More Favourable Waters: Aotearoa poets respond to Dante’s Purgatory, edited by Marco Sonzogni and Timothy Smith (The Cuba Press, 2021), 99pp., $25; This Twilight Menagerie: A whakanui of 40 years of Poetry Live!, edited by Jamie Trower and Sam Clements (Poetry Live! 2021), 218pp., $20
Dante’s trilogy is notoriously tough reading. But we’re in luck. The difficulty has been overcome by contemporary translators such as the late Clive James, to whose memory More Favourable Waters is dedicated. Now, with this volume, Dante’s cantos have become yet more accessible thanks to the thirty-three Kiwi poets reanimating them, one by one, in contexts recognisable to New Zealanders. The cantos that inspire the poems are listed at the back of the anthology under ‘Textual and musical notes’. Yes, these endnotes include, wondrously, a suite of instrumentals composed to enrich the cantos, accessible through a QR code. By Vittorio Zago and intended as musical interludes, they are subtle and atmospheric; they slur between tempos. Strings wail, wind squeals and spits and percussion scuffles.
In their lively Foreword, editors Marco Sonzogni and Timothy Smith locate Aotearoa in relation to Purgatorio. They good-humouredly acknowledge reading too much foresight into Dante’s work, while lauding—admirably—its timeless appeal.
More Favourable Waters is itself a pilgrimage: it accompanies pilgrim readers through purgatorial despair and up to bliss. Yet that simplistic trek becomes powerfully nuanced by Helen Rickerby’s understanding of unrequited love:
The myth about mountains is that they’re all conical, simple: you go up one side and down the other, and then you’re done—but what about the false peaks, backtracks, gullies, ridges, relapses and getting lost?
The most heart-stopping lines in these poems are short sentences. Michael Harlow stops the clock with his ‘incomplete’, fulsome sentences. I blush at the generosity of ‘The holiness of attention’:
Your songs, Dante.
That glancing smile.
That wakes in you
the light of yourself.
Harlow punctuates uniquely. He steers his poetry like a trusty barge. Unconventional full stops allow us to fully stop, and to look around.
And who would want to silence any song.
Airini Beautrais’ ‘Terrace of wrath’ is also written in sentences that are short, and white-hot. They’re imagistic. The cosmic zooms into the personal then crescendos, culminating in these strong lines:
The world is blind and we come from the world.
It was up to us, not the stars
As we went we loosened the knot of anger
A handful of poets opt for formal verse, skilfully treading metrical ground alongside Dante, with his hendecasyllabic terza rima (eleven-syllable third-line rhymes). Meter both propels and cradles content. In the sure rhythm of footfalls, poets pace their say. Words arise hypnotically, beat-bound. Read aloud, for example, Beautrais’ aforementioned iambic pentameter: ‘the world is blind and we come from the world’.
Among the metrics of this epic one love poem sits up late. ‘Sentinel beach’ by Sophie van Waardenberg introduces a kind of tenderness that feels like having your hair smoothed.
and so I came, my step matched to my girl’s
because she knew the way—had been there first:
had held a few soft hands before my own,
had pulled on other hands and chosen mine
Many cases poets enclose the canto, word for word, within their verse. So at home do the original lines behave here that the reader can believe these words might originate in the new poem. Marisa Cappetta’s ‘Recipe for roast pumpkin seeds’, for example, naturalises the subject of canto XIV. She takes its terminal wanderer for her own kin. Kōtuku Titihuia Nuttall, however, plays a trick with her canto. The language in ‘Sophrosyne’ is lush, alive. An ironic poem, in subtext it gives full voice to nature—a font of poetry—during ‘erudite discussions of men and their words’. The narrator describes the vibrating, ripening, rotting world in ecstatic language. A reader shivers with life.
Another force is Reihana Robinson’s ‘The triumph of death’. She falsifies both glory and pity. Cries out for humankind:
Then, a paradigm shift; she redefines power:
Oh Superman you were never the dad we really wanted.
She then smooths this re-established ground:
[…] In our local lingo
we have no word for
In this pilgrimage which is—being purgatorial—most often racked with fear, shame, exquisite urgency and arduous mountaineering, humour and juxtaposition are especially refreshing. David Eggleton’s Beatrice plunges into an infinity pool, leaving Dante bobbing in the turbulence of her déjà voodoo. Vincent O’Sullivan writes wittily of the Southern Cross in ‘Dante gifts McCahon the Southern Cross’: ‘This / Is where their [our ancestors’] story crosses into ours.’ He measures time in cantos: ‘Cantos back’, a phrase fit for coining.
I would prefer to read these two-page poems on double spreads, for wholeness, although page-turning allows poems their anonymity, at least initially, I grant. I keep a bookmark in the back of the book, flipping there to contextualise each poem in its canto as I go.
