Tag Archives: Bernadette Hall

Poetry Shelf review – Bernadette Hall’s Maukatere: floating mountain – little dandelion kisses that hit the page and hook you



There are gauzy bandages of mist all down the East Cast as far as Bluff

Having to face our own despairs, we moved out onto the promontory

The ship was an illusion, a golden ship and a galleon,so high in the water

He may not be such a beautiful man when he is older, when the bones take over

I’m so glad we went to meet you, little darling, walking towards us through the tussock



Bernadette Hall has published numerous poetry collections with Victoria University Press – books that resonate so beautifully for both ear and heart. Her poems are like intricate lacework. Just gorgeous.

With her latest project, Bernadette was drawn to work with two younger women on a chapbook that drew inspiration from her local mountain, from the stories that have bedded down in the area and in her mind. Helen Rickerby from Seraph Press published the book and poet Rachel O’Neill did the illustrations. Three women walking round a mountain, as Bernadette says.

The poem is like a long poem (around 14 pages) made of drifting pieces, like little dandelion kisses that hit the page and hook you. Settler stories, as Bernadette says. There is the Tangler drifting in at out; an Irish figure, both loner and trickster, who acted as a buyer-seller go-between at the fairs. The poems are the fidgety intermediary between light and dark; the glint of the present and the shadows of history.

‘and she repeats it/ like the blade of light/ that repeats itself’

Reading this is like entering the metaphorical woods, where you get whiffs of story and elsewhere and skimming voices. Mountain as woods. Standing alongside a mountain, walking around that mountain, can be a portal to voice. This is a collection of voice; think of the way you stand somewhere old and it is like you can hear the past.

And in that mysterious pull of voice, you get the hit of physical detail, earthy and grounding.

‘A day of patchy rain – another chink in things’

‘What joy in the new experimental poets – up early throwing stones into the lake’

‘There are gauzy bandages of mist all down the East Coast as far as Bluff’

‘the wounds in the marshland fill slowly with fresh water’


Reading this is magical. The woods are knotty. The mountain is. You can take so many paths, both illuminated and dark.

Helen Rickerby has produced a beautiful hand-bound book  with thick paper and an elegant design. The book is a labour of love; picture a sewing circle with stories shared. The limited, hand-numbered edition has virtually sold out but a second print run is in the pipeline.

Rachel O’Neill has produced the most exquisite sequence of drawings that carry their own narrative. Little cross-hatched beauties. Enigmatic. Labour intensive. The hooded-lamp figure connects us to the poems where the little glows are like a unifying thread. The lantern head pulses with meaning. The figure is defined and dependent upon both light and dark in order to exist, in order to comprehend. Again there is the subtle and beautiful link to the poems where the light references rebound. It is as though certain things, whether recalled or invented, are caught in the beam of poet.

This is a very special book.



Bernadette co-founded Hagley Writers’ Institute In Christchurch. She lives at Amberley Beach in the Hurinui in North Canterbury. Bernadette was awarded The Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry in 2015.

Rachel’s debut collection was One Human in Height (Hue & Cry Press). She is a filmmaker, writer and artist.

Seraph Press page

Bernadette Hall’s Life & Customs– such readerly movement is a like a breath of fresh air


Bernadette Hall, Life & Customs, Victoria University Press, 2013

Bernadette Hall is an award-winning poet, mentor and anthologist living on the coast north of Christchurch. She has published numerous collections of poetry including the terrific The Lustre Jug (2009). She edited Like Love Poems: Selected Poems of Joanna Margaret Paul and The Judas Tree: Poems by Lorna Staveley Anker (see my review of the latter here). She has held a residency in County Cork, Ireland and has visited Antarctica courtesy of Antarctica New Zealand. Both those experiences have found their way into her poetry. You can read my interview with Bernadette here.

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Bernadette’s latest book, Life & Customs, is a substantial collection that draws upon the layers of the world with such poetic finesse it is impossible not to fall in love with it. The book is in two parts with a ballet interlude. Bernadette opens with a quote by Wallace Stevens (this bit stood out for me: ‘Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange revelation’). It seems the perfect epigraph for the collection, as the poems enact moments of ‘life’s nonsense’ (you could say — strangeness, surprise) along with those ‘revelations’ (also unexpected, nourishing).

This is a book of home, of shifting geographies and roots laid down, of memory flashes and of loving attachments (‘this is all part of the long slow plunge into memory’). So it is no surprise the first poem, ‘how lovely to see you,’ is like a welcome mat. More than any other book I have read in an age, Bernadette welcomes you into a nook of poetic warmth. This book exudes warmth, there is no extravagant game playing or showing off – instead you get led into the heart of living and life. Such readerly movement is like a breath of fresh air.

