Tag Archives: NZ Poetry review

Leilani Tamu’s The Art of Excavation — This is an impressive debut that lays poetic roots in the present in order to nourish the past.


Leilani Tamu The Art of Excavation Anahera Press, 2014

Leilani Tamu graduated with an MA in Pacific History at the University of Auckland. She is also a  poet, social commentator and has worked as a New Zealand Diplomat. She was the 2013 Fulbright -Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer in Residence at the University of Hawai’i. Her poetry has appeared in numerous collections.

Leilani’s debut collection is in debt to the ‘concepts, ideas and philosophy’ underpinning her Masters thesis: Re-defining ‘the beach’: the Municipality of Apia, 1879 -1900. This poetry is the work of a poet who is Pacific archaeologist, word alchemist, hot-air balloonist (sees the world from new perspectives), scholar, musician, navigator, storyteller. The poems forge vibrant links with people and place, and with both economy and flair, they frame scenes and anecdotes. I was struck by the way the weighty package of a thesis is reduced to the slender frame and form of a poem yet billows with scholarly insight. A single phrase can open the poem out for the reader (‘layers of decaying colonial matter’ ‘but the missionaries/ caught the message/ on the wind/ and ate the bat’ ‘hijacked history remains supreme/ over dusty archives’).

Yes, these poems take you into history, a Pacific history that is forward facing as much as it includes  travels into the past. Yes, these poems are fueled by a genealogy of Pacific writers (there is a wonderful tribute to Albert Wendt’s ‘Inside Us the Dead’). Yes, these poems are lifted by a familial genealogy. The extensive endnotes and glossary add to the reading experience as they shine light on the genesis of a poem or linguistic options. What I particularly admired were the poetic choices that sung the Pacific as much as they commented on the Pacific. The line breaks augment the economy of words, together establishing the silent beats that evoke that which cannot be spoken, that which is spoken, that which is cradled and shared within  overlapping traditions of the Pacific. Or the aural chords and suspended alliteration that enacts the chords that link this person with that person, this place with that place, this event with that event. In ‘Midden Secrets’: you move from’ gut’ to ‘while at road juncture/ a collarbone juts  out’. In ‘A Tribute to the Black Ghost’: ‘like a black ghost the Sun’s ray glides/ on the surface of the lake-like lagoon’ and ‘with a flick of a wing/ her long sting trails behind.’

This is an impressive debut that lays poetic roots in the present in order to nourish the past.


Anahera Press page here

Chris Tse’s How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes — At times it feels like the intake of breath associated with the silence you grant the dead


How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes Chris Tse, Auckland University Press

Chris Tse is a writer, musician and actor whose poetry first appeared in AUP New Posts 4 (Auckland University Press, 2011). He resides in Wellington, his home town.

Chris’s debut collection, How to Be Dead in a Year of Snakes, responds to a moment in history not so much by narrating that history but by installing a chorus of voices. He takes an event from 1905 when Lionel Terry went hunting for a Chinaman in Haining Street, Wellington and ended up murdering Joe Kum Yung. Within the opening pages, the chilling event is situated in a wider context where laws proscribe the alienness that situates  Chinese as outsiders. This is what gets under your skin as you read.

The poems draw upon and draw in notions of distance, defeat, guilt and forgiveness. There are the unsettled imaginings of what it is to be home, to be at home and to be out of home to the extent that home becomes difficult and different. Mostly it is a matter of death (and casting back into life) whereby phantoms stalk and cry about what might have been and what is: ‘You spend your thoughts drowning in your family-/ missing from this vista- and contemplate a return with nothing to show/ for your absence.’

The collection harvests shifting forms, voices and tones that promote poetry as mood, state of mind, emotional residue. Yes, there is detailed evidence of history but this is not a realist account, a story told in such a way. Instead the poetic spareness, the drifting phantom voices give stronger presence to things that are much harder to put into words. How to be dead, for example. How to find the co-ordinates of estrangement, of that which is unbearably lost and is hard to tally (family, home, what matters in life). On page four you move from a matter-of-fact representation of the law to page five and the wife in Canton (‘you carry her bones in your body’). Two disparate but equally potent aches.

At times the poems are syncopated, with words stretched over little bridges of silence or white space. It adds an accumulating breathlessness. At times it feels like the intake of breath associated with the silence you grant the dead. When you stop and remember. Thus (as it appears in one poem), it also becomes static: ‘Listen: there’s a hunger in the air. It’s reciting prophecies./ It’s doubled up.’

