Emma Barnes reads four poems from I Am in Bed with You, Auckland University Press, 2021
‘Maiden Mother Crone’
‘Completely dry riverbed’
Emma Barnes lives and writes in Pōneke / Wellington. They have just released their first book I Am In Bed With You. For the last two years they’ve been working with Chris Tse on an anthology of LGBTQIA+ and Takatāpui writing to be released this year by Auckland University Press. They work in Tech and spend a lot of time picking heavy things up and putting them back down again.
AUP New Poets 7 features the work of Rhys Feeney, Ria Masae and Claudia Jardine. The series is edited by Anna Jackson.
Editor Anna Jackson suggests the collection ‘presents three poets whose work is alert to contemporary anxieties, writing at a time when poetry is taking on an increasingly urgent as well as consolatory role role as it is shared on social media, read to friends and followers, and returned to again in print form’.
I agree. Poetry is an open house for us at the moment, a meeting ground, a comfort, a gift, an embrace. But poetry also holds fast to its ability to challenge, to provoke, to unsettle. In the past months I have read the spikiest of poems and have still found poetry solace.
AUP New Poets 7 came out in lockdown last year and missed out on a physical launch. To make up for that loss I posted a set of readings from the featured poets. One advantage with a virtual celebration is a poetry launch becomes a national gathering. I still find enormous pleasure in online readings – getting to hear terrific new voices along with old favourites.
Herein lies one of the joys of the AUP New Poets series: the discovery of new voices that so often have gone onto poetry brilliance (think Anna Jackson and Chris Tse).
Rhys Feeney is a high school teacher and voluntary health worker in Te Whanganui-a-Tara with a BA (Hons) in English Literature and a MTchLrn (Secondary). Ria Masae is an Auckland-based poet, writer and spoken-word artist. In 2018 she was the Going West Poetry Slam champion. Claudia Jardine is a Pākehā/ Maltese poet and musician with a BA in Classics with First Class Honours. The three poets have work in various print and online journals.
I am thinking poetry is a way of holding the tracks of life as I read Rhys’s sequence of poems, ‘soy boy’. He is writing at the edge of living, of mental well being. There is the punch-gut effect of climate change and capitalism. There are crucial signals on how to keep moving, how to be.
The poems are written as though on one breath, like a train of thought that picks up a thousand curiosities along the way. As an audio track the poetry is exhilarating in its sheer honeyed fluency. Poems such as ‘the world is at least fifty percent terrible’ pulls in daily routine, chores, political barbs. The combination matters because the state of the world is always implicated in the personal and vice versa. The combination matters in how we choose to live our lives and how we choose to care for ourselves along with our planet.
waking up from a dream abt owning a house
for a moment i think i’m in utopia
or maybe australia
but then i see the little patches of mould on the ceiling
i roll over to check my phone
but i forgot to put it on charge last night bc i was too tired
why am i am so fucking tired all the time
i should find some better alternative to sugar
i should find some better alternative to lying there in the morning thinking
Artificial Intelligence is a Fundamental Risk to Human Civilisation
or what i am going to have for breakfast
how can i reduce my environmental footprint
but increase the impact of my handshake
from ‘the world is at least fifty percent terrible’
I love the way Rhys plays with form, never settling on one shape or layout; the poems are restless, catching the performer’s breath, the daily hiccups, the unexpected syncopation. Words are abbreviated, lines broken, capitals abandoned as though the hegemony of grammar and self and state (power) must be wobbled. Yet I still see this as breath poetry. Survival poetry.
I am especially drawn to ‘overshoot’; a poem that lists things to do that get you through the day, get you living. The list is more than a set of bullet points though because you get poignant flashes into a shadow portrait, whether self or invented or borrowed.
5) give yourself time to yourself
light fresh linen candles
& cry in the bath
call it self-care
6) eat a whole loaf of bread in the dark
7) start working again
the topsoil of your tolerance is gone
you break in two days
this is called a feedback loop
your coping strategies don’t work
in this new atmosphere
Rhys’s affecting gathering of poems matches rawness with humour, anxiety about the world with anxiety about self. Yet in the bleakest moments humour cuts through, gloriously, like sweet respite, and then sweesh we are right back in the thick of global worry. How big is our footprint? What will we choose to put in our toasters? Have we ever truly experienced wilderness other than on a screen? This is an energetic and thought-provoking debut.
What She Sees from Atop the Mauga opens with a wonderful grandmother poem: ‘Native Rivalry’. The poem exposes the undercurrents of living with two motherlands, Samoa and Aotearoa, of here and there, different roots and stars and languages, a sea that separates and a sea that connects. There is such an intense and intimate connection in this poem that goes beyond difference, and I am wondering if I am imagining this. It feels like I am eavesdropping on something infinitely precious.
i tilted my face up to the stars
that were more familiar to me
than the ones on Samoan thighs.
without turning to her, i answered
‘Leai fa‘afetai, Nana.’
i felt her stare at me for a long pause
before puffing on her rolled tobacco.
we sat there silently looking at the night sky
until we were tired and went to sleep
side by side on a falalili‘i in her fale.
from ‘Saipipi, Savai‘i, Samoa’ in ‘Native Rivalry’
Perhaps the lines that really strike are: ‘Mum was fa’a pālagi, out of necessity / i was pālagified by consequence / so, was i much different?’
