Tag Archives: NZ Poetry reviews

December On the Shelf: Poetry Picks by Kerry Hines, Richard Langston, Gregory O’Brien

Kerry Hines:

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.


Richard Langston:

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.


Gregory O’Brien:

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).


November On The Shelf: Angela Andrews, Jane Arthur, Serie Barford and Stephanie Mayne

Angela Andrews:

I’ve been writing a long poem for some months now. One of the major features of this process has been the constant struggle between the disjunctive possibilities of poetic form, and the narrative, which I want to be continuous, unfolding forward. How does a poet successfully balance these two approaches, to achieve something that unravels over pages, but also has the capacity to shift gear suddenly, which surprises and moves around within itself? The two forces seem diametrically opposed at times. I’ve been casting about, trying to figure out how this is managed in long poems I love – Jenny Bornholdt’s Rocky Shore, Anne Carson’s Glass Essay, and now, Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night.

By no means do the poems in Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) constitute a straight-forward narrative. The main thread through the book is the voice of a male painter in his later years, confronting “a crisis of vision,” revisiting painful events in his childhood. However, his poems are interspersed with others that seem to be written in the voice of the poet herself, and in amongst both of these voices there are poems that come from neither of these speakers, poems that are allegorical and sometimes surreal. I read it through the first time, mostly aloud, propelled on by nothing more than the pleasure of Glück’s breath-taking word-steps. The first poem “Parable” begins by looking back at the cusp of a journey, during which

the stars had shone, the sun rose over the tree line

so that we had shadows again; many times this happened.

This seems to be what follows: poems that shift between time, place and speakers as they tell a story, losing me sometimes, putting me on the cliff-edge of something vast and unspoken, pulling me back, coming full circle. But always the sun rises again. The same motifs recur, pressing into the same territory: night, endings, shadows, voicelessness, death, silence. Yes, it’s rather terrifying. It is also a very beautiful piece of work. Every poem I’ve looked at again since that first read-through can, I think, stand on its own, even though each feels very definitely part of this book-long narrative.

Given the questions I started with, I find it intriguing that towards the end of the collection, Glück voices the tension with which I’ve been grappling. The poet is caught in a “dry season,” while time moves relentlessly forward. Pausing before the door to her home:

I closed my eyes.

I was torn between a structure of oppositions

and a narrative structure―


The room was as I left it.

There was a bed in the corner.

There was the table under the window.

There was the light battering itself against the window

until I raised the blinds

at which point it was redistributed

as flickering among the shade trees.

[in “The Story of a Day”]

Poet, Angela Andrews, is currently working on her Doctorate in Creative Writing at Wellington’s International Institute of Modern Letters.


Jane Arthur: I’ve not been entirely faithful to any one poet or book lately. I’ve been exploring with the attention-span of a sugared toddler: pulling books off my shelves, jumping down rabbit holes (or wormholes, or foxholes) on the Poetry Foundation website, obsessively clicking on surely every poem in the wonderful Sport archive, buying new releases and not opening them for months, leaving piles of thin volumes around my house – by my bed, next to the fruitbowl – and in others’ houses.

But one collection I’ve been returning to – savouring – over the past couple of months is Sharon Olds’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Stag’s Leap (Knopf, 2013), which was recommended to me by Wellington poet Sarah Jane Barnett. It’s tricky to describe Stag’s Leap without making it sound insufferable and self-indulgent: its poems are entirely about the breakdown of the poet’s 30-year marriage. But truly, truly, it’s wonderful. It’s kind, generous and brutally honest. Though it’s specifically “about” the aftermath of the poet being left (for another woman), it also explores thoroughly – epically – what it means to love another person. The sex, desire, willing sacrifices, and impossibility of intimacy. I can see that all still sounds insufferable, so here’s a gory excerpt I loved from a poem about a mouse as dead as the poet’s marriage, called “Sleekit Cowrin’”:

The mouse has become a furry barrow

burrowed into by a beetle striped

in stripes of hot and stripes of cold

coal—headfirst, it eats its way into

the stomach smoother than dirt


And bugs little as seeds are seething

all over the hair, as if the rodent

were food rejoicing.

To say that poem aloud makes you become a bug eating the words, each vowel a bite or a chew. I enjoy Olds’ careful rhythms and sound-patterns as much as I enjoy her excruciating emotional honesty:

[…] O satin, O

sateen, O velvet, O fucking velveeta—

the day of the doctors’ dress-up dance,

the annual folderal, the lace,

the net, he said it would be hard for her

to see me there, dancing with him,

would I mind not going. And since I’d been

for thirty years enarming him,

I enarmed him further—Arma, Virumque,

sackcloth, ashen embroidery!

(from “Material Ode”)

Jane Arthur is production manager at Wellington children’s book publisher, Gecko Press. She was most recently published in the inaugural issue of the new NZ literary journal, Sweet Mammalian (sweetmammalian.com).


