Āria by Jessica Hinerangi (Auckland University Press, 2023), 76pp, $30; As the Trees Have Grown by Stephanie de Montalk (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023), 104pp, $25; Middle Youth by Morgan Bach (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023), 96pp, $25
It always disappoints me to encounter contemporary poets who, in their verses or in their readings of their work, inform the world that it contains so much poetry that really there’s no room or need for any more. It’s disappointing because such poets have only reached this determination after they’ve added their work to the poetry catalogue. Collectively and individually, three recent collections by New Zealand authors, Āria by Jessica Hinerangi, As the Trees Have Grown by Stephanie de Montalk, and Middle Youth by Morgan Bach, offer evidence that there must always be space in the poetry world for new work to speak to readers and their concerns. Now, more than ever, we need the emotional nourishment poems can provide, and we need receptive audiences for them.
Jessica Hinerangi’s first collection, Āria, is proof of the necessity and importance of welcoming fresh poetic voices with innovative viewpoints to our literature. A bildungsroman in verse, this is a book about awakening, identity, deconstruction, and emancipation. At its heart is a poet-narrator who is on a quest of self-discovery. In this, as the te reo Māori title suggests, a central motif of deep water is a constant presence, serving to act as a refrain throughout the collection. A poem early in the book, ‘Bones’, illustrates the primary themes and symbolism:
Lolling back in the bath
like the tongue of a taniwha
slinking out of glassy āria,
belly out and purposeful,
a naked, hairy marakihau,
obsidian canines and incisors
trailing towards my centre fold,
you could almost see me
cut into pieces …
The divided self is the incomplete and unknown self, and the author undergoes a lyrical, though sometimes mortifying, journey of questing and questioning through subsequent poems, such as ‘Barbie girl’, ‘The Māori portraits’ and ‘Tangi hotuhotu’. In the latter offering, the poet’s navigation through a museum finds them constantly encountering themselves and their whakapapa in archived elements of Māori cosmology. The result is someone left feeling objectified and othered:
I am lodged into a space, two realms, like a cooking utensil between the oven and the fridge. I drink in what is sent to me and become a wailing watering can feeding the plants.
Is this healing or horror?
But, as Hinerangi notes in the next poem, ‘Study notes 1’, realisation brings its own additional challenges:
The more I learn about my whakapapa
the harder it gets.
Thankfully, this doesn’t deter the hunt for self-knowledge. Through two further sections in the collection, the poems confront the difficult and the unexpected in their search for self-understanding. Often, as in poems such as ‘Spitting on the statue of Captain Cook’, the journey is confrontational, the narrator facing down colonialism and its legacies. At other times, the personal voyage is uplifting and educational, as in the poem ‘Reading Ranginui Walker in rāhui’, which offers the following gruelling immersion:
Short-fuse shadows cradle guns around poorer neighbourhoods and
prisons are stuffed to the brim. Tangata whenau separated from the warm earth by
a floor of concrete, the body of Papatûãnuku cast like she has a broken leg, and we
are so distracted by to-do lists and self-help books …
During even the grimmest moments of the passage towards self-realisation in Āria, though, the prevailing message remains one of journeying in love and kindness, as the narrator details at the close of a later poem, ‘Raranga’:
I expect nothing
but for you to live
Aroha and atawhai, or love and kindness, are also at the heart of Stephanie de Montalk’s fifth collection of poetry, As the Trees Have Grown. This is an author who has written widely about living with illness and using creative writing as a medium to explore debility. Her award-winning memoir, How Does it Hurt? (2014), for instance, examined her decade-long struggle with chronic constant pain and how chronicling it permitted catharsis. Her new book continues this exploration, as the opening of the first poem, ‘Heartfelt’, illustrates:
The rolling slopes and groves
of my lissom, evergreen heart,
struck by the dysfunction of left
uncertain but doubtless virally
loaded—were at imminent risk
of fatal erosion. The physician
disengaged her stethoscope …
Holding onto the truth promulgated by Romanticism, that human existence is inextricably entwined with the eddies and wonders of the natural world, de Montalk makes the body a landscape and a central symbol of the organic, subject to change and decay. Frequently, poems such as ‘Simple physics’, ‘Fixed wing’ and ‘Orientation’ use nature imagery to delineate the corporeal realm, the author’s as well as the human body generally. The resultant effect is often taut, striking, and revelatory, as at the end of ‘Fixed wing’:
and lips denoting
the mottled loss
Astonishing as these depictions are, like Jessica Hinerangi’s in Āria, they’re more than just the opportunistic results of an imagistic wordsmith. Throughout As the Trees Have Grown, there is a consistent and ethical search for health and vitality in the midst of illness, and for poetic statements to assert healing amid aggravating physical hurt.