I am so affected reading these poems on the page but I long to hear them sounding in the air because the harmonics are sweet sweet sweet. ‘Intersection’ is an urban poem and it is tough and cutting and despairing, but it is also stretching out across the Pacific Ocean and it is as though you can hear the lip lip lap of the sea along with the throb throb throb of urban heart.
She sits at her window
staring down at the city lights.
Her scared, her scarred, her marred wrists
hugging her carpet-burnt knees.
The waves in her hair
no longer carry the scent of her Pacific Ocean
but burn with the stink of
Ah, enter these poems and you are standing alongside the lost, the dispossessed, the in-despair, you are pulled between a so often inhumane, concrete wilderness and the uplift and magnetic pull of a Pacific Island. I find these poems necessary reading because it makes me feel but it also makes me see things afresh. I know from decades with another language (Italian) some things do not have a corresponding word (for all kinds of reasons). ‘There is No Translation for Post-Natal Depression in the Samoan Language’ is illuminating. There is no word because of the Samoan way: ‘be back home that same evening / to multiple outstretched brown hands / welcoming the newborn baby into the extended alofa.‘ How many other English words are redundant in a Samoan setting, where ‘isolation’ and ‘individualism’ are alien concepts?
At this moment, in a time I am so grateful for poetry that changes my relationship with the world, with human experience, on the level of music and connections and heart. This is exactly what Ria’s collection does.
Claudia Jardine’s studies in Ancient Greece and Rome, with a particular interest in women, have influenced her sequence, The Temple of Your Girl. I was reading the first poem, ‘A Gift to Their Daughters: A Poetic Essay on Loom Weights in Ancient Greece’, in a cafe and was so floored by the title I shut the book and wrote a poem.
The sequence opens and closes with the poems inspired by Ancient Greece and Rome, with a cluster of contemporary poems in the middle. Yet the contemporary settings and anecdotes, the current concerns, permeate. There is sway and slip between the contemporary and the ancient in the classical poems. History isn’t left jettisoned in the past – there are step bridges so you move to and fro, space for the reader to muse upon the then and the now. The opening poem, ‘A Gift to their Daughters’, focuses on the weaving girls/women of ancient Greece, and the threads (please excuse the delicious pun) carry you with startle and wit and barb. I am musing on the visibility of the work and art women have produced over time, in fact women’s lives, and the troublesome dismissal of craft and the domestic. Here is a sample from the poem which showcases the sublime slippage:
Weaving provided women with a means to socialise and help one
another, strengthening their own emotional associations to the oikos and
to textile manufacturer itself.
The school is filled with Berninas, Singers, Vikings and Behringers.
Our mums are making cat-convict costumes for the school musical,
a mash-up of plagerised Lloyd Webber and local gossip.
I already hate CATS – The Musical.
from ‘The Importance of Textile Manufacture for the relationship of Women’ in ‘A Gift to their Daughters’
These lines reverberate: ‘My dad is furious when I decide to take a textiles class in Year 10. My mother has a needle in her mouth during this conversation.’ The characters may be fictional or the poet’s parents but the contemporary kick hits its mark. How many of us know how to sew? How many of us were frowned upon for selecting domestic subjects at secondary school? So many threads. The speaker / poet muses on ‘all the queens on Drag Race who do not how to sew’.
At times the movement between then and now borders on laugh-out-loud surprise, but then you read the lines again, and absorb the more serious prods. I adore ‘Catullus Drops the Tab’. Here is the first of two verses (sorry to leave you hanging):
there were no bugs
crawling under his skin
where that Clodia
had dug her nails in
The middle section gets personal (or fictional in a personal way) as the poems weave gardening and beaching and family. Having read these, I find they then move between the lines of the classical poems, a contemporary undercurrent that contextualises a contemporary woman scholar and poet with pen in hand. I particularly love ‘My Father Dreams of His Father’ with its various loops and lyricisms.
My father dreams of his father
walking in the garden of the old family homestead at Kawakawa Point
I have not been back since he passed away
As decrepit dogs wander off under trees
to sniff out their final resting places,
elderly men wait in the wings
rehearsing exit lines.
Claudia’s sequence hit a chord with me, and I am keen to see a whole book of her weavings and weft.
Anna Jackson’s lucid introduction ( I read after I had written down my own thoughts) opens up further pathways through the three sequences. I love the fit of the three poets together. They are distinctive in voice, form and subject matter, but there are vital connections. All three poets navigate light and dark, self exposures, political opinions, personal experience. They write at the edge, taking risks but never losing touch with what matters enormously to them, to humanity. I think that is why I have loved AUP New Poets 7 so much. This is poetry that matters. We are reading three poets who write from their own significant starting points and venture into the unknown, into the joys (and pains) of writing. Glorious.
Poetry Shelf launch feature: Claudia, Rhys and Ria talk and read poetry
Rhian Gallagher reads from Far-Flung (Auckland University Press, 2020)
Rhian Gallagher‘s first poetry book Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press, 2003) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection. In 2007 Gallagher won a Canterbury History Foundation Award, which led to the publication of her book Feeling for Daylight: The Photographs of Jack Adamson (South Canterbury Museum, 2010). She also received the 2008 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award. Gallagher’s Shift (AUP, 2011) won the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. In 2018, she held the University of Otago Robert Burns Fellowship.
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
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.
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.
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
on the shore –
long having practiced the art
of replacing hearts
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.”
