Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful!
‘The city that does not sleep’
New Age mystics. Wave-particle physics.
Federico Garcia Lorca, that all-night talker.
The law. The rot inside the apple core.
All dawdlers. Power walkers. Tattoo
parlours. Death metal concerts.
Poetry readings that go on for hours.
Cigarettes. White-singleted men in bedsits.
Responsibilities. Provincial cities.
Representation on committees.
Bad sex. Rainforest decks. Sunday best.
Other people’s crises. Lychees. Waste
of breath. At all costs, avoid death.
Too much sun. Too much of one thing.
Wagner’s Ring. Paintings of cows at eventide.
Cows in formaldehyde. Sentimentality
and cynicism. Literary criticism. Impartiality.
Anyone with a knife. The good life.
Goodbye, bagel, table for one.
Coffee, cigarette. Warmth of the sun.
Goodbye, sparrow. Goodbye, speckled hen.
Goodbye, tomorrow. Goodbye, remember when.
Goodbye pepper, goodbye, salt.
Goodbye, sour and bitter things. And honey. Malt.
Goodbye whiskey, cabernet, beer.
Goodbye, Christmas. Goodbye, New Year.
Goodbye mortgage, taxes, and bills,
renovator’s makeover, rotten windowsills,
lovers, hatreds, kid pen-pal from Mumbai.
Old body that I’ve come to know. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
Tim Upperton (from The night we ate the baby, Haunui Press, 2014)
On that note, I’ll conclude this 15 week Tiki Tour of New Zealand poetry—a rare opportunity to redirect some literary traffic eastwards, back across the Pacific. American voices have been heard in New Zealand for decades now—and their influence is everywhere to be felt in our contemporary poetry. Yet most American readers and writers don’t know much at all about New Zealand and its poetry. (A rare exception: Robert Creeley married a girl from Dunedin and used to drop by nearly often enough for us to claim him as a New Zealand poet.) For anyone wanting to explore antipodean poetry a little further, a good starting place is the ‘Best New Zealand Poetry’ website (administered by Chris Price and the Institute of Modern Letters)—an annual on-line publication inspired by the ‘Best American Poetry’ anthologies: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/iiml/bestnzpoems/index.html The site features such indispensable poets as James K. Baxter, Allen Curnow, Ian Wedde, Janet Frame, C. K. Stead, Keri Hulme, Geoff Cochrane, Kate Camp, Ashleigh Young and virtually all of the NZ poets featured on the present site over the past 15 weeks.
Among the anthologies in print, I can wholeheartedly recommend Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poets, ed. Andrew Johnston and Robyn Marsack (VUP & Carcanet, UK, 2008) and The best of the best New Zealand Poems (ed. Bill Manhire and Damien Wilkins, VUP 2012). For a wider view of the nation’s literature, the 1200 page compendium The AUP Anthology of New Zealand Literature (ed. Jane Stafford and Mark Williams, 2012) is—remarkably, given its size—sparky, enticing, energising and brilliant. Also worth a close look: Essential New Zealand Poems (ed. Siobhan Harvey, Harry Ricketts and James Norcliffe), 99 ways into New Zealand poetry (ed. Harry Ricketts and Paula Green), the periodicals Landfall, Sport, Hue & Cry, and the on-line journals: trout (http://www.trout.auckland.ac.nz/) and turbine (http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/iiml/turbine/Turbi13/index.html). Many thanks to all the poets and publishers who have helped present this sampler over the past three months.
Having reached the end of my 15-week stint without including any prose poetry, I would like to make mention of a genre which is in particularly good health here in the antipodes. Interested persons should seek out the work of Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle, Airini Beautrais, James MccNaughton, Aleksandra Lane, Cilla McQueen, Anne Kennedy, Michael Harlow and Richard von Sturmer, to name a few. I can’t resist adding (alongside a photograph by Victoria Birkinshaw) the following prose-poem by Rachel O’Neill (from One Human in Height, Hue & Cry Press 2013):
Closer and closer
She is a parachutist and for her own reasons approaches her family reunion from above. Falling, she spies a young girl who looks cool, dressed in fluorescent pink bike shorts, hair tied up with a scrunchie, which is a sort of mini deflated parachute for the head. It’s a sign that I’m landing in the middle of the right reunion, the parachutist thinks. Also she can see a group near a smoky BBQ, waving. The parachutist can’t yet confirm that she’s landing in the midst of the right people but she likes the look of them, the way they’re starting to part a little so that she can land safely amongst them. Please, let them be my family, she thinks, because whoever they are, they’re getting closer and closer.
