Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page
Siobhan Harvey, James Norcliffe and Harry Ricketts (eds)
Godwit, $45.00, ISBN 9781775534594
So what makes poems essential? In their introduction to this most appealing collection, the three editors mull over the problem of their own title. Actually it is not their title, but a reprise of an earlier Godwit collection also called Essential New Zealand Poems. That was in 2001, a now out-of-print anthology edited by the late Lauris Edmond and Bill Sewell (both represented in this current version). Their selection criterion for “essential” was that a poem had “immediate impact”. As Sewell elaborated:
A poem had to present at least some aspect that made it instantly appealing to the heart and ear – to be memorable, or have a quality that would make the reader want to go back to it, preferably many times.
But as the present editors drily note: “The first Essential New Zealand Poems made no mention of the word ‘essential’ except in the title, and, wisely perhaps, made no attempt to tease out what might or might not be labelled an ‘essential New Zealand poem’.” They go on to pose other possible meanings: “essential”, as in absolutely necessary, indispensable – only to note that that would be something of an overstatement for even Shakespeare or Homer.
They also consider the conundrum of what makes a poem an “essentially” New Zealand poem, perhaps they mean “quintessential”? Allen Curnow is invoked – and the phrase “peculiarly New Zealand’s” from his poem “Attitudes for A New Zealand Poet (iii)”. This is not surprising. It is likely that most later local anthologists, consciously or unconsciously, have had Curnow’s culture-shaping Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse somewhere in the brain pan when they set about their tasks. Published so long ago (1960), it still challenges the cartographers who follow. Or perhaps we might say, published so recently; noting that our confident sense of a national literature has been barely 50 years in the making.
I find it disarming that, after rumination, the editors eventually declare they have kept the title mostly to tip their collective hat to Edmond’s and Sewell’s project and, dispensing with essentials whatever they may be, have instead looked at the state of the parties in 2014. And, my, have things changed. As the introduction emphasizes:
Contemporary poetry can be personal and public, passionate and disengaged, complex and simple, formal and informal. It can be condensed or distilled, rambling or bardic. It can be serious and comic, sometimes in the same poem. It can be for the page, the stage, the blog, the chat-room, the CD, the DVD, the iPod, the mobile, the Kindle and the Kobo. Wherever and however it is accessed, New Zealand poetry takes its influences from the present, the past, from Asia and the Pacific, from Europe and America … In short, with a magpie-like enthusiasm, it takes its influences from anywhere and everywhere.
So perhaps this collection could be called “eSensual New Zealand Poems”, a diverse selection of 150 items, loaded with Sewell’s “immediate impact” and, for the most part, pleasurable to both heart and eye. The editors selected 150 poets and then set about choosing just one poem from each. There are no historical chronologies, no themed sections, no larger and smaller allocations for the major and minor. There is something invigorating about simply arranging the poets in alphabetical order: Adcock, Aitchison, Alexander … Barnett, Baxter, Beach through to Yelich, Young and Zelas. They can be enjoyed in their arbitrary (but somehow providential) A to Z order or, of course, read at random – reset to play on shuffle.
From the first page, the collection snares the reader. Fleur Adcock’s “Having Sex with the Dead”, a sardonic reverie on departed lovers (their erections now “ash and dispersed chemicals”) is a commanding poem; reflective, erotic, unrepentantly pragmatic. “Disentangle your fingers from their hair”, she writes with finality. Then, in immediate contrast, is Johanna Aitchison’s villanelle “Letters from Japanese Kids”, a plangent patchwork of student class responses: “I’ll always remember you have a habit to bite your pen/I am lonely, but I do my best/Is this the end/Ms Johanna?”
The range of contributors spreads over three generations from Curnow and Denis Glover (born 1911 and 1912 respectively) through to Courtney Sina Meredith (born 1986) and Charlotte Trevella (born 1992). There are 80 women poets and 70 men, and they are mixed, matched, contrasted and accidentally aligned in ways which make this collection intriguing and rewarding to read.
