Naming the Beast, Elizabeth Morton, Otago University Press, 2022
You don’t want book reviews to diminish your reading experience, to lead you up the garden path of expectation, to lay false trails and unreliable hopes. Imagine the review as a tasting room where you let a morsel of the book swirl on your tongue, releasing flavour, leaving a vital aftertaste. You don’t want book jargon, you just want an aromatic taste (precursor) of the writing, the ideas, the feelings, the connections.
Elizabeth Morton’s Naming the Beast is poetry gold. It is the kind of book you savour slowly, absorbing brocade textures, the sumptuous threads, the surprising patterns, satisfying layers. This is poetry that is sonorous, sensual, startling. It got me thinking about how enmeshed I become in certain poetry collections. How I am laid bare as a reader. How I am spiked and soothed. I get caught in a poem, no question.
Elizabeth writes about being in someone else’s poem:
In somebody else’s poem it’s goddamned desolate. I’m in a house with no windows; just venetian blinds on blank walls. The rotary phone bleats hircine, and I hold a real gun to my head. In a poem, the gun goes off. I wake in another poem, planting succulents because love goes as far as my toes, and no further.
from ‘We write what we know when we run out of things we don’t’
I could simply pitch this as a collection of beasts and wild(er)ness, because beasts and wildness are an integral part, but it is also a collection of time, mothers, luck, castles, fire, relatives. The subject matter roves and ranges, at times resembling stream of consciousness connections, lily pad leaps, edgeways writing. The music is symphonic. The lexicon is extraordinary; words feed subterranean narratives and dreamscapes, pungent fields of details. There is plainness and there is opulence. There is the off-real and there is the hyperreal.
Celebrate the richness of poetry, the allure of detail thickets, but there is too the invitation of the unsaid, the vibrating space, the reading alcoves.
I admire the collection’s invisible stitching, the behind-the-scenes craft of the poet that produces such poetic fluency. Yet at other times, the making of poetry is poignantly visible. Poetry comes protagonist, a character moving in and out of shadow and light.
Ah, I have used book jargon, kindled your expectations crazily, so I return to my idea of a tasting room – I will hold out a tasting platter for you, and let some of Elizabeth’s lines spark your reading tastebuds.
First, bark the moon. Make ceremony from a stammer, from a steaming crockpot of two-minute noodles, from the way the taxi driver sucks his bottom teeth as he drives you north.
from ‘Instructions on how to lose a mind’
My mother is the night owl. My father is the tussock, I own memories, alone. My celestial object is done for. The rust core of a lamp that was already out – a red star coughing though light-years of average days, days spent picking lemons and walking average suburbs, nodding at ordinary dogs.
from ‘Stolen pepeha’
We pipette soluble proteins like mothers do. Mothers are no minor characters, who arrange herbs like rubrics, under the soft light of a kettle stove. Home is a fume-cupboard where legend is filtered like breath. Our mothers huddle around pantries of cod liver oils, vitamins, and bleach. Their hands haul the sun over the eastern hillocks, like an axiom.
I want to say I know this place with my eyes closed. I can run, butt naked, through cabbage rows and dairy cows, and the Waikato will annunciate my name with a branding iron and an ear tag that speaks to a bloodline sniffed out by regret. I am writing in my first language. My second is shame. When I dream I dream words I cannot spell.
from ‘God of nations’
If I were a robot, I would be in a better poem. If I were a person, I’d want the telephone wires to hum like stars, and the stars to be unavoidable.
form ‘Hard sell’
Get a copy of this book, open it, pick a poem, take a road trip within its lines, inhabit as a small retreat, sojourn in a series of alcoves. This collection is gold.
Elizabeth Morton grew up in suburban Auckland. Her poetry and prose have been published in New Zealand, the UK, the USA, Canada, Ireland, Australia and online. She holds an MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow. Morton has accrued many literary acknowledgements for her work, and her previous collection of poetry, This is Your Real Name (OUP, 2020), was longlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2021 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The manuscript of Naming the Beasts was shortlisted for the 2021 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award.
Poetry is a way of bridging the faraway and the close at hand. A poem can make the achingly distant comfortingly close. Poetry can be a satisfying form of travel, whether to the other side of the world, to the past or to imagined realms. Reading poems that offer the faraway as some kind of presence, I feel such a range of emotions. Moved, yes. Goose bumps on the skin, yes. Boosted, yes. This is such a fertile theme, I keep picturing a whole book moving in marvellous directions.
I am grateful to all the poets and publishers who continue to support my season of themes.
if you can you can try to recall
the sun across the roof and you
knee-deep in childhood playing
near the fence with the storm
of daisies still impressionable
in the way of dreams still
believing leaves had voices
and you might then remember
curtains drowned in burnished light
how at night the sky emptied
into a field of stars leaching out
the guilt you’d soon forget unlike
the woman you called Nana who kept
knitting you hats while you kept not
writing back and maybe then you’d know
the injustices you had no part in
the lady who bought your house how
she ravaged your kingdom while
you were away oh these memories
spiralling into memories into
nothing this helter skelter art of
remembering this bending
over backwards running out of light
from Mayhem Literary Journal, Issue 6 (2018)
Acknowledgement to David Eggleton
She said we discussed post
structuralism in a post modern
context. She said in order
to remember such crucial
poetic phrases she had bought
a small exercise book in which
to record them.
It was, she said, a book
of semantic importance.
She said we considered
the deception of disjointed
parody and the fragmentation
of shallow consumer culture.