Four poems from 'Puna Wai Korero--an anthology of Maori poetry in English'
The launching in Auckland this week of a major anthology of Maori poetry (in English) is cause for celebration and, hopefully, vigorous discussion. In their 400 page compendium, editors Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan have surveyed a rich, wide-ranging, lyrical, often politicised and much mythologised poetic landscape. Purposeful, sometimes argumentative, and nearly always bedrocked in immediate experience, Maori poetry--as portrayed here--keeps returning to fundamental relationships: between individuals, family, community, tribe and nation. The book contains laments and valedictions, ancestral meditations, conversations with mythical figures and, tellingly, a number of poems addressing the greatest Maori poet to date, Hone Tuwhare (1922--2008). 'Through language and ideas, through stories and shared experiences, we discover and rediscover what it is to be Maori,' the editors state in their introduction. 'Te korero te kai a te rangatira---and may we continue to be well fed.'
come rain hail
(Hone Tuwhare, 1970)
Restoring the ancestral house
Old walls creak
amid masonbee hum
through cracked timbers
sun splinters ricochet from
the one good eye
of the tekoteko
supine upon the floor
And I . . .
hand poised tentatively
to trace aged scrolls
of clays blueblack and white and kōkōwai
adornments on the ribs of
the ancestral house
let the master craftsman return
from the loosened tukutuku panel
to guide the untutored hand
The shadows move
and the house is full
grey mounds humped upon the whāriki
a child slurps upon his mother’s nipple
in the corner
muffled lover shufflings
and the old men snoring
But only spiders
people the house
and the marauding masonbee
are the spinners of tales
and the long night singing
and the old men stare
morose in their warped frames
drunk against the wall
And I . . .
and shiny acrylic
and cement for the dry rot
in the tekoteko’s back.
(Katerina Mataira, 1996)
For my father in prison, 1965
my father would have needed time to do this
To build a table
made from matchsticks, our only family heirloom
matchstick held together with some kind of glue
Just like the
brick building which held him
Yes, that’s it
stone upon black stone which kept him captive
He entered through
the heavily bolted steel door they held open
And when he emerged
he had a matchstick table and was very quiet
represented a fragment of his life
was there outside him, set in a glue and he was a shell
(Michael O'Leary, 1985)
Today I surrendered the life
of my Honda City
to a wrecker in Penrose for $30.
I bought it seven years ago for $6000.
It has rust in the lower sills,
rust around the side windows –
on the WOF inspection sheet it says:
‘this car has bad and a lot of rust . . .’
That car took me to Uncle Pat’s tangi in Bluff.
We stopped and gazed at Moeraki,
the dream sky, on the way.
A friend followed us in it on the way
to National Women’s for Temuera’s birth
(we were in her huge Citroen).
We went to Ōtaki, and Wellington,
in the Honda to visit family.
The Honda took me to Library School
perched next to Victoria Uni.
I drove Grandad across the creek in the Honda
at night after the family reunion bash.
Temuera’s first car seat was in the Honda.
That Honda has seen a high percentage
of my poetry.
Now I have left it behind.
(Robert Sullivan, from the sequence 'Star Waka', 1999)
Puna Wai Korero is published by Auckland University Press. Details and further poems from the anthology: http://www.press.auckland.ac.nz/en/browse-books/all-books/books-2014/puna-wai-k_rero--an-anthology-of-mori-poetry-in-english.html
poems of landscape
Dark’s falling. Stand
on the corner of the verandah
in the glass cold clear
night, looking out
to emerald and ruby harbour
too sharp to stay
enough just to
greet the bones lying
on the moon
and two fishing boats
Cilla McQueen (from Homing In, 1982; Axis,poems and drawings, 2001)
meditation on blue
sudden spears of
blue on grey
with the violence of
love in a
Joanna Margaret Paul (from like love poems / selected poems, 2006)
Hitching alone for the first time
I took a bus to the outskirts of the town
I grew up in. It was so flat. The Southern Alps
blared at me like a car radio.
It was drizzling but auspicious.
Five rides and three hours to get seventy kilometres.
But I got dropped at the corner, things
bounding in me like rabbits. And there, there
was Sarah, on the daffodil farm. All that space.
Hours yet of daylight. How well I would live.
Maria McMillan (from Tree Space, 2014)
Jungle Be Gentle
Nothing decipherable under the bath-blue lights
of the office building
Nothing to eat at the Thai Cuban fusion lunch bar
No one to tell about the sadness
of late evening meetings
or the bus driver’s rage at the door that won’t shut
We have not all been thinking about tigers
but today I heard someone say
‘I think I would give my life for a tiger’
I would give my life for tigers
Therese Lloyd (from Other Animals, 2013)
Light and shade
On one side of the tree
Lightning never struck.
Ancient birds sat in the branches
No wind could lift their feathers.
On the other side
Black leaves smoked.
Birds flew close, perched
Then fell to the ground like fruit.
Frances Samuel (from Sleeping on Horseback, 2014)
if her hemline is too long
her silk skirt too light
her colours too lovely
a lyric is like water and water
is walked alongside, and loved.
Dinah Hawken (from Water, Leaves, Stones, 1995)
Kahlei: My Beloved
deep within the Tonga Trench
I hear you whisper
for blood ties us back
where our ola shells
in the black lacquered
of your eyes
Leilani Tamu (from The Art of Excavation, 2014)
Acknowledgements and thanks to the publishers of the books from which these poems were taken: Victoria University Press, John McIndoe/Otago University Press and Anahera. The drawing is by the editor.)
Always on the cards
I haven’t been to Karachi. I’ve imagined it though.
I know they have problems there, and marriages
arranged by dealers, much as cricket matches
might be arranged. I know there are streets
more colourful than I’m likely to comprehend. There
are beautiful children with eyes no tourist’s
camera could resist, beautiful hungry children.