Wisely, the answers de Montalk offers are never of schmaltzy or of the ‘happy-ever-after’ kind, though they are no less emotional for that. Instead, as in poems such as ‘A very fine bird’, ‘After the rains broke’ and ‘Cautious optimism’, her best epiphanies are of fleeting moments when fauna and flora reveal their resilience during times of environmental disaster, when splashes of vibrant colour break through darkening times, and when flourishes of memory and imagination reacquaint us with the pleasures of existence. In other words, rewarding possibilities of profound realisation lie in the simplest moments, when we engage with wildlife and it engages with us. This is evoked most intensely and personally, I feel, in an ode to the domestic cat, entitled ‘Park life’:
we see them
from the turret —
the British Blues —
lying in the grass
on the banks
of the Kumutoto Stream …
The Blues groom
and wave their tails,
paw pads cool
and clover damp,
and amber eyes
dense with velvet
Here, then, is the mutual evocation of love and kindness that is also to be found in Hinerangi’s work. Where illness is incurable and pain constant, de Montalk underscores, catharsis might be continually discovered in our close connection to Te Ao Mārama, if we’re prepared to search and explore.
The natural world, with its minor wonders and major threats, is also of central importance for Morgan Bach in her second collection, Middle Youth, which has an implicitly autobiographical perspective. In the first few poems in this book, such as ‘the pomegranate’, ‘hungry’ and ‘blood moon’ the body is—as in de Montalk’s work—given its own metaphorical topography:
of solid rock.
Heart an engine
of bolts and pistons …
However, while it is at once naturalistic and manmade, the environment this body inhabits provides preoccupations somewhat different to those unearthed by As the Trees Have Grown. For in Middle Youth, Bach’s bodily symbolism conveys her generation’s inheritance of and frustration at an increasingly damaged ecosystem that increasingly risks damaging us. Consequently, the resonant imagistic conjuring of the world in the poem ‘the pomegranate’ as ‘an open-air museum / where everyone is relaxing / into their graves …’ mutates into ‘a forest of glass’ in the poem ‘blood moon’. Throughout, these recurring intimations of planetary vulnerability resulting from human interactions are juxtaposed with authorial meditations upon light and air as physical and responsive, but also as disregarded and endangered resources, as in the poem ‘terrific’:
Terrific as one who has their spine
set in the earth, who senses lucent
warmth coming in sideways, moves
in micro towards it. Who wants to feel light
like the soft skin of the water
before sinking in …
What I’m scared of is the pain of absence,
of nothing to fill my lungs. The space
outside that thin layer enclosing life.
This is not so much a thematic frustration at our imminent extinction as a perceptive and crafted war cry against it, which reaches its most penetrating or resounding in the title poem, where contemporary concerns for collective and planetary annihilation are considered as an inheritance for those newly born and yet to come:
I can never say to my friends with newborns
I am afraid.
They have taken on our failure,
made it personal.
I’m already so tired I can feel
my heart beating.
Feel it trying to keep up
with everything …
the too much of our youths
still seeping towards our feet,
ghost selves lapping.
The sun is full out
and we’re still dewy.
The desiccating is just a distant light.
Still taking every vaccine I can,
paying into the pension scheme.
Every year the high
a little higher.
We are always happier going up.
Thereafter, Middle Youth presents a sequence of five increasingly ominous ruminations about life, dreams and Mother Nature entitled, ‘to proceed within a trap’, before reaching the collection’s prophetic finale, ‘the museum of prophecies’. Here, cleverly interlacing the personal and political, the narrator recounts a tarot reading and its predictions while undertaking journeys through local landscapes that lead them to encounter instances of fatality. The result, an allegory for reading this book, is to find oneself intimately confronted equally by precious aspects of life and the complex ramifications of its loss.
So, to sum up, here are three vital contemporary collections, each in their way proving that the world, both literary and otherwise, can benefit from the publication of fresh and immediate poems—poems of the moment—that can speak in all kinds of nuanced ways about our evolving existence and our prospective demise.
SIOBHAN HARVEY is an émigré author of eight books, including the 2022 New Zealand Book Awards long-listed poetry and creative nonfiction collection, Ghosts (Otago University Press, 2021). Recently, her work has appeared in A Kind of Shelter: Whakaruru-taha: An anthology of new writing for a changed world (Massey University Press, 2023), Mslexia (UK), Out Here: An anthology of LGBTQIA+ writers from Aotearoa (AUP, 2021) and Best New Zealand Poems 2022.