Serie Barford:
“Between the Kindling and the Blaze – Reflections on the concept of mana” by Ben Brown,  Anahera Press 2013

A poetry collection I’ve recently enjoyed is Ben Brown’s Between the Kindling and the Blaze – reflections on the concept of mana.  Mana’s a term that’s understood and used by New Zealanders in many different ways, so it was interesting to consider Ben’s reflections and to listen to the accompanying CD. The poems and prose poems shuttle us between Te Ao and Te Pō, the Worlds of Light and Dark. Elemental fire is a motif, a unifying thread that anchors our senses in the familiar whilst we hikoi between deftly portrayed worlds and personalities. The collection opens with ‘Mana’, a homage to Ben’s grandfather:

Mana is my grandfather in his retirement from the darkness and depths

and ingrained dust of the coal mine to mow the marae lawn that extends to

the front door of his twice-built house with two coal ovens eternally warm

beneath the simmering pots of the boil up behind unlocked doors where

footwear for a centipede aligns beneath his broad veranda….

and takes us to the Mongrel Mob in ‘The Dog my brother’:

The dog my brother he walks crookedly

Too many kicks when he was a pup

Dances to his own tune now ……

The street was good to me he say

I made my love

I burned my bridges happily….

We also visit women of mana, a Maori Jesus who eats fish ‘n’ chips with tomato sauce and wears wrap-around sunnies, a rangatira in conversation with a slave on the Wellington Harbour in the early 1840s, various pubs and parties and a hui at the doorway to heaven.

Tihei mauri ora.

Serie Barford is an Auckland-based poet. Her most recent collection is, Tapa Talk.


Stephanie Mayne:

A House on Fire  Tim Upperton

Steele Roberts Publishers, 2009. ISBN 9781877448683

The poems in Tim Upperton’s  book, A House on Fire, appeal because of his use of inventive imagery, his direct observational style, and the painterly quality of his scene setting. His poetry is spare, concise and technically proficient.

Decaying corn, in a poem about a vegetable garden, keeps “its thin hands in its sleeves.” In a poem about the tradition of the Kiwi Sunday roast, the mutton “heaves” in the pan.

Upperton’s relaxed, confident poems are often drawn from nature. In his poem, “The Starlings,” a house once “thrummed” to the sound of nesting birds, whilst in “The Caterpillar” he is moved to see a “damp umbrella, hanging.”

Upperton’s evocative, well-crafted, warm poems pare life back to its bare essentials – family, food, love and nature. Read Upperton’s poems – you’ll discover magic in the ordinary.

Stephanie Mayne is an Auckland librarian and poet.

Off the Poetry Shelf: Emma Neale reviews the latest collections of Caoilinn Hughes, Alice Miller and Marty Smith

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Gathering Evidence Caoilinn Hughes VUP $28

In densely packed poems bristling with knowledge, Hughes’s first collection shows a gift for delineating the empirical while simultaneously winnowing metaphorical value from it. Praised elsewhere for her precision, Hughes seems to me also a richly allusive poet. The span of her vocabulary, her ease with abstractions, metonymy, near-neologisms and heightened poetic rhetoric — (e.g. the “luciferean abdomen” of a firefly) — show a poet who both layers and layers, and tries to burrow ever deeper into her material, to really isolate its inner workings.

The book holds everything from an impish look at a game of Scrabble to narratives of scientific experiment and discovery. These in turn range from humanity’s first successful effort to begin and arrest a nuclear reaction, to the legal case taken up by the family of Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells were cultivated without her permission into the ‘immortal’ HeLa line.

Hughes’s work manages to seem both compendious and yet compressed; each piece pulls in considerable, closely observed data, and yet avoids the prosey feel of Wikipedia entries, with spry, punning, psychologically apt metaphors, or the frequent tang of prosody: ‘slipping into the bullring of incandescence’; ‘launching Glory Bes/into the gluey hives and trenches of her head’; ‘plays chess with the evening’s reticence’.



The Limits Alice Miller AUP $24.99 

Alice Miller’s book acts as a cool ‘mental palate’ cleanser if read immediately after the Hughes. The Limits pushes for new archetypes through old. One poem, “Antarctica II”, reiterates ‘This is what we used to call a fairy tale’ — a gloss that could apply to many of the delicately wrought poems here. They read like fragments of cautionary tales, of psychodramas spun from love and fear, aspirations and disappointments. The poems offer intense, dreamlike evocations of mood and relationship dynamics through crisp, clean, yet elliptical and elusive phrasing. Each line is like a single drop of water sending out sonic and visual ripples, rather than the joyously hyperactive torrent of facts and analysis in the Hughes.