But that’s by the bye. I’m trying to find some
way to think of being dead, and it seems
not too absurd to consider it merely a place
I’ve never arrived at, but when I’m there, all I’m
used to goes on back here as it does, this minute
if you like, a car-horn jammed in a garage
round the corner, the heater I’m anxious if it’s been
turned off, a book with a bookmark’s lolling
leather tongue. It’s a matter of travel,
to put it blandly. Have you been dead lately?
I imagine someone saying, and answering, No,
but I still intend to, as I hope to visit Karachi.
-- Vincent O’Sullivan
Current New Zealand Poet Laureate, Vincent O’Sullivan is author of two novels, a biography of writer John Mulgan, and numerous collections of stories and poetry. He is also a playwright and, not surprisingly, his verse is often theatrical in its use of personae and dialogue, its dramatic entrances and exits. ‘Always on the cards’—which unfolds like a dramatic monologue—is from O’Sullivan’s latest collection Us, then (Victoria University Press 2013). As well as dissecting family and social relationships, O’Sullivan’s poems have a rare capacity to take on fads and lapses in the national character. Notably in this regard, his latest book includes a meditation on director Peter Jackson’s filmic recasting of New Zealand as Middle Earth. In the ensuing kitsch-fest, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have been subsumed holus-bolus into the popular national self-image, aided and enthusiastically abetted by the tourism board and a score of souvenir-touting operators. O’Sullivan’s observations on the present state of cultural confusion are worth quoting in full:
This time in 3-D
The usual spilling of ten thousand
orcs, the magic swords, dismembered
stacks, a warg’s head bouncing the Southern
Alps. A grey unspeakably boring wizard
making his Baden-Powell speeches on keeping
order in the Shire, serving the cause
of peaceable hobbits and shining, pure-
fabricked, waterfall-elegant elves.
I yearn for a piece of human flesh stabbing
the dear life at another piece. I want us
as we’ve always been. I want Reality
for God’s sake, the way it was trickily made!
the reports always said
she was conscientious but must learn
to work faster so she outran
the reading laboratory got through
tan to aqua and was safe at last
from the speed tests it was a valuable
lesson the letters dropped softly
into place making voices sing
or whisper there was so much to
keep track of kerning Times Roman
with a sable-haired brush serifs echoing
celestial geometry hours of work
for one or two words about time
she learned space and what lies between
compelling body and soul light and air
song and dance big letters flying
from keyboard to screen at a touch
marvellous sarabande starry gavotte
freehand the camber but understand
weight and measure the way
feet walk in the world and hands
turn pages that take them
out of it again and the copula
its even-handedness its tying
of one thing to another so that both
spin along the causeway expanding
possibilities a non-rival good
an open source a site for sore eyes
quick in its exchange slow to forget
the illuminations psst! pssssssss
sssssssst! pssssssssssssssst! poem
as event tied to the smallest detail
cut from the flying vista Alentejo
Pontchartrain beyond the river
is where we want to go Ponte Littorio
shimmering into della Libertà
that kind of hope that kind of day
that one beside you
offering an arm in the dark
Author of eight collections of poetry, Michele Leggott (born in Stratford, Taranaki, in 1956) is a Professor of English at the University of Auckland, from where she co-ordinates the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (http://www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz). A graduate of the University of British Columbia, Leggott wrote her PhD on the poetry of Louis Zukovsky (her dissertation was subsequently published as Reading Zukofsky’s "80 Flowers" in 1989). Leggott's poetry, since the 1980s, has been shaped by an intense scrutiny of Zukofsky and other recent North American poets, and by her later immersion in the work of pioneering generations of New Zealand woman poets such as Robin Hyde, Mary Stanley and Eileen Duggan. Her writing has retained the kind of taut, allusive musicality which would have appealed to Zukofsky while adopting, increasingly, the personal register and lyricism of Hyde and others. Teeming with incidents and details from the life of the mind, self and family (past and present), Leggott's poems are like preludes and fugues played upon the surfaces of the everyday.
'slow reader' is from her 2009 collection, Mirabile Dictu. Her most recent collection, Heartland, appeared from Auckland University Press this year.
The Old Dog
A slipping away on this still day.
Autumn in the warmth that is the wood of things.
A comfort in the old dog, like a rug.
Spiders get busy in the sun, knitting a past.
We write poems for dead fathers, for all that dies,
for all that dies by our hand.
A distant music, cars on the road.
Even birdsong, interrupted, the eternal trump.
The vein is open to the heart, unsuspecting as ever.
A heaviness comes upon ... upon me.
This heaviness, just wood to build the sky,
just sky to mask our deceptions.
I am building a great tower:
the wood in which all good things have gone.
Born in 1958, Tom Weston is a poet, solicitor and, most recently, a judge. In the latter capacity, he has served around the islands of the South Pacific as well as in Christchurch, where he lives (and where he remained during and after the devastation of the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes). Weston has published four poetry collections, of which The Ambigious Companion (1996) and Naming the Mind Like Trees (2004) are illustrated by one of Australasia's most inventive painters, Joanna Braithwaite. 'The old dog' is taken from his most recent book, Only one question (Steele Roberts, 2014)—a collection of poems which, he says, 'came into existence pre-earthquake but have been shaped and moulded post-earthquake'. Bearing in mind his profession, Weston's judgements on the world are commendably open-ended, elliptical and never tautological. With their many registers of voice (supplied by a lively cast of walk-on characters), the poems occupy a social space—equal parts courtroom, suburban street corner, outrigger canoe and drawing room facing the Southern Alps.
further information about Tom Weston: http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/Writers/Profiles/Weston,%20Tom
The Language of the Future
In the language of the future
today will always be today
and the moments will sparkle like bearings.
