For end-of-year Poetry Shelf wraps, I have usually invited a swag of writers to pick books they have loved. It has always turned into a mammoth reading celebration, mostly of poetry, but with a little of everything else. This year I decided to invite a handful of poets, whose new books I have loved in 2020, to make a few poetry picks.
My review and interview output has been compromised this year. I still have perhaps 20 poetry books published in Aotearoa I have not yet reviewed, and I do hope to write about some of these over summer.
The 8 Poets
Among a number of other terrific poetry reads (Oscar Upperton’s New Transgender Blockbusters for example), here are eight books that struck me deep this year (with my review links). Tusiata Avia’s The Savager Coloniser (VUP) is the kind of book that tears you apart and you feel so utterly glad to have read it. Tusiata has put herself, her rage, experience, memories, loves, prayers, dreads into poems that face racism, terrorism, Covid, inequity, colonialism, being a mother and a daughter, being human. An extraordinary book. Rhian Gallagher’s Far-Flung (AUP) is a sumptuous arrival, a book of exquisite returns that slowly unfold across months. Her poetic craft includes the lyrical, the political, the personal and the contemplative in poems that reflect upon the land, experiences, relationships.
Rata Gordon‘s Second Person (VUP) is fresh, layered and utterly captivating. This is a book of birth, babies, death, the universe, love, motherhood, water, sky, wildlife. It is a book that celebrates the present tense, the way we can inhabit the now of being. Reading Mohamed Hassan’s new collection, National Anthem (Dead Bird Books), opens up what poetry can do. It widens your heart. It makes you feel. It makes you think. It gets you listening. It makes you think about things that matter. Humanity. Family. Soil. Ahh!
Bill Manhire‘s Wow (VUP) will haunt you – so many of these poems have joined my list of memorable poetry encounters. The baby in the title poem says ‘wow’ while the big brother says ‘also’. This new collection sparks both the ‘wow’ moments and the ‘also’ moments. Get lost in its glorious thickets and then find your way out to take stock of the ordinary (and out-of-the-ordinary) world about you. Like Rhian’s collection this is a book of poetry astonishments. Natalie Morrison‘s (VUP) debut collection Pins is exquisite, both melodious and tactile, economical and rich. There is both a quirkiness and a crafted musicality, resonant white space, yet perhaps a key link is that of narrative. I filled with joy as I read this book.
Jackson Nieuwland‘s I am a Human Being (Compound Press), so long in the making, lovingly crafted with the loving support of friends, with both doubt and with grace (think poise, fluency, adroitness), this book, in its lists and its expansions, moves beyond the need for a single self-defining word. I knew within a page or two, this book was a slow-speed read to savour with joy. Nina Powles‘s Magnolia (Seraph Press) is the book I am currently reading. I have long been a fan, from Girls of the Drift to the glorious Luminscent). Nina’s new book is so immensely satisfying as it navigates home and not-home, identity, history, myth, the lives of women – with characteristic nimbleness, heavenly phrasing, open-heart revelations, the senses on alert, the presence of food, multiple languages. Reading bliss!
The poets and their picks
I’m a terrible book buyer. I tend to read books given to me (because I’m cheap like that) and the shopping-bag full of books my cousin, playwright, Victor Rodger, lends to me on the regular. He has the best taste! I should probably be a better reader of New Zealand poetry in particular, but I reckon I’ve got enough things to feel guilty about.
The top three on my list of books I have read this year and love:
Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)
I love the way Hinemoana uses language to make the ethereal and the mysterious. I’m happy to not immediately be able to pin down meaning; her language allows me to be suspended between what it does to me and what it means. Poems like the incantatory Aunties and Mother – which I think of as more ‘rooted’ – make me want to sit down immediately and write a poem. In fact that is exactly what I did do when I read this book. I love a book that makes me write.
