Tag Archives: NZ Poetry review

Poetry Shelf Review: Roger Horrocks and Song of the Ghost in the Machine – as you readwalk you feel invigorated, refreshed, and ready to write

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Song of the Ghost in the Machine

Roger Horrocks

Victoria University Press



I confessed the day the Ockham NZ Book Award short lists came out I had not read this book as it felt too close to something I had in my head. Truth is I have finished a draft that I am leaving for a decent period of time before lifting it into something that works. The link with my starting point is tenuous. But it loomed large at the time.

Roger’s new collection comes out of walking. Walking in the physical world, walking through books, ideas, memory. Each section is prefaced by the biggest stack of quotations I have seen in ages in a poetry book. If ever! –  when I think further. It means there are two different reading approaches at work here. You can go shopping within the quotes and find the ones that stick.

Like a little reading map for the reader pedestrian. The sources are eclectic. Surprising.

Then there is the poetry, and this is infused with the way age changes things. For some poets, it prompts a new alertness to the world, to what matters. Roger is absorbing the world as he walks and leaving shiny traces of it in the poems.

‘This is the world I saw.’

For some poets, age is the body changing, under threat, slower. Death seems closer. Death seems to push and nudge the poems and make itself felt. For Roger, it is there in a health scare, in the passing of loved ones.

‘The body supplies the beat’

Mostly the poems are made of long lines in thick stanzas and generate the fluency of walking. One poem, ‘One Hundred Descriptions,’ amasses aphorisms, miniature thoughts, like miniature steps.

‘a square peg in the round hole of the world’

Throughout the book, as you meander and read, sidetrack and read, loiter and read, certain things leap out at you. Just like when you walk in the physical world and see the cat asleep in the flowerpot.

‘Like shoehorn, a mind is meant to ease you/ into the world, but his makes a poor fit.’

‘My cargo is close to bursting – years of sights/ and smells, ideas and anxieties, mistakes and regrets -/ but for the moment I’m still mobile, still fossicking.’


What changes the poetry when death seems that little bit closer? With this collection it invigorates it. The ideas about self and writing and how we fit in the world. How we belong. How we make attachments. How we can use words to make shadows on the page like Plato’s cave.

In his note at the back of the book, Roger talks about poetry. In my view, when I scan the decades of NZ poetry I have read, I believe poetry does anything and everything. It busts out of compartments. Not all poetry is preoccupied with self (Roger proposes much is), yet find me a poem where traces of the poet don’t flourish like tiny signatures (ah begone Barthes!). Tiny alluring signatures that reflect bias. Bias that snags on ideas, physical views, opinions, musicality, experience, poetic choices, subject preferences.

This terrific poetry collection is like walking in the world because as you readwalk you feel invigorated, refreshed, and ready to write.

Congratulations on a well deserved spot on the short list, Roger.


VUP page


Poetry Shelf review: Holly Painter’s Excerpts from a Natural History – This book is a tonic for me as a reader

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Excerpts from a Natural History Holly Painter  Titus Books  2015


This book is a tonic for me as a reader and a boost in the blood for poetry. I adore it.

John Newton’s endorsement on the back is perfect: ‘Holly Painter is a trickster poet, you never know where she is going next. Sometimes she wants to lick your ear. Over the page she might chew your ear off.’

The launch pad for the collection: ‘When the British natural philosophers of the 17th century founded modern natural history, they proposed finding a poet to compile a poetic account of everything that existed in nature, very broadly defined. Four hundred years later, the work is ongoing, made modern and rigorous with rules and style-guides, managers and research-poets.’

The notion of a research-poet sidetracked me into other poet roles that have existed or might exist: speculative-poet, domestic-poet, Sunday-poet, global-village-poet, experience-poet, travel-poet, theory-poet, heart-poet.

The collection is made up of the submissions of a researcher-poet but made infinitely more interesting by the tracked comments of her supervisor and the myriad ideas and relations that proliferate.

The poet-researcher is set assignments that demand inventories and lists of things that include the natural world (regenerating starfish, the kakapo) but veer wildly into a material world (buttons for sale, ‘Tubular Bells’) and curious things between (flower motifs for teenage courtship).