I can only remember
in her pale blue cardigan
in a zither of light.
from Four French Horns, HeadworX, 2004
I want to paint my nails apricot as an homage to call me by your name and the fake italian summer I had last year —
fake because I didn’t cycle beside slow streams or in slow towns
Instead I lay on a 70 euro pinstripe lounger and couldn’t see the water only other tourists
And the apricots I ate came from peach spritzes at sea salt restaurants and clouded supermarket jars
But all the shops are shut and the closest nail colour I have is dark red
I want to be somewhere in northern italy with light green water and deep green conversations
I want to pick fresh apricots from drooping branches and kiss a boy I shouldn’t on cobblestone paths against cobblestone walls
I want to lick a love heart on to his shoulder so that when he gets on a train my hands shake like a thunderstorm
and I can’t cycle home past the fields we held each other in and mum has to pick me up from the station
I want to walk down a staircase with winter at the bottom waiting to sweep me into snow
I want the phone to ring when the sky is white and hear an apricot voice ripe and ready to be plucked from the tree
he’ll say how are you and I’ll slowly leak
from Stasis 5 May 2020, picked by Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor
Wearing Katherine Mansfield’s Shawl
Seventy years on, shut
in a cardboard box in the basement
of City Hall, you might think
the shawl would have lost
its force to charm, the airy fragrance
of its wearer departed, threads
stripped bare as bones,
yet here it is, another short story:
it felt like love at the Hôtel
d’Adhémar the moment you placed
the silk skein around my shoulders,
the dim red and rusty green fabric
and a fringe gliding like fingertips
over my arm, a draught of bitter
scent – Katherine’s illness,
Virginia’s sarcasm – and
yes, a trace of wild gorse
flowers and New Zealand, not
to mention the drift of her skin
and yours during the photograph,
the stately walk through the town.
from Where Your Left Hand Rests, Godwit, Random House, 2010
On the occasion of the Sew Hoy 150th Year Family Reunion, September 2019
Here in this earth you once made a start
home treasure watered with sweat, new seeds
a fire you can light and which gives off sparks
the gleam of gold glowing in darkness
an open door, warm tea, friendships in need
here on this earth you once made a start
sometimes you imagined you left your heart
elsewhere, a woman’s voice and paddies of green
a fire which was lit, remembering its sparks
but even halfway round the world, shoots start
old songs grow distant, sink into bones unseen
here in this earth you can make a new start
with stone and wood you made your mark
built houses of diplomacy and meaning
a new fire was lit, with many sparks
flame to flame, hand to hand, heart to heart
150 years, sixteen harvests of seed
here, in this earth, you once made a start
A fire was once lit. We all are its sparks.
Once, I climbed a tree
too tall for climbing
and threw my voice out
into the world. I screamed.
I hollered. I snapped
innocent branches. i took the view
as a vivid but painful truth gifted
to me, but did not think to lay down
my own sight in recompense.
All I wanted was someone to say
they could hear me, but the tree said
that in order to be heard I must
first let silence do the heavy lifting
and clear my mind of any
questions and anxieties
such as contemplating whether
I am the favourite son. If I am not,
I am open to being a favourite uncle
or an ex-lover whose hands still cover
the former half’s eyes. I’ll probably never
have children of my own to disappoint
so I’ll settle for being famous instead
with my mouth forced open on TV like
a Venus fly-trap lip-synching for its life.
The first and last of everything
are always connected by
the dotted line of choice.
If there is an order to such things,
then surely I should resist it.
from he’s so MASC, Auckland University Press, 2018
drawing blank amber cartridges in windows
from which we see children hanging, high fires
of warehouse colours, a reimagining, my city fluttering
far and further away with flags netted
and ziplining west to east, knotted
and raining sunshine,
paving cinder-block-lit-tinder music in alleys
where we visit for the first time, signal murals
to leapfrog smoke, a wandering, my city gathering
close and closer together a wilderness
of voices shifting over each other
and the orchestra,
constructing silver half-heresies in storefronts
to catch seconds of ourselves, herald nighttimes
from singing corners, a remembering, my city resounding
in and out the shout of light on water
and people on water, the work of day
and each other,
my city in the near distance fooling me
into letting my words down, my city visible
a hundred years from tomorrow,
coming out of my ears and
until i am disappeared someways and no longer
finding me to you
I call it my looming
dread, like the mornings I wake
crying quietly at the grey
in my room, like whispering to my sleeping
mother – do I have to
like the short cuts I can’t take
like the standing outside not breathing
like my hand on the doorknob
counting to twenty and twenty
from Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, Victoria University Press, 2004
I am coming home to myself
my mother going away from herself.
Every move you make
so much slower now, mother
like your body is trying to keep pace
with your mind
everything about you reads as
but sometimes I read as
FUCK THIS! silently salts my tongue
a tight fist slamming the steering wheel
gas under my foot
tears choking my ears
smoke swallowing my chest.
I am a mother:
Mothering her son,
a motherless daughter mothering her mother.
It’s hard somedays not to be swallowed.
from full broken bloom, ala press, 2017
Preparing for death is a wicker basket.
Elderly women know the road.
One grandmother worked in munitions, brown
bonnet, red stripe rampant. the other, a washerwoman:
letters from the Front would surface, tattered.
You must take the journey, ready or not.
The old, old stream of refugees: prams
of books and carts with parrots.
Meanwhile the speeches, speeches: interminable.
When the blood in your ears has time to dry: silence.
The angel will tie a golden ribbon to the basket’s rim.
