Tag Archives: Poetry Shelf review

Poetry Shelf: Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2022

Poetry New Zealand Yearbook is now edited by Tracey Slaughter, supported by the University of Waikato and published by Massey University Press. The latest issue continues to showcase poetry, essays, reviews and a feature poet. It also runs an annual poetry competition for secondary students.

Tracey Slaughter’s introduction sidesteps the traditional literary journal’s editorial ‘opening’ and riffs on the theme of breakage. I adore it! The end of a line provides infinite fascinations: either as a rest stop or an open valve, but Tracey draws us to the way the line itself may be punctured with white space. It is not just the visual hit, prolonged breath or a shift in rhythm, it’s ‘Switch your senses on’. Tracey’s editorial is an invigorating piece on reading and writing poetry. It’s a rush to the senses, and inspired me to to create my second Paragraph Room (coming up soon!).

As an electrified proposition on reading poetry, it also applies to our entry into Poetry New Zealand 2022:

‘Bring it all. Waste nothing. Use everything you are to open the poems in this book.’

Celebration time: there is a succulent and diverse wave of young poets in Aotearoa New Zealand. You meet them on Starling, on social media, in the IIML secondary school poetry competition, and through publishers such as We Are Babies. Holding an annual competition for secondary school students in Aotearoa, PNZYB adds to the increased visibility of emerging voices.

The four First Prize winners (from Y11 to Y13) are nestled in the alphabetical order of the contributors. Good to see them sit alongside the selected poets rather than as a competition adjunct. Unlike most writing competitions, there is no judge’s report. Were there common themes, styles? Leanings towards politics or the personal or both? What the four published poems underline is these new writers are an unmissable destination. You get heart, you get garden-fresh, breathtaking music, thunderbolt surprise, word nimbleness. The names to watch: Ocean Jade, Caitlin Jenkins, Sarah-Kate Simons and Jade Wilson. I am lost for words … these poets are so darn good.

get some air. the haze of summer is ripe and all i could ever want
is to rest my head into its shoulder, rendered to its shallow fever
until i can find a warmth to keep safe. for now,
my head is tilted north through your slack-jawed window
with patient wind threading into my skin

Ocean Jade from ‘Route Back Home’

when the world wants our faces to kiss the concrete
we’ll still be safe in the arms of papatūānuku
cause when things go south —
we’ll deal with them like south —
with the love our roots nourish us in …
bronze skin mona lisa

Caitlin Jenkins from ‘South’

Wes Lee is the featured poet. Her most recent collection is By the Lapels (Steele Roberts, 2019). She was a finalist for the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize (2018) and was awarded the Poetry New Zealand Prize the following year. Tracey provides two terrific paragraphs as entry points into both the poems and an interview she has with Wes. Wes’s poems leave her in awe: ‘accosted, exhilarated, struck’. Tracey writes: ‘The scenes glimpsed within a Wes Lee poem are often low-key, incidental, domestic, yet under the surreal pressure of the poet’s eye the ordinary detonates and homely details seethe and seize.’ Indeed. The poems walk on a precarious edge of living. They scratch and lash, they tilt you as read. You body surf on currents of memory, trauma, the personal.

A highlight for me is reading the essay of poet and journalist, Maryana Garcia’s ‘A Clearer Dawning”. Maryana writes of being selected for the AUP antholgy A Clear Dawn: New Asian Voices from Aotearoa New Zealand, and on standing in the wings about to read at the book launch at the Auckland Writers Festival. The essay is sorting buttons, reciting vowels and diphthongs, a moving ledger of plus and minuses in the family’s move to New Zealand several decades ago (bomb checks v Lola’s cloth cupboard, smog v the best mangoes in the world). It is self doubt as a poet. We should all have a folder marked ‘Dietritus’! It is the way memory is hooked when you least expect it (by the fabric feel of the anthology’s cover). More than anything, it is in keeping with A Clear Dawn‘s stated aim: that Asian poets, like all poets, write about anything in a thousand inspiring ways.

I stared at my poetry folder, asked myself which poems I felt at home with. The answer was: none. Tabs closed. Tabs opened. I blinked again. Then I clicked on a folder I’d called, in a fit of creative frustration, Dietritus.

Maryana Garcia from ‘A Clearer Dawning’

Derek Schulz’s essay steps off from a brilliant Alice Oswald quotation (‘poetry is the great unsettler’) to opening windows on Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I kept arguing and agreeing with the essay which is far more satisfying than skim reading and moving onto the next page.

Sometimes you fall upon a piece of writing at exactly the right time. Sue Wootton’s extraordinary ‘This Damned Helplessness’ chimes so deeply when I am currently equating 2022 to climbing Mt Everest, when I am in training for a high risk adventure and not at all sure what views I will see. Caught in the gap between so many things. Sue considers climbing a first mountain and a second mountain, each with different views, and then perhaps imaginary mountains (Dream, Day, Night, Fact, fiction, Science, Culture, Body, Soul). More importantly, she traverses (connects with) how to exist, survive, flourish in the space between disparate things. Say Science and Culture. The first mountain view and the second mountain view. What is said and what is misheard. She uses her past experience as a physiotherapist to consider storytelling, gap navigation, treating pain, broken self narratives, bridges, patient involvement, re-composition. I am barely scratching the surface of this intricate tapestry of thought. It’s a satisfying neighbourhood of quotations and responses to other writers, physicians, thinkers, patients. Beautifully written, supremely thought provoking, it’s an empathetic plea to speak from both mountains. Yes, extraordinary, humble writing.

