Tag Archives: On the Shelf

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.

On the Shelf in October: Poetry Picks by Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, Hera Bird and Paula Green

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman

A poet I have become almost evangelical in promoting since discovering his work in a Paris Review interview in 2005 is the late Jack Gilbert (1925-2012). His Collected Poems (Knopf, 2012) includes The Great Fires (1982), the first of his books I bought, with one of his signature poems, Steel Guitars which ends “The heart in its plenty hammered/by rain and need, by the weight of what momentarily is”. This book is the harvest of a brave life lived deep in poetry; his work impelled me to seek him out on a visit to California, making it literally days before he died on 13 November 2012. This is what I wrote of that visit:
I feel in the same way about Gilbert as I did when I came across Pablo Neruda in 1971 – here was a world I could inhabit without exhausting its gifts.

My local love of recent times has been John Pule’s wonderful The Bond of Time (Canterbury University Press, 2014). I was invited to write an introduction and spoke there of “a net of words across the Pacific”, which hardly does this remarkable and precocious epic justice. Pule was only twenty one when he composed the poem in 1985 and this is its third richly deserved appearance. Unique and essential.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman writes poetry and non-fiction and the occasional Paparoa blog post on WordPress. He is presently working on a memoir, ‘Burning The Libraries’ and another history project to do with German family connections in the Nazi era.



Hera Bird

I never could muster much enthusiasm for the war poets, possibly because most of what we studied in secondary school was from the British canon, which I never fell in love with, and there are only so many tender battlefield reminiscences about the distant fields of the mother country you can read before returning to the New York School for a stiff drink. But I’ve recently discovered Dunstan Thompson, a gay American war poet who faded into obscurity after returning from WWII, taking up Catholicism & renouncing homosexuality. His earlier work is hard to find (although there is a selection of his later, religious poems available online) but his poetry has been criticized for inconsistency – moments of brilliance flaring into tepid endings. But read “Lament for the Sleepwalker” and tell me the half doesn’t overcome the whole:

An excerpt:

I am chilled, as though a star

Of mobs and children came by traitor’s gate

And climbed the water stair to break his neck

On the axe king’s block, all in winter sunshine.

His brain in ice, his guts in melting jelly,

As barefoot fellow bound for high-heel gallows,

Peer of the Presence like a spaniel licks

Cracked lips to ease his vomit back; then stumbles

On the ladder going up to hell.

Dunstan Thompson ‘The Prince, His Madness, He Raves at Mirrors’ in On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master D.A Powell (Pleiades Press, 2010)

The other poet whose work I’m really excited about is Danez Smith, whose book ‘[insert] Boy’ is forthcoming from YesYes Books. Danez Smith is an amazing slam poet from the states whose work I’ve been seeing reposted a lot on the internet  in response to the recent Ferguson shooting, particularly this poem ‘alternate names for black boys.’ Until his book comes out, I’ve been reading bits and pieces from his website:

an excerpt fromalternate names for black boys’

  1. smoke above the burning bush
  2. archnemesis of summer night
  3. first son of soil
  4. coal awaiting spark & wind
  5. guilty until proven dead


Paula Green

I know I review books on the blog ( I will be having quite a flurry after my Hot Spot Poetry Tour I promise!), but I just wanted to flag this as it stuck with me. Sugar Magnolia Wilson’s Pen Pal published by Cats and Spaghetti Press earlier this year. It is not so much a book as a paper-fold-out that tucks in your bag and can very neatly fold and unfold in waiting rooms. The poems themselves are letters that fold into poems and poems that fold into letters. I love the idea of the shadowy figure to whom the letters are addressed, unreachable, yet gaining in presence in the light of what the writer chooses to reveal. The letters are surprising. ‘I’ve only just started/ witchcraft so this letter/ includes some hairs.’  The hidden fold may be of magic spells as though these poems are talismans or charms that work some kind of subterranean effect upon you as you read. I love the flashes of anecdote (‘Did I tell you/ in July a meteorite fell?’ whether true or false). Every poem seems off-centre, quirky, surprising, reverberating (‘Yesterday I carried my grief tree/ down to the mailbox/ to be milled by a letter’). The letter-poem-spells come out of a childhood, a mum and a dad, with hurt and ache and back-yard digging. I highly recommend tucking it in your bag to unfold and refold and let the spells take hold.

I write to you from

the witching hour.


He is out in the night

calling to his garden –


he is a big-hearted grasshopper

licked over by the long, red

tongue of sadness.



On The Shelf in September: Poetry picks by Chris Tse, Hinemoana Baker, Karen Craig

Chris Tse

I emerged from a film festival-induced haze to find that my to-read pile has grown exponentially. (Fittingly, one of the books that I’ve recently finished and enjoyed is Helen Rickerby’s Cinema for its wistful and charming tales of reality colliding with the world of movies.) Near the top of my daunting pile are Maria McMillan’s Tree Space and Hinemoana Baker’s waha | mouth (both VUP, 2014), and Sam Sampson’s Halcyon Ghosts (AUP, 2014). I’ve also been itching to get stuck into When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). I stumbled across her poem ‘My Brother at 3am’ and then went searching for whatever else I could find by her.

I’ve been dipping in and out of books by two American poets (there’s a spooky synchronicity with their titles): Scarecrone by Melissa Broder (Publishing Genius Press, 2014) and Scary, No Scary by Zachary Schomburg (Black Ocean, 2011). Both write deliciously dark poems, which read like fables that speak of how terrifying and confusing the modern world can be. At times these poems have an irreverent edge to them, and both poets use such precise language and ominous images to conjure up worlds of unease.

Chris Tse‘s first poetry collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes (AUP), will be available in stores and online from 22 September.