Many lines sing out and stick as they haunt:

‘to kill a man is to marry a shadow’

‘We must divide the world around us into safety sets or else it splinters/ of its own accord into anarchy.’

‘The world is full of murder and words are usually the first to go’

‘Peace is a loose ideal for the abandoned/ left to sing their songs/ to themselves’

‘there will be voices to say your name/ to clear the way. The rest is up to you.’

There are many vessels of emptiness (the body, the head, the memory, the thing) and in a way each poem is a version of a vessel that becomes provisionally and movingly full. Just for a moment: ‘Now your onus is to surround/ yourself in objects    of your former permanence// a bone flute that stores folk songs and lullabies within,/ chopsticks that remember the taste of every meal.’

This collection shows so beautifully, so movingly, the power of poetry to give renewed presence to history; so that the silent bridges billow with a new awareness of how we get to this point.

Thanks to AUP I have a copy of the book for someone who likes or comments on this post.

Hear Chris read from the book

AUP author page

Frances Samuel’s Sleeping on Horseback — a symphony in shifting tones, silences, achingly beautiful chords

Frances Samuel (Grant Ma#B8     Sleeping_on_Horseback_300dpi__61176.1407673529.220.220   Sleeping_on_Horseback_300dpi__61176.1407673529.220.220

Photo credit: Grant Maiden

Frances Samuel, Sleeping on Horseback, Victoria University Press, 2014

Frances Samuel was a graduate of Bill Manhire’s Creative Writing programme in 2003. Sleeping on Horseback is her debut poetry collection and it is utterly marvellous. In all my years reviewing books, I have never made this link before, but reading the poems brought to mind the strength and beauty of Bill’s poetry. It’s not like I stumbled across a Bill clone, far from it, but I entered a similar effect of economy, musicality, eclectic detail, roving wit and an ability to surprise or catch a moment in brightness (or darkness). This is a tremendous debut.

An early poem, ‘How to draw spires,’ has taken its title from the contents page of How to Draw Churches and Cathedrals. One bit advice from the poet: ‘When you feel yourself distracted/ pretend you are a horse in blinkers.’ This is a bit like poetry — the way the whole world dissolves when you are caught in the moment of the poem. That is what happened as I read this book. Yet poetry also comes out of distraction as you are lifted outside the Be-Here-Now moment to the puzzling, surprising enervation of elsewhere.

So many stand-out poems. I love the fablesqueness of some.  One poem begins like this:

in the very earliest time

autumn leaves stretched to the sky

raking the reds and pinks

of the sunset.

Frances borrowed these lines from an Inuit poem and rebuilds a poem that tells a fable-like story as well as signalling a painting viewed. You move from ‘The grass was an extended family’ to ‘ before the human knew it/ thy had grown like the trees to the sky.’ The poem is rich in movement: aurally, visually, semantically.  Another poem that embodies such exquisite motion (and thus poetic life) does so to an even greater degree perhaps. ‘Vending machine’ is a poem that veers from fable to the surreal to real life and back, and is like a meditation on loneliness or desire or dreaming or dislocation-that-transmutes-to-selflocation by way of the catalyst machine. I adore this poem. The machine gives her ‘a walnut shell/ a rectangle of paper/ and four grains of rice.’ Thrown over her shoulder, because they are no antidote or balm for loneliness, they become boat:

They didn’t fall far:

the paper curved into a sail

the rice grains unravelled into long strings from its corners

and the walnut shell was big enough

for the girl to step inside.

Wry humour is an appealing feature of a number of poems. There is the amusing wit as Leo Tolstoy talks to a pigeon in ‘Leo Tolstory talks imperialism.’ Or the nostalgic flips as we meet (again) the very hunger caterpillar (‘I see the hungry caterpillar’).

Sometimes it is the visual potency and startling connections that arrest you. ‘Ice on cobblestones’ showcases the power of cold to infect and penetrate all detail, to be hyperreal like a strange and contagious dream, and the poem becomes a glorious rendition of snow and white that prompts melody as much as it does a semantic feast:

cheese and butter are snow

milk and skin are snow, shortbread

yes is snow and no is snow

wool is snow and socks are snow

pasta and rice are snow, paper

blond hair is snow, teeth are snow, fingernails

France’s debut book offers a symphony in shifting tones, silences, achingly beautiful chords across pages. There are hinges between one poem and the next whereby stone here becomes  stone there, or autumn, or snow. You travel through seasons and places and people, and by the end of the book you reach the intimacy of the domestic, of the baby, the tiny person where love and wonder lock fingers. I loved this book.

