No Other Place to Stand: An anthology of climate change poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand edited by Jordan Hamel, Rebecca Hawkes, Erik Kennedy and essa ranapiri (Auckland University Press, 2022), 220pp, $29.99
No Other Place to Stand is a book that grapples, from its opening pages, with its existence. ‘Climate changes is so massive … that one wonders about the value of the particular, the specific, the local, the here, the now’, Alice Te Punga Somerville writes in her foreword. ‘What is the point of quietly—or even noisily—reading about climate change when the crisis in which we find ourselves demands action?’
Te Punga Somerville finds her own answers to this question, and there are multiple possible responses. The editors of this new anthology—Jordan Hamel, Rebecca Hawkes, Erik Kennedy and essa ranapiri—state a set of simple ones in their introduction: ‘A poem may not be a binding policy or strategic investment, but poems can still raise movements, and be moving in their own right. And there is no movement in our behaviours without a shift in hearts and minds … These poets, individually and collectively, are speaking—loudly and softly, sincerely and ironically, confrontationally and compassionately—about how climate matters affect the lands and people that matter to us.’ They note that, as the call for submissions to the anthology went out in 2020, smoke from Australian bushfires was visible in Aotearoa from across the Tasman. Similarly, as I read No Other Place to Stand, parts of Nelson and Marlborough were underwater in unprecedented floods. With the impacts of accelerating climate change being felt around us every day, the question can sometimes feel less like, why write about climate change? and instead, why would we be writing about anything else?
Auckland University Press have already published two notable anthologies in the past 18 months—Out Here, comprising writing by queer and takatāpui Aotearoa New Zealand writers (edited by Chris Tse and Emma Barnes) and A Clear Dawn, presenting new writing by Asian New Zealand authors (edited by Paula Morris and Alison Wong). All of these anthologies are as interested in capturing the current moment and looking forward to the future of our literature as they are in compiling an historical record of the writing they concern themselves with. But No Other Place to Stand is, by the nature of its subject, especially interested in the future. Indeed, the editors open the book with a simple dedication: ‘To those fighting for our future and those who will have to live in it’. However, they also choose to open the collection with questions that take us right back to the beginning of time, specifically those in Rangi Faith’s ‘Starlight reserve (Takapō, 2020)’: ‘How should we save this land— / where men have hunted well / and lain down under this sacred cloak of stars / swimming like a sinuous golden eel / across the darkness / from Aoraki to the sea? / How to turn and wonder / at the starlight / that glittered through the years / on untouched ice, the face of mountains’.
The editors write in their introduction that half of the writers in the anthology are Indigenous, and alongside its principal purpose of responding to the climate crisis, the collection can also be read as a survey of many of the best Māori and Pasifika poets currently working in and outside of Aotearoa, from Robert Sullivan, Hinemoana Baker and Vaughan Rapatahana, to Selina Tusitala Marsh, Tusiata Avia and Karlo Mila, to the new vanguard: Ruby Solly, Jessica Hinerangi, Michelle Rahurahu, Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i, Anahera Gildea, Nadine Anne Hura, Tayi Tibble and more.
In her closing essay (the anthology is bookended by essays, along with the foreword and an afterword), Kahu Kutia writes that ‘[c]limate change cannot be understood separately from colonisation’, a sentiment that is echoed in Laniyuk’s biting ‘So you want an Indigenous poem’, Anne-Marie Te Whiu’s ‘Missionary position’ and Jessie Puru’s ‘Papatūānuku gets a green prescription’. But such a wide range of Indigenous authors also means that (as is true of the anthology as a whole) there are as many different responses to the question of climate change as there are writers—from Sinead Overbye’s expansive, lyrical poem to Hinemoana (who, unsurprisingly, makes a number of appearances across the anthology), to tru paraha’s fragmented and futuristic ‘in my darkling universe’, to Stacey Teague’s compact, meditative ‘spell for the end of the world’ and ‘spell to unearth (bones)’.
While anthologies are often intended to be dipped into in any order that suits the reader or used as a reference, No Other Place to Stand has been carefully sequenced by the editors to be read cover-to-cover as a complete work (and is formatted as such—rather than a large hardcover it is a compact paperback, ready to be carried and read in any location rather than being kept at home). Sometimes this sequencing is as simple as having subjects carry over between poems, as when Caroline Shepherd’s ‘The whale’ sits next to Nina Mingya Powles’ The harbour’, or Alexandra Hollis’ ‘Stormchasers’ is placed next to Cassandra Barnett’s ‘Storm mother’. Sometimes it is a playful alignment of images within poems, as when Ash Davida Jane’s ‘location, location’ (‘if Venus used to be our dream place what’s / the use in looking elsewhere’) lies next to Anuja Mitra’s ‘Precarious’ (‘the first time I listened to Jupiter sound waves on the internet / I saw myself from a great distance as / a solitary beam of light flaring / in a dark suburban street’), which is followed by E Wen Wong’s ‘the house that Saturn built’, drawing the reader’s view further and further out from Earth.