You will disappear, then reappear, quite weightless.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
from Blood Ties: New and Selected Poems 1963- 2016, Canterbury University Press, 2017
moving away from the orchard plots,
laundry lines that sag under the macrocarpa.
moving away from the crystalline skies,
the salt-struck grasses, the train carts
and the underpasses. i astral travel
with a flannel on my head, drink litres
of holy water, chicken broth. i vomit
words into the plastic bucket, brush
the acid from my teeth. i move away,
over tussock country, along the desert
road. i chew the pillowcase. i cling
my body to the bunk. the streets
unfurl. slick with gum and cigarettes.
somebody is yelling my name. i quiver
like a sparrow. hello hello, says the
paramedic. but i am moving away from
the city lights, the steel towers.
and i shed my skin on a motorway
and i float up into the sky.
from This Is Your Real Name, Otago University Press, 2019
Black Stump Story
After a number of numberless days
we took the wrong turning
and so began a slow descent
past churches and farmhouses
past mortgages and maraes
only our dust followed us
the thin cabbage trees were standing
in the swamp like illustrations
brown cows and black and white and red
the concrete pub the carved virgin
road like a beach and beach like a road
two toothless tokers in a windowless Toyota
nice of you to come no one comes
down here bro – so near and
yet so far – it takes hours
not worth your while –
turned the car and headed back
shaggy dogs with shaggy tales
from Fool Moon, Auckland University Press, 2004
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. Tusiata’s most recent collection The Savage ColoniserBook won The Ockham NZ Book Award for Best Poetry Book 2021.
Murray Edmond, b. Kirikiriroa 1949, lives in Glen Eden. 14 books of poetry (Shaggy Magpie Songs, 2015, and Back Before You Know, 2019 most recent); book of novellas (Strait Men and Other Tales, 2015); Then It Was Now Again: Selected Critical Writing (2014); editor, Ka Mate Ka Ora; dramaturge for Indian Ink Theatre. Forthcoming: Time to Make a Song and Dance: Cultural Revolt in Auckland in the 1960s, from Atuanui Press in May, 2021.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman is a Christchurch poet and non-fiction writer. A poetry collection, Blood Ties: selected poems, 1963-2016 was published by Canterbury University Press in 2017. A memoir, Now When It Rains came out from Steele Roberts in 2018. He makes his living as a stay-at-home puppy wrangler for Hari, a Jack Russell-Fox Terrier cross. Hari ensures that little writing takes place, while psychogeography and excavating parks happen daily. Recent work has appeared in Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2021, an essay on prison reform, and poetry; also, an inclusion in The Cuba Press anthology, More Favourable Waters – Aotearoa Poets respond to Dante’s Purgatory.
Grace Iwashita-Taylor, breathing bloodlines of Samoa, England and Japan. An artist of upu/words led her to the world of performing arts. Dedicated to carving, elevating and holding spaces for storytellers of Te Moana nui a Kiwa. Recipient of the CNZ Emerging Pacific Artist 2014 and the Auckland Mayoral Writers Grant 2016. Highlights include holding the visiting international writer in residence at the University of Hawaii 2018, Co-Founder of the first youth poetry slam in Aoteroa, Rising Voices (2011 – 2016) and the South Auckland Poets Collective and published collections Afakasi Speaks (2013) & Full Broken Bloom (2017) with ala press. Writer of MY OWN DARLING commissioned by Auckland Theatre Company (2015, 2017, 2019) and Curator of UPU (Auckland Arts Festival 2020).
Pippi Jean is eighteen and just moved to Wellington for her first year at Victoria University. Her most recent works can be found in Landfall, Starling, Takahe, Mayhem, and Poetry New Zealand Yearbook among others.
Fiona Kidman has written more than 30 books and won a number of prizes, including the Jann Medlicott Acorn Fiction Prize for This Mortal Boy. Her most recent book is All the way to summer:stories of love and longing. She has published six books of poems.In 2006, she was the Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton. The poem ‘Wearing Katherine Mansfield’s shawl ‘is based on an event during that time. Her home is in Wellington, overlooking Cook Strait.
Renee Liang is a second-generation Chinese New Zealander whose parents immigrated in the 1970s from Hong Kong. Renee explores the migrant experience; she wrote, produced and nationally toured eight plays; made operas, musicals and community arts programmes; her poems, essays and short stories are studied from primary to tertiary level. In recent years she has been reclaiming her proud Cantonese heritage in her work. Renee was made MNZM in 2018 for Services to the Arts.
Anuja Mitra lives in Auckland. Her writing has appeared in Takahe, Mayhem, Cordite Poetry Review, Starling, Sweet Mammalian, Poetry Shelf and The Three Lamps, and will appear in the AUP anthology A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand. She has also written theatre and poetry reviews for Tearaway, Theatre Scenes, Minarets and the New Zealand Poetry Society. She is co-founder of the online arts magazine Oscen.
Elizabeth Morton is a teller of poems and tall tales. She has two collections of poetry – Wolf (Mākaro Press, 2017) and This is your real name (Otago University Press, 2020). She has an MLitt in creative writing from the University of Glasgow, and is completing an MSc in applied neuroscience at King’s College London. She likes to write about broken things, and things with teeth.
Jenny Powell is a Dunedin poet and performer. Her work has been part of various journals and collaborations. She has a deep interest in music and used to be a french horn player.
Chris Tse is the author of two poetry collections published by Auckland University Press – How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (winner of Best First Book of Poetry at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards) and HE’S SO MASC – and is co-editor of the forthcoming Out Here: An Anthology of Takatāpui and LGBTQIA+ Writers From Aotearoa.
Rhegan Tu‘akoi is a Tongan/Pākehā living in Pōneke. She is a Master’s student at Victoria and her words have appeared in Turbine | Kapohau, Mayhem and Sweet Mammalian. She has also been published in the first issue of Tupuranga Journal
Elizabeth Morton reads two poems from This is your real name (Otago University Press, 2020)
Elizabeth Morton is a poet and teller of yarns. She has two poetry collections – Wolf (Mākaro Press, 2017) and This is your real name (Otago, 2020). She is included in Best Small Fictions 2016, and was feature poet in the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017. She has an MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow, and is currently completing an MSc through King’s College London.
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).