Thanks to VUP I have a copy to give to someone who likes or comments on this post.

VUP page

Hinemoana Baker’s waha | mouth: This exquisite collection is not so much a symphony but a set of partitas for solo violin

Hinemoana Baker

Photo Credit: Robert Cross

Hinemoana Baker, waha | mouth, Victoria University Press, 2014

(Thanks to VUP I have a copy of the book for someone who likes or comments on this post)

This is the self-penned blurb on the back of Hinemoana Baker’s new poetry collection and it resonated with me far more than the usual blurb content: ‘I’d like to think that opening this book to read is like standing at the mouth of a cave, or a river, or a grave, with a candle in your hand.’

waha_front__71664.1407673414.140.215   waha_front__71664.1407673414.140.215   waha_front__71664.1407673414.140.215   waha_front__71664.1407673414.140.215

This window into reading suggests you might enter the mysterious, dark depths of the cave with its labyrinth of passages, or the pull of a river’s current whether quiet or wild, or the private return to those who have left us. I adore the comparison of the act of reading to holding the light of candle to a poem where something will always remain in the dim shadows, barely sighted, inaudible.

In many ways this book is about the power of words to take hold of us, to connect us in myriad relations, to reproduce us. The first poem, with its mysterious ache and force of a single word, is followed by a family poem. In Nanna’s game, the missing words are adjectives that must be randomly supplied by the players to the gut-wrenching hilarity of all. Word in place — words out of place. In another poem, ‘rope,’ Hinemoana has used a clutch of words from the penultimate sentence of a James Welch novel as a prompt for her poem. It is as though her poem becomes a secret hyperlink that expands a word (or two) — like when you click on a word on a poem online and it opens out. In ‘eclipse,’ where she contemplates ‘his warm, dead right hand,’ individual words are intensified, made special by placing italics. They twitch and vibrate on the line as little memory beacons.

Two poems (‘part 1’ and ‘part 2’) are distorted mirror images of each other. in the splintered glass you enter the family occasion, where things shift and change in the way things shift and change over time, in the mind of this person alongside that person, in this mood alongside that mood. You move from ‘The apricot moon, and a statue, for Valour‘ to ‘The mackerel sky and a steam train.’ I love the way the two parts send a translucent bridge (an arc) over the short prose-like poems that they bookend. These latter poems follow the thematic curvature of the book as they slip from what is familiar to what is not, from being grounded at home to being grounded off shore, from anecdote to striking image. Detail matters.

This exquisite collection is not so much a symphony but a set of partitas for solo violin. Individual notes (words) resonate and linger in the ear as if to make aural chords (connections): ‘a parliament of owls, all palms but mine — bone dry, mouth full of sky and counting.’ In this example, the linking consonants, assonance and near rhyme make chords that register in a subterranean way (sky-mine, mouth-owls, owl-full, parliament-palms, but-bone). Hinemoana’s musicianship extends to the composition as a whole with its shifting tones and pitches.

Many poems stood out for me. I loved ‘there are almost no risks associated’ where the lines are borrowed from a fertility document. The poetic riff heightens the emptiness of repeated medical jargon and narratives, and the way they so often eclipse individual situations, fear and longing. I also loved the final longer poem, ‘magnet bay farm,’ which exemplifies the way Hinemoana’s collection brings together story, acute detail, and divine melody. The poem I have printed off to pin to my wall though is ‘manifesto.’ It reminded me a little of Bernadette Hall’s ‘lacework’ in the way poetry has its roots in mud and muck as much as the moon and stars (a bit like Hone Tuwhare writing poetry from and for the pub and the heavens). It is a poem about poetry with wit and humour where cats get fed and Poetry ‘sniffs at the moon/ and urinates on our suburban garden.’ This I love: ‘In public people stop to say how handsome my poem is, how playful and well-behaved./ ‘Hell that poem’s in good nick,’ they say. ‘What do you feed it?’

Hinemoana’s poems are anchored in the real world yet her poetic melodies remind you that there are other layers of reality embedded here, layers that sing and tremble in the candle light — joy, pain, recognition, trust, narratives that we inherit and carry with us. Tremendous.

