Tag Archives: NZ poem

Poem Friday: Leilani Tamu’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ — I love the mesh of surprise and political bite

 

 

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Photo credit: Janet Lilo

 

 

Mouths Wide Shut


it was while I was boarding

the early morning bus

with my mouth taped shut

that I came to understand

 

silence

 

her pale eyes watching me

she didn’t know what to do

or how to react

 

to the challenge

of my impertinent act

not golden but ashen

she seemed to be shaken

 

not wanting to deal

with my rage or passion

her mind was made up

 

who cared about the reason

why my mouth was taped

shut? her role was not

to question or get involved

 

let alone make a fuss

coz it’s not her problem

if someone wants to make

a statement on board

the public bus

 

© Leilani Tamu, The Art of Excavation Anahera Press, 2014

 

 

Leilani’s note about the poem:

In 2012, I wrote an article for Metro magazine called ‘Mouths Wide Shut’ which tackled the issue of racism in New Zealand. The article focused on the implications, both personal and public, of choosing to remain silent, or do nothing, when confronted with racism. After writing the piece, I collaborated with artist Janet Lilo to stage a social / artistic intervention whereby Janet took photographs of me boarding a public bus in Auckland with my mouth covered with black duct tape. We rode the early morning bus from Avondale to Point Chevalier and during the trip not one person asked us what we were doing. People seemed to feel more comfortable ignoring us and most people looked uncomfortable. It was this experience and the subsequent photographs that inspired the poem.

The original article can be read online here

Author bio:

Leilani Tamu is a poet, social commentator, Pacific historian and former New Zealand diplomat. In 2013 she was the Fulbright / Creative New Zealand Writer in Residence at the University of Hawai’i in Mānoa. Leilani’s work has appeared in a diverse range of anthologies and her debut book of poetry The Art of Excavation was published in August 2014.

 

Paula’s note about the poem:

I had no idea about the genesis of the poem when I first read it but it really struck me. Stuck with me. I love the mesh of surprise and political bite. The title and the phrase, ‘mouth taped shut,’ were the initial hooks. It first brought to mind Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in 1955. Leilani’s title is an oxymoron yet it makes sense as the closed mouth of the title speaks volumes. It is a little cipher to carry through the poem. By being ‘sentenced’ to silence, willfully or otherwise, the taped mouth is both potent and resonant. It cuts into your state of ease. For me, it caught hold of centuries of thought, loose conversations, anecdotes and theory on women speaking and women silent, that reach back as far as Aristotle’s ‘A woman’s crown is her silence.’ The poem suggested to me that subject isn’t yet dead and there is still much to be said on the matter. Who is silence? Why is she silence? How is she silenced? Does it matter that she is a woman?

Yet this poem isn’t just issue based. It is vital, vibrant and rich with possibilities.

When I hit the word ‘silence’ in its own pillow of white space, I was tugged in a completely different direction. Now I was lead to the notion that you can observe and absorb and thus understand the world so much better if you are quiet (like the chatterer in the bush doesn’t get to experience the bush beyond the filter or screen of talk).

Then you reach the poem’s passenger and her distance. This returns you to the title and the poignant phrase. The passenger’s stance ignites thoughts on how we navigate difference and how difference is so often held at arm’s length because it is threatening, unfathomable, confusing. The notion that you can observe and absorb and thus understand the world so much better if you are quiet is tilted, flipped on its head. You get to observe, absorb and understand the world more through interrogation, through conversation. The poem is both the public bus and the public performance and it is over to us to draw close and raise questions. I love the way this poem is both understated and packs a punch. I have barely begun to pick at its threads.

Maybe you get to observe, absorb and understand the world  by both silence (observation) and engagement (questioning).

 

 

Anahera author page here

My review of The Art of Excavation here

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Friday Poem: Kerrin P Sharpe’s ‘she gets these letters’ — Nouns swell with options

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she gets these letters

 

one moment there

is vodka at

a forest wedding

the next the last

breath of a gun

 

she watches defiance

secret army draws

a map of Poland

the sweep of ice

fills her throat

 

this is the plantation

her father was taken to

perhaps this is the pine

he walked towards

 

as if he spent

his mornings collecting

alpine specimens

and the snow he fell into

pages of white birds

 

 

©Kerrin P. Sharpe There’s a Medical Name for This  Victoria University Press, 2014

Author bio: Kerrin P. Sharpe’s first book three days in a wishing well was published by Victoria University Press in 2012. Her work appeared in Oxford Poets 13 (Carcanet). Another book, there’s a medical name for this was published August 2014 (VUP). A third collection rabbit rabbit is in progress with a grant from Creative New Zealand.