Hinemoana Baker

Bird murder  When I closed this book after reading it for the first time, my exact words were ‘Now that’s how it’s done.’ Bird murder is a dark chronicle of close-packed language and noir thrills. Being a bird-lover from way back, I delighted in the book’s central murder, and I secretly hoped it was the Stellar’s Jay itself that did it. Overall, though, it’s simply the exceptional quality and music of the sentences that blows me away. An example from ‘Setting’:

Mrs Cockatrice, pink hair a-boule

sets the table for her guests.

Her ornamental milking stool


will do for a child.



And one more, from ‘Solar midnight’:


I came from a lake with an island on it

and on the island there was a lake.

The water was so silver. I had feathers then.’

– Bird murder by Stefanie Lash, Mākaro Press, Hoopla Series. Eastbourne, 2014.


The Red Bird I was alerted to Joyelle by Shannon Welch, whose Iowa Writing Workshop I attended at the IIML in 2003. It would be hard to overstate the effect it had on me reading these lines from ‘Still Life w/ Influences’:


Up on the hill,

a white tent had just got unsteadily to its feet

like a foal or a just-foaled cathedral.

I’ve been known to say loudly, on several occasions since, if I’d written that I could die happy. A glib hat-tip but the feeling is entirely genuine. This particular book travels from whales to guitarists to car accidents and beagles and doubles back. In the introduction, Allen Grossman says Joyelle ‘is a poetic realist. Her poems are neither reductive nor fantastic. But they are profoundly mysterious in the way any truthful account of the world must be.’

– The Red Bird by Joyelle McSweeney, Fence Books / Saturnalia Books. New York NY, 2002.

Hinemoana Baker‘s latest collection of poetry, waha | mouth, has just been released by Victoria University Press. I will review it on Poetry Shelf.


Karen Craig

Two poets I’ve been spending a lot of time with recently are Thom Gunn and Mark Doty, prompted by my job at Auckland Libraries, where we’ve been working on adding some lists of recommended reads in GLBTQI fiction and literature to our website. Thom Gunn is an old acquaintance who never ceases to awe me with the hard (yet supple — how they suited his poems, those black leather biker jackets) intelligence of his vision and the cool leanness of his language. The book I’m reading now is the Selected Poems edited by August Kleinzahler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), which includes my favourite poem ‘Considering the Snail’, where the snail “moves in a wood of desire,/ pale antlers barely stirring/ as he hunts.” That’s already good. “What is a snail’s fury?” That’s genius, for me.

Mark Doty is a new find for me. A friend recommended his memoir Dog Years for a “Sadness” display we did at Central Library, saying it was the saddest book she’d ever read. If I tell you it’s over 200 pages and I read it all in one day and night, that will give you an idea of how this man gets inside your heart. He’s one of those people that when I was in high-school we used to call “beautiful”, and, when we used the term in our English essays, be told — rightly — that it was too imprecise. So to be more precise on Mark Doty’s beauty: a largeness of spirit, a sense of wonder and mystery, emotivity and desire, the musicality of the ordinary.  I’m reading Paragon Park (David R. Godine, 2012), a collection of his early poems, while waiting for the more complete collection Fire to Fire (New York : HarperCollins, c2008). To match Thom Gunn’s snail, an amazing “Turtle, Swan”, where he addresses his lover, at the start of the AIDS epidemic, “you with your white and muscular wings / that rise and ripple beneath or above me, / your magnificent neck, eyes the deep mottled autumnal colors / of polished tortoise —  I do not want you ever to die.”

On an other note, I’ve got Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond’s Beyond the Ohlala Mountains: Alan Brunton, poems 1968-2002 (Titus Books, 2013) from the library. I’ve just started dipping in, but I could see immediately that this is the kind of book which makes you really understand what is meant by “labour of love”. Beautifully composed, a careful, pondered – never ponderous – and, subtly, poetic introduction, which will have something for everyone. And the poems! A universe, no, a multiverse, of raptures and pandemoniums.

About me:
I work at Auckland’s Central City Library promoting fiction and literature both on the shelves and off the shelves, through book launches, author talks, lectures and — with great joy, always – poetry celebrations, including National Poetry Day evenings in conjunction with nzepc, Stars of Pasifika Poetry every March, and The Day of the Dead Beat Poets, every November 2. For the next 12 months I’m serving in a just-created role focussing on initiatives across the libraries to raise awareness of our collections. I write the Books in the City (http://albooksinthecity.blogspot.co.nz/) blog.

August On the Shelf: Poetry picks from Emily Dobson, Siobhan Harvey, Harry Ricketts, Jack Ross, James Norcliffe

Siobhan Harvey: Conversations by Owl-Light, Alexandra Fraser, Steele Roberts, July 2014 Conversations by Owl-Light is the first collection by Auckland author, Alexandra Fraser who is one of the finest contemporary writers engaging with scientific themes in New Zealand. Chemistry, love, botany, family, astronomy, tarot and ancestry: this heady mix of themes is delicately and decidedly well handled by Fraser’s evocative language, pinpoint accuracy and sumptuous concern for human interaction. See here for more details.

Autobiography of a Margueritte, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, Hue & Cry, June 2014 See here. Each time I read this first collection of prose-poems by Butcher-McGunnigle I’m staggered by its depth, skill, astuteness and vibrancy. A workbook for illness; a diary of familial dysfunction; a finely tuned navigation through self-representation and identity: Autobiography of a Margueritte is all this and more. A must-read.

Siobhan Harvey‘s recent books are 2013 Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry winning Cloudboy (Otago University Press) and, as co-editor with James Norcliffe and Harry Ricketts, Essential NZ Poems – Facing the Empty Page (Penguin Random House NZ, 2014). Recently, a poem from a new work she is creating was runner up in 2014 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition.


Harry Ricketts:  I Knew the Bride, Hugo Williams, Faber & Faber, 2014  Hugo Williams is my favourite contemporary English poet. His line in mordant wit and lurching loss gets me every time. Here the suite of poems called ‘From the Dialysis Ward’ really hits the spot.

