Tag Archives: Poetry Shelf 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’

Poetry Shelf review: Hinemoana Baker’s funkhaus

Hinemoana Baker funkhaus Victoria University Press, 2020

A woman carries in her arms

a heavy rectangle of sky –

roofs and treetops.

She places it in the back seat

of her car to calm down.

You and I sit

like separate circles

of a Venn diagram

unaware of the fabled

tasting zones of the tongue.

from ‘flomarkt’

Hinemoana Baker’s new poetry collection is peppery, salty, sweet. The poems form a bridge between two homes, Aotearoa and Berlin, and the overall effect is a book you want to keep reading. Again and again and again. I have been reading funkhaus since it arrived in my postbox May last year. Some books are like this. The German word ‘funken’, we learn in the blurb, is ‘to send a radio signal’. I love the idea that poetry becomes a form of broadcast. I love being an antenna, picking up the static, the silences, the connections across eight months.

funkhaus is on the Poetry category longlist of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The shortlist will be announced on March 3rd.

Hinemoana has always achieved a stop-you-in-your-tracks fluency, maybe because she is a musician and her ear is attentive to the sound of the line, regardless of the subject matter, the personal admissions, the political acumen, the light along with the biting dark. I am listening to funkhaus and admiring the pared back melodies, both the acoustic and the electric.

Pepper blacks the pan so never

Shake it near me, wait

For the flagrant animation

In my bed base

In mountain situations

Sleep swaddled, wake ecstatic

from ‘Narcissist advice column’

What has gripped me more than anything – and maybe this particularly matters in these Covid times – is the way most poems are peopled. Yes there is a mesmerising view out the window where the birds are flying in formation. Yes there is a new vacuum cleaner. Yes there is the question of whether extinct species might be revived. But touch the beating pulse of this collection and you will feel people. Unlike the camera that gravitates towards the people-emptied landscape, Hinemoana draws people in close. Think loved ones, friends, family, passersby. Sometimes a poem is infused in the surreal and you imbibe a scene that tilts and sticks. This is is the start of ‘friday night’, a little beauty of a poem:

Way down south

in the south

of the  south island of himself

over greyscale trees.

Eagles and meteorites are not.

On other occasions the poem is grounded in the personal. There is always the gap, the quavery silence, the unnamed pronouns (I, we, you, he, she, they), the spiky detail that fascinates, the heart of experiencing, of imagining, of replaying. I especially love ‘aunties’, a poem Hinemoana read for Poetry Shelf (2019). This glorious tour de force of a poem makes people (aunties) utterly, movingly, wittily, wincingly, gorgeously present.

We had a marching auntie and an eyelash-curler aunty, a

headscarves one, a lavender talcum powder aunty and a satin

running shorts one. We had an aunty who was laid out on the

sheepskin rug by that uncle when she was six, and seven and

eight. These might be the same aunties. We had an aunty who

died on the same day as her own sister and turned into that

white horse on the green hill. A drawn-on-eyebrows aunty who

said I don’t care how good they are at yodelling they’re giving

country music a bad name those girls.

Ah but I also love ‘mother’, ‘waitangi day’, ‘if i had to sing’, waiata tangi’. Find the book. Find your own clearings.

Hinemoana crafts poetry as flourishing movement. In part as melodic flow but also in the way poems come into being in surprising ways. The unexpected paths and sideturns. The underlays and overlays. The semantic chords and the visual alerts. In ‘fox’, an animal is spotted outside in the snow (‘The most powerful things / are the ones we simply come across’). The poem entrances as you move from this sweet epiphany to loss of appetite, your own child dying, to the skin as kidney to:

Climbing into the air outside your door

a tufty plant grows from a cobblestone.

And there –

there is the sandwich board with pictures of fruit

and words you don’t understand

which make nothing happen.

Another sublime example is ‘flohmarkt’, the poem I quoted from at the start of the review. Here we move from the striking opening image of woman and sky to tongue myths to dog and bike owners, and then to chairs. This is how poetry can move. It is gap and it is breathtakingly resonant. Here is the end of the poem:

I live with a surplus

of chairs, mostly empty.

