A good literary journal will offer the reader an inviting range of tones, subject matter, emotional effects and cerebral demands. Familiar writers will sit alongside new voices. Landfall 240 achieves an eclectic mix of voices, especially as it favours multiple genres: poetry, fiction, memoir, essays, artworks, reviews. Such a writing smorgasbord suits my habit of devouring issues over repeated visits and the degree to which certain pieces affect me is why I am a long-term Landfall fan.
An annual highlight is always the results of the essay competition. Editor Emma Neal received 85 entries this year and A. M. McKinnon’s winning essay, Canterbury Gothic, is a little beauty. The essay begins with a great aunt, exquisitely detailed, and moves through a city’s architectural detail to the dark and moving twists in a family history.
For end-of-year Poetry Shelf wraps, I have usually invited a swag of writers to pick books they have loved. It has always turned into a mammoth reading celebration, mostly of poetry, but with a little of everything else. This year I decided to invite a handful of poets, whose new books I have loved in 2020, to make a few poetry picks.
My review and interview output has been compromised this year. I still have perhaps 20 poetry books published in Aotearoa I have not yet reviewed, and I do hope to write about some of these over summer.
The 8 Poets
Among a number of other terrific poetry reads (Oscar Upperton’s New Transgender Blockbusters for example), here are eight books that struck me deep this year (with my review links). Tusiata Avia’s The Savager Coloniser (VUP) is the kind of book that tears you apart and you feel so utterly glad to have read it. Tusiata has put herself, her rage, experience, memories, loves, prayers, dreads into poems that face racism, terrorism, Covid, inequity, colonialism, being a mother and a daughter, being human. An extraordinary book. Rhian Gallagher’s Far-Flung (AUP) is a sumptuous arrival, a book of exquisite returns that slowly unfold across months. Her poetic craft includes the lyrical, the political, the personal and the contemplative in poems that reflect upon the land, experiences, relationships.
Rata Gordon‘s Second Person (VUP) is fresh, layered and utterly captivating. This is a book of birth, babies, death, the universe, love, motherhood, water, sky, wildlife. It is a book that celebrates the present tense, the way we can inhabit the now of being. Reading Mohamed Hassan’s new collection, National Anthem (Dead Bird Books), opens up what poetry can do. It widens your heart. It makes you feel. It makes you think. It gets you listening. It makes you think about things that matter. Humanity. Family. Soil. Ahh!
Bill Manhire‘s Wow (VUP) will haunt you – so many of these poems have joined my list of memorable poetry encounters. The baby in the title poem says ‘wow’ while the big brother says ‘also’. This new collection sparks both the ‘wow’ moments and the ‘also’ moments. Get lost in its glorious thickets and then find your way out to take stock of the ordinary (and out-of-the-ordinary) world about you. Like Rhian’s collection this is a book of poetry astonishments. Natalie Morrison‘s (VUP) debut collection Pins is exquisite, both melodious and tactile, economical and rich. There is both a quirkiness and a crafted musicality, resonant white space, yet perhaps a key link is that of narrative. I filled with joy as I read this book.
Jackson Nieuwland‘s I am a Human Being (Compound Press), 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. I knew within a page or two, this book was a slow-speed read to savour with joy. Nina Powles‘s Magnolia (Seraph Press) is the book I am currently reading. I have long been a fan, from Girls of the Drift to the glorious Luminscent). Nina’s new book is so immensely satisfying as it navigates home and not-home, identity, history, myth, the lives of women – with characteristic nimbleness, heavenly phrasing, open-heart revelations, the senses on alert, the presence of food, multiple languages. Reading bliss!
The poets and their picks
I’m a terrible book buyer. I tend to read books given to me (because I’m cheap like that) and the shopping-bag full of books my cousin, playwright, Victor Rodger, lends to me on the regular. He has the best taste! I should probably be a better reader of New Zealand poetry in particular, but I reckon I’ve got enough things to feel guilty about.
The top three on my list of books I have read this year and love:
Funkhaus by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press)
I love the way Hinemoana uses language to make the ethereal and the mysterious. I’m happy to not immediately be able to pin down meaning; her language allows me to be suspended between what it does to me and what it means. Poems like the incantatory Aunties and Mother – which I think of as more ‘rooted’ – make me want to sit down immediately and write a poem. In fact that is exactly what I did do when I read this book. I love a book that makes me write.
