#fee10c | saffron: pigment in medieval manuscripts

If I could step inside any Rothko painting it would be Saffron

(1957), which is different from his other yellows because of the thin

bright line that divides the colour fields, not colour shapes or colour

squares or colour blocks, none of which are wide enough to contain

the light. A line dividing two yellow atmospheres glows along the

edges, an electric current. If you stare long enough it seems to get

bigger, slowly opening at one end until it forms a bright gap that

you could just fit through by putting each one of your limbs inside,

one by one, until you are swallowed by light and your skin is the

colour of sunflower petals right before they die and you are either

floating or drowning or both at the same time.

from ‘Colour fragments’

Reading Nina’s collection, I keep fine-tuning what a poem can do. One moment it is the origami bud unfolding in my palm to expose surprising petals of feeling. The next moment she retraces her steps though a city she once lived in; walking and writing through the city and subsequently the miniature poem version. We choose how we move through the poem as miniature city, me on tiptoe, slowly, slowly. This experience is deeply affecting in ‘Falling city’, where the poet lived when young, where she is falling in love, where things have changed and things have remained constant. Nina is seeing and imagining and writing Shanghai by walking; and by reading Shanghai writer Eileen Chang / Zhāng Àilíng, by reading Robin Hyde, by reading maps (‘each person has their own secret map’), visiting ramen bars, musing on ‘New Woman’.

18. What was Chang herself like? I don’t know, but I think she

understood this moment when the dream and the real begin to blur.

She understood how the sky in Shanghai contains many different

colours at once: “At the horizon the morning colours were a layer of

green, a layer of yellow, and a layer of red like a watermelon cut open.”

19. When reading her stories in translation it’s like trying to see

her from a great distance. Or through a thick pane of glass. I am

standing outside, peering into rooms where her ghost has been.

20. As autumn deepened I expected to see your face on the street

or in the subway station. After you left I thought I might feel sad

that this possibility could no longer exist. Instead after a while the

outlines of trees looked sharper, like a fog had lifted.

from ‘Falling city’

The shortish middle sequence, ‘Field notes on a downpour’, is a favourite. There is a hunger for words that fit, for Mandarin fluency, for her mother whose name means rain and language, together meaning ‘cloud tints’. In its intimacy, small details, flâneur pace, mother closeness, disappearances, its repeating motifs, particularly clouds and rain, its naming and its confessions, its love yearnings, this sequence is succulent poetry. And I keep musing on why I am so attracted to the making of poetry, whether writing it reading it, and that it maybe comes down to poems that move into and from the heart of the matter. I don’t mean it has to be full of feeling. I don’t mean it has to fit the facts or perceived realities. I mean it navigates poetic truths: that on certain occasions, in certain places, for a particular person, radiating multiple lights and nuances, this is how it is. In this crumpled and self-challenging world – poetry flicks on the human switch. I am musing this because Nina’s incandescent poetry navigates a bundle of vital questions on who and how and where she is. On what being a particular human in a particular place means to her. On when being asked where you come from digs deep. On needing to eat words. On feeling the rain in all its colours. On being in love.

In order to make learning Mandarin easier, I started to see the

characters as objects I could collect and keep close to me.

魔 (mó), spoken like a murmur, an evil spirit or demon.

One night you said my name in the dark and it came out like a ghost

鬼 from between two trees 林. A ghost that rhymes with a path

between rice fields which rhymes with a piece of steamed bread which

rhymes with paralysis of one side of the body which rhymes with thin

blood vessels.

In June the cicadas were so loud we thought the trees would swallow

us whole.

from ‘Field notes on a downpour’

I turn to the blurb on the back of the book and see so many of the words that have guided my reading: hunger, longing, home, mixed-race, languages, women, colour, rain. Magnolia 木蘭 is origami poetry – it will unfold in your body as you read. It is miniature-city poetry that will reinstate multiple existences of home. It is rain poetry that will fall as gleaming light and stomach nourishment and tattoo your skin. It is love poetry and disappearance poetry. It is heart poetry and human poetry that, in this extraordinary year, will get you contemplating your own downpours and magnolias, and in those musings discover poetry solace. Oh, and it has my favourite cover of the year: an image by Kerry Ann Lee (Allora, 2017), and it is lovingly produced by Helen Rickerby and Seraph Press. Glorious!