Harry Ricketts recently co-edited Essential NZ Poems – Facing the Empty Page (Penguin Random House NZ, 2014). Harry has a new collection of poems out next year with Victoria University Press.


James Norcliffe: A couple of the poetry books I have been reading recently are Siobhan Harvey’s Cloudboy and James Tate’s Return to the City of White Donkeys.

Cloudboy is a remarkable achievement: passionate, imaginative and sustained. It’s hard enough to pull off a short sequence but Siobhan negotiates a book length sequence effortlessly. It is easy to see how this book won the Kathleen Grattan Award last year.

I returned to James Tate’s book because I wanted to talk about flash fiction to a class at the Christchurch School for Young Writers just in advance of National Flash Fiction Day on (appropriately) the shortest day. I’ve been a huge admirer of James Tate ever since I came across The Lost Pilot years and years ago. Return to the City of White Donkeys is a collection of prose poems wry, often funny and often unsettling. Wonderful. I really enjoy Tate’s deadpan surrealism and I was lucky enough to hear him read in America a few years back. There was standing room only on a bleak rainy night.

James Norcliffe recently co-edited Essential NZ Poems – Facing the Empty Page (Penguin Random House NZ, 2014).


Jack Ross: First of all, there’s  the Collected Poems of Jack Gilbert (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). I picked this up secondhand and have been reading it with increasing delight and respect ever since. There’s something plain and straightforward about this guy that really appeals to me. When the book was nominated for the 2013 Pulitzer prize, the citation read: “a half century of poems reflecting a creative author’s commitment to living fully and honestly and to producing straightforward work that illuminates everyday experience with startling clarity,” which I think is quite nicely put. He’s the very opposite of a showboat poet (not that they can’t be fun too, sometimes). He died shortly after the book appeared, so it really is the last word on a lifetime devoted to the craft.

Another book I’ve been reading in this month is the final, complete version of Doc Drumheller’s 10 x (10 + ’10) = 0 (Christchurch: The Republic of Oma Rāpeti Press, 2014). I first met Doc last year, at the Hawke’s Bay Poetry Conference (though we’d been corresponding on and off for years), and found him a very interesting person to talk to. This huge, ten-part poem, compiled over the past decade, consists of a series of poems compiled according to stringent writing restrictions, rather in the mode of an Oulipo project. The tenth and twentieth poem in each volume is a palindrome, reading the same backwards and forwards. Give the popularity of such poets as Christian Bok (Eunoia), it’s nice to know that New Zealand has its own workshop of potential literature humming away down there on the Canterbury Plains (and finding periodic expression in the journal Catalyst, which Drumheller also edits).

Jack Ross teaches at Massey University Albany.  He has a poetry book coming out later in the year from HeadworX. It’s called “A Clearer Look at the Hinterland: Poems & Sequences 1981-2014.” Catch up with what he is doing on his blog here.


Emily Dobson: On my bedside table for the last little while has been Marty Smith’s Horse with Hat (VUP: 2014). Any adjective I think of for this book I quickly think of its opposite – it is loud, but also quiet, wicked but also exquisitely tender, you get this primal sense of the horses but it is utterly human – the affection the poems have for their characters is palpable. The collaboration with Brendan O’Brien is brilliant. One of my favourite poems is ‘A mile here, a mile there’, which completely floored me when I first read it on Turbine. Knowing what Marty has put into these poems from when I first met many of them 10 years ago on the MA, I can’t think of a more deserving winner of the Best First Book of Poetry in this year’s NZ Post Book Awards. I’m very proud of her.

Emily Dobson‘s new collection of poems, The Lonely Nude, was published by Victoria University Press in July. I will review this on Poetry Shelf.

July On the Shelf: Picks by Vincent O’Sullivan, Sue Wootton, Ros Ali, Sam Sampson

Vincent O’Sullivan: I can’t imagine moving further from the kind of poetry we tend to write in New Zealand, and the kind we probably mostly read ( allowing for the crass generalisation that of course implies!), than to what I’ve been so delighted by over the past couple of months in Ilan Stavans’ huge anthology, The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2011). The Introduction is smart in the best sense, informative and challenging. Then seven hundred pages of poets from a dozen countries. There are the poets one can’t help but have come across, the marvellous so un-English figures like Neruda and Paz and Vallejo, but then so many others I didn’t know, and was bowled by – the Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrede, say, whose ‘The Elephant’ is probably the best animal poem I have read. A book to open at random, where you’re hardly ever likely not to be snared.

Of poets closer to home, I’ve especially admired Caoilinn Hughes’ Gathering Evidence (Victoria University Press, 2014). We don’t have many writers so at ease with either the long line’s six or seven stresses, or with so sustaining narrative as poetry ( I mean narrative with the same qualities as good narrative in prose, and then more as well.) And this, with the taut, vivid phrasing of fine lyric. A book you come out of, feeling the horizon is that touch further than you thought.

Vincent O’Sullivan is the current New Zealand Poet Laureate. Victoria University Press released a collection of his short stories, The Families, earlier this year. You can see my review of it here.


Sue Wootton: A collection I’ve been re-reading with great pleasure recently is The Overhaul by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie (Picador, 2012), winner of the 2012 COSTA Poetry Prize and shortlisted for the 2012 TS Eliot Prize.  It’s a book that gives you sharper eyesight, better hearing, that makes your body into compass and barometer.  Jamie’s voice in these poems is clear and concise, managing to appear almost matter-of-fact while also being elegant and lyrical. She gives equal weight to everything she scrutinises – to spider, roe deer, stag, osprey, hawk, swift, blackbird, weather-beaten clinker, bluebells, roses. A collection that seems to me be part rapture, part lament, it’s full of questions, like this from The Spider: “Who tore the night?/ Who caused this rupture?/ You, staring in horror/ – had you never considered/how the world sustains?”