An American Sunrise Joy Harjo (WW Norton & Co)
An American Sunrise is Joy Harjo’s most recent book of poetry. Joy is Poet Laureate of the United States. I love everything Joy Harjo has written. And I mean everything. She Had Some Horses (from an early book of the same name) is one of favourite poems of all time. Elise Paschen says of her, “ Joy Harjo is visionary and a truth sayer, and her expansive imagination sweeps time, interpolating history into the present.”. I would add to that she is taulaaitu, mouth-piece for the ancestors, gods and spirits. While you’re reading Joy Harjo’s poetry, read Crazy Brave, her wonderful autobiography. It will stay with you forever.
National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books)
When I was looking for favourite lines in this book, I couldn’t decide, sooo many – like small poems in themselves. Mohamed speaks with an iron fist in a velvet glove. His poetry is elegant and beautiful and it tells the damn truth. Someone needs to tell the damn truth – about March 15, about being Muslim in New Zealand (and in the entire western world), about the things that happen so close to us – and inside us – that are easy (and more comfy) to avert our eyes from.
Some favourite lines from White Supremacy is a song we all know the words to but never sing out loud: ‘Please come and talk on our show tomorrow/ no don’t bring that up/…
‘This isn’t about race/ this is a time for mourning/ this is about us/ isn’t she amazing/ aren’t we all’…
‘Let us hold you and cry/ our grief into your hijabs’…
Who can tell these stories in this way but a good poet with fire in his fingers, love and pain in equal measure in his heart and feet on the battleground?
There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce Morgan Parker (Tin House)
I have to add, There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce by Morgan Parker to every list I write forever. In my opinion, no reader of poetry should miss this. If it doesn’t grab you by the shoulders, the heart, the brain, the belly – you might be dead. From the epigraph: ‘The president is black/ she black’ (Kendrick Lamar). Morgan Parker is PRESIDENT.
The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (HarperCollins) edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris features translations of 20th century poets from around the world and is packed with surprises.
Amidst all the books I have enjoyed during 2020, this is the one that I have read and re-read and continue to come back to. It was first published in 2010. I have been slow in coming to the book.
When a poem in another language is re-cast into English, through the empathy and skill of a translator, it seems to unsettle notions of line, rhythmn, word choice and form. Translation pushes and tugs at the boundaries of the ‘rules’ and introduces a kind of strangeness. This strangeness I experience as an opening; a feeling of potential, slippery as a an eel to articulate. It recalibrates predetermined notions and generates excitement about what a poem can do or be.
There are well-known names here: Cavafy, Lorca, Akhmatova, Ritsos, Milosz, Symborska among others. There are also many poets previously unknown to me, and many whose work is either out of print or difficult to source. It’s a diverse, inspiring array of poetic voices and, as Kaminsky says in the introduction, puts us ‘in conversation with a global poetic tradition’.
Making discoveries is one of the great pleasures of anthologies. I now have a brand new ‘to read’ list.
When I’m reading something that inspires me, I have the urge to inhabit it somehow. I find that entering into a creative process by writing with, and around, another’s words helps me to absorb them into my internal landscape. This poem was created with snippets of some of the poetry I have met recently.
Soon, we are night sailing (Hunter, p. 71)
This is the closest you can get to it:
the void, the nothing,
the black lapping mouth of the sea
and the black arching back of the sky. (Hunter, p. 71)
One still maintains a little glimmer of hope
Deep down inside
A tiny light
About the size of a speck
Like a distant star
Is spotted on the horizon this dark night (Boochani, p. 26)
Swish swish swish
as quiet as a fish. (Ranger, p. 13)
… holy women
on the shore –
long having practiced the art
of replacing hearts
and song (Walker, p. 7)
Today you are tumbling towards her like the ocean.
… you are becoming nearer and nearer to someone other
than yourself. (Hawken, p. 49)
I have … imagined my life ending,
or simply evaporating,
by being subsumed into a tribe of blue people. (Nelson, p. 54)
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter (2017, Picador). (Not strictly poetry, but the book feels so much like a long poem to me). Line breaks added by me.
No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani (2020, Picador).
‘Autumn Leaves’ by Laura Ranger. In A Treasury of NZ Poems for Children edited by Paula Green (2014, Random House).
Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning by Alice Walker (1975, The Women’s Press).
Small Stories of Devotion by Dinah Hawken (1991, Victoria University Press).
Bluets by Maggie Nelson (2009, Jonathan Cape). Line breaks added by me.
Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book (Victoria University Press)
A few weeks ago, I sat in the audience at a WORD Christchurch event and watched our former poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh read a poem from Tusiata Avia’s new collection. It began as such:
in the white wig
in that big Endeavour
sailing the blue, blue water
like a big arsehole
FUCK YOU, BITCH.
The hall fell pin silent and a heavy fog of discomfort descended from the ceiling, and I sat in the corner brimming with mischievous glee. It was a perfect moment, watching two of the country’s most celebrated poets jointly trash the country’s so-called ‘founder’ in the most spiteful way imaginable. The audience squirmed and squirmed and I grinned and grinned.
This is how Avia’s book begins, and it never lets up. As the title subtly implies with a hammer, Avia has things she wants to say, and doesn’t care how people feel about them. She delights in the spiteful, burrows down into the uncomfortable and the impolite and pulls out nuggets of painful truths with her bare hands. They are all truths that must be said bluntly and Avia drills them home.
In Massacre, Avia reflects on her youth fighting the demons of Christchurch, and asks us if our ‘this is not us’ mantra is divorced from the history carried in the land, haunted instead by the white spirits that rose to claim lives on March 15.
The book crescendos with How to be in a room full of white people, a dizzying poem that traps us in a single moment in time and forces us to witness and squirm and eventually, hopefully, understand what it is like to be the only brown body in a foreign space, in all its literal and metaphorical significance.
This has been my most cherished book this year, bringing together Tusiata Avia’s firecracker wit and her uncanny gift of conjuring worlds that feel vivid in their weight and poignancy. Abandoning all diplomacies, this is a blazing manifesto for honest and confrontational poetry that speaks with an urgency that puts me as a writer to shame, and demands more of me at once.
Jenny Lewis, Gilgamesh Retold, (Carcanet)
I love the way poetry re-visions the past, especially the deep past. I’m thinking of books like Matthew Francis’s reworking of the Welsh epic The Mabinogi and Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a book that abandons the main storyline of Homer’s Iliad in favour of narrating the death scenes of minor characters, accompanied by extra helpings of extended simile. I’d always known about the Epic of Gilgamesh, which I have owned for about 40 years in a yellow 1960 Penguin paperback. I’ve hardly opened it, but it’s one of some nine translations of the poem that Jenny Lewis has consulted for Gilgamesh Retold, published by Carcanet some four thousand years after the stories first circulated in oral form. (Her publisher at Carcanet, Michael Schmidt, has himself written a much admired book about the poem’s origins and afterlife)
Locally Dinah Hawken has worked with this ancient material, particularly writing about Inanna, the goddess of beauty and fertility and, sometimes, war, who is one of the major figures in the Gilgamesh cycle. Dinah’s feminist sense of the ancient stories accords with Jenny Lewis’s decision, as the blurb says, to relocate the poem “to its earlier oral roots in a Sumerian society where men and women were more equal, … [where] only women were allowed to brew beer and keep taverns, and women had their own language – emesal.”
It’s as well Inanna has such a significant role in Gilgamesh, for otherwise it would be a tale about male adventuring and bonding (Gilgamesh and Enkidu) and the discovery that even the greatest heroes can never overcome death. The world of Gilgamesh also gives us a Flood, which matches and in some ways outdoes the Old Testament. I love the way Jenny Lewis has retold these stories. She doesn’t try to pad them out to produce the sorts of coherence and pacing that contemporary readers and movie-goers find comfortable, while her phrasings have an unreductive clarity and a genuinely lyrical grace. The most audacious thing she has done, and has carried off brilliantly, is to use different metrical forms to reflect the ways in which a range of different custodians/retellers have voiced and revoiced the story. You admire the 21st-century poet’s craft even as she inducts you into a baffling and unfamiliar world. All stories, Gilgamesh Retold tells us, are made by many voices, and the best of them will journey on through many more.
And now I must try and summon up the courage to give the latest version of Beowulf a go!
Gregory Kan, Under Glass(Auckland University Press)
My esteemed colleague, with one hand around his Friday swill-bottle: ‘I hate poetry – no one cares, no one reads it anymore.’
Gregory Kan, with two suns infiltrating the long ride on the train to Paekākāriki, illustrates otherwise: Under Glass lulls like a really disquieting guided meditation.
After lockdown, it is the first book I read outside our ‘bubble’. Threading through an internal landscape, somehow a place I recognise. ‘Here, there are two suns. The ordinary sun is in the sky overhead. The other sun is eating its way out from inside me.’
