The love we live by, Pinky Agnew

Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Poems
Paula Green (ed)
Godwit, $36.99,
ISBN 9781869797621

 

Appropriately for a book of love poems, Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Poems is lovely to look at and to hold. Equally appropriately, closer acquaintance reveals a collection as warm, emotional, witty, loving and clever as an ideal lover. Editor Paula Green has collected poems from the 1930s to the present day. They mostly reflect love between couples, but others are about love of offspring, places, flowers, friends, food, and even objects. Kate Camp’s “Mute Song” celebrates the love between a swan and its pedal-boat doppelgänger. Glenn Colquhoun’s “Aunty Huia” chants the praises of a beloved elder.

When browsing booksellers’ shelves, I pick up poetry books and flick the pages, until one poem catches my eye. If I like it, I buy the book on the strength of that poem. Then I savour it over days, weeks, months, reading sometimes from the back, sometimes from the middle, and, very occasionally, from the beginning.

Standing at the post office, where I have opened the parcel from New Zealand Books, I graze Dear Heart. I find three poems I like within a minute: Fiona Farrell’s “The Castle”, a funny, practical fairytale; “You” by C K Stead, an evocation of the preciousness of a long-time love; and Karlo Mila’s “For the Father of my Children”, an intimate song of praise. An anthology is a wonderful way of finding new poets and of introducing poets to a wider audience. Old favourites like Bub Bridger’s “Wild Daisies” nestle alongside newer writers like Joan Fleming, whose two contributions are like tiny, perfect short stories.

At home, I read Green’s introduction. She has arranged the poems, she writes, as though she were “composing a symphony”. Too bad, Paula. I am flipping like a kid on an iPod. Hone Tuwhare’s sexy “Poem for Kereihi”: “My love is really iron/when she cries/and softer than/a pound of butter/when she kisses me.” The simplicity of Janet Frame’s “Before I Get Into Sleep With You”: “Before I get into sleep with you/I want to have been/into wakefulness, too.” Fleur Adcock’s tender “On a Son Returned to New Zealand”: “He is my green branch growing in a far plantation./He is my first invention.”

Green writes that “A poem can deliver a look of love that gives us goose bumps.” Charles Brasch’s “In Your Presence” has always been a goose bumper: “You, loved and known and unknown,/Are the one and only one/World I am chosen to dwell in.” J C Sturm’s “Urgently” is, too: “My dear one/And only dear/My moonrise/And early morning sun”

Dear Heart also presents us with a magical extra – beautiful pictures. The dust jacket illustration spells out the book’s title with nine paintings by leading New Zealand artists. These are repeated on pages throughout the book. John Reynolds’s vibrant red “t” perfectly complements Emma Neale’s facing poem “Newborn”: “His mouth a small red hearth”. But I prefer the book unwrapped. Michael Hight (who is also responsible for the quirky letter “a”) has designed simple, elegant pale-pink endpapers and inside cover, which give the book the look, on my bedside table, of an intimate journal.

Green has gathered an impressive number of poems together, of superb quality. She has presented them in a beautiful book, worthy of the poets and their work, and also worthy of the grandest of emotions – love.

As a wedding and civil union celebrant, I hear some dreadful “de dum de dum de dum” doggerel read nervously from tatty scraps of paper, trembling in nervous hands, and torn at by the brisk Wellington breeze. Dear Heart is a book to be held up proudly at a wedding and read from, its sturdy ribbon holding pages open against the stiffest breeze. A book to be kept beside the bed, to be read in the garden, on the bus and in the bath. To be read aloud to dear hearts, be they friends, lovers, parents, children or our own dear selves. It is a book to be read and reread, in and out of order – sorry about your symphony, Paula. This is a book to be bought and given away, again and again. For as Charles Brasch writes: “In love, what do we love/But to give and to receive/That love by which we live.”

 

Pinky Agnew is the editor of Heartsongs: Readings for Weddings (2006) and Lifesongs: Readings for Milestones (2006).

 

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