The supervisor demands the voice of reason, clarity, facts, comprehensive lists, specificity, neutrality and rebuffs anecdotes, adverbs, poetic licence, personal confession.

Sometimes the submissions are laugh out loud as in the light of the recovery work of ‘Tubular Bells’ or the counting of buttons (how long did it take?).

The tracking comments form editorial advice but also trace the relationship between supervisor and researcher-poet(this label keeps slipping in my hands!). The reaction of the supervisor to relations beyond editorial choices is explicit in the tracked comments; the reaction of the latter is buried in the poetry submissions. Love hijacks the cool calculation of inventories. The very guts of ‘natural history’ and what that might embody is reinvented.

Holly employs a range of styles, tones, rhymes, layouts, silences, musicalities as though the heart cannot be penned (excuse the pun!) within a style-guide. The collection is dexterous on its tip toes as it gets you thinking about categories and categorisations, hierarchies and dichotomies, and the way love cannot resist (avoid) anecdote, confession, adverbs.

The book is beautiful. The paper gorgeous to the hand, while the cover’s marigolds almost fill the room with a nostalgic scent.

I highly recommend this book.

Holly is an MFA graduate from the University of Canterbury. Her poetry has been included in Sport, Landfall, the NZ Listener and JAAM. She lives in Singapore with her wife and son.

Titus Books here

Holly Painter’s web site








Poetry Shelf review: Lynn Jenner’s Lost and Gone Away — Lynn is unafraid to venture upon unstable ground in order to follow her trains of thought

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Lynn Jenner  Lost and Gone Away  Auckland University Press  2015


Lynn Jenner’s new book, Lost and Gone Away, is a terrific read, a challenging, thought-snapping, sidetracking, stalling read. A must read. The book, as the title suggests, navigates and stretches towards lost things. It is a hybrid work that started life as a doctoral thesis, and is in turn, poetry, prose, essay, memoir, and a smudging of genre to the point that it is unimportant where one genre begins and another ends. ‘Things’ matter but this is a work that places people at its white-hot core, and from here radiates missing memory, experience, time, place, events.

The book is in four parts. Part One, ‘The ring story,’ pursues Lynn’s mother’s ring that went missing in the Christchurch earthquake. Part Two, ‘The panorama machine,’ is like a stream-of-conscious outflow of that which is lost. Part Three, ‘Point Last Seen,’ focuses on missing people. Part Four, ‘I ring the bell anyway,’ navigates The Holocaust.’ Writing becomes a way of reaching and tethering traces of what has gone. It is, and can only ever be, subjective, elusive, fleeting, partial. The generous white space that gives the text room to waver and shift heightens the allure of fragmentation — yet as you read you identify currents that link: the stream-of-consciousness movement, the concatenation of ideas.


Lynn trawls eclectic places for material: books, anecdotes, conversations with strangers, conversations with friends, museums, personal experience, invented experience, inherited experience, dreams, white space. The thinking and writing process is guided by acute contemplation, critical thinking, doubt, self-defensiveness, thought drifts, accidents, discoveries, questions. As she searches for her way into and through knotty issues, she identifies approaches she connects with and those she does not (Michael King is a stand-out example of the latter). The pieces accumulate and build a thought mosaic as opposed to a thought fresco. Always there is a taut wire to the personal –no matter where thinking leads, no matter how distant in view of time and place, this is an intimate and utterly personal inquiry.

For me, the book is a treasure chest of curious things, fascinating things — but it is not just a novelty box. This book takes you to essential human questions and reminds you that there is no singular response and no singular way to write your response. How do you face individual loss? How do you face national loss? How do you face the Holocaust? Global crimes against humanity? How do you write what you have not experienced? How do you listen to the voice that is other? A waterfall of questions.