There will always be enough time
to get things done
because there will always be
enough hours in the day.
Countries will be divided up
into hexagons, and every hexagon
will be occupied by
a new idea. Everywhere
will be connected directly
with everywhere else
by the infallible laws
Straight lines will flow
into straight lines
across the golden fields,
across the golden fields melting
into the golden cities.
Gold will grow on vines.
In the future, language will also
grow on a vine, and everything we say
will be understood. People
will be able to speak their minds,
so that the world will seem
at first astonishing
and then strangely quiet. Some will begin
to choose their words carefully, but most
will come to regard communication
with a lengthening suspicion, so that eventually
the sounds themselves
will be granted independence
—and then held accountable.
As such, in the language of the future
the revelations of the new freedoms
will be the property of everyone
Breasts will become a
universal validating standard
and fat people
will be made illegal. Cars
will finally be included in
the Bill of Rights
and granted protection from
and other forms of
The emancipation of signs
will be the speed of change.
For in the future, brain retention will decrease
but thought-count will expand,
so that poking out one’s tongue
will be just the tip
of the iceberg.
And although the space separating words
from everything else
will have ceased to be, research will continue
and a distant descendant of Henry James
will discover a way of measuring exactly
the spaces between words.
Mapping will begin, and the first settlers
will arrive and gaze straight through
all that lies before them
whatever will be.
With the new discoveries
the insides of language
will be found to be made up of
trillions of interconnecting spheres.
Thus, the insides of many things
will come to be similarly
constructed, so that when a man
inserts his opinion
into a woman, her insides too
will glisten with spheres, which will whirr
and retract and increase slightly
in temperature. Teenagers courting in parents’ cars
will no longer do donuts, but will do spheres,
and, as the verbs decline, their rear-vision mirrors
will display the past
like kinetic sculpture.
Babies will start to be born with wheels,
making it easier
to get around.
Within the language of the future
everything will be different
and instantly recognisable.
We will touch our golden bodies together
and they will touch their golden bodies
together, and so on and so on.
But there will still be the stories
for we will always have the need
to be guided by voices. ‘Listen,’ they already whisper,
‘under the bushes, under the stars,
a cool hand talks silently, love …’
Anyone called James Brown growing up anywhere in the Western World during the 1970s was going to inherit a raft of high expectations, not to mention creative hurdles. The poetry of Palmerston North-born James Brown has risen well above this challenge. His writing is characterised by its infectious beats, rampant futurism (much in evidence in 'The Language...') and a brisk, heady handling of the lyric mode. All of which has led one critic of New Zealand literature to describe James Brown as 'The James Brown of New Zealand poetry'. Blessed with an intelligent and colourful family, a trusted mountain bike and a wide-ranging intelligence, he offers a distinctive brand of linguistic High Life, delivered in a manner that is usually droll and ironically self-regarding. The New Zealand James Brown (born 1966) knows how to work the crowd but, most of the time, opts for a far subtler routine.
James Brown's most recent collections are Favourite Monsters (2002), The Year of the Bicycle (2006) and Warm Auditorium (2012) all from Victoria University Press. Further details and links to other poems: http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/brownjames.html
Since David Eggleton's 'Painting Mount Taranaki' first appeared in the The Penguin Book of New Zealand Poetry in 1985, it has been one of the most discussed and deconstructed poems in the country's literary history. The poem is a meditation on Mount Taranaki (formerly known as Mount Egmont)--a Mount Fuji-like pyramidal volcano in the North Island, popularised on teatowels, biscuit tins and postcards for well over a century. Eggleton's poem is revisionist in character and volcanic in its gusto; it takes the reader on a break-neck tour of the farming province that wraps around three sides of the iconic mountain. Channeling Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl', the poem sweeps up ancient history, colonialism, consumerism and mass culture in a blaze of surreal observation and soulful invocation. While William Wordworth also figures in the pre-history of this poem, Eggleton's emotions are never quite 'recollected in tranquility'--his poems tend to be hyperactive, satirical and with equal parts euphoria and righteous anger.
‘Painting Mount Taranaki’
Mainly I was led to them, the casinos of aluminium,
by the gift of eyebright, whose hollow core contained
a vision of the coast and on it the cone shape,
like a pile of drenched wheat, of Mount Taranaki.
In a world covered in silica and
chucked-up alkathene, fibrolite, aluminium
it is just a peak surrounded on three sides by water.
For the Soviets, holding down a floor
of the Los Angeles Hilton is a forbidden
progression of the open society.
So, to the French, whose own symbol is an ageing Brigitte Bardot,
the mountain, just the same,
could be a logo for the butter they’ve no-noed,
dismissing a country’s living tannery with a sniff:
the hides of rain-slicked cows only acceptable
in the corner of a page by Frank Sargeson.
Corrupt innocence, a young brain, prodded Techtones,
featureless Features, a shot Texan burgerbar,
the list is endless but not one story seems complete
on its own, even tying up the numbered dots proves
less efficient than you might at first think
and, anyway, this absurd reductionist format is one
which can only begin to hint at the complex
Gossamer threads in air, truck belting down the drive,
irresistible wind urging on the silver mist threads
over the split, cheap graves and into green Norfolk pines.
