Manifesto Aotearoa: 101 political poems edited by Phillip Temple and Emma Neale (Otago University Press, 2017), 192 pp, $35
This book is a pleasure to read from start to finish, in every respect: the depth and breadth of its subject matter, its production values, and, of course, the poetry. This collection includes poems from so many of Aotearoa’s most notable working poets that you could be forgiven for reading it as a sort of ‘who’s who’ of New Zealand letters. But there is enough here of the unexpected, the unheard and the formerly unvoiced that, flair and ease and polish aside, Manifesto Aotearoa appears to fulfil the promise implied on its cover: this is a book of fervent protest and dissent. As articulate and nuanced as these poems may be, it’s clear that our poets have political opinions, and that they are strong ones.
There are tears in some of these poems, and screams, and swear words, and fury and frustration and disgust. The subjects range from politicians to personal abuse, to indigenous inheritances of pain to state surveillance to identity politics. The book as a whole is full of feeling and emotion, overturning a demonstrable historical tendency in New Zealand poetry for political poems to be, as one of the editors Phillip Temple says, ‘isolated cries, subsumed as a part of a greater literary collective’.
Editors Temple and Emma Neale, both award-winning writers of fiction and poetry in their own rights, perform what we might call a service to our literature with this anthology. There is always more space for a collection of New Zealand poetry. But it is harder to achieve what the editors have achieved here, which is the creation of a collection that follows a theme without being didactic in their approach. The editors note that the four sections that the book is arranged in – ‘Politics’, ‘Rights’, ‘Environment’ and ‘Conflict’ – emerged from the material submitted, not the other way around. The result of their teasing out of these themes is a collection that, as diverse as the voices may be, has a continuity and flow that could easily be absent.
Neale addresses the issue of the usefulness of poetry in her introduction, in which she quotes Auden: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’ But Auden, she continues, neatly counters his own line in the same poem: ‘In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper, / a way of happening, a mouth’. Poetry, she writes, is not ineffectual; it can ‘seed internal and external change’. Temple writes of his politicisation as a writer during the 1980s and 90s in Berlin. He says that his exposure to the idea of the writer as influential social critic (think Günter Grass) provided the impetus for this collection. In that place and period, poetry and fiction were not some apolitical, separate events that occurred in the realm of ‘the arts’, but forces capable of effecting social change.
Neale also writes of the transformational capabilities of the word. Of course, we value poetry for its ability to voice the experience of the marginalised, and to critique certain aspects of our culture: consumerism, for example. But Neale also emphasises the power of the imagination as a corrective cure. Thus the collection underlines the power of poetry in and of itself: not just to protest and to illuminate, but to map out something better; to re-imagine, and so to improve the world in which we live.
But how exactly do we need improving? I won’t give that away, but according to the poets featured here, we need to make some large changes. An interesting observation is that this book presents an image of New Zealanders as politically and environmentally aware and focused on social justice. The material that made it into this collection is unarguably left-leaning. While it is inevitable that the editors’ biases must influence the process of selection, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Is it more likely that the literary community of Aotearoa is more left-wing than right? That poets are more politically left of centre? According to the poems in these pages, which constitute contributions from almost all of our most successful writers, it appears that the right wing does not write poetry, or that if it does, then perhaps it’s not very good.
In this book you’ll find work by Paula Green, Louise Wallace, Michael Harlow, Airini Beautrais, Richard Reeve, Vincent O’Sullivan and Tusiata Avia and so many notable others. There are so many good lines and so many stand-out moments that it’s impossible to list them all.
The editors have chosen a kind of banner quote for each section, and again, their poetic instincts are well honed. Vincent O’Sullivan’s poem ‘To miss the point entirely’ provides the first of these: in the section on ‘Politics’ his line, ‘Then what do people here die of?’, nicely contextualises the banal appearance of New Zealand’s politics, compared to other places. In his poem we see the country as a tourist sees it: ‘A country without snakes!’ Also in this section, Maria McMillan comes galloping in with ‘How they came to privatise the night.’ How will death (in this case, the death of some of our freedoms) come to a country without predators? Slowly, gradually, so that at first, you hardly notice it:
It began with shadows
Our dark selves
Small nights we carry with us
By the time we heard
The sun had slipped between
the South Island and the sea.
Gone like music at a party
You are walking away from.
Nick Ascroft weighs in on house ownership and the real estate market. Paula Green, with her usual excellence, dishes up a laugh-out-loud moment, proving that a collection of political poetry is not necessarily all earnest calls to action. Not that there’s anything wrong with those.
The second section, ‘Rights’ is a little patchier than the first. But there are many engaging newish voices here: Ruth Hanover, kani te manukura, Anahera Gildea. Janis Freegard contributes a poem, ‘Arohata’, on visiting a women’s prison. Mere Taito takes us into the other side of a university’s white, well-meaning gaze in her poem ‘The quickest way to trap a folktale’:
a research institution walks into a village
sharp alien tools
a research institution gets to work
it asks us to open our mouths
These poems are clever, subtle, and entertaining. They also bite, and bite deep.
Richard Reeve’s poem ‘Frankton Supermarket, Queenstown’ provides the quote for the third section: ‘Taking selfies by the ruins’. No guesses what New Zealand poets think about our management of our natural environment. Gail Ingram takes on industry and its impact on flora and fauna: ‘You’ll know it’s done when it has reached / a smooth grassy consistency / with no hint / of all that vexing tussock.’
But should this all sound a bit grim … no actually, it gets grimmer. The final section, ‘Conflict’, begins with Tusiata Avia’s contribution. ‘I cannot write a poem about Gaza,’ she begins. But it appears she can, and to great effect. This section blows the subject of politics wide open as our poets address violence on the world stage. Grim, yes, and powerful. Carolyn McCurdie leads us through the exit of the book with ‘Beacon fire’:
Or could this be from the future?
There will be a child. One of ours.
Her voice swept back by storm,
by rising tide …
Is this book, as some have written, a call to arms, or a disparate collection of political musings? It appears that our poets have similar concerns, and that these concerns are specific, cohesive, and urgent. Far from being apolitical, our literary community has definite views on what has happened in New Zealand, and to New Zealand, and on what is happening now. The editors must be commended then on giving us what Auden describes as ‘a way of happening’. If this book is our mouth, then it is angry, and we need to listen to it.
In her poem included here Sue Wootton writes of the perilousness of poets. They make the authorities nervous, she says. ‘When they recite they offer words like flowers / […] so as to dissolve under the tongue / of the enemy, so as to restart the heart.’
If a book can be a creative restarting of our collective hearts, this is it.
MICHALIA ARATHIMOS won the Sunday Star Times Short Story Award in 2016. She is the fiction reviewer for Overland Magazine. Her novel Aukati will be launched in Wellington in November 2017.
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