There is often a sense with Miller’s work that the reader’s version of the subject of the poem can only inch towards a partial translation from the eerie, haunting language of dream, which itself is a translation of the unspoken or inarticulate in the daily. The poems carry the psychological ‘fragrance’ of new foundation myths; of recent —or near-future — cultural crises whittled back down into the primal nouns of body, earth, apple, skin, fire, ocean. The slightly apocalyptic tremor along the skin of some of the poems can either return us to crises of the past (as in ‘After Battle’) or project us into eerie fusions of the now and the any-moment-now. There are the landscapes and mindscapes of city, trucks, forests, ATMS, border-crossings and terror that suggests a beleaguered present-day Europe; there are two ‘Waiata’ that seem to ventriloquise 19th century settler variations upon, or infusions, of the Maori form; ‘Ocean’ has idealism, fear and ecological crisis lapping at its edges: “point to lands that reach beyond the myth/but soon the water’s pouring up the hills/because we cannot map the ocean still”.

Good at finding metaphor and image for the nebulous, the inchoate, the shift and slide of emotional response to the relatively removed or abstract, Miller’s work embodies the idea that a poem should leave the world both a little more illuminated and a little more mysterious at its close. This reminds me of the surrealism of Michael Harlow in its sense of what we might call the accurate strangeness not just of language, but also of the workings of the subconscious.


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 Horse with Hat Marty Smith VUP $30

The tonal range in Marty Smith’s Horse with Hat is, I think, the widest of all three collections reviewed here. This is alternately comic, wry, downbeat, vernacular, lyrical: yet it is also at times dark, plangent and moving in its use of narratives distilled from extended family relationships. The collection gathers small yet vivid dramatic moments from the routines of farm work and a lost pre-digital world, where the children remember that “TV arrived like a Martian” (‘reception’) and ‘You only made phone calls if someone was sick or dead or married’ (as one typically long and cheekily, tartly inverted title has it).

With its imagery of “quicksilver silvery birds” and “eel thoughts” that “slide along our sides” (‘A mile here, a mile there’) the poems are gorgeously evocative of landscape and the sensation of, say, early dawn on the farm – where one natural observation infuses another with both physicality and emotion: “those horses talk to themselves/low, and tender as the fat wetness of roses” (‘dawn horses’).

The collection builds up the sense of how the vulnerable, sensitive child still sits inside the adult, and the animal or primal lingers inside the human. ‘Creature’ is a compellingly simple poem about the fusion between self and animal;

“I make the glorious mouth./It is a heart-blossom red I choose./I leave teeth marks.[….] The sun in my lungs/I put my tail up and go.”

Other poems slide into the animal voice, showing how close contact with working animals deeply influences the child’s sense of identity, time, imagination and land. The book also runs its fingers over the history of civilisation’s relationship with the horse (‘Lot 165’). It’s impressive to realise how much ground is covered in what is also a tightly themed collection. From Crusaders to gambling nuns and the fiery, unpredictable character of the poet’s returned serviceman father, the book dips in and out of the human use of horses, and the strange attractions and repulsions of family.

The father’s character bristles on the page with frustration, fury, and yet love; the poems weave and bob with the sense of complex individuals, and tangled, ingrown, or estranged relationships. All the while, the long contrail of war trauma chokes the family atmosphere.

Brendan O’Brien’s illustrations for the book are a dreamlike bricolage, with tumbled perspective and collisions of genre (Biblical engravings, coloured cigarette cards). The air of bewilderment and wonder, and of bizarre within the familiar, plays deft visual accompaniment to the poetry’s side-winding snippets of family feud and rural life.



Poetry Reviews on Poetry Shelf

Poetry reviews are like hen’s teeth these days (okay where does that saying coming from!). Hardly any newspapers publish reviews of poetry (those that do? ODT and The Nelson Mail spring to mind). There is the wonderful Landfall-on-Line, NZ Books and the rare outing in The Listener. What have I missed?

I started Poetry Shelf to address this in part but I never set out to review every poetry book published here. But I do want to flag as many as I can along with events and poetry projects. Realising I can’t get review all the books I have on my desk I will start doing short snapshots. Poetry Shelf doesn’t fill the gap by any means.

What I can do is post the occasional review written by someone else. I am just about to post Emma Neale’s terrific review of three books.

If you would like to review a poetry book or two, let me know as I may make this an occasional series. The currency of this blog however is a love of poetry.

I will make a review page with details that are easily accessed.




Favourite poetry books of 2013 — make your pick

A Book is a Book_Cover_hires

The New Zealand Listener devotes vital attention to New Zealand writing throughout the year and this is to be applauded — reviews, interviews, features that cover a range of genres. However I was disappointed to see the slim selection of poetry in their recent Top 100 Books (November 30th issue) considering Chief Judge John Campbell had picked poetry as a particular strength of NZ writing at the NZ Post Book Awards this year:  ‘It is a reflection of the extraordinary strength of the new and young writers we read, particularly in poetry, where New Zealand is blessed by so many fine writers (at all ages and stages) that we respectfully suggest poetry could stand beside rugby as our national sport.’