I want to know the names of the trees in all other languages too so

that I find out what they taste like to other people. But my mouth

can only hold so much.

from ‘Magnolia, jade orchard, she-wolf’

Nina Mingya Powles is a poet, zinemaker and non-fiction writer of Malaysian-Chinese and Pākehā heritage, currently living in London. She is the author of a food memoir, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai (The Emma Press, 2020), poetry box-set Luminescent (Seraph Press, 2017), and several poetry chapbooks and zines, including Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press, 2014). In 2018 she was one of three winners of the inaugural Women Poets’ Prize, and in 2019 won the Nan Shepherd Prize for Nature Writing. Magnolia 木蘭 was shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Nina has an MA in creative writing from Victoria University of Wellington and won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. She is the founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a risograph press that publishes limited-edition poetry pamphlets by Asian writers. Her collection of essays, Small Bodies of Water, is forthcoming from Canongate Books in 2021. 

Seraph Press page

Poetry Book Society review

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: A Phantom Billstickers competition for unpublished poets

***Calling all UNPUBLISHED POETS***

For the first time ever, we are running a Phantom Poetry Open Mic contest!One winner will see their poem published in a campaign across the Phantom network.We want to give a voice to the unheard. An audience awaits your creativity.

*Must be a previously unpublished poet living in NZ.

*Submit as many poems as you like until January 15, 2021.

*Use this link to enter

*Share with your poet friends*

Poetry Shelf radio review of the year: Chris Tse reviews Bill Manhire’s Wow @ninetonoon

My favourite 2020 poetry review on the radio:

Chris Tse discusses Bill Manhire’s Wow with Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon. I loved how Chris said reading the collection reminded him of strolling through the emptied city in lockdown. Yes! Strolling through Bill’s poetry – everything sharpens, the birds are returning, it affects you on so many levels, the invisible is present, fleetingly, lyrically.

This is just wonderful! Listen here.

Poetry Shelf’s speaking room: Secondary school student Cadence Chung responds to NZQA with a poem

This poem is in response to NZQA using a poem by white supremacist and murderer Lionel Terry in a Level 2 History exam. Terry’s poem was part of a source which included testimonials from people who had received treatment at Seacliff asylum, which I feel disregarded his actions as ‘madness’, and extended sympathy to him. I also feel that the source didn’t properly contextualise Terry as a person, which downplayed the seriousness of his actions and views. Many other members of the Chinese New Zealander community also feel the same, and have lodged complaints against NZQA.

Shadows / shades

White: the colour of truth

the colour of enlightenment

the colour of the religion Lionel Terry

thought that he had found

in guns and Chows and murder.

The colour of purity

the colour of the purest skin

the colour of Terry’s hair

stripped bare with age

the colour of his chasteness

painted in portraits with white light

shining behind him, like a painting

of a god.

The truth: on September 24th, 1905

Lionel Terry shot Chinese man

Joe Kum Yung on Haining Street;

a cold, unremarkable Wellington night

(a Chinaman bleeding to death)

a man walking down the street

(a killer escaping his crime).

White, the colour of the starched

computer room, white screens

flickering with exam codes, white

clock on the ticking wall, time

sliding like a body to the ground.

White pages, neatly printed

with a poem by Lionel

Terry.

He pleads on the page

from Seacliff Asylum

for his case to be considered

that he is not insane

that murder is not always insanity.

The exam question asks me

for two different perspectives

on asylums.

I ask myself why I should have to

write about a murderer’s

perspective

a white supremacist’s

perspective

why I should have to slip myself

into such rotting, fetid

shoes.

All the exam says about him

is he was ‘known for his views on immigration

and racial segregation’.

Across the room, I catch eyes

with my friend

she gives me a loaded look

the whites of her eyes

wide

the edges of her white teeth

flickering on a grimace.

Red: thought to be the colour of blood

but that’s a little cliche

it’s more the colour of heat

the colour flickering behind

calculating eyes

searching for a Chinaman

the colour of fingers

closing in on a trigger

blood vessels beamed together.

Red, the colour of the pen

that grades work

the colour of a failed paper

the colour that means stop

or fail

or end.

The lucky colour in China

the colour of red envelopes

and paper lanterns

and prosperity and joy

and good things.

The colour of the borders

on the NZQA website

each letter rimmed in crimson.

I find the full poem online

the frothing frenzy of

Crowds of Russian Jews and Chows

that invade your peaceful land

and spread a few diseases of

an extra special brand.

I find it strange that this part

had been cropped out of the exam

and by strange, I mean

all too predictable

and by all too predictable

I mean so, so tiring.