My issue of Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2022 is already well thumbed as I lily-pad hop the poems (one poem per poet) along with the continued solid devotion to reviewing poetry books published in Aotearoa. This is a journal I am drawing out over months not days. To savour and sidestoke in. There are unfamiliar names and recognisable favourites. Under Tracey’s inspired editorship, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook is something I look forward to. Rejuvenating. Rejuvenating. Rejuvenating.

take this night
quickly like a pill / the pull
of space cracking / ankle joints
from the stretch up
in its dark belly
gurgling acid starlight

Hebe Kearney from ‘night comes on’

she lay on the pavement
squinting at clouds
and never made out
my father roosting
in cranes and carillons
even her dress    pressed
with paintings of the domes
of Budapest  made
her giddy sun downing
giddy      this way
                               and that

Kerrin P. Sharpe from ‘the scaffolding of wings’

didn’t matter that our Chinese faces
spoke white/all of us knew the routineness
of string/mā má mǎ  mà/knotted our xīn
into snake bites/left our tongues parched/
dead nailed until the bell rang three.

Wen-Juenn Lee from ‘chinese class’

Massey University Press page
10 Questions with Tracey Slaughter

Tracey Slaughter teaches creative writing at the University of Waikato, where she edits the journals Mayhem and Poetry New Zealand Yearbook.

Poetry Shelf review: Janet Charman’s The Pistils

The Pistils Janet Charman, Otago University Press, 2022

little lapping waves
to inundate
the shoes of makers
whose texts
i’ve addressed
and assessed
in the dark inland towns
of my imagination
the large waves of the fire siren
call me out
in the middle of the night

from ‘welling’

I started reading Janet Charman’s poetry when I emerged from my poetry cocoon with Cookhouse, my debut collection, and she knocked my socks off. First up it was Janet’s musical ear: an elasticity with words, linguistic play, surprising syntax. And then, so essential when my academic research focused on women and writing, her feminist core. Not an adjunct, nor a side track, but an essential feminist core. When I walked across the university threshold onto Simmonds Street, with my PhD and carton of books, I walked out of the academy into life as a poet. And a hunger to immerse myself in an Aotearoa New Zealand context. To discover the women who had written before me, who were writing alongside me, and who would write ahead of me. Janet Charman was busting out of the men’s canon and opening up notions of ‘she’, ‘i’, ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘they’. The ink in her pen and her preferences were placed centre stage, whether in trousers or skirts, folding nappies or building houses.

Janet’s new collection The Pistils opens with a terrific sequence, ‘High days and holy days’. Twelve poems that mark holidays or significant occasions (Waitangi Day, Parihaka Day Guy Fawkes Night, Wahine Day, Matariki, Picnic Days). Each poem contributes to a life – within a sequence of panels. Bare bones. Ample white space. A miniature narrative of excavation. Remember when. Remember how. Remember why. The sequence opens scenes, moments, places – and we enter the collection grounded.

winds drain to the horizon
tides
lap below the wrought-iron railing

here
we are sheltered in the hollow of the year
the hollow of the day

blowflies
loll and bang the afternoon to a close
the windows

from ‘1. Northland Panels‘ from ‘high days and holy days’

Move into the heart of the book, and the mind leaps and bounds along the rhythm of the line. Exquisitely crafted. Scored. Composed. In ‘Mrs Valentine’s instructions’, the rhythm of revelation shapes memory. On the next page, in ‘hometime’, attention to the sound of the line is equally arresting. Memory is translated into music and image. It is a portrait of the child but it is also a portrait of the mother. In parings and traces. Surprising arrivals. It is religion and Freud, a mother lost in a novel, it is fingers worn to the bone, the news on the radio, family dinners, walking home. Life and death. It is home.

and the mother weighting at the top of the hill
her red roof tile her front windows
black blank shine
her white two-storeyed weatherboard authority of home time
—untangle the latch race the path
hunt through the house to find her where she sits
adrift in a novel
or conducting her day in some regimen of intellectual longing
with Freud and Jung in the sunroom
—on three sides light pulses in
Father Son and the Holy Ghost
summer on summer through glass the great gum nods

from ‘hometime’

Rhythm is so important. It renders Janet’s poetry fully charged, and accumulates life, detail, confession, insight, opinion, grief, reflection. It feels real, it feels personal, it feels political. The mother is a constant presence, in the shadows and in the light, a vital connection. Rhythm accommodates the feminist spotlight on life. The stamen and the pistil, the difficulty of childbirth and a baby in an incubator, a war memorial, waste management, Pakehā privilege, an aging body image, a breast removed, James K Baxter’s rape boast, literary criticism, sex, grief, having breakfast while watching John Campbell rather than listening to National Radio because your beloved has gone. It is the rhythm of mourning. Ah. So many layers.

i waited into the summer for my diagnosis
saw how a benign White Island
only became Whakaari
for the pakehā
after an eruption with deaths

from ‘bra dollars’

I speak of rhythm in such glowing terms but it is of course part of a sonic festival. Janet’s poetry strikes the ear (as Rebecca Hawke’s debut collection does). This leaning in to listen is rewarding: the leapfrogging alliteration, assonance, short lines, slightly longer lines, punctuating breath, free flowing currents. Again Janet’s agile music enhances my engagement with her roving subject matter. With the sharp edges and the necessary subterranean questions. How to live? How to live and love on planet Earth? How to speak against subjugation based on gender or skin colour? How to see your parents? How to go on when your beloved is no longer there? How to continue probing and resisting? How to be yourself? Ah. Such layerings.

