Tag Archives: Bill Manhire

Poetry Shelf Monday poem: Bill Manhire’s ‘The Hungry Past’

The Hungry Past 

The past isn’t dead; 

it’s eating my brain. 

It looks up for a moment 

then tucks right in again.

Bill Manhire

Bill Manhire founded the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, which a little over 20 years ago became the International Institute of Modern Letters. His most recent book Wow is published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK.

Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Thirteen poems about water

‘A poem is / a ripple of words / on water wind-huffed’

Hone Tuwhare

from ‘Wind, Song and Rain’ in Sap-wood & Milk, Caveman Press, 1972

The ocean is my go-to salve. Before we went into level-four lockdown last year, I went to Te Henga Bethells Beach near where I live. I stood by the water’s edge as the sun was coming up. The air was clear and salty. Not a soul in sight. I breathed in and I breathed out, and I saved that sublime moment for later. Like a screen shot. Over the ensuing weeks in lockdown, I was able to return to that spot, my eyes on the water, my senses feeding on wildness and beauty. Look through my poetry collections and you will see I can’t keep the ocean out. It is always there somewhere.

Unsurprisingly there is a profusion of water poems in Aotearoa – think the ocean yes, but lakes and rivers and floods and dripping taps. This was an impossible challenge: whittling all the poems I loved down to a handful. I hadn’t factored in leaving poems out when I came up with my theme-season plan. Some poets are particularly drawn to water. Kiri Piahana-Wong’s sublime collection Night Swimming is like an ode to water. The same can be said of Lynn Davidson’s glorious collections How to Live by the Sea and The Islander. Or read your way through Apirana Taylor’s poems and you will find they are water rich – and his poetry flows like water currents. As does the poetry of Hone Tuwhare. Again water rich. And of course the poetry of Dinah Hawken, with her lyrical eye bringing the natural world closer, water a constant companion.

I have so loved this water sojourn. The poems are not so much about water but have a water presence. I am grateful to all the poets and publishers who continue to support my season of themes.

The poems

Girl from Tuvalu

girl sits on porch

back of house

feet kicking

salt water skimming

like her nation

running fast

nowhere to go

held up by

Kyoto Protocol

An Inconvenient Truth

this week her name is Siligia

next week her name will be

Girl from Tuvalu: Environmental Refugee

her face is 10,000

her land is 10 square miles

she is a dot

below someone’s accidental finger

pointing westwards

the bare-chested boys

bravado in sea spray

running on tar-seal

they are cars

they are bikes

they are fish out of water

moana waves a hand

swallows

a yellow median strip

moana laps at pole houses

in spring tide

gulping lost piglets

and flapping washing

girl sits on porch

kicking

Selina Tusitala Marsh

from Dark Sparring, Auckland University Press, 2013, picked by Amy Brown

The body began to balance itself

It started to rain

and it was not clear

if this would last a short time

or a long time

so I got my husband

and colleagues

and the librarian

and the owner of the local chip shop

and the humourless lady who failed me

on eyesight at the driver licence testing station

into a boat

though it was extremely cramped

and they rowed

out to the open ocean

and sat quiet

and waited.

Louise Wallace

from Bad Things, Victoria University Press, 2017

The Lid Slides Back

Let me open

my pencil-case made of native woods.

It is light and dark in bits and pieces.

The lid slides back.

The seven pencils are there, called Lakeland.

I could draw a sunset.

I could draw the stars.

I could draw this quiet tree beside the water.

Bill Manhire

from The Victims of Lightning, Victoria University Press, 2010

Train of thought

I thought of vitality,

I thought of course of a spring.

I thought of the give inherent

in the abiding nature of things.

I thought of the curve of a hammock

between amenable trees.

I thought of the lake beyond it

calm and inwardly fluent

and then I was thinking of you.

You appeared out of the water

like a saint appearing from nowhere

as bright as a shining cuckoo

then dripping you stood in the doorway

as delighted by friendship as water

and beaming welcomed us in.

Dinah Hawken

The lake

The ripples are small enough. The lake surface is the lake surface is the lake surface. All lakes exist in the same space of memory. Deep dark water. The scent of stones. I think of a swift angle to depth. I think of the sound when you’re underwater and the gravel shifts beneath your feet. I think of all the colours of water that look black, that look wine dark, that look like youth looking back at me. I can barely take it. I can see the lake breathing. I am the lake breathing. The lake breathes and I breathe and the depth of both of us is able to be felt by finger, by phone, by feeling. Don’t ask what you don’t want to know. I ask everything. I want to know nothing, everything, just tell it all to me. The gravel shifts again with the long-range round echo of stones underwater. I am separate parts breathing together. You say that I am a little secret. You say, as your brain seizes, that you have lost the way. Your eyes flicker and flutter under your eyelids as you try to find what’s lost, what’s gone forever. Nothing can really be found. I am never located when I want to be located the most. I am instead still that teenager on the side of the road with a cello hard case for company. I forget I exist. You forget I exist. I’ve forgotten I’ve believed I’ve not existed before. I’ve not forgotten you. Never forgotten your face. Could never. Would never. I don’t know how to communicate this with you in a way that you’ll understand. My mouth waters. I am back in the lake again. Except I’m the lake and I’m water myself.