An American Sunrise Joy Harjo (WW Norton & Co)
An American Sunrise is Joy Harjo’s most recent book of poetry. Joy is Poet Laureate of the United States. I love everything Joy Harjo has written. And I mean everything. She Had Some Horses (from an early book of the same name) is one of favourite poems of all time. Elise Paschen says of her, “ Joy Harjo is visionary and a truth sayer, and her expansive imagination sweeps time, interpolating history into the present.”. I would add to that she is taulaaitu, mouth-piece for the ancestors, gods and spirits. While you’re reading Joy Harjo’s poetry, read Crazy Brave, her wonderful autobiography. It will stay with you forever.
National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books)
When I was looking for favourite lines in this book, I couldn’t decide, sooo many – like small poems in themselves. Mohamed speaks with an iron fist in a velvet glove. His poetry is elegant and beautiful and it tells the damn truth. Someone needs to tell the damn truth – about March 15, about being Muslim in New Zealand (and in the entire western world), about the things that happen so close to us – and inside us – that are easy (and more comfy) to avert our eyes from.
Some favourite lines from White Supremacy is a song we all know the words to but never sing out loud: ‘Please come and talk on our show tomorrow/ no don’t bring that up/…
‘This isn’t about race/ this is a time for mourning/ this is about us/ isn’t she amazing/ aren’t we all’…
‘Let us hold you and cry/ our grief into your hijabs’…
Who can tell these stories in this way but a good poet with fire in his fingers, love and pain in equal measure in his heart and feet on the battleground?
There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce Morgan Parker (Tin House)
I have to add, There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker to every list I write forever. In my opinion, no reader of poetry should miss this. If it doesn’t grab you by the shoulders, the heart, the brain, the belly – you might be dead. From the epigraph: ‘The president is black/ she black’ (Kendrick Lamar). Morgan Parker is PRESIDENT.
The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (HarperCollins) edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris features translations of 20th century poets from around the world and is packed with surprises.
Amidst all the books I have enjoyed during 2020, this is the one that I have read and re-read and continue to come back to. It was first published in 2010. I have been slow in coming to the book.
When a poem in another language is re-cast into English, through the empathy and skill of a translator, it seems to unsettle notions of line, rhythmn, word choice and form. Translation pushes and tugs at the boundaries of the ‘rules’ and introduces a kind of strangeness. This strangeness I experience as an opening; a feeling of potential, slippery as a an eel to articulate. It recalibrates predetermined notions and generates excitement about what a poem can do or be.
There are well-known names here: Cavafy, Lorca, Akhmatova, Ritsos, Milosz, Symborska among others. There are also many poets previously unknown to me, and many whose work is either out of print or difficult to source. It’s a diverse, inspiring array of poetic voices and, as Kaminsky says in the introduction, puts us ‘in conversation with a global poetic tradition’.
Making discoveries is one of the great pleasures of anthologies. I now have a brand new ‘to read’ list.
When I’m reading something that inspires me, I have the urge to inhabit it somehow. I find that entering into a creative process by writing with, and around, another’s words helps me to absorb them into my internal landscape. This poem was created with snippets of some of the poetry I have met recently.
Soon, we are night sailing (Hunter, p. 71)
This is the closest you can get to it:
the void, the nothing,
the black lapping mouth of the sea
and the black arching back of the sky. (Hunter, p. 71)
One still maintains a little glimmer of hope
Deep down inside
A tiny light
About the size of a speck
Like a distant star
Is spotted on the horizon this dark night (Boochani, p. 26)
Swish swish swish
as quiet as a fish. (Ranger, p. 13)
… holy women
on the shore –
long having practiced the art
of replacing hearts
and song (Walker, p. 7)
Today you are tumbling towards her like the ocean.
… you are becoming nearer and nearer to someone other
than yourself. (Hawken, p. 49)
I have … imagined my life ending,
or simply evaporating,
by being subsumed into a tribe of blue people. (Nelson, p. 54)
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017, Picador). (Not strictly poetry, but the book feels so much like a long poem to me). Line breaks added by me.
No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani (2020, Picador).
‘Autumn Leaves’ by Laura Ranger. In A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children edited by Paula Green (2014, Random House).
Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning by Alice Walker (1975, The Women’s Press).