Author note: This poem began life after I had watched the movies Defiance and Secret Army. I began thinking about the huge significance of locations and how they are changed forever when terrible crimes have been committed there. This poem was published in the NZ Listener in 2014.

Note by Paula: What draws me to this poem is the enigma and the gap. Without the back story the possibilities are myriad whether as reader you step into shoes that are autobiographical, another persona or a mix of both. There is a jostling of meaning and effect between elements; from title to poem, night to day, life to death, vodka to the last breath of the gun. Nouns swell with options: vodka, forest, the map and the plantation are nouns of elsewhere. The understatement is striking. There is the ominous ring of ‘was taken’ that is amplified by the ‘chill of ice.’ The implications of ‘as if specimens’ seems to mask from what really took place. The final image in the last two lines is utterly potent. The white snow might stand in for the clean white page, the insistence of hope, the threat of war and violence and atrocity, and the magnetic pull of the prospect of peace. For me, the word ‘sweep’ leaps out not just for the ear but semantic rewards (a clean sweep, the expanse of the scene, clearing history, fresh beginnings). This is a haunting poem. Yes, it makes a difference when you know the back story but the gaps are still profound.

Victoria University Press page

Poem Friday: Airini Beautrais’s ‘The thing is, Neil, you are all of us’ –It is a poem that haunts me, and in that haunting, I keep returning to the lines to reflect upon ‘why.’

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The thing is, Neil, you are all of us

 

You are the old rocker in skinny jeans

who is mumbling in the corner

you are the punk who fixes bicycles

at two o’clock in the morning.

 

You are the comic book girl in combat boots

whose breasts are drawn too large

you are the feminine librarian

who wants to go on a rampage.

 

You are the community gardener

with home-cut hair and knee holes

you are the bespectacled chicken rescuer

the guitar player and the police mole.

 

You are the tofu thief made to work

for the local Salvation Army.

They throw away about half of their clothes:

take as many as you can carry.

 

©Airini Beautrais Dear Neil Roberts  Victoria University Press 2014

 

Author Bio: Airini Beautrais lives in Whanganui with her partner and two sons. She is currently working on a PhD in creative writing through the IIML at Victoria University, on the subject of narrativity and verse form in contemporary long poems. Dear Neil Roberts is her third book.

Author note: ‘The thing is, Neil, you are all of us’ is one of the first parts of the book I wrote, back in 2011. I had known Neil Roberts’s story for some time and it had occurred to me it would be interesting to write a long poem about the incident. One of the things that struck me early on in my research, from reading various anarchist/ libertarian communist web entries, was the sense of ownership amongst these radical left communities for the story. It was as though each person who had re-told the story, while not endorsing Neil’s act, could identify with the way he must have felt. In this poem I drew on my own experience within the Wellington anarchist scene – although not every detail is ‘true’, the characters in this poem do approximate real people, myself included.

Within this poem the ghost of an accentual meter can be heard, and the metrical scheme, while loose, is something near the traditional 4, 3, 4, 3 ballad stanza. And it is off-rhymed, xaxa. Perhaps the ballad was lurking behind the scenes all along. It has been mentioned that Dear Neil Roberts is rhythmically close to prose. I think this is true (as it is for a wide range of contemporary free verse), but I also think that writing to a regular stanzaic shape can lead to some interesting effects. For instance, rhymes frequently occur at line-ends. And there are lines in the book that are straight iambic pentameter. It has to be remembered that poetry is a genre, and can be written in verse, prose, or any combination of the two. Writing Dear Neil Roberts as a poem allowed me to present, juxtapose and interpret information in a different manner, than if I had set out to write an extended essay or a work of New Zealand history.