Emma Barnes

Flow

To the stone, to the hill, to the heap, to the seep,

to the drip, to the weep, to the rock, to the rill,

to the fell, to the wash, to the splash, to the rush,

to the bush, to the creep, to the hush;

to the down, to the plain, to the green, to the drift,

to the rift, to the graft, to the shift, to the break,

to the shake, to the lift, to the fall, to the wall,

to the heft, to the cleft, to the call;

to the bend, to the wend, to the wind, to the run,

to the roam, to the rend, to the seam, to the foam,

to the scum, to the moss, to the mist, to the grist,

to the grind, to the grain, to the dust;

to the core, to the gorge, to the grove, to the cave,

to the dive, to the shore, to the grave, to the give,

to the leave, to the oar, to the spring, to the tongue,

to the ring, to the roar, to the song;

to the surge, to the flood, to the blood, to the urge

to the rage, to the rod, to the rood, to the vein,

to the chain, to the town, to the side, to the slide,

to the breadth, to the depth, to the tide;

to the neap, to the deep, to the drag, to the fog,

to the stick, to the slick, to the sweep, to the twig,

to the roll, to the tug, to the roil, to the shell,

to the swell, to the ebb, to the well, to the sea.

Airini Beautrais

from Flow, Victoria University Press, 2017, picked by Amy Brown

as the tide

i am walking the path

around hobson bay point

nasturtiums grow up the cliff face

and the pitted mud has a scattering

of thick jagged pottery, bricks

faded edam cheese packaging

and a rusty dish rack

all of the green algae

is swept in one direction

i am only aware of the blanketed crabs

when a cloud passes overhead

and they escape in unison

into their corresponding homes

claws nestling under aprons

my dad talks about my depression

as if it were the tide

he says, ‘well, you know,

the water is bound to go in and out’

and to ‘hunker down’

he’s trying to make sense of it

in a way he understands

so he can show me his working

i look out to that expanse,

bare now to the beaks of grey herons, which i realise is me

in this metaphor

Lily Holloway

Ode to the water molecule

 

‘Our body is a moulded river.’ Novalis

 

Promiscuous, by some accounts,

or simply playing the field—

     indecisive, yet so decidedly

yourself, you are

 

all these things: ice flow,

cloud cover,

     bend of a river,

crystalline structure

 

on an aeroplane window, fire-

bucket or drop

in the ocean, dissolver of a morning’s

     tablets or

 

mountain range. We envy you

your irresolution,

          the way you get along

with yourself, as glacier

     or humidity of

 

an overheated afternoon. A glass

of pitch-black water

               drunk at night.

Catchment and run-off. Water,

         we allow you

 

your flat roof and rocky bed

but there are also

          tricks we have taught you:

papal fountain, water

feature, liquid chandelier and

     boiling jug. It is, however,

                 your own mind

 

you make up, adept as you are

          —‘the universal solvent’—

at both piecing together

and tearing apart. With or

 

without us, you find your own

structure, an O and two H’s

                    in the infinity

 

of your three-sidedness, your

     triangulation, at once trinity

and tricycle. Two oars

and a dinghy, rowed.

 

Colourless, but for

‘an inherent hint of blue’,

     molecule in which

we are made soluble, the sum

of our water-based parts—

 

resourceful, exemplary friend

      kindred spirit – not one to jump to

conclusions

as you would traverse a stream, but rather

 

as you would leap in. Fluid,

by nature—given to swimming more than

being swum—

    with rain as your spokesperson,

 

tattooed surface of a river’s

undiluted wonder,

          snowfall and drift,

you enter the flow

 

of each of us, turn us around

     as you turn yourself around

as tears,

     sustenance,

          more tears.

 

Gregory O’Brien

first appeared (in a typeset and ‘drawn’ version) in PN Review 252, in the UK, March-April 2020.

First dusk of autumn here and i swim

through fish flicker through

little erasing tails

 

that rub the seafloor’s light-net out

that ink in night

 

down south winter warms to her task and 

will arrive smelling of wet shale in 

a veil of rain     

 

bats flicker into leaves 

to rub the tree-cast light-net from the grass

to ink in night 

Lynn Davidson

Waiheke

You yearn so much
you could be a yacht.
Your mind has already
set sail. It takes a few days
to arrive

at island pace,
but soon you are barefoot
on the sand,
the slim waves testing
your feet

like health professionals.
You toe shells, sea glass, and odd things
that have drifted for years
and finally
washed up here.

You drop your towel
and step out of
your togs, ungainly,
first
your right foot, then

the other
stepping down
the sand
to stand
in the water.

There is no discernible
difference
in temperature.
You breaststroke in
the lazy blue.

A guy passing in a rowboat
says, ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’
And it is. Your body
afloat in salt
as if cured.

James Brown

from Poetry, 2018, picked by Frankie McMillan

Mere Taito

Isthmus

Write the sea in your heart, write the rain.

Only that. Words are a poor habit. Let

the wind slide under your ribs let the rain,

for no one will love you the way

you write to be loved,

and your name only a name – but the green

edge of a wave made knifish by light

or some hurtful winter clarity in the water:

a bright sheet of sky against the horizon as if

breathing, as if the air itself

is your own self, waiting. Only there.

And know how your heart is the green deep sea,

dark and clear and untame,

and its chambers are salt and the beating

of waves, and the waves breaking,

and the waves.