During the Vietnam War Against Imperialist Aggression
I was schooled in classrooms near Mangere International Airport
as venerable millennium temples blew into
millions of fragments in lovely orange and black
negatives—in a variation on a theme
a close study of the status of stainless, chrome, plastic
superheroes revealed wild discrepancies.
Over the various eye-witness accounts
whirred the blades of gunships trailing and corpses
surfed by on an extravaganza of black Coke.
Later, as I put down another batch of jungle juice,
I began to learn that Man cannot live
on home-baked bread and granola alone.
So much up, I moved closer under the mountain
until I stood inside a convention of car dealers
in an Inglewood hotel.
Young and hopelessly flippant, I felt
I should be in an environment where it was easier
to make a buck and people were more understanding
about ‘in’ references to tribal totems.
I swan-dived through the sex shops of Wellington,
reaching towards vibrators in a glass case, only
to catch onto a picnic papercup then an electrified fence
as it threw the other way
on an elliptical approach towards the majestic
funereal mountain that figures at the violet centre
of the windscreen first dotted before being laced
by the rain caught in the drum-machine motion of Jupiter,
spearing the side of a punga with a flaming asteroid,
the cosmos being full of Hau-hau vistas.
In the snowstorm black-visored Samurai rode on
hornet-yellow Yamahas past a chipped, white,
enamel basin on a window ledge,
a plant trained to crawl up that same window,
the richly decayed caskets of autowreckers’ yards,
the tea kiosks of tourist stops
and up the winter volcano to the extinct lip.
From ash to dove to puce to brandy
the undersea turbines smashed the tints
of the glassy waves into sloppy froth and stiff whites.
A litany of rejects from dye vats,
the unwanted energy of their beauty decorated the feet
of the giant for whom the many Victorian explorers
also left souvenirs.
A string tie, cedarwood fan, lace-edged cambric,
saddlestrap, sherry glass, wristwatch, nightgown, velvet ribbon.
In the centre of ferns they were given back
the ghost images of sedated depressives in the foetal position.
As I scrubcut my way around a backblock wilderness
as unknown as Europe it was I who began to crack not it.
The mountain ‘Egmont’ rained down its ciphers as I slept
until I entered the psychologically tropic world
of heat and fever, lava village of the last upthrust.
Dealing with the giggling mountain, walking it,
you felt you had seen one of the quadrants,
fundament and crotch scored
between the arched legs of the world.
This province began to experience happenings.
A two-headed calf was born at Stratford,
at Bell Block at evening an old-age pensioner
hung himself by his shoelaces in a Corporation bus,
Dow Chemical Plant mutated into a radioactive centre,
firing out supernovae.
Sacred sites became fictions and sensitised scraps
of computer card in plastic envelopes were irrevocably
drawn into the throbbing whirlpool of events.
A drudge in a hotel kitchen cornered the market
in replicas of credit cards by fabricating a deception
which played on the public’s mounting fears of eruption.
His prolific operation soon saw him zooming
to the top of the money tree.
Bizarre mission for a steamy morning, hunting
through the underbelly’s growth canopy
for signs of the tribe as showers sweep down
and a rackety V8 is driven from under
a dilapidated carport overhang with the rain seeping in,
the tribe collapsed like a rusty barbed-wire fence
in front of a wedding-cake house with soft pink icing
spelling out blushes and little tears of joy
in the happy hour.
Scrawny wetas skipping across cushions of green moss
on fallen old totaras. Neat, eh, to see
ragwort, cocksfoot, fennel, catmint growing
round a shagged dinghy on a rusted cradle trailer
as wraiths ascend supplejack and the beekeeper
is rooted to the spot with a curse.
And now with the art that goes through daily life
the fundamentalist preacher, like a page of old history,
speckled, damp with mildew spots,
his Brylcreemed waffle of hair catching the morning sun,
walks in the foreground of cones of gravel,
central and terminal.
Stained stacks of Truth newspaper in the skew-whiff shed
adjacent to the off-balance dunny.
In the wool shearers’ abandoned quarters
a few stained, bloody mattresses, stuffed with kapok,
Cherubim perch on the shingle, ice-cream
types of gentlemen swing their partners
like candyfloss in a spin.
A bruised young mother,
with her mother in a trouser suit
and upswept wings of punished hair,
recalls knitting needles of the circle clicking
like train wheels
in the pink-wafer light that reminiscing imposes.
Quattrocento fanatics didn’t have it like this.
From them we borrowed cardinal red and pageboy hairstyles,
our larders and pantries stuffed with wholemeal loaves
on the rise, in ferment.
Beans swelling, sprouting out of their jars.
Nuts pouring from plastic sacks.
The stillness leads on into a chapel hush.
Grated carrot bristles.
The dinner guests shrunk
back from the gurgling wine like tarnished coins
thrown into a pocket
the questing forefinger seeks.
A Model-T Ford car hulk planted
in front of the mind like a zombie chariot before the cult of skis.
A battery of children
winding in a crocodile, candles aloft,
their seed teeth bared at the effort of the pilgrimage.