The first joy of this collection is the simplicity. I am not going to use the word plainness but opt instead for a word that registers beauty, stillness, contemplation, attentiveness and a zen-like deportment. Take these lines for example: ‘the sea comes in and kisses my feet/ then it goes back out again.’ This line appears after a small list of strange and not so strange things (like kinks in the day): ‘the little boy has swallowed/ a sadness bean.’

The second joy is the music, something that I have written of before in my appreciation of Bernadette’s poetry. Take any poem in this book and you will discover its musical contours – the way each line is pitch perfect in its undulating sounds and tones (‘We don’t need the pucker and slip of a tablecloth’). There is delicious assonance (tick clicky kids drift); there is heavenly rhyme (father/ harbour); there are words that coo on the ends of lines (plunge Mamaku); there are sharp words that sound off key (fatal); there is silence breaking into a line; there are sounds scattered like aural glitter or glue (‘m’ sounds in ‘The view from the lookout’).

The third joy is the humour. There is chuckle and body mirth in many of these poems. In ‘The day Death turned up on the beach’ the narrator invites Death over for scones with jam and cream. There is the book you can borrow but you can’t open to read. ‘In Search of Happiness’ humour mixes together with the surreal in a fablesque poem. There are two islands – one goes up in smoke and one drowns.

The fourth joy is the use of memory that takes you to and fro in nostalgic movements. ‘The Grinder’ takes you back to ‘way back when’ and there you are winding wool and making mince out of cold roast meat. There are things we take for granted that suddenly pulse on the page.

As I read the ballet interlude, I wondered who could turn this into ballet, but as I read, I choreographed the lines into a visual feast in my mind.

Bernadette writes with the poetic poise and insight of Dinah Hawken. To read these earthy and heavenly attachments is to fill with joy at what poetry can do. This is a marvellous collection.

Thanks to VUP, I have a copy of the book to give to someone who likes or comments on this post.

Victoria University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page

Canterbury University Press page

Best NZ Poems edited by Bernadette Hall here

My review of The Lustre Jug in The NZ Herald

Bernadette Hall talks to Poetry Shelf: All I know is that I’m more in love with poetry, whatever it is, than ever


Bernadette Hall is an award-winning poet, editor and teacher living at a beach north of Christchurch. She has published numerous collections of poetry, but is one of those poets who gives more to the community than just her marvelous poems. Bernadette co-founded the Hagley Writers’ Institute in Christchurch and has continued to mentor young writers. As editor she has placed two New Zealand women poets under a welcome spotlight. She edited Like Love Poems: Selected Poems of Joanna Margaret Paul (2006) and The Judas Tree: Poems by Lorna Staveley Anker (2013). Both are terrific additions to the local, poetry landscape.

With a new collection about to be launched by Victoria University Press on November 1st, it seemed the perfect time to interview Bernadette. I will post a review of Life & Customs at the beginning of November.

Bernadette’s poems are lyrical havens, where musical chords are words that chime and where rhythms shift in undercurrents of beat. As you read, your body unwittingly absorbs the music, the delicious flecks of assonance, alliteration and rhyme. Her poems lead you back out into the world, to the detail that makes the poet’s experience shine not just at a physical level but at a level where things less easily put into words take root (beauty, love, grief, despair, doubt, intuition, compassion, kindness, thought). She is not afraid to use similes and when she uses them they refresh the poem (‘The rain is like mice scrabbling in the ceiling’ and ‘It’s like walking into a room that’s full/ of McCahons, you know, the way the air changes’). Sometimes a poem is a home for anecdote (much came from her six-month residency in Ireland for The Lustre Jug). Sometimes it is a home for sights and sounds and information that the poet with her eyes and ears open to the world has gleaned (a little like a poet-magpie). If you haven’t yet discovered the luminous attractions of Bernadette’s poems, her collection The Lustre Jug (VUP, 2009) is the perfect place to start (find a hammock, add The Ponies (VUP, 2007) and The Merino Princess: Selected Poems (VUP, 2004) and you will be set!).

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The interview:

Dear Paula

Here’s a little something, a sort of reply to your questions.

I haven’t really got a lot to say about poetry at the moment. I think the teaching gene has finally been extinguished in me.  I’m not so sure about things that I used to be sure of a year or so ago.  I have to think that this is a healthy state of affairs.

