Tag Archives: Rhian Gallagher

A southern poetry reading and poem sampler: Carolyn McCurdie on Rhian and Robyn





Rhian and Robyn

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

‘get out the sky mate!’ I’m high as a wing tip

where the aches meet the bliss

summit rocks exploding with lichen and moss –

little soft fellas suckered to a groove

bloom and bloom – the track isn’t content


©Rhian Gallager 2017


All the way


To whet a structure like this:

a temple; a palace; a tomb;

I bring my roosting being down

from an adjacent planetary system,

and feel the dew lining each blade

of grass.


I offer fresh pineapple chunks

and pointy rose quartz crystals,

twelve distinct species of lichen,

and a harvest of fine salmon bones.


I bend unpruned effusion; quiver

like a minnow free; become human sap

that slips out the side of the mountain.


I smell what bees taste; feel my forehead

crease into the occasional sun; greet

the raindrop that finds my eyelid; trace

the soft down dune of your neck; drift

into immense fields of information:

microbial, arboreal, mycorrhizal. Palpating

organs that bring salt to the pore; lift

heat from the asphalt; hold the glisten

in an ear of corn.


Till we are limbed-loose and I live all

the way through to you; tendered

to the meat-earth; to the black peat;

the mantling mica, oracular bracken, ur-apple.

Craving, lifting into this flowering temple.

with an end, flax rattling their sabres,

tussock like miles of heads

drying their hair in the stiff southeasterly; 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.


©Robyn Maree Pickens

Poetry Shelf The Summer Season: Poets pick poems – Sue Wootton picks Rhian Gallagher


The Wash House


The turning on was slower done — the firebox stoked,

the wooden lid the copper had, gilded shine of its deep pan.

And side by side two great stone sinks

for suds and rinse, could hold a muddy child.


The place became a store — chook mash,

pig grits — housed a mat and dust of wares,

played host to mouse. Cat found a hide for bed

and laid her kittens there.


One small window choked with web,

light gave way across the floor; each step

softening to listen hard

though you could never say what for.


Warped tracks of tallboy teased, opened to a world of finds.

A jar of pennies turned to bank. Rust crept

along the blades of knives. And each oilskin coat, from its nail,

stiffened like a corpse impaled. The kittens ended in a sack.


The shedding held small lost endeavour, walls with cracks

poached by the weather, dissolved the meanest acts of time

where garden slept in seed sachets, the mewing

ghosts, the lynching strength of binder twine.


©Rhian Gallagher, Shift Auckland University Press, 2011.




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


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.

website here


NZ Poet Laureate Vincent O’Sullivan sings the praises of Rhian Gallagher


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.


He writes:

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.

– Vincent O’Sullivan

You can see the selected poems here.


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