Those ropey arms and flayed legs are not
starved of sensation nor the sharp black/white
as the light snaps on.
Don’t knock yourself out,
Taranaki will be there in the morning,
the snow a gunky white blob of brilliantine,
an ornament, a gargoyle for Bat-Stud.
The town hall, pub, gymnasium, and squash court cluster
below, everything we have learnt reduces to a search
for the pyramid they burned down.
Of Fijian and European descent, David Eggleton was born in Auckland in 1952. During the 1980s he was known, both in New Zealand and on the international performance poetry circuit, as the 'Mad Kiwi Ranter'--and it was in that guise he was named 1985 Street Entertainer of the Year by London's Time Out magazine. As well as publishing numerous collections of poetry and a history of New Zealand rock music, he has written the best book to date on New Zealand photography, Into the Light (Craig Potton Publishing 2006). He is currently editor of the literary journal Landfall and the online 'Landfall Review' (see http://www.otago.ac.nz/press/landfall/currentissue.html)
Further information http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/eggleton.html
On crossing the border, I always
change my name. A simple precaution
& you to guard my back
Cristo, Waianakarua, Mt Misery & all
I am heavy with loot
& disappointment, heading south again
down the soft underbelly of the island,
like coke cans on the Kilmog
& already the rain.
You are waiting, with or without
my blessing, in a blue room of pictures
torn from magazines:
Mother Teresa, Athena's
sandaled Victory, a sequoia forest, an avocado
pear, gazelles, two babies in a bath with a chimp,
Ayers Rock by sunset, Hare Krishnas
in their old gold, mud pools, a street kid.
a bruise on your cheek.
'Sit down & I'll tell you a story.
At Moeraki in the old days lived a prophet,
Kiri Mahi Nahina, who taught all the people
that Tiki had made them, not Io.
Te Wera, the warrior,
struck him down with his taiaha. Plugged his eyes,
ears, nose, mouth, anus with moss to contain
the heresy. Then he & his warriors ate him.'
Nothing is high, nothing is low, nothing
This is the song, Miriama, you sing,
doublestopping on my heart strings.
Written with characteristic amounts of both tenderness and toughness, Bernadette Hall's 'miriama' is a paean to friendship, going places together and shared history. While postcard-like fragments of memory and past events hint at darker realities, it is the intimacy and lyricism of the poem's voice that prevail--the writer and Miriama in heartfeld conversation. As Vincent O'Sullivan has written, Hall's poems are 'the work of a questing, generous, civilised mind, one that quite knows what its values are, and that says so in ways that are definingly unique'. Born in Alexandra, Central Otago, in 1945, Bernadette Hall lives at Amberley Beach, just north of Christchurch. A graduate in classics from Otago University, she is also a playwright, editor and has produced memorable collaborations with visual artist Kathryn Madill. Since the publication in 2004 of The Merino Princess; selected poems (from which 'miriama' is taken), she has produced The Ponies (2007), The Lustre Jug (2009) and Life & Customs (2013), all from Victoria University Press.
Guthrie-Smith in New Zealand 1885
Who am I? What am I doing here
alone with 3000 sheep? I'm
turning their bones into grass. Later
I'll turn grass back into sheep.
I buy only the old and the lame.
They eat anything--bush, bracken, gorse.
Dead, they melt into one green fleece.
Who am I? I know the Lord's my shepherd
as I am theirs--but this
is the nineteenth century; Darwin
is God's First Mate. I must keep
my own log, full of facts if not love.
I own 10,000 acres and one dark lake.
On the seventh day those jaws don't stop.
Who am I? I am the one sheep
that must not get lost. So
I name names--rocks, flowers, fish:
knowing this place I learn to know myself.
I survive. The land becomes
my meat and tallow. I light my own lamps.
I hold back the dark with the blood of my lambs.
In 'Beginnings' Peter Bland revisits the life of an important colonial figure, W. H. Guthrie-Smith (1862-1940), who settled in New Zealand as a young man and leased a massive sheep-station called Tutira in the Hawkes Bay region. In 1921 Guthrie-Smith published Tutira--the story of a New Zealand sheep station, which went on to become a classic of New Zealand literature. Bland uses the figure of Guthrie-Smith to make some wry remarks about the changing face of 19th century New Zealand with its new covenant of Christianity, enlightened thinking, taxonomy and sheep-farming. (For much of the 20th century, the nation boasted about having ten sheep for every human inhabitant.).
Peter Bland was born in North Yorkshire, England, in 1934. Arriving in Wellington, aged 20, he studied at Victoria University; during the 1950s and 60s he was a key figure, with James K. Baxter, Alistair Campbell and Louis Johnson, in the Wellington Group. Since the 1970s, he has oscillated between Northern and Southern Hemispheres--and is presently based in Auckland. Not surprisingly, given the geographical shifts of his adult life, he continues to cast an incisive writerly eye over such matters as immigration, the expatriate condition and cultural identity, all handled with his characteristic wit, fellow feeling and tenderness (the latter quality is also much in evidence in his many poems about family). 'Beginnings' was included in Bland's Selected Poems (Carcanet, UK, 1998) and also appeared in his Collected Poems (Steele Roberts, NZ, 2012); his two most recent collections of poetry are Breath Dances (2013) and Hunting Elephants (2014). Peter Bland is also well known as a theatre and film actor in both New Zealand and England.
