On “Best New Zealand Poems 2015”

Thom Sullivan Poetry Poem Poet

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again I’m sure: I’m disappointed, beyond the Centenary of Anzac, that we don’t use Anzac Day to better celebrate and strengthen our relationship with our close kin across the Tasman. This review of the recently published Best New Zealand Poems 2015, though late for Anzac Day, is a small offering with that in mind.

In the 2015 anthology, editor John Newton presents a broader range of poems than Vincent O’Sullivan’s 2014 selection. Where O’Sullivan favoured accessible poems, over the experimental or postmodern, Newton’s selection is more representative of the spectrum of contemporary poetry – and may well find a larger audience as a result. At the customary 25 poems in length, there are no soft edges.

As with any satisfying anthology, there’s the sense that some of the most elusive and interesting poetry is going on between the poems, not just within them. Morgan Bach’s “The Swimming Pool” opens the anthology with its evocation of “the strange verge of childhood”: that insular gloaming of long summers, swimming pools, bikes and school days. The essence of Bach’s poem is captured in the stilled image of a child jumping into a pool: it’s a moment of tension and lightness between realities – of earth and water, innocence and experience. It’s also a moment of inevitability.

Those seconds between solid earth and transparent / water, you were ageless – a flash of stasis / in which you weren’t longing to grow up.

The poem elicits a sense of childhood naiveté, but it has an existential edge: “an age where will / is unappreciated. / Compliance was no questions, drawing nice borders”. Tellingly, it’s a reimagining devoid of parental figures.

Bach’s poem is followed immediately by Serie Barford’s “The Flying Fox and Che Guevara”, a poem that resonates with Bach’s, but from an adult (and parental) perspective. It presents a world of experience – not of evil, but mundanity, domesticity and complexity: it’s preoccupied with parental responsibility (“I cared for my children like a flying fox / kept them safe under my wings”), family life, and politics – via Élio Machoro, “a South Pacific Che Guevara”. It’s a world that contrasts with Bach’s childhood idyll:

and a tongue bitten off / from a faulty landing on a trampoline / reattached in a theatre without movies // then regretted it / when a fiapoko mouth / started up again

The poem is tender and matter-of-fact. It’s spiked with self-effacing humour (“there were the retreads that outlived cars”) and earnestly aware of the transition that Bach’s poem alludes to – the inevitable coming of age: “my sons are still learning the difference / between people’s needs and wants”.

Finally, there’s Bryan Walpert’s “This Poem is Conversational”, a disarmingly sociable poem that begins in the lassitude that follows a four year old’s birthday party. A documentary playing on TV introduces a species of flightless parrot as the poem’s “useful metaphor” for the vulnerability of children. Walpert goes on:

four years being about when the kids start / to stop being the kids you thought / they might be and start being the kids they are

Like Barford’s poem, it’s a grown-ups’ world of “mortgages [and] house projects”. It’s an accessible, deceptively homely poem that’s neatly honed around its memorable central metaphor.

Belinda Diepenheim’s “Nothing New Under the Sky, 1769” offers something quite different. It imagines Captain Cook during his first voyage – to observe the transit of Venus and search for Terra Australis Incognita – a point of shared history between Australia and New Zealand (“If there is nothing new under sky […] / then I have found something new.”). It’s an intimate and understated portrait of Cook, with layerings of complexity and contrast:

I am troubled / by who occupies me when I am left alone, / a hollow opening wider between the ribs, / a lullaby to blood and rule, the scent of gods / calling from evergreens.

Cook is estranged from his homeland (his child’s face, familiar birdsong), but he’s also estranged from his immediate surroundings. There’re contrasts and contradictions between the enervating life aboard ship, and the unease generated by the unfamiliar landmass, its people and Cook’s troubled state of mind. There’s also the tangle of morality or conscience (“James! Elizabeth called. Do not forget your compass.”) and culture (“I write with a hand / schooled in reason”). The poem is also essentially personal: it’s a poem of the senses (particularly sound and smell), memory and embodiment.

