Welcome to Best New Zealand Poems 2021
Over the summer, on holiday with my mother, retired English teacher and lover of poetry, I was reducing my longlist to the shortlist. If I couldn’t resist the urge to interrupt her book and read a poem aloud across the room, that was a sign it belonged on the shortlist.
You really go for endings don’t you, she said, and I’m like, duh, but also yes, the endings of poems are so important. I can love a poem that has lines in it I don’t enjoy, but I don’t think I can love a poem if I don’t enjoy the ending.
I once heard Lauris Edmond say that a poem should end like a car door closing. I took this to mean, not necessarily with a bang, but with a certain well-engineered thunk of closure.
I’m wrong about this of course, like I’m wrong about all the things I think I know about poetry. Because some poems just stop and leave you hanging and bereft, and that’s perfect.
There are common themes in the poems of 2021, but most of them are the common themes of any poetic year – memory, nature, things that go wrong, the so-called ordinary world seen in a new, clarifying way.
Quite a few poems touched on lockdown, or seemed to – us poets often stay home and complain so it’s not always easy to tell.
What I learned from editing BNZP this year is how much I need to slow down, to re-read and re-visit the poems I enjoy, to read them aloud, get into the workings, try to figure out how they are doing what they’re doing.
Because when I do, I come to love them even more, and they work on me, and make me feel things, like I want to cry, and applaud and force them on people.
After the catastrophe, Alice Miller
I’m not averse to abstract rhetorical questions in poems, but I feel they have to be earned. And boy does Miller earn her opening with what comes next:
I do not like the knife
lying on the carriage floor, waiting.
I do not like how
at each station, new people rise
and say This is us.
As if each stop defines them.
As if each stop defines them! I love it when a poem takes a piece of everyday speech and makes you really hear it for the first time, as nonsensical and mysterious and, in this case, somehow ominous. Miller’s voice is restrained and so is her layout, but she puts that line out on its own – even the poem has to admit it is a show-stopper.
Footnotes to a History of the Reliquary, Alison Glenny
What a curious book this is! Unlike anything I’ve ever read before, it offers tiny revelations and gasp-out-loud images on virtually every page while remaining totally elusive.
‘Footnotes to a History of the Reliquary’ had me from the first line – the first footnote:
1 A pair of hanging lockets, each containing a tiny frozen sea. When
opened, they released a fine mist.
The tone is of manic romanticism, the feeling satirical yet at times oddly moving, as in this definition of the (I assume made-up) word Etuis: ‘A hollow sensation, sometimes mistaken for the desire to start a collection.’
Flood Monologue, Anne Kennedy
Wow! This multi-page poem goes to so many places, takes in so much, tells so many stories and reaches so many different tones, all within the absolute discipline of its couplets. Every word, every line break and stanza break does so much apparently effortless work.
….Later in your roomy
queen you listen to its monologue
Roomy queen! Such an elegant, spacious phrase for the post-break-up bed.
The intermingling of personal history, natural history and human geography is so satisfying. And then the stream itself gets the final, perfect words.
haircut, Ash Davida Jane
This poem makes me so happy. It takes exquisite care with the world, capturing and releasing its moments like spiders, with the same mix of kindness and apprehension.
There is such command in the movement of the poem.
We begin inside one kitchen where ‘…piles of hair dot the linoleum / small brown mammals…’ then ‘…the lens widens / the centre pulls back…’ and we swoop into a series of domestic interiors. The action of each inhabitant is as banal, specific and precious as the last.
Infinities, Bryan Walpert
We all know a car’s interior can be the site of many intimacies, and it is in this poem, as father and son chat their way to school. Mathematics and philosophy, theoretical and distant, are not immune to sentiment and memory, if only in the privacy of the poet’s mind.
The wonderfully long, run-on sentences of the poem, like the slow crawl of traffic, seem like they won’t ever stop, until they do, in the poem’s gorgeous, perfect ending.
I don’t want to quote it, because it gains its power from the poem’s building momentum, but every time I reach the end of this poem I feel like applauding.
What I Learnt from Aotea College’s Forensic Science Class, Danny Bultitude
I have never dissected a rat, but Bultitude’s descriptions are so fabulous they surely must be true: ‘…the coils of intestine dainty / as friendship bracelets…’.