The questions stick but little pieces of the book adhere, indelible upon your skin. The suitcase. The empty chair. The man in the Jewish museum telling his story, over and over. Finding beautiful words in the work of a prolific but unknown poet and using them in a poem. A dream’s impact on reading and writing. The carriages. The Polish children. The way you may unwittingly leave traces at a high-pitched frequency that readers may unwittingly pick up. The way Sappho appears and reappears.


Lost and Gone is an extraordinary read because it lays a gossamer net upon missing things and allows you to catch glimpses of what has gone, whether far from your life or close at hand. At work, and intensely present, is a mind foraging, delving, struggling, daring. Lynn is unafraid to venture upon unstable ground in order to follow her trains of thought — at times uncomfortable, at times surprising, always moving and shifting your point of view. This is a special book.


Auckland University Press page

Poetry Shelf review — Emma Neale’s Tender Machines takes you into a deep private space in her writing; in ways that sing and challenge, that move and muster every poetic muscle and tendon as you read

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Emma Neale Tender Machines Otago University Press 2015

Emma Neale’s new poetry collection features a striking drawing by her son, Abe. Surprising, inventive, poetic even. The poetry is Emma’s best yet, dare I say it. To step off from the title, tenderness meets sharp edges meets exquisite moving parts, small yet perfectly formed. The collection holds you in the intimate embrace of home, yet takes you out into the wider allure of the wider world. Issues, ideas, preoccupations.

The first section, ‘Bad Housekeeping,’ is where poet tends hearth. Mostly, and movingly, Emma navigates her relations with her young son.  She is up against the elbows of insistence, demands, resistance. The mind of the mother is anchoring, roving, admitting. She is in the heart of a toddler tantrum and in the palm of world issues. These poems affect you. You can savour the poetic craft that is honey for the ear. Such musical harmonies and schisms. That is one joy of reading. You can enter the toughness and rewards of motherhood. It is as though maternal experience is the stock pot that is simmered and concentrated to a syrup that is both sweet and tart on the tongue.  The poems become the kind of poems you can hang stories upon; of this child and that child, of this moment of mothering and that. Poetry has the ability to bear story, experience, imaginings, ideas, music — all in its one tender machine (oxymoron and all). These remarkable poems do this. ‘Hard Task, Master’ is a miniature snapshot of the child — its ending breathtaking:


as he tries

to build and build

the deck of himself

against the hard, tall wall

of the world.


At times it is the concatenation of verb or noun on the line that catches you in a knot of maternal thought — son glued to mother, mother glued to son. As in ‘Towards a Theory of Aggression in Early Childhood Development’:


Hit, push, lash, scratch,

these cheeks, this jaw, this shoulder,

are these in truth our edges, outlines, will we cry

as he does, daily, nightly, sky-wrenching as sunrise

yet still hold him in our arms


There is poetic braveness here that doesn’t loiter in conventional maternal paradigms. This is a poet opening layers of skin to get to where it hurts, confuses, demands, yet never loses sight of the enduring bond. The love. This is from ‘Domestic’:


you’re our darling our treasure.


You fling a tea cup at the cat,

plump up her spine like a goose-down pillow,


jab your thumbs at your father’s face

as if to pull out its two blue plums


but ah, little fisty-kins, honeyghoul, thorny-pie,

grapple hook of your daddy’s flooded eye,


stitch by stitch hope’s small black sutures

sew love’s shadow behind you.


The rest of the collection represents a mind engaged with the world at large. There is a strong political vein that never relinquishes the notion that the personal is political and that, importantly, the political is personal. Big issues such as consumerism, the compromised state of the planet, greed, waste are there potency ingredient in the ink of the pen, yet Emma’s ideas find poetic life in a variety of ways. Always there is an attentiveness to sound, to the way the poems hit the ear before the eye/mind drifts elsewhere. Assonance is plentiful. Delicious. The musicality is a first port of admiration that sends you back to reread with ears on alert. One poem, overtly and self-reflexively, plays with musical effects, yet delivers a subterranean plea for the earth (‘”Properly Protecting the Most Pure Marine Ecosystem Left on Earth Was Not Consistent with the Government’s Economic Growth Objective”‘. Here is a sample:


The spring tries to write

its long lyric poem again:

grass blade rhymes wing tip;

leaf rim, gull keen;

salt foam, thought arc;

surf break, line break;

historical break, heart break;

riven river, toxic stream;

smoked ozone, glacial melt.