It was a list of 6: I was delighted to spot three favourite books of mine (those of Selina Tusitala Marsh, Amy Brown and Ian Wedde).

Disclaimer: This post might be picked up as sour grapes on my part as I had a book of poetry released in the past year (The Baker’s Thumbprint, Seraph Press), but I have zero expectation of my books being on lists, being reviewed or gaining awards. It is not what matters to me. I focus on writing and all the things I love in life which is why I run two blogs dedicated to a celebration of poetry.

To make up for the Listener’s inattentiveness to the fabulous poetry published both in New Zealand and abroad I invite you to celebrate a favourite poetry book of 2013 (excluding mine). I don’t mind where the book was published. I would love to publish a series of these picks over the next month. Just select your book (you can do more than one if you like) and write a few sentences or a paragraph on what you love about it.

Perhaps these picks will send us hunting for poetry books to put in our summer reading bags.

I have a little bundle of NZ poetry books to send to a random contributor or two.

Send to paulajoygreen@gmail.com

Selina Tusitala Marsh’s Dark Sparring: this collection takes you to the sun and the moon and the clouds

Selina KBox Image

Selina Tusitala Marsh, Dark Sparring, Auckland University Press, 2013  photo credit: Emma Hughes Photography

Selina Tusitala Marsh is of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent and teaches at The University of Auckland. She was the first Pacific Islander to graduate from its English Department with a PhD. Her debut poetry collection, Fast Talkin’ PI, was awarded the Jessie MacKay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in 2010. She represented Tuvalu at the London Olympics Parnassus event in 2012.

cp-dark-sparring    cp-dark-sparring

Selina’s second collection, Dark Sparring, lifts off from her debut in extraordinary ways. The poems embrace a variety of subject matter and forms, but they are held together by a voice that has grown in both strength and lightness. Selina writes out of two experiences that might seem opposed but that are equally linked both in life and on the line — the death of her mother and her adoption of Muay Thai kickboxing.

I have heard Selina perform these new poems twice in the past week or so. On each occasion, the strength of the poetry resonated in the air. At her launch, Selina was accompanied by Tim Page’s musical layerings, and she interrupted a kickboxing poem with a round or two of sparring in the room. The music and words fed upon each other with infectious energy, and the kickboxing was like a trope for the poems — graceful, startling, strong. Her performance was energised and entertaining (a definite wow factor). On the second occasion, Selina read at the Ladies Litera-Tea without musical accompaniment and without a round or two of sparring. What struck me about this performance was the way silence was a significant part of the poetry palette. The little and longer pauses heightened the emotional, personal and political kick.

The poems in this new collection embrace both the personal and the political; the former reaches out and draws you in close to private moments (a poetry of intimacy) while the latter is a voice that probes and exposes (a poetry of conscience). Both are fueled by Selina’s ear; by her attentiveness to the musicality of the line.

In the terrific opening poem, ‘Matariki,’ the poet is guiding a young writer named Matariki (who has no idea of the constellation and its meaning) in a writing workshop. The poet’s response on what to write serves as a perfect gateway into the book: ‘write what you remember/ write your lost and found/ write the toiling of the year’s grief/ write the seeding of new ground.’

Sound is always paramount. In ‘Chant from Matiatia to Orapiu,’ the words are like present-participle, daisy chains between the two locations with rhyme building the linking stems. The words zigzag down the page like bird flight or like an autobiography of movement. Then there are the single lines, without rhyme and without present participle that check you momentarily. Selina’s fondness for the present tense (a kind of be-here-now philosophy) accentuates the moment and movement.

The political poems (as with Selina’s first book) explore notions of identity, representation, genealogy, tradition, ethnicity and so on. There is always an acknowledgement of the line of writers (mostly women) from which Selina writes. Albert Wendt is there in ‘Emailing Albert.’ There is the poem about the Somali refugees that make words ache and rebound in new ways in the poetry workshop. This poem’s structure is handled beautifully so that it becomes an occasion for both poetry and politics with elegance and a sharp edge. There is the poem, ‘NZ, the Lucky Country,’ that is like a homage to here, unblinkered, incantatory, thankful. It is like a breath of fresh air.