 

Paula’s note: Not having read Airini’s note before I wrote this, I didn’t have the back history (which is fascinating!). The poem is placed near the end of her collection, Dear Neil Roberts, and traverses Neil’s story with a foot planted in the realm of invention and another within the scope of research. Forming some kind of arc across—or conversely a simmering stream below—these two choices, is the personal. Airini allows herself, her own history and predelictions, to enter the poems.

What struck me about this particular poem is its ability to move, to raise issues and to offer delight at the level of technique. The parade of chalk-and-cheese characters turns the narrative impulse over and positions you as reader squarely within the frame. The poem now addresses ‘you.’ Yes, you might be any one of these characters that, like Neil, might test boundaries or go to extremes, but there are other issues at work here too. We are all destined, in the main, to occupy the shadows of history (as did Neil) as opposed to being a key player. If there is a potential Neil at work in this parade, there is also the way in which the parade is at work in Neil. We occupy many roles, play many parts, with varying degrees of visibility and attachment. These possibilities move me, as they return me to the complicated, contradictory, and at times unfathomable make-up of what it means to be human.

If the poem flips your placement as reader, the final two lines flip your placement within the poem. Again the resonances are multiple.The cheap clothes. The bag to be filled. The societal waste. Yes we have roles but we always have needs. We are linked by common needs whatever complications are steering our lives: warmth, shelter, food.

You can read this poem as prose-like in its poetic intentions yet, as is so often the case with Airini’s poems, there is more at work here. For me, I was hooked by the aural chords that make different semantic connections. For example, I loved pursuing the ripple of ‘m’s’ (mumbling, morning, feminine, community, home, mole, army, many) and the way they are honey for the ear yet forge a buried story. This poem, as does the book, relishes the white space, the gaps, the ambiguity alongside the more prosaic intent of telling a story, bringing someone closer, circulating ideas. It is a poem that haunts me, and in that haunting, I keep returning to the lines to reflect upon ‘why.’ Marvelous.

 

Poem Friday: Nina Powles’ ‘Josephine’ — This is a poem of curvature and overlap

 

Nina

 

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Author bio:  Nina Powles studied English literature and Chinese at Victoria University, where she is now studying towards her MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Her poetry and non-fiction has appeared in Salient, Turbine and Sweet Mammalian. Girls of the Drift (Seraph Press 2014) is her debut poetry collection. She will spend the upcoming year working on a new collection of biographical poems.

 

Author note: ‘Josephine’ is one of a pair of poems that I wrote in response to my favourite short story by Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’. The two sisters, Josephine and Constantia, have only ever known a life of duty and obedience to their father, until he dies, and then the world begins to open itself up to them in a series of small moments of colour and brightness. In my reading and writing, I always find myself thinking about people and places stuck in the in-between, caught in phases of transition. So I think I wanted this poem to sit on the verge of brightness. I wanted to crawl into the dark bedroom where Josephine feels trapped—and maybe start to show her the way out.

 

Note by Paula: I read this poem out of context, without linking it to Katherine Mansfield’s story, and I was struck by the luminous detail that sets the poem in marvellous shifting lights. The adjectives pulsate (‘the dark shell’).  I love the jarring counterpoint of expectation and discovery in the opening lines. I love the way the beginning and end take hold of each other in that sticky, candied link. This is a poem of curvature and overlap. Time folds in on itself as it does like rock striking rock to produce a spark of elsewhere. So the marmalade leads you to the core of the poem and core of memory with its emotional kick. And the image of the hand (‘thin like spindly bones in a/ small purse’) with its little potent bite,  again leads to small child and old father. Poems can reach you in small, perfectly formed packages such as this, and the joy is in the alluring rustle of tissue paper. This detail shining through here, that discovery shining through there. I use the word, ‘rustle,’ as this is a poem of sweetly composed music; there is the rustle of vowels and consonants that lifts beyond meaning, beyond feeling and then adds to each. I read Nina’s note after I wrote this and smiled at the notion of ‘small moments of brightness.’

 

Seraph Press page here

 

 

 

 

Friday Poem: Sarah Jane Barnett’s ‘Blue Heart’: The poem enacts the mystery of writing a poem

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Photo Credit: Matt Bialostocki

 

Blue Heart

Full size model of a Blue Whale heart, Te Papa Museum

The boy enters the whale heart. He finds his way.