Sam Sampson’s Halcyon Ghosts: Breathless and breathtaking


Photo Credit: Harvey Benge

Sam Sampson, Halcyon Ghosts, Auckland University Press, 2014

Sam Sampson’s new poetry collection, Halcyon Ghosts, brings together ‘thirteen shapes of knowing.’ It comprises thirteen poems that form various shapes or stamps upon the page. You can trace a bloodline to concrete poetry where the visual mark is as much a protagonist as the poem’s internal movement. You witness debts to the legacy of language poetry and you absorb the lyrical score. These poems are crafted by a poet who is part musician, part philosopher, part documentary filmmaker, part family archivist.

At times the physical detail is luminous — as though capturing the landscape, the living breathing world momentarily (‘white melodious throat’ ‘riparian light/ blinking on a dark field’ ‘ceramic wind chimes/ charred grape seeds’). Or snatches of action and activity whether strange or unsettling (‘picadored green people tethered to years’ ‘ghost moths generate night skermishes’). Words can be snapped in half across line breaks. These are poems caught in half-light, in fragmented sideways glances (‘to seize shadows I grab them by the sleeve’). Words zigzag across the page in discrete phrasing. Making authorial imprints. Stammering and staccato, as though this poet is out of breath, holding back, puffing out poems in little linguistic clouds.

In ‘The Kid,’ it is as though you can hear the click and stutter of Chaplin’s reels as the shifting frames catch light and dark (‘listen in-/tently to that blind/ mazy course/ running wild’). Colons are separated out to prolong the resting spots, the moment of pause (‘a mil    :       ‘). They act as little hinges, pivots in a collection where juxtaposition is a fertile device (‘Circles the expanse       expands dirt’ ‘pin-pricks of the world … name-sakes’). Such pairings provoke an oscillation of mind and eye, a semantic quiver, a visual twitch.

I loved the sequence, ‘Halcyon Ghosts,’ where the poem’s shapes imitate so perfectly the photographs of birds in flight upon the preceding pages. Here the words take pleasure in the measured steps of lift and fall.  These are poems of return, with the flight path etched in your mind ready to accept the swift wing beat of the bird. Glorious.

photo 3

photo 4

Elsewhere a horizon line imprinted on the page breaks a poem in two as though refracting and reflecting. Yes, the poems are visual gifts for the eye, but what instils a deeper imprint is the intellectual and lyrical movement. The language is eclectic and difficult, yet there is heart here. Life. Experience. Contemplation. Surreal twitches. Sam has refreshed the life and expectations of concrete poetry, he has a bloodline back to Language Poetry but has stepped out of its limitations and has composed a symphony in parts where words are substitutes for the musical notes of melody. Breathless and breathtaking.

Thanks to Auckland University Press I have a copy of this book to someone who likes or comments on this post (NZ addresses only).



Emily Dobson’s The Lonely Nude — The collection allows the imagination to corkscrew slightly, leaving the poem ajar for other things.

cv_the_lonely_nude                 IMG_2664

Emily Dobson, The Lonely Nude Victoria University Press, 2014

Emily Dobson’s debut collection, A Box of Bees, gathered much critical praise and was named as one of The New Zealand Herald’s Books of the Year in 2005. That same year she took up the Glen Schaeffer Fellowship in Iowa.

Emily’s new collection, The Lonely Nude, is a collection to read as a whole as much as it is a collection to read in pieces. Like a symphony in parts, or a poetic memoir that doesn’t reside solely in self-confession, experience or anecdote. The collection allows the imagination to corkscrew slightly, leaving the poem ajar for other things. Connections, disconnections, vulnerabilities, epiphanies, fantasies. It is as though the poet’s pen is driven by the real and outsidethereal. Musings, sidetracks, daydreams, anxieties. The seven sections establish thematic clusters as the titles suggest: ‘Prehistory,’ ‘The Lonely Nude,’ ‘A Holiday in Mexico,’ ‘Fall in America,’ ‘Winter,’ ‘Spring,’ ‘Going Home.’ These titles suggest an arc of living and travelling, yet the book title underlines the fragility of movement. Yes, the poet has posed as a life model (and there are poems on this topic), but there are various other nudities rippling through the lines. Scandalous gossip stolen from a women’s magazine in ‘Rude Jude goes nude.’ Or the nightmarish scenario of a house being blown away while showering in ‘Unfamiliar weather.’ (‘Foreignness is just things we’ve forgotten/ ways we could have been.’)