My one, with its smooth

wooden arms and your one

if you were here.

The kind of chair you never want

to get up out of

the kind of chair for which

prepositions were invented.

Maybe this sounds old-fashioned but for me Hinemoana’s poetry gets down to the essence of things. There is an addictive economy that opens out into lush and surprising fields of reading. Like a yin and yang effect. Like poetry as a basket of essential oils that you flick on your wrist and carry all day. That work for each of us differently. That sustain and delight, that get you moving and thinking. That change as you wear them over the course of eight months. Poetry as essential. Poetry as skin tingling essential. It feels essential to Hinemona – to be writing poems, to be travelling across the poetry bridge, that arc of static and connection between Berlin home and Aotearoa home, to be grounded in her friends and whānau, her writing support crew. She acknowledges the vital support of those who have offered aroha and wisdom, publication and recording opportunities, reviews, translations, festival invitations in her endnotes. I offer a small thank you to Hinemoana – each book is a gift and we are all the better for residing within your latest one.

HINEMOANA BAKER is a poet, musician and creative writing teacher. She traces her ancestry from Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Te Āti Awa and Ngāi Tahu, as well as from England and Germany (Oberammergau in Bayern). She is the author of the poetry collections Funkhaus (VUP, 2020), waha | mouth (VUP, 2014), kōiwi kōiwi (VUP, 2010), and mātuhi | needle (co-published in 2004 by Victoria University Press and Perceval Press).

Hinemoana has edited several online and print anthologies and released several albums of original music and more experimental sound art. She works in English, Māori and more recently German, the latter in collaboration with German poet and sound performer Ulrike Almut Sandig. She is currently living in Berlin, where she was 2016 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer in Residence, and completing a PhD at Potsdam University.

Victoria University Press page

The Spin Off review (Elizabeth Heritage)

Pantograph Punch review (Arihia Latham)

NZLA review (Kiri Piahana-Wong)

Poetry Shelf review: Jackson Nieuwland’s I am a human being

I am a human being, Jackson Nieuwland, Compound Press, 2020

Sometimes you pick up a poetry book and you know within a page or two, it is a perfect fit, a slow-speed read to savour with joy. That’s how I felt when I started reading Jackson Nieuwland’s I am a human being. I love the premise embedded in the title, that in turn generates a sequence of poems that form a secret title list poem (I am an egg, I am a tree, I am tree, I am a beaver, I am a bear, I am a dog, I am a bottomless pit, and so on).

The opening poem offers an image that, in its exquisite and heart-moving detail, underlines the range of the book: physical, metaphorical, fable-like, metaphysical, autobiographical. In one poem the speaker suggests they are not quite sure who they are yet, that there is no single word that adequately defines them (‘agender, genderfluid, trans …’). This book, so long in the making, lovingly crafted with the loving support of friends, with both doubt and with grace (think poise, fluency, adroitness), this book, in its lists and its expansions, moves beyond the need for a single self-defining word.

Instead we are offered the image of the egg – and the way we hold a universe of things inside us, and that sometimes we might break.

This is intimate poetry. This is slowing down to observe the quotidian, the daily comings and goings, the things you see and feel when you stop and reflect and imagine, that then tilts to surprise. There is uplift and there is slipstream.

This is contoured poetry because it ignites so many parts of you as you read. You will laugh out loud as you read. You will feel the poignant witty wise delightful magical joy. The shifting melodies. There are keyholes to light and keyholes to dark. The speaker speaks of outsiderness, of what it is to fit, and what it is to not fit.

Sometime you will turn the page to a glorious pun.

Sometimes the vulnerability is a sharp ache above the surface of the line. This from ‘I am version of you from the future’:

Your past self looks at you with sympathy.

They pull you into a tight hug.

You begin to sob

releasing years of tears

that had been held inside

due to the conditioning you received

from a patriarchal society

and the overload of testosterone

pumping through you body.