His hands slide down the peachy aorta, his body

swallowed into the central chamber. My face pushes

after him because it’s just fibre and glass, and he’s

my first child, on his knees, his back to me. His hands

perform their work of play along a smooth ridge of cartilage

like a cardiac surgeon. Interpretations of the ‘whale’ fall

into three categories: The whale is real and my son

lives in her heart. Or the whale is the dream

I have for my son. Or the whale is an allegory

that should not be taken to heart. Some things take time

to understand. Last time we visited my grandmother

I knew she would die before I saw her again.

She’d been having regular blood transfusions—

pulsing circles of bright red tubing—which helped

for a few weeks before another fall, after which she’d rest

one cheek on the carpet. My son sat on her lap and she played

at biting his fingers, her grey dentures clacking together,

and he squealed and pointed, and then pointed to the fireplace,

and then pointed to the window where a dried floral arrangement had sat

for twenty years. Everything was there for him.

She took his pointing finger between the soft pads of her lips.

How do you enter the biggest heart? Do you say

that it weighs up to fifteen hundred pounds? The largest heart

is like a compacted Volvo! Maybe you must imagine it beating

inside you? Maybe you find it one quiet morning,

your son asleep, his cheeks flaring the colour of summer plums.

 

Author’s bio: Sarah Jane Barnett is a writer, tutor, and book reviewer who lives in Wellington. Her first collection of poems, A Man Runs into a Woman, was published by Hue & Cry Press in 2012, and was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Her work has appeared in various publications including Sport, Landfall, Best New Zealand Poems, and Southerly. Sarah has a PhD in creative writing from Massey University in the field of ecopoetics. She blogs at: theredroom.org.

Author’s note: ‘I wrote this poem as part of my PhD thesis which, in part, looked at the different ways poets write about the nonhuman world. While writing my thesis I had my son and my grandmother died. Both of these events felt huge and brittle and surreal. Both were difficult to write about. One afternoon I took my son, Sam, to Te Papa and he played for ages in their scale model of a blue whale heart. It made me think about the way poets often resort to using the natural world as a metaphor when trying to describe love, grief, or the sublime. That’s when I wrote this poem.’

Paula’s note: The opening line of Sarah’s poem, so exquisitely simple stalled me with myriad, potential directions: fable, fairytale, the slippery slopes of surrealism, metaphor and real-life anecdote (as the epigraph in fact signals). This heavenly poem celebrates the child — the mother-son relationship is clasped in its tender embrace. Poignantly, the life of the son is countered by the death of the grandmother, not as a set of scales but as a largeness of love and loss that finds its potency in the smallest of detail. The poem enacts the mystery of writing a poem — the way stream-of-consciousness or random thoughts that accumulate like stepping stones can drive the poet’s pen and make magic out of metonymy and juxtaposition. The son points out the luminous detail so that place becomes vibrant and beloved. The life blood of this poem is heart: the whale’s heart, the son’s heart, the grandmother’s heart. But more than than anything, it is the internal love heart that renders the grace,  economy,  attentiveness,  poetic craft, the words that shine out, the story that unfolds and the images that startle (‘cheeks flaring the colour of summer plums’) in maternal ink. This is why I love poetry.

Sweet Mammalian is a new literary journal edited by 3 Wellington poets. The journal was created out of a wish to see more good, new writing out in the world. The editors of Sweet Mammalian aim to provide a fresh space for poetry that comes out of the complex, the absurd, the warm-blooded. They aim to provide a space for all kinds of writing. The inaugural issue of Sweet Mammalian is launched today, Friday 10 October, with a launch party and reading in Wellington.

The link to Sarah’s poem in the inaugural issue is here.

Friday Poem: Rebecca Palmer’s ‘Dear Grandma’ — now I have read the author’s note the poem shifts slightly on its axis

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Dear Grandma

Albino, prune like
demoralizing the years
of hard work past,

B flat serenades
chitter chatter through
the teeth of an elephant.

African plains, vast, moonlit,
red eyes glinting –
is it Chopin’s waltz,

or your other love,
Rachmaninoff?

Poised, silent
“Shhh”, you whisper,
“Can you hear the musk deer?”

