Welcome to Best New Zealand Poems 2020
'Poetry,' wrote the Greymouth poet Peter Hooper in 1969, 'isn't in my words, it's in the direction I'm pointing. If you can understand that and if you're appalled by the journey, stick to the guided tours. They issue return tickets.' Well, inevitably, this anthology is my guided tour, but it is also a gathering of poems pointing in a myriad of directions.
The very title of this anthology invites the notion of failure — or frustration at least. How to choose a token sample from the diverse and teeming catalogue of poems published last year. In the end it must become, at most, a simplified cross-section of memorable achievement.
I won't alphabetise the flotillas of paper boats bearing poems that came sailing my way from publishers last year, nor the voluminous print-outs taken off websites and arriving by courier from Best New Zealand Poems administrator Clare Moleta at the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington, but en masse they prove that poetry is alive and well in New Zealand.
Invited to edit this anthology, I elected to use as my guide an exact reading of the title: Best New Zealand Poems 2020. First, poems that strove to excel in whatever poetic form they were written in; poems that were themselves the best they could be in utterance and intention. Second, poems that reflected New Zealand in some way, be it ever so subtle. And third, poems that spoke to the moment, to the start of the second decade of the second millennium; poems expressive of the spirit of this particular year of 2020.
But 'best' remains a bit problematic. In the end I took it to mean a poem from a poet writing at the top of their game, but also a poem that achieved its potential from the reader's point of view. That is, a crafted and contained poem — not a sequence — faithful to its internal logic while aware of a reader with whom to keep faith; a reader to be communicated with.
But even so, how to choose from an embarrassment of riches, a bumper crop, a vintage harvest? How to narrow down the field? Intuitively, I went for poems that surprised me, even astonished me. Often in poems, as I made my way through, there was an image, a line or two, a way of saying, a tone, that held me for a moment, and then the spell broke. I was looking not necessarily for the big bow-wow strain as Sir Walter Scott called it — poems that grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and swung me up like a delighted gurgling baby — but certainly I was looking for some sense of a poem that offered salvation of the language, a poem that startled me with the electric life burning within the words.
I sought poems that were more than just performances, more than just linguistic twirls and pirouettes. I wanted poems with depth, with intimations of hard-won wisdom; poems that sounded fresh. Heard melodies are sweet, wrote John Keats, but those unheard are sweeter. Poets enjoy other poets' work more than their own, claimed the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, and I believe him.
There were so many poems to which I responded strongly that soon I had a very long short list to gradually winnow, and in the process rationalise why finally just a few dozen poems made my probable list and other possibles didn't. I begin with some poems that didn't quite qualify.
Proving poetry is where you find it, the noticing of it is all, there were some striking imagistic fragments in Natalie Morrison's book-length poem sequence Pins:
When I am the no one
who enters your room
to pin these poems
to your wall, I find
a great swirl of moths.
The opening lines of Bernadette Hall's prose poem 'Compost' in her collection Fancy Dancing: New and Selected Poems 2004 - 2020 have a marvellous ruminative quality, moving from association to association:
I have Irish skin. It loves the rain and the sun through rain. It lets me
down in fierce sunlight. So I am scraped and burnt and scarred. Like the
Margaret Merrill rose, I am in constant need of pruning. From which may
arise my long term love affair with compost. For what is compost according
to its derivation, but the laying down of one thing with another thing or of
some things with other things...
In Elizabeth Brooke-Carr's posthumous collection entitled Wanting to tell you everything, in the poem 'The vein whisperer', there is the searing power of close observation:
...In this flow of slow-growing
confidence she links the shunt to a long line,
pats the bulging saline bag as if it were a saddle
as yet untried. I'm all hitched up, ready to set out
on my first round, newly broken-in and twitchy
in this field of weathered leather La-Z-Boys
tethered at the walls. Unwavering, she leads me
through my paces in this sober treatment room.