Certain lines, with their mystical insistence, snag on me and come back again from time to time: ‘Everything that surrounds the second sun is not part of it but nonetheless makes it what it is.’ It’s as if some lines have been dreaming of themselves. The book invites a gentle inspection. A glass bead held right up against the eye. A shutter flipped open over a stark interior.
‘When you move a look moves inside me and eats there what I eat.’
Once, a kind individual in Paekākāriki, their hands busy with a teapot, told me: ‘Those who know what it is, fall on it like starving people.’
When Litcrawl comes, we make our way to some of the events. The room has sucked a crowd in. Spells for 2020, with Rebecca Hawkes, Rata Gordon, Stacey Teague, Arihia Latham, Rachel McAlpine and Miriama Gemmell (thank you for your entrancing words), reminds me of how poetry is still something people might come in search of. Visitations of bees, airline heights and morphing walls. There is a sense of relief.
A crowd still feels like a dream, and a dream still feels like the sea. Gregory writes that ‘the sea is a house made of anything. The sea is a story about anything, told by someone unfit for storytelling. More than what I can know, and much more than I can understand.’
Under Glass, which wasn’t exactly written for this year (no ordinary year), seems to slot into it.
My steamed colleague, with one hand steadying the banister: ‘I guess Bob Dylan is okay, though.’
Note: I asked my colleague’s permission for quoting him. He said he was fine with it, as long as a mob of angry poets didn’t come knocking.
2020 was the year we finally got a book from Hana Pera Aoake (A bathful of kawakawa and hot water Compound Press). I had been waiting for this for so so long. It’s a taonga that I am incredibly grateful for. Ever since I first read Hana’s work they have been one of my favourite writers. Their writing is both clever and wise, of the moment and timeless, pop culture and fine art, Aotearoa and international.
This is a book I will be returning to over and over again for inspiration, electrification, nourishment, and comfort. I would recommend it to anyone.
Other poetry books I read and loved this year: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, The Book of Frank by CA Conrad, hoki mai by Stacey Teague, Hello by Crispin Best, and Head Girl by Freya Daly Sadgrove.
Nina Mingya Powles
For most of this year I could only read things in fragments. I could only hold on to small parts of poems, essays, short stories in my head before they floated away. This year I sought out poetry by Indigenous writers. Of these two books, the first I read slowly, dipping in and out like testing the surface of cool water. The other I read hungrily all at once.
Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (Graywold Press) reminded me why I write poetry, at a time when writing anything at all felt impossible. Diaz’s heavy, melodic love poems circled around my head for days: “My lover comes to me like darkfall – long, / and through my open window.” But it is her writing about water and the body that changed me. In this book, water is always in motion, a current that passes through time, memory and history. Her long poem “The First Water of the Body” is a history of the Colorado River, a sacred river: “I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving with me right now.”
A bathful of kawakawa and hot water by Hana Pera Aoake (Compound Press) came to me when I needed it most, nourishing me and warming me. I haven’t yet held a copy of the book, but I read it on my laptop over two days and have carried parts of it around in my body ever since: “I speak broken French and Português into the broken yellow gloaming.” A bathful of kawakawa and hot water is a searing, lyrical work of poetry, memoir, and political and cultural commentary. Like the title suggests, it was a balm for me, but also a reminder of the ongoing fight for our collective dream of a better world, and most importantly, that “racism is not just a product of psychological malice, but a product of capitalism.”
Rhian Gallagher,Far-Flung Auckland University Press, 2020
Into the Blue Light
for Kate Vercoe
I’m walking above myself in the blue light
indecently blue above the bay with its walk-on-water skin
here is the Kilmog slumping seaward
and the men in their high-vis vests
pouring tar and metal on gaping wounds
the last repair broke free; the highway
doesn’t want to lie still, none of us
want to be where we are
exactly but somewhere else
the track a tree’s ascent, kaikawaka! hold on
to the growing power, sun igniting little shouts
against my eyeballs
and clouds came from Australia
hunkering over the Tasman with their strange accent
I’m high as a wing tip
where the ache meets the bliss
summit rocks exploding with lichen and moss –
little soft fellas suckered to a groove
bloom and bloom – the track isn’t content
with an end, flax rattling their sabres, tussocks
drying their hair in the stiff south-easterly;
the track wants to go on
forever because it comes to nothing
but the blue light. I’m going out, out
out into the blue light, walking above myself.