Cook asks “Is this as alive as a man can get?”, but does he refer to himself – the Enlightened European on the geographical, cultural and psychological frontiers of the known world – or the “Noble Savages” he observes? There’s a seduction from, and confrontation with, something carnal and primal in himself (“I may lay down my / coat and gun, kill or mate / as I will”):

it is I in this line and ink, / clear, shaded in parts, / the curved land spread beneath my hands / as I draw mountains, insistent as the breasts / pressed beneath a man before departure, / promising eternity, / dying for the liberty of strange waters.

The poem has its tensions and speculations, but it leaves them tantalisingly unresolved. The final image (quoted immediately above) neatly resonates with Dinah Hawken’s “The Lake, The Bloke and The Bike”, which describes a bay “[c]urved as neatly as if / by a pencil in a compass”, and describes the lake of its title as having “the calm / of a dark, enlightened mind”.

As I’ve suggested, Newton’s selection also includes samplings from the more experimental or postmodern veins of New Zealand poetry. For example, Hera Lindsay Bird’s from Pain Imperatives” with its litanies and refrains (“I write this poem like a chastity belt made of bottle tops”).

There’s also Wystan Curnow’s “Episodes”, which provides an accurate (?) if offbeat plot summary of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles. A knowledge of the source material was unnecessary for an enjoyment of the poem, with its puns, pop-culture references (Alpha networkers, Kim Dotcom, “that’s so random”, etcetera) and jokes (“Whereas Khayman, he / returns to the islands” and “Lestat and Louis drink the blood of slaves from Pointe / du Lac, draining the labour pool.”). The poems of both Bird and Curnow are alive to the playfulness and enterprise of writing.

The selection’s two longest poems, along with Diepenheim’s evocation of Cook, are the most memorable. Joan Fleming’s prose poem, “The Invention of Enough”, is a compressed narrative account of a young couple’s relationship – from their first encounter in a club, to the birth of their child. At a time in which the novel enjoys a degree of popularity inconceivable to poets, it demonstrates the seductiveness of narrative, but charged with the concision and suggestiveness of poetry. The poem is – in turns – colloquial (“So now they were a thing”), tender and domestic – but emotionally compelling throughout:

He came home tired and praised her in hyperboles and his hands were flags and the wind didn’t get them. I want my life to be musical, she said. And from then on he spent the weekends singing, almost dancing, almost folding all the clothes and almost putting them away.

Then there’s Sarah Jane Barnett’s “Addis Ababa”. The poem is a faceted depiction of an Ethiopian refugee’s new life in Wellington. As in Fleming’s poem, there’s an unfolding narrative, but with distinct movements between the past and present tense (“This is how it used to be”), and variations in form. The effect is cinematic and cumulative. We see the young man in his encounters with bureaucracy, aid, prejudice and friendship:

It is cold in Wellington. I wait in the immigration office. / Every season of this year a winter, the sun a pale scar.

We also see the fissures between his earlier life, with grief and its formal customs, and a new life of tentative and pieced-together beginnings (“I learn / to put sugar in my tea, to not greet every stranger”). The young man is a translator by occupation, which foregrounds language – and, through it, memory and thought – as part of his experience of estrangement and acculturation:

He can feel new words in his mouth, others dropping away. They are tied to ground he no longer walks. He watches his thoughts for interference, when the second language disrupts the first. Proper nouns are the most in danger. He will forget the names of certain birds and the word for his local drink. He will forget the green strip where those birds once roosted. He has already forgotten the amber flash of their wings.

There are many other fine and memorable poems, including Frances Samuel’s “Life-Drawing Class” (“When I drew the river and walked into it, / those coins worked better than stones.”) and Ashleigh Young’s “Electrolarynx” (“his body / resembled a set of golf clubs in a suit”). I refer to them here briefly as an encouragement to read on.

Newton’s “vintage of 2015” does precisely what he forecasts in his introduction: it has its “moment[s] of finding something that really does it for you”, with the attendant impulse to share the discovery. As Dinah Hawken notes in “The Lake, The Bloke and The Bike”, there’re a range of interests in the world (“some are noisier than others”), but the quietness of poetry is weighted with the possibilities of transformation. Best New Zealand Poems 2015 deserves to be widely read at home, and wherever there’s an interest in the breadth of poetry being written in English.

Best New Zealand Poems 2015 can be read in full online.


  • My review of Best New Zealand Poems 2014

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s