Olivia Macassey

from Takahē, issue 90

Deep water talk

In honour of Hone Tuwhare

& no-one knows

if your eyes are

blurred red from

the wind, too

much sun, or the 

tears streaking your

face that could be

tears or just lines of

dried salt, who 

can tell

& you never can tell

if you are seasick,

drunk, or just

hungover—the 

symptoms are the

same

& sea and sky merge

until the horizon is

nothing but an

endless blue line

in every direction, 

so that you are sailing,

not on the sea, as you

thought, but in a

perfectly blue, circular 

bowl, never leaving

the centre

& you wonder who 

is moving, you or

the clouds racing

by the mast-head

& you wonder if

those dark shapes

in the water are 

sharks, shadows, or

nothing but old fears

chasing along behind

you

& the great mass of

land recedes, you 

forget you were

a land-dweller, 

feeling the pull 

of ancient genes

—in every tide, your

blood sings against

the moon

& food never tasted

so good, or water

so sweet—you’ve 

never conserved water

by drinking wine

before—and rum;

and coke; and rum 

and coke; and can

after can of cold

beer

& your sleep is

accompanied, not

by the roar of traffic 

on the highway,

but by the creaks

and twangs of your

ship as she pitches

and moans through

the dark ocean,

all alone

& you wonder—

where did that bird,

that great gull perching

on the bowsprit,

come from?

Kiri Piahana-Wong

from Night Swimming, Anahera Press, 2013

The Poets

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. 

Airini Beautrais lives in Whanganui and is the author of four poetry collections and a collection of short fiction. Her most recent poetry collection is Flow: Whanganui River Poems (VUP 2017). Bug Week and Other Stories recently won the Ockham NZ Book Fiction Award 2021.

James Brown’s Selected Poems was published by VUP in 2020. He is working on a new book.

Lynn Davidson’s latest poetry collection Islander is published by Shearsman Books and Victoria University Press. She had a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2013 and a Bothy Project Residency at Inshriach Bothy in the Cairngorms in 2016.  In 2011 she was Visiting Artist at Massey University. She won the Poetry New Zealand Poetry Award, 2020 and is the 2021 Randell Cottage Writer in Residence. Lynn has a doctorate in creative writing and teaches creative writing. She recently returned to New Zealand after four years living and writing in Edinburgh.  

Dinah Hawken lives and writes in Paekakariki. Her ninth collection of poetry, Sea-light, will be published by Victoria University Press in August, 2021.

Lily Holloway is a queer nacho-enthusiast. She is forthcoming in AUP New Poets 8 and you can find her work here.

Olivia Macassey’s poems have appeared in Poetry New ZealandTakahēLandfallBriefOtolithsRabbit and other places. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and The Burnt Hotel (Titus). Her website

Bill Manhire founded the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, which a little over 20 years ago became the International Institute of Modern Letters. His new book Wow is published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK.

Selina Tusitala Marsh (ONZM, FRSNZ) is the former New Zealand Poet Laureate and  has performed poetry for primary schoolers and presidents (Obama), queers and Queens (HRH Elizabeth II). She has published three critically acclaimed collections of poetry, Fast Talking PI (2009), Dark Sparring (2013), Tightrope (2017) and an award-winning graphic memoir, Mophead (Auckland University Press, 2019) followed by Mophead TU (2020), dubbed as ‘colonialism 101 for kids’.

Gregory O’Brien recently completed a new collection of poems Streets and Mountains and is presently working on a monograph about artist Don Binney for AUP.

Kiri Piahana-Wong is a poet and editor, and she is the publisher at Anahera Press. She lives in Auckland.

Mere Taito is a poet living and working in Kirikiriroa. She is interested in the way poetry can be used to revitalise minority Indigenous languages like Fäeag Rotuạm ta.

Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press, most recently Bad Things. She is the founder and editor of Starling, and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Otago.

Ten poems about clouds

Twelve poems about ice

Ten poems about dreaming

Eleven poems about the moon

Twelve poems about knitting

Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Twelve poems about ice

Photo credit: Alison Glenny

Some poetry books catch you on the first page and you get goosebumps and your breathing changes and you know this is a book for you. I felt like that when I first read Alison Glenny’s sublime The Farewell Tourist with its luminous connections to Antarctica. There is something about poetry that takes risks, that never loses touch with heart, is unafraid of ideas, and is able to sing on the line. You just want to camp up in the book for days, with a thermos of tea, and all your devices unplugged.

I felt the same way about Bill Manhire’s extraordinary poem ‘Erebus Voices’ (Lifted, Victoria University Press, 2005). You can read the poem at The Spin Off here and listen to Bill read the poem here. Thinking of Alison’s book and Bill’s poem, I knew ice had to be one of my themes.

Ice in poems: it might be a hint, a hurt, an underlying coldness, an icy image, a heart freeze, a trip to the snow-capped mountain, a melting ice-cream, an avalanche.

I am so grateful to all the poets who have supported my extended thematic poetry gatherings. Thank you.

The Poetry Shelf Theme Season runs every Friday until mid August.

In the morning the mountains beckon

Blue and clear like bells; glaciers feed upon

Light pouring from heaven brighter than ice-stone.

Ruth France (1913-1968), from No Traveller Returns: the selected poems of Ruth France, Cold Hub Press, 2020

Twelve poems about ice

Some afternoons a fog rolled down the hallway. On others, the staircase groaned with moisture. A finger laid carelessly on a bannister dislodged a ledge of rime. She lifted the hem of her dress to avoid the damp in the passageway, wore knitted gloves in the kitchen. She was lying in the bath when the glacier pushed through the wall. She sank deeper into the water to escape the chill that settled on her shoulders. Trying to ignore the white haze, to lose herself between the pages of her book.