Black: The colour of yesterday’s blood

the colour Joe Kum Yung

would have left on the streets

for lonely citizens to clean up

the colour of the ink on the page

the colour of a shadow: Terry’s

manifesto was called The Shadow

about the dark and lecherous men

with black hair and eyes

taking over the country

ruining it

burning it

shouldn’t be allowed in

(should be killed).

The colour of the scribble

my friend made under Terry’s poem

I HATE U in bold teenage chicken-scratch

the dark stains of the numbers

on the clock

ticking away

the bloated body of the fly

beating against the window.

My father’s hair is black

his eyes are black

mine are too

our mouths rounded in

the Kiwi accent

yet people still ask us

where we’re from.

He scrolls through Terry’s Wikipedia page

face screwed up

a contortion of black lines.

He was a real piece of shit,

this Lionel guy, he says. What were they

thinking, putting him in the exam?

His thick fingers pause on the photos

the charming headshot

or the one of him playing cricket

or the portrait where he’s bearded

and anointed, imposing

on my father’s eyes, and I think,

here’s another Chinese man

who has the taste of Lionel Terry

in his mouth

and here I am, another Chinese person

with my name now linked

to his.

Yellow, the yellow peril, yellow fever

yellow on the outside

white on the inside

yellow, the colour of piss

the smell of the streets

yellow, the supposed colour

of cowardice

the colour Joe Kum Yung

was killed for

the colour I am trying to bear

with pride.

The colour of the sun

shining when I left the exam room

the colour of something

on the horizon

the colour of the sunset

the promise of a new day’s kiss

a hope that something better

will come

from all of these shadows and shades

of bruises

Cadence Chung

Cadence Chung is a student at Wellington High School, who is tentatively trying to be a poet. She first started writing poetry during a particularly boring Maths lesson when she was nine. Outside of poetry, she enjoys singing, songwriting, reading old books, and perusing antique stores.

Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Sophia Wilson’s ‘Foreign’

Foreign

We have given ourselves to the westerly —

endured ferocious welcome: swoop, pound, shriek.

There are other inhabitants: thorny and bawdy, 

clutch-clambering boundary lines, colonising dreamscapes:

gorse, thistle, ragwort, broom — invasive as their forebears.

The bulk of mountain in whose lap we land —

magnificent, fresh rebellion, is both protector and destroyer;

the one on whom we depend for passage of rain-bellied clouds —

for we have settled in its rain shadow.

In summer we draw water painstakingly from

a small vein — scarce, essential source,

undergo marathons — days bent,

sweat-sewn, hack and pull, rip and carve

corridors through thorn’s terrain

to impregnate, in gorse’s womb, a softer future:

kōwhai, kānuka, shining karamū.

The toll — toil-weathered spine, skin, skeins,

old age peering through our cobwebbed pane.

Sophia Wilson

Sophia Wilson has writing recently published, or forthcoming in Love in the Time of COVID (A chronicle of a pandemic), NZ Poetry Society Anthology, Blackmail Press, Flash Frontier, Landfall, Australian Poetry Anthology, Mayhem, Intima, Poetry New Zealand, Not Very Quiet and elsewhere. She is based in Woodside, Otago.

The poem is from the sequence ‘Attempting to Land’, runner up in the 2020 Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poetry. Judge Siobhan Harvey’s words re the sequence: ‘Stunning. A beautifully crafted ode to migration.’

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Anna Jackson reviews Bill Manhire’s Wow at ANZL

This is my equal favourite review of the year (along with Selina Tusitala Marsh’s review of Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book – also at ANZL site).

Here is a taster of Anna Jackson’s review of Wow (VUP:

This is a collection full of birds and full of song. It opens with a ballad telling the story of the huia – ‘I was the first of birds to sing / I sang to signal rain / the one I loved was singing / and singing once again’ – and the last section of the collection ends with a poem almost in prose, ‘After Surgery,’ in which ‘A small bird flies out of the body, out of a blink perhaps, / maybe out of the lungs.’ This poem is followed by the final poem in the collection, ‘Little Prayers (15 March 2019)’, which is both a lament and a hymn, and a kind of a round, in which the closing line is also the opening line. A boy and girl sing, terribly, in another poem in the collection; in another, a robot, who also has a narrative function, makes music from deep within its machinery (and poetry out of typos); omens and similes sing together in another.

Bill Manhire’s poetry is always lyrical whether the lyricism is the lyricism of the ballad or the lyricism he finds in ordinary, unmetred New Zealand conversational speech. Sometimes it seems as if you can hear a poem tuning up, finding its rhythm before it turns itself into song. As it lifts into song, it lifts, too, into meaning.