All I know is that I’m more in love with poetry, whatever it is, than ever.


My mother loved language.

Her conversation sparkled with word play and old sayings from Central Otago and from her Irish family. These sayings were rich and dangerous, they had everyone laughing. There was a sharp wit and scathing irony in them. If we complained about a petticoat that hung down a little or a spot that had turned up on our chins just before we went up town with our friends, she’d say ‘A blind man on a galloping horse wouldn’t see that.’ An expression of high praise from her sister, my aunt, was ‘Why you’re the girl your mother forgot to drown.’ Haha, it was outrageous and dangerous  and full of affection.  Heehee, saying one thing and meaning another, isn’t that supposed to be a definition of poetry?

My mother’s mother had a few words of the Irish. My two sisters and I have inherited an affection for what we call the Irish gift of charming, scurrilous repartee. ‘My arse to you and that’s behind me’ my grandmother would say, apparently.  But never to her grand-children.  My mother would quote her if we were playing up, digging our heels in.  ‘Oh, bum through the letterbox,’ she’d say. And that was that. It might have been an acknowledgement of being rendered speechless but it was also a declaration of authority. There were to be no more arguments or protestations. We’d have to laugh but we’d also have to do what we were told.  Even more so after my father died, felled by a heart attack, right in front of me, I’d just arrived home from school and I was sixteen.

To be grief-stricken. To speak to no-one in my family, not my mother or my sisters, for a year                 ( something I’d ‘forgotten’ until one of my sisters reminded me and then I was amazed that something in my own inexplicable private life as I had experienced it, had had an impact on someone else, that it had been visible when all that time I had thought I was invisible.)  To be so angry.

At Holy Name School in Dunedin ( site now of the Students Union, only a huge walnut tree remains)  I learnt language as mystery in the Latin Mass. I learnt musical rhythms in the repetitions of the Litany of the Saints many of whom had the most remarkable names, Cosmas and Chrosogynus for example.  Ora pro nobis, we’d chorus, ‘pray for us.’  And if two saints were invoked in the same breath, we’d use the plural orate pro nobis. Not one word of Maori passed our lips but plenty of the language of the Roman Empire, of civilisation and theological sureties.

We performed poems in a poetry choir conducted by Miss Molly Randall.  ‘I must go down to the sea again / to the lonely sea and the sky’ and ‘one of them two of them three of them four of them / seabirds on the shore.’ We copied out poems by Rupert Brooke, Scottish ballads (so marvellously tragic), Milton on his blindness and Elizabeth Barrett Browning on love.  Eileen Duggan was a Catholic so of course we learnt her poems. I loved especially her lines about the little silver consecration bell ringing in the untamed darkness of the New Zealand bush. Now it’s her doubting poems that I admire.

Belief and unbelief, the tension between them being a virtue, I have been told, in the poems I wrote in response to the sculptures by Llew Summers,  the Stations of the Cross, which remain sound but imprisoned in the destructed Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch. Anthony Ritchie has written a symphony for full orchestra and solo soprano in which he uses words from these poems. The work will be premiered in Christchurch on February 22, 2014.

As a child, I wrote poems for my friend Annette. She set me a topic and paid me a penny and I gave her a poem.  On things like Dogs ( I was passionately in love with dogs, desperate to have one but I don’t think we could have afforded one) and Spring and The Circus.  I wrote a long essay on The Sea.  It delighted Mother St Joan and got me a straight A. But the real pleasure was in sitting at the little table in the window of the spare room, looking out at the poplars and the willows and the river, the Leith.  Being solitary and absorbed. Silent, lost to myself and fully alive. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that the desire for this kind of internal ‘room of my own’ awoke in me again.

I always loved the sea. My dad and I were the bravest when it came to swimming. He’d float on his back, going up and down on the waves. I played tennis. I played the cello, in the King Edward Tech orchestra conducted by Mr Waldon Mills. Later on I was in the Otago University orchestra led by Bill Southgate. Music and Latin and freedom.  I climbed trees with my friend Nicki. I ran wild along the track to the Gardens, I spent hours puddling around in the Leith, catching cockabullies and tiny weedy lobsters. I planted flower seeds – I was born to do manual work, to be a gardener, digging, pruning, lugging, mulching, turning the compost heap, raking the little pebble paths that go for grass out here in the droughty Hurunui. I can remember my Dad’s mother, a little Northern Irish migrant, a farmer, a prohibitionist, running out onto the road in Leith Valley behind the milkman’s cart.  I helped her shovel up the horse’s droppings to feed the pansies in the garden.