Reading Pistil is exhilarating. I am loving this book because it is vulnerable and open, it is edgy and crafted, and because it shines a light on how it is for women. We still need that persistent light. We still need poetry that misbehaves as much as it makes music on the line. The poems call out and call for, stand out and stand for. It is a stunning collection.

Janet Charman is one of New Zealand’s sharpest and most subversive writers. In 2008 she won the Montana Book Award for Poetry for her sixth collection, Cold Snack. In 2009 she was a Visiting Fellow at the International Writers’ Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University. In 2014 she appeared as a Guest Reader at the Taipei International Poetry Forum. Her collection 仁 Surrender (2017, OUP) chronicles her writing residencies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is her ninth collection of poetry.

Otago University Press page

Interview: Janet Charman on Standing Room Only with Lynn Freeman Listen

Review: Sophie van Waardenberg for Academy of New Zealand Literature Read

Review: Chris Tse for Nine to Noon Listen

Poetry Shelf review: Brian Flaherty’s Plague Poems

‘Chewing the nails of just one hand, the right

Silence falling back on us

With all its weight of sky and stars.’

Plague Poems, Brian Flaherty, Little island Press, 2022

10.

Fingering the page of statistics in your pocket
You are still trying to find the right words
It’s not a matter of painting a black picture
It’s a matter of taking precautions
Even to express such simple emotions
Costs an enormous effort
Most of all you like a certain bell in the neighbourhood
That rings softly around five in the evening.

Rather than knit or bake sourdough, Brian Flaherty wrote a poem a day after Aotearoa went into its first lockdown, just before midnight on 25 March 2020. The next morning, he took Albert Camus’s The Plague (La Peste). He read five pages each day, and ‘used them to sample and shape a poem’ that echoed our pandemic situation, and that he emailed to a friend. Plague Poems represents the fifty poems he wrote. It is a slender, dark-covered book that sings out of dark and life, the unknown and the recognisable.

A reshaping, a sampling, a translation, a poetic transparency laid over our pandemic time. As I read the book in one slow sitting, entranced, captivated, the poetry forms a transparency over my own lockdown experience. Here and then, the empty city, the empty streets, the hijacked and reinvented daily routines, these poems like those days, offer new and surprising sustenance.

Brian slows down in the empty city, in Camus’s novel, and in his slowness of daily pace, observation is heightened. There are posters demanding hygiene, a droning radio, a glass of warm beer, people on balconies and people walking the boulevards. In the ambulation, whether physical, emotional, cerebral, the poet’s mind is adrift, collating and collecting. The poem is thinking with new eyes. It is contemplating the strange and the estranging. I am personally returned to my own drift through the house, up the country road, without anchor and then again with a different anchor. Reading the collection it feels like the objects on the mantelpiece of the mind were taking time to settle. They still are.

14.

To make the trains run again in our imagination
The only way to escape this unbearable holiday
To speak more particularly at last of lovers
Those one sees wandering at any time of the day
Subservient to the sun and the rain
Handed over to the whims of the heavens
To go back through the story
And examine its imperfections
It must be said that people are drinking a lot
You have the impression that cars
Have started to go round in circles.

Time is elongated, meaningless, endless, meaning rich, meaning astray, meaning hungry, questions compounding.

I adored reading this elegant suite of poems, with its silence, its epiphanies, its unexpected resonance, its sweet craft. I am returned to a time that was body-displacing off-real, like a film noir set, a dystopian novel from past or future, as we grappled to reshape our days, our relationship with today. Two years later, it feels altogether noisier, edgier, more divisive, less connected and less connecting. Brian’s poetry takes me back to a time where, against all odds, life felt precious, when we worked together to make it so. We walked through the empty city, observing, collating, harvesting, recognising, celebrating, and being alive to and for what matters. I love this precious book.

33.

After eleven, plunged into darkness
Under a moonlit sky
The town is like a monument
A necropolis in which disease and stone
Have finally silenced every voice
Night crouching in our hearts
The myths that are passed around
Black shape of a tree, the howl of a dog.

Brian Flaherty is a poet librarian. He is co-founder of the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre  with Michele Leggott, and was co-editor of the poetry journal Trout. Poems have appeared in Turbine, Best NZ Poems, Blackmail Press, Ika, Ka Mate Ka Ora, and Trout. Recordings of some of his poetry are at Six Pack Sound.

Little Island Press Plague Poems

Little Island Press Brian Flaherty

Poetry Shelf review: Janet Newman’s Unseasoned Campaigner

Unseasoned Campaigner, Janet Newman, Otago University Press, 2021

Poet Janet Newman lives at Koputaroa in Horowhenua, where she farms beef. Her debut collection, Unseasoned Campaigner, is nourished beyond description of scenic beauty to a deep love and engagement with the land and farming. Women writing the land is not without precedent. Ruth Dallas comes to mind initially. She spent time as a Herd Recording Officer during WWII and found cities restrictive and dull afterwards. When she was living in Dunedin in later years, writing enabled returns to her beloved rural settings. Janet dedicates several poems to her. The second poet that springs to mind is Marty Smith, whose rural background has featured in her poetry, and who is also unafraid of over and underlaying an idyllic landscape with the grit and reality of farming life.