The sea question
The sea asks 'How is your life now?'
It does so obliquely, changing colour.
It is never the same on any two visits.
It is never the same in any particular
Only in generalities, tide and such matters
Wave height and suction, pebbles that rattle.
It doesn't presume to wear a white coat
But it questions you like a psychologist
As you walk beside it on its long couch.
New Zealand poetry has often engaged with the ocean--not surprisingly given that only one seventeenth of New Zealand is made up of dry land; the remainder of the nation's territory has the waters of the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea washing over it. While sea-poems tend to be soulful, often turbulent, excursions into the natural world and the human condition, Elizabeth Smither's 'The sea question' renegotiates the human/marine relationship. The lightness and lyricism of her imagined exchange has few precursors in New Zealand littoral poetry. With humanity laid out on a 'long couch' being counselled by the ocean, the poem acknowledges the sea not only as a natural resouce but also as a repository of wisdom. Maybe the ocean can restore humanity's well-being, if only we listen to what it has to say? Born in 1941, Elizabeth Smither lives in New Plymouth, in a small house looking out across the Tasman. Her poems are precise, exquisite miniatures--they bring to mind the vignettes of Elizabethan painter Nicholas Hilliard or the lute-songs of John Dowland. In their capacity to be, at once, heartfelt and oblique, they hark back to one of her favourite poets, Emily Dickinson. Elizabeth Smither's selected poems, The Tudor Style, was published in 1993; her most recent collection is The Blue Coat (Auckland University Press 2013). She has also published novels, short stories and non-fiction, all in the 'Elizabethan' manner.
Further information: www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/smitherelizabeth.html
Now the grandsons have a job they can do.
Are they paint or shadow?
There is something of the swan about them.
Are there birds on the horizon?
Clouds of black rise from their shovels,
perhaps believers, or sandflies
or grains of sand. Clouds of
alphabet, impossibly sad faces and someone
struggling up out of them with a guitar.
Perhaps this is Christ himself.
There are black crowds and white crowds.
A man with his ear pressed to a cold mirror.
Are those squalls, or a cling
of tiny black mussels on rock
sharp little barnacles?
In the sky there are muscular men holding each other
or they are holding a baby
or they are holding each other as they would a baby.
They walk and wheel away.
New ones take their place, dust devils,
the earth is sand here.
An older couple like Roman numerals
in volkswagen green cardigans.
Spilled cream or cordial a day later.
This is the face of an old man held in his own hands.
The floor is so cold it could be old cocoa.
This is a naked man trying to squat
a naked man trying to get up from squatting.
This is people gathered, beast-like,
their bent heads have leaves for ears.
Born in 1968, Hinemoana Baker is a prodigiously gifted singer/songwriter/poet of Maori and European descent. Written in memory of a family member, ‘Burial’ draws its almost calligraphic imagery from Colin McCahon's littoral painting Walk (Series C) (1973)--a frieze-like evocation of Muriwai Beach, near Auckland. McCahon's painting, accompanied by some responses by other New Zealand poets, can be found here: http://arts.tepapa.govt.nz/on-the-wall/walk-with-me. The final line of Baker's poem alludes to the Maori tradition whereby the family of the deceased wear tightly woven wreaths of kawakawa leaves around their heads. She has made numerous recordings and written three collections of poetry, most recently waha / mouth (Victoria University Press, 2014)--further information go here. Her first collection, matuhi / needle (co-published in the United States by actor Viggo Mortensen’s Perceval Press in 2004) contains one of the most succinct sporting poems ever written in New Zealand:
he needs to let the game go
he needs to go back to Townsville
he needs to know we didn’t drive seven hours
to listen to him play his whistle.
That's the boy, she'll say,
that's the boy in you -
sitting on some bench, or beach
gazing into the same
maddening distance. It's
the boy in her, she says,
that likes the girl in you. Ah, to be
a person, that's hard
enough. Sleep now. Get some sleep,
that's the boy.
-- Andrew Johnston
'Juliet' is from Andrew Johnston's most recent book, Do You Read Me? (2013), a collaboration with typographer/artist Sarah Maxey. Comprising 26 poems with accompanying pictures, one for each of the alphabet call signs, the collection offers an inventive and sonorous ensemble of colour-bands, sound-waves, patterns of thought and voice. It also contains a memorable meditation on that dubious New Zealand invention from the 1980s, the bungee: 'It was on the bungee jump / I was introduced to / the art of oscillation / ... it was on the bungee jump / my smile became a frown.'
Born 1963, in Upper Hutt, New Zealand, Andrew Johnston has lived in France since 1997. He has published five collections of poetry and, in 2009, co-edited with Robyn Marsack Twenty Contemporary New Zealand Poems (Carcanet/Victoria University Press). In 2004 he founded The Page, a site devoted to on-line literature, reviews and poetry, which he edited until 2009. (The site continues under the lively stewardship of John McAuliffe and others at the Centre for New Writing, Manchester University.) Johnston's double-sestina, 'The Sunflower', is deservedly considered one of the best New Zealand poems of recent years (it can be read in full here.