Rhian Gallagher, from Far-Flung
Rhian Gallagher’s debut poetry book, Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize First Collection, while her second book Shift was awarded the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. She has received a Canterbury History Foundation Award, The Janet Frame Literary Trust Award and in 2018 she held the University of Otago Burns Fellowship. This year I welcomed the arrival of Far-Flung (Auckland University Press). It is a glorious book, a book to slowly savour.
Far-Flung is in two sections. The first section, with deep and roving attachments, navigates place. Think of the shimmering land, the peopled land, the lived-upon and recollected land, with relationships, experiences, epiphanies and upheavals. Think of the past and think of the present. Think of school classrooms, macrocarpa and our smallest birds. Think of a nor-west wind and Donegal women. These poems exude a delicious quietness, a stalled pace, because this is poetry of contemplation, musings upon a stretching home along with ideas that have shaped, and are shaping, how the world is.
The other day I turned up in an Auckland café to meet poet Anna Jackson for lunch, and we both brought along Far-Flung to read (if we got to wait for the other). I read the opening lines aloud to Anna when she arrived, and then she started reading the book. We were lost in the book. I am now imagining how perfect it would be to have a weekly poetry meeting with a friend, where you sit and read the exact same book over lunch. Perhaps I am returning to the afternoon-tea poems from my debut book Cookhouse, where I thought I would take afternoon with poets I loved (in the shape of a poem) for the rest of my life. That didn’t exactly happen (in the shape of a poem), but I guess I have been engaging with poetry in Aotearoa ever since.
Rhian’s opening poem ‘Into the Blue Light’ is a form of poetry astonishment. Let’s say awe, wonder, uplift. The spiritual meets the incandescent meets the hot sticky tar of the road repairs, and the ever-moving scene, with its biblical overtones (‘the bay with its walk-on-water skin’), references a fidgety self as it much as it scores physical locations. I keep coming back to the word ‘miracle’, and the way we become immune to the little and large miracles about us. Miracle can be a way of transcending the burdensome body, daily stasis, the anchor of here and there, the shadow of death, and embrace light and engage in light-footed movement. This is definitely a poem to get lost in. You don’t need to know what it is about or the personal implications for both poet and speaker. Perhaps this is what astonishment poems can do: they draw us into the blue light so that we may walk or drift above ourselves.
The second poem, ‘The Speed of God’, underlines the range of a nimble poet whose poetic craft includes the lyrical, the political, the personal and the reflective. Here Rhian wittingly but bitingly muses on the idea that God made the world too fast to get men right.
Or maybe if he’d made man and said, ‘You learn how to live with yourself and do housework and then I might think about woman.’
The second section of the book focuses upon voices from Dunedin’s Seacliff Lunatic Asylum and is in debt to research along with imaginings. The Lunatic Act of 1882 defines a lunatic within legal parameters rather a medical diagnosis. The institution was more akin to a prison than a place of healing, with those incarcerated granted no legal rights. As a national inspector of lunatic asylums, hospitals and charitable institutions, Dr Duncan MacGregor ‘feared New Zealand was being overrun by a flood of immigrants from lowly backgrounds’.
Rhian’s ‘The Seacliffe Epistles’ sequence is unbearably haunting. The endnotes acknowledge the sources, many poems in debt to inmate’s letters. Reading the poignant poetry, I am reminded of the way we still haven’t got everything right yet. We still have the dispossessed, the muted, the disenfranchised, the underprivileged. And that is another haunting seeping into the crevices of the book.
Far-Flung showcases multiple bearings of self, place, and across time. There is the child smelling the ‘gum trees in the gully’, rhyming her way across a wheat field, as letters and words start to produce sound and sense. From those tentative beginnings, words now offer sumptuous music for the ear, groundings for the heart, little portholes into our own contemplative meanderings. As Vincent O’Sullivan says on the back of the book: ‘I can think of no more than a handful of poets, whose work I admire to anything like a similar degree.’ This is a glorious arrival, a book of exquisite returns that slowly unfold across months.
Rhian Gallagher’s first poetry book Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press, 2003) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection. In 2007 Gallagher won a Canterbury History Foundation Award, which led to the publication of her book Feeling for Daylight: The Photographs of Jack Adamson (South Canterbury Museum, 2010). She also received the 2008 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award. Gallagher’s Shift (AUP, 2011) won the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. In 2018, she held the University of Otago Robert Burns Fellowship.
thin waterskin over underfoot cockles here and there old timber
and iron orange and purple barnacled crab shells snails green
karengo small holes
I look up from walking at
a shy grey heron on
the point of flight.
oystercatchers whistle stilts and big gulls eye my quiet
stepping over shells and seaweed towards the biggest farthest
cockles out by the channel beacon at dead low tide
It’s still going out.