This is your real name, Elizabeth Morton, Otago University Press, 2020
There were days I spent gulping sky,
picking every star off the plate
with the stub of a thumb.
from ‘The eating of sorrow’
Elizabeth Morton grew up in Auckland. Her poetry has been published in various journals, both in New Zealand and internationally, and has achieved a number of award placements, including the 2015 Kathleen Grattan Award. Her terrific debut collection, Wolf, was published by Mākaro Press. She recently finished an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow with Distinction.
This book was one of two poetry collections that I kept returning to during lockdown (plus Oscar Upperton’s). I found I could drift in and out of a poem, I could write phrases on sheets of paper, but I couldn’t string sentences together, let alone articulate a reaction to a book. What I could say was I loved it.
The epigraph felt uncannily fitting: ‘For people who wait and people who are alone.’
I had written down the word ‘detail’. Elizabeth’s deft handling of detail forms the visible stitching of a poem. It offers hue and texture to the multiple poem threads. The detail is a gateway to threads that are personal, universal, engaged in storytelling, recollection, contemplation, association, inquiry.
There are reading footholds and there are wobbly boards, especially in poems that are a mix of real life, memory, fable, fiction, enigma. The real is often elusive, but lands in shards, both striking and evocative. In ‘After’, two lines in particular catch this movement, and echo throughout the collection as a whole (and with me during lockdown):
Night comes apart, like everything else.
We know the landmarks for their hardness.
At the poem’s start, the speaker suggests closing one’s eyes is enough. Shutting one’s eyes is contemplative, an escape device, a pause. This is me in lockdown. I keep shutting my eyes and waiting. The poem features the last polar bear cage-pacing at Auckland Zoo and a butterfly caught on a truck’s windscreen. Two sad notes that alter the way we view the ‘you’ whom the poem addresses. It is the kind of poem you keep reading to absorb the dislocation, the absences, the mournings, the complexities. The ending catapults you back to the beginning which then returns to the eyes closing at the start. The ending:
When I open my eyes I’m in the same cage I was in yesterday.
I am the same yellow bear driving the same haulage truck
over ice sheets, thin as a prince’s hairline.
What night is this? We talk about the butterfly like it got away.
We talk abut you, like you are here. Like you never left.
Every poem works its magic on me – and the breathtaking effects are now heightened by lockdown. I am musing on how I have read this book before, during and after levels 3 and 4. I am writing this review in level 2, and I am wondering when everything I read and write won’t be touched by my Covid experiences. Yet this was the book that held my fuzzy attention.
Most of the poems are dense thickets, interconnected threads, offbeatness and misty bits to get lost in. The beginnings of poems are exquisite hooks:
You might make it, if you sprint.
I’m not going to cry. All winter the television
sulks in the corner of our love. You put the lentils
in a colander to flush the ugly bits.
from ‘You can’t, always’
Here I am turning the pages of the book, writing a review with my thoughts and feelings close up, because I stall on every poem and want to set up a coffee club in a cafe so we can talk about how we move through the poem thickets. Take ‘Aubade with hold music’ for example. You start with the image of a phone booth: ‘The phone booth was skull-cracked, / and caulked with soggy directories.’ Again the uncanny link. The reference to all the people we never know reverberates acutely in lockdown because that’s how I feel about the global Covid statistics. And how I have often felt when I drive down streets and wonder at the lives of the people I see.
The poem moves about a phone call to a mother, but then a central cluster of lines ‘shake’ the phone booth and you wonder what is going on behind the scenes of the poem:
The morning smelled like fire,
like the sun projecting simple stories
against the warehouse brickwork
and I wonder whether you know
you are melting.
Yes I could say this poem is about a phone call, a phone call about to be made; there is a small boy with coins, there are the White Pages, but then there is this: ‘This poem sets you apart, and / you are a small forest pressed against the city’. So mysterious. So ripe with meaning and possibilities. Each poem is like a little forest. Each poem is like a little forest pressed against us. How can we not stall and wonder. These lines stand out.
Writing a poem is a political act.
I want you to know, what you feel
is more than politics.
This is the joy of poetry: you think a poem and you feel a poem. It might be political or personal or a dense thicket, with multiple pathways and myriad connections to a peopled world. Elizabeth’s subject matter is wide ranging. Stories appear like neon lights or fleeting shadows or veiled self exposures. Sometimes it feels like the sun is out and sometimes like pitch-black night. The reading rewards are glorious. Find the book, make a coffee, and then let me know what you think. I am ever so grateful for the arrival of this book.
Elizabeth Morton This is your real name (Otago University Press, 2020)
Elizabeth Morton’s launch scraped in by the skin of its teeth recently, but I thought it would be lovely to do an online version and get Poetry Shelf Lounge rolling. You can read and listen for morning tea with a short black, afternoon tea with your favourite tea, or a glass of wine or beer this evening.
At the bottom of the post, I have put a selection of good bookshops where you can buy or order the book online (this is a list in progress, please help me fill the gaps).
Tracey Slaughter launched the book.
Split the pages of Elizabeth Morton’s This is your real name anywhere & you are in the pulsing presence of questions that cut to the very heart of poetry: How much, if anything, can language actually touch? How much of our experience can we ever name? How much can poetry reach past the stars smashed into the emergency-glass of daily-living & offer the kind of voice that leaves more than a bloody trace, that makes a vital difference. ‘Poetry wallows between question marks/police? fire? ambulance?’ says a piece that opens with telephone lines exploding in a gaze pushed to the edge – how much can language ever hope to halt pain, to offer connection, to help in such a crisis? ‘Deep breaths,/say the operator’ within that poem, but ‘inside the communications centre/the desks are inconsolable.’