Alison Glenny

from The Farewell Tourist, Otago University Press, 2018

He Manawa Maunga

We are dwarfed by a snow bank

that reaches beyond our eyes,

a single hole punctuating its white sheet.

Your hand covers my small eyes

and I feel you shielding me in the warmth of your jacket

as we move though.

I open them to a palace of ice and snow

meticulously carved by strangers

long gone down the mountain.

We sit together in silence,

deep in the mountain’s quiet heart.

Watching our breath melt away

the walls around us.

Ruby Solly

from Tōku Pāpa, Victoria University Press, 2021

Pencarrow Lighthouse

Mrs Mary Jane Bennet saw frost on the ground

circling the lighthouse where her children sleep.

At the cliff edge where wildflowers were,

gulls wash seafoam up the shore.

You, gulls, over hoofprints on the track,

over the dunes, over pearl beams ghosting

out from the lighthouse,

in your thousands over clean seashells.

The wind spins dead things in circles.

Collect up the wintertime, won’t you,

crack it on a rock,

drop it from a height.

But, you bird whose wing cuts the tops off waves,

shut your wings for the children

of Mrs Mary Jane Bennett.

Let loose a grey feather.

She will tuck it into the knot

of the blue satin ribbon

ion her eldest daughters hair, the one

who dreams of white things circling.

Nina Mingya Powles

from Girls of the Drift, Seraph Press, 2014

Wabi-sabi

I was thirty-three before I learned
people stuck in snow
can die from dehydration.
I would melt icicles
on my tongue for you, resist
the drinking down, drip it
into you. Then repeat, repeat
until my lips were raw.

Deep snow squeaks. We
stop on the Desert Road
because of the snow. You
throw snowballs at the
‘Warning: Army Training Area’ sign.
I take macro-photographs of
icicles on tussock.

When we drive up the Desert Road
we lost National Radio, we lose
cellphone reception, we lose
all hope. I was thirty-seven before
I considered not trying to always fix
things. I read an article in the New Yorker 
about wabi-sabi – the beauty in the
broken and the worn. The integrity
of the much-used utilitarian object.

But then there was another article
about a woman flying to Mexico
to be put into a coma
so she can wake up mended. It is 
like rebooting a computer, said the doctor.

Despite wabi-sabi, I want that.
To live in snow and not be thirsty.
I want good reception all the way
up the country. I want a shiny, clean
version of myself. Closedown,
hibernate, restart.

Helen Lehndorf

from The Comforter, Seraph Press, 2011

Girl Reading

She overhears the sound of things in hiding.

She bites an apple and imagines orchard starlight.

Each time she licks her thumb, its tip,

she tastes the icy branches,

she hears a sigh migrate from page to page.

Bill Manhire

from Zoetropes, Victoria University Press, 1981

Opa

They would ice-skate:

he worked the canals

with speed.

My grandparents,

between villages, on ice

above the level of the land.

*

Amsterdam in the fifties:

a row of white stone houses

on a paved street.

*

New Zealand’s blue sea

lapped at sloping shores,

knew its place

at the flank of land.

Wide stars, small shells,

the open span of sand.

*

A wooden villa 

changed you.

Housed you.

Those years of good

morning, goodnight,

pudding and bread,

climbing in

and climbing out of bed.

*

Your skates 

hang on the wall.

Blond varnished wood.

Braided laces.

Those blades, sweeping,

never shook off the ice.

Angela Andrews

from Echolocation, Victoria University Press, 2007

Island girl Tokoroa

ice-cream puddle licks bare feet

a sky so bright and blue

the sun rimming its yellow stain

make-believe it is summer

yet winter bites frozen fingers

gloves and scarves for some other child

in her hands she holds the key

a coin for lunch one Sally Lunn, miss

creamy pink-smothered bun

there is no word for luxury beyond

this daily walk in winter sun

she can almost taste it

morning flicks by chafing

children

head down she holds out her hand

winter may snow for all she cares

the skies can turn black

one Sally Lunn, miss

is heaven and blue

and forever

Reihana Robinson

from Her Limitless Her, Mākaero Press (Hoopla series), 2018

Ben Lomond  

Three people in the snow  

two linked by marriage  

memorising fault line  

                                         by fault line  

  

and every  now and again  the head of the summit  

tails in

     and out of sight  

  

three people with backpacks and knees in the snow  

threading the  mountains  with a silence   

that once broken   

would make you cry  

  

and every now and again  the head of the summit  

tails  in

     and out of sight  

  

like the early love of a  June morning  

first an accent  and  then the hearing  

and the sky is a blanket wishing it gone  

  

late  on  the  summit a sparrow  

whittling alone    

                              and away 

Modi Deng

from A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, eds Paula Morris & Alison Wong, Auckland University Press, 2021

Avalanche        

There was the war on TV,

the snow, the people lying on plastic

in the snow, death arriving

with his suitcase full of tools,

the delivery out of this world

offers such a dazzling

variety, and the snow, forever this

white tableau becomes forged

with the recollections of your last

oncology visit

and the people lying on the plastic

in the snow.

At the doctor’s I sat with

my tiny hands held in my lap the way

I’d been taught, two lovebirds,

but the flesh was as cold as sheet ice

I was up to my elbows

in frostbite and snow.