Full review here.

Poetry Shelf: 8 Poets pick favourite 2020 poetry reads

For end-of-year Poetry Shelf wraps, I have usually invited a swag of writers to pick books they have loved. It has always turned into a mammoth reading celebration, mostly of poetry, but with a little of everything else. This year I decided to invite a handful of poets, whose new books I have loved in 2020, to make a few poetry picks.

My review and interview output has been compromised this year. I still have perhaps 20 poetry books published in Aotearoa I have not yet reviewed, and I do hope to write about some of these over summer.

The 8 Poets

Among a number of other terrific poetry reads (Oscar Upperton’s New Transgender Blockbusters for example), here are eight books that struck me deep this year (with my review links). Tusiata Avia’s The Savager Coloniser (VUP) is the kind of book that tears you apart and you feel so utterly glad to have read it. Tusiata has put herself, her rage, experience, memories, loves, prayers, dreads into poems that face racism, terrorism, Covid, inequity, colonialism, being a mother and a daughter, being human. An extraordinary book. Rhian Gallagher’s Far-Flung (AUP) is a sumptuous arrival, a book of exquisite returns that slowly unfold across months. Her poetic craft includes the lyrical, the political, the personal and the contemplative in poems that reflect upon the land, experiences, relationships.

Rata Gordon‘s Second Person (VUP) is fresh, layered and utterly captivating. This is a book of birth, babies, death, the universe, love, motherhood, water, sky, wildlife. It is a book that celebrates the present tense, the way we can inhabit the now of being. Reading Mohamed Hassan’s new collection, National Anthem (Dead Bird Books), opens up what poetry can do. It widens your heart. It makes you feel. It makes you think. It gets you listening. It makes you think about things that matter. Humanity. Family. Soil. Ahh!

Bill Manhire‘s Wow (VUP) will haunt you – so many of these poems have joined my list of memorable poetry encounters. The baby in the title poem says ‘wow’ while the big brother says ‘also’. This new collection sparks both the ‘wow’ moments and the ‘also’ moments. Get lost in its glorious thickets and then find your way out to take stock of the ordinary (and out-of-the-ordinary) world about you. Like Rhian’s collection this is a book of poetry astonishments. Natalie Morrison‘s (VUP) debut collection Pins is exquisite, both melodious and tactile, economical and rich. There is both a quirkiness and a crafted musicality, resonant white space, yet perhaps a key link is that of narrative. I filled with joy as I read this book.

Jackson Nieuwland‘s I am a Human Being (Compound Press), so long in the making, lovingly crafted with the loving support of friends, with both doubt and with grace (think poise, fluency, adroitness), this book, in its lists and its expansions, moves beyond the need for a single self-defining word. I knew within a page or two, this book was a slow-speed read to savour with joy. Nina Powles‘s Magnolia (Seraph Press) is the book I am currently reading. I have long been a fan, from Girls of the Drift to the glorious Luminscent). Nina’s new book is so immensely satisfying as it navigates home and not-home, identity, history, myth, the lives of women – with characteristic nimbleness, heavenly phrasing, open-heart revelations, the senses on alert, the presence of food, multiple languages. Reading bliss!

The poets and their picks

Tusiata Avia

I’m a terrible book buyer. I tend to read books given to me (because I’m cheap like that) and the shopping-bag full of books my cousin, playwright, Victor Rodger, lends to me on the regular. He has the best taste! I should probably be a better reader of New Zealand poetry in particular, but I reckon I’ve got enough things to feel guilty about.

The top three on my list of books I have read this year and love:

 

Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)

I love the way Hinemoana uses language to make the ethereal and the mysterious. I’m happy to not immediately be able to pin down meaning; her language allows me to be suspended between what it does to me and what it means. Poems like the incantatory Aunties and Mother – which I think of as more ‘rooted’ – make me want to sit down immediately and write a poem. In fact that is exactly what I did do when I read this book. I love a book that makes me write.

An American Sunrise Joy Harjo (WW Norton & Co)

An American Sunrise is Joy Harjo’s most recent book of poetry. Joy is Poet Laureate of the United States. I love everything Joy Harjo has written. And I mean everything. She Had Some Horses (from an early book of the same name) is one of favourite poems of all time. Elise Paschen says of her, “ Joy Harjo is visionary and a truth sayer, and her expansive imagination sweeps time, interpolating history into the present.”. I would add to that she is taulaaitu, mouth-piece for the ancestors, gods and spirits. While you’re reading Joy Harjo’s poetry, read Crazy Brave, her wonderful autobiography. It will stay with you forever.