These new poems share the restraint and elegance of a Jenny Bornholdt poem. The line breaks are exquisite as though the poems are breathless. As though the poet has slowed the reading right down to snail’s pace so we can stall and ponder. This is nowhere more evident than in the perfect little poem, ‘Hotel Mexico.’


Hotel Mexico

The bedspread is red

like ink

in the room

with small breezes

we’re sprawling

and a few small drops

of rain are falling

on the dust

on the concrete

small buds

are opening

in our lips

spreading carelessly


These new poems shift and settle on the page in myriad ways, with or without punctuation, with or without hesitancy. At times there is a spark of humour. Often there are lines that Emily acknowledges as ‘stolen’ in her detailed footnotes. These poems emerge out of reading the world and merge into a world of reading. There is an anchor in daily life, yet the poems float and fly like a poet’s mind on the move without limitation. Lyricism is the ink in the pen. So too are the shifting forms. The ability to catch just the right modicum of detail to make a moment shine. As James Brown said of Emily’s first book, these poems are a joy to read.


I want to end with another poem that caught me:


The house

The house faces south

and we are couched in the dark side of a hill.

The grass is long and always wet.

We envy the hill opposite: we long for its sun.

There are holes in it, tunnels,

like a pencil has been poked through.

The two pines are always black as pitch.

A guitar in the corner keeps creaking.

At night the little train all lit up inside

rattles briefly around the hill,

in and out of the tunnels.


Victoria University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

Cliff Fell’s The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet This gorgeous sequence holds you within its frame

TGHWA cover for Paula     TGHWA cover for Paula

Cliff Fell, The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet, Last Leaf Press, Motueka, 2014


Cliff Fell has published two previous poetry collections, The Adulterer’s Bible (Victoria University Press, 2003) and Beauty of the Badlands (Victoria University Press, 2008). His debut book gained the Adam Prize in Creative Writing and the 2004 Jessie Mackay Prize for Best First Book of Poetry. He currently lives on a farm near Motueka and teaches at Nelson Marlborough Institute of technology.

His new book, The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet is a team effort, as Cliff has worked in conjunction with artist, Fiona Johnstone and photographer, Ivan Rogers. The book is both slender and aesthetically beautiful. The images are alluring hooks that can either be read as self-contained visual poems or as part of an alternative narrative thread that forges subtle connections with the arc of Cliff’s text. Exquisite.

The poem takes the alphabet as its framing device. Each letter pirouettes upon the possibility of words, the power of words, the shimmering vulnerability of words. The voice of the husbandwoman gives us glimpses, only ever glimpses as we discover in ‘G,’ yet she accumulates, piece by piece, in the relations she unveils. Signals of self in ambiguous traces. You get to the end and hold a trembling portrait that flips and twists to become a portrait of the husbandman. Or is it. The ‘he’ and the ‘you’ slip and slide so you are not sure where husband ends and adultery begins (this poem has its origins in The Adulterer’s Bible).

This gorgeous sequence holds you within its frame. The mysterious code on the final page sends you back to see the portrait in a new light. An intense and aching light and I am not spoiling the hit of the revelation by speaking of it here. The lines are deft and bereft (ah the ache) and befit the narrating woman. Little pockets of confession, reflection and quiet. It is a joy to read.



These words: throat-lash, brow band, bit—

how a horse gets broken in.

Each night I am unbridled.

Never try to understand a marriage.

It’s beyond the knowing of all but the finest

gentleman: how the bridle’s said to fit the bride.


NZ Book Council page

Victoria University Press site

NMIT page

Maria McMillan’s Tree Space: a treasure trove of poetic connections—combinations that continually jumpstart the reader

Maria McMillan     TREE_SPACE__40939.1398819236.220.220    TREE_SPACE__40939.1398819236.220.220

Maria McMillan, Tree Space, Victoria University Press, 2014

(Thanks to VUP I have a copy of the book for someone who likes or comments on this post)

Maria McMillan’s biography tag on the back of her new book, Tree Space, fascinates me: ‘Maria McMillan is a writer, activist and information architect who lives on Kapiti Coast.’ Fascinating in the way these four key elements rub against each other.