Janet’s first section, ‘How now?’, places the reader one hundred percent in rural experience: managing livestock, a diarrhea-soaked calf that doesn’t make it, drenching, the slaughter house in graphic detail, blood and sweat. There are water restrictions, water anxiety, drought. A dead river. More dead stock. Horses led to shade and grass. Scenic routes and beauty spots are off the menu.

I applaud this revised view but it is the people who hold my attention to a significant degree. While farmers are currently under scrutiny for diverse reasons, particularly climate change, some are speaking out about how tough it is. Listening to RNZ National’s excellent Country Life, it is clear there is no hold-all definition for the contemporary farmer and their diverse practices. In the book’s middle and final sections, Janet also opens up what “farmer” means, and that adds significant and poignant layers to the first poems.

In the second section, ‘Tender’, Janet draws us to close to a father, and I am assuming her father. He was a complicated, multifaceted human being: a farmer, father, husband, war veteran. He was a man of few words and myriad actions, toil and more toil. He cursed war on television and kept a belt by the door. He is memory, because he has passed, and he fills the speaker with mourning. The poems are vividly detailed with the physicality of daily life, and it is through his presence farming is made prismatic, beyond stereotype. When I pivot on the word “tender”, I see the poems as an offering to both mother and father, to us as readers. I see too the tenderness in the care of animals, and tender as the sore spot that is parental absence, maternal and paternal memory.

His language is electric rhythm of pump and wire,
gush of couplets from the artesian bore,

a flighty heifer enjambed
with a low rail,

stanza of cloud over the back paddock
threatening rain,

the fuck, fuck, fuck
of a dead bull in the drain.

from ‘Man of few words’

The mother is an equally haunting presence with her preserves, her baking and her plums. She too is drawn close through a focus on the physical detail of everyday actions. She is mourned and, in dying first, is an unbearable hole in the father’s life. The parental poems scratch the surface of my skin. Preserving, for example, brings back my own pungent memories. And preserving is also the tool of the poet, poems are stored in sweet and salty brine, held out to be savoured by both poet and reader.

Preserving

Red plums give up
round plump bodies
when I cut out their stones.
I hear my mother’s long-ago voice:
‘Don’t overdo it.’ The boiling
and much else. In the photograph
she is smiling behind glass, my memory
of her steeped in absence. Now,
even that faithless call sounds sweet
as in preserving jars sour plums
surrender to sugar syrup.

The third section, “Ruahine”, moves and adjusts to loss. It also finds footing on scenic routes. In the final poems, the poet is out driving and absorbing the birds and trees, mesmerising hills, the land bereft of vegetation. The landscapes have widened further to carry farm practices, daily challenges, connections to the land and to making a living. But of course it is not as though the farmer is blind to beauty. The final cluster of poems become song, act as sweet refrain, where upon in each return to a view, the view shifts in nuance. Just like poetry. Just like the way life is nuanced and resists deadening dichotomies. ‘Beach’ catches the elusiveness of what we sometimes see and feel so exquisitely:

Some days the clouds disappear
on the drive to the coast

the way the things you wanted to say
evaporate when you get there.

Sentences float to the pencil-line horizon
between sky that is nothing but blue

and sea that is as blue as …
but words fail you,

smudge like fishing boats
in the distance without your binoculars

from ‘Beach’

Janet writes with poise, each line fluent in rhythm and accent, and in doing so achieves a collection that matches heart with sharp and bold eye. Her collection belongs alongside the very best of Marty Smith and Ruth Dallas, a fine addition to how we write the land, whoever and wherever we are.

Janet Newman was born in Levin. She won the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Competition, the 2017 Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems and was a runner-up in the 2019 Kathleen Grattan Awards. Her essays about the sonnets of Michele Leggott and the ecopoetry of Dinah Hawken won the Journal of New Zealand Literature Prize for New Zealand Literary Studies in 2014 and 2016. She has worked as a journalist in New Zealand and Australia, and a bicycle courier in London. She has three adult children and lives with her partner at Koputaroa in Horowhenua, where she farms beef cattle.

Otago University Press page

Review: Siobhan Harvey for The NZ Herald

Interview: Standing Room Only, RNZ

Feature: Koputaroa farmer and poet Janet Newman writes thesis on ecopoetry

Interview: Janet Newman discusses ecopoetry, RNZ

Interview: The Big Idea

Poetry Shelf review: Serie Barford’s Sleeping with Stones

Sleeping with Stones, Serie Barford, Anahera Press, 2021

come my love

follow me down the mountain
through the desert
across the ocean to Piula

fish will lomilomi our tears
into crystalline water

I will kiss you better

 

from ‘Piula blue’

 

Serie Barford’s new collection Sleeping with Stones is an exquisite testimony to life and love. The poems are both odes and eulogies, because at the beating heart of the collection is the man to whom the book is dedicated. He was the poet’s beloved. The opening poem shows us a scene of joyful presence alongside a scene of terrible absence. I am inferring, as I read, that the poet’s beloved was pulled over a hard-to fathom edge. The poem suggests to me the collection will weave here and not-here, pain and joy, and that the writing will draw the loved one close. And that is exactly what it does, and it is so very moving.