So many standout poems. I especially loved the way ‘Suburban Story’ moves. It begins with a ‘shopkeeper at my old corner store’ and then travels through a poignant catalogue of losses, minor and major. Again the exquisite ear at work, again the pulsating detail.

This is a collection of reflection, revelation, absorption. Emma wrote many of these poems during her tenure as The NZSA/Beaton Fellow, The Otago Robert Burns Fellow and The University of Otago/ Sir James Wallace Pah Homestead Writer in Residence. Such awards benefit the poet immeasurably with the gift of writing space and time. You can see it in the gold nuggets of this book. In another favourite poem, ‘Sleep-talking,’ the clogged channels of thought become poetry. Emma takes you into a deep private space in her writing; in ways that sing and challenge, that move and muster every poetic muscle and tendon as you read — in this poem and in the book as a whole.


Perhaps for the self to hold its own air

it must be played in the key of sleep:

the body an instrument that over time

we must keep pitched, soaked in night like a reed softened in water,

while dreams tune the mind’s strings with a touch that seems

as precise as if the musician’s ear cranes deep



Otago University Press page

RNZ review

Emma Neale on her title

From the book: ‘Origins‘ posted on Poetry Shelf

Poetry Shelf review: Johanna Aitchison’s Miss Dust – Simple, everyday cores of truth that have as much to do with how you feel the world as how you see the world

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Johanna is a poet who was living in Palmerston North (quite a hub of poetry activity!) but currently in Iowa. I haven’t read her debut chapbook from Pemmican Press, Oh My God I’m Flying (1991), but I really loved her second collection, Long Girl Ago (Victoria Press, 2007). The poems felt fresh, playful, finely crafted, and surprising in the little revelations, particularly in the poems that placed little frames on Japan. The book was shortlisted for best book of poetry the following year. Johanna’s new collection, Miss Dust, was recently released by Seraph Press. It is a collection in two parts with many bridges between, and the freshness, the economy and the diligent craft remain a vital feature.

What catches me with these new poems is the heightened degree of surprise. This is poetry tilted on its axis. The first section is devoted to a sequence that gives life to Miss Dust. When read together, the section forms a long narrative poem, or perhaps you could say, a long character poem in pieces. In trying to liken the startling effect of reading this life, I came up with a hybrid analogy: it is like an Eleanor Rigby portrait meets a Salvador Dali painting meets a dislocating dream state meets a short film by Alison Maclean meets Edward Lear meets a veiled memoir.

The idea of dust is ephemeral — it leaves traces and smears, it veils and it clouds. Perfect word for a character that hides behind tropes, white space and poetic jump cuts. The tropes are borderline surreal (‘The curtains of her house are ash’). At dinner with her online date, he ‘ordered for her the dark.’ Yet even though things are strange, it is the effect of the bridges and the gaps that augment the mood, the portrait, the arc of a life. Take ‘Miss Dust and the Affair.’ The little leaps from one thing to the next, from one action to the next, miss the gritty details that might pepper confession, exchanged story. The poem is mysterious and haunting, but if you lift out the stepping stones (that occur on other occasions throughout the book) you get a terrific story of love lost: affair kiss lips lines waves rocks cheeks. That story is the undercurrent of the poem, hiding in the dust. Miss Dust, herself, would sum up the undercurrent with two words (‘black heart’), words that crop up in a number of the poems.

The movement between things is also surprising or disconcerting in the poems and feeds into the crucial threads of loss and love and life. In ‘Miss Dust makes a promise to her black heart,’ every line seems to offer a new twist —  the way the dreaming mind takes the ordinary and then skews it to show a deep-seated feeling pulsing through.


Here is the cure: sitting

on someone else’s carpet,


she makes herself a promise,

with the help of a chisel


and a block of A4 refill.