There were stories in the news

each day and in the morning paper,

death can happen overnight, may

be in your house if you don’t move

fast enough, in a trench, or

the dreadful football-stadium one,

under the trees in a dark

wood, against a hedge, or even lying

on plastic in the wan snow.

Such soft subdued footfalls,

but a goodly advance

over a long stretch of time.

Others shift their seats away from me

leaving a pencil

-thin cavity, a subtle margin,

but you and I are crouched

together in the snow reading the

avalanche instructions;

they are torn and dirty, tacked to

the cobwebbed wall of some

wild and woody alpine mountain hut:

Construct earthen fortifications

Behind your village. In the case

of serious exposure it is

best to wait for rescue dogs.

We must read the instructions

we must read the instructions

but there are no instructions

I believe there are no instructions.

Vivienne Plumb

from Avalanche, Pemmican Press, 2000

The Icicles

Every morning I congratulate

the icicles on their severity.

I think they have courage, backbone,

their hard hearts will never give way.

Then around ten or half past,

hearing the steady falling drops of water

I look up at the eaves. I see

the enactment of the same old winter story

– the icicles weeping away their inborn tears,

and if only they knew it, their identity.

Janet Frame

from The Goose Bath: Poems, eds. Pamela Gordon, Denis Harold, Bill Manhire, Vintage, Random House, 2006, picked Hebe Kearney

You can hear Janet Frame read ‘The Icicles’ here

At Home in Antarctica

In this place, silence has a voice
wide-ranging as the continent.
Some say it’s on the cusp
of madness, the way it hums
and stutters, mutters to itself
in quietest tones.

In this place, the universe brims.
Inside absence, presence.
Inside distance, dust
and our sleeping earth
dreaming beneath her thin blue
mask of ice.

In this place, the necessity
of memory, recollections
of a loved one’s face, shape
of laughter, weight of breath.

In this place, nostalgia
roams patient as slow
hands on skin transparent
as melt-water. Nights are light
and long. Shadows settle
on the shoulders of air.

Time steps out of line
here stops to thaw
the frozen hearts of icebergs.
Sleep isn’t always easy in this place
where the sun stays up all night
and silence has a voice.

Claire Beynon

from Open Book – Poetry & Images (Steele Roberts, 2007).

Suggested by Jenny Powell. The poem has also been a prompt for various musical compositions, including a piece Antarctikos by US composer, Jabez Co (2010) and The Journey Home (2012) for soprano, tenor, baritone, choir and orchestra by NZ composer John Drummond.

Visiting Rita at Sydney Street West

Wellington rains in a cross-hatch tantrum.

Wind blasts batter everyone backwards.

Lost in a volley of ‘after the hill second street right

follow your nose’ I have taken the wrong hill,

veering left with an eye on the clock.

Landmarks stream down my spectacles,

couplets of directions waterfall out of my head.

Lost in a valley of paper map ink-splash,

folds between us disintegrate. In the if-only world

my fingers wrap a hot cup of tea, my coat dries by your heater.

Sticks torn from moorings shoot down white-water gutters.

Wind race of paper packets eddies in high-speed gusts.

I am lost in solitary panic.

An onslaught of sleet freezes my face.

Jenny Powell

from Meeting Rita (forthcoming June, Cold Hub Press)

Angela Andrews lives in Auckland with her family. Her PhD in Creative Writing at Victoria University examined the relationship between medicine and poetry. She has previously worked as a doctor.

Claire Beynon is a Dunedin-based artist, writer and independent researcher. She works collaboratively on a diverse range of on- and off-line projects with fellow artists, writers, scientists and musicians in NZ and abroad. These group activities are buoyed and balanced by the contemplative rhythms of her solo practice. Websites here and here.

Modi Deng is a postgraduate candidate in piano performance at the Royal Academy of Music on scholarship. Currently based in London, Modi received a MMus (First Class Honours, Marsden research scholarship) and a BA from Auckland University. Her first chapbook-length collection of poetry will be part of AUP New Poets 8. Her poems have also appeared in A Clear Dawn (AUP), Starling, the Stay Home Zine (Bitter Melon Press), and on NZ Poetry Shelf for National Poetry Day. She cares deeply about literature (especially poetry, diaspora), music, psychology, and her family.

Janet Frame (1924 – 2004), born in Dunedin, was the author of thirteen novels, five story collections, two volumes of poetry, a children’s book and a three-volume autobiography. She won numerous awards including the New Zealand Book Award for poetry, fiction and non-fiction titles, and the New Zealand Scholarship in Letters. She received New Zealand’s highest civil honour in 1990 when she became a Member of the Order of New Zealand. She was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2003 and was named an Arts Foundation Icon Artist in 2004.

Alison Glenny’s collection of prose poems The Farewell Tourist, was published by Otago University Press in 2018. A chapbook, Bird Collector, is being published by Compound Press in 2021. She lives on the Kāpiti Coast.

Helen Lehndorf’s book, The Comforter, made the New Zealand Listener’s ‘Best 100 Books of 2012′ list. Her second book, Write to the Centre, is a nonfiction book about the practice of keeping a journal. She writes poetry and non-fiction, and has been published in Sport, Landfall, JAAM, and many other publications and anthologies. Recently, she co-created an performance piece The 4410 to the 4412 for the Papaoiea Festival of the Arts with fellow Manawatū writers Maroly Krasner and Charlie Pearson. A conversation between the artists and Pip Adam can be heard on the Better Off Read podcast here

Bill Manhire founded the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, which a little over 20 years ago became the International Institute of Modern Letters. His new book Wow is published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK.