Small Stories of Devotion by Dinah Hawken (1991, Victoria University Press).
Bluets by Maggie Nelson (2009, Jonathan Cape). Line breaks added by me.
Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book (Victoria University Press)
A few weeks ago, I sat in the audience at a WORD Christchurch event and watched our former poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh read a poem from Tusiata Avia’s new collection. It began as such:
in the white wig
in that big Endeavour
sailing the blue, blue water
like a big arsehole
FUCK YOU, BITCH.
The hall fell pin silent and a heavy fog of discomfort descended from the ceiling, and I sat in the corner brimming with mischievous glee. It was a perfect moment, watching two of the country’s most celebrated poets jointly trash the country’s so-called ‘founder’ in the most spiteful way imaginable. The audience squirmed and squirmed and I grinned and grinned.
This is how Avia’s book begins, and it never lets up. As the title subtly implies with a hammer, Avia has things she wants to say, and doesn’t care how people feel about them. She delights in the spiteful, burrows down into the uncomfortable and the impolite and pulls out nuggets of painful truths with her bare hands. They are all truths that must be said bluntly and Avia drills them home.
In Massacre, Avia reflects on her youth fighting the demons of Christchurch, and asks us if our ‘this is not us’ mantra is divorced from the history carried in the land, haunted instead by the white spirits that rose to claim lives on March 15.
The book crescendos with How to be in a room full of white people, a dizzying poem that traps us in a single moment in time and forces us to witness and squirm and eventually, hopefully, understand what it is like to be the only brown body in a foreign space, in all its literal and metaphorical significance.
This has been my most cherished book this year, bringing together Tusiata Avia’s firecracker wit and her uncanny gift of conjuring worlds that feel vivid in their weight and poignancy. Abandoning all diplomacies, this is a blazing manifesto for honest and confrontational poetry that speaks with an urgency that puts me as a writer to shame, and demands more of me at once.
Jenny Lewis, Gilgamesh Retold, (Carcanet)
I love the way poetry re-visions the past, especially the deep past. I’m thinking of books like Matthew Francis’s reworking of the Welsh epic The Mabinogi and Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a book that abandons the main storyline of Homer’s Iliad in favour of narrating the death scenes of minor characters, accompanied by extra helpings of extended simile. I’d always known about the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I have owned for about 40 years in a yellow 1960 Penguin paperback. I’ve hardly opened it, but it’s one of some nine translations of the poem that Jenny Lewis has consulted for Gilgamesh Retold, published by Carcanet some four thousand years after the stories first circulated in oral form. (Her publisher at Carcanet, Michael Schmidt, has himself written a much admired book about the poem’s origins and afterlife)
Locally Dinah Hawken has worked with this ancient material, particularly writing about Inanna, the goddess of beauty and fertility and, sometimes, war, who is one of the major figures in the Gilgamesh cycle. Dinah’s feminist sense of the ancient stories accords with Jenny Lewis’s decision, as the blurb says, to relocate the poem “to its earlier oral roots in a Sumerian society where men and women were more equal, … [where] only women were allowed to brew beer and keep taverns, and women had their own language – emesal.”
It’s as well Inanna has such a significant role in Gilgamesh, for otherwise it would be a tale about male adventuring and bonding (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and the discovery that even the greatest heroes can never overcome death. The world of Gilgamesh also gives us a Flood, which matches and in some ways outdoes the Old Testament. I love the way Jenny Lewis has retold these stories. She doesn’t try to pad them out to produce the sorts of coherence and pacing that contemporary readers and movie-goers find comfortable, while her phrasings have an unreductive clarity and a genuinely lyrical grace. The most audacious thing she has done, and has carried off brilliantly, is to use different metrical forms to reflect the ways in which a range of different custodians/retellers have voiced and revoiced the story. You admire the 21st-century poet’s craft even as she inducts you into a baffling and unfamiliar world. All stories, Gilgamesh Retold tells us, are made by many voices, and the best of them will journey on through many more.
And now I must try and summon up the courage to give the latest version of Beowulf a go!