‘There is no touching the black heat at the centre of things’ another early poem entitled ‘Inside-out’ declares – and yet travel through the bolted internal doors and bleak domestic corridors, the blighted global landscapes and glinting dystopias of Elizabeth’s collection & you know you’re in the hands of a poet who, like Plath or Sexton before her, has all the dazzling surreal command of language to reach to the core of that black heat, to make it speak.
‘Inside-out’ concludes with a widespread vision of ‘a wreckage of stars’ – but the volume goes on in piece after luminous piece to chronicle the work of salvage, of a self bent on using every particle of language to dig through the ruins, rewire the evidence, sustain the spark, relight every shard.
These are poems that speak again and again from both the inside and the outside, from both the blasted solar plexus of private traumas and the slow-mo devastations of the wider planet – over and over the poems flicker from hallways tremoring with personal pain to the ‘casual terrorism’ of history, taking an ‘aerial photograph’ of a suffering earth with the same kind of acute irradiated poetic lens that it turns on the lone & isolated heart. Whether it’s the stranding of a single life caught in the driftnets of personal desolation, or the mass beaching of a populace oblivious to the global damage they’ve done, Elizabeth’s language zeroes in on the waste & makes us see the interconnections: whether it’s steering the reader through burning towerblocks or coldblooded wards, past disinterested drone strikes or through achingly-handled small-scale solo losses, the breathtaking scope of poetic skill with which she charts her urgent scenes makes the reader feel every detail, feel the meds and the headlines catch in our throats, feel the doors locked and the altitude dropping, feel the kiss blown against the quarantine window & the distant ‘circle[s] of blood’ left on political screens.
These are poems that detonate and sing, that ring in the ear and sting in the political consciousness, and linger in the bloodstream long after they’ve stained your eye. They’ll also make you outright belly laugh: ‘I’d marry Finland. I’d blow Nicaragua. I’d shag Australia if she wore a paper bag’ states a slapstick look at politics that plays wicked & sacrilegious footsie with stereotypes. With the same comedic weaponry ‘How I hate Pokemon but I can show restraint and just talk about my adolescence’ gives a gore-soaked rundown of methods to slaughter innocent anime, and ‘In the next life’ tracks Wile E. Coyote speeding to collide with another booby-trapped piano or hurtling freight train. But of course, under the cartoon bloodsport there’s another violence being expressed: ‘I’m from the wrong cartoon she says…There is no/acid in my stomach to digest the sadness’; ‘I spent my teens/hyperventilating in elevators…yanking at emergency cords’ – that’s what lurks beneath the funny foreground of these onscreen critters and their messy calamities.
‘This is not a joke’ warns another poem, parading a cast of backwoods bar-leaners and big boned nobodies, its humour always ready to brim with ‘a metaphor so sad it makes grown men sob and jerk off into the same handkerchief.’ The counterstrike to comedy is always coming, the punchlines always poised ready to gut you. We might snicker when we’re introduced to a blowsy homespun oblivious America, but when she ‘order[s] Big Mac’s and Napalm’, lazily erases continents & watches bodycounts rise from her consumerist couch, the smile is wiped off our faces. And when the pronouns shift in this poem to fold us into complicity, as they do to such clever & ethical effect throughout the collection as a whole, we too are left standing with supermarket bags and shotguns/baffled and alone.’ That moment of aloneness – whether it’s the self turning figure-eights of final need or the last polar bear ‘pacing his cell, as the credits go down’ – is the place which the poems often return us to: ‘I wonder whether you know/you are melting’ this poetry asks with chilling economy. Over and over we find trapped ourselves in that phone booth, as in the masterpiece ‘Aubade’, where the glass is ‘skull-cracked’ and the world seems only to have ‘hold music’ to offer us. But even in this moment of exigency, with our ‘hearts in our horror mouth’ & all the lines crossed, language is held up as ‘the loneliest miracle’: because we still use it to ‘pray, into the receiver’ hoping for a sign on the other end, some voice to come back from the empty page. ‘Writing is a political act’ the poem insists, even from this place. Even if all it can sometimes do is trace ‘the face of the enemy,’ or chalk round the bodies of selves and lovers we’ve lost; even if all it can sometimes do is echo the bleak dialtone inside our chests, its utterance ‘sets you apart’ the voice of ‘Aubade’ repeats to the sufferer.
Elizabeth had already set herself apart as a poet of breathtaking force, edge, intensity and empathy – This is your real name is another stunning, irrefutable, crucial book, a fearless personal testimony and a blistering political act. It goes to the places we need poetry to go to, places that only a language loaded with heart and shimmering with pressures can name. It smashes the glass.
Listen to Elizabeth read ‘Tropes’:
We were never alone, pushing up loam on a blackened beach.
We kicked our tails like we were trying to escape
the outline of ourselves. We came ashore, two by two
with our cutlasses and compasses, with our baleen smiles
and bad attitudes, with our dead-end marriages and dreams that choked
in drift nets. We were never lost. We knew the shoreline better
than we knew our own purposes. We were a quarter into lives
that stood us up from the water-break, that left us gasping
by the river mouth, blistering under wet sacking,
our eyeballs fierce with the evening sun.
We wanted the attention. We wanted to arrange ourselves
upside down and scattered like something infinite. Like stars.
We follow each other to the end of the beach
and sing something that reminds us of bone
and the million land-flowers our mothers spoke of,
and the kamikaze heritage, our fathers and their fathers,
who recognised a vague phosphorescence
and shadowed it into the salt marshes, dreaming of air.
ELIZABETH MORTON grew up in suburban Auckland. Her first poetry collection, Wolf, was published by Mākaro Press in 2017. She has placed, been shortlisted and highly commended for various prizes, including the 2015 Kathleen Grattan Award, and her poetry and prose have been published in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, Ireland, Australia, Canada and online. She has completed an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.
sulks in the corner of our love. You put the lentils
in a colander to flush the ugly bits. You peel oranges
to their pith and talk about your past like it was mine too.
