Ngā Kupu Waikato: An anthology of Waikato poetry, edited by Vaughan Rapatahana (Waikato Press, 2019), 96pp, $25; Take Flight, edited by Vaughan Gunson (Vaughan Gunson, 2020), 150pp, no RRP; Eight Poems by New Zealand Poets 2020, designed and set by Tara McLeod (Pear Tree Press, 2020), 24pp, $85
Anthologies of poetry organised around geography have a tough job to do. If the poets are from the place but the poems don’t take that place as their subject, readers may be justified in saying to themselves, ‘Okay, you’re publishing some poets who live near each other. So what?’ But if the poems are all about the place, the book may become tendentious, and finding enough good poems on a narrow subject may be difficult. Editor Vaughan Rapatahana’s Ngā Kupu Waikato: An anthology of Waikato poetry is very much about the Waikato, and it offers an engaging portrait of the region.
In his introduction Rapatahana writes that this anthology of poems by forty-one poets came into existence to counter the impression of the Waikato as ‘a distinctly uncreative and uncultural place suited for bovine pursuits and technoskills, and nothing more’. This is a pretty crushing—and hilarious—way to phrase a stereotype, and it points to a self-deprecating streak present in work in this book. It is also funny, then, that the first poem, Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor’s ‘Raglan’, strikes a cheekily ‘uncultural’ note right from the get-go, whether she’s at the coast or in the middle of Hamilton:
When it’s hot
everyone buggers off to Raglan
to fish near the silo with
On days like this
the CBD’s the wild west
the low drone of coffee machines and
like the whistle of tumbleweed
turned right up.
The union of nature and noise—as if no pairing could be more usual—is a recurring feature of these poems, as it often will be when land and ‘civilisation’ jockey for a poet’s attention. We see this in Vincent O’Sullivan’s ‘Resthaven’:
It was a beautiful Waikato morning
a top-dresser flew over the macrocarpa
the loudspeaker blared from the junior athletics
and the truth of the yellow earth was never touched on.
It’s also in Mere Taito’s ‘Piss-Up’, in which the hubbub of a backyard barbecue culminates in a chant of ‘SCULL! SCULL! SCULL! / all your crazy // before the river finds you’.
The Waikato River is a major character in this anthology, which is not surprising, as Aotearoa’s longest river is the dominant physical feature of the region. It stars in poems by Piet Nieuwland (‘This Is the River’), Bob Orr (‘At Taupiri’ and ‘Waikato Karakia’), Mark Houlahan (‘Lethe’), Murray Edmond (‘With Jean-Paul Sartre on the Banks of the Waikato’), Alistair Tulett (‘Home Waters’) and O’Sullivan (‘What River Means’ and ‘Waikato-Taniwha-Rau’), and appears in passing in other poems. The river is a powerful symbol that evokes a sense of home, of passing and of return, of movement in the spatial and temporal planes. As Bob Orr expresses it: ‘I saw the fingerprints of tūpuna forming on the surface of the river / the great unwinding scroll of the lineage of the river’. Rivers are ancient highways that transport both physically and psychically. Thus an old man from Hunan in Tulett’s ‘Home Waters’
to the murmuring water and city noises,
and then sing in his birth tongue
to his birth river
A collaborative poem called ‘In the River’, by Anderson-O’Connor, essa may ranapiri and Loren Thomas, takes as its subject the wrecked gunboat Rangiriri, which was used by British forces under Cameron during the Waikato invasion and later brought the first Pākehā settlers to Kirikiriroa Hamilton. This ‘decayed copper tooth’ of a vessel is an image of a sinking but still present colonialism, visible in the river of time but rotting away.