Vivienne Plumb writes poetry, short and long fiction, drama, and creative non-fiction. She held the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writing Residency in 2018, and has held several other writing residencies (both in N.Z. and overseas), and has been awarded the Hubert Church Prose Award and the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award, amongst others. Her work has been widely anthologised. A new chapbook of her poems will be released in July, 2021. 

Jenny Powell is a Dunedin poet and performer. Her work has been part of various journals and collaborations. Her next collection, Meeting Rita, is inspired by the artist Rita Angus, and is due from Cold Hub Press in June 2021.

Nina Mingya Powles is a poet and zinemaker from Wellington, currently living in London. She is the author of Magnolia 木蘭, (a finalist in the Ockham Book Awards and the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2021), a food memoir, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, and several poetry chapbooks and zines. Her debut essay collection, Small Bodies of Water, will be published in September 2021. 

Reihana Robinson is a writer, artist and farmer living in the wilderness of the Coromandel. She has written two collections, Aue Rona and Her Limitless Her, has had work published in Aotearoa, Australia, France and USA. She is a contributor to the Dante-themed anthology More Favourable Waters and the just published Ora Nui Māori Literary Journal New Zealand and Taiwan Special Edition.

Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe) is a writer, musician and taonga pūoro practitioner living in Pōneke. She has been published in journals such as LandfallStarling and Sport, among others. In 2020 she released her debut album, Pōneke, which looks at the soundscapes of Wellington’s past, present and future through the use of taonga pūoro, cello, and environmental sounds. She is currently completing a PhD in public health, focusing on the use of taonga pūoro in hauora Māori. Tōku Pāpā, published in February 2021, is her first book.

Ten poems about clouds

Poetry Shelf Theme Season: Ten poems about clouds

A while ago the world seemed unbearably bleak and dark, and whenever the world seems bleak and dark, an idea unexpectedly falls into my head like rescue remedy. I had bought a bundle of UK poem booklets that came with an envelopes from the wonderful McLeods Bookshop in Palmerston North on my Wild Honey tour. Each featured ten poems on a theme and I loved the idea of sending one to someone just when they needed a poem boost (The Women’s Bookshop in Auckland stocks them I see). My rescue remedy was to host a season of themes over autumn and winter – with me picking poems but also inviting some poets to send poems and suggestions. The response has been overwhelming. Rescue remedy de luxe!

I wanted the presence of the theme to range from subtle to loud so I struggled over the preposition in the title. It might be a poem after or towards or with or from or by or under or hinting at a theme. Not necessarily about! It might simply be a single word resonating. A cameo appearance. I had 15 themes, but Alison Wong suggested ‘Light’, and Hinemoana Baker suggested ‘Land’, so 17 poetry themes will be appearing over the coming months.

If this had been for a print anthology, I would have spent several years reading and selecting, going to libraries, bookshops, agonising, agonising, agonising. But my rescue-remedy plan meant staying at home and returning to my vast New Zealand poetry collection which as you can imagine after Wild Honey is rich in women’s books. I felt like I wanted to do a whole book on each theme so many poems sung out.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to my rescue remedy. It means a lot. You cannot imagine what a delight it has been to return to books I have loved over the past decades and to savour new poems sent me. To feel poetry work its magic.

Ten poems about clouds

The Sky

The sky thinks it is a flock of birds.

Then it thinks it is a cloud.

It also thinks it is widespread words.

Sometimes it looks up at the stars,

imagining other skies,

and sometimes down at the water

where it thinks it sees more stars.

At such times it believes itself to be a god.

But no such luck, poor sky! Soon enough

it is saying hello sir and madam

what a nice day it’s turning out to be

and can you perhaps spare a dollar,

thank you, thank you kindly. The sky

can still hold a small cloud in its hands.

Today it does so, and it rains.

It held our old home that way, too,

awkward and vertical and cold –

the snow caught fire as each day died.

But yes, it is safer here on the flat.

A man comes by with coal in a wheelbarrow,

muttering, muttering. He wants

to sell us warmth, his feet don’t leave the ground.

We think that we will always miss the sky.

It says look up whenever we look down.

Bill Manhire

from Wow, Victoria University Press, 2020

The Sky as a Metaphor for Everything


We can’t tell if the sky
is clinging


to night or happy
to welcome this new morning—


everything in this existence
wrapped up and encapsulated


in the changing colours and
how we constantly remark on clouds’


silly, ever-shifting shapes,
how fast they travel, and so on.


Truthfully, we hate
how light always wins


in the sky, in rooms,
in movies where it’s a stand-in


for goodness—
but never in our real lives.


Though our eyes do adjust
eventually, and we get by—


like the sun rising
in the morning in the sky.

Jane Arthur

from Craven Victoria University Press

Clouds

roll

south of the volcanoes.

You cut mushroom gills

soft as moth wings

that fluttering in the belly.

Bread rising on the water tank,

look out to patchy light

on the hills — moving.

Try to forget the names

of everything and call

them out new like rain

dropping on lava.

Steam born and gone

in the same instant.

A thought of one

you still look up to see

isn’t there.