Rhian Gallagher,Far-Flung Auckland University Press, 2020
Into the Blue Light
for Kate Vercoe
I’m walking above myself in the blue light
indecently blue above the bay with its walk-on-water skin
here is the Kilmog slumping seaward
and the men in their high-vis vests
pouring tar and metal on gaping wounds
the last repair broke free; the highway
doesn’t want to lie still, none of us
want to be where we are
exactly but somewhere else
the track a tree’s ascent, kaikawaka! hold on
to the growing power, sun igniting little shouts
against my eyeballs
and clouds came from Australia
hunkering over the Tasman with their strange accent
I’m high as a wing tip
where the ache meets the bliss
summit rocks exploding with lichen and moss –
little soft fellas suckered to a groove
bloom and bloom – the track isn’t content
with an end, flax rattling their sabres, tussocks
drying their hair in the stiff south-easterly;
the track wants to go on
forever because it comes to nothing
but the blue light. I’m going out, out
out into the blue light, walking above myself.
Rhian Gallagher, from Far-Flung
Rhian Gallagher’s debut poetry book, Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize First Collection, while her second book Shift was awarded the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. She has received a Canterbury History Foundation Award, The Janet Frame Literary Trust Award and in 2018 she held the University of Otago Burns Fellowship. This year I welcomed the arrival of Far-Flung (Auckland University Press). It is a glorious book, a book to slowly savour.
Far-Flung is in two sections. The first section, with deep and roving attachments, navigates place. Think of the shimmering land, the peopled land, the lived-upon and recollected land, with relationships, experiences, epiphanies and upheavals. Think of the past and think of the present. Think of school classrooms, macrocarpa and our smallest birds. Think of a nor-west wind and Donegal women. These poems exude a delicious quietness, a stalled pace, because this is poetry of contemplation, musings upon a stretching home along with ideas that have shaped, and are shaping, how the world is.
The other day I turned up in an Auckland café to meet poet Anna Jackson for lunch, and we both brought along Far-Flung to read (if we got to wait for the other). I read the opening lines aloud to Anna when she arrived, and then she started reading the book. We were lost in the book. I am now imagining how perfect it would be to have a weekly poetry meeting with a friend, where you sit and read the exact same book over lunch. Perhaps I am returning to the afternoon-tea poems from my debut book Cookhouse, where I thought I would take afternoon with poets I loved (in the shape of a poem) for the rest of my life. That didn’t exactly happen (in the shape of a poem), but I guess I have been engaging with poetry in Aotearoa ever since.
Rhian’s opening poem ‘Into the Blue Light’ is a form of poetry astonishment. Let’s say awe, wonder, uplift. The spiritual meets the incandescent meets the hot sticky tar of the road repairs, and the ever-moving scene, with its biblical overtones (‘the bay with its walk-on-water skin’), references a fidgety self as it much as it scores physical locations. I keep coming back to the word ‘miracle’, and the way we become immune to the little and large miracles about us. Miracle can be a way of transcending the burdensome body, daily stasis, the anchor of here and there, the shadow of death, and embrace light and engage in light-footed movement. This is definitely a poem to get lost in. You don’t need to know what it is about or the personal implications for both poet and speaker. Perhaps this is what astonishment poems can do: they draw us into the blue light so that we may walk or drift above ourselves.
The second poem, ‘The Speed of God’, underlines the range of a nimble poet whose poetic craft includes the lyrical, the political, the personal and the reflective. Here Rhian wittingly but bitingly muses on the idea that God made the world too fast to get men right.
Or maybe if he’d made man and said, ‘You learn how to live with yourself and do housework and then I might think about woman.’
The second section of the book focuses upon voices from Dunedin’s Seacliff Lunatic Asylum and is in debt to research along with imaginings. The Lunatic Act of 1882 defines a lunatic within legal parameters rather a medical diagnosis. The institution was more akin to a prison than a place of healing, with those incarcerated granted no legal rights. As a national inspector of lunatic asylums, hospitals and charitable institutions, Dr Duncan MacGregor ‘feared New Zealand was being overrun by a flood of immigrants from lowly backgrounds’.
Rhian’s ‘The Seacliffe Epistles’ sequence is unbearably haunting. The endnotes acknowledge the sources, many poems in debt to inmate’s letters. Reading the poignant poetry, I am reminded of the way we still haven’t got everything right yet. We still have the dispossessed, the muted, the disenfranchised, the underprivileged. And that is another haunting seeping into the crevices of the book.
Far-Flung showcases multiple bearings of self, place, and across time. There is the child smelling the ‘gum trees in the gully’, rhyming her way across a wheat field, as letters and words start to produce sound and sense. From those tentative beginnings, words now offer sumptuous music for the ear, groundings for the heart, little portholes into our own contemplative meanderings. As Vincent O’Sullivan says on the back of the book: ‘I can think of no more than a handful of poets, whose work I admire to anything like a similar degree.’ This is a glorious arrival, a book of exquisite returns that slowly unfold across months.
Rhian Gallagher’s first poetry book Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press, 2003) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection. In 2007 Gallagher won a Canterbury History Foundation Award, which led to the publication of her book Feeling for Daylight: The Photographs of Jack Adamson (South Canterbury Museum, 2010). She also received the 2008 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award. Gallagher’s Shift (AUP, 2011) won the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. In 2018, she held the University of Otago Robert Burns Fellowship.