There are familiar names from previous anthologies, sometimes represented by unexpected poems – C K Stead’s “Deconstructing the Rainbow Warrior”, Charles Brasch with the philosophical fatalism of “World Without End”, Ruth Dallas with the wryly brisk “Photographs of Pioneer Women” – “You can see from their faces/Life was not funny”. James K Baxter’s bellicose “Ode to Auckland” reminds of his topical pamphleteering, those impromptu ballads he knocked together in student refectories before heading for the microphone. And, elsewhere, we find “Honestly”, his wife J C Sturm’s honestly direct reflection on the turbulent life they shared.
In other poems with an historical perspective, Rangi Faith gives “Advice to a Colonial Artist” – “here, the blue slash of the plough,/there, the crimson slice of the harpoon,/& here the black smear of the factory/& the gun” – while Alistair Te Ariki Campbell describes “Te Rauparaha in Old Age”. In “Two Nudes on a Tahitian Beach, 1894”, Selina Tusitala Marsh’s young women have short shrift for the divisive interloper – “Gauguin,/you piss me/off.” Two pages further on is Karla Mila’s shrewdly bitter “Eating Dark Chocolate and Watching Paul Holmes’ Apology” – a recollection of name-calling and casual racism from childhood into adult life.
Many of these poems have an effortless and very distinctive sense of place, most often coastal settings. The titles alone tell us this – “St Heliers” (Sugu Pillay), “Proposal at Allans Beach” (Iain Lonie), “At Katherine’s Bay” (Maggie Rainey-Smith) and “Bluff Seas” (Nicholas Reid). Fiona Kidman’s celebratory “Makara Beach, Spring” says it all:
But god, it’s good, beside
the sea collecting wild flowers and weeds
of new zealand. Blue eyed daisies, white as foam
and dark as the sea’s centre … .
There are elegies to fathers – Sam Hunt’s memorably phrased “My Father Today”:
They buried him today
up Schnapper Rock Road,
my father in cold clay.
A heavy south wind towed
the drape of light away.
And one of the longest poems in the collection, the double sestina “The Sunflower” by Andrew Johnston, dedicated to his father, is a tribute marbled with archaisms and an oracular tone that could easily bring it down, but instead give the poem a heart-felt gravity:
if I see thee
on the other side, when I am dead,
I’ll know there is an other
side. Till then, while we have breath,
our burgeoning work is not done:
what we have been given is a rich, difficult day … .
There are many poems to admire here – the expert, tender cadences of Vincent O’Sullivan’s “Seeing You Asked”, Brian Turner’s pantheistic “Just This” and Kate Camp’s deftly drawn “Personal Effects”. Some have a simple structure and a lingering insistence like Rae Varcoe’s “My Hairdresser” and Alison Wong’s “There’s Always Things to Come Back to the Kitchen For”. Janet Frame’s “The Place” is a little pearl, and Rachel McAlpine’s sublimely rhymed “Before the Fall” redefines the hair on the back of the neck test:
After the bath with ragged towels
would dry us very carefully ….
He dried us all
the way he gave the parish
as if it was important,
as if God was fair,
as if it was really simple
if you would just be still
This is a collection that deserves to be shared around – to libraries, in classrooms, as Christmas presents, to read on the bus and take to the beach. It is not a snapshot of the New Zealand moment; there is strangely little of the zeitgeist here. It is unexpectedly non-urban, barely a coffee bean or a pop culture reference in sight. The tweets are magpies; the landscapes, if anything, still have too few lovers. Even the photographs dispersed throughout the book – Megan van Staden’s strange, double-exposed, low-contrast monochrome land- and seascapes – eerily lack the specifics of time and place, let alone picture any inhabitants.
But the terrain of Essential New Zealand Poems is the imagination, and that has many mansions. The anthology’s subtitle is drawn from Elizabeth Nannestad’s “Facing the Empty Page”, but the welcoming accessibility of these selections suggests that these imaginings have rarely been blocked or tormented. Almost all reveal poets who know what they want to say, and have taken care to make it apt, and memorably clear.
Murray Bramwell is a New Zealander living in Adelaide, where he is theatre critic for The Australian.