The poems that centre upon the death of her mother, are deeply personal, utterly moving, and stall you, but they have a touch of the grace and strength of the kickboxer. These poems are highly original as Selina has moved about her boxing ring falling upon different shapes and forms to house her experience. The titles suggest this terrific movement; ’30 ways to Look at a Mother,’ ’13 Ways of Looking at Mourning,’ ‘To War with Story,’ ‘On Plagarism’ (which is after Bill Manhire and is all for killing off cancer and breaching copyright). ‘Genesis’ is like a biblical tale or parable on the origins of cancer, on cell warfare. These poems tug at you, stop you, soothe you, make you laugh out loud, and they feed empathy. In ‘A Formal Dinner,’ Selina moves you from smiling at the need to provide so much food at the funeral to a heart twinge at the absence of the table setter. These poems work as glorious symphonies of sound on the page but they also work as acute and tender tributes to a beloved.

In the debut collection, ‘Fast Talkin’ Pi,’ became a vital mantra for Pacific-Island women and women in general. In this second collection, Selina has returned to the poem by way of ‘Kickboxing Cancer’, but now the poem opens it arms wider to take in all women and a more personalised, particular woman. And then the poem holds its arms close in an intimate hug as this is a poem that comes out of love and death and loss.

Selina’s second collection lifts you out of your senses. She lifts her grief out of her body and  translates it into word music on the page and in the air (there is A CD in the back). Reading this collection takes you to the sun and the moon and the clouds, and then returns you to your own patch of ground to grieve and celebrate and challenge. I adore it.

Thanks To Auckland University Press I have a copy of this book to someone who likes or comments on this post or either of the two interviews. Thanks AUP!

Poetry Shelf Interview

Auckland University Press page

nzepc page

New Zealand Book Council page

Radio NZ interview

Best New Zealand Poems here

Blackmail Press page

Louise Wallace’s Enough: Wherever you look there is energy

Louise Wallace (Rory Mearns 2013)

Louise Wallace’s debut poetry collection, Since June, was a delight. In my Herald review I saw it as ‘a satisfying mix of economy, elegance, strangeness, lightness, boldness and different personae.’  Louise was awarded the Briggs Prize in 2008 at The International Institute of Modern Letters. Since then her poems have been published in New Zealand (including The Best of Best New Zealand Poems), Australia and Germany. She has taught Creative Writing at Massey University and the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology for the past five years.

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Victoria University Press has just released Louise’s second book of poems, Enough. This new collection reflects the geographical movement of the poet (she was raised in Gisborne, recently spent three years in Nelson and has returned to Wellington). It is a terrific follow-on in both scope and sensibility. Her poems have points of origin in diverse places — from the random-article function in Wikipedia (thus poems on Cooper County, Missouri, Breakfast Television, Whaling in the Faroe Islands to name a few) to Lynn Davidson’s lines in a collaborative artwork to Dorothy in Emily Perkin’s The Forrests. Such a vivacious mix of subject matter adds texture to poems that are light footed and sure. Again, Louise finds little kinks in reality, in experience and in anecdote to produce a collection that surprises and takes risks, but that also relishes large patches of calm and ordinariness.

The title itself stalls you. ‘Enough.’ Enough what. Enough how. The word twitches and trembles in its multiplicity of meaning, from the hand raised to stay stop, to the arms outstretched that signal plenty, to (as the title poem itself suggests) the fearsome possibility that nothing is ever enough. Placing that particular  title on the cover of the book, also whispers (oh so quietly) that to write poems is sometimes –provisionally and momentarily– enough (in the face of all other meanings). Perhaps reading and writing poetry can make the world, for an hour or an afternoon, more bearable.

I don’t see this collection as trying to fit or suit poetic trends. It is a collection written out of shifting movement, out of hurt and honesty and love. Alongside a mind inventing and imagining, this is a poet engaged with ‘the gestation of a second difficult book.’ The traces of living are hot spots. One poem, ‘Getting things done,’ is like a secret, narrative undercurrent throughout the book. The narrator moves, the narrator arrives, the narrator unpacks, the narrator gets things done. Having listed the visible signs of ‘doing’ the narrator climbs in a box with her cup of tea and ‘starts’: ‘She shuts the curtains on the outside world/ even though it’s very nice weather/ and there are sounds of children playing/ and then screaming and then she starts.’

This poem reverberated for me on so many levels. The little mantra ‘I will get things done‘ was followed by the isolated last line ‘she writes.’ The poem is testimony to the stamina required by women to maintain the domestic sphere and then to make space for themselves (to do, if not to be). Making the box is making room in the head, away from domestic routine, the clutter and the demands to a moment of stillness and quiet. Making the box is also making the poem. The poet can climb into the poem with her blocked ears and her inky pen. The acute register of the final line is in the way the two words echo and rebound in the cavity of history — in the way women have always had to make a box (a room, a space, a moment) from which and in which to write (Louise’s first collection poignantly acknowledged the women who had preceded her). This simple poem opens out into marvelousness.

Louise’s poems can sidestep out of doubt and anxiety with such poetic agility the dark feeling exposes something completely other – a quirky image, a surprising ending, humour, startling detail. In ‘In the end,’ the detail of the head being stoked opens a new view of the grandmother, and it is very moving.