Jess Fiebig My Honest Poem Auckland University Press 2020
When I was a scrap of blonde hair, pink cheeks
and jam-smeared hands, my grandma would say
‘that girl always needs a pen in her hand’
and at twenty-eight, I think she called it,
right from the start.
from ‘My Honest Poem’
I first picked up Jess Fiegbig’s book when we were in lockdown and I held the book at arm’s length as I was navigating my own dark thoughts. It wasn’t the time to cross poetry bridges into difficult subject matter. Yes this is a book of darkness, of anxiety, family violence, sex, drug addiction but it is also a book of hope, grit, grace. Jess’s poems navigate a woman coming into being along a rocky road, but the book is also a revelation of poems coming to life.
The title suggests the writing is an opening up, the poems frank, holding out for truth. And truth is a hot coal to handle. Prismatic. Shining this light here and that light there. For Jess it is also the heat (and ice) of writing from the searing embers of personal experience. Yet when she writes though tough subjects, her love of writing pulsates, and the words are agile on the line:
I slide two fingers
down my throat
to ease out the knots
I have folded myself into
starting gently at the bottom
and working my way up
when I sat on his knee
at six years old
and he carefully combed
my tangled blonde curls
The middle section of the book, ‘I get lost in lovers’, is both an emptying out and a replenishing. There is the physical vomiting that brings up both bile and the internal weights. ‘Kitchen Sink’ ends with the image of the grandmother and her handbag (‘the kitchen sink’) that carries ‘so much that is heavy, unnecessary’. The poet’s kitchen sink is internal, we infer: ‘I lug my own kitchen sink with me’. This swing between shedding and reclaiming finds the sharp-edged things as well as love, friendship, desire.
You need to add the crafting of poems, the hints at how poems arrive, the way certain words shimmer or blaze on the line. Yes these poems are linguistic treat. Lithe, fluent, musical, economical, image rich. Poetic choices are amplifying the subject matter. Take a stanza from ‘Hypnic Jerk’ for example. You get a murmur of ‘mms’, the tantalising hit of ‘dream souvenirs’. The image of the apple in the throat conjures voice, growth, presence, absence, the memory scaffolding maintained by a go-to image. The very fickle and hard-to-articulate business of memory:
I have kept
for a time when remembering you
wouldn’t grow an apple
in my throat
from ‘Hypnic Jerk’
I find this stanza in ‘Party After Riccarton Races’ equally gripping:
Sunday, without sleep,
I seek out the beach, hope
that sand on skin might release
the brine in my head.
The poem describes a party in a multi-storied swimming-pooled home, where white powder is offered in lines on platters rather than canapes – but it is the ‘brine’ in her head that catches me, the salty agent of preservation that is holding things the speaker wants to discharge and dissolve.
People feature. Lovers, yes. Friends. In the beginning an achingly honest depiction of a mother with various addiction and distances, the abusive boyfriend of her mother. It is particularly moving to read in the acknowledgements Jess’s mention of her mother: ‘whose support of me telling these story shows real grace’. The grandmother is a recurring figure and she is a magnet of warmth and wisdom.
When we say grace,
she declares that I have cold hands, and
a warm heart; don’t go giving it all away.
My grandmother has perfect fingernails
her lined palms are soft, fleshy,
as they rest tenderly
on my arm; her touch
feels like home.
The land also becomes a grounding. A way of locating a scene, a relationship, an outing, a mood shifter, an epiphany. Again the poet’s craft, the exquisite movement of word on the line, both aurally and visually, assists the story being told, the personal story being laid down:
the yolk yellow leaves,
brash and unashamedly golden
in this lilac light,
are shocking in their defiance
of the gentle pastel landscape
they stir something inside me
that has lain still
for so long.
from ‘Dead Man’s Point’
My Honest Poem is a move towards new beginnings. The poetry is fresh, succulent and lyrical. Perhaps the most moving collection I have read this year; it might be difficult for some readers, but this is a poetry arrival to celebrate. It took courage to write this book, and it took a finely-tuned ear and eye to achieve such a poetry gleam.
Jess Fiebig is a Christchurch-based poet whose work has featured in Best New Zealand Poems 2018, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018 and 2019, Landfall, Turbine | Kapohau and takahē. She was runner-up in the 2019 Sarah Broom Poetry Prize.
Jess is reading in my Wild Honey session at Word in Christchurch.
Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists, Leonard Bell, Auckland University Press, 2020
This stunning new book from Auckland University Press is the perfect object to guide a day of contemplation, to move you from photograph to text, from a life to an artistic process, from light to shadow, to sideways thinking upon your own relationships, your own creativity, demons and angels.
There are 250 plus photographs by Marti Friedlander of artists – including painters, sculptors, potters, printmakers, writers, musicians. So many names I didn’t recognise – but am now curious about. The text runs like railway tracks alongside the images, transporting you into facts, anecdotes, interpretation.
Before reading the finely crafted text, I am drawn into the joy of the photograph gazing: the framing, the interplay of light and dark, frozen moments in the creative process, the work spaces, facial expressions, the eyes that hold you or lead you off-frame. Marti delivers such an intensity, such an intimate intensity of human presence. It is psychological, it is tactile, it is like you become embedded in the frame. Perhaps transcendental is the word. You get uplift as you look. For me, engaging with these astonishing photographs dislodges the toxic grip of a pandemic world, of unscrupulous political game play, insomnia. The fundamental importance of music, art, literature is placed under central lights and my desire to switch off becomes a need to switch on.