John Newton's epic verse novel Escape Path Lighting offers a telling sardonic portrait of the macho male poet Arthur Bardruin:
... But what he mistakes for
the drumming of bees is - hang on - the
pounding of typewriter keys. Not only
is Bardruin wide awake (he discovers,
on sliding back the door), but, wreathed
in a thick fog of weed and cigar smoke,
stripped to the waist and dripping sweat,
he's driving the poor old Smith Corona
like a coalminer wrestling a pneumatic
I also relished certain lines of certain practitioners steeped in canonical traditions of poetry. In his poem 'The Widening Gyre', from his collection Sinking Lessons, Philip Armstrong writes:
lakes of Apples white as sea ice
silicon implants like jellyfish blooms
the litter of sea lanes washed from freighter stacks...
And in the sonnet 'Ariadne to Theseus', included in his Heroides pamphlet, Stephen Oliver produces the couplet:
Only the gulls, the screeching wind, sea wrack,
I plunged hands into waves to pull you back.
Then there was the panache of Hinemoana Baker picking up the tempo until her rhythmic language develops an almost pogoing energy in her poem 'Look at what we fucking well have':
...we have not only the pinch but the golden fucking punch
the doily the strobe the actual fucking original flake
the grain itself the ilk as well as the motherfucking inkling...
And now to the poems that I chose as the 2020 top twenty-five. In some ways it has been like walking on a beach, and picking up shells of extraordinary variety and beauty, and then realising that the entire beach is covered in wonderful seashells.
Working with rhythm, Victor Billot in his 'Rage Virus' makes his poem a exuberant litany of insults and putdowns plucked from the daily flux of media verbiage. A portrait of our age, a satiric list poem, 'Rage Virus', with its barbaric yawp sounding over the rooftops, is so energised and exercised it seems capable of girdling the earth in a nanosecond:
Shirt-fronters face off, munters thump and run,
can't remember landing the king hit ...
Emma Neale's dream-like poem 'Metamorphosis', written during lockdown, expunges individuality in favour of a kind of communal apprehensiveness. Her poem's descriptions confront nature as icky and philoprogenitive. Fungal growths in her local park, turned grotesque and ghastly, stand in for the sense of a world turned threatening, with the swarming coronavirus on the loose:
Demonic clots of toadstools beneath blue-gums, beeches and birches
serve a kind of answer: little shocks of sculpted matter in ruby, bronze and
And if poems can defamiliarise and make strange, Talia Marshall develops that perception in another direction by pushing away from the choric crowd protest at Ihumatao to foreground preoccupations and obsessions, which, nevertheless, loop round on the same theme of historical grievances and abrasive interactions, in her poem 'Being Active':
Because no one is allowed to call themselves useless.
Poetry prizes allusiveness, as well as precision of word choices, and a poem which amply rewards time and attention in this regard is Michael Steven's lyrical 'Summer/ Haszard Road':
Mason bees are bleeping and screeching
in a metallic dialect, building networks
of dirt tombs to store their stunned prey,
between volumes of Homer and Euripedes ...
My son learns to dream in a tiny bedroom.
His brain is a word machine working overtime.
Even while he sleeps, I hear his soft voice
sound the names of objects in his waking world.
Poems seek to make inchoate thoughts and feelings coherent and articulate. A poem is a distillation of intellectual and emotional complexities. In her poem, 'My Mother is a Ghost Living in My Mind', Siobhan Harvey presents a kind of haunting, where she is, in a way, still standing within the long shadows of childhood and still under her mother's spell:
During lockdown, she's free to haunt
my absent days and nights until
I call down the heavens to end it all.
Frightening childhood experiences also reverberate through Kay McKenzie Cooke's poem of remembrance, 'Off with your head and on with a button'. Here, it's the poet's mother who is haunted, 'a little girl at the time', caught up in fairy tale echoes, where 'Orepuki's/ baker with the large sharp knife' repeats like clockwork every time he sees her the refrain 'Off with your head and on with a button', while towering over her from behind his counter like an ogre.
Rhian Gallagher, by contrast, offers childhood as an idyllic prelapsarian pastoral in her poem, 'The Illuminated Page':
dry grasses a dust-caked hum
the riddle of the creek-bed dragonflies and reeds
a wilding apple sharp upon my tongue ...
In her long poem 'the wedding party', with its sensuous and elegiac rituals, Michele Leggott turns family heritage into a kind of pastoral remembrance as well:
white satin bows tied to each bridle
white satin shoes laced with ribbon
sidesaddle in the summer morning
buttonholes of wild rose and forget-me-not
from the clearings at Hurworth
the wedding party advances into history ...