 

Author note: I wrote this poem from an exercise about describing a person’s hands in a workshop run by Joanna Preston. It was the beginning of summer, when the sun lingers on your shoulders in the evenings and instills in you a kind of thirst for adventure. The exercise got me thinking about how the world looks to a child and how, through the eyes of the young, the achievements of the elderly are merely fleeting impressions of an untouchable Savannah.

Author bio: Currently studying towards an undergraduate degree in English and Russian at Canterbury University. I have been published in The Fib Review.

Paula’s note: This poem hooked me. I love the surprising juxtaposition of detail and sound effects. Try, for example, writing a poem with a prune, B Flat, a grandmother, the African Plains, elephant’s teeth, the moon. This is an subtle portrait of a moment, a grandmother and a relationship. It reaches out from the intimacy of listening and sharing to the African plains — it is a poem of the wider world and the world at hand. I love the way a phrase (‘years/ of hard work past’) embeds a secret narrative that instils a sense of the buried lives of the elderly. I have used this analogy before, but this poem is like lacework: ethereal, delicate, intricate, as dependent upon holes as it is web. Interesting too how now that I have read the author’s note the poem shifts slightly on its axis. I like the idea of fleeting impressions through the eyes of a child.

Poem Friday: Vivienne Plumb’s ‘As much gold as an ass could carry’ deliciously fablesque

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This week an unpublished poem from Vivienne Plumb.

 

As much gold as an ass could carry.

One endless summer when I was fourteen

I began to speak with a great arrogance

as wide as a river mouth, imagining I was

witty and charming and full of my own cream.

 

I refused to continue laying the fire

or to cook supper in the tiny croft-house.

Instead, I was dreaming of ten-foot palaces, a crop of corn,

my own chambermaid, and as much gold as an ass

could carry.

 

I was sent to learn how to cut willows

and weave, but I allowed the meats

in my basket

to become cold and infested with worms.

 

I breast-stroked far away

in my twenty-league boots, under the delusion

I was moving fast, when in truth

I had remained stock still.

 

© Vivienne Plumb.doc

 

Vivienne Plumb presently holds the 2014 Ursula Bethall writing residency at University of Canterbury. She is a poet, a fiction writer, and a playwright, and has recently completed a Doctor of Creative Arts. New published work includes Twenty New Zealand Playwrights (with Michelanne Forster) published by, and available through Playmarket (N.Z.), and a collection of short fiction, The Glove Box, (Spineless Wonders, Sydney).

 

Author’s note: The language of this poem was influenced by the language and content of stories such as those the Grimm Brothers collected. The poem attempts to give some instruction in a similar way to those kind of stories, where the advice was hidden in the text, such as Little Red Riding Hood (i.e: watch out for lone wolves). Apart from that, the piece is also about youth: the narrator wants to ‘breast-stroke far away’ but will later discover that for all her wild swimming she ‘remained stock still’; as how can we truly get away from what we actually carry inside us? The title, As much gold as an ass can carry, reflects our youthful dreams, so full of ‘cream’ and conjecture.

Note from Paula: When I first read this poem it struck me as deliciously fablesque—a poem that would fit perfectly in Italo Calvino’s mammoth and brilliant collection of Italian folk tales. Vivienne’s poem has the momentum and structure of a folk tale where the morals and messages lurk in the seams. You have, for example, to keep your eye on the world, on the small details in order to nourish the bigger picture (otherwise your meat will rot in its basket). And then, the old proverb: less haste, more speed. Yet what elevates this poem into something exquisitely more, is the layered movement— not just in the semantic and visual reverberations but also in the aural kicks and echoes. Take the phrase, ‘full of my own cream.’ It’s semantically and visually surprising (gives flesh to the girl on the cusp of womanhood) and aurally active (the ‘eam’ and ’em’ sounds leapfrog through the poem like aural glue or a vital backbone: summer, imagining, charming, dreaming, chambermaid, much, become, moving, remained). That phrase just bounces and bounds at the end of the line. The poem also stands as a rite of passage—the young girl exhibits the youthful need to flounder and laze, to break away from constraint into the magical, dangerous unknown. I loved, too, the way Vivienne is unafraid of tropes (‘a great arrogance as wide as a river mouth’). I loved the confounding somersaults that verge on oxymora; the breaststroker in her twenty-league boots, the girlhood activity that leads to stasis. Glorious!