My Poetry Book of the Winter this year is The 20th Century in Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse and Simon Rae (Pegasus, 2013). This rich anthology opens in 1900 with Thomas Hardy and ends in 2000 with Jeffrey Harrison. In between it takes in a broad sweep of English language poets from a variety of countries. New Zealanders include Vincent O’Sullivan, Elizabeth Smither, A.R.D. Fairburn, Bill Manhire, James K Baxter and Katherine Mansfield. With almost 800 pages of poems, it’s a joy to open at random. Just now I picked it up to write about it and it fell open at Gwen Harwood. I read ‘Prize-Giving’ and closed the book. I picked it up again:  Tony Harrison (‘The Mother of the Muses’).  The third time, it gave me ‘The Steeple-Jack’ by Marianne Moore. You can’t really go wrong.

Sue Wootton is a Dunedin poet. Her latest venture is Out of Shape, a letterpress collaboration with Caren Florance of Ampersand Duck (Canberra). The exhibition of framed poems from this unbound book is on until July 4th at The Fix cafe in Frederick Street, Dunedin.  See website for details.

Ros Ali: It’s too hard to choose favourite books of poetry. Like trying to rank best friends. So I’ll cheat a little and tell you about two books I’ve dipped into the most over the last few months, to help inspire my students to enter ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them.’

Essential Poems from the Staying Alive Trilogy, edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books, 2012) is a ‘portable travel companion’ housing numbers of my favourite poems from the popular UK Staying Alive, Being Alive and Being Human anthologies

Take Naomi Shihab Nye’s, “Kindness”, for example. I give this poem to all my students at the beginning of the year, hoping they, too, will look to it in difficult times and find:

… it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

it is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.


Another small and important book, an essential reader in the classroom, is Why Poetry Matters by Jay Parini (Yale University Press, 2008).

Here, we are eased backwards and forwards in ‘conversation with the traditions,’ as Parini discusses the craft and experience of poets from Ancient Greece to modernist America. Of most significance, perhaps, for young people finding their identity in the world and on the page, Parini deals with poetic voice, which he perceives as ‘offer[ing] an antidote to the bludgeoning loud voices of mass culture … thus staking a claim for what used to be called the individual soul.’

Parini observes that poetry’s power and transcendence are internal. Poetry ‘doesn’t usually send masses into the streets to protest a war or petition for economic justice. It works in quieter ways, shaping the interior space of readers, adding a range of subtlety to their thoughts, complicating the world for them.’

I love that Parini gently nudges us to conclude that yes, poetry matters. It matters profoundly. Poetry allows, among other things, insight into the ‘substance of our lives…to see ourselves freshly and keenly.’

Ros Ali teaches English and runs a Writing Programme at St Cuthbert’s College. She also works with  Jo Emeney in the  Young Writers’ Programme, of the Michael King Writers Centre, offering writing workshops  for senior secondary students. Recently Ros and Jo ran series of student workshops  for New Kiwi Voices, sponsored by the Albert-Eden Local Board.


Sam Sampson:

Stunning debut of the repairing of a life, Leigh Davis (Otago University Press, 2010)

‘The only joy of poetry is the trance of language. All the rest is sentiment’

(Leigh Davis, Sunday Star Times, July 25, 2010)

The late Leigh Davis wrote this book after a major operation to remove a brain tumour. It charts not just the resurrection of language, but also the metamorphosis of language. Emerging from the chaos of trauma, the book takes us on a journey, the mapping of a new voice…the re-emergence of an old voice…the distillation of a polyphonic voice. Visually the introductory notebook pages ( Simple / Broken / Beautiful) preserve (collect, if you will) a sense of origins, contexts, which the new composition will never quite obscure.

As a composition it is authentic in its format of fourteen-line semi-autobiographical utterances. The body will die, but the language is an embodied presence. To progress we must surrender to such a presence and be comforted by incoherence. Delivered in almost meditative flashbacks we feel the bumps and joins (of Davis’s favourite texts) trace the surface of the poem, and feel where one piece of language meets another – where texture and temperature change.

The proem, or ars poetica that begins the book is both elusive and revelatory: I want to reflect what I live with, to extract representation’s / subtle body in even the most intimate moments.

By the Bias of Sound Selected Poems: 1974 – 1994, Gustaf Sobin (Talisman House, 1995)

When I first encountered Gustaf Sobin on the Shearsman Press website, I was so moved by his clarity of vision that I used a fragment as an epigraph for my first book (wanting to say / wanting to / hear/ what it is that / I wanted to say), and when he died in 2005, dedicated a poem to him in my new book. Sobin was an expatriate American poet who spent most of his adult life in France, moving to a small hillside village in Provence, near the home of Rene´Char, whom he admired greatly. His syntax is to break the line, the word, and embody language, such that it is never inert. Nouns become verbs, the inanimate becomes animate with each unit of breath. As Heidegger’s investigation into ‘Being’ (Dasein), Sobin’s poetry attempts to strip away artifice and provide a musical scaffolding for the thought-speech continuum. One of my all time favourite poems is Sobin’s ars poetica: ‘The Earth As Air: An Ars Poetica’.

An Elemental Thing, Eliot Weinberger (New Directions, 2007)

Reading Weinberger was like turning a multifarious kaleidoscope that throws up new angles with each viewing. Thirty-five prose fragments / essays (including the Preface) where the only rule is that the information is verifiable. It reminded me of my early studies in ethnomusicology and the discoveries of ethnomusicologist William P. Malm’s – Music Cultures of the Pacific. The Near East and Asia – I returned to as an attentive explorer. As with Malm’s investigations, Weinberger’s poetic essays both narrate and articulate liminality inside and outside the frame of reference. Where does the text / key take us? Is the music even dictated by a key? As a form, does the prose element restrain the voice or accelerate the vision?