I am stuck on the portrait of potter Jeff Scholes. He is looking right back at me, his hands clasping a sticky mess of clay, caught mid-movement, textured with fingermarks, and it is as though I am looking at the blank page, the fresh musical score, the empty canvas. I can almost smell the clay, the moment before something emerges. That glorious and mysterious moment when art enters the world. It is important to be reminded of this now. To feel the utmost value of creativity – that no matter how tough and challenging things are, we are still making art that is read and viewed and listened to.
Reading Leonard’s piece on Jeff opens further windows – Leonard picks up on the idea of the tactile and effectively describes what is so alluring about the image: ‘Friedlander pictures the good looking Scholes so that he might appear both open and reticent – an instance of her ability to catch what might seem contradictory qualities in the one person.’
Marti is, as Leonard suggests, drawn to relationships. Two images of Pat and Gil Hanley are particularly gripping. I often face books and artworks and imagine the ghost narratives that circulate behind the scenes of art’s making. The domestic choices and labour, the relationship dynamics, the sacrifices, the epiphanies, along with the difference gender, ethnicity or class make. The silences, the conversations, the hierarchies. Marti took a number of photographs of the Hanleys. She commented on one of her Hanley portraits: ‘The moment you start trying to analyse your work, you’re telling viewers how they should look at the photographs which impedes receptiveness’.
The books I tend to write about on Poetry Shelf are books that fascinate me; books of any genre that hold my attention on numerous levels to the point I can’t look away and I carry them with me all day. There is so much that fascinates me about this book. I keep returning to the two Hanley portraits. In fact I can’t stop thinking about them. I show them to other people. In the portrait accompanying the piece on Gil, the couple are standing together barefoot, Pat in front, one hand tucked in jeans, one arm slung over to grasp the other, one leg forward in a swagger of a pose, Gil tucked behind, arm behind back to clasp the other, bare legged. Her pose merges into the posed arms in Pat’s painting on the wall. It is 1969 and the women are starting to emerge from the shadows, from the tucked-behind-men spots. Fascinating, looking at this image within the context of the times, knowing that that is an awful lot of weight to place upon one image. Musing on the personal narratives behind the scenes. along with how things were for women artists (whatever field).
The miniature biography of Marti that Leonard presents is as fascinating as the context of the times. So many things infiltrate the creative process. Marti was born in London’s poor East End, she and her sister were abandoned by their parents (perhaps Russian-Jewish immigrants), she was placed in a Dickensian-like institution until she was reunited with her sister in 1933 and placed in a Jewish orphanage. Marti had wanted to study dressmaking and design at Bloomsbury Technical School for Girls, but the course was full so opted for photography (1942-43). She worked as a technical assistant in a photography studio for a number of years, was engaged in the photography scene, married New Zealander Gerrard Friedlander, and came to live here with him (1957). Most of her photographs to that point were personal, and were of friends, family and visited places. In New Zealand her portraits began appearing in various journals, programmes, exhibition brochures, book covers, and over time she continued to do personal photographs along with commissions.
Bringing together Marti’s photographs of New Zealand artists is a genius idea. Each image is a lure, the text insightful. The production of this sumptuous book is also exemplary. I adore this book – maybe because I am a poet living with a painter – but mostly because the photographs are such an exquisite aide to contemplation. It is the kind of feeling I get when I walk up into the mountains or along Te Henga beach, watch the sky and incoming weather, and let ideas and feelings circulate. I love this book so much. I hope it sells by the bucket loads!
Leonard Bell has taught art history at the University of Auckland since 1973. He has held research fellowships at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., and the Yale Center for British Art, and was the 2005 Daphne Mayo Visiting Professor in the School of Art History, Film and Media Studies at the University of Queensland. He is on the International Advisory Board of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art and on the editorial advisory committees of the New Zealand visual arts periodicals Reading Room and BackStory. He is the author of several major art and art history books, including Colonial Constructs: European Images ofMaori 1840–1914 (AUP, 1992), Marti Friedlander (AUP, 2009) and most recently, Strangers Arrive: Emigrés and the Arts in New Zealand, 1930–1980 (AUP, 2017). All three books were finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards. He has also written catalogue essays and chapters in books on the portraiture of artists Gottfried Lindauer and C. F. Goldie and the photographer Frank Hofmann. (AUP site)
AUP New Poets 7: Rhys Feeney, Ria Masae, Claudia Jardine, ed. Anna Jackson
Auckland University Press, 2020
Anna Jackson, editor of AUP New Poets 7, suggests the collection ‘presents three poets whose work is alert to contemporary anxieties, writing at a time when poetry is taking on an increasingly urgent as well as consolatory role role as it is shared on social media, read to friends and followers, and returned to again in print form’.
I agree. Poetry is an open house for us at the moment, a meeting ground, a comfort, a gift, an embrace. But poetry also holds fast to its ability to challenge, to provoke, to unsettle. In the past months I have read the spikiest of poems and have still found poetry solace.
It feels really important to maintain our poetry hubs – to listen to poets as well spend time with the book in hand. So many new books have missed launches. I haven’t been to a poetry reading since the Wellington Writers and Readers Festival. This is partly why I am compelled to create Friday gatherings so we can connect with poets across Aotearoa.
I am the lucky one. Each of these poets emailed me their readings and I felt I was at an intimate private preview. Just me and the poems, and the heart-moving discussions on poetry, poems and the book itself.
I will review this anthology at a later date, but in the meantime, settle back in a comfy spot and take a listen, and the support the poetry world and buy a copy! I love this gathering so much I am walking on air, boosted out of covid flatness into glorious activity.