National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books)

When I was looking for favourite lines in this book, I couldn’t decide, sooo many – like small poems in themselves. Mohamed speaks with an iron fist in a velvet glove. His poetry is elegant and beautiful and it tells the damn truth. Someone needs to tell the damn truth – about March 15, about being Muslim in New Zealand (and in the entire western world), about the things that happen so close to us – and inside us – that are easy (and more comfy) to avert our eyes from.

Some favourite lines from White Supremacy is a song we all know the words to but never sing out loud: ‘Please come and talk on our show tomorrow/ no don’t bring that up/…

‘This isn’t about race/ this is a time for mourning/ this is about us/ isn’t she amazing/ aren’t we all’…

‘Let us hold you and cry/ our grief into your hijabs’…

Who can tell these stories in this way but a good poet with fire in his fingers, love and pain in equal measure in his heart and feet on the battleground?

There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce Morgan Parker (Tin House)

I have to add, There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker to every list I write forever. In my opinion, no reader of poetry should miss this. If it doesn’t grab you by the shoulders, the heart, the brain, the belly – you might be dead. From the epigraph: ‘The president is black/ she black’ (Kendrick Lamar). Morgan Parker is PRESIDENT.

Rhian Gallagher

The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (HarperCollins) edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris features translations of 20th century poets from around the world and is packed with surprises.

Amidst all the books I have enjoyed during 2020, this is the one that I have read and re-read and continue to come back to. It was first published in 2010. I have been slow in coming to the book. 

When a poem in another language is re-cast into English, through the empathy and skill of a translator, it seems to unsettle notions of line, rhythmn, word choice and form. Translation pushes and tugs at the boundaries of the ‘rules’ and introduces a kind of strangeness. This strangeness I experience as an opening; a feeling of potential, slippery as a an eel to articulate. It recalibrates predetermined notions and generates excitement about what a poem can do or be.

There are well-known names here: Cavafy, Lorca, Akhmatova, Ritsos, Milosz, Symborska among others. There are also many poets previously unknown to me, and many whose work is either out of print or difficult to source. It’s a diverse, inspiring array of poetic voices and, as Kaminsky says in the introduction, puts us ‘in conversation with a global poetic tradition’.

Making discoveries is one of the great pleasures of anthologies. I now have a brand new ‘to read’ list.

Rata Gordon

When I’m reading something that inspires me, I have the urge to inhabit it somehow. I find that entering into a creative process by writing with, and around, another’s words helps me to absorb them into my internal landscape. This poem was created with snippets of some of the poetry I have met recently.

Soon, we are night sailing (Hunter, p. 71)

This is the closest you can get to it:

the void, the nothing,

the black lapping mouth of the sea

and the black arching back of the sky. (Hunter, p. 71)

One still maintains a little glimmer of hope

Deep down inside

A tiny light

About the size of a speck

Like a distant star

Is spotted on the horizon this dark night (Boochani, p. 26)

Swish swish swish

as quiet as a fish. (Ranger, p. 13)

… holy women

await you

on the shore –

long having practiced the art

of replacing hearts

with God

and song (Walker, p. 7)

Today you are tumbling towards her like the ocean.

… you are becoming nearer and nearer to someone other

than yourself. (Hawken, p. 49)

I have … imagined my life ending,

or simply evaporating,

by being subsumed into a tribe of blue people. (Nelson, p. 54)

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017, Picador). (Not strictly poetry, but the book feels so much like a long poem to me). Line breaks added by me.

No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani (2020, Picador).

‘Autumn Leaves’ by Laura Ranger. In A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children edited by Paula Green (2014, Random House).

Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning by Alice Walker (1975, The Women’s Press).

Small Stories of Devotion by Dinah Hawken (1991, Victoria University Press).

Bluets by Maggie Nelson (2009, Jonathan Cape). Line breaks added by me.

Mohamed Hassan

Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book (Victoria University Press)

A few weeks ago, I sat in the audience at a WORD Christchurch event and watched our former poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh read a poem from Tusiata Avia’s new collection. It began as such:

Hey James,

yeah, you

in the white wig

in that big Endeavour

sailing the blue, blue water

like a big arsehole

FUCK YOU, BITCH.

