On “Best New Zealand Poems 2014”

I’m a fan of the various national Best […] Poetry or Best […] Poems anthologies that have become features of the international poetry landscape. As I said in my previous post (via TS Eliot) anthologies are “useful … because no one has time to read everything”, and these anthologies are useful signposts for further reading. The Anzac Centenary and two Australia v. New Zealand World Cup showdowns have been features of 2015, so I wanted to post a few thoughts on Best New Zealand Poems 2014, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan, before the year ended.

As an aside, Adelaide Writers’ Week has been a great showcase for contemporary New Zealand poetry, with recent appearances by Ian Wedde, Anne Kennedy, Jenny Bornholdt and Gregory O’Brien. Bill Manhire will be a featured writer in 2016. After two centuries of Australian deference to (and fascination with) Western Europe and North America, surely it’s timely to cultivate closer connections with our near neighbours, and closest kin.

At 25 poems in length, Best New Zealand Poems is much shorter than the other national anthologies. And O’Sullivan is clear from the outset, as editors of these anthologies have been, that selecting the poems is a matter of partiality: “let’s not make out that anything more definitive than personal choice is going on”. He quotes from Geoff Page’s introduction to The Best Australian Poems 2014 – and, like Page, has favoured poems that are accessible, rather than “experimental, postmodern or avant-garde” (Page’s words).

That said, there’s plenty to delight and surprise. The poems include cameos by Paul Gauguin and Wallace Stevens, as well as references to cosmology, climate change, war horses, the Olympic triathlon, and Wellington’s Futuna Chapel. The poems mine local, national, international, and truly universal concerns. On an intercultural level, Rogelio Guedea’s “from Si No Te Hubieras Ido/If Only You Hadn’t Gone”, published in Spanish and English, is refreshing (“it’s the things we’ve bought together / that bring us together”).

A final comment on the anthology as a whole is to note the infusion of Maori loanwords and place names, which was cause for particular curiosity and enjoyment – puriri, kauri, waiata, Paekakariki, Maniototo, Matapouri, etcetera – all exoticisms that had me cuing up the search engine. Another curio was the use of “sidewalk” in Peter Bland’s “Locality”, and “footpath” in Kay McKenzie Cooke’s “Sacred Days”, that had me wondering which is the genuine localism.

In Amy Brown’s “Orange Plastic Mug”, the mug of the title (like Wallace Stevens’ jar) is an inanimate object that draws a world around itself. In this case, it’s the familial world of the speaker’s past memories and present introspection. The memories are sensory, and associated with the mug itself, alluding to the way that material objects are often keystones for our recollections. The mug seemingly transcends the passing of time, and leaves the speaker poised between the past it evokes and her present moment:

[The mug] marks the distance between / here and then. Sometimes I am far / from the country that no longer exists; / sometimes I feel close to nothing. // This mug is not a likeness, a simile. / It is the same mug I drank from then.

There’s a nice nuance in the speaker’s reference to “here and then” (rather than “here and there”, or “now and then”), which intensifies the sense of estrangement.

John Dennison’s “Lone Kauri (Reprise)” uses a more charged language. It has a cryptic and roiling darkness at its heart, that’s undercut by tendernesses:

[…] baptism will / look like this, the flailing, the flensing of waves / and the breath knocked into you, the haul // that finds you first-footing land, brings / the morning.

[…] I will get up like a love-cast father / awakening to children’s voices, the night- / time true underfoot, who hears their laughter // and finds, at the unclosed door, the seam of light.

Dinah Hawken’s “The Uprising” addresses climate change, rising sea-levels and the degradation of the oceans. It’s a public lament (the “we” of the poem is inclusive) that a national anthology can provide a setting for, in a way that’s earnest, clarion, and untainted by jingoism. She writes of her “earth-bound love / for this particular place in the ocean”:

Here we are a skinny country / in the largest ocean on earth / spell-bound, windswept, lashed. // The land is like a canoe heading south / to an icy continent or heading north to equatorial islands.

Through the poem, Hawken grapples with the moral and political possibilities and imperatives of writing: “All I can do is rally, // all I can do is write”, she offers, and “all I can do is vote / for the fish, the canoe, the ocean // to survive the rise and fall.”

The anthology presents a number of other excellent poems – Bland’s “Locality” and Anna Jackson’s “The Photographer’s Olympics”, for example – and some of the most arresting opening lines I read this year, as in Caoilinn Hughes’ “To the Elements”:

It is not the piebald impressionism of the afternoon window / bleeding greys into the hills and gay greens into the thickset heavens / but real rain that dissolves the halo of your hair

and Michael Jackson’s “The Idea of Wallace Stevens at Key West”:

I am walking beside the sea that fluttered its / empty sleeves and whose dark voice spoke / to one who made it an image of inconstancy.

A benefit of reading further afield is that you invariably approach poems with a clean(er) palate – with fewer preconceptions, and little sense of the politics and personalities. Many of the poets were previously unknown to me. The anthology offers a worthwhile starting point for anyone wanting to explore or renew their familiarity with contemporary New Zealand poetry, particularly poetry in a more accessible vein.

Best New Zealand Poems 2015 will be published in the new year.

Best New Zealand Poems 2014 can be read in full at: http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/iiml/bestnzpoems/BNZP14/t1-front1-d1.html


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