Ah, I have loved so many poetry books published in 2019, so many of which could easily have made this shortlist ( I have no interest in hammering on about who is not here), but I felt a warm poetry glow that these four were picked. I spent a long time with each of these collections because they do what poetry does so well. They make you feel things, ponder the world, walk new tracks, make your body sway, refresh versions of the world, little and large.
I raise my poetry glass to Anne Kennedy, Helen Rickerby, Steven Toussaint and Ashleigh Young. Yep, this is a very fine shortlist.
The thing in the jar
The rice cooker steams
so the sun goes down
Deep in the house
The pencil has eaten
the fragile book
from ‘Thirty-Three Transformations on a Theme of Philip’
I first read Anne Kennedy’s new collection Moth Hour (Auckland University Press) as a piece of music that traces the contours of grief. Words form little melodies, solo instruments sound out, there is echo, overlap, loop and patterning. Above all there is a syncopated beat that leaves room for breath, an intake of pain, an out-sigh of grief, an intake of observation, an out-breath of recognition. There is the fragile word-dance to the light.
Moth Hour responds to a family tragedy; in 1973, at the age of twenty-two, Anne’s brother, Philip, accidentally fell to his death. Anne, her seven siblings (she was the youngest and aged fourteen) and parents now lived with unbearable grief and loss, separately, diversely, as a family.
Like a mesmerising, lung-like piece of music, Moth Hour is a book of return-listening. Every time you place the poetry on the turntable of your reading you will hear something different. It blisters your skin. It touches you. But above all Moth Hour fills you with the variation and joy of what a lithe poet can do.
My full piece here
Auckland University Press author page
Anne Kennedy is a writer of fiction, film scripts and poetry. Her debut poetry collection Sing-song was named Poetry Book of the Year at the 2004 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. The Time of the Giants was shortlisted for the same award in 2006, and The Darling North won the 2013 NZ Post Book Award for Poetry. Her novels include The Last Days of the National Costume, shortlisted for the NZ Post Book Award for Fiction in 2014, and The Ice Shelf longlisted in the 2019 Ockham NZ Book Awards. She lives in Auckland.
I slept my way into silence
through the afternoon, after days
of too many words and not enough words
to make the map she needs
to find her way from here
I wake, too late, with a headache
and she, in the garden wakes up shivering
from ‘Navigating by the stars’
Helen Rickerby’s latest poetry collection How to Live (Auckland University Press) is a joy to read. She brings her title question to the lives of women, in shifting forms and across diverse lengths, with both wit and acumen. Like many contemporary poets she is cracking open poetic forms – widening what a poem can do – as though taking a cue from art and its ability both to make art from anything and in any way imaginable.
Reading this book invigorates me. Two longer poems are particularly magnetic: ‘Notes on the unsilent woman’ and ‘George Eliot: a life’. Both function as fascination assemblages. They allow the reader to absorb lyrical phrases, humour, biography, autobiography, insistent questions. Biography is enlivened by such an approach, as is poetry.
‘How to live’ is a question equally open to interpretation as it ripples through the poems; and it makes poetry a significant part of the myriad answers. I haven’t read a book quite like this and I love that. The writing is lucid, uplifting, provocative, revealing, acidic, groundbreaking. The subject matter offers breadth and depth, illuminations, little anchors, liberations, shadows. I am all the better for having read this book. I just love it.
My full piece here
Poetry Shelf Audio Spot: Helen reads ‘How to live through this’
Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Helen’s “Mr Anderson, you heartbreaker you’
Anna Jackson’s launch speech for How to Live
Helen Rickerby is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently How to Live (Auckland University Press, 2019). She likes questions even more than answers. Since 2004 she has single-handedly run boutique publishing company Seraph Press, an increasingly important publisher of New Zealand literature, focusing on poetry. Helen lives in a cliff-top tower in Aro Valley, and works as an editor.
abide more tritone idle mode
the dominant’s a leaky still
for quiet divination
for every thought
a finger on
board’s shifting centre
where nothing dearer
than the pure heart’s
from ‘Aevum Measures’
Steven’s Lay Studies (Victoria University Press) entrances on multiple levels; initially through the exquisite musical pitch and counterpoints, and then in the way heart and mind are both engaged. His sumptuous poetic terrain is physical, elusive, stretching, kinetic, mysterious, difficult, beautiful. Hearing the poetry read aloud is utterly transporting. An extract from our interview:
Paula: When I listen to the ‘regular pulse’ of ‘Aevum Measures’, I am not dissecting its craft, I am feeling its craft like I feel music before I react to other features. The reading experience might be viewed as transcendental – an uplift from the physical world and from routine. I am suggesting I let myself go in the poem. Does this make sense? And is it, on another level, a way of being spiritual in a ransacked world?