As you sink into your own embrace,

the two versions of you merge into one,

and you begin again

given a chance to do it all over

but differently this time,

with an open heart

like quadruple bypass surgery.

The risk of death is high

but what other choice do you have?

I am a version of you from the future.

This is just the beginning—

I am a human being is my favourite poetry book of 2020 so far. I like the addition of Steph Maree’s line drawings. I like the way the poetry stretches in its imaginings to draw closer to an interior real that is never fixed. I like the way the poetry is both anchor and liberating kite. I like the acknowledgement that, in order to know who you are, you need to embrace many things. I love this book so very much from first page to last. In the endnotes, the page where the poet gives thanks, I read the best acknowledgement ever:

And thank you for reading

this book. I’ve gone back and

forth with myself for years

about whether these words are

worth anyone’s time. It means

the universe to me that you’ve

read all the way to the end. I

hope you found something that

meant something to you.

Jackson Nieuwland is a genderqueer writer from Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Their poetry has appeared in a number of journals, in print and online.

Compound Press page

Poetry Shelf review: Michele Leggott’s Mezzaluna: Selected Poems

 

 

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Mezzaluna: Selected Poems Michele leggott, Auckland University Press, 2020

 

 

 

people still go to cottages in moody seaside weather

to read for a week           how will we do it now?

 

when I go for walks words stalk along too

I’ll be travelling mid-February and can’t guarantee a lucid mind

 

what about a big table in a room with windows

looking over the wild and wavy event?

 

from ‘Colloquy’ Swimmers and Dancers

 

 

Michele Leggott is continuing to make extraordinary contributions to poetry in Aotearoa. I rank her with Bill Manhire: two poets who have not only published astonishing poetry, but who have also been significant mentors and teachers in university programmes and introduced poetry initiatives, and edited vital anthologies. We are in debt to Bill for his vision for the IIML and offshoot projects, and the Poet Laureateship (now administered by The National Library but established with the efforts of Bill and Te Mata Estate). Michele was the first Poet Laureate under the National Library administration. She established the NZ Electronic Poetry Centre, set up the Lounge readings in Auckland, and has organised various gatherings of poets, including symposiums in Bluff, Christchurch and Auckland. Not forgetting her diverse contributions as Professor of English at the University of Auckland.

More than anything, we are in Michele’s debt for the light she has placed upon women poets from the past, especially Robin Hyde and Lola Ridge.

 

words come so slowly

it has been lonely

a phoenix palm

and behind it

crystalline glitter

another story, waving

 

plaintain paradisiaca a bird

musey with waves

Helicon a harbour cone

here

bright

Greek

over Narrowneck

 

from ‘Withywind’ from Like This? (1998)

 

 

I have been reading Michele’s poetry since her debut collection, Like This? (1988) and have followed the thematic and lyrical contours ever since. The first word that springs to mind is heart. Michele has written within the academy, with her prodigious intellect flaring, but she is a heart poet beholden to neither theoretical trend nor poetic fad. Her poetry has always linked hands with the writing of other women, and over time has become increasingly personal and more accessible for readers.

Michele’s Mezzaluna: Selected Poems appeared mid March, just before we moved into lockdown. Its visibility suffered as our reading, writing, publishing and reviewing lives moved into upheaval.  There is an excellent interview with Lynn Freeman on Standing Room Only and a short conversation with Paula Morris as part of The Auckland Writer’s Festival online series. The highlight of the latter is hearing Michele read an extract from her poem ‘The Fascicles’ from Vanishing Points (2017) (she is the last writer in the zoom session).