The hall fell pin silent and a heavy fog of discomfort descended from the ceiling, and I sat in the corner brimming with mischievous glee. It was a perfect moment, watching two of the country’s most celebrated poets jointly trash the country’s so-called ‘founder’ in the most spiteful way imaginable. The audience squirmed and squirmed and I grinned and grinned.

This is how Avia’s book begins, and it never lets up. As the title subtly implies with a hammer, Avia has things she wants to say, and doesn’t care how people feel about them. She delights in the spiteful, burrows down into the uncomfortable and the impolite and pulls out nuggets of painful truths with her bare hands. They are all truths that must be said bluntly and Avia drills them home.

In Massacre, Avia reflects on her youth fighting the demons of Christchurch, and asks us if our ‘this is not us’ mantra is divorced from the history carried in the land, haunted instead by the white spirits that rose to claim lives on March 15.

The book crescendos with How to be in a room full of white people, a dizzying poem that traps us in a single moment in time and forces us to witness and squirm and eventually, hopefully, understand what it is like to be the only brown body in a foreign space, in all its literal and metaphorical significance.

This has been my most cherished book this year, bringing together Tusiata Avia’s firecracker wit and her uncanny gift of conjuring worlds that feel vivid in their weight and poignancy. Abandoning all diplomacies, this is a blazing manifesto for honest and confrontational poetry that speaks with an urgency that puts me as a writer to shame, and demands more of me at once.

Bill Manhire

Jenny Lewis, Gilgamesh Retold, (Carcanet)

I love the way poetry re-visions the past, especially the deep past. I’m thinking of books like Matthew Francis’s reworking of the Welsh epic The Mabinogi and Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a book that abandons the main storyline of Homer’s Iliad in favour of narrating the death scenes of minor characters, accompanied by extra helpings of extended simile. I’d always known about the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I have owned for about 40 years in a yellow 1960 Penguin paperback. I’ve hardly opened it, but it’s one of some nine translations of the poem that Jenny Lewis has consulted for Gilgamesh Retold, published by Carcanet some four thousand years after the stories first circulated in oral form. (Her publisher at Carcanet, Michael Schmidt, has himself written a much admired book about the poem’s origins and afterlife)

Locally Dinah Hawken has worked with this ancient material, particularly writing about Inanna, the goddess of beauty and fertility and, sometimes, war, who is one of the major figures in the Gilgamesh cycle. Dinah’s feminist sense of the ancient stories accords with Jenny Lewis’s decision, as the blurb says, to relocate the poem “to its earlier oral roots in a Sumerian society where men and women were more equal, … [where] only women were allowed to brew beer and keep taverns, and women had their own language – emesal.”

It’s as well Inanna has such a significant role in Gilgamesh, for otherwise it would be a tale about male adventuring and bonding (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and the discovery that even the greatest heroes can never overcome death. The world of Gilgamesh also gives us a Flood, which matches and in some ways outdoes the Old Testament. I love the way Jenny Lewis has retold these stories. She doesn’t try to pad them out to produce the sorts of coherence and pacing that contemporary readers and movie-goers find comfortable, while her phrasings have an unreductive clarity and a genuinely lyrical grace. The most audacious thing she has done, and has carried off brilliantly, is to use different metrical forms to reflect the ways in which a range of different custodians/retellers have voiced and revoiced the story. You admire the 21st-century poet’s craft even as she inducts you into a baffling and unfamiliar world. All stories, Gilgamesh Retold tells us, are made by many voices, and the best of them will journey on through many more.

And now I must try and summon up the courage to give the latest version of  Beowulf a go!

Natalie Morrison

Gregory Kan, Under Glass (Auckland University Press)

My esteemed colleague, with one hand around his Friday swill-bottle: ‘I hate poetry – no one cares, no one reads it anymore.’

Gregory Kan, with two suns infiltrating the long ride on the train
to Paekākāriki, illustrates otherwise: Under Glass lulls like a really disquieting guided meditation.

After lockdown, it is the first book I read outside our ‘bubble’.
Threading through an internal landscape, somehow a place I recognise.
‘Here, there are two suns. The ordinary sun is in the sky overhead. The other sun
is eating its way out from inside me.’

Certain lines, with their mystical insistence, snag on me and come back again from time to time:
‘Everything that surrounds the second sun is not part of it but nonetheless makes it what it is.’
It’s as if some lines have been dreaming of themselves. The book invites a gentle inspection. A glass bead held right up against the eye. A shutter flipped open over a stark interior.

‘When you move
a look moves inside me
and eats there what I eat.’

Once, a kind individual in Paekākāriki, their hands busy with a teapot, told me: ‘Those who know what it is,
fall on it like starving people.’