And this is not the only exploration of the history of the Waikato, a region central to the story of Māori dispossession and imperial consolidation in Aotearoa. Maris O’Rourke writes about the ‘wahine toa’ who ‘mothered Te Reo back to life, / succoured it as a baby to the breast pulling / supressed words from smacked shrieks’. And Reihana Robinson weaves history, myth and politics together in her complex poem ‘O Moehau Mountain (How Much Can You Take?)’. Moehau is both the physical mountain in the Coromandel that you can find on maps and the home of supernatural ‘red-haired fairy queens and kings’ (patupaiarehe) ‘who will be peacemakers’. Even ‘when the unfrienders come with their helicopters’, the unwelcome powers of modernity can be frustrated by the forces of ‘simplicity’ and ‘tender secrets’:
O Moehau young lovers will rise
wet and bejewelled red-haired and smooth-skinned
singing the old songs
This is the way the old story keeps passing through
The anthology Take Flight also emerges from a particular place—Whangārei—but it does not set out to be an artistic statement about that place. Perhaps we could say it is of Northland, not for Northland. It collects work by seven writers who started meeting to discuss their poems in 2011. But these seven writers didn’t coalesce into a Whangārei school of poets with a shared aesthetic or politics, and Take Flight doesn’t try to yoke them together into one team.
Aaron Robertson and Jac Jenkins are probably the most similar writers in the group. They both view sound as foundational to their art, and to the art. Robertson in particular seems to have a conception of a poem a lot like Paul Valéry’s; Valéry thought of a poem as ‘a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense’. In ‘Antithesis’, Robertson describes the life cycle of a natural space like a forest floor, with its leaf litter, humus and various other breaking-down matter: ‘Primitive strata continue to exist, / decay with anxious struggle to scale / or rotten touchwood.’
Martin Porter and Vaughan Gunson, on the other hand, trade more in the concrete and the directly allusive. Porter gravitates (not always to his benefit) to subject matter that might appeal more to a twentieth-century poet than to a twenty-first-century one (Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Marilyn Monroe); ‘Damaged Canvasses’, a reimagining of Walt Whitman’s ‘The Wound-Dresser’, is his stand-out contribution. Gunson is pleasingly accessible without pandering. He offers pieces on the late Australian cricketer Phil Hughes, the shemozzle of petro-giant BP’s sponsorship of the Tate, and Michelangelo as a needy, self-doubting, very modern sonneteer.
Arthur Fairley offers half-serious, wry commentary while also delivering a kind of purity, and Michelle Elvy inhabits and brings to life the most different characters and perspectives of these poets, which is unsurprising for a writer who has done much of her best work in flash fiction. Meanwhile, Piet Nieuwland is the most technically minded of the seven. The most rococo. The one who has synthesised Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse with Beat and Eggletonian rhythms. The one who has eaten the most dictionaries for breakfast. ‘Kauri Mountain, Kiwi Coast, Ngāti Korora’ is representative:
White butterflies and monarchs
Jive and jizz and jazz to black cicada beats
Centuries of kuaka, eye to eye, kanohi ki te kanohi
Lift off in cloud bound north
The crayfish orange hulk of a ship
Crawls into the horizontal zone
The air filling with a sweet
Of creamy flesh
According to Vaughan Gunson’s brief introduction, Take Flight suggests ‘take-off’, ‘launching into a bright future’ and, most interestingly, ‘fleeing’. He writes:
What might poetry be fleeing? Maybe the economic rationalism that has a hold over much of our lives. In that world, there’s not much room for poetry that doesn’t pay its way. In its own space, however, written, shared and given away outside of any economic imperative, it’s valuable.
The emphasis is mine. This is why this book has no recommended retail price and is not for sale in any conventional way. Look online and try to buy a copy—it’s not easy! This semi-unobtainability gives Take Flight a samizdat-like quality, as if the book is only intended to be read by an in-the-know cadre, a small community of the like-minded. This decision about the book’s production and distribution probably denies it a wide readership right from the start, but it also signals to those who do hear about it—and what it stands for—that they will be reading poetry that foregrounds its authenticity. This is not a move that is made very much these days (we’re usually supposed to take authenticity for granted), and for this reason alone Take Flight is worth bringing into conversations about the mechanics of the literary publishing ecosystem in Aotearoa.