But it’s when this poem steps from memory to imagination that it really grabs you, well, by the throat:
The ribbed cartilage that felt so much like my own / which sprung open as if it were always straining
As if all the tension / built up over years / of keeping your throat intact / was enough to halve you.
Touched the throat of every romantic partner since / recalling the precise sensation of my cutting
Through that cartilage…
I don’t want to spoil the image of the rats’ cause of death because it’s so startling, so New Zealand, such a disturbing combination of beauty and violence.
A small woman returning in a blue urn, Dinah Hawken
It is almost unbearable to contemplate this poem about the death of a sister. But if Hawken has had the courage to write it, I feel I should find the courage to read it. Each time I do, I am arrested again by these lines:
I held the urn against me
as if my sister was unborn…
And then these:
Everything surprised me.
My sister was in pieces.
She was at our disposal.
The hallmarks of Hawken’s poetry are all here – the sense of time taken, of stillness, the slow simplicity of lines that land like stones and like stones make ever-widening circles.
But there’s also a sense of surprise, and a dark redemptive humour. An astonishing poem.
Ohio, Emma Barnes
My award for tenderest and most hilarious image of 2021 goes to the outfit worn by the subject of this poem.
When we go to a costume party together she
wears a lycra body suit and duct tapes a dildo
to her crotch. It bumps against me in the darkness
like a bottle-nosed dolphin or a chair lift.
Like a bottle-nosed dolphin or a chair lift! These are the kind of alternatives I live for.
And it’s even better, because this is a really sad poem, but the dildo is always there, nudging you kindly through it.
I also love the way the poem ends:
She moved out on my birthday and I ripped
up the note she wrote. I ripped up the note
she left me that she wrote me, when she left.
The sense of someone struggling to clarify, but only making things more confusing, is the perfect way to finish.
The Teacher’s Wife, Fleur Adcock
It is hard to be hilarious about women drowning themselves but Fleur Adcock can do it, of course.
The poem interleaves family stories and memories with actors emerging from the characters they play – the Teacher’s Wife in one section is revealed as the speaker’s mother in another.
There is a sense of New Zealand as a place where the ocean is always at hand:
Almost irresistible, you’d think,
New Zealand being surrounded by these
waiting to be entered, one way or another.
And the sense, also, that the need for suicide is something any woman might reasonably anticipate.
What could be more Adcock than this mix of anecdote, throwaway humour, and death?
Park, Night, Gus Goldsack
Being in parks at night was such a big part of my teenage years that I felt personally drawn to this poem and its tone of manic, messy exuberance.
It darts back and forth through time and around the world, full of anecdotes and accidents, bodily fluids and occasional flashes of transcendence coming in and out of focus like the ‘fabled glow worms’.
Its asterisked footnote / correction is also just extremely hilarious.
Bits and pieces #3, Harry Ricketts
There’s a hesitancy and disjointedness in this poem that appeals to me. The title itself gives a sense of loss – what happened, one wonders, to Bits and pieces # 1 and #2? A sense of damage prevails, the torn and broken, even the hill ‘twinked / in cloud’ bears the marks of correction.
And yet Ricketts smuggles in the solace of the beauty: ‘This patch of blue might be sky, / but, just as easily, deep water.’
Nightfall, Joanna Preston
A small poem needs to reward you with every moment. The first for me in ‘Nightfall’ is the movement between the first two lines:
Little by little, day winds down
its props, its scaffold of light.
I like day winds down, but I love day winds down its props. Suddenly I’m at the theatre, and I add for no reason at all a faintly Italian sense of a café owner winding in his awning.
Then: ‘The sun is slipped into its case…’ is perfect but also mysterious. Is the sun a gold pocket watch? Some kind of archaic instrument? It’s both of course, and so sweetly domesticated and tucked away.
Just when you think there are no more wonderful poems to write about nightfall, there are.
The Tour, John Weir
I fear that international travel nostalgia may be a burgeoning new genre in New Zealand literature. If so, ‘The Tour’ is already a classic of the form. Its gorgeous remembered details of herons and sweet pea are tempered with the banality of buses and tour guides.