I tell by the moving
of fine weeds in
takes a time to gather these rust and barnacle coloured whole
there’s a sudden
for the moment
solstice: the whole sea
hills and sky
high gulls hang seaweed is arrested the water’s skin
tightens we all stand still. even the wind evaporates
leaving a scent of salt.
I snap out start back get moving before the new tide back
over cockle beds through clouds underfoot laying creamy
furrows over furrowed sand over flats arched above and below
with blue and yellow and green reflection and counter reflection
look back to
from Homing In (McIndoe, 1982), also published in poeta: selected and new poems (Otago University Press, 2018)
From Rhian Gallagher
Sometime in the early 1980s I heard Cilla read ‘Low Tide, Aramoana’ on TV. I was utterly spellbound.
Cilla does not so much read her poems as enact them. They seem written to a music score, a sound choreography. Her work is also very visual and ‘Low Tide, Aramoana’ is a big canvas.
Whatever expectations the title sets up are given a tilt at the outset. For it is not the tide that is encountered but the sky. It is a simple notion, the sky being reflected in the water, but I experience it in the poem as if it were a brand new thing and
‘I (too) step into the sky’
In more than one way ‘I step into the sky’. The tides are a condundrum, taking place on earth yet the movement is being conducted by the moon and sun. The spaciousness of the poem on the page has me feeling this mystery all over again — my mind is up there with the moon and the sun.
The meditative opening lines are followed by a hurried, heaped-up rhythm, detailing forms and life-forms encountered on the sand flats:
‘thin waterskin over underfoot cockles here & there old timber/& iron orange & purple barnacled crab shells snails green karengo small holes’
This alternating rhythmn shapes the poem. It is a movement from a contemplative interior to the external world and back again, flowing in and out, almost as a tide itself.
On one level this is a foraging poem: going ‘out to the channel beacon at dead low tide’ for ‘the biggest farthest/cockles’. Foraging is also a metaphor for the making of the poem: the gathering is going on right from the first footstep onto the sandflats and the poem is, indeed, made of ‘whole/sweet mouthfuls’.
Some decades past before I heard Cilla read this poem again, at the Dunedin Writers Festival. It was almost eerie. The poem has a tipping point. It takes us there, way out to the edge – a brink of change, when something amazing (or horrendous) is about to happen. That moment when ‘we all stand still’.
I may risk overloading the achieved simplicity of the poem. The environment it brings to life, the multiple invocations it sets going in me, is why it has stayed close. Cilla’s pared-down language and accessibility belies an underlying multi-layered sophistication. ‘Low Tide, Aramoana’ has never given up all its secrets.
— Rhian Gallagher
Rhian Gallagher‘s debut poetry collection Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press, 2003) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection while her second collection Shift, ( 2011/ 2012) won the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. Gallagher’s most recent work Freda: Freda Du Faur, Southern Alps, 1909-1913 was produced in collaboration with printer Sarah M. Smith and printmaker Lynn Taylor (Otakou Press 2016). Rhian was awarded the Robert Burns Fellowship in 2018.
Cilla McQueen is a poet, teacher and artist; her multiple honours and awards include a Fulbright Visiting Writer’s Fellowship 1985,three New Zealand Book Awards 1983, 1989, 1991; an Hon.LittD Otago 2008, and the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry 2010. She was the National Library New Zealand Poet Laureate 2009 -11. Recent works include The Radio Room (Otago University Press 2010), In A Slant Light (Otago University Press, 2016), and poeta: selected and new poems (Otago University Press, 2018).
‘Into the Blue Light’ appeared in Stand Magazine (UK).
Rhian Gallagher’s first poetry collection Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press, 2003) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection. She received a Canterbury Community Historian Award in 2007- Feeling for Daylight: the Photographs of Jack Adamson was published by the South Canterbury Museum, 2010. In 2008 she received the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award. Her second collection Shift, (Auckland University Press 2011, Enitharmon Press, UK, 2012) won the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. Gallagher’s most recent work Freda: Freda Du Faur, Southern Alps, 1909-1913 was produced in collaboration with printer Sarah M. Smith and printmaker Lynn Taylor (Otakou Press 2016). Rhian was awarded the Robert Burns Fellowship in 2018.