When Litcrawl comes, we make our way to some of the events. The room has sucked a crowd in.
Spells for 2020, with Rebecca Hawkes, Rata Gordon, Stacey Teague, Arihia Latham, Rachel McAlpine and Miriama Gemmell (thank you for your entrancing words), reminds me of how poetry is still something people might come in search of. Visitations of bees, airline heights and morphing walls. There is a sense of relief.

A crowd still feels like a dream, and a dream still feels like the sea. Gregory writes that ‘the sea is a house made of anything. The sea is a story about anything, told by someone unfit for storytelling. More than what I can know, and much more than I can understand.’

Under Glass, which wasn’t exactly written for this year (no ordinary year), seems to slot into it.

My steamed colleague, with one hand steadying the banister: ‘I guess Bob Dylan is okay, though.’

Note: I asked my colleague’s permission for quoting him. He said he was fine with it, as long as a mob of angry poets didn’t come knocking.

Jackson Nieuwland

2020 was the year we finally got a book from Hana Pera Aoake (A bathful of kawakawa and hot water Compound Press). I had been waiting for this for so so long. It’s a taonga that I am incredibly grateful for. Ever since I first read Hana’s work they have been one of my favourite writers. Their writing is both clever and wise, of the moment and timeless, pop culture and fine art, Aotearoa and international.

This is a book I will be returning to over and over again for inspiration, electrification, nourishment, and comfort. I would recommend it to anyone.

Other poetry books I read and loved this year: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, The Book of Frank by CA Conrad, hoki mai by Stacey Teague, Hello by Crispin Best, and Head Girl by Freya Daly Sadgrove.

Nina Mingya Powles

For most of this year I could only read things in fragments. I could only hold on to small parts of poems, essays, short stories in my head before they floated away. This year I sought out poetry by Indigenous writers. Of these two books, the first I read slowly, dipping in and out like testing the surface of cool water. The other I read hungrily all at once.

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Graywold Press) reminded me why I write poetry, at a time when writing anything at all felt impossible. Diaz’s heavy, melodic love poems circled around my head for days: “My lover comes to me like darkfall – long, / and through my open window.” But it is her writing about water and the body that changed me. In this book, water is always in motion, a current that passes through time, memory and history. Her long poem “The First Water of the Body” is a history of the Colorado River, a sacred river: “I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving with me right now.”

A bathful of kawakawa and hot water by Hana Pera Aoake (Compound Press) came to me when I needed it most, nourishing me and warming me. I haven’t yet held a copy of the book, but I read it on my laptop over two days and have carried parts of it around in my body ever since: “I speak broken French and Português into the broken yellow gloaming.” A bathful of kawakawa and hot water is a searing, lyrical work of poetry, memoir, and political and cultural commentary. Like the title suggests, it was a balm for me, but also a reminder of the ongoing fight for our collective dream of a better world, and most importantly, that “racism is not just a product of psychological malice, but a product of capitalism.”

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: takahē 100 launched

There was an important event in Ōtautahi Christchurch last night (Thurs 10th December) at the Sign of the Takahē. The 100th issue of takahē magazine was unveiled, with new poems from David Eggleton, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Bernadette Hall, James Norcliffe, Tony Beyer, Jess Fiebig, Oscar Upperton, John Allison to name a few.

Also the winners of 2020 Monica Taylor takahē poetry competition were announced, and the winner read at the launch.


Poetry editors Gail Ingram and Jeni Curtis read “Striking the pounamu”, a 100-line poem compiled of lines from 84 poets from Aotearoa, including Elizabeth Smither, Albert Wendt alongside new names.

Fiction writers include Paula Morris, Sue Wootton, Anthony Lapwood and others.

takahē website

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Ursula Bethell Residency 2021

The writers in residence in the University of Canterbury’s (UC) College of Arts will be Vana Manasiadis and Behrouz Boochani. They will both join the University’s English department for the first half of the year.

Senior Lecturer Erin Harrington says the University’s English department is thrilled to be able to support these two talented writers. 

“They bring with them a wealth of expertise, and impressive track records that connect the local with the international. Their mutual interests in the power of language and translation, and the experiences of migrants and exiles, are an important way of demonstrating the power of the creative arts. We and our students will be lucky to have them join our community.”

Dr Harrington notes the writers have some fortuitous overlap and points of intersection in their work.

