New flames, Helen Rickerby

Poetry NZ 18
ed Alistair Paterson
Brick Row, $17.95, ISSN 0114 5770

The Second New Zealand Haiku Anthology
ed Cyril Childs
New Zealand Poetry Society, $18.95, 
ISBN 0 473 05374 8

climbing the flame tree
ed Vivienne Jepsen
New Zealand Poetry Society, $14.95, 
ISBN 0 473 05582 1

Dweller on the Threshold
Noel Ginn
Steele Roberts, $21.95, 
ISBN 1 877228 01 X

The most appealing thing about anthologies and literary 
 journals is that they are almost certain to contain something that you’ll like. At least one of the voices is bound to speak to you, and that is the case with the first three books under review – you won’t like every poem, but you’ll probably find enough that appeal to make the reading worthwhile.

Variety is one of the strengths of Poetry NZ. Editor Alistair Paterson has always tried to include a wide range of styles and poets, from the established to the new, the local and the international. Issue 18 features a strong contingent of overseas poets, not to displace local talent but to extend the catchment area in an attempt to gain overseas readership for New Zealand poetry. A noble aim, and I hope it works.

Several local writers stand out. One is Jayne Fenton Keane, whose marvellously titled poem “An Evening in the Vinyl Republic” warmly depicts an evening in Grandma and Grandad’s lounge. It contains the evocative line, “Grandma laughs and youth cracks her face”. The narrator looks at the three generations of her family and anticipates the next: “The family sups on my body’s feast. / My nipples flex with nurturing.”

“How tall is God?” by Denise Sammons, while not entirely successful, is an attempt to explore the fashionable but fascinating subject of reality and identity on the Internet. The net is an environment where you can play alternative roles, play at being your own creator:

Look, whose reality is this?
Are you:
(a) Male/Female – tick one
(b) Black/White – tick one
(c) Homosexual/Heterosexual – tick one
(d) Rich/Poor – tick one.
create the myth
and reality.

Don Anbury plays with pantheism in “For my sister-in-law who wants me to find God”. The speaker looks for God in the modern and mechanical (“god’s also in the power, beauty and splendour of a ’57 chevy”) as well as in the typical natural environment.

The Second New Zealand Haiku Anthology is, as the title suggests, a follow-up to the first, which appeared in 1993. This anthology, published by the New Zealand Poetry Society, presents the haiku of 35 New Zealand writers, several of whom – p n w donnelly, Ruth Dallas, Bernard Gadd and John O’Connor, for instance – are familiar from other forms of poetry. These are not the haiku you might remember being forced to write in primary school, with three strict lines of 5/7/5 syllables. While most do have three lines, the strictness of form does not seem to be the primary way of identifying these as haiku. The Introduction tells us:

Haiku is about images (often unexpectedly juxtaposed) that arouse interest and emotions; about layers of suggestion and implications – these give haiku their all important “depth”. Haiku is about sparseness and clarity, the right choice of words that convey images explicitly and emotions implicitly.

The ideal haiku can take something prosaic and ordinary and force the reader to see it in a new light, as was the aim of the Imagist poets in the early years of the century. At its most banal, haiku describes something prosaic and ordinary, leaving the reader staring at the page thinking “Yeah, so?” To me, many of the haiku in this anthology were of the latter kind. It may be that the short, understated style of haiku just isn’t my cup of tea; however, there were some poems that stood out. These had sharp images that resonated, rather than falling flat on the page. Some examples are Bernard Gadd’s

on the rim of the tumbler –
miniature sun

or Kay McKenzie Cooke’s

Dad’s earth-stained hands
showing me …
the stars

The New Zealand Poetry Society’s anthology from their 1998 International Poetry Competition, climbing the flame tree, is divided into three sections: one for haiku, one for haiku written by children and entered in the Schools’ Haiku Section of the competition, and the main section containing a selection of poems entered in the Open Section of the competition. It is not arranged according to rank, as might be expected. Rather, the editor has placed the poems so that they can “talk” to each other, resonate with each other. While this approach works to some extent, it is slightly frustrating having to hunt to pages 54 and 57 for the poems placed first equal: Sue Fitchett’s “fires across the landscape” and John O’Connor’s “A Left Hook”. And as much as we may pretend otherwise, it is the winners that we really want to read.

Poetry competitions and their accompanying anthologies serve much the same purpose as literary journals, as a way for new writers to gain encouragement and notice, and as an outlet for the new poems of more established writers. climbing the flame tree fulfils this, and the other important function of local literary journals – that of providing an overview of contemporary New Zealand writing.

Noel Ginn has been hitherto known as the man James K Baxter corresponded with as a boy finding his feet in the world of poetry. Ginn was, from 1942-1946, held in Hautu Detention Camp for conscientious objectors, and sharing his hut was Terence Baxter, James K’s older brother. While the younger Baxter brother went on to become arguably New Zealand’s best poet, Ginn became a horticulturist and largely gave up writing.

Dweller on the threshold is, not coincidentally, edited and introduced by Paul Millar, who has almost single-handedly begun a Baxter-related publishing boom, with books by and about Baxter. One can imagine Millar encouraging and arranging the publication of Dweller on the threshold as a tribute to this obviously remarkable man, whom he met in connection with his work on Baxter.

Ginn comes across in his poems as a man of rich experience, and it is usually the poems which most draw on those experiences that shine out in this collection of somewhat uneven quality. “Bugle Days, 1920s” recounts the priorities of the society of his childhood:

Flags those days flew from every mast,
King and country were the true religion,
Not to die on the field the biggest disgrace,
Not to lay down your life an act of treason …

– lines even more haunting when you know that Ginn rejected the popular mindset, and suffered for it.

The collection is divided into two sections. The first, “Singing On”, is dominated by the recurring themes of ageing and death. The second, “Here in the Sun”, is concerned primarily with exploring India, where Ginn has lived since his retirement. Many of these poems look at India from the perspective of an outsider looking in, a dweller on the threshold of that society. Some suffer from this, such as “Constitutional”, with its jaunty tone of an Englishman in the colonies, and lines such as “Naught is more conducive / To urban circumspection”.

However, another Indian poem, “Cape Comorin, Kenniyakamari”, is one of the strongest in the collection. This conveys a deep understanding of, and affection for, his adopted country, ending with the memorable description of Mother India as “Our Mother of Incongruities”.

Helen Rickerby has recently completed an MA in English at Victoria University of Wellington.

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