Century Swept Brutal, Zach Savich (Black Ocean, 2013) and The Self Unstable, Elisa Gabbert (Black Ocean, 2013)

I’ve just received two volumes from the small U.S. press Black Ocean.

The first by Zach Savich stakes out a fractured quality of mind; unsettling, and responsive, it is at once being consciousof its own consciousness.

He writes: …Beauty being cause / not effect; not perceived / perceived with / Century-swept brutal, the new flags / dry on wires.

He sings: Asters in the sill / hat brim thin. / Willow’s the only green for a time. / I place in a small envelope. / I gauge the season by what is in my hands…

Elisa Gabbert’s prose blocks, build a frame for the self, the body framed, the language re-framed. An alphabetically arranged index at the end of the book throws the reader toward a referable lexicon of subject matter: If information has replaced the story, what will replay information?

From ‘Enjoyment Of Adversity: Love & Sex’:

Girls want to be beautiful. Boys want to be powerful. In other words, everyone wants to be powerful. The appeal of Houdini and lingerie is the same: The more straps you wear, the nakeder you look. The only natural responses to vulnerability are love and violence.

Sam Sampson‘s latest poetry collection, Halcyon Ghosts, was recently published by Auckland University Press. I will post an interview with Sam this week and review his collection shortly.

On the Shelf in June: Poetry picks by Vivienne Plumb, David Eggleton, Janet Charman and Steven Toussaint

Four poets offer poetry picks for June.

1. David Eggleton:

Top of my poetry book pile for the last few weeks, if you don’t include Under Milkwood and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, are three twenty-first century poetry collections by Americans. In Rae Armantrout‘s 2013 collection Just Saying (published by Wesleyan University Press in Conneticutt), she picks up everyday phrases with tweezers, inspects them under a magnifying glass, then eccentrically jams them together in jazz-type riffs, sparking an electric charge — but it’s all totally understated and elliptical. Blink, and you might miss how she puts the riffs together. She’s like a sly disciple of Emily Dickinson, but one living in an age which is not filled with birdsong, the creak of rocking chairs and the rustle of Bible pages being turned, but with media’s white noise, the infernal combustion engine, and endless iterations of the quotidian: ‘God is encrypting his account// This is taking forever!’

Edmund White, in a profile of Truman Capote entitled ‘Sweating Mirrors’ wrote: ‘The rich have the means to realise their whims and the effrontery to avow their desires.’ He could have been talking about the independently wealthy Frederick Seidel, whose 2013 collection Nice Weather (published by Faber and Faber) is partly a bouquet of rose-stem-barbed misanthropy and partly custard pie slapstick, where the target is often enough Seidel’s own lugubrious Buster Keaton-like physiognomy. At a time when the importance of being earnest has taken on the status of holy writ, Seidel prefers to substitute witty heresies for canonical babblings. Seidel’s a bit like a Baudelaire with money, not ground down by poverty but wafting aloft, a rhyming flaneur up on Cloud Nine, albeit a cloud raining human blood. Seidel has the morbid intimacy of a Jacobean playwright, much possessed by death.

The third collection, Endpoint and other poems, by John Updike (Hamish Hamilton, 2009) with its elegies, its requiems, its poems on the death of a computer, on a lunar eclipse, on surgical operations and on last trips to favourite haunts is also obsessed by mortality, but then it was mostly written when the poet knew he was dying.  ‘The poet is the emissary to childhood and all things lost’, to quote Updike’s friend, the novelist Carol Joyce Oates, and Updike was that: a great celebrant of his own childhood, which he accomplished through memory and the power and precision of his language. In his last book of poems the poignancy effect is doubled as he stares back from the clifftop vantage point of a terminal illness. The particular wonder of Updike, essentially a conservative in the American grain, is his dexterity and his grasp: in his travel poems he spins the globe like a basketball in the palm of his hand, slam-dunk style.

David Eggleton is currently editor of Landfall and Landfall Review Online. His seventh poetry collection is forthcoming from Otago University Press.


2. Vivienne Plumb:

I am living down in Christchurch at present while I hold the 2014 Ursula Bethell writer-in-residence position at University of Canterbury. So, I’ve been reading work by lots of South Island poets. I have particularly enjoyed Bernadette Hall’s Life & Customs (Victoria University Press, 2013). It has a most attractive pale mint green cover and I enjoyed the small interesting moments that are clarified and defined within these poems.

The Bond of Time (Canterbury University Press, 2014) is an epic love poem reprinted by the University of Canterbury Press and just launched a few weeks back. This epic was written by John Pule (writer in residence at University of Canterbury in 2013) many years ago, when he was only twenty-one years old. It is lush, romantic, and thick with language, and this work, by one of New Zealand’s most fascinating Pacific writers, is well worth obtaining.

Vivienne Plumb holds the current Writer’s Residency at the University of Canterbury.


3. Janet Charman:

The Blue Coat, Elizabeth Smither (Auckland University Press, 2013) This collection puts to me certain things I don’t like. Organised religion for one. Death. Into the crafted fabric of her poems Smither weaves the flaws that, as the ‘Narnia’ clothing label admonished in the 70’s, ‘are a unique part of the character of the garment.’


Purity depends on them and glass

the length of bodies with saints enclosed

or fables of shepherds and lambs.


Those spitting hissing gargoyles of Notre Dame

how, when you look up, they have spit ready

in their taut-muscled cheeks and drawn-back jaws


how they love to undo––in exact proportions ––

all the good you thought you had accrued

by lighting candles for all your family

The conspicuous awkwardness produced in Smither’s poems by her polite interrogations of patriarchy, the transgressiveness of her discipleship of women, her rowdy wake for the bereft friends of Maxine Kumin, these got me to buy The Blue Coat––flaws and all.

