A swarm of poets, Airini Beautrais 

Manifesto Aotearoa: 101 Political Poems
Philip Temple and Emma Neale (eds)
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780947522469

 

New Zealand poetry in English has a long and complex tradition of politically-charged work: from colonial balladeers, through 20th-century heavyweights like Allen Curnow (as himself and as Whim Wham) and James K Baxter, to more recent poets including Bill Sewell, Robert Sullivan, Dinah Hawken and Hinemoana Baker. Despite this tradition, and perhaps in line with a neo-liberal mood-shift towards individualism and consumerism, an attitude has existed in recent years that there isn’t much political content in our poetry, or that it doesn’t belong there. Sullivan, in his 2010 sequence Cassino: City of Martyrs, bluntly calls such an attitude out in the lines “New Zealand / and its official status quo disdain / for political verse as if it was anything but.” Appearing against this historical and contemporary backdrop, Philip Temple’s and Emma Neale’s Manifesto anthology is a timely and welcome project.

Rather than a retrospective summary of the history of New Zealand political poetry, this is a contemporary anthology, compiled from submissions invited by the editors. Each editor has contributed a separate introduction (with somewhat different perspectives on the anthology and on the purpose of poetry), and Temple acknowledges in his that “perhaps there is another anthology to be assembled of political poems past, because collections of such poetry have been rare”. He unfortunately neglects to mention Hinemoana Baker’s and Maria McMillan’s Kaupapa: New Zealand Poems, World Issues (2007); however, the point he makes is a pertinent one. Rather than the “isolated cries” Temple describes, poems of a political bent appear fairly abundant once one begins searching with any degree of seriousness. Moreover, the book-length poem sequence on or featuring political themes is a definite phenomenon in our poetry, examples including Sullivan’s Cassino and Captain Cook in the Underworld, Ian Wedde’s Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos, Sewell’s Erebus and The Ballad of Fifty-One, and Chris Tse’s How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes. I was happy to have had a poem from my own political sequence Dear Neil Roberts included in this anthology.

Through its means of compilation, Manifesto comes out with a distinct flavour. In this respect, it calls to mind the mood, if not the editorial process, of Alan Brunton’s, Michele Leggott’s and Murray Edmond’s Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960 to 1975. Many of the strident, bluntly conversational voices in Manifesto would not appear out of place amongst Big Smoke’s abundant ampersands, abbreviations and counter-cultural sloganeering. Indeed, Edmond is given the last word in Temple’s and Neale’s anthology, in a tongue-in-cheek paratext (or is it a prose poem?) titled “A Swarm of Poets”.

Manifesto certainly does contain a swarm of poets, and a diversity of voices. The anthology is divided into four sections: Politics, Rights, Environment and Conflict, but given the intersectional nature of much of the material (and contemporary politics in general), these appear to be aids to readability as much as thematic groupings. It is a tough book to read cover-to-cover, due to the often disturbing nature of the content, but also due to the contrasting tones and styles, which preclude easy shifts from poem to poem. It is best dipped into, and if one is after a poem on any particular political subject (climate change, for instance, or homelessness), there’s a good chance there’ll be something in here that fits the purpose.

I am unconvinced by the claim on the back of the jacket that “A poem is a vote”. I joked to myself that finally someone had come up with an analogy for poetry that makes poetry look useful by comparison. Neale’s introduction makes the interesting point that poetry can show alternatives “to everything from the hollow seductions of consumerism, the reduction of humans to their utility as units of labour, to the dehumanising brutality of violence and porn.” These possibilities seem more far-reaching than any individual tick on a ballot paper. It appears irrelevant that this anthology has been published in election year: after all, what is party-political campaigning but a whole lot of hot air and easily-broken promises? The issues raised by these poets are pervasive and persistent ones, rather than subjects springing to mind on a three-yearly cycle. The good news is that the poems (or any poems, for that matter) can be read at any time.