Poetry can be intoxicating — one recalls the Chinese classical tradition of venerable inebriated poets gazing at moonlight on a lake. Doc Drumheller offers a kind of verbal intoxication through delicate precision and imagery compressed into dense layers within a few lines, in his sequence 'Shengze Haiku':
Su Hui wrote eight-inch poems
stitched in antique silk
If his haiku are like a series of indelible postcard poems, whose messages feel partly occluded, Bill Manhire's enigmatic yet affirming poem 'Huia' is both a lament and a riddle whose subject is an extinct bird that remains powerfully folkloric in the national imagination:
Where are you when you vanish?
Where are you when you're found?
I'm made of greed and anguish
a feather on the ground ...
Karlo Mila's poem 'The Sounds of Princess Ashika' is also an elegy, a lament. It's about the thin membrane between life and death, the fragility of life. Its subject is the wholly-preventable sinking of MV Princess Ashika, a Tongan inter-island ferry, that, overcrowded and unseaworthy, capsized in a storm off the coast of Tongatapu with many lives lost. Mila creates resonances from this tragedy that bring to mind Thomas Hardy's poem about the sinking of the Titanic, 'The Convergence of the Twain', as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem 'The Wreck of the Deutschland':
We all dream that our mouths are filled with the ocean,
salt at the back of our throats,
but how hopelessly afloat we are.
We all rise for another day.
Tusiata Avia's poem 'We talk about sex poems' is a kind of confessional which also contains elements of oracle and prophecy. In its modulations, in the beauty and fervour of Avia's words, we find the promise poetry can fufill being powerfully enacted through Avia's nuanced and sombre language. This is a poem about attraction and mystery, a poem about love, pain and heartbreak:
It is at the door, after we have said goodbye,
after I have closed the door
and you have walked away down the hall like Ramses
that my broken breaks open.
Great fissures run through me
into the floor, down past the lift shaft
and through the underworld into Fortitude Valley.
Rata Gordon's poem 'Hair' is fiercely human. It offers a spiky feminist comedy about the rebellious body, which, with its emphatic physicality, is ever a visceral riposte to the idealised self:
Now I use the tweezers, the same ones, to pluck the young man
from my face, to pluck away the billy goat, get off, get out of
my shadow. I am a woman now, bare, bare, bare. I am a woman
now, with hair.
In 'Ghost poem #3 — The other side of the glass', Chris Tse offers a poetic reminiscence, a euphoric recollection of 'formative summers'. This is a poem of recalled crescendoes on the dancefloor; this is a poem whose exuberant flash and sparkle reminds us that poetry, as Wallace Stevens said, 'refreshes life' and sends us forth 'winged ... to an immaculate end.' Tse's poem finishes:
... all my future wonders were
one swift and decisive thought away. I wrote all
my desires in my breath for anyone to read them.
In her poem 'Yes', Diane Brown takes the quotidian flow of circumstance, the everyday miracle of ordinary life, parsed out of the ebb and flow of circumstance — such as the colour of clouds in the sky — and skilfully shapes a story, a narrative, a journey within the scope of a handful of stanzas.
John Allison provides a poetic fable — and life lessons — grounded in objects gifted to him by his father and his grandfather, in his poem ‘Father's axe, grandfather's machete’:
A homemade leather sheath for the head, like those
hoods fastened over the heads of
Persian hunting falcons, secreting the fierce
intent of the blade's naked gaze ...
In 'My American Chair', Elizabeth Smither writes, disarmingly, 'I forgot it was designed for someone with legs/ like Honest Abe...'. Her poem anthropomorphises an item of furniture to create droll comedy. Smither commands a rapidly sketched lightness of tone that brings to mind both the powers of description of Charles Dickens and the watchfulness of Emily Dickinson.
There's brevity and quicksilver wordplay, too, from Peter Olds in his poem 'Doctor Bell', a witty commentary on poetry as therapy with an obliging doctor:
I dictated & you wrote the script.
David Howard's poem ‘Fitting’ is also succinct: no longer than it needs to be to provide an epiphany about human continuity and time's transformations. A poem about hand-made shoes, its hammered phrases neatly evoke the tactile, along with the warmth of affection held for an uncle who was a fine craftsman, with every word here accountable to the task.