She chips out a beach scene


three streets away, hammers in

stones that warm or cool


You can’t just read this poem and walk away. It holds you tight as Miss Dust walks into the beach scene and ‘lowers the plunger/ onto one more set of grounds.’ There is that jarring kink between the scene carved (hope, therapy, cure) that catapults the black heart to elsewhere and the chore of making coffee. For me, the word ‘grounds’ flicks and shifts. Yes, the coffee is ground (the daily chore/grind) but also, like the beach scene, ground is another place to lay down roots. To tend damaged roots. Soil, black like the black heart. A single word, and you can set up camp for hours.

I don’t know of a sequence in New Zealand poetry quite like this (maybe I got whiffs of the early surrealness of Gregory O’Brien). Reading and lingering in the half light of Miss Dust, is utterly moving as you fall between the gaps of her life.


The second half of the book is not Miss Dust but there is a similar degree of surprise, little echoes that seem familiar (the half house), the dislocating and then relocating pieces, the way nouns and verbs startle (‘I’m starting to skin your loneliness Miss Shoulder’). There is a stunning Japanese poem, ‘Jun,’ that pulls you back to the previous collection with its final, breathtaking stanza.


one of the saddest things i did in japan was to teach to jun’s photo

on his empty desk i asked the students to count the students

in the class the students said do we count jun


Johanna has delivered a new collection that never lets the dust settle (excuse the pun). Each poem reproduces a glorious jittery, shimmery movement between things, between actions and between things and actions. At the core of that movement: feeling. Yes, you enter a world that is, at times, a little like the bewildering jumps and turns of a dreamscape, but just as with the dream, you fall upon cores of truth. Simple, everyday cores of truth that have as much to do with how you feel the world as how you see the world. I loved this collection.


Seraph Press page

Poetry Postcards: Vaughan Rapatahana’s Atonement feels good snug in your palm


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Atonement Vaughan Rapatahana, ASM/Flying Islands, Macau and MCCM Creations, Hong Kong 2015

This is a gorgeous looking pocket book of poetry that feels good snug in your palm. It includes artwork by Pauline Canlas Wu and Darren Canlas Wu’s musical score of one of the poems. The poems serve disconnections and connections on people, place, politics, the weather, and love. There is a glorious marriage of lyricism, musing, image building that has anchors in numerous legacies (language poetry, myth, diverse lexicons). It is the language that prompts such evocative and delicious poetic sparks. Unlike many poets, Vaughan has not switched on the big-word filter — so the vocabulary is arcane and arching as much as it is everyday and accessible. I love that. It is like this palmful of poems is part rap, ragtime, jamming, spooling, riffs, sweet chords, minor keys, jump cuts, out-takes, in takes, double backs and so on. The playfulness is also there in the visual choices as words stutter and stretch and take diagonal turns. Whiffs of concrete poetry, language poetry abound, but you can’t simply reduce these poems to sumptuous word play. You might get led anywhere visually and aurally. An elephant trope replays Hong Kong. A Māori myth sets up shop in a Chinese context. Cantonese, Māori, and French interrupt and feed the English. You might feel like you are in the company of poetic cousins at times: Janet Charman, Jack Ross, Michele Leggott, Sam Sampson, Roger Horrocks, Leigh Davis, Steven Touissant. There are philosophical traces and political barbs. Musical hooks. Self confession. Concealment. This book is an utter delight.

Vaughan Rapatahana (Te Atiawa, Ngāti Te Whiti) lives in Hong Kong with homes in Philippines and New Zealand. This is his fourth collection of poetry. He has a Doctorate from the University of Auckland, has won several awards and has published in a variety of genres. He is the co-editor of Why English? Confronting the Hydra (Multilingual Matters, UK), a follow up to English Language as Hydra (2012).