Steven: It makes a lot of sense, and I am gratified to hear that you could lose yourself in the music of the poem. What you describe sounds somewhat like Keats’ notion of ‘negative capability.’ That is to say, if the sonic architecture of the poem is doing its job, then the reader is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ at the semantic level. Not that the semantic level – what the poem is literally ‘about’ – is insignificant. The music would be thin and feeble without varied syntax, rich diction, logical continuity and metaphor. And yet, the poem’s semantic sense is ‘heightened,’ elevated out of the ‘horizontal’ realm of mere communication, information, or transaction by its participation in ‘vertical’ patterns of sound whose ‘meaning’ is intuitively felt, as a kind of felicity, but cannot be rationally reduced or summarised away.
And you hit the nail on the head when you point to the spiritual implications of this phenomenon. Walter Pater said that all art ‘aspires to the condition of music.’ Over the past several years, I’ve come around to a different a view. While writing Lay Studies, I fell under the influence of a number of Christian theologians of an Augustinian-Thomistic persuasion, especially Catherine Pickstock, to whom one of the poems in the book is dedicated. She suggests that liturgical doxology is the art toward which all others strive, a gesamtkunstwerk performing the narrative of salvation history. As such, the worshipper willingly submits herself to a mode of expression, praise, that is both recollective and anticipatory. The rhythm of liturgy – interpreted as a gratuitous gift, contoured by procession, repetition, and return – offers an implicit critique of the violence, entropy, and fatal self-enclosedness of historical time. I believe poetry can approach liturgy by analogy. A training in prosody might help us to see the world, ourselves, and our speech-acts sacramentally, as vertically conditioned by grace.
Steven in conversation with Karyn Hay RNZ National
Poetry Shelf Audio Spot: Steven reads ‘Aevum Measures’
Victoria University author page
Steven Toussaint, born in Chicago, immigrated to New Zealand in 2011. He has studied poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the International Institute of Modern Letters and philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge. He has published a chapbook of poems, Fiddlehead (Compound Press, 2014), and a debut collection, The Bellfounder (The Cultural Study Society, 2015). His writing has also recently appeared in Poetry, Commonweal, The Spinoff, Sport, and The Winter Anthology. He has been recognised in the past few years by residencies at The University of Waikato, the Michael King Writers’ Centre and with a Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship. He is currently pursuing graduate study in philosophical theology at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Victoria University Press recently published his second full poetry collection, Lay Studies.
If a waterfall no longer has water, it is a groove
that suggests a falling motion, just as this trail
suggests a walking motion
but if a person keeps walking until there is no more walk to take
they will no longer look forward to it, so will turn back.
I have written about How I Get Ready (Victoria University Press) in Wild Honey so have tried not to repeat myself (in my review) or even refer to the poems I picked to talk about in the book! But Ashleigh became one of my sky poets for all kinds of reasons.
I like the shape of this book – this matters with poetry – because when a poetry book is good to hold it makes you want to linger even more, to stall upon a page. The book looks good, the paper feels good, and the cover drawing by Sam Duckor-Jones is a perfect fit. His idiosyncratic artwork moves in and out of reality, a person tilted by anxiety, the wind, both exposed and screened. A little like the poems inside the book. This is a collection of waiting, breathing, of curious things, anxieties, anecdotes, lists, found things, recycled words; little starts in your head as you read.
Every poem catches me! Some books you pick up, scan a few pages and then put down because you just can’t traverse the bridge into the poems. Not this one. It is as exhilarating as riding a bicycle into terrain that is both intensely familiar and breathtaking not. The speaker is both screened and exposed. The writing feels like it comes out of slow gestation and astutely measured craft. I say this because I have read this andante, at a snail’s pace. Glorious!
Poetry Shelf Monday Poem: Ashleigh’s ‘If so how’
Victoria University page
Ashleigh Young lives in Wellington and works as an editor at Victoria University Press. She is the author of Magnificent Moon (poems), Can You Tolerate This? (essays), and How I Get Ready (poems). She writes a fortnightly column in Canvas magazine and is the poetry editor at The Spinoff.
Full Ockham NZ Book Awards shortlists.
I am so chuffed (another warm word!) Wild Honey: Reading NZ Women’s Poetry has been shortlisted in the general nonfiction category. Never have any expectations when it comes to awards – just see it as a time to celebrate some of the great books we publish each year.