In other areas, the editors’ careful arrangement has a larger thematic purpose. In one of the anthology’s central sequences, Laniyuk’s ‘So you want an Indigenous poem’ starts a journey around the Pacific, drawing away from the otherwise largely Aotearoa-based setting of the surrounding poems. This sequence travels from Rex Letoa-Paget’s ‘Lalomauga’, to Selina Tusitala Marsh’s ‘Unity’, to James Faiau’s ‘Asi–Sea/Ocean Lament from Baelelea, Solomon Islands’, to Richard Pamatatau’s ‘Two steps down’, finally culminating in Karlo Mila’s ‘Poem for the Commonwealth, 2018’. Mila’s poem lays the purpose (or a purpose) of this section of the anthology out plainly:
The islands of Oceania—Kiribati, Tuvalu, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu—
we are the canaries
in the coal mines of climate change.
Singing and ringing the unruly bells.
Beating the big drums.
Within this Pacific sequence are two bitterly funny poems about heads of state, Victor Billot’s ‘How good is this? (A poem for Scott Morrison)’ and Tusiata Avia’s ‘Jacinda Ardern goes to the Pacific Forum in Tuvalu and my family colonises her house’:
We all know that her partner does a lot of the childcare, but you can’t tell me that it’s not tiring to be a prime minister of a whole country and have a baby as well
It must be nearly as tiring as being a Tuvaluan prime minister sitting on his own roof to stop from drowning.
Across the anthology, the question of apocalypse is frequently responded to with humour—perhaps sometimes as a defensive mechanism (‘A place like New Zealand’, Hannah Lees writes, ‘invented by industry and maintained by fossils. A place where / it’s tempting to make a joke of all things that go wrong’), but also because the slow walk towards a preventable doom is often laughable in its absurdity.
This humour sometimes manifests as a last-ditch attempt to find love, or something related to it, in the end days (Prince would approve). Dani Yourukova compares their relationship to dying house plants (‘telling you how I feel about you in a poem is like blurting out ‘I love you’ at a three way / my audience isn’t sure who I’m talking to, and no one involved can tell if I really mean it or not’), Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor recalls a doomsday prepper ex-boyfriend (‘I’d suggest we make out really properly, just in case it was the last time’), and Ursula Robinson Shaw finds romance in the literal dying moments (‘they have announced the last day!! / will you love me / this sinkhole is our party / the cheap conclusion / of every unhad thing’). As an alternative, Jessie Fenton turns to the Disney Channel:
I am not interested in hearing your doomsday predictions
I am interested in whether Raven knew what was coming
Whether she gazed into the future
Out of her double-denim daydream
And saw only my distant relatives’ relentless minion meme posts about the
But the jokes are inevitably bitter to taste. Laura Vincent imagines newsreaders working to alleviate the apocalypse with more and more specific human-interest stories (‘positive events have now been reduced to the anecdotal level only. There is no more global good news’) and Rhegan Tu’akoi reads Air New Zealand propaganda:
once i leafed through an inflight magazine
it chronicled their annual green morning
a swanky breakfast on the windy waterfront
they awarded themselves a trophy
The alternative to humour is to stare directly into the sun and name the end of the world for what it is, and No Other Place to Stand doesn’t shy away from this. Rhys Feeney’s ‘the world is at least fifty percent terrible’ opens with some darkly humorous moments (‘put a chicken in the oven / where they have the most space they’ve had in their entire life’), but these moments slowly fall away as we descend towards the abrupt closing lines: ‘walk out into the cold look up at the sky / ask where are the stars where is the moon / why don’t they come out / did we do something wrong did we’). Similarly, in Michaela Keeble’s ‘In the Anthropocene / models are reality / and language is approximation’, the poet tells us: ‘we have a living mother / she breathes and breathes / and she will cast us out.’ Victor Billot’s poem ends with Scott Morrison looking to shake one last hand, ‘but there was no one there: / just the darkness and the fire’.
At the conclusion of the anthology, many of the authors attempt to wrestle with that darkness—if the catastrophe of climate change is so large, and our ability as individuals to alter it often seemingly futile, what is left to us? In ‘Wanting to believe in the butterfly effect’, Emma Neale plants trees with her children but worries that she is judged as ‘yet another militant of double-speak: / In order to show our love for the planet, / we wanted children who could grieve for it.’ The quartet of writers who close the anthology—Arielle Walker, Ruby Solly, Stevie Davis-Tana and Briar Wood—propose their own possibilities, all of which turn in one way or another to the earth itself. Walker writes of a multiplicity of possible futures, including the one where ‘we remembered to look back, and to listen, / and things are good, and things are whole, and things are tika, / but that future flickers and is hard to see clearly through the / dream-haze’. Amongst the many possible answers to the question of the purpose of an anthology of climate change writing, this is the one I found most useful—to see and understand the terror that we are facing more clearly and to imagine the action that might meet it.
FRANCIS COOKE is a Wellington writer and co-editor with Louise Wallace, Claudia Jardine, Sinead Overbye and Tate Fountain of Starling journal (starlingmag.com).