Thank you so much Ria, Rhys and Claudia for the mahi, the poetry love. Thank you.
Ria Masae talks poetry and the book:
Ria reads poems:
Claudia Jardine reads and talks poetry:
Rhys Feeney reads two poems and talks about the book:
Rhys Feeney is a high school teacher, volunteer peer support worker and fledgeling doomsday prepper who lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. He writes with terrible grammar about things he is scared of. His work can be found in Starling, Sponge, Salty x Foodcourt, and forthcoming in The Spinoff. You can buy his debut chapbook ‘soyboy’ as part of AUP New Poets 7.
Claudia Jardine (she/her) is a poet and musician based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Her most recent publication is AUP New Poets 7 which also contains collections by Ria Masae and Rhys Feeney. In recent months she has completed an MA thesis on intertextuality in Anna Komnene’s Alexiad, and now she is learning to groom dogs. Jardine’s writing can be found in Sport 47, Starling, The Spinoff, Stasis and Landfall 237.
Ria Masae is of Samoan descent, born and raised in Tāmaki Makaurau. She is a writer, poet, and spoken word artist whose work has appeared in various literary publications, as well as a handful of theatre productions. Her family includes an exasperating, but adorable dog who looks like a cow and neighs like a horse. Since her acceptance into the AUP New Poets 7 anthology, Ria has been working on a poetry collection for her first sole anthology.
Mezzaluna: Selected Poems Michele leggott, Auckland University Press, 2020
people still go to cottages in moody seaside weather
to read for a week how will we do it now?
when I go for walks words stalk along too
I’ll be travelling mid-February and can’t guarantee a lucid mind
what about a big table in a room with windows
looking over the wild and wavy event?
from ‘Colloquy’ Swimmers and Dancers
Michele Leggott is continuing to make extraordinary contributions to poetry in Aotearoa. I rank her with Bill Manhire: two poets who have not only published astonishing poetry, but who have also been significant mentors and teachers in university programmes and introduced poetry initiatives, and edited vital anthologies. We are in debt to Bill for his vision for the IIML and offshoot projects, and the Poet Laureateship (now administered by The National Library but established with the efforts of Bill and Te Mata Estate). Michele was the first Poet Laureate under the National Library administration. She established the NZ Electronic Poetry Centre, set up the Lounge readings in Auckland, and has organised various gatherings of poets, including symposiums in Bluff, Christchurch and Auckland. Not forgetting her diverse contributions as Professor of English at the University of Auckland.
More than anything, we are in Michele’s debt for the light she has placed upon women poets from the past, especially Robin Hyde and Lola Ridge.
words come so slowly
it has been lonely
a phoenix palm
and behind it
another story, waving
plaintain paradisiaca a bird
musey with waves
Helicon a harbour cone
from ‘Withywind’ from Like This? (1998)
I have been reading Michele’s poetry since her debut collection, Like This? (1988) and have followed the thematic and lyrical contours ever since. The first word that springs to mind is heart. Michele has written within the academy, with her prodigious intellect flaring, but she is a heart poet beholden to neither theoretical trend nor poetic fad. Her poetry has always linked hands with the writing of other women, and over time has become increasingly personal and more accessible for readers.
Michele’s Mezzaluna: Selected Poems appeared mid March, just before we moved into lockdown. Its visibility suffered as our reading, writing, publishing and reviewing lives moved into upheaval. There is an excellent interview with Lynn Freeman on Standing Room Only and a short conversation with Paula Morris as part of The Auckland Writer’s Festival online series. The highlight of the latter is hearing Michele read an extract from her poem ‘The Fascicles’ from Vanishing Points (2017) (she is the last writer in the zoom session).
Fine ground darkness pours into the vessel
beans and flowers adorn the fall—
ichor! ichor! drink to the eyes locked on yours
the mouth that smiles and will speak for itself
I have always done the talking and she
put the words in my mouth saying do melisma
like sunlight be melisma like no sunlight pressed
redness before dark print an iris on her
from ‘Blue Irises’ in DIA (1994)
Difficulty has never been an issue for me as a reader of poetry – I love venturing into poetry thickets where meaning might appear in whiffs, and where enigma, evasion and multiplicity are active ingredients. Michele’s mid-career poetry collections, perhaps from DIA through to Mirabile Dictu, delivered various shades of difficulty and I loved them for that. Her lexicon has drawn upon the arcane, the archaic, slang, borrowed words, foreign languages. There were highways and byways to other poems, a history of research and reading. Intimacy was as likely as distance. And even though her poetry has become increasingly personal, self confessional in parts, it has always been so. Family appears, sons, food, beloved places, a shaping of home along with a profound engagement with other writing, other stories, myths, conversations.