I am finding it hard to write this review, when the subject matter depends on such a delicate mesh of dark and light. Yet Serie’s book is a compelling work of beauty that you read in one sitting. I keep imagining the tidal build up of feelings, memories, experience, and here I am holding, let’s say falling, into a book of bittersweet economy. The unsaid is ripe with the spoken, and the spoken is poignant with the unsaid. The beloved comes and goes, and goes. There is the light-rich setting of scenes, of shared places (a fresh water pool on Upolu where they first met), and there is the dark-shadowed pangs of regret. How to hold someone closer to keep them safe? How to be near the grief stricken? How to write grief and how to write love? All these questions and more rise to the surface.

Other things find their way into the weaving. The poet is having mammograms, buys a frock in her beloved’s favourite colour, uses traditional healing foods (turmeric and kawakawa leaves), faces institutional racism, mows the lawn, stands by the pōhutukawa they planted together. All these daily activities and challenges, nestling into the grief and the recollecting, are placed within the four seasons of a year. The seasons indicate the passing of time, the harvest and the plantings, yet also indicate the way life is shaped into so many stages, compartments or loose-bordered arrangements.

The poems sit in generous space on the page, using an open rather tight font. The openness gives the pain and the celebration breathing room. Feeling and thinking room. Which is exactly what I want to do for you. I want to open the book and then let you pick it up and fall into its beauty, its hope, its connections.

your fine voice lies buried
on the other side of the world

how you loved our garden

pese mai
sing to me

from ‘Sing to me’

Serie Barford was born in Aotearoa to a German-Samoan mother and a Pālagi father, and grew up in West Auckland. She has published poems online and in journals, along with four previous collections of poetry. In 2011 she was awarded the Seresin Landfall Writer’s Residency and in 2018 the Pasifika Residency at the Michael King Writers’ Centre. Serie promoted her collections Tapa Talk and Entangled Islands at the 2019 International Arsenal Book Festival in Kiev. Sleeping With Stones was launched during Matariki, 2021.

Anahera page
Poetry Shelf: Serie reads from Sleeping with Stones
Poem on Poetry Shelf: ‘The midwife and the cello’
RNZ Standing Room Only interview
Kete Books: Grace Iwashita-Taylor review

Poetry Shelf Eight Poets, Eight Sentences: Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Possibilities

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, Chen Chen, Boa Editions, 2017

I am a gay sipper, & my mother has placed what’s left of her hope on my brothers.

She wants them to gulp up the world, spit out solid degrees, responsible
              grandchildren to gobble.

They will be better than mangoes, my brothers.

Though I have trouble imagining what that could be.

Flying mangoes, perhaps. Flying mango-tomato hybrids. beautiful sons.

 

from ‘Self-Portrait As So Much Potential’

Each poem is a list of further possibilities that stretch out with such word beauty to embrace life. Love sadness mother lover constellations emigration wonder kissing winter grandmother song. There is sublime melody in the story and there is sublime story in the song. Picture a footpath incandescent after rainfall and the goosebump tattoo on your skin is what you get as you read. Lists appear; like miniature self portraits, like slow-release puffs of life, suprising, complex, stingingly real. You cannot imbibe Chen’s poems without imbibing word joy. Poetry as a meditation device, contemplation. Luminous.

I want to say, No, it’s completely different, which in many ways it is, but really
I’m remembering what a writer friend once said to me, All you write about
is being gay or Chinese—
how I can’t get over that, & wonder if it’s true,

if everything I write is in some way an immigrant narrative or another
coming out story. I recall a recent poem, featuring fishmongers in Seattle,
& that makes me happy—clearly one that isn’t about being gay or Chinese.

But then I remember a significant number of Chinese immigrants
live in Seattle & how I found several of the Pike Place fishmongers
attractive when I visited, so I guess that poem’s about being gay

& Chinese, too. So I say to my friend, I’m not sure, & keep eating
the popcorn. Thank god we chose the “family size” bag. Can’t stop
the greasy handfuls, noisy mouthfuls. Can’t eat popcorn quietly.

 

from ‘Poem in Noisy Mouthfuls’

 

Chen Chen is a poet and essayist interested in Asian American histories and futures, family (bio and found), queer friendship, multilingualism, hybrid texts, humor, and pop culture. His work has appeared in two chapbooks and in such publications as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Best of the Net, and The Best American Poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from Kundiman, the Saltonstall Foundation, and Lambda Literary. He earned his BA at Hampshire College and his MFA at Syracuse University. He lives in Lubbock, Texas, where he is pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. His second book of poems, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, is forthcoming from BOA Editions in Sept. 2022. His first book of essays, In Cahoots with the Rabbit God, is forthcoming from Noemi Press in late 2023.

Chen Chen’s website

Boa editions page

Winner of the A. POULIN, JR. POETRY PRIZE
Winner of the GLCA New Writers Award
Winner of the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry
Longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry
Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry
A Barabara Gittings Literature Award Honor Book

Poetry Shelf review: Sam Duckor-Jones’s Party Legend

Party Legend, Sam Duckor-Jones, Victoria University Press, 2021

Dedications

 

To Anita: complete with scissors and buttons
For Donovan: a lesson
To Christopher: humming a little tune
For Neil: we tried
To Jack: a pasture of hens
For my grandfather: the standard question
For Amy: empty nutshells
To Janet: harder than quartz

 

Sam Duckor-Jones

 

Some poetry books offer a sweet flowing current, other books twist and spin with connections, disconnections, changing hues. I love both. I love a fluency of voice, and I love it when voice cracks and reforms afresh. Sam Duckor-Jones’s second collection, Party Legend, is utterly inventive as it redirects the current, swaps over form, upholds fluency, surprises you at each turn of the page.