You fall upon juxtapositions that add to the humour, anecdote or heart of the poem. In ‘A hand’ an old woman refuses the narrator’s help, so the latter imagines herself (bitterly at first) as an old woman and then laughs: ‘The round of my head/ against the car park grey.’ I love the way ‘grey’ is the miniature prefigurement of old age and grey hair. In ‘Well how would you be about it’ someone watches the meals on wheels being buried in the garden: ‘Her neighbour watches and reports back — / the no-good little tell-tale tit.’ Or the delicious leap from ‘a grisly stew’ of worry to a hat made of peacock’s feathers in ‘The feathered hat.’

The structure of Louise’s collection works beautifully, with its movement from prose poem to poem to little poem to bite-size poem and hither and thither. Wherever you look there is energy — whether in the plainness, the heart, the anecdotal swivels, the hesitations, the repetitions or the idiosyncratic detail. This is a poetry collection to savour.

Thanks to Victoria University Press I have a copy of Enough to give away to someone who comments on this post by Thursday 31st October.

Victoria University Press page

New Zealand Book Council page

Interview with Louise Wallace on Radio NZ

Review of Since June in the Otago Daily Times

Poems in Snorkel

Best New Zealand Poems page

Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity is an astonishing example of a contemporary epic poem

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Amy Brown‘s debut poetry collection, The Propaganda Poster Girl, was shortlisted for the Jessie MacKay Award for Best First Book in the 2009 Montana NZ Book Awards. It introduced a fresh new voice, and Amy went into my head compartment of poets to watch. Her second collection, The Odour of Sanctity, moves into different territory and forms part of her Doctoral submission on contemporary epic poetry. She is currently teaching at the University of Melbourne.

This new collection is challenging, intricate, assured. It takes the reader on a roller-coaster trip through the lives of saints, but these six saints are not what you might expect in a catalogue of sainthood. You have Jeff Mangum from the indie rock group Neutral Milk Hotel (nowish), Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (150 years earlier), memoirist and mystic Margery Kempe (four centuries before that), Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1231), Saint baby Rumwold who spoke nonstop during his three-day life (662) and Saint Aurelius Augustine (300 years prior to that). This backward trawl through time nets some surprising results.

I am no scholar of Catholicism, but I am a student of poetry. The central ways in which this collection acquires an invigorating poetic force are through juxtaposition, (metonymical shivers), acute detail (anchorage in the real), shifting narrative voices, political under-and-overcurrents, and a vital heartbeat (providing little emotional kicks). Each candidate represents his or her own minefield of difficulty and strength, but the compounding effect of goodness and weakness is to be found in the gaps between the candidates.

The six cases fit into a structure of six parts and an envoi that might well echo the formal pattern of a sestina. Such a structure calls for semantic ripples, musical rhyme, and rebound at the level of feeling. And so it is, as the collection pivots and swivels on notions of good.

Jeff Mangum is making music to save himself, using his obsession with Anne Frank as fuel. He imagines unbearable loneliness. In Amy’s words, ‘Music is everything. God is nothing.’ Yet this drive to make music unwittingly unmakes him — leaves him stranded and unable  to participate in the world. Daringly, Amy selects the way Jeff might be awarded sainthood (even though he is alive) in his struggle to be good. She picks the way his music kickstarted a dead heart back to life as the miracle.

This might subvert the Catholic criteria for sainthood, but it also might be the point. Read this as a poetic narrative, but also read this as a challenge to orthodoxy. The word ‘odour’ lodged so tauntingly in the collection’s title underlines the way that this book is as much about stench as it is about sweetness. Goodness, miracles, humility, compassion, and faith can be located in the grit and grime, and everyday detail. The church itself has a history of goodness (compassion, forgiveness, charity) that can also be matched by a history of foul play (treatment of women, corrupt relations with political power, greed, abuse). In other words, Amy places ‘goodness’ under a critical spotlight. What is ‘goodness’ when it comes to ‘sainthood’? Is it a matter of piety, eating frugally, caring for others (and animals), compassion, sacrifice, humility, an erasure of ego and desire, chastity, a state of holiness and piety, an ability to perform miracles? It seems to me, a contemporary epic poem is the perfect place to reconfigure notions of good and sainthood (albeit in a secular fashion).