The poems underline the way poetry threads ideas, memory, motifs, experience, opinion, reading history. The how of writing is as crucial as the what of writing.
imagine the world goes dark
a bowl of granite or a stone bird
incised by tools the nature of which
is unknown just that they are metal
and therefore from otherwhere
just that the weight of the bowl
precludes light and lightness
of thought my feet take a path
I can no longer see my eyes
won’t bring me the bird only now
has my hand found the stones
I could add to the smooth interior
of my despair the world goes dark
I look into the eyes of my stone bird
hammers before memory
silence and the world that is not
from ‘mirabile dictu’ in Mirabile Dictu
Along Mezzaluna’s reading tracks you will find honeysuckle, daffodils, roses, melons, breath, the wind, stars, here, there, light, dark, heart. Always heart. Always the interplay between light and dark. Michele has dedicated Mezzaluna to those who travel light and lift darkness’. Yes reading is a fertile way of travelling, life equally so; light and dark stick to us like biddybids, but our relations with and navigation of both are unique. What do we carry with us? What do we keep placing in our personal baggage? What do we do with the dark? For Michele, with her slow movement into blindness decades back, and all the challenges that have affected every aspect of her life, blindness has understandably also seeped into her writing. She has always been attuned to the sound of words, the mobility of language, words as sound dance in the ear, in harmony and discord. But the possibilities of sound, under Michele’s deft guidance, have become a glorious anchor for everything that has mattered and will matter.
The lush terrain of the visual is also a sumptuous part of Michele’s poetry. The recurring motifs I have already mentioned range from piquant to honeyed, visual bouquets in their own physicality but players in so much more. Participants in ideas, the mythological references, the recuperation of memory, family history, personal challenges.
It is equally rewarding to listen for the other women, particularly the poets who have captured Michele’s attention and diligent rescue work: I am thinking of the way Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and Ursula Bethell have become a visible part of the network. More recently Lola Ridge. Michele’s latest project is Emily Harris, a New Plymouth poet who died in 1925 and whose work has been located in Sappho-like traces. Michele response to the missing poet is to recreate versions in Vanishing Traces.
I have heard Michele perform poems from most of her collections and it has always affected me deeply. To listen to poems from As Far As I Can See – the poems that expose her move into blindness – these have been audience-affecting occasions. I have sat in a line of poetry fans and we have been utterly still, barely able to take breath at the daring exposure, the heartbreaking experience, the exquisite and utterly memorable poetry.
Ah, no matter what I write, no matter what I signal, I feel like I am shortchanging this rich and elegantly constructed volume. Michele told Paula Morris she had originally sent in a longer version but had cut it back and, in doing so, focused on the DNA of each book, on what was important. As she read and replayed, she carried a key question across the books: ‘What does a poem look like?’
This is such a good question to carry with you as you read – yes Michele’s poems do change, the lines shorten, the lexicon is more familiar, but there is common ground. Perhaps it comes down to a love of a sound, and how that love of sound is amplified when you can’t see the physical world. It is a rejuvenating, heart-engaging, thought-provoking read and it feels like this Michele’s poetry deserves a whole book of response. Michele Leggott warrants a whole book that navigates what her poetry does: its connections, its liberations, its epiphanies, its testings.
Mezzaluna showcases the work of one of our most inquisitive and sensual poets who ventures into the unknown, into an inhabited world, with an open heart and free-flowing mind. Glorious.
AUP New Poets 6 Ben Kemp, Vanessa Crofskey, Chris Stewart, edited and introduced by Anna Jackson, Auckland University Press, 2020
Salt my song …
I have to love you,
and this farmland upon which I live.
I evolve here.
One day I will journey to the sea,
become that river and dissolve into the essence of I.
Ben Kemp from ‘The Esssence of I’
The Auckland University Press series devoted to new poets was launched in 1999 and featured the work of Anna Jackson, Sarah Quigley and Raewyn Alexander. Each volume features three poets, a number of whom have since published highly regarded collections of their own (for example Chris Tse, Sonya Yelich, Reihana Robinson). Anna Jackson took over as editor with AUP New Poets 5 (Carolyn DeCarlo, Rebecca Hawkes and Sophie van Waardenberg).
Volume 7 will be out in August, but first I want to mark the arrival of AUP New Poets 6: Ben Kemp, Vanessa Crofskey, Chris Stewart. The collection was launched on Poetry Shelf during lockdown, level four, with a series of readings, poems and interviews. This was a challenging time for new books when many of us felt tilted as readers and writers, and our major contact with the world was via our screens. The events and mahi that did occur during this time is pretty special. There were opportunities to hear people read and talk about things beyond our local venues. Getting to hear the three poets read at the online launch expanded tha audience, and am keen to make online readings an ongoing feature on Poetry Shelf.
However we are now at level one, the sun is shining after endless rain and thunder, the political point scoring is on mute, I am listening to opera divas in my earpiece, the bread is cooling, and I can return to the collection with more focus. For me, reading during level four was like collecting gleams and shards. This word stuck, that phrase, this image. I had the attention span of a gnat. Now I am luxuriating in the way a sequence of poem unfolds, the way it takes you surprise and transports heart and mind. Still at a snail’s pace.
AUP New Poets 6 includes three very different poets – delivers three different reading impacts. Truth is such a dubious word, unstable, hard to pin down, we all know that, but truth seems to matter so very much in a world threatened by liars, catastrophe. I love the way the poetry moves into the truth of their experiences, thoughts, admissions. To be reading at such a human and humane level is significant. I want this complexity of comfort and challenge. Of how being human is neither formulaic nor flippant. This poetry is witty, vulnerable, challenging, complicated …. yes!
Anna Jackson’s lithe introduction (which I read after reading the poems as is my habit) confirms her role as an astute and surefooted editor of this series, with her fine eye for poetry that holds and satisfies attention regardless of the world that bombards.
Chris Stewart’s sequence, ‘Gravity’, navigates the miraculous within everyday settings. He faces big subjects such as birth, death and love, and rejuvenates them to the point your skin pricks as you read. He embeds the physical in order to evoke the intangible, the hard to say. There is darkness and there is light.