Recordings of poems at the University of Auckland




Kerrin P Sharpe’s There’s a Medical Name for This — It is an astonishing book that lurked in the undergrowth of my thoughts for months

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Kerrin P Sharpe There’s No Medical Name for This Victoria University Press, 2014


Last year I posted a poem from Kerrin P Sharpe’s new poetry collection, There’s a Medical Name for This. Finally, after all this time, I have picked up the book to reread and review. It is an astonishing book that lurked in the undergrowth of my thoughts for months with its sachets of strangeness, enigma, acute realness. Just casting your eye down the poem titles is poetry pleasure. Some collections house a poem or two that stand out, where the poet has transcended that which is good to become that which astonishes. In this book, I found countless examples that did that for me. Not in a flaming extravagant way but in ways that are at more of an alluring whisper. These poems are imbued with little droplets of incident, image, tension.

Near the start of the book, a miniature earthquake poem, whose perfect line breaks punctuate the modicum of detail, the deft phrasing (‘the basilica is a waltz of stone’) and the way the final stanza sings you back to the title (‘when gerry thinks of angels he hears their wings’).

Sometimes, oftentimes, the poems step into strangeness surrealness the point of becoming fable. There are no endnotes to provide author-led guy ropes into a poem so it is over to you where you step. ‘[T]here were stars behind him,’ a portrait of an elephant, shifts from an elephant in a photograph with Hemingway to ‘that year the elephant/ became a living lighthouse/ he wore a lamp/ and built a curved staircase.’ Magical. Or, in an even more captivating example (‘in the cart’), a mother, a pie cart, two hats and pastry come together in what might be a bedtime story, an heirloom anecdote, a housewifery lesson.

Rather than talk about what the poems are doing, I keep discovering snippets to share with you. The way the beginnings of the poems catch you by surprise: ‘every poem has a mother/ to feed his house/ the small bones of snow.’ Where to after such a glorious start? An equally glorious ending (I am withholding the middle!): ‘not even his mother// sews such small birds.’

Things aren’t stable in this collection. This becomes that and that becomes this as tropes shift and settle and then shift again. And so ‘a pine that is/ really the breeze/ a fish that is/ really a stone.’ Similes startle and invigorate the lines: ‘her thoughts in the thermal pools/ like fern wrapped sushi.’

These poems draw upon illness, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, twins, snow, much snow, ponies, many ponies, birds and feathers. Whatever the subject matter, there is movement, and out of that movement vibrant, life.

Characters (pilgrims, farmers, surgeons, whistlers, gondoliers) stroll though the poems and it seems to me they wear whiffs of the poet, autobiographical traces, and yet they are more than that. Anyone can occupy these shoes that are like little shoe-stories that get handed down and then tried on for size. They are also, and so often, like fairy tales that take you out of the tedium of daily grind and familiarity and transport you to the magic and mystery of otherness and magical possibility. The poems might have a local genesis but they reach out beyond to the faraway, to Russia, rice plantations, Antarctica. Here or there, everything is in debt to place and that attachment to ‘where’ is one that makes the poems matter (‘the small farmer remains place faithful/ to the dell’). Characters become a way of circulating stories, those traces of anecdote, a forward tang to elsewhere (a turbine// turns my father’). The procession of pilgrims throughout is the poetic glue that tenders physical bearings to an uplift of wonderment. We get to be the pilgrims of the poems. We get to feel the gap, the connections, the arrival at arm’s length.

Some poems surprise in their shifting forms. ‘[S]on’ juxtaposes two definitions — the first stanza prosaic and dictionary-like, the second stanza exemplifying personal portrait as definition. The ‘half the story’ (I adore this poem!) is indeed half a story; it builds a list that builds narrative out of what you might call stream-of-conscious jump cuts.

You need a treasure box to store the adorable phrases and lines: ‘She carries him through the loom/ of fields’ ‘in the long legged darkness’ ‘the beachcomber/ keeps a button box/ a cross section/ of folded years’ ‘my father’s kitchen/ was older than eggs.’

This is a collection of exquisite variety, yet these poems are a snug fit as though for all their differences, they are meant to be together. As I read, my favourite poem was replaced by the one I was currently reading, and then again, and then again. To read these poems is to be a pilgrim – tasting the sweet and sour bite of the land, feeling the lure of travel and elsewhere, entering the space between here and there that is utterly mysterious, facing a terrific moment of epiphany.


VUP page