Along with, or perhaps even in spite of, the four titled sections, there are some salient thematic threads in this volume. One that stands out particularly strongly for me is that of gender and sexuality, particularly in relation to intimate partner violence. New Zealand is, sadly, a world-leader in this shameful field, and I was glad to see the work of women of a variety of ages speaking out against this in a multitude of ways. Johanna Aitchison’s “From the House Where He Took her Life” strikes a soft but harrowing note. Nicola Thorstensen’s “Protection Order” strikes a similar note, more bluntly. There’s Rhian Gallagher’s whimsical “The Speed of God”, and Amy Paulussen’s frank investigation of body shame in “Stomach It”. It’s poignant to see a poem by self-professed “seventies women’s libber and lesbian poet” Heather Avis McPherson, who died while the book was in production. Perhaps the strongest blow to the patriarchy is struck in up-and-coming slam poet Jessie Fenton’s “My Dad Loves the All Blacks”, in which she states: “I am so sick of us making mountains out of men who act like avalanches, measuring their manhood by how many women’s bodies they can bury beneath them.”

Another strong theme is that of biculturalism and colonisation – also an aspect of New Zealand’s culture and history to which much shame is attached. In any discussion of political poetry, there’s an argument for “showing not telling”, or hinting at the thing rather than saying it directly. Some of the poems in this anthology support a contrasting argument, that there are times when we need to be told, and in so many words. One such poem is Kani te Manukura’s “Tricks of a Treaty”; another, Maraea Rakuraku’s poem about the Urewera, which unambiguously and polemically addresses “kaupapa-hijacking opportunists”. There’s a poem by Aroha Yates-Smith which incorporates a karanga, waiata and haka in te reo. There’s Anahera Gildea’s straight-to-the-point “Speaking Rights”, which questions Pākehā appropriation of te reo.

International conflicts, the focus of many of the poems in Baker’s and McMillan’s Kaupapa anthology, also feature. A highlight is Tusiata Avia’s deeply challenging “I Cannot Write a Poem about Gaza”; another is Louise Wallace’s nuanced yet disturbing prose-poem “The Olives”. Then there are stand-out poems that don’t appear to fit any particular sub-heading: Harvey Molloy’s “Dear ET”, Nick Ascroft’s “Procyclical”, Doc Drumheller’s “Proposal for the Garden City”, Maria McMillan’s “How They Came to Privatise the Night”. The anthology is no less focused for the inclusion of these poems.

There is also the odd bum-note: statement pieces that didn’t quite make it to being poems; cringe-worthy instances of cultural appropriation or casual racism; fall-backs on the old tropes of misogyny. In considering this anthology, it’s worth contemplating the general state of politics in our poetry, for better or worse. Although the times are a-changin’, a tendency remains for male writers of a certain vintage to present us with the nun versus whore dichotomy, or the beautiful, voiceless and acquiescent female. And, as one of the anthologised poets Janis Freegard has investigated in depth over a number of years, we’re not there yet with publishing and awarding women poets, Māori poets, and poets of colour. The slip-ups in this anthology serve to remind us of the work still to be done.

As with any anthology, there will be notable omissions. The voices I am missing here include: Helen Lehndorf, Helen Heath, Simone Kaho, Leilani Tamu, Karlo Mila, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Selina Tusitala Marsh and Courtney Sina Meredith, among many others. I would have loved to have seen a poem like Hera Lindsay Bird’s “Bisexuality” included. I would also have loved to have seen more established voices – a recent Greg O’Brien poem, or a recent Anne Kennedy poem, would have been welcome additions. These, however, are limitations of the process rather than deliberate or unconscious omissions by the editors.

Manifesto will be a good addition to any library, a useful resource for schools and community groups, and a snapshot of New Zealand political poetry as it stood in 2017, which will no doubt prove useful to poets, critics and readers in years to come.

 

Airini Beautrais’s fourth collection, Flow (Victoria University Press), has recently been published. 

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