You say it was sunnier in Queens than it could ever be in
an unhappy kitchen with a lover made of feathers.
I want to tell you about the way a man can look down
a corridor, the way a hunter visits his scope. There are things
too big to ever fold into your hands. A barbule is enough
to demonstrate how even soft things fall down,
like small people from towers that trade in shadows.
When I say I need you, it clambers up a stairwell in my throat
like you were the only window left in 110 levels of pain.
I’m not going to say I get it. You toss the lentils
in a brine pot and power-up the television.
You say we spend too much of life watching
the kind of comedies that make you sad. Like Home Improvement
and The Cosby Show that make you think of time
and the way we were happy in Queens
before small people sat on window ledges, before
the hunter’s scope settled on an ordinary bird.
I’m not going to cry. All morning chopping onions,
watching Bill Cosby hug his wife in Brooklyn Heights
before he was a rapist, and before you first registered
towers on the skyline by their absence.
When I say I need you I am a soft thing falling
on something familiar, and it is violence
in the way dispassionate surgery is violence
or the way The Cosby Show is what you get
before you get what you never wanted.
I’ll take what I can.
Auckland writer, Elizabeth Morton, is published in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, the UK, Canada and the USA. She was feature poet in the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017, and is included in Best Small Fictions 2016. Her first poetry collection, Wolf, was published with Mākaro Press in 2017. She is completing a MLitt at the University of Glasgow, usually in her pyjamas.
the angels and stars and stones;
also, adjectival poets, preferably original.
There was an air of restlessness
an inability to subside, a state of being at attention,
at worst, at war with the immediately beating heart and breathing lung.
I looked then in the word-chambers, the packed warehouses by the sea,
the decently kept but always decaying places where nouns and their
representative images lay together on high shelves
among abbreviations and longlost quotations. I listened.
Water lapped at the crumbling walls; it was a place
for murder, piracy; salt hunger seeped between the shelves;
it was time to write. Now or never. The now unbearable,
the never a complete denial of memory:
I was not, I never have been.
Janet Frame from The Goose Bath: Poems, Vintage, 2006
published with kind permission from The Janet Frame Estate (note in The Goose Bath states that this appeared as a section in a long untitled sequence)
Notes from Elizabeth Morton:
Veni Vedi Veci is a T-shirt-perfect slogan, gloating in its victory of ancient history, and its facility with Latin grammar. As an undergraduate I likely sported such an item of casual alliteration. I may have stood at the fence of Albert Park, smoking a Wee Willem cigarillo, mispronouncing the words to passing first-years and telling a bastardised yarn about Julius Caesar. Janet Frame’s poem, ‘I Visited’ relates a quieter, more tentative conquest – that ends in brute self-nihilation – ‘I was not, I never have been’. This is no Caesar. Here is a concession that our words are things to be borrowed, not usurped. There is a sense of things in flux, things that spill through the gaps in your fingers – ‘decaying places’ and ‘crumbling walls’. There is no pillaging of intangibles. The world of words is a lending library with ‘word chambers’ and ‘high shelves’.
Frame’s poem is gently playful. Through it, I recognise this impossibility of ownership. Words are slippery; words alter to their context; words are shared but never spent. I have supermarket bags full of words – words for ‘angels and stars and stones’, earthly and metaphysical – words like ‘turophile’ and ‘oleaginous’ and ‘eosophobia’ and ‘absquatulate’. They can never be conquests. I visit them. Visito. And I try to shake the dust off the words that have been left for dead. Words are people too, you know – ‘with beating heart and breathing lung’. Frame’s poem captures an excitement, a vitality, and also an humility. Also, ‘salt hunger’ makes me shiver.
Auckland writer, Auckland writer, Elizabeth Morton, is published in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, the UK, Canada and the USA. She was feature poet in the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017, and is included in Best Small Fictions 2016. Her first poetry collection, Wolf, was published with Mākaro Press in 2017. She is completing a MLitt at the University of Glasgow, usually in her pyjamas.
Janet Frame (1924-2004) published eleven novels, five story collections, a previous volume of poetry (The PocketMirror, 1967), a children’s book and a three-volume autobiography. She won numerous awards and honours, including New Zealand’s highest civil honour when she was made a Member of the Order of New Zealand in 1990. In 2003 she received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement and was named an Arts Foundation Icon Artist. Pamela Gordon, Denis Harold and Bill Manhire edited The Goose Bath, Janet’s posthumous collection of poems in 2006.
And this is why you should always keep a reading diary … I’ll have to cobble this together from flawed memory and my messy bookcase. Here goes: most recently, a ‘slim volume’ in the Penguin Modern Poets Three series with work by Malika Booker, Sharon Olds and Warsan Shire. In contrast, also Sentenced to Life and Injury Time by Clive James. Before these: Undying by Michel Faber, the poetry collections on the Ockham longlist, Bill Manhire’s Some Things to Place in a Coffin and Tell Me My Name, Walking by a River of Light by John Gibb, South D Poet Lorikeet by Jenny Powell, Getting it Right by Alan Roddick, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon by Liz Breslin, Taking my Mother to the Opera by Diane Brown, Fracking & Hawk by Pat White, The Trials of Minnie Dean by Karen Zelas, Taking My Jacket for a Walk by Peter Olds, Wolf by Elizabeth Morton, Where the Fish Grow by Ish Doney, Family History by Johanna Emeney, Possibility of Flight by Heidi North-Bailey, Withstanding by Helen Jacobs, Conscious and Verbal and Learning Human by Les Murray, Poems New and Collected by Wistawa Szymborska, Poems 1962-2012 by Louise Glűck, and X by Vona Groarke.