The title poem is a gem (well they all are!) as it stencils birth on the white page:
I hear nostalgia for the womb
the way light misses the hearts of stars
we glove the light in our skin
find sleep in solar wind
wrap ourselves in the gravity
of your arrival
The agile syntax (‘we glove the light’) signals a heightened state, the sense of miracle, the wonder. I am hard pressed to think of a poet who has evoked birth, fatherhood, parenthood, so beautifully. I am reminded of Emma Neale’s power to deliver wonder and awe in a poem. Turn over the page, and again there is a shift between light and dark, a sense of awe:
the first time we bathed
our daughter in the lounge
it was dark except for the fireplace
she lay between us and flickered
This is poetry at its rejuvenating best. There is rawness to the point of wound, such as in the poem, ‘a tooth emerges’. The father is wakened by a teething baby at night. The poem spins on the page, a spinning vignette of fatherhood, sharp, on edge, knowing. Here are the final verses:
now I am sore tooth pulled
from a soft bed
my swollen nerves erupt
you only see my crown
but my roots are still
embedded in the bone
Ah. Every poem in this sequence hits the right potent note. One poem links the health of the newborn to the health of a genealogy of grandmothers. Yes, family is the glue that holds the sequence together, along with the poet’s astute and probing gaze into experience. A couple of poems near the end situate the poet as son, and the ominous mother father portraits hold out dark hints. There are holes in the telling, dust-like veils, and startling images. These poems are why I keep reading poetry, and why I very much hope Chris has a book in the pipeline.
Vanessa Crofskey’s poetry was already familiar to me but her sequence, ‘ Shopping List of Small Violences’ widens my appreciation of where and how her poetry roams. She braids the personal and the political as she moves into the truths of her experience. As she does so, writing poetry is testing and playing with form, discovering form. I am reminded of how language shapes us as much as we shape the languages we use. It comes down to our mother tongue, to languages that are imposed, expectations on how we use language, and our own private relationships with how we speak ourselves. How we might stutter or provoke or soothe or struggle with words.
Just as with Chris’s sequence, the poet produces poems that matter greatly, that broadcast self along myriad airwaves. There is political edge and personal vulnerability. One poem fills a passenger arrival card, another completes a time sheet. There are white-out poems and black-out poems, shopping lists, and graphs. As she navigates form, she navigates being comfortable in her own skin.
The poem ‘dumplings are fake’ sits on the page with verses and measured space, moves with a conversational flow and that characteristic probe into self. There is wit at work, but it is also serious – reading poetry becomes a way of listening.
i’m so authentic i use chopsticks to eat macaroni
watch hentai on my huawei
and go to ponsonby central to eat chinese
i don’t carry hot sauce in my bag but i do bring soy to the party
my favourite movie of all time is studio ghibli
and my dad is the white side of the family
every time auckland council says ‘diversity targets’, my phone vibrates
i get suggested ads for the national party in chinese
and that think piece on bubble tea is a redirect to my
dot com slash about me
Again I am very much hoping there is a book in the pipeline.
Ben Kemp’s ‘The Monks Who Tend the Garden with Tiny Scissors’ also assembles poetry as a way of listening. Ben currently lives in New Guinea with his diplomatic wife and three children. He was born in Gisborne, has Rongowhakaata roots, grew up in Manutuke and Matawhero, lived in Australia for six years and ten in Japan. For me his poems are deeply attached to home, to a way of grounding place, of establishing anchors. Of being home when home is mobile. The sequence establishes a series of bridges between Japan and Aotearoa. He carries Aotearoa into every poem, regardless of the setting, while his experience in Japan also deeply permeates his point of view. The poetry welcomes both here and there.
Ben’s poetry is alive with physical detail, sometimes ornate, sometimes shimmering with the deceptive simplicity reminiscent of haiku or tanka. From ‘Food to Song’:
a bed of hot riverstones,
under the earthern blanket,
steam rises, the buttery smell of pork belly.
Perhaps the most gripping poem is the longer ‘The Essence of I’, an ode to Walt Whitman. Reading this, I am hoping there is a book in the making. I find the poem deliciously quiet, slow paced, speaking of homeplace and ancestors, oceans and rivers. Astonishing. There is love and there are longings. I keep reading Ben’s poems and adjusting what I think poetry is and what it might be. Poetry, for example, is a way of becoming. And listening. And building bridges. ‘The Essence of I’ signals a way of becoming.
Underground are the ancestors lined up in single file,
feathers in their hair, with paintbrushes for fingers and flutes for mouths.
In the darkness that is their light they are whole,
yet the line they form is for me,
carrying the burden of my impatience, they vent it.
I often pierce my hands through the earth, arms dug deep,
softer in the tractor tracks, we tough hands.
The movements in hand, saying we love each other …
The northeastern tip is the desert,
I hitched a ride on that wind-blowing orchestra,
and I found a well,
my consciousness, and perfect white sunlight on a vast bed of sand …
The well was filled with embers, breathing smoke,
I sat for days contemplating its meaning to me,
these loose and odd snippets.
Why burn? Why burn?
AUP NEW Poets 6 is a glorious read. Exactly what I want to be reading now. I am hungry for poetry that offers facets of humanity, of humaneness. The anthology brings together voices speaking in multiple poetic forms, across multiple subjects, in shifting tones and hues. Glorious, simply glorious.
AUP NEW Poets 6 launch: listen to the poets read here