I have spent a lifetime immersed in the language of poetry and plays as a high school teacher, specialising in English, Latin and Classical Studies. The poet, Iain Lonie, tried to teach me Greek. His poetry and he himself, transfigured by his love for Judith, were more successful in teaching me ‘to prize what is of value’ than anything else.  John Dickson’s presence, the way he reads his poems, the fact that like Geoff Cochrane, he makes poetry visible and desirable in his very being, the fact that in conversation with these two and with Joanna Margaret Paul, I felt/feel myself getting nourishment for that sometimes hidden part of my life, the way, by my given nature, I tend to hide what I treasure the most.

When I read essays by Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney and Nuala Ni Dhomnhaill, poems by Wallace Stevens and Michele Leggott, John Berryman and  Hone Tuwhare, I am often going around the same traps but each time I find something new, something that I need, something that changes the work I am doing at the time.

I admire the poems that Tusiata Avia is writing at the moment. ‘The beauty of the husband’ by Anne Carson and The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn.  Novels by John Coetzee, Nigel Cox and Janet Frame. The Bath Fugues by Brian Castro. I have just started on Jorge Luis Borges, better late than never.  Max Gate by Damien Wilkins and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton are on my to be read list. Time and again I read Dia by Michele Leggott,  The Rocky Shore by Jenny Bornholdt and The Palm at the End of the Mind by Wallace Stevens.  This week I’m in love with some wonderful, edgy poems written by a student I’m currently mentoring, they make me laugh out loud. And with a few lines from Thomas Merton’s ‘Book of Hours’ – a book which was given to me as a rather surprising gift :

‘No matter how simple discourse may be

     it is never simple enough.

     No matter how simple thought may be,

     it is never simple enough.

     No matter how simple love may be,

     it is never simple enough.’

That’s how I want to write this week, with simplicitas. Next week it might be all about elaborations.

When I was a teenager I worked in the school holidays in Buntings Brush Factory, operating machines that made toilet brushes and hair-curlers. I was very happy working there.  The mix of people was a real eye-opener   For some of the workers, Buntings offered the safety and respect of a sheltered workshop.  On my last day in the December just before I turned eighteen, before I headed off to university in the following year because I didn’t want to work in a bank as the Career Adviser who visited our school had advised, a gentle older man called Bruce gave me a copy of Allen Curnow’s The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (1960) as a farewell present. I still have it. There’s a poem there that said everything I could have imagined at the time about love and sex and longing.

‘Beloved your love is poured to enchant all the land

         the great bull falls still the opossum turns from his chatter

         and the thin nervous cats pause and the strong oak-trees stand

         entranced and the gum’s restless bark-strip is stilled from its clatter.

from ‘Flow at Full Moon’ by R. A. K. Mason.

The poem spoke to me and for me. It was like a voice from another planet.

When I write a poem, I want to break through. To be completely lost. So that the words aren’t mine, so that the flow is automatic. It’s like flying if it’s going well and that’s just the first flush of it. That’s when the best, the strangest lines make their appearance. But the whole usually takes more time and patience, allowing everything and then letting it all settle and find itself.  The aim being to make something that’s truthful and brave and beautiful. I like to give myself a bit of a fright, to push out beyond what I’d thought was possible. Poetry is the ground on which I can let myself go.  I can throw myself away and hope in a mad kind of way that I’ll be found and how liberating is that.

Victoria University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre page

Canterbury University Press page

Best NZ Poems edited by Bernadette Hall here

My review of The Lustre Jug in The NZ Herald

Lorna Staveley Anker: As much the stalled car as the cool, Agean sea

Lorna Staveley Ankar The Judas Tree (Canterbury University Press, 2013)

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Bernadette Hall has edited The Judas Tree, a selection of poems by Lorna Staveley Anker (1914 – 2000). The book also contains a detailed bibliography of publications, chronological autobiographical notes and an introduction by the editor.

This poet was unknown to me and I was grateful that she was not only brought to my attention, but that I was able to place her poems within the context of her life and times. Having just reviewed a novel for The NZ Herald by an Italian author (Elena Ferrante) who insists on absolute anonymity, I have been musing on the usefulness of authorial contexts. Since Roland Barthes’ provocative ‘Death of the Author’ essay decades ago — and truckloads of theory on the role of the reader and the performance of ‘texts’ — I think it is very clear the author is not the sole authority on what is written/published. If we remove ‘authority’ from the cult of the author, then we might be left with authorial context (autobiography, social and cultural times, opinions and so on).  Thus, I welcome with open arms access to such details — along with a vital conversation on the practice of writing and reading fiction and poetry.