Maria’s debut poetry book, The Rope Walk, was published by Helen Rickerby’s Seraph Press in 2013. It was a terrific arrival, and the sorts of joys that I fell upon there have been carried through into her new collection. As I wrote in my review for Poetry Shelf:

‘The poems are observant, musical, reflective and measured. The collection signals the craft and joy of small poems, words that are gathered together in a minor key where time stalls and you relish a moment. Maria knows how to write with the perfect degree of emotional seasoning and revelation (I will tell you this, but I will not tell you that). There was a sense of hide and seek for me as I read (and indeed there is a poem called ‘Hide and seek’).’

Tree Space is Maria’s first full poetry collection, and the poems have been written over more than a decade. Yes, there is a range of subject matter, style and inclinations, yet there is also a satisfying degree of cohesiveness. The poems step out from diverse starting points, yet frequently that starting point is a pivot for meditation. To me the poem provides an opportunity to delve deeper, to sidetrack and to offer slithers of anecdote.

What binds this book more than anything (although the deft ear comes close) is the way these poems, as poetic space, host relations. One of the delights of poetry is the way a poem reproduces and produces a series (‘set’ is too limiting a word here) of relations—whether aural, semantic or via tropes. There are relations amongst sounds, images, ideas and feelings. Some poets want to activate movement amongst all, others less so. You might fall upon relations between the real, the cerebral and the imagined. Relations between people, places and things. In my view, Tree Space is a treasure trove of poetic connections—combinations that continually jumpstart the reader.

The collection opens with ‘Song.’ An opening that is punctured, punctuated, startling. An opening that links sparrow to poet, the voice box to breath, the voice box to concealment (‘a parcel’) and revelation (anatomic). Pronouns tremble with ambiguity. Whose heaving chest? Hidden in the crevices is the ability to sing, the yearning to sing and the doubt ‘she’ can sing. And thus we enter the collection that sings.

The starting point as a pivot for poetic excursions is beautifully realised in the poem ‘salt marsh and tidal inlet.’ These words caught the poet-reader’s eye while ‘The other words get/ sucked back into the paper.’ It is as though the poet daydreams and we are caught up in her reverie, the words folding back upon each other, the nostalgic trip wires, the little spotlights on where you are and where you’ve been. Glorious!

In ‘Hairy Star,’ it is the breathless wonder at seeing the comet that the poet wants to preserve and remember for her sleeping child that hooks me, and the stepping stone between that sleeping form and the poet’s own little self. The own self: ‘Or my own self, carried to the steps by the back door/ to see a hedgehog. Milk in the saucer. Small noises.’ The sleeping child: ‘You were. In bed covered in pen marks and plum./ Sleeping. Outside your closed curtain/ half-painted trellis.’

I love the way the teapot in the poem, ‘In the very middle,’ transports you to all things strange, and the way ‘a polished cake spoon’ can show you yourself as ‘monsterish and wary.’ Again the pivot, the relations and the meditations.

There are so many poems that stand out for me (perhaps a tiny cluster at the back that don’t)—poems that generate myriad notes in my notebook. Maria is able to capture the luminous instance, a moment in time that becomes imbued with heat or longing or youthfulness. A moment that might be autobiographical or on the other hand invented. She steps into the shoes of others as adroitly as into her own.

‘Paradox’ finds  truth in the way sunflower seeds are both fast and slow growers and the way pumpkins are both heavy and light (and more examples). Maria’s poems are like that paradoxical pumpkin—exuding a tantalising simplicity of form and line yet embracing space that is sweetly fertile. Her poems are quick to the ear and a slow release to the mind. You save the room to move and the detail that sticks. These poems take exquisite flight whilst keeping toes in the soil. I loved this collection.

Victoria University Press page

Seraph Press page

VUP interview

Maria’s blog

Poetry Shelf interview with Maria

Interview with Janis Freegard

Best First Book – Poetry winner has been announced

good one 7 cat     Horse_with_Hat_front_cover__77059.1385936731.220.220

The Best First Book Award for Poetry at The New Zealand Post book Awards goes to Marty Smith and her stunning debut, Horse with a Hat.  The book has beautiful illustrations by Bendan O’Brien and is published by Victoria University Press.

Warm congratulations to Marty and all involved. Well deserved accolades.

Earlier on Poetry Shelf I reviewed the book:

Marty Smith’s debut collection, Horse with a Hat, is a gorgeous book. The lush and evocative collages by Bendan O’Brien draw you in close, in a way that is both haunting and intimate. His cover collage replicates the way a poem can lead you to a wider picture (the ocean and its lure of voyage) and the catching detail (the pattern on a shell, the way a horse holds its head in anticipation). Heavenly!

