The collection I’ve read most recently is Tom Pow’s A Wild Adventure (Polygon, 2014), a ‘speculative verse biography’ of Thomas Watling, who was transported to New South Wales for forgery in 1791 and put to work painting its natural environment and indigenous inhabitants. The poems weave together elements of imagined material, the official record, Watling’s letters and paintings, and some of Pow’s experiences from his research.
The book I’m about to read next will actually be a re-reading of Kate McLoughlin’s Plums (Flipped Eye Publishing, 2011), which offers 58 ‘variations’ on William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say”. The variations reply and respond to the poem, sometimes incorporating words from it and sometimes not, drawing additionally on Pablo Picasso’s Las Meninas (a series of 58 works made in response to Velázquez’s painting of the same title). It’s witty and acute, and on first reading, I found myself thinking of how an incident might trigger simultaneous and contradictory impulses and responses, and how themes, questions and provocations can recur in (or haunt) a relationship over time (including a writer’s relationship with someone else’s work).
Kerry Hines’s first collection, Young Country – poems, with photographs by William Williams – has just been published by Auckland University Press. Her website is http://kerryhines.net.
I’m reading new stuff – Gerald Stern’s In Beauty Bright and Frederick Seidel’s Nice Weather – but I constantly return to favourites including these three
The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Scottish Poetry edited by Douglas Dunn
Growing up in Dunedin probably gave me something of an affinity for the Scots. Burns wasn’t the first Scottish poet I read, Douglas Dunn was – his precise and remembered poems about the early death of his wife, Elegies (Faber, 1985). But I was delighted to find this anthology in an Auckland second-hand bookstore as it contains the work of a poet whose work is hard to find in print, George Mackay Brown. He lived on Orkney and was soaked in its history and salt-spray. He writes about island life, its closeness, and the smell and rhythms of the sea – something a New Zealander would naturally respond to. His poems are thrifty and intense – in the 25 lines of my favourite, ‘Hamnavoe Market,’ he evokes the lives of five idlers, Folster, Johnston, Grieve, Heddle, Garson and Flett, and ends with typical pungency: ‘They drove home from the market under the stars/Except for Johnston/Who lay in a ditch, his mouth full of dying fires’. Brown was himself partial to a drink. There are ten of his poems in this book which runs from the 19th century to the present-day, and includes the work of Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie, Carol Anne Duffy, John Burnside, and Ivor Cutler. There’s unexpected treats: Elma Mitchell’s deadpan riposte to male assumption, ‘Thoughts after Ruskin’, and one of the few poems that’s made me roar with laughter, Alastair Reid’s skewering of Scottish pessimism called aptly enough, ‘Scotland’. Anyone who’s endured the wild fluctuations of Dunedin’s character-forming weather couldn’t but love it.
Emergency Kit – Poems for Strange Times Edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney, Faber and Faber
This is a terrific collection – I’ve been travelling with it on and off for ten years or so, and I keep making discoveries (it is also the place where I first read Brown’s ‘Hamnavoe Market’ –it’s the first poem in the book). It contains many of the big names of 20th Century western poetry with the emphasis on poems the editors say ‘can crack the world open and put it together in new and convincing ways’. It delivers.
Poems New and Collected Wistawa Szymborska, Harvest
This Polish poet won the Nobel Prize in 1996. There is seriousness but there’s also levity. You can tell she enjoyed being alive and grappling with the mysteries. She says life constantly astonished her. Even when she writes about dark things such as in ‘The Suicide’s Room’ she has a surprising lightness of touch. She pokes fun at herself – she writes a poem in praise of her sister who doesn’t bother writing poems. We can only be grateful Szymborska did – I’m not sure if there’s a poem that states the case against war more simply, plainly and effectively than ‘The End and the Beginning’. It’s a poem of exasperation at human cruelty and indifference, but the images and language beguile as the much as the subject appalls.
Richard Langston is a poet and freelance journalist who has worked in television, radio and print media.
Writing poems about history is like placing a dehumidifier out in the open air, maybe beside a harbour or stretch of coastline, and watching it fill up; then seeing, afterwards, how much of the harbour or ocean is left and trying to believe that you’ve captured something, anything at all. But you go home with your container of water and you feel the weight of it, and get to know it, and maybe you make something of it.
A recent book which samples layers of human history and makes much of them is Voyage Around a River; The Hokianga by the late Peter Shadbolt (brother of novelist Maurice), which is being launched this week by Steele Roberts. I had something to do with the evolution of this book as Peter was one of my writing students at Victoria University back in the 1990s. His book-length ‘documentary poem’ dates from that time. It is a compendious work of verbal bricolage—alert to the nuances and deep character of Rawene and environs–to which his widow Mary and publisher Roger Steele have added a layer of Hokianga-related visual materials. Historical photographs, watercolours and documents, gathered in the Turnbull Library and elsewhere, offer a further unpacking of, and elaboration upon, the themes and mood of the poem.
Another book marrying poetry and visual material is Kerry Hines’s Young Country (AUP). As elegant as a kauri cabinet filled with immaculate silver gelatin prints, Hines’s poetry is accompanied here by a suite of over 70 historical photographs by William Williams (1858-1949). Young Country is not only an overdue recovery of a lost Old Master of New Zealand photography, it is also an example of creative history-writing at its most evocative, distilled and plaintive—and offers a prismatic account of a nascent population growing into its relationship with the ‘new place’:
He stood on the step, admiring next door’s cabbages.
The life in the soil, he thought, proud of it.
In Cilla McQueen’s mad-excellent collection of eight small volumes of prose-poetry, Edwin’s Egg (Otago University Press), her words, like a sky filled with rapturous birds, gather around gloriously anarchic sets of photos. As exquisite as it is unhinged, Edwin’s Egg is the perfect antidote to systematic archival digging. It is a heady, endlessly evasive zone to get lost in–a rest area for the rational mind and a Mallarme-esque trip into the unknown familiar, the familiar unknown.
Among other recent poetry/visual art outings are Sam Sampson’s high-octane Halcyon Ghosts (AUP), with its arrangements of words mimicking the arrangement of birds in the sky (or the other way around); Elizabeth Smither’s collection Ruby Duby Du (from the truly remarkable and noteworthy Cold Hub Press) with wafting, waterish illustrations by the indispensable Kathryn Madill. Finally, Andrew Johnston and artist Sarah Maxey have brought out a second edition of their small-press collaboration, a seasonal song-book, of sorts, for eye and ear: Do You Read Me?
Gregory O’Brien has a new collection of poems due to be published by Auckland University Press in March, 2015. The Tauranga Art Gallery is currently showing Whale Years: Paintings by Gregory O’Brien (17 October – 8 February 2015).