Cloudboy, Siobhan Harvey (Otago University Press, 2014) These poems put me in an awkward position too. Making me uncomfortably aware of my former lives as educator and health professional, someone looking uncomprehendingly at the mother of a tricky child. Harvey’s shrewd gaze makes it possible for the reader to keep their aerial views, but not at the expense of taking an internal look. She invites me to stand beside ‘Cloudboy’ and ‘Cloudmother’. Of course I am now a Cloudmother too.

From ‘Cloudmother’: ‘When a child starts school, so too the parents:/this is a truth Cloudmother can’t escape.’

The “other” question at which these tightly constructed poems subtextually puzzle, is not just how to live in the land of the long white cloud but how to be alive here. From ‘A Migrant Teacher Considers Clouds’: ‘his eyes hungry for belonging/in the harsh light above/two jigsaw pieces of land,’.

Heartland, Michele Leggott  (Auckland University Press, 2014) These poems ramble discursively through the memories of uncles, off the track, down to hidden beaches or into shops where they have things for sale you didn’t expect and suddenly, viscerally don’t want, because you have to get out.

From ‘Olive’:

‘the day of the explosion they postpone

her arrival     two men walk out and agony

begins its clinch   we crouch by the radio

unable to help     thinking they could all be dead

‘Olive’ is the name of Leggott’s Seeing Eye dog. Leggott’s poems, as ever, walk the pristine beaches of sensual L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Weird words and images have always washed into view in her work but may or may not have acquired comprehensibility. May or may not have halted progress towards the sublime. But something here has changed. From here on, the poet tells us, the crap on the beaches is not going to be washed away and so it’s time to stop and recognize exactly how it got there. Leggott cares harrowingly less in Heartland about the reader’s enjoyment and more about what she can see.

Janet Charman is an Auckland poet.


4. Steven Toussaint:

The Odour of Sanctity by Amy Brown (Victoria University Press, 2013) This is one of the most original, audacious, and virtuosic books of New Zealand poetry I have ever encountered. The book, a contemporary epic, follows the process of canonisation ordained by the Roman Catholic Church. Brown’s proposed candidates for sainthood are an eclectic bunch, to say the least; we find the testament of theologian Augustine of Hippo next to petitions on behalf of Neutral Milk Hotel frontman and recluse, Jeff Mangum. Much of this book’s charm is due to its intricate formal dynamics. Its discrete sequence of ‘cantos’ relate to one another in the sifting ratios of a sestina. Brown’s appropriation of the medieval form brings to mind Ezra Pound’s admiring words about the sestinas of Arnaut Daniel, the form’s inventor: “like a thin sheet of flame folding and infolding upon itself.” Therein, Brown navigates beautifully through a number of distinct prosodic and stanzaic shapes, corresponding to the numerous voices that populate this beatific myth. My favourite sections were those charting 19th century poet Christina Rossetti’s ascension to holiness. These lines are a latticework of lyrical filigree, assonant and dazzling:


What we feel for each other

must be sisterly, brotherly—

human not holy, the only


love I can know. 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—no bills or illness or

scissors or competitions. No

temptations or hatreds—I am

neither clear nor concise!—


no apologies or slights. No

false modesty or guilty eyes.

We might be a flock of swallows—

a summer of swallows or a



of nightingales.

In paradise

our prey would not exist.


Brown’s Odour is a broad church; it echoes with both the old lore and the new, but never turns a deaf ear to the subterranean beat—the aural foundation of oral tradition.

Limbs of the Apple Tree Never Die by Joel Felix (Verge Books, 2013) I couldn’t believe, upon finishing, that this was a debut collection. Felix crafts capacious long poems, short lyrics as dense as ironwood, and prose ‘field books’ with equal mastery, pathos, and insight. What’s more, the political and philosophical questions at the heart of this work couldn’t have higher stakes. In these poems, Felix seeks to understand the legacy of the American civil rights struggles of the 20th and 21st centuries through ancient lenses, specifically Lucan and Virgil’s accounts of the Roman civil war. The title poem is a triumph. Starting with a line from Virgil’s Georgics, the poem spindles out into a serious meditation on everyday violence. Our thraldom, this disinherited song:


—No one taught the apple how to die

and none were taught the song

of self-assembly,


it sprang from the disemboweled shell

of a turtle the baby Hermes hollowed

and strung


and how the lopped tongue danced

from its beak

to the guitar of its body

In the book’s Afterword, Felix confronts one of the primary ethical dilemmas of our time: “Should I accept that any form of poetry fails as revolutionary action (as I do), I cannot relinquish the claim that the art should remain responsive and responsible to the common suffering of culture.” It is refreshing to encounter a poet who accommodates this critical imperative in such an aesthetically rich and inventive way.

Bravura Cool by Jane Lewty (1913 Press, 2012) Another startling first book. Lewty’s poems seed the cloudy borderlands between science and arcana. This book seems to emerge out of what Charles Olson called a ‘saturation job,’ the kind of depth immersion in a particular body of knowledge that yields a singular poetic sensibility. And Lewty is indisputably singular. The discourses of sound studies and mineralogy are just two of the many esoteric lexica that texture these alien poems. But what’s truly remarkable is the way that Lewty’s curiosity with regard to these subjects comes through so palpably as a core of vulnerability, an absolutely personal voice. So we find in “Radioséance,” the book’s staticky backbone:


What bulk can we ascribe to signals? Are they small large long fluid straight circular


a fix a star-map, just an old code.





Give a meaning.       You see.



Aboulia is the loss of will, or the will to. Through a limestone wall, will it place on me a wind


will I hear you? Do I believe you?