The vagueness of recollection drifts into the poem with grace rather than irony. Was it where the Sauks were tomahawked or near the Butterfly House that the speaker’s cousin broke the heel off her shoe? As the poem concludes:
It’s hard to remember exactly –
there’s only so much you can take in.
All the girls who used to read Dolly have trauma now, Lily Holloway
As someone who has filled out an enormous number of women’s magazine quizzes, I was primed to enjoy this poem. But every question, every option, every answer in this quiz poem offered new mini-explosions of wit, horror and imagination.
- When you dream, you dream of:
a) shining fat wasps emerging from each pore of your back
b) being stranded on a distant moon with too many suitcases
c) writing a poem so good it makes everyone apologise
Sorry not sorry, this is just a really great poem, containing all its heartbreak inside a crispy shell of cleverness.
Stroke, Mary Macpherson
While it starts with uncertainty and misdirection, for me there is real feeling of triumph in this poem, of exhilaration and private defiance.
Frailties and forgetting gradually give way to images of the body’s quotidian achievements: ‘…push up the hill… swim in blue water under the high roof / steady dog head… stride to the furthest bus stop…. stuff my mouth with lettuce…’
Stuff my mouth with lettuce! One of those moments of recognition that brings you slamming into the poet’s body, alive in that particular, visceral moment. Just great.
Great-grandad Rants about ‘Current Affairs’, Nick Ascroft
I almost felt bad choosing this poem, because it’s in a poetry collection for kids and it may be annoying to Ascroft that it isn’t one of his ‘real poems’. But it made me laugh out loud, not just the first time I read it either, and that is something worth celebrating.
It was the all caps headlines that did it, the cadence and enormously satisfying rhyme – I won’t spoil it here.
‘Young ladies and lads, comrades / Look up from your doodads and iPads.’ Ascroft is one of the few poets around in New Zealand who uses rhyme in a way I really enjoy.
The Spell, Nikki-Lee Birdsey
A lot of poems published in 2021 seemed to me to be lockdown-related, and this is one of them, with its closed restaurants and cessation of boxing and kissing.
But there’s also a quality here of a broader contemporary mourning, whether for the physical pollutants – ‘…the untaxed billions underneath…’ – or the psychic ones, and our attempts to ward them off.
I hear it thru my phone, poison season.
I try to think less thru mindfulness.
I try to think less thru mindfulness.
Everything’s a scam.
And I loved the poem’s final refrain, stepping down the page, an eloquent depiction of the so-called attention economy.
11.11pm, Pippi Jean
I am always a sucker for smells in a poem, and I love the way this poem moves quickly from real smells, to the synaesthetic kind, the smells of ‘…the flicking off of light switches / of crickets and motorway noise...’
I also love poems set on suburban streets, the poet outdoors, the sense of domesticity overheard: ‘…a clatter of voices / like the scraping of a plate.’
The restraint of the poem, the simplicity of its images, gives an extra pleasure to its more lyrical but still understated ending: ‘…Clouds wring / the odd star out of the dark. We’re / walking on nothing. We’re the road, unlined.’
Wairaki: Tuatoru, Ruby Solly
As its subjects move from the depths to the surface, so this this poem effortlessly moves between registers, from water wings to Paikea, reflections on whakapapa to a moment of childhood shame.
It is the last lines – which end the third section in the poem ‘Wairaki’ – that I kept returning to.
Staying under for too long, because I can.
Staying under for too long, because I can’t.
The contradiction, the unresolvable tension, the both-true-at-the-same-time-ness of that couplet feels like a key to the entire collection.
True Stories, Sam Duckor-Jones
I tend to be conservative about layout, so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this poem with its prosy shape and blacked out redactions.
The poem’s self-deprecatory description of ‘R-rated whimsy & carefully selected naturalist beats’ is actually a good summary of Duckor-Jones’ content, but there’s more darkness and depth here than the poem’s speaker will admit to.
From chooks to the ghetto, Duckor-Jones introduces horror to his homescape. Even the carefully selected kererū are faintly gothic, from ‘…I looked square into that little red eye…’ to ‘…Great flocks of kererū block out the midday sun’.
The end result is a worldly small town poem with a surprising amount of scope and intrigue.