To read Amy’s six saints is to read them outside as well as within Catholic doctrine, along with the history of the Catholic faith at the level of ordinary lives and within the Church hierarchy. The life of Christina Rossetti, for example, raises the thorny issue of woman as saint. This woman writing is not simply an object of beauty (a muse), but a woman who struggles, creates, contemplates, resists and makes choices. There is the shadow-ladder of Neo-Platonic thought  that ascends to divine ideals (think beauty). In Christina’s narrative, the steps are both divine and actual. For the woman writing, ‘my voice is a bird,/ my words are weeds,/ poetry is a garden.’  And before, ‘my throat sings/ like a toad or a mallard;/ I groan of things/ that should be loved and changed/ and my mouth stings.’ The words are the ladder that embody grief along with feminist seeds (in this account). Thus Paradise ‘must be/ a place of mothers and sisters/ where there are no demands on one/ but to be cheerful and no reason/ to groan.’

The Odour of Sanctity offers much on an intellectual level along with the poetic veins that I signaled earlier, but it also takes grip of your heart as you enter the unbearable world of the candidates. There is the dissolution of Margery as she wants to be without stain, supplicant to God, to be bodiless and celibate. Yet she bears countless children and countless wounds from her husband. She stands in for female suffering, and as you hold her case close, the yearning for such erasure is both heart wrenching and unfathomable.

Amy has delivered a collection that takes hold of you on numerous, overlapping levels. To me, it is a collection that will provoke and prompt numerous arguments on what it is to be good and what it is to be a saint, whether male or female, dead or alive, religious or non religious. There is a sextet of voices at work (so beautifully crafted by Amy) and more (for example, the contemporary witnesses, God). It is in the rub of this voice against that voice, that the pathos, the grief, the pain and the sour smell of humanity unsettle the sweet potential of good.

The Odour of Sanctity is an astonishing example of a contemporary epic poem. There is a plainness of language that gives birth to a sumptuousness of effect. I am not interested in what the collection does not do, but in what Amy has chosen to get it to do. I loved it.

Amy Brown, The Odour of Sanctity  Victoria University Press 2013  $35

Lorna Staveley Anker: As much the stalled car as the cool, Agean sea

Lorna Staveley Ankar The Judas Tree (Canterbury University Press, 2013)

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Bernadette Hall has edited The Judas Tree, a selection of poems by Lorna Staveley Anker (1914 – 2000). The book also contains a detailed bibliography of publications, chronological autobiographical notes and an introduction by the editor.

This poet was unknown to me and I was grateful that she was not only brought to my attention, but that I was able to place her poems within the context of her life and times. Having just reviewed a novel for The NZ Herald by an Italian author (Elena Ferrante) who insists on absolute anonymity, I have been musing on the usefulness of authorial contexts. Since Roland Barthes’ provocative ‘Death of the Author’ essay decades ago — and truckloads of theory on the role of the reader and the performance of ‘texts’ — I think it is very clear the author is not the sole authority on what is written/published. If we remove ‘authority’ from the cult of the author, then we might be left with authorial context (autobiography, social and cultural times, opinions and so on).  Thus, I welcome with open arms access to such details — along with a vital conversation on the practice of writing and reading fiction and poetry.

So a brief author context: Lorna was born in Christchurch. When she was two, her father died from throat cancer and her mother took in boarders to support the family. The mother’s grief was amplified by the death of her three brothers in 1918. Her mental state affected Lorna. Lorna married a fellow teacher, had five children and began writing and publishing in the 1960s. After the death of her husband, she became more public as a writer, with poems appearing in numerous journals and magazines. Her debut collection appeared in 1986, My Streetlamp Dances, with two more to follow. Lorna writes in an essay on women in wartime, ‘I am a war casualty.’ She suffered from night terror, agoraphobia, anxiety, panic attacks, and in her final years, Parkinson’s Disease.

Bernadette concludes the book with a moving set of acknowledgements — above all, to Lorna herself: ‘if she hadn’t been such a beautiful presence; if I hadn’t been invited to speak at her funeral; if I hadn’t suspected that the subversiveness of her conversation might be reflected in some hidden-away manuscripts; if she hadn’t brought up her daughter to be as fearless as she herself was, this book might never have come into existence’ (106).

Lorna’s poems reflect a mind that engaged with the world acutely, wittily, compassionately. There is a plainness to the language in that similes and metaphors are sidestepped for nouns and verbs. These are poems of observation, attention, reaction, opinion, experience. The starting point might be the most slender of moments — and the poetry opens out from there, surprisingly, wonderfully.

In the first section (and indeed the largest section), war makes its presence felt; from the pain of departures, to the pain of the wounded, to the ache of loss. At times Lorna filters a poem through the eyes of her young self (for example, trying to make sense of Armistice Day). At times a concrete detail makes the poem more poignant (‘her spade searching/ her garden for/ her three lost sons’). In ‘Arie’s Tale’ the detail that renders the pain sharper is the ‘tyreless rims.’ In this poem the dead are carried away on a bicycle that makes such a clatter it is the hardest thing to bear (‘He felt it wasn’t respectful/ to his customers’). Lorna’s war poems stretch in all directions — they never forget the life that goes on and they never forget the heartbreak and loss that are etched indelibly. One of my favourite poems, ‘V.E.Day … and Neenish Tarts,’ moves beautifully between these two opposing but entwined forces. From the darkness of battle (now over), the poem moves to the grandmother dancing on the bed (as warm flesh weaves/ pink circles/ under a nightgown’; and from there to ‘Let’s have Neenish tarts for tea’ (this is cause for celebration). This first section of the book is a terrific addition to New Zealand war poetry because it casts a light on women at war (even when they remain in the kitchen).