I find myself reflecting on the cultural generosity of Marco Sonzogni in opening his nation’s intellectual property to English-speakers. Living in our bicultural nation, I want to understand cultural reciprocity. The respect with which these thirty-three poets treat their cantos sets us a reasonable example.
This is a beautiful, multi-sensory new release from The Cuba Press. The thirty-three gullies and ridges of More Favourable Waters reward pilgrims with honed art. They formidably accommodate Dante’s timeless text. Some 700 years on, and in the words of Dante Alighieri and Clive James, I am remade.
From the formal solemn voice of Dante we zoom home to a buzzing collective of poets—a collective that’s ready to party but also to commemorate. Notably, the poems in More Favourable Waters grew from supplied texts (cantos) and are bio-textual, whereas the poems of This Twilight Menagerie grew from a community of poets; these are bio-social.
This Twilight Menagerie celebrates a Tāmaki Makaurau institution: the weekly, pub-hosted gathering that is Poetry Live! Seventy-eight poets take the mic to toast forty years of Poetry Live!, New Zealand’s longest-running live poetry event. There are also warm reflections on what this gathering has meant to members over the years in six ‘Reminiscences’ that round off the book, including an excerpt from a column by Maxine Fleming for the NZ Herald. These reminiscences are charismatic, bringing the memories to life, gold-coin donation and heckling and nerves and hearts on sleeves and whoops and cheers and all.
The anthology is dedicated to the late founder of Poetry Live!, David Mitchell, and begins with Genevieve McClean’s candid and loving tribute to him. She recalls asking Mitchell about his story:
Sometimes he would thump the table. ‘How do you tell someone in 1968 that you can’t play rugby because you need to go and write a poem?’
Historic posters feature throughout the book. They’re gorgeous photocopier time-warps: cut and pasted, handwritten, experimental, punk.
The poems-originally-for-the-voice arrive to the page with their energy intact. Many images are unforgettable. In ‘Junkie’ Aidan Howard describes:
[…] the impotent tantrum of a 60-watt bulb
as it flickers through its final hour before it fails
With the emotional honesty that a safe environment such as Poetry Live! enables, there is a lot of pain in This Twilight Menagerie. This pain is often either transcended or likened to something else, because it is in metaphor that we can comprehend pain from a safe remove. In her raw tasty ‘Raspberry picking, Turitea’, Kim Fulton observes and insightfully distinguishes her pain:
I’m covered in those surface scratches that sting
a little then fade, not the person who stopped calling
but the one who wasn’t interested in the first place
Pain is visceral and results in obsessive cleaning in Sophia Wilson’s narrative ‘Repeat’. These intensely discomfiting stanzas masterfully amass detritus. Makeup and bodily fluids pile up—this pollution escalates to a global scale. ‘Repeat’ is urgent, gripping, appalling, yet hopeful.
Other poems are outright joyful and inventive, like Kiri Piahana Wong’s ‘The singing’. Luke Venter’s ‘Exodus, liquid glass’ is a riot of sensations contrasting familial safety with carnage. Miriam Larsen-Barr is, conversely, introspective. She discovers incidental loss in her grandmother, a loss that evokes both grief and reverence for what escapes unarchived, even simply unknown:
You can get all the way to 90
and still have corners of yourself
kept secret though you don’t
call any of it secret
it’s just life and you live it
This reverence for mysteries, for getting to the heart of them, appears also in ‘Midnight’ by Stella Peg Carruthers. Among her cathartic yet fragrant intoxicating lines she announces:
Life is magic,
Not tricks with stars and smoke but The Real Deal.
This Twilight Menagerie feels like a reunion of good friends. A collaborative book, it is contagiously festive. Many voices have come together to give wider Aotearoa a feeling for the spirit of Poetry Live!, a collective that has been having a good time since 1980, and in which our poets have experimented, grown and flourished. A generous tribute book, many-voiced as the tūī, This Twilight Menagerie shows Poetry Live! to be inclusive and generative.
While both anthologies tribute formative poets, it is the contributors’ voices that we engage with and marvel at, and that transport us. They tribute passionate individuals who established poetic traditions, be those traditions now decades or centuries old. These books provide the warmth and kinship of a wake. The homage poems and reminiscences are social, irreverent yet respectful—and this respect helps New Zealanders understand cultural reciprocity. More Favourable Waters and This Twilight Menagerie act as ceremonies. In both volumes, poems are The Real Deal.
ANGELA TROLOVE reviews for Theatreview NZ and Art Zone. She writes to savour the world’s details and is working on a collection of short stories. Angela lives with her Kiwi-Italian family in Ōtepoti. Her writing can be found online at angelatrolove.com