Eating flowers, Serie Barford
Barford’s book-length series of poems about grief accumulates power as you move through it. ‘Eating flowers’ was the one I kept circling back to. It’s a small poem, a simple poem, but conveys such a powerful sense of both devastation and survival.
I move my lips
teeth follow them
this is how I chew
In a complex, often lush series, I appreciated the brutal simplicity of the lines, and how the final two words can be read two ways – as continuing the sentence that’s gone before, or standing alone as an imperative.
Lyall Bay, 1959, Tim Grgec
You would hope that the final poem in a book-long series would be a cracker, and Grgec’s last one certainly does justice to the collection.
The phrase I kept thinking about after I’d read this poem was ‘…The hills, a creased jacket on the horizon…,’ so perfect that once you’ve read it, you see it everywhere.
When I came back to the poem I realised how impressionistic it is, its mainly short phrases like gestures drawing on the poems that have come before. The rare images expressed in full are all the more powerful:
…My shadow unpins itself from my body and
wanders off into the night….
Devoir, Tim Saunders
This would be such a different poem without its last two lines.
The pastoral beauty of the great-great-grandfather’s woolshed built out of ‘…pieces of birdsong / he found scattered in clearings…’, the movement in three stanzas between generations of men, the old dog howling at the moon – we are bordering at all times on the hokey.
The last lines bring a palate-cleansing humour that refreshes my reading of the poem that has gone before. I kept coming back to the poem to watch it perform that trick over and over.
Roadside trees, Tim Upperton
Oh god this poem can still make me cry, even when I know what’s coming. It’s the dummy hand that gets me, that empty place in the game of cards, a sense of absence that is somehow both devastating and, well, cosy.
It earns the sentiment of its ending through its startling opening images, of ants ‘… in their dark troop… muzzle to muzzle…’ and of breaths in the evening air ‘…suspended above their heads like cartoon / speech bubbles yet to be captioned…’
It moves through its trajectory with such originality, discipline and control, that we can reach a seemingly corny line like: ‘Tonight you feel lost, as in a dark wood,’ and be so utterly convinced, it lands like a gut punch.
The Terrific Beating of My Heart, Wes Lee
I love the way this short poem feels like a fragment of a larger whole, maybe the conclusion of a story, which I think is due to the opening ‘And I realised…,’ as if we meet the speaker at the end of a series of events that they are just beginning to process.
So much is absent: the trauma is mentioned but never explained, the injury remains mysterious, and the title is never revealed as either literal or metaphorical.
But the way we enter in the middle of action, and the specifics of the nurse, ‘…his quick hands like doves…’, give it a substance that belies its short length. A perfect miniature.
Thanks to all the poets.
Kate Camp (b. 1972) is a Wellington-born poet, author of seven collections from Victoria University Press: Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars (1998), Realia (2001), Beauty Sleep (2005), The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls (2010), Snow White’s Coffin (2013), The internet of things (2017), and How To Be Happy Though Human: New and Selected Poems (2020), published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and House of Anansi Press in Canada.
Her work is recognised for its eclectic subject matter, technical control and musicality. An often disconcerting blend of seriousness and humour has been hallmark of her poetry since it was first published in the mid-1990s. Camp’s poetry has been described by critics as 'fearless,' 'mesmerizing,' and 'containing a surprising radicalism and power.'
Unfamiliar Legends of the Stars won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry in 1999. The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls won the 2011 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. Snow White’s Coffin was shortlisted for the award in 2013, and The internet of things longlisted in 2018.
Camp’s poems are in anthologies including Best New Zealand Poems, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2010, 2012 & 2014; Best of Best New Zealand poems; Essential New Zealand Poems; 121 New Zealand Poems; and New Zealand Love Poems.
Her poetry is in journals including Landfall (New Zealand), Sport (New Zealand), Heat (Australia), Brick (Canada), Arc (Canada), Akzente (Germany), Qualm (England), Poetry (USA).
She was appointed Writer in Residence at Waikato University in 2002. In 2011 she received the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writers' Residency, and in 2017 received the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship.
In June 2022, Camp’s memoir, You Probably Think This Song Is About You, will be published by Te Herenga Waka University Press.