Gregory Kan, Under Glass (Auckland University Press)
My esteemed colleague, with one hand around his Friday swill-bottle: ‘I hate poetry – no one cares, no one reads it anymore.’
Gregory Kan, with two suns infiltrating the long ride on the train
to Paekākāriki, illustrates otherwise: Under Glass lulls like a really disquieting guided meditation.
After lockdown, it is the first book I read outside our ‘bubble’.
Threading through an internal landscape, somehow a place I recognise.
‘Here, there are two suns. The ordinary sun is in the sky overhead. The other sun
is eating its way out from inside me.’
Certain lines, with their mystical insistence, snag on me and come back again from time to time:
‘Everything that surrounds the second sun is not part of it but nonetheless makes it what it is.’
It’s as if some lines have been dreaming of themselves. The book invites a gentle inspection. A glass bead held right up against the eye. A shutter flipped open over a stark interior.
‘When you move
a look moves inside me
and eats there what I eat.’
Once, a kind individual in Paekākāriki, their hands busy with a teapot, told me: ‘Those who know what it is,
fall on it like starving people.’
When Litcrawl comes, we make our way to some of the events. The room has sucked a crowd in.
Spells for 2020, with Rebecca Hawkes, Rata Gordon, Stacey Teague, Arihia Latham, Rachel McAlpine and Miriama Gemmell (thank you for your entrancing words), reminds me of how poetry is still something people might come in search of. Visitations of bees, airline heights and morphing walls. There is a sense of relief.
A crowd still feels like a dream, and a dream still feels like the sea. Gregory writes that ‘the sea is a house made of anything. The sea is a story about anything, told by someone unfit for storytelling. More than what I can know, and much more than I can understand.’
Under Glass, which wasn’t exactly written for this year (no ordinary year), seems to slot into it.
My steamed colleague, with one hand steadying the banister: ‘I guess Bob Dylan is okay, though.’
Note: I asked my colleague’s permission for quoting him. He said he was fine with it, as long as a mob of angry poets didn’t come knocking.
2020 was the year we finally got a book from Hana Pera Aoake (A bathful of kawakawa and hot water Compound Press). I had been waiting for this for so so long. It’s a taonga that I am incredibly grateful for. Ever since I first read Hana’s work they have been one of my favourite writers. Their writing is both clever and wise, of the moment and timeless, pop culture and fine art, Aotearoa and international.
This is a book I will be returning to over and over again for inspiration, electrification, nourishment, and comfort. I would recommend it to anyone.
Other poetry books I read and loved this year: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, The Book of Frank by CA Conrad, hoki mai by Stacey Teague, Hello by Crispin Best, and Head Girl by Freya Daly Sadgrove.
Nina Mingya Powles
For most of this year I could only read things in fragments. I could only hold on to small parts of poems, essays, short stories in my head before they floated away. This year I sought out poetry by Indigenous writers. Of these two books, the first I read slowly, dipping in and out like testing the surface of cool water. The other I read hungrily all at once.
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Graywold Press) reminded me why I write poetry, at a time when writing anything at all felt impossible. Diaz’s heavy, melodic love poems circled around my head for days: “My lover comes to me like darkfall – long, / and through my open window.” But it is her writing about water and the body that changed me. In this book, water is always in motion, a current that passes through time, memory and history. Her long poem “The First Water of the Body” is a history of the Colorado River, a sacred river: “I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving with me right now.”
A bathful of kawakawa and hot water by Hana Pera Aoake (Compound Press) came to me when I needed it most, nourishing me and warming me. I haven’t yet held a copy of the book, but I read it on my laptop over two days and have carried parts of it around in my body ever since: “I speak broken French and Português into the broken yellow gloaming.” A bathful of kawakawa and hot water is a searing, lyrical work of poetry, memoir, and political and cultural commentary. Like the title suggests, it was a balm for me, but also a reminder of the ongoing fight for our collective dream of a better world, and most importantly, that “racism is not just a product of psychological malice, but a product of capitalism.”