I like keeping an anthology handy too, and in the past year have been dipping in and out of two: Andrew Motion’s Poetry by Heart (on the bedside table) and Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke’s The Map and the Clock (next to the sofa).
What other reading attracts you?
Oh boy, you should see the pile of books by my bed – too many to list here. I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction (especially essays, biographies or memoir). Fiction-wise, I’ve recently finished Fiona Farrell’s wonderful Decline and Fall on Savage Street and am now reading Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks, and some short stories by William Trevor. I’ve recently reread Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (I love all of Strout’s work!). Vincent O’Sullivan’s All This By Chance is standing by for Easter.
Nonfiction-wise, I’m itching to start neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s The Strange Order of Things and Marilynne Robinson’s new essay collection What Are We Doing Here? (I love all of Robinson’s work!).
Name some key starting points (or themes) for your collection.
This is quite a hard question for me to answer because The Yield wasn’t pre-planned as The Yield – it grew very slowly into The Yield, and I only recognised that I had a coherent collection very late in the process. In hindsight I can see quite clearly that the poems are bound together by themes of give and take, love and loss, flexibility and rigidity, toil and harvest. This finally clicked into place for me after I wrote the poem called ‘The Yield’. It was only after that that I felt I had a potential collection in my hands. But most of the poems in the collection were written in the couple of years preceding that moment, and during those years I had no idea whether a book would eventuate. I had hope, but not much evidence!
Did anything surprise you as the poems come into being?
Every poem I write is a surprise to me. I can never get over that fact – it amazes me, always.
Find up to 5 individual words that pitch your book to a reader.
These words are from The Yield: haul, reach, lift, roam, home.
Which poem particularly falls into place for you?
Not sure if I can select one – they all have their place.
What matters most when you write a poem?
I like a tight synthesis of sound and sense.
What do you loathe in poetry?
Sometimes in an art gallery I stand in front of a painting I find ugly or too obvious or (conversely) too obscure – challenging, anyway, a canvas that maybe bores me or offends my personal sense of aesthetics, perhaps even my values. But still, alongside my ‘this is not one for my living room wall’ reaction, I can still respect the graft and the craft that went into making it – so long as it’s well made. Ditto, poetry. What I appreciate, above all else in poetry, is knowing that the poet has really leaned in. That’s a fundamentally appealing quality for me, even if I can’t adore the finished product. But if a poem is attentively made, and it somehow moves me – then I’m all in.
Where do you like to write poems?
In my study or on the kitchen table (though I scribble scraps in my notebook anywhere, any time).
What are strengths and lacks in our poetry scenes?
We seem to have a lively open mic scene all over the country, with a new fizz of high energy youthful involvement alongside the different – no less intense – energy of more experienced voices. I love the diversity of this, the way it opens our ears and hearts and minds to each other. It’s good, too, to see extroverted poets out there connecting with audiences, attracting media comment and generally flying the flag for poetry. But don’t forget the page! I’m a big believer that poetry is a craft learned by practice. Getting better at it is done through serving a kind of apprenticeship, learning the tools of your trade, and being supported, mentored and informed by more experienced practitioners, so for me it’s really great to see newer literary journals like Mimicry and Starling rising up (though I’m sad to see the end of JAAM).
Nothing matches the developmental push that comes from submitting work to a well-read editor to be scrutinised word by word. It’s healthy, too, to have enough possible publication places to be able to avoid only submitting work to your friends or classmates. So, I think we can do with still more editor-curated poetry publications to nourish the development of poetry in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Another lack: we need more platforms for the kind of stimulating and informative longform poetry review that critics like Lynley Edmeades, for example (in a recent Landfall Review Online), are so good at writing. But also, no one should be expected to write a seriously-considered review for nothing. Work is work, even if at the end of the day it’s not mud, but ink, on your hands. Funding, funding, funding: there’s a permanent problematic lack!
Have you seen a festival poetry session (anywhere) that has blown you off your seat (or had some other significant impact)?
I was at the 2010 Granada Poetry Festival in Nicaragua – truly a festival, a celebration of la poesia. The readings were held in parks and plazas. The Nicaraguan people have a passionate regard for poets and poetry – they turned out in their thousands to hear readings from their own and international poets. One particular event stands out for me. It was an evening reading, outside, warm and dark in the main town plaza, with about 2000 people in the audience – all ages, children, teenagers, parents, grandparents. Their listening was so attentive (most poems were voiced twice, once in the poet’s language and again in Spanish translation) – I watched face after face absolutely blossom in response to some lines. There was a feeling of us all being tapped into a high-voltage current – such power. Sheer zappery! And all from words.
If you could curate a dream poetry session at The Auckland Writers Festival which poets would be there and who would mc or chair it?
Sharon Olds, Louise Glück and Rita Dove in conversation with Carol Ann Duffy.
Airini Beautrais and Maria McMillan have written up their poetry road trip. I am so hoping this becomes a thing – two poet friends on tour with new books.
both Victoria University Press, 2017
We’ve known each other since the early 2000s, and both of us have been writing poetry for even longer than that. Some common threads in our work include feminism, social justice, environmentalism, and an interest in the possibilities of form. Over a cup of tea one afternoon in Maria’s lounge we agreed that as we both had books coming out this year, we should go on tour. Maria had been working hard in non-poetry related paid gigs, Airini was battling some difficult personal circumstances, and some time on the road reading with other women poets seemed like just what the doctor (of creative writing) ordered.
Somehow the tour got planned amidst the mad mess of everyday life. Sarah Laing kindly agreed to let us use her drawings for promotional purposes. Airini made a DIY poster with the help of scissors, glue, wallpaper and blu-tack. The word went out. The car got packed.