I think we are so used to encountering the ‘personal’ in poems as address, or confession, or petition, that we might overlook the private marvel of a mind being fascinated. Lewty’s are the kind of poems I love most; engaged whole-heartedly in the pursuit of an idiosyncratic learning, the poet nevertheless makes a space for the reader, implicates the reader in the initiation. The searching and perspicacious self that oscillates through these poems is the best and only guide to the strange world she thought up.

 Steven Toussaint is currently enrolled as a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Modern Letters. His chapbook, Fiddlehead, was launched by Compound Press earlier this year. See my comments here.








On the Shelf: May picks by Tina Makereti, Helen Rickerby, Bernadette Hall, Damien Wilkins


1. Tina Makereti:


Three Collections

I’m putting together the course reader for my Victoria University course, Te Hiringa a Tuhi – Māori & Pasifika Creative Writing Workshop, so I’ve been reading a fair bit of poetry, as well as non-fiction and fiction. Here are three that are particularly interesting me at the moment (I seem to be only part way through everything!)

1. Tapa Talk – Serie Barford (Huia Publishers, 2007)

There is something wonderfully rich in this exploration of tapa or siapo. I also find Samoan / Pasifika concepts of va powerful territory for creativity. This excerpt is a good example:


on Sunday the priest said teu le va

make presentable the distance

between you and the other


there’s no such thing as empty space

just distances between things


made meaningful by fine lines

connecting designs and beings

in the seen and unseen worlds


distances can be shortened

made intimate or dangerous


or lengthened

until the connection weakens

finally withers away […]



2. Shout Ha! To The Sky – Robert Sullivan (Salt Publishing, 2010)

I’m much more familiar with Star Waka, but have always wanted to look at this. It is full of Sullivan’s astute, witty, wry yet sensitive approaches to vast topics that range from academic and political to intimate. I often find his books, though poetry, are suited to being read beginning to end like a novel, and that some of the poems might be read almost like personal essays (which for me makes them even more enjoyable). This collection is full of references to books, histories and writers, and Sullivan’s trademark sharp humour:

15 Review

When I was a lot younger I was reviewed by someone

who said that I should stop paying homage to other writers—


you know what? I listened to that reviewer so for a long time

I wouldn’t pay my respects—I’d pretend I was writing in a vacuum,


That there was no history of reading inside me, that everything

Was original breath unaffected by the airs and graces of my elders […]


3. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion – Kei Miller (Carcanet Press, 2014)

This collection by a Jamaican writer is very specific yet speaks universally, as does his other writing. I particularly like the way he calls the idea of knowing into question by having two speakers in this collection, the Mapmaker and Rastaman, who question each others’ reality. Both points of view are simultaneously true and not-completely-true. Seeing this poet in performance is also a moving experience.


Tina Makereti’s debut novel, Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, was published recently by Random House. I have so much to say about this glorious book, I am going to bend my rules and review it on Poetry Shelf as soon as possible!


2. Damien Wilkins:



I’d like to cheat on the brief slightly and recommend a critical work which I think poets should read: Women, The New York School, and Other True Abstractions by Maggie Nelson (University of Iowa Press, 2007). I tell my PhD students about this one because it’s a model of critical prose – accessible and enjoyable without stinting on knotty theoretical issues. With a focus on New York poets from the 1960s and beyond, including Barbara Guest, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley and Eileen Myles, as well as the blokes (Schuyler, O’Hara, Ashbery), the book offers engrossing readings of individual works but also a thrilling argument for rethinking what poetry is and does. One of Nelson’s triumphs is to revise the division between representation and abstraction in literature. ‘Abolishing partitions’ is how she describes it. Hers is a generous, capacious mind. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth also blurbs it, so this book is really cool too.

Damien Wilkins is Director of Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters. He will introduce rehearsed readings from his novel, Max Gate, by five actors (directed by Murray Lynch) at the Auckland Writers Festival (Friday May 16th, Lower NZ, Aotea Centre). He has several new poems in the latest issue of Sport.



3. Helen Rickerby:


Bird Murder, Stefanie Lash (Mākaro Press, 2014) This debut collection was published in a set of three, along with my own Cinema and Michael Harlow’s Heart Absolutely I Can. I got to read it before it went to print, and was blown away by its originality and accomplishment – I’ve never read anything quite like it. It’s a gothic murder mystery set in the not-quite fictional West Coast town of Tusk, and features taxidermy, extinct birds, a cast of characters with extraordinary hair-colours and beautiful poetry. It manages to be, by turns, grim, funny, surreal, magical and historically accurate, but not all at the same time.

The Odour of Sanctity, by Amy Brown (VUP, 2013) This is still a work in progress for me – it’s a long book, but I’m enjoying it. It’s so ambitious – this isn’t just a book-length poem sequence – it’s a very-long-book-length poem sequence about six candidates for sainthood, from Aurelius Augustine to Jeff Mangum of the band Neutral Milk Hotel. The form and tone change with each section, each candidate. So far my favourite is the beautiful and surreal first, ‘The breakdown of the time machine’, about, and in the voice of, Jeff Mangum.

Bloodclot, by Tusiata Avia (VUP, 2009) I’m organising a conference on biographical poetry with Anna Jackson and Angelina Sbroma, and Anna had mentioned this automythographical book as one that would be interesting for someone to talk about at the conference. I don’t know quite how it is that I hadn’t read it before, but I’ve rectified that now. Like the two previous books I’ve mentioned, it has an overall narrative – in this case it’s about Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war, who is also a ‘half-caste girl from Christchurch’.