The remainder of the book shows that Lorna is more than a war poet. Her sense of humour is there in the dance with a tea-cosy upon her friend’s head. There is the recurrent political edge that marks a mind roving in the world (‘Every headline is grit in the eye’). There is the slight surrealness of the the house in Lyttleton that swells every night, ‘Since they widened the road.’ There is the stepping around poetic corners to re-view the facts or first impressions (The company agent (her father) collected all the statistics in his diary but would you guess ‘the uplands and plains/ of early Canterbury ever/ yielded beauty, colour, form’).

There are numerous poems that stand out (I love the compounding detail in ‘Recipe for Writing a Poem in the Dark’), but I want to finish with a peek at ‘Vision of Escape.’ In this poem a city is being traversed and the driver asks, ‘what is poetry?’ The poem then travels from ornate metaphor to gloomy night to stationary moment to ornate-but-cooler metaphor to stalled car. Ingenuous. The poet deftly moves in and out of reality and ‘the moment’ — and as the title suggests that is exactly what the pen does. Poems are as much the stalled car as they are the ‘green/ Aegean sea.’

Lorna’s collection is a delightful discovery. Her poems never sit still (do any?). They take you to grief and yet to laughter. Their linguistic simplicity is a gateway to a rich, reading experience. I am very grateful.

Canterbury University Press

Mary McPherson on Lorna Staveley Ankar

Mary’s review in Landfall

The editor Bernadette Hall is to be congratulated on bringing these poems to a wider audience. Bernadette lives at Amberley Beach in North Canterbury. She has published numerous collections of poetry including The Lustre Jug, and edited Joanna Margaret Paul’s Like Love Poems: Selected Poems. She was a judge for this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards and co-founded the Hagley Writer’s Institute in Christchurch.

Bernadette Hall New Zealand Book Council

Bernadette Hall Victoria University Press

Bernadette Hall nzepc


Leigh Davis’s final work is an extraordinary, experimental production

Leigh Davis (1955-2009)

Leigh Davis was awarded the National Book Awards Best New Zealand First Book of Poetry for Willy’s Gazette in 1983. He followed this with a feast of literary innovation in print, on line and in physical spaces (often in conjunction with artist Stephen Bambury). During his final months when he was undergoing treatment for a brain tumour, he completed work on Stunning Debut of the Repairing of a Life. This was posthumously awarded The Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry.

From my Herald review: As you travel through the visual stutterings and the hiccupping sounds of the book, you fall upon lines that you just want to hold to the light and marvel at. Davis shows us what poetry might be: ‘Poetry is writing with space in it’ or ‘just tolerant’ or ‘bright beautiful surfaces’. He also shows us what he wants: ‘warmth,’ ‘speed,’ ‘mystery’, ‘love.’ Go to this link.

Leigh Davis’s final work (aided by artist Stephen Bambury) is an extraordinary, experimental publication – the most ambitious seen here in terms of scale and lavish production. The two books and DVD take the form of a play in five acts and a visual blueprint for its installation. The first book is a beautiful, hardcover, linen-bound object entitled NAMELESS. Various characters (actors) make an appearance: Duccio’s Madonna, George Wilder, Ludwig Wittgenstein). You enter a world of frailty, uncertainty, that is made more poignant not by the ‘phenomenon of thinking’ nor by the meaning that floats at one’s fingertips nor the quivering time (past and future) but by the things and actions that compound. Thus the broken cars or the soap that needs to be passed. There is, in this theatrical gathering, an insistent voice, a voice whispering in your ear, guiding you and here and there, on sailboat, to a corner to eavesdrop, to rivers and to Union Square. Beyond the fragility, though there is essential poetry, for these words are lush yet economical, mysterious yet clear. The poem (long but measured) is like a net, a beautifully woven silk net that catches and snags fleeting corners of the world (present, remembered, invented, adored).

The second book is entitled REDUX and is a visual interpretation that lays down a map for an installation of a performance of NAMELESS.

Michael Hurst and Jennifer Ward-Lealand read scenes on the DVD which also includes also a virtual animation of the installed work.

At this boxed set’s heart – the contagious joy of language.

Nameless/ Redux Leigh Davis Jack Books $120

Jack Books

Willy’s Gazette

nzepc entry

New Zealand Book Council entry