Morgan Bach

in JAAM 33, 2015

Long White Clouds

all anyone ever does around here is / grow weed and stare / into burnt-

out houses / into the rabbit hole / into the cards / into the skin /

and roll their cars / their eyes / their r’s / their cigarettes / and kick

snow / kick rugby balls / kick each other / kick bad habits / only to

find another / like an eel / in the creek / in the backyard / in the

dark / in winter / and try to kill it on the rocks / chase the girls /

in a shed / a bathtub / a bed / with wet fingers / eyes / tongues /

and T-shirts / from spilled beer / spilled cum / spilled blood / spilled

secrets / bad boys / with bad skin / bad tattoos / and bad reputations /

because here / all anyone ever does is / swear / across their hearts /

at referees / at other drivers / taking to the road / cos all anyone

ever wants around here is / out / of home / of the closet / of the

relationship / of the sixth-storey window / open it / to the cold / to

the clouds / to the sky / cos all anyone ever does around here is / dive /

Tayi Tibble

from Poūkahangatus, Victoria University Press, 2018, picked by Amy Brown

Spelling Out Goodbye

“This doesn’t seem to be working,” he said quietly, “Perhaps we should try it another way. “Like this!” He split his shoes, laughed all the way to the top of the roof. “The plane will be coming soon,” he said, “Before that, would you help me out and make me a cheese sandwich?”

“Cheese,” said she, “Of course.” She clattered off like a train carriage. When she returned he was snuggled up on the nearest cloud with his breath spelling out hello goodbye. He left his pocketknife in his pocket, stuffed stars by hand into black-eyed plastic bags. He said catch as he floated them down to her. 

Johanna Aitchison

in Miss Dust, Seraph Press, 2015

Couple

(after Magritte)

The couple with clouds in their heads

are just outlines cut into a wall

so what you’re seeing is what’s behind

on cloudy days it’s clouds

on rainy days water.

Tusiata Avia

in Wild Dogs under My Skirt, Victoria University Press, 2004

I had never seen you so open

Crumpled on the couch saying 

seventh of the seventh

you seemed to be between 

trying to get up and sinking further.

A soft redness about you

and a kind of shift somewhere,

to dreams, or clouds,

not things we usually have been 

to each other. 

Later, you folded the card sent from the office

inside his cap that served

on the deck of a warship in Korea.

Kept it beside you for weeks

until one day it was gone.

Wes Lee

appeared in The New Zealand Poetry Society Anthology 2020

Weather

Winter rain beats on the windows;

there is cloud-hidden snow

on the hills.

In our space, built for the elderly,

warm air encloses thoughts

of long ago:

the coal range, pots of soup

and rain.

Helen Jacobs

from A Habit of Writing, The Cuba Press, 2020

Reflections (clouds)

dawn               the sky is splattered

by my juicy mandarin,

the sea                        a mirror

of tears soon to fall.

watching —

we capture the skyline,

grey lines folding like pursed lips.

wrapped in thick ash and two woven wings,

the sun sets a foot on our city

one eye blending

across            an open sea.

E Wen Wong

Baba Yaga

Lyall Bay is often the scene

of tempests, everything pelted

with salt water, rust spreading

like ill humour. The police

are often patrolling in Lyall Bay.

When the cumulonimbus sit like fat

white cauldrons steaming with cirrus,

look our for brush strokes-

someone’s been sweeping the sky

clean as linoleum after an accident.

Amy Brown

from The Propaganda Poster Girl, Victoria University Press, 2008

Johanna Aitchison has published three collections of poems, Miss Dust (2015), a long girl ago (2007), and Oh My God I’m Flying (199). She was the 2019 Mark Strand Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (Tennessee) in 2019; and her poetry has been published in New Zealand, the U.S., and Japan. Her poem “Miss Dust in a Motel Room” is forthcoming in Landfall 241.

Jane Arthur lives in Wellington, where she is the co-owner and manager of a small independent bookshop. Her debut poetry collection, Craven, won the Jessie Mackay Award (Best First Book) at the 2020 Ockham NZ Book Awards.

Tusiata Avia is an internationally acclaimed poet, performer and children’s author. She has published 4 collections of poetry, 3 children’s books and her play ‘Wild Dogs Under My Skirt’ had its off-Broadway debut in NYC, where it took out The Fringe Encore Series 2019 Outstanding Production of the Year. Most recently Tusiata was awarded a 2020 Arts Foundation Laureate and a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry and the arts.

Morgan Bach is a poet recently returned to her home town of Wellington, where she also works as a bookseller.

Amy Brown is a writer and teacher from Hawkes Bay. She has taught Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne (where she gained her PhD), and Literature and Philosophy at the Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School. She has also published a series of four children’s novels, and three poetry collections. Her latest book, Neon Daze, a verse journal of early motherhood, was included in The Saturday Paper’s Best Books of 2019. She is currently taking leave from teaching to write a novel.

Helen Jacobs, aged 92, was born in Pātea and wrote her first poem nearly fifty years ago in response to a TV programme on nuclear war, publishing her first collection of poetry in 1984 and becoming actively involved with the poetry community in Christchurch for many years. She adopted the name Helen Jacobs to keep her writing separate from her life as local body politician, environmental activist and art advocate Elaine Jakobsson. Helen lives in a retirement village with the art she has collected over the years and a balcony of pot plants, delighted the world continues to offer her things to write about.