Poems, by Anne Michaels (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000) This is actually three books in one: The Weight of Oranges (1986), Miner’s Pond (1991) and Skin Divers (1999). Michaels is a Canadian poet who is probably best known for her novel Fugitive Pieces (which I have to confess I have never read because I think it will be quite hard going, emotionally). I first read this book almost a decade ago, and I sought it out again because of the aforementioned conference, because I remembered being struck by biographical poems in here, particularly one about expressionist artist Paula Modersohn-Becker and another about astronomer Johannes Kepler. When I first read it, I remembered it being hard-going poetry, and it’s true that it’s rather serious, but it seems much lighter to me now, and just beautiful. It’s full of beautiful images and affecting and true lines: ‘desire/clinging like windy paper to legs’, ‘Only love sees the familiar for the first time’, ‘I wanted badly that truth be a single thing’. I’ve been reading the library’s copy, but I know I have to own this now – these are poems I’ll want to return to.


Helen Rickerby runs Seraph Press. Her most recent poetry collection, Cinema, was published by Mākaro Press. See my review here.


4. Bernadette Hall:

cov-wildparty   cov-wildparty   cov-wildparty   cov-wildparty

‘Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still,

And she danced twice a day in vaudaville.’

These are the opening lines of ‘The Wild Party’, a lost classic by Joseph Moncure March (1928). Reprinted, uncensored, with drawings by Art Spiegelman (1994). It came my way, 111 pages of ‘hard-boiled, jazz-age tragedy told in syncopated rhyming couplets’, when I was in Iowa in 1997. It sizzles, it’s of its time, it could be a bit of a shock today. I should be ashamed to be so fond.

Bernadette Hall’s current project is ‘Maukatere: floating mountain’ – an experimental text with artwork by the Wellington poet/artist, Rachel O’Neill. An extract appears in the latest edition of Landfall.


On the Shelf: A Monthly Poetry List

This is the first of a regular feature on NZ Poetry Shelf. I cribbed the idea from The Poetry Foundation (which I follow on Twitter). Each month I will invite a handful of NZ poets and poetry fans to share a handful of poetry books they are currently reading and loving. Where it is relevant, I will flag any new venture, project, award, book, event or news associated with them.


First up this month is Emma Neale, a Dunedin poet and novelist that currently holds the University of Otago Wallace Residency at the Pah Homestead. She will be reading at an event at the homestead on March 20th.  Details here.

Three poetry books I have on the go:
1. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth  by Warsan Shire (London: Flipped Eye, 2011). Shire is a poet born in Kenya to Somalian parents, who now lives in London. This collection works less through the music of the language and the dramatic potential of the line break than it does through a strong sense of narrative, and sexual and political frankness. Her real strength, it seems to me from this book, is in the prose poem. It confronts the trauma of civil war, diaspora, the conflicting demands of Islam and secularism, traditional and contemporary views of women’s sexuality. The men are almost uniformly brutal; the women assert themselves mainly through sexual defiance: there are deeply troubling themes here, but Shire’s gifts for sensuous imagery and the vividness with which she captures the shock and dislocation of war’s effects, particularly on women and children, is unforgettable. It’s direct and disturbing; leaves you with a contrail of sadness over the ongoing shame and trauma of witnessing family members complicit in nationalised violence.
2. The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton (New York: New Directions, 2006.) Quiet, lyrical, pared back contemplations of the relationship between humans and landscape, and pushing on the borderlands between the subconscious and conscious mind. I love his explorations of the dreamworld, the half-waking state, and moments of silence and suspension when the social word seems to have been softened, turned down, by dusk and the colder seasons.

3. New Collected Poems by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Manchester: Carcanet 2008.) Not the New Zealand educationalist, Sylvia Ashton Warner, but the English author, who lived from 1893-1978, and who was in a relationship with another woman for about 40 years. I’ve just started this, and it’s a borrowed copy, recommended by friend and academic Pete Swaab, but already I’m reminded of Robin Hyde and the way she seems to move between Georgian and modernist aspects of style; and I’m amazed at how dexterous she is with very simple rhymes; and at the range of characters within her poems. She seems to fuse all the traditional aspects of prosody with a good sense of psychological narrative.


Second is Ian Wedde, our previous Poet Laureate:

1. Michael Hofmann‘s great Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology (Farrar, Straus and Giraux, 2005). Ends with the laconic Jan Wagner (b. 1971) and begins with the equally astringent Else Lasker-Schuler (umlaut u) (b. 1869). In between, of course, Rilke et al, not always so terse.

2. Am in pursuit of my remote nineteenth century relative Johannes Wedde‘s long poem in praise of the Paris Commune of 1871. Johannes (b. 1843) was a German Socialist Workers Party member, newspaper editor, and scourge of Bismark, who corresponded with Engels in London in the 1880s. The poem may not be much good but I’m enjoying looking for it.


Thirdly Marty Smith whose debut collection, Horse with Hat, was recently launched by Victoria University Press. I will review this book shortly.

1. I love D. A. Powell’s  Cocktails  (and Tea and Lunch ) because I can go for a wander through the New York of cocktail bars, and cinemas and The Gospels. The poems are really horrifying and funny and sad. They’re fragmentary, and there’s a breathless quality, a breath-taking stop-start set of startling images that pull you through each poem,

when you touch down upon this earth/
little reindeers
hoofing murderously at the gray slate roof/
I lie beneath
dearest father xmas: will you bring me another/
17 years


2. Anne Carson’s If not, Winter   Fragments of Sappho  is always in the back of my mind, for the sheer brilliant power of the lining. The original fragments are reproduced on the left of each page, with Carson’s translations on the right, so you can see how she’s used brackets and space to illuminate the fragments that are present, lifting them out of profound absence into startling beauty.


Finally Martin Edmond on what he loved about editing the new Alan Brunton anthology:

Beyond the Ohlala Mountains Alan Brunton; eds. Michele Leggott & Martin Edmond (Titus Books, March 2014). The pleasure for me is in seeing such a handsome presentation of a selection of poems from a corpus I have been speaking in my head all my adult life; and that these resonant, intelligent, strange and resolutely engagé poems are now available for anyone to read.