More poems, essays and other material: http://andrewjohnston.org/
waiting at the bus-stop
all I can think about
is how my hovercraft is full of eels
but it’s not, of course it’s not
my hovercraft is practically empty
my eels are few
in fact they’re not eels at all
but a netload of whitebait
and it isn’t even a hovercraft
I've never owned a hovercraft in my life
I wouldn’t know what to do with one
it’s not even a dinghy
it’s a reusable eco-friendly shopping bag
and they’re definitely not eels
and not even whitebait
the truth is, I've never been whitebaiting
they’re just vegetables
and I only have one thing to say:
now, baby, now
-- Janis Freegard
Based in Wellington, New Zealand, Janis Freegard has a background in botany and the natural sciences--territories her poems are intent on celebrating, excavating, reconfiguring and subverting. 'A Life Blighted by Pythons' is from her first collection, Kingdom Animalia, published by Auckland University Press in 2011. Within the zoo-like enclosure of that book, she collects and catalogues numerous species, inspired by the Swedish naturalist and 'Father of Taxonomy', Carolus Linnaeus (1707-78), about whom Freegard writes on her blog. Like the most interesting bestiaries of past eras, her poems tell us more about the human condition than they do about the natural world of which humanity is a part. What exactly is going on in Freegard's 'blighted life'? A Freudian psychologist would have a field day with her ensemble of snakes and hovercraft. Is the poem propelled by love or lust or neurosis? Or is it simply the product of a hyperactive imagination? For the record, there are no species of snakes living in the wild in New Zealand, although there are a great many eels. And there are no public hovercrafts; the only examples are in the service of eccentric millionaires.
The fire alarm sound: is given as a howling sound. Do
not use the lifts. The optimism sound: is given as the
sound of a man brushing his teeth. Do not go to bed.
The respectability sound: is given as a familiar honking
sound. Do not run, do not sing. The dearly-departed
sound: is given as a rumble in the bones. Do not enter
the coffin. The afterlife sound: is given as the music of
the spheres. It will not reconstruct. The bordello sound:
is given as a small child screaming. Do not turn on the
light. The accident sound: is given as an ambulance
sound. You can hear it coming closer, do not crowd the
footpaths. The execution sound: is given as the sound of
prayer. Oh be cautious, do not stand too near
or you will surely hear: the machinegun sound, the weeping
mother sound, the agony sound, the dying child sound:
whose voice is already drowned by the approaching
helicopter sound: which is given as the dead flower
sound, the warlord sound, the hunting and fleeing and
clattering sound, the amputation sound, the bloodbath
sound, the sound of the President quietly addressing
his dinner; now he places his knife and fork together (a
polite and tidy sound) before addressing the nation
and making a just and necessary war sound: which is given
as a freedom sound (do not cherish memory): which is
given as a security sound: which is given as a prisoner
sound: which is given again as a war sound: which is
a torture sound and a watchtower sound and a firing
sound: which is given as a Timor sound: which is given
as a decapitation sound (do not think you will not gasp
tomorrow): which is given as a Darfur sound: which is
given as a Dachau sound: which is given as a dry river-
bed sound, as a wind in the poplars sound: which is
given again as an angry god sound:
which is here as a Muslim sound: which is here as a Christian
sound: which is here as a Jewish sound: which is here as
a merciful god sound: which is here as a praying sound;
which is here as a kneeling sound: which is here as a
scripture sound: which is here as a black-wing sound: as
a dark-cloud sound: as a black-ash sound: which is given
as a howling sound: which is given as a fire alarm sound:
which is given late at night, calling you from your bed (do
not use the lifts): which is given as a burning sound, no,
as a human sound, as a heartbeat sound: which is given
as a sound beyond sound: which is given as the sound
of many weeping: which is given as an entirely familiar
sound, a sound like no other, up there high in the smoke
above the stars
Bill Manhire's Selected Poems appeared earlier this year from Carcanet (UK) and from Victoria University Press (NZ), a few months earlier. Included in that collection, 'Hotel Emergencies' was written in 2004, at the height of the Iraq conflict. The poem is just as poignant ten years later. Most of the time, Bill Manhire (born 1946) is a poet of the lilting, if often disconcerting, personal lyric. Among his influences are an unconventional upbringing in public hotels around the remote New Zealand province of Southland, his early studies of Icelandic literature, and a wide-ranging attentiveness which has brought him into fruitful collaborations with visual artists including Ralph Hotere (1931-2013) and with numerous composers--most recently, Norman Meehan (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1D9zKYfBxo). With its sense of public urgency and its almost panicked delivery, 'Hotel Emergenices' is uncharacteristically direct in its engagement with the socio-political world, yet the form of intimate address and the graceful accumulation of details is typical of Manhire's poetry.
Beginning this week, Gregory O'Brien will be curating a weekly series featuring poets of New Zealand. Poet, essayist, artist and curator Gregory O'Brien was born in Matamata, New Zealand, in 1961. His most recent collections of poetry are 'Beauties of the Octagonal Pool' (Auckland University Press 2012) and a collaboration with photographer Bruce Foster, 'Citizen of Santiago' (Trapeze 2013). He is a regular contributor to the UK journal PN Review. Carcanet (Manchester) has published two of his books, 'Days Beside Water' (1994) and 'News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore' (2007). In 1996 he co-edited the Oxford University Press Anthology of New Zealand Poetry (in English). O'Brien is a full-time writer and artist based in Wellington. Find out more about Gregory here.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.