So a brief author context: Lorna was born in Christchurch. When she was two, her father died from throat cancer and her mother took in boarders to support the family. The mother’s grief was amplified by the death of her three brothers in 1918. Her mental state affected Lorna. Lorna married a fellow teacher, had five children and began writing and publishing in the 1960s. After the death of her husband, she became more public as a writer, with poems appearing in numerous journals and magazines. Her debut collection appeared in 1986, My Streetlamp Dances, with two more to follow. Lorna writes in an essay on women in wartime, ‘I am a war casualty.’ She suffered from night terror, agoraphobia, anxiety, panic attacks, and in her final years, Parkinson’s Disease.

Bernadette concludes the book with a moving set of acknowledgements — above all, to Lorna herself: ‘if she hadn’t been such a beautiful presence; if I hadn’t been invited to speak at her funeral; if I hadn’t suspected that the subversiveness of her conversation might be reflected in some hidden-away manuscripts; if she hadn’t brought up her daughter to be as fearless as she herself was, this book might never have come into existence’ (106).

Lorna’s poems reflect a mind that engaged with the world acutely, wittily, compassionately. There is a plainness to the language in that similes and metaphors are sidestepped for nouns and verbs. These are poems of observation, attention, reaction, opinion, experience. The starting point might be the most slender of moments — and the poetry opens out from there, surprisingly, wonderfully.

In the first section (and indeed the largest section), war makes its presence felt; from the pain of departures, to the pain of the wounded, to the ache of loss. At times Lorna filters a poem through the eyes of her young self (for example, trying to make sense of Armistice Day). At times a concrete detail makes the poem more poignant (‘her spade searching/ her garden for/ her three lost sons’). In ‘Arie’s Tale’ the detail that renders the pain sharper is the ‘tyreless rims.’ In this poem the dead are carried away on a bicycle that makes such a clatter it is the hardest thing to bear (‘He felt it wasn’t respectful/ to his customers’). Lorna’s war poems stretch in all directions — they never forget the life that goes on and they never forget the heartbreak and loss that are etched indelibly. One of my favourite poems, ‘V.E.Day … and Neenish Tarts,’ moves beautifully between these two opposing but entwined forces. From the darkness of battle (now over), the poem moves to the grandmother dancing on the bed (as warm flesh weaves/ pink circles/ under a nightgown’; and from there to ‘Let’s have Neenish tarts for tea’ (this is cause for celebration). This first section of the book is a terrific addition to New Zealand war poetry because it casts a light on women at war (even when they remain in the kitchen).

The remainder of the book shows that Lorna is more than a war poet. Her sense of humour is there in the dance with a tea-cosy upon her friend’s head. There is the recurrent political edge that marks a mind roving in the world (‘Every headline is grit in the eye’). There is the slight surrealness of the the house in Lyttleton that swells every night, ‘Since they widened the road.’ There is the stepping around poetic corners to re-view the facts or first impressions (The company agent (her father) collected all the statistics in his diary but would you guess ‘the uplands and plains/ of early Canterbury ever/ yielded beauty, colour, form’).

There are numerous poems that stand out (I love the compounding detail in ‘Recipe for Writing a Poem in the Dark’), but I want to finish with a peek at ‘Vision of Escape.’ In this poem a city is being traversed and the driver asks, ‘what is poetry?’ The poem then travels from ornate metaphor to gloomy night to stationary moment to ornate-but-cooler metaphor to stalled car. Ingenuous. The poet deftly moves in and out of reality and ‘the moment’ — and as the title suggests that is exactly what the pen does. Poems are as much the stalled car as they are the ‘green/ Aegean sea.’

Lorna’s collection is a delightful discovery. Her poems never sit still (do any?). They take you to grief and yet to laughter. Their linguistic simplicity is a gateway to a rich, reading experience. I am very grateful.

Canterbury University Press

Mary McPherson on Lorna Staveley Ankar

Mary’s review in Landfall

The editor Bernadette Hall is to be congratulated on bringing these poems to a wider audience. Bernadette lives at Amberley Beach in North Canterbury. She has published numerous collections of poetry including The Lustre Jug, and edited Joanna Margaret Paul’s Like Love Poems: Selected Poems. She was a judge for this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards and co-founded the Hagley Writer’s Institute in Christchurch.

Bernadette Hall New Zealand Book Council

Bernadette Hall Victoria University Press

Bernadette Hall nzepc