First love: the sequence of fascinating epigraphs that hold the collection together. I am reminded of a leaf skeleton. Look though the weathered mesh and you enter the realm of existence. This is an epigraph fest: Dorian Corey, Ken Bolton, Charles Darwin, Bernadette Bassenger, Karen Kamensek, Sophie Zawistowski, Dr Ruth-Anne Tibbets.

And then the beating heart of the book, a long sequence, ‘The Embryo Repeats’, a sequence to luxuriate in, a God alphabet of making and breaking and coveting, and a what-the-heck God, and God is everywhere, think anecdotes and silence and chuckles. An alphabet of arrivals. Desire dissatisfaction curiosity.

Switch currents, and the ‘Allemande’ poems transpose Bach’s lettered notes in the same order of his Cello Suites. Well yes. The lexicon is lush and elbowed. Expect fêtes and golden fools and dick. Genius.

Take time out for Sam’s refreshment of the found poem. Has to be the best salt-and-pepper cluster of found poems I have encountered in a long time. There is the ha! moment when you discover the poem is found language. The ha! moment at the revelation of source. The way you go back to the poem and it spins like enriched dough in your head and the poem rises and lifts, and is more than our immunity to the language we encounter daily. It is a trapdoor into reverie. Musing on existence. Little thoughts. Big thoughts. Sam borrows from the dedications and final lines in a book he found in a BnB (poem above), from emails about Talmund with his mother, an overheard conversation in a bookshop, RNZ reportage of the Kaikoura earthquake. And!! a complete list of Israeli prime ministers mashed up with Mary Holmes interviews on RNZ National. Genius, again, genius.

The poetry of Sam Duckor-Jones is a refreshing gust in my head. It’s audacious and funny and real. It’s mind-roaming, and heart-attaching, and blisteringly good.

Sam Duckor-Jones is a sculptor and poet. In 2017 he won the Biggs Poetry Prize from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington. His first book was People from the Pit Stand Up (VUP, 2018).

Victoria University Press author page

Review, Faith Wilson on RNZ, Nine to Noon

Review, Greg Fleming at Kete Books

‘Party Legend’ at The Spin off

‘The Embryo, Repeated’ on Poetry Shelf

Sam reads two poems for Poetry Shelf

Poetry Shelf review: Alison Glenny’s Bird Collector

Bird Collector, Alison Glenny, Compound Press, 2021

This collection reads as if a Victorian composer, carrying her valise of new operetta libretti, collided in the street with a watchmaker, his briefcase of sketches for a new time-keeping device, and a genderfluid astronomer toting the patent forms for a mechanised solar model made of blown egg shells and bird skulls. Their papers, shuffled together by misdirected desires, unspoken and even unconscious intentions, lead to an entirely new work — a sheaf of pages where the negative space of silence speaks as pressingly as the shape of song.

Emma Neale

Alison Glenny’s new poetry book, Bird Collector, is a perfect sequel to the shining lights of her debut, The Farewell Tourist. What stood out out for me in the first collection is exquisitely revisited in the second: white space, silence, musicality, plenitude, word awareness, the footnotes. Bill Manhire, Airini Beautrais, Erik Kennedy and Emma Neale have endorsed the book. Brilliantly. To the point they almost make future reviews redundant. If you need signposts and pathways into the book, these four contributions are gold. Words that reoccur: awe, song, fragmentary, curiosities, silence, imagination, the unconscious, the gaps.

Chris Holdaway, through his Compound Press, has lovingly produced the book, using recycled materials, printing and binding it in Auckland. It includes sublime illustrations by Carrie Tiffany and by Alison herself. I am talking mesmerising. Wow! Alison’s collage-like images are gorgeous, visual overlays!

Bird Collector is in two parts: ‘Bird Organ’ and ‘Nights with the Collector’. Two halves of a beating heart. There is the off-real and the intensely real. Little caches for the hidden, little nooks for the startles. The opening poem holds out the possibility of narrative, character, the potency of things. I am picturing the poetry as paper art unfolding in water, and upon each occasion, the appearance and disappearance unexpected, as the poem comes into being. This is the joy of poetry. The way we read a poem to some surprising form of life. These are the opening lines of the opening poem, ‘Key’:

‘But we do not know in advance which key will unlock the hidden melody. Discovering it is a matter of chance—like opening a drawer at random and finding snow, or the ghost of a bird fluttering among the cogs and feathers.’

 

You enter the strange but it is not estranging. You come across gaslight and candles as the shade and light flicker. You enter the beautiful but not the beautifying. Sentences sing for the sake of song, and then sing along a thousand flight paths: ‘The notebooks chronicle her internal weather.’ This sentence is from ‘Bird’ where all manner of things and experiences, feeling and reactions, hide or hover over body or clothing. What is this poetry like? I keep losing words to tell you. I keep feeling I am standing in an image-rich, disorienting space, reminiscent of a steam-punk room, that stencils intricate maps on my eyes.

And perhaps each poem becomes the chest of drawers you slowly pull open. Ever so slowly you open the poem. Breathing in scent and melody, fascinations and intriguing juxtapositions. Little actions. Minute epiphanies. Individual words that are shivers, glints, clouds, seepage, dissolution: ‘The difference between use and exchange lay in an abstraction. When she opened the instrument, a cloud of butterflies flew out of the ghostly remains of a forest.’