On Friday 14 July Airini held a book launch for Flow: Whanganui River Poems, at the Whanganui regional museum. Maria was the main support act on the night, reading from her recently-released The Ski Flier (Airini had also read at Maria’s launch a month earlier). Jenny Bornholdt read a poem by Joanna Margaret Paul. Other local booklovers read some favourite Whanganui-linked poems. VUP publicist and talented novelist Kirsten McDougall gave a fantastic launch speech.
Accidental ankh, Dannevirke
In the morning it was coffee, porridge and a quick trip to Whanganui’s famous SaveMart ‘The Mill’. Then onto the back roads of the Manawatu with a battered road atlas and smartphones which were largely ignored. We made it over the Pohangina Saddle, and lunched on launch leftovers in Dannevirke, where we discovered a church with a possibly accidental (we think maybe not) ankh – a perfect opportunity for posing with our books. On to Napier where it appeared we had entered a time warp. Airini’s dirty old Honda suddenly looked new alongside the vintage cars sweeping around the waterfront, driven by flappers and dapper gentlemen. The thought occurred to us that it was Deco weekend.
Beattie and Forbes Booksellers with Marty and Emily
Beattie and Forbes Booksellers is a must-visit independent bookstore near the sea in Napier. They opened up on a Saturday evening so we could read, with Marty Smith and Emily Dobson. Old friends and new turned up, along with members of local poetry groups. It seems that anywhere you go in New Zealand, there’ll be a poetry group of some sort, and a reading will draw at least some of them out of the woodwork. A highlight of the evening was Emily reading a poem owing a debt to her young daughter, called ‘Thea’s ‘gina song,’ which ended ‘It’s a ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-BAGINA!’ Both Marty and Emily are accomplished poets and readers and it was a privilege to read alongside them.
Maria at Waiomu Cafe
Sunday 16th we set off from Marty’s picturesque country house, on our big drive through to Thames. The roads had opened, but were still lined with snow. We made it to our reading at Waiomu Beach Café with five minutes to spare. The café is in a beautiful spot and draws in regulars driving around the Coromandel coastal road. It’s run by Maria’s cousin Julie, who was an amazing host. Airini also met some extended family members at the reading. More FM were there, and interviewed us. We read in the outdoor courtyard, adjusting our volume according to the passing traffic. Over the road, a cop issued speeding tickets. A kereru landed in a tree alongside. We posed for more book photos under the pohutukawa, took Julie’s dog for a walk, and enjoyed the scenery.
The Big House, Parnell with Tulia and Emma
Thames seems like the kind of place one could stay in forever, but on Monday morning we carried on to Auckland. We parked the car and went to hear a reading at the Auckland Art Gallery with Steve Toussaint, Simone Kaho, Elizabeth Morton, Johanna Emeney and Michael Morrissey. Everyone read well, but a disgruntled audience member booed, hissed and heckled during question time at the end. Chair Siobhan Harvey did an excellent job of shouting him down. We looked at each other and wondered if this was how poetry readings always went in Auckland. But our reading that evening at the Big House in Parnell, with Simone Kaho and Tulia Thompson, was a very warm and homely affair. Many of the house’s 25 occupants joined us by the fire to listen and talk, and housemate Emma also read some of her poems with us.
Airini at Poetry Live, Auckland
Tuesday night’s gig was Poetry Live, at the Thirsty Dog on K Road. Like the Big House, Poetry Live is an institution that’s been going for decades. We were lucky to be there for the farewell to regular MC Kiri Piahana-Wong. There was a great turnout and the venue and audience were friendly and welcoming. We read by turns in our guest poet slot, feeling like proper rockstars against the backdrop of a drum kit and stage lighting.
By Wednesday we were tired, and ready to head home. We stopped for tea and toasted sandwiches in the Pink Cadillac diner in Turangi. We parted ways at the Desert Road, after which Maria had some variable hitchhiking experiences, and Airini zig-zagged back and forth around the mountains navigating road closures. We’d had a great time and were looking forward to the second leg.
Vic Books in Wellington with Pip and Freya
The next leg kicked off on Friday 28 July with a lunchtime reading at Vic Books. We were joined by superstars Pip Adam, reading from her brand spanking new The New Animals, and Freya Daly Sadgrove, whose poetry is performative and highly entertaining. Maria read her poem, inspired by Pip, ‘In which I attain unimaginable greatness,’ in which the narrator attains superhero powers, achieves amazing feats, and at the end declares ‘This is how I begin. This is my first day.’
Palmerston North with Helen and Jo
Palmerston North City Library on Saturday evening was possibly the highlight of the tour. The library is a great place to read, hosting numerous literary events throughout the year. The big windows feature poems by local Leonel Alvarado, and pedestrians have a way of peering in through the letters, wondering what’s going on in there. We’d decided on a dress up theme of ‘80s trash with our fabulous co-readers Helen Lehndorf and Jo Aitchison, which got us some funny looks in New World, but definitely improved our performances. Helen’s hair was particularly spectacular. We had a small crowd but a great vibe. A kebab and whisky party kept us awake until the wee small hours.
Maria at Hightide Cafe
Helen’s chickens laid us our breakfast, and we revived ourselves with bottomless pots of tea. Maria’s superpowers became evident when she managed to drive us safely to our last gig, Poets to the People at Hightide Café in Paraparaumu. The sun was setting over Kāpiti as we drank coffee and listened to the open mike. Again, this is an event that’s been running for years, and there’s a sense the regulars know and love one another. We went home to a beautiful roast cooked by Maria’s partner Joe. The tour was over, but the fight continues! We had some great conversations in the car over those two weeks, and some good catch-ups with family and friends along the way. There was a lot of fighting talk, a lot of laughter and also a few tears. A big part of the tour was affirming ourselves as poets, mothers and radical women, and by the end of it, our unimaginable greatness was hard to deny.
Airini Beautrais and Maria McMillan, September 2017