Tag Archives: NZ Poetry review

Anna Jackson’s I, Clodia and Other Portraits – A lightness that is fierce, a spareness that is complex

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I, Clodia and Other Portraits Anna Jackson, Auckland University Press, 2015

Anna Jackson has published five collections of poetry including Thicket (Auckland University Press, 2011) which was a finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards. She currently teaches English Literature at Victoria University.


Anna Jackson’s new collection contains two sequences that step up from everything she has previously written to a lightness that is fierce, a spareness that is complex. Poems become voice, voice becomes reaction to/against, reaction become autobiography, autobiography becomes invention. The pleasure that the poetry generates is multiple; from the exquisite loop of sound to the ideas that pierce, to the stories that accumulate, to the silent patches that are not in fact silent.

The first sequence, ‘I, Clodia,’ signals a return to Catullus, but now his muse, his beloved (Lesbia, Clodia), speaks. There has been a wide line in recent times of re-visioning, resiting, reclaiming, re-presenting women from the shadows of history; women who were spoken on behalf of, who were seemingly passive, are given voice. Anna’s version prompts thinking in myriad directions. The poems are laid across an underlay Catullus carpet. I followed Anna’s directive and read his poems in the order proscribed so that I might absorb the intriguing underlay as I read. In the end, it felt like Anna had given flesh to the bare bones of Catullus’s Lesbia (Clodia). Invented because Anna was working with the protruding bones of a skeletal figure, yet this sequence also gains fire and contextual zest through diligent research. The poems come to life within the context of the times hinted at — the events, relations, circumstances. The degree of research for such a slender sequence could have rendered the historical (the facts, the near-facts) cumbersome, but instead history becomes the lily pads of the poems. Drawing the eye close, moving ever so slightly on the drift of water, encouraging the mind to make little leaps.

What of the voice? No whimsical, petal-of-a-voice here. This is where the layers utterly captivate me. Draw me into a woman brought to sparking life, and all the issues and ideas that emanate. Clodia addresses his charges (‘but to counter them one by one in order’) and declares her love (‘Oh, I loved you, and being loved by me did/  you not take more than you could ever give me?’). She throws his questions back at him (‘Whom shall I love now?’ ‘Whom shall I permit to visit?’ ‘It seems we are occupied with the same questions’). She is fierce (‘You had better be leaving’) and in his moment of speechlessness, she replenishes her own stanzas (‘I’ll fill my/ stanzas up while you can be silent for once’).

We come hard up against the authority of the male poet on the page. His authorship legible, enduring. She, however, ephemeral. Catullus writes: ‘but a woman’s words to her eager lover/ should be written on running water, on the wind.’ Clodia counters (by way of Anna): ‘I can just see you/ scuttling about on the shore, peering/ suspiciously at the ocean and calling it/ a fickle thing’. Ha! He is desperate to read her, yet would not want her words set in concrete, with script and ink that lasts. In this sequence, Clodia exists beyond the contrary longings of Catullus; she exists beyond him in the wider world of political relations and within the intimate moments of her own reckoning.

Anna appeared with Daniel Mendelsohn at the Auckland Writers Festival this year in a standout session on translation. Anna suggested that she was ‘not translating words but ideas,’ and that she wanted to see ‘how far she could push her translated versions, her subversions.’ She had the advantage of translating ‘imaginary texts, non-existent poems.’ So for her, traversing the hiatus between Latin and a second language posed different challenges. The conventional translator faces the untransportable word, gendered endings, punning options, difficult rhymes, different rhythms, inappropriate cliches, time honoured truisms and cultural trapdoors. The list is endless. Anna, though, was traversing a different gap as she worked with English translations and sought to translate the hints, the shadows, the contradictions, the silences. She was after a way to give poetic flesh to longing, loss, love, not-love, circumstance, conflict and so on. Anna has stepped into the skin of a long-lost other and gifted us a mesmerising mouthpiece. The deftness of what is revealed and what is kept back renders the white space poignant, illuminating, fertile.

You need to go for a long walk or eat a bowl of soup before you move into the second sequence, ‘The pretty photographer.’ Now Anna steps into contemporary shoes in order to re-present portraits. The Diane Arbus quote at the start is the perfect entry point (‘A photograph is a secret about a secret’) because the poems are like miniature mise en abymes. You fall into elusive, intangible selves, the dry dust of story, as the autobiographical self is laid like a transparency over the invented or borrowed self. If these are photographs, at times it is like entering the photo negative, where things are dreamlike, with the melancholy of the dark room adhering, the upset of the negative image clinging. The past is caught in splices of looking, looking through and then looking through again (‘I’m going to look right through you/ furiously stapling my feelings together’). It is as much about the photographer as it is the subject.

So many standout poems that linger (‘ Diane, unexploded’ ‘Afraid of falls?’ ‘The photographer in the library’ ‘The photographer’s hallway’ the whole thing really!). So many lines and phrases in the collection as a whole to pin to the wall. Here are some that struck a chord:


‘silent and tethered’

‘a look of such lovely lamentation’

‘the sight of women’s arms/ lifting and rising in and out of the water/ black like black eels in a swarm/ curling and calling/ one to another’

‘She picks out her coldest onion,/ her tears tight on her face.’

‘We were always walking towards the day we’d be parted.’

‘The truth is, I have feelings for you/ in every substance – including/ a cathedral of sea.’

‘I had a dream I was a ghost/ and only one man could see me …’

‘I’ll return/ to the person I was drawing/ and the dawning of the night’.


My copy of I,Clodia is battered and worn as I have carried it out and about with me for months. Sometimes I think the right book finds the right reader, not because you will necessarily get what the poet is trying to do and say, but because that book strikes a deep internal chord — the chord of humanity, the exquisite chord of a solo violin partita, the chord of that which is missing and that which is missed, the chord of women emerging from the shade. This is a poetry collection that matters.