At times there is a single sentence on the page or even simply a poem title which is expanded upon in a series of footnotes, on the facing page and is always always embraced by the white space, the generous silent beat (for example, ‘Footnotes to a History of Mourning’, Footnotes to a History of Birdsong’).

At times the poems feel like a series of hauntings to me.
At times it feels like scatter and rustle and perfume.

Why do I keep making comparisons to the making of a poem as I read this? The second section is set in a planetarium. The narrative foregrounds catalogues, collecting, cataloguing the collections. Keeping, discarding, keeping discarding. Caring for the souvenir, the ‘tiny shards’. Managing the challenge of falling snow. The sequence of paragraphs/poems offers endings that speak of ash and fracture, then move into poetry skeletons. A handful of words falling like snow down the page. And then the skeleton becomes footnotes, an intriguing aside that catapults you in fresh directions of contemplation, reverie. And what remains? Shadow and light? Ash? The weather? A love story. A lost story? The key is missing we read, and yet every time we travel through the book, we assemble our own key.

 

‘Some fragments of paper always remained from the burning of the

catalogues. She likened them to telescopes, pointing to a part of the

sky where everything is centred upon vacancy.’

 

from ‘Footnotes to a History of the Fragment’

 

The sources cited in the acknowledgements would enhance our reading pathways. I am wondering how we collect as we read. I want to check out: the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé (again), Susannah B Mintz’s essay ‘Forms of Self-Disclosure in the Lyric Essay’ and Jasmine Gallagher and Kristina Marie Darling on specific found forms.

Alison is one of our most original poets: lyrical, heart-sustaining, mind-altering, hallucinogenic, attentive. Bird Collector demands the very best superlatives you can summon. For me this this is poetry standing on its tip-of-the-toes best, it’s sublime.

Alison Glenny lives on the Kapiti coast. Her Antarctic-themed collection of prose poems and fragments, The Farewell Tourist, was published by Otago University Press in 2018.

Compound Press author page

Image by Alison Glenny

Poetry Shelf review: Shari Kocher’s Foxstruck and Other Collisions

Foxstruck and Other Collisions, Shari Kocher, Puncher & Wattman, 2020

The cover of Foxstruck and Other Collisions reminded me of an astral vista (my partner said a Rothko painting not knowing there’s a Rothko poem inside!), but the image is in fact Kate van der Drift’s artwork, a camera-less photograph. She buried large format sheet film in the Piako river between the ebb and flow of low and high tides. What looks like a stellar view is the alchemy of pollution and nutrient by-products of intensive farming. Enter a poetry book and already nothing can be taken for granted. The title Foxstruck and other Collisions is equally fascinating. Enigmatic but rich in possibility.

Shari Kocher’s collection is a sumptuous read. It is structured in seven sections moving from the weight of lead, through the practicality of tin and iron, and the preciousness of gold, copper and silver, to the liquid toxicity of mercury. I am no alchemist but each element feels prismatic with poetic connections, shifting perceptions, uses, misuses. What bridges will form between one element and the other? Would I gain more from reading, if I were an elemental whizz? How will the elements interact with the properties of a poem? The properties of an element with a poem’s movement? All this musing and I am on full alert.

Here I am entering an alchemy maze and all I can think about is fabric as I read. I am always suspicious of academic criticism that stretches a poem to fit a premise or theory, but I am (no way an academic critic) falling upon words, phrases, ideas, details, motifs that give my approach zing. Let me be clear: a poetry book will always offer myriad pathways, frames, devices that refract, reflect, dissolve, connect. I guess I always want to put my finger upon a poem and discover its pulse.

Why fabric? Shari’s poems resemble brocade (full of sheen and intricacy), the rustling texture of silk, hard-wearing everyday denim and the coolness of cotton against skin. Glorious! There are weaves and tucks and fasteners and stitching. I am thinking of the loom behind the line, the handwork and the handiwork, and never forgetting the heartwork. I am thinking of threads and buttons and agile sewing needles. Because this poetry is rich in craft and artistry. The visual matters as much as the aural. Motifs glint. Story is intricate thread.

The collection has been slow in the making, composed over five years, and walked into being as much as written. In her endnote, Shari shares the question that might well have been there from the start: ‘In light of this task set before me, which I take as the task to love, how am I to live?’ Each poem came to life on foot, a rule set by the poet, with the walking rhythms nurturing first seeds through the many drafts.

Take any poem and the rewards are numerous. I particularly love ‘Fritter the Fat Then Fry It’. The fabric of the poem is intricate with sound and image. The poem brings to mind a feminist folktale that will bite your ankles as you walk. Corpse, Narrator and Belovèd speak, with overlapping voices, sharp stitching. Here is the opening of the poem, the Narrator speaks:

Once upon a time a house

all the modcons, etcetera but she flits

vagrant as a dandelion’s flimsy puff

blowing about in a yard

empty of air and light a hole

shucked to the floor like a skin

all that space shut-up

the chimney sealed

against birds

smoke and one

homeless soul

chewing her finger

nail outside the door slipped

sideways into maternity

ward of the state where she once laboured

abandoned to her fate under the weight

of sixteen generations of women

who lived to be fed to the dogs

day after day without complaint.