Geoff Cochrane's short, well-tailored poem, 'The Tattooed Man' offers recognition, compassion for the outcast, for the orphaned outlaw, someone who in Cochrane's telling is forlorn, forever stranded on the far side of respectability through the caprices of fate.
Richard Langston in 'Snoring' apostrophises our common humanity. The simplicity and philosophical clarity of this poem — its down-to-earth observations — make it immediately accessible, humble, moving — and also ruefully comic:
Those people back down the hallway snoring
twenty years ago were your parents.
Now they are you.
A poem can be the transmission of a mood, the assertion of an identity, the glimpse of a destiny. And sometimes all these things at once. In 'my dream of a nonbinary prison', essa may ranapiri presents a kind of manifesto challenging notions of the transgressive. This poem is charged with a sense of identity that rejects the 'corrections' provided by the standard incarceration facility of the Department of Corrections. It is a poem which establishes a profound sense of the self in extremis. The Ghanaian poet and critic Kwame Dawes has written: 'Some moments demand a sermon, or a speech, or fist, or a bowl of water, or a rose, not a poem', but essa may ranapiri begs to differ, for 'my dream of a nonbinary prison' manages to combine all these elements to make a protest poem where grief, anger, and a determination to resist are commingled — along with a bitterness about the disproportionate number of dispossessed Māori shunted into prison:
my tūpuna would be so proud of how many
have made it to these fine estates
Poetry, through its spells, chants and incantations, grants the poet certain powers. In Ria Masae's poem Mā, she rejects as disrespectful someone's remark that she is not a true Samoan because she doesn't have a malu — a Samoan woman's tattoo:
. . . I am no kin
to pālagi parlour needles
nor do I feel I have earned the tap-tap-tap
of the sausau mallet on the au
— the fine-tooth comb of bone —
held in the sacred lima of a tufuga . . .
The poem itself ends up as a ringing endorsement of her mana, her strength, her identity as a Samoan woman, cutting her sarcastic opponent down to size with deftly-wielded words.
Walk on air against your better judgement, Seamus Heaney counselled. Poems celebrate and affirm self-belief. Poems are a form of sharing, of communing with others. As readers, we read poems in order to understand ourselves. Poems, we acknowledge, are an ultimate form of authenticity; at their best they are revelatory, truth-telling. Some poems I encountered in 2020 brought new ways of looking at the world; they acknowledged our jostling multiculturalism, our incorrigible plurality, our inescapable diversity as a nation.
In his poem 'When they ask you where you are really from', Mohamed Hassan writes:
Plant cardamom in your friends' eyes
Cumin in their teeth
Zaatar on their brow
Lick the rest off your fingertips
It tastes of visa-on-entry
Heaven with no random checks
Hassan's poem is a kaleidoscope of difference, depicting the impressions of a migrant, a stranger on the shore — but his poem also affirms a wish to share, to be part of the community, involved and contributing, identified and accepted.
In her poem 'Passages, shadows, braid', Sudha Rao celebrates arrival in a new land, while carrying in her mind the experiences of her former home. Her poem sensuously blends past and present into a kind of dance, a pattern of cadence and imagery that seems to move and sway mesmerically. In conventional prose, words disappear into their meaning. In poems, words and phrases assert themselves and language becomes a performance, an enactment, so that we can no longer tell the dancer from the dance:
You will praise sages, bow to mountains,
let songbirds tickle you into your seasons.
Light from unfamiliar eyes
will burn yours bright.
I hope you will enjoy reading these poems as much I have on my year-long odyssey for which I didn't have to leave home. I'm glad to have had the privilege of the journey and its discoveries. Discoveries rather than judgements because poems are essentially playful and deeply wilful and a law unto themselves and won't be judged. As the American poet Archibald MacLeish put it in his brilliant formulation about the art of poetry: 'A poem should not mean/ But be.'
David Eggleton lives in Ōtepoti Dunedin and has won a number of awards for his writing, including the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award for a Poet, the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry in 2016, and the Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2016. He is the Aotearoa New Zealand Poet Laureate 2019 - 2022.