“Both writers have international connections and networks, are multilingual, and have an interest in translation – which includes making work available in other languages, and in language revitalisation. Both are interested in the stories of migrants and exiles. Both are interested in indigeneity, and Behrouz is interested particularly in the relationships of indigenous peoples globally.”

Ursula Bethell Writers in Residence 2021:

Vana Manasiadis is a New Zealand-Greek writer and translator whose collection of poetry The Grief Almanac was launched in May 2019.

For the residency, Vana’s project draws from her interest and expertise in translation, and the way that it can withhold, bridge, restrict and embody dialogue. This poetic work, like her other hybrid works, will combine poetry, prose, script and visual art, offering a series of dialogues and monologues from migrants, exiles, and voices from Aotearoa New Zealand.

Vana says: “As well as providing support and space, the residency will be contributing significantly to the community of the project – and I’m beyond thrilled”.

Award-winning author, Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, who spent six years detained by Australian authorities on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, was granted refugee status in July 2020. He is currently a Senior Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Canterbury’s Ngāi Tahu Research Centre.

Behrouz’s proposed work is a short story collection named Ghobad, which is the story of indigenous generations in pre-modern Kurdistan. The work will be written in the Kalhori dialect, which has been systematically suppressed and is in danger of dying out, and it will then be translated into English.

“The residency also offers precious space for exploring writing in a context outside of Manus Island,” he says.

The Ursula Bethell Residency in Creative Writing, jointly funded by the university’s College of Arts and Creative New Zealand, was established by the University of Canterbury in 1979 to provide support for New Zealand writers and foster New Zealand writing. The residency allows authors of proven merit in all areas of literary and creative activity an opportunity to work on an approved project within an academic environment.

Since the inception of the Writers Residency, UC has been home to dozens of fiction-writers, poets and dramatists, many of whom have made valuable contributions to the development of young writers studying at the university. Since 1979, UC has hosted many renowned writers, including Keri Hulme, Kevin Ireland, David Eggleton, Eleanor Catton, Owen Marshall, Fiona Farrell, Tusiata Avia, and Victor Rodger.

Poetry Shelf reading room: A. Davida Jane’s Every Dark Waning

A Davida Jane, Every Dark Waning, Platypus Press, England (2016, second edition 2018)

Platypus Press author page

I keep trying to build a dam—

I keep coming up rainstorm,

I keep coming up flood.

 

from ‘A Study in Restoration’

So many poetry books escape my attention, and then a trail of lucky connections leads me to a new discovery. I find the online journal The Starling is an excellent lead to poets under 25. This year I discovered the poetry of Ash Davida Jane and invited her to send me a Monday Poem (‘Undergrowth‘), write a response to a much-loved book (Paige Lewis’s excellent collection Space Struck), and muse on a poetry topic (‘An Ecopoetics of the Future’). I managed to get a copy of her debut collection, Every Dark Waning, from Unity Books in Te Whanganui-a-Tara where she works. And it filled me with poetry delight.

I especially loved the first section which pulls in the stars, sky, water, fire, breath and breathing. These poems are both dark edged and light fringed. Maybe the poet is talking from a deep secret place that misses things, that feels pain, is full of feeling. The dark core of the poems is deeply mysterious. It will grip your arm or your lungs and you will stay. There are many selves but the poet is the most present: ‘The poet is the most / honest part of me.’ (from ‘An Attempt at an Explanation’). The poet reappears in ‘Apollo 11’:

The stickiness of the

atmosphere traps in

all the words I never

wrote down, and the poet

in me flinches as I soar

into outer space.

And later, in ‘The House of Pindar’, in this book where poetry is both reticent and confessional:

You burn every house in me

but the poet’s—raze them to

the ground and salt them so

they’ll never grow back.

Only the writer remains.

Why do I love this book so much? Maybe its the sharp edges, the nightmares and the monsters, the things that are held in reserve, the way writing poetry and being a poet is so vital, life-saving perhaps, and the way my attention is directed to things I want to retain, to put away for a cloudy day. This from ‘Upturned’:

did you see me tuck the

view into the back of my

mind, putting it away for a

cloudy day when the stars

aren’t there and i can’t think

of a reason to get out of bed.

today, i needed a reason

to get out of bed, and

the moon was the only thing

that came close.

Ash Davida Jane is a poet and bookseller from Te Whanganui-a-Tara. She has a Master of Arts from the International Institute of Modern Letters. Some of her recent work can be found in Peach Mag, Turbine | Kapohau, Best New Zealand Poems, and Scum. How to Live with Mammals is due to be published by Victoria University Press in 2021.