Note from Laurence: Dunedin-based poet Rhian Gallagher was selected for the 2016 Printer in Residence programme run by the University of Otago’s Otakou Press. Rhian produced a suite of poems based on Australian mountaineer Freda du Faur, the first woman to reach the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook, in December 1910. She was not the first female mountaineer in New Zealand but she was young and single and this created problems because she lacked a husband or chaperone – and therefore spent days and nights alone in the company of her male guides. Freda may have been a ‘lady’ climber but she was also the greatest amateur mountaineer in this country during the summer seasons she spent at Cook, and she became famous.
‘The Smartest Buttercup’ – the opening poem in Rhian’s collection – has also faced problems with identity, representation and fame. Called the Mt Cook Lily by most, this buttercup grows in the alpine regions and has adapted a unique way of surviving the freezing cold and summer heat. Anyone walking up the Hooker Valley in early summer will know the Mount Cook Buttercup: it’s a beautiful flower that stands its ground.
Laurence Fearnley lives in Dunedin. In 2016 she was the recipient of the Janet Frame Memorial Award and the NZSA Auckland Museum Grant and she is currently researching and writing a book of essays and stories based on landscape and scent, divided into top notes, heart notes and base notes. For the past year she has also been co-editing an anthology of New Zealand mountaineering writing with Paul Hersey. This work has been generously funded by the Friends of the Hocken Collections and will include non-fiction, archival material, fiction and poetry and will be published by Otago University Press in 2018.
Rhian Gallagher first collection, Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press, 2003), was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection. Her second collection, Shift, (Auckland University Press 2011; Enitharmon Press, UK, 2012) won the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. Gallagher’s most recent work Freda: Freda Du Faur, Southern Alps, 1909-1913 was produced in collaboration with printer Sarah M. Smith and printmaker Lynn Taylor (Otakou Press 2016).
Rhian Gallagher’s work is a moving blend of unique perspectives and poetic craft that creates subtly haunting effects.
Her first book of poems Salt Water Creek, published in London, was shortlisted for the 2003 Forward Prize for First Collection. In New Zealand, she won a Canterbury History Foundation Award in 2007, and wrote Feeling for Daylight: The Photographs of Jack Adamson, a non-fiction biography published by the South Canterbury Museum. She won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry in 2012 for her second poetry collection, Shift.
In 2016, Gallagher collaborated with artist Lynn Taylor and Otakou Press printer-in-residence Sarah Smith to publish poems on the life and activities of Freda Du Faur (1882–1935), the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mount Cook.
She described the Burns Fellowship as an expansive, generous opportunity and a real honour. “In terms of creative space it is like moving from the backyard to a wide open plateau. Anything could happen! The Fellowship is also an opportunity for conversation and exchange within the humanities and, in this, it exudes possibility. It doesn’t involve a relocation for me but it is a completely new mindset.”
She will primarily be writing poetry. “One aspect of the work is focussed on the early history of the Seacliff Asylum in relation to Irish migrants. I’m looking to develop a series of letter poems.”
You know that something is going on when the café is not just packed, but has a crowd three-deep along the back wall. The Dog with Two Tails Café and Bar in Dunedin is usually full for the Octagon Poetry Collective’s monthly readings. But for the March readings, I was the host, and I knew that the word had gone out. I knew that people were juggling dates in their diaries to be there. They’d told me. And the reason was the same for all – Rhian Gallagher.
I was as aware as anyone that Rhian hadn’t read in public for a while, and so was feeling chuffed that she’d accepted my invitation to be one of my two featured poets in March. My second guest was Robyn Maree Pickens, a young poet, less well-known, but with a growing history of publication and a growing local following. Some of the crowd had come to hear Robyn as well.
From a host’s point of view, one of the many advantages of featuring much loved poets, is that other poets turn up in numbers, and the quality of the open mic readings is pretty impressive. This Wednesday night, it was great. We encourage new readers. Established poets also take their turn at the mic and set a standard that lifts everyone’s game. Over time, you can hear wobbly beginners develop confidence and an individual, deft use of words.