The book itself is equally captivating. Horse with a Hat revels in poetry as a way of tracking a life, of harnessing an anecdote. The poems delve into relationships, previous generations, magical moments, pockets of history and, while they exude warmth and joy, Marty is unafraid of darker things, earthier things (violence, the threat of violence, grease and oil, bad tempers, men at war).

For my full review see here.

Best First Book -Fiction: Tough by Amy Head  (VUP)

Best First Book Non-fiction: Tragedy at Pike River Mine by Rebecca Macfie (Awa Press)

Zarah Butcher McGunnigle’s Autobiography of a Marguerite– out of illness, lacework poems, kinetic poems


Photo courtesy of Hue & Cry Press

Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s debut collection, Autobiography of a Marguerite (Hue & Cry Press, 2014) sent me in search of a new terms to describe the effect it had upon me. This book-length poem is poetry in pieces—poems that piece together an experience of illness, family relations and the need to write. Yet as much as there are threads and mood and revelation, this is lacework poetry. You see enough to experience the whole, and more importantly, to acquire new ways of reading and writing poems.

The book is in three parts and each part works a little differently in terms of writing choices. The first part consists of prose-like poems. The poems in the second part are given more breathing space, but they are interrupted, wonderfully so, by footnotes (and not conventional footnotes, I might add). In the final part, there is a return to poetic prose, or prose-like poetry, that is offset by photographs that take you back to mother and daughter (amongst other things).

It is a book of illness, anonymous illness, as the details of diagnosis are only ever hinted at. This is poetry of the gap, of the hinted at, and of silence. Names are left off the line. Questions are laid down as statements (no question marks) as though answers are elusive (as indeed they so often are in illness). The silence and the gap suggest that illness is unfathomable at times, hard to tell, exhausting to tell—so much better to divert and filter so it becomes poetic lacework. In the second part, sentences are truncated and left hanging on the line as though the poet is breathless, weary of the full story. To me it is also akin to memory—the way it is spasmodic, episodic, shard-like. If this is lacework, it is a lacework of beginnings. And then life—lifegoes on, uncomfortably, differently with the arrival of illness, as the narrator moves in and out of family and school routines, friendships, her writing.

Each section is full of poetic rewards, but I was particularly taken with the middle section where footnotes interrupt and introduce a different way of reading. Astonishing. These footnotes are taken from books by Marguerite Duras and Marguerite Yourcenar. You physically move your head in and out, up and down—crossing an unexpected bridge between Zarah’s line and the line of a Marguerite (you never know which one). That movement across the bridge is glorious—it produces a tremble and ripple of connections and meaning. This poetry is unlike anything I have seen. I am calling it kinetic poetry. There is the movement across the little footbridges, but there is also the way each discrete line vibrates. Like a little earth tremor. And in these little vibrations, there are miniature collisions between this line and that. Side stepping. Side dancing. Side tracking.

There is so much to love about this book. A thousand movements to take you elsewhere and then return you to the moment, to the page. There is the watch that is often looked at but is not on the wrist—as though illness is a state of not-time, unreal-time, faked-time, thwarted time, longed-for time. Or there is the way the delicious word play takes me to Gertrude Stein  (‘poured system’ then ‘Poor system’; ‘weekend’ then ‘weak end of’). It comes back to the way a word stretches to accommodate the nuances and implications of a body ill at ease. Or the way the mother, a Marguerite, flickers and trembles like the narrating I (‘Her mother used to say I don’t know what I’d do without you’ and its footnote ‘You’re right, this is not normal weather for this time of year’). Where does she begin and where does she move to next? Her illness, her illness. Her discomfort, her discomfort. The way words puff out with the need to get things right (‘the filling is not always filling,’ ‘is progress slower than you expected or slower than you hoped’). And the way in illness, and in the memory and physical deposits of illness, writing is vital. An essential anchor. A lifeline.

So much more to write and think which means it is a book of returns.

I just loved this book. Thanks to Hue & Cry Press I have a copy of this book for someone who likes or comments on this post.


Rachel O’Neill has  an illuminating interview with Zarah here.

Zarah’s Hue & Cry author page here .


AutobiographyofaMarguerite_cover  AutobiographyofaMarguerite_cover   AutobiographyofaMarguerite_cover