Auckland University page

New Zealand Book Council page

Anna Jackson’s poem, ‘Afraid of falls?’ on Poetry Shelf.

Anna Jackson’s interview on Poetry Shelf



Just fabulous! Gregory O’Brien on Peter Olds and Geoff Cochrane with Kim Hill

Poetry with Gregory O’Brien: Peter Olds and Geoff Cochrane

Originally aired on Saturday Morning, Saturday 7 March 2015

Painter, poet, curator and writer Gregory O’Brien discusses You Fit the Description: the Poetry of Peter Olds and a new collection by Geoff Cochrane, Wonky Optics.

Listen here

Airini Beautrais’s Dear Neil Roberts: Connections and disconnections forge poetic static that makes that lamp crackle, that bald wire hiss

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Airini Beautrais’s debut poetry collection, Sacred Heart was a little beauty and won Best First Poetry Book at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards in 2007. This was followed by the superb, Western Line. Her latest collection, Dear Neil Roberts, explores an inclination to prose-like poetry in a new way. You could say this is a long narrative poem or you could say this is a series of individual poems that contribute to a narrative arc.

Neil Roberts was a real person, an anarchist. In 1982, he blew himself up outside the Whanganui Police Computer Centre in the middle of the night. Airini’s new book has a central thesis at its core: history belongs to the shadows as much as it does to the great men and the great women. In other words, individuals who get misplaced and misremembered in the side lights of the grand historical narratives do have something to contribute to the way we view the past. The poetry is in part surrogate documentary but generic boundaries are blurred as the poet uses tools of invention and imagination as much as she uses tools of research and political inquiry. What gifts the book another fascinating layer is the way the poet steps into the narrative herself. She shows us how time and place and event affect her. This choice is reinforced in the title, ‘Dear Neil Roberts’; this poetry collection is also part epistle. Letter writers leave traces of their own lives as well as addressing the life of the recipient.

The poems draw upon story-telling techniques but these poems are primarily driven by poetic options: white space, building rhythms, terrific line breaks. Together the poem-pieces form a mosaic that you can step back from and view as an intriguing whole (exploring notions of history on one level, and the life of individual on another, along with the effect of an event like a stone rippling through time and place). ‘Time’ sets the scene with keen detail of a historical moment from the Falklands unrest to protests in Poland, from Rocky III to redundant clothing workers. Then, the ironic reference to a newspaper editorial that suggests fireworks will one day be banned.

If this book is a poetic mosaic, it is a mosaic sumptuous in detail and issues raised. Both moving and provocative. In ‘Clean-up’ the body never becomes more than the gory detail to wash away from the street. Or in ‘Monuments,’ testimonies from Pacificism and from war jostle (Norm wrote in jail, ‘What I have done with my spared life/ while better men lie dead?’; or the veteran war pilot, ‘War is useless and achieves nothing.’). Beneath the surface of this poem lies questions on the merits of war, the necessity or war, the cost of the dead. In ‘Investigation’ (this in 1982), the explosives Roberts used dominate the news, while the anarchist, ‘with razor blades in his ears’ and steel-capped boots’ is chiefly missing.

[ .. ] There is a dryness in the news,

like grief has been squeezed out,

As a mosaic, it is a glinting selection of points of view, invented, factual and personal. ‘By way of an explanation,’ for example, is composed of quotes from Senior Sergeant Rob Butler that Airini gleaned from various newspapers of the time. Brought together in the form of a poem they disturb.

He was one of those people whose human frailty

leads them to join a cult or sect like the punk rockers.

They do some very strange and unusual things by our standards.

He did not seem to have any great concern for his own life.

Another example is the poet’s confession to her own line crossing which in turn subtly rubs against the grain of Neil Roberts (in ‘Out the window’):

Here I am, with blond-haired child,

with my rounded belly, in my hand a set of car keys —

the remote-locking kind, which I never would have imagined.

It’s been awhile since I did anything subversive

with a can of spraypaint, with a billboard, with a naked human body,

with anything. But I’ve known Jonah since the days

when I did. I wonder out loud, what it would be like

if you kept living the same life you lived at twenty-one.

Or the way the contemporary writer makes room for different stories from the past in ‘History books’ in a way that recovery is uncertain, dangerous, shadowy, with faulty connections:

Room is made in the present.

The past is just left traces; paper, newsprint, film, tape, silicon.

The old lamp of the past clicks and crackles;

bald wires, an overheated bulb.

Or the way in ‘Waiting for death/ waiting for birth’, as the poet is waiting for the birth of her second child (‘The first time, I thought I was dying’), she retreats momentarily into her history of protest (‘Protests gave me something to exist within’). This complexly moving poem is aching with overlap:

and seeing cyanide pellets, or crossing an overbridge,

hearing trucks roar, thinking, ‘This is my chance.’

I am here because I didn’t take it.

On Pyramid Farm, you found your chance

in the back of a truck: the gelignite

and accessories. To go out with a bang.

Airini’s new book takes risks as it unstitches a sutured wound of the past, of self even, and dares to imagine grey lines, the long reach of historical events, small or otherwise. The poet is boundary crossing as she overlays historical transparencies, blurring this version upon that version upon that version and in that overlay getting deeper into who and how we are (humanity). You can admire the swing and shape of each poem, but the impression that makes the deepest most affecting mark is the book as a whole. Connections and disconnections forge poetic static that makes that lamp crackle, that bald wire hiss. This is narrative poetry at its very best.

Victoria University Press page

Airini’s thoughts On Poetry for Poetry Shelf

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.’

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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.