I divided the evening in two. After the first half of open mic readings I introduced Robyn. When I’d invited her to read, she’d expressed doubts that her work was ‘good enough’. I had no such doubts. She’d also said how nervous she was. Well, on the night, it didn’t show. Her poise was flawless, or looked that way to an outside observer. The standard of her poetry, and the way she presented it earned well-deserved hearty applause from a poetically discriminating crowd. Robyn Maree Pickens. Watch out for that name.
Then more open mic readers, a break, and time to introduce Rhian. People settled. People hushed. Rhian has a kind of reserve about her. She will undoubtedly think this report is over-blown. It ain’t. Her voice is quiet, measured, and the reserve means that she almost removes herself, and the words take over. And suyes. Rhian Gallagher is an exceptional poet. She finished reading. No one wanted to leave.
Carolyn McCurdie 2017
Into the Blue Light
for Kate Vercoe
I’m walking above myself in the blue light
indecently blue above the bay with its walk-on-water skin
here is the Kilmog slumping seaward
and the men in their high-vis vests
pouring tar and metal on gaping wounds
the last repair broke free; the highway doesn’t want
to lie still, none of us want to be
where we are exactly but somewhere else
bending and arrowing
the track a tree’s ascent, kaikawaka! hold on
to the growing power, sun igniting little shouts against my eyeballs
and clouds come from Australia
hunkering over the Tasman with their strange accent
Rhian Gallagher publishes beautiful poems, each one of them burnished to a sheen. Her first volume, Salt Water Creek, was published in the UK and shortlisted for the 2003 Forward Prize for best first collection. In 2012, her second collection, Shift (Auckland: AUP), won the NZ Book Award for Poetry.
How to choose a favourite poem from her oeuvre? I can’t, actually – there are many poems from her two collections that I love. So it’s been a deep pleasure these past few days to read both books again in search of one poem to talk about. At random, here are a few of the Gallagher lines that slay me: What did I ask of you, water of no-going…? (“Salt Water Creek”); Reaching for you was to hear the light expand (“A Winter’s Room”); Give us this day, cobbles worn to shine like water (“In the Old Town”); To walk off the edge of the green world (“Under the Pines”); It’s always been a wired country (“Paddocks”); Heat radiated from the schist, the air felt migrated (“The High Country”). The spirit animating these poems is open and alert; the writing is sensual and intelligent.
“The Wash House” is one fine example among many possible fine examples.
It’s a poem I simply cannot tire of. It casts its enchantment early through lulling lyricism, assonance, consonance and internal rhyme. I’m hooked before I know I’m hooked. Into this sound-cradle, Gallagher embeds concrete visual details: the firebox, the wooden lid of the deep and shiny copper, the stone sinks, a muddy child. Ah, you might think, how nostalgic. You would be wrong. As the poem progresses, its lyrical charm builds and intensifies. By the middle stanza, we’re hypnotised. Quietly and slowly, we step with the poet behind the “window choked with web”. We “listen hard”. Our eyes and ears adjust, and suddenly we’re in the “world of finds”, and what we find there is both brutally real and threaded through with the uncanny. Gallagher’s exquisite, multi-dimensional craftwork is invisible, but everywhere, in this poem (take the selection and placing of the last word, for one example). I recommend reading “The Wash House” aloud – I recommend learning it by heart.
Sue Wootton lives in Dunedin where she is a PhD student researching the affinity between medicine and literature. She is the selecting editor for the Otago Daily Times Weekend Poem column, and co-editor of the Health Humanities blog Corpus: Conversations about Medicine and Life. Her novel Strip (Makaro Press) is longlisted in the 2017 Okham NZ Book Awards. Her fifth poetry collection, The Yield, will be published in March by Otago University Press.
Over the past two years, Vincent O’Sullivan, current New Zealand Poet Laureate, has posted on the Laureate blog the work of poets he admires enormously. This has been a great way to dip and delve into New Zealand poetry. Rhian won the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry in 2011 with her debut collection (I was one of the judges) in year that was particularly strong in poetry. Fingers crossed these terrific new poems signal a new collection in the pipeline.
When Rhian Gallagher returned from almost two decades out of the country, and won the NZ Post Award in 2011, it seemed to me that there was a perceptible addition to what went on in our poetry. Here was a freshly attentive linguistic edge, a direct sensual intensity, a focus and gutsiness in writing of memory and regret, that seemed just that bit different from what any other writer here was doing. One reviewer called her poems ‘assiduously polished’, another picked up on ‘the visceral strength of her language’. What I admired then I find there again to admire in these unpublished poems. I’m glad my almost last laureate blog becomes the forum to display them.