The soundtrack of the collection is sublime: words loop and repeat, with rhyme, with connecting vowels and consonants heightening the music. Such rich delight in the ear. This from ‘Girl in the Mirror’, a poem dedicated to poet Joan Fleming:

sound of her gentling

mind on me each plate

washed as if to placate

the place I’d become (from)

the shower wiped free

just sketch she said just

sketch what you see

the grain of the wood

on the windy deck the scab

on the knob of your knee

Expect restraint and exuberance. Expect rawness and polish. Expect lutes and ladders, saltspray and violins. Expect rose oil and valleys, kitchens and throats. Cosmic glitter. Questions. Breath. An alphabet unskinned. A grounding in land. The natural world with all its challenges and beauty. As Joan Flemming says on the back of the book, ‘This is dazzling poetry.’

I am just hoping my little piece will connect with readers who want to track the book down and read it for themselves, because yes this book dazzles in its love of language, its love of life, its joy in discovery.

Shari Kocher is a poet, creative writer, thinker and therapist. Foxstruck and Other Collisions (Puncher & Wattmann, 2021) is her second poetry collection, following The Non-Sequitur of Snow (Puncher & Wattmann 2015), which was shortlisted for the Anne Elder Award. Recent accolades include The Peter Steele Poetry Prize (2020), The Venie Holmgren Environmental Poetry Award (2018), and The University of Canberra Health Poetry Prize (2016). Shari holds MA and Doctorate degrees from Melbourne University, and works in a supervisory and remedial capacity.

Puncher & Wattman page

Shari Kocher’s website

Poetry Shelf review: Ash Davida Jane’s How to Live with Mammals

How to Live with Mammals, Ash Davida Jane, Victoria University Press, 2021

Every poem in Ash Davida Jane’s new collection How to Live with Mammals is an explosion in the mouth; the intricacies and nuances last all day, and beyond. I keep saying to myself well this is my favourite, this is the one I want to dally over and dive in deep. But then I turn the page and encounter another favourite. Therein lies the joy of poetry: the way a poem can you hold you.

I am scared I am going to pin the collection down to a single idiosyncratic reading when the poetry is full of movement and surprise, revelation and comedy. I am thinking the collection faces knowing and not knowing, paying close attention both to self and to the complicated world. There is the way things slip from grasp and the way a poem marks a place – a way of being – in the world. It is rich in multiple notes like I’m holding a refracting prism that keeps hooking me with glint and gleam. Subject matter and motifs repeat like connecting bridges: mammals, food, asparagus, the body, naming, birds, trees.

The poet – the speaking voice – looks back and looks forward, and the poem becomes present participle, a glorious bearer of movement that touches the past and the present, with longing and with forgetting. Perhaps I am saying this is a book of verbs where living feels personal, enriched by imaginings and replay, punctuated by white space, the poet’s breath.

I love considering these poems within the fertility of verbs. Take looking for example. Observing. Seeing what we have lost the ability to see. Being looked at. Not being looked at. Looking back with longing. Paying attention. Looking forward. This is just one verb-al thread that offers glorious sustenance to the collection’s arc. This from a poem that mourns a world affected by climate change:

I pay daily attentions to colour

7am waiting at the bus stop under

a sulphur-red sky

 burnt at the edges where it

sticks to the horizon

fading to a midday dull white sheen

 

the ocean a room of

mirrors reflecting itself

the edges of waves tinged pink

like we’re on another planet

but we’re exactly

where we’ve always been

 

except there’s a PE teacher

pushing us to go faster than we want to

jogging into an apocalyptic future

in polyester shorts

 

from ‘2050’

You could track the naming of things, the vanished names, the recalled names, the way names matter. You could trace the talking thread, self talk, alone talk, intimate talk, talking in a crowded room. You could take the bridge from assumed point of view to the poet’s place to other shoes. The poet steps into another character after her partner jokes that she’s his ‘farm wife / in my long brown skirt / and beige sweater / sleeves rolled up’. She steps into the walking shoes of Dorothy Wordsworth, borrowing lines, overlaying English lake with flittery fantail and a shared moon.

the bees emerging

from their wooden house

mistake me for

a flower and for

a moment I am one

hopelessly lacking in pollen

swaying in the breeze

and taking up space

standing still in the mud

unmaking myself amid

leaves I’ve seen a thousand times

and never wondered the names of

some trees putting out red shoots

query: what trees are they?

 

from ‘walking with Dorothy’

 

The reading rewards of Ash’s poetry are numerous. A single poem might make you laugh, recoil, identity, empathise, leap unexpectedly, gather facts, process feelings. ‘marine snow’ provoked such movement. Crikey I love this poem that moves from underwater swimming to a hatred of swimming, especially when the instructor tells the three year old a crab lives on the bottom of the pool, to the grief of last things to the grief of last things flowing into other things ( ‘the pot of coffee / is in mourning / now / the laundry / drips wet tears’) to the fact it snows underwater. Glorious. Sad. Challenging.

I don’t want to limit this book to narrow pathways and dead ends. I want you to find your own bridges and sidetracks, to leap and dive deep. Expect to be embraced in the scene. Expect heat shimmer steam. Expect the lucid and the poignant. I’m in love with these poems, every single one of them.

Ash Davida Jane’s poetry has appeared in MimicrySweet MammalianStarlingThe Spinoff and elsewhere. Her first book, Every Dark Waning, was published in 2016 by UK indie publisher Platypus Press. She lives in Wellington, where she works as a bookseller.

Pip Adam’s launch speech via Victoria University Press page

Victoria University Press page

Poetry Shelf: Ash reads from the book

Tara Comics launch page

Starling online journal: ‘Love poems when all the flowers are dead’