The final multi-author volume under consideration takes us in a different direction. One thing about reading a slim, gorgeously hand-set letterpress pamphlet of only eight poems is that you naturally go through the book slowly. When there’s something tactile on offer, when the book-as-object wraps you up in its aesthetic like a velvet cape, you linger. This is the effect produced by all Pear Tree Press publications, including Eight Poems by New Zealand Poets, 2020.
I very carefully decided to say that you ‘go through the book slowly’, rather than saying that you read it slowly. Because ‘reading’ is only part of what you’re doing as you look the pages up and down. Perhaps it’s not even the primary thing you’re doing. For the record, the poets in Eight Poems are, in order, Kevin Ireland, Alistair Paterson, Dorothy Howie, Riemke Ensing, Alexandra Balm, Siobhan Harvey, Roger Horrocks and Anita Arlov. For the most part, their poems are built similarly, engineered to fit the format. Seven of the eight poems are between eighteen and twenty-nine lines and are laid out across two pages. Howie’s is only eight lines, so the second page that would have been text is filled with what looks like a woodblock print.
There are features throughout that interest me as much as, or more than, the poetry. Every poem is set in a different typeface (I think). The pages are hand-cut. The paper is a heavy, creamy, fibrous one. There are lovely emerald-green endpapers. There is a sneeze-like spatter on the second page of Ireland’s poem that has a pleasingly pimply texture. In my copy, the first page of Arlov’s poem (a verso) has puckering from the liberal use of red ink on the second page of Horrocks’s poem (a recto). Sometimes the text is a deep, uniform black, indicating a good, inky print (Harvey’s poem). And sometimes the letters are grey in patches (Paterson’s poem). Again, this is in the copy (37 of 40) that I’m reading; I assume every copy will be slightly different. If you have even a passing interest in book design and printing, there is a lot to geek out about.
No theme unifies the collection. Ireland’s, Ensing’s and Harvey’s poems are the ones that attract me the most. Ireland’s ‘A Room with More Than a View’ lets us watch his mind puzzle out a problem in his inimitable way: the view outside his home office has turned sour in the first year of Covid (‘A virus / skulks around out there’), so what to do? ‘Possibly / the time has come to shift my desk / and face the shambles on my floors.’ Ensing’s ‘A Different Country’ is a scene from Northland in 1955. It’s a ‘different country’ because the past is a different country, but it’s also a different country because it’s set in the Dalmatian community near Dargaville (‘Dally Alley’) and features an old woman stomping grapes for wine in ‘vast wooden vats’. Harvey’s ‘Spell Spoken Upon the Destruction of a Home’ works because throughout the poem there is an unresolvable ambiguity about whether the spell is spoken for the demolition of a house or the break-up of a household. Just when I think I’m sure it’s the former, I start to wonder again if it’s really the latter.
The poetry is part of the point, but not the whole point. Pear Tree Press has a house aesthetic when it comes to poetry—a vibe, essentially—and work that’s a couple of standard deviations away from that vibe doesn’t fit in. It wouldn’t be unfair to say the vibe is risk-averse. For instance, I know that one poet solicited for the 2021 edition of the Eight Poems series had their poem declined for being too edgy. It had the words ‘buttcheeks’ and ‘assholes’ in it. Perhaps, in some people’s eyes, there’s something déclassé about selling hand-set, limited-edition pamphlets containing the word ‘assholes’ in 20-point Bembo. I think the vast majority of poets I know would disagree, but the vast majority of poets I know also can’t buy $85 pamphlets, so I’m not sure they get a vote.
This is not the sort of criticism I normally write about a book, but it’s also not the sort of book I normally review. It’s because I slowed down and really chewed my food completely that I was able to digest it so well. Any literary work that gets us to do that has achieved something praiseworthy. When we focus on the materiality of the printed word, it can remind us of what we really find fascinating about books, and who they’re made by and for.
ERIK KENNEDY is the author of There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (VUP, 2018), and he co-edited No Other Place to Stand, a book of climate change poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific, forthcoming from AUP in 2022. His poems and criticism have recently been published in places like FENCE, The Moth, Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, Sport and the TLS. Originally from New Jersey, he lives in Ōtautahi Christchurch. erikkennedy.com