Wes Lee lives in Paekakariki. Her latest poetry collection, By the Lapels, was launched in Wellington (Steele Roberts Aotearoa, 2019). Her work has appeared in Best New Zealand Poems, Poetry London, Turbine, Poetry New Zealand, Westerly, The Stinging Fly, Landfall, The New Zealand Listener, Australian Poetry Journal, among others. She has won a number of awards for her writing, including, The BNZ Katherine Mansfield Literary Award. Most recently she was awarded the Poetry New Zealand Prize 2019 by Massey University Press, and shortlisted for The Inaugural NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize 2021.

Bill Manhire founded the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, which a little over 20 years ago became the International Institute of Modern Letters. His new book Wow is published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK.

Tayi Tibble (Te Whānau ā Apanui/Ngāti Porou) was born in 1995 and lives in Wellington. Her first book Poūkahangatus won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in 2019. Her new collection Rangikura will be published in June by Victoria University Press.

E Wen Wong is a first-year Law and Science student at the University of Canterbury. She was the winner of the 2020 National Schools Poetry Award.

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Going West podcast – Paula Green in conversation with Bill Manhire and Norman Meehan

This is one of my favourite sessions I have chaired ever!

Paula Green, poet, anthologist, reviewer and children’s author, with her newly minted honours and awards, shares the stage in a charming conversation with poet, short story writer and academic Bill Manhire, and jazz composer and performer Norman Meehan, as they disclose the alchemy of setting poetic text as song. They discuss their latest collaboration, the riddle project, Tell Me My Name, and along the way Bill Manhire reads two of his poems Frolic and I am quiet when I call.

This session took place the day after Manhire, Meehan and friends delivered a captivating opening night performance, Small Holes in the Silence for the Going West audience.

Listen here

Poetry Shelf celebrates Ockham NZ Book Award Poetry Longlist: A Bill Manhire poem and audio link

Someone was Burning the Forest

We did not know why the child was crying,
nor why he stood bare-shouldered at the window.
How had he come by those skimpy feathers?
The mother had fallen from the tower
a moment after she began to answer. I looked around
and there were many towers, also other bodies.
Now I was on the ground myself. I could hear
the child but no longer see him. Perhaps
he was still aloft. The towers were dissolving
yet surely there were trees. It was dark now
but I knew there must be many bodies.
I would need to climb to see where we might go.

Bill Manhire, Wow Victoria University Press, 2020

Have a listen: For the first Stress Test of 2021, Rough Trade Books welcomed special guest Bill Manhire to join them for music and poems.

Bill Manhire’s most recent books include Some Things to Place in a Coffin (2017), Tell Me My Name (with Hannah Griffin and Norman Meehan, 2017) and The Stories of Bill Manhire (2015). He was New Zealand’s inaugural poet laureate, and founded and until recently directed the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. He has edited major anthologies, including, with Marion McLeod, the now classic Some Other Country: New Zealand’s Best Short Stories (1984).

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf review

ANZL review (Anna Jackson)

Chris Tse reviews Wow on Nine to Noon, Radio NZ National

‘Huia’ Poem of the Week in the Guardian

Bill Wows the crowd at WORD

Poetry Shelf noticeboard: Brilliant longlist of Ockam New Zealand Book Awards just announced

Poetry Shelf has reviewed

The Savage Coloniser Book Tuisata Avia, Victoria University Press

Far Flung Rhian Gallagher Auckland University Press

National Anthem National Anthem, Dead Bird Books

Wow Bill Manhire, Victoria University Press

Pins Natalie Morrison, Victoria University Press (an interview)

This is Your Real Name, Elizabeth Morton, Otago University Press

I Am a Human Being Jackson Nieuwland, Compound Press

Magnolia, NIna Mingya Powles, Seraph Press

CONGRATULATIONS to all the poets. This is the best longlist I have seen in years. I have loved all these books to a sublime degree. I am also delighted to see a mix of university presses and smaller publishers, and those inbetween. I plan to review Hinemoana and Karlo’s books over the coming weeks (Goddess Muscle, Karlo Mila, Huia Press and Funkhaus, Hinemoana Baker, Victoria University Press).

Ockham New Zealand Book Award page

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

My favourite 2020 poetry review on the radio:

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

This is just wonderful! Listen here.

Poetry Shelf: 8 Poets pick favourite 2020 poetry reads

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

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

The 8 Poets

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

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

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

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

The poets and their picks

Tusiata Avia

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

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

 

Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)

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

An American Sunrise Joy Harjo (WW Norton & Co)

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

National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rhian Gallagher

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

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

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

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

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

Rata Gordon

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

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

This is the closest you can get to it:

the void, the nothing,

the black lapping mouth of the sea

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

One still maintains a little glimmer of hope

Deep down inside

A tiny light

About the size of a speck

Like a distant star

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

Swish swish swish

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

… holy women

await you

on the shore –

long having practiced the art

of replacing hearts

with God

and song (Walker, p. 7)

Today you are tumbling towards her like the ocean.

… you are becoming nearer and nearer to someone other

than yourself. (Hawken, p. 49)

I have … imagined my life ending,

or simply evaporating,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mohamed Hassan

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

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

Hey James,

yeah, you

in the white wig

in that big Endeavour

sailing the blue, blue water

like a big arsehole

FUCK YOU, BITCH.

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Manhire

Jenny Lewis, Gilgamesh Retold, (Carcanet)

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

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

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

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

Natalie Morrison

Gregory Kan, Under Glass (Auckland University Press)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackson Nieuwland

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

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

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

Nina Mingya Powles

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

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

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