 

Fine ground darkness pours into the vessel

beans and flowers adorn the fall—

ichor! ichor! drink to the eyes locked on yours

the mouth that smiles and will speak for itself

I have always done the talking and she

put the words in my mouth saying do melisma

like sunlight be melisma like no sunlight pressed

redness before dark print an iris on her

 

from ‘Blue Irises’ in DIA (1994)

 

Difficulty has never been an issue for me as a reader of poetry – I love venturing into poetry thickets where meaning might appear in whiffs, and where enigma, evasion and multiplicity are active ingredients. Michele’s mid-career poetry collections, perhaps from DIA through to Mirabile Dictu, delivered various shades of difficulty and I loved them for that. Her lexicon has drawn upon the arcane, the archaic, slang, borrowed words, foreign languages. There were highways and byways to other poems, a history of research and reading. Intimacy was as likely as distance. And even though her poetry has become increasingly personal, self confessional in parts, it has always been so. Family appears, sons, food, beloved places, a shaping of home along with a profound engagement with other writing, other stories, myths, conversations.

The poems underline the way poetry threads ideas, memory, motifs, experience, opinion, reading history. The how of writing is as crucial as the what of writing.

 

imagine     the world goes dark

a bowl of granite or a stone bird

incised by tools the nature of which

is unknown    just that they are metal

and therefore from otherwhere

just that the weight of the bowl

precludes light and lightness

of thought     my feet take a path

I can no longer see    my eyes

won’t bring me the bird   only now

has my hand found the stones

I could add to the smooth interior

of my despair     the world goes dark

I look into the eyes of my stone bird

hammers before memory

silence and the world that is not

 

from ‘mirabile dictu’ in Mirabile Dictu

 

 

Along Mezzaluna’s reading tracks you will find honeysuckle, daffodils, roses, melons, breath, the wind, stars, here, there, light, dark, heart. Always heart. Always the interplay between light and dark. Michele has dedicated Mezzaluna to those who travel light and lift darkness’. Yes reading is a fertile way of travelling, life equally so; light and dark stick to us like biddybids, but our relations with and navigation of both are unique. What do we carry with us? What do we keep placing in our personal baggage? What do we do with the dark? For Michele, with her slow movement into blindness decades back, and all the challenges that have affected every aspect of her life, blindness has understandably also seeped into her writing. She has always been attuned to the sound of words, the mobility of language, words as sound dance in the ear, in harmony and discord. But the possibilities of sound, under Michele’s deft guidance, have become a glorious anchor for everything that has mattered and will matter.

The lush terrain of the visual is also a sumptuous part of Michele’s poetry. The recurring motifs I have already mentioned range from piquant to honeyed, visual bouquets in their own physicality but players in so much more. Participants in ideas, the mythological references, the recuperation of memory, family history, personal challenges.

It is equally rewarding to listen for the other women, particularly the poets who have captured Michele’s attention and diligent rescue work: I am thinking of the way Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and Ursula Bethell have become a visible part of the network. More recently Lola Ridge. Michele’s latest project is Emily Harris, a New Plymouth poet who died in 1925 and whose work has been located in Sappho-like traces. Michele response to the missing poet is to recreate versions in Vanishing Traces.

I have heard Michele perform poems from most of her collections and it has always affected me deeply.  To listen to poems from As Far As I Can See – the poems that expose her move into blindness – these have been audience-affecting occasions. I have sat in a line of poetry fans and we have been utterly still, barely able to take breath at the daring exposure, the heartbreaking experience, the exquisite and utterly memorable poetry.

Ah, no matter what I write, no matter what I signal, I feel like I am shortchanging this rich and elegantly constructed volume. Michele told Paula Morris she had originally sent in a longer version but had cut it back and, in doing so, focused on the DNA of each book, on what was important. As she read and replayed, she carried a key question across the books: ‘What does a poem look like?’

This is such a good question to carry with you as you read – yes Michele’s poems do change, the lines shorten, the lexicon is more familiar, but there is common ground. Perhaps it comes down to a love of a sound, and how that love of sound is amplified when you can’t see the physical world. It is a rejuvenating, heart-engaging, thought-provoking read and it feels like this Michele’s poetry deserves a whole book of response. Michele Leggott warrants a whole book that navigates what her poetry does: its connections, its liberations, its epiphanies, its testings.

Mezzaluna showcases the work of one of our most inquisitive and sensual poets who ventures into the unknown, into an inhabited world, with an open heart and free-flowing mind. Glorious.

 

Auckland University Press author page