Tag Archives: poetry picks

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.