Lockdown, and the world’s fevered sleep means days constrained
to this tight, silent circuit: emptied neighborhood streets,
a wooded tract, a golf course mock-locked with a single chain

that we stumble over, sick-of-ourselves, craving novelty, change, succour.
Demonic clots of toadstools beneath blue-gums, beeches and birches
serve a kind of answer: little shocks of sculpted matter in ruby, bronze and silver.

Some cluster like butterscotch dripped from a witch’s eaves.
Bright herds glisten, the colour of horses’ sweat-soaked flanks.
Others swell, red candy-apples; tempt the tiny Eves of our teeth.

Yet someone here before us has smashed apart a shining colony,
scattering shapes like single wing bones, or bird-light skulls in white felt shreds.
As if there are cold omens in this petty tyranny

the tall, moss-skimmed trees shiver and shape-shift with dread:
in their skins, knots and whorls, are mouths, cocks, vulvas, legs,
as if an entire people chokes inside the sea-green flesh

and we spook, we run, as if from some Cassandra’s prophecy,
conscience asking on leaf-dry tongues, You: perpetrators or survivors?
Myth’s ancient feeder-roots tighten the tripwires of history.

Emma Neale is the author of six novels and six collections of poetry. Her most recent novel, Billy Bird (2016) was short-listed for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham NZ Book Awards and long-listed for the Dublin International Literary Award. Emma has received a number of literary fellowships, residencies and awards, the most recent of which is the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry 2020. Her first collection of short stories, The Pink Jumpsuit, is due out in 2021. Emma lives and works in Ōtepoti Dunedin, where she works as a freelance editor for local and overseas publishers.

Neale comments: 'I wrote "Metamorphosis" in the middle of Level 4 lockdown in Aotearoa New Zealand, not long after Easter, when we had the surreal combination of beautiful, mild autumn weather in Ōtepoti Dunedin and the barrage of bad news from overseas about increasing numbers of deaths from Covid 19, and locally, news of another pandemic-related death, and with around 1445 cases nationally. My immediate family and I were very lucky to have wide open space nearby that we could exercise in; yet we were also very concerned about my mother (who was seriously ill, though not with Covid; and who wasn’t in our bubble, so we couldn’t visit her); and we were worried about a young member of our extended family who was trying to get back home from England. All four of us in our nuclear bubble stayed healthy, and we were occupied with study or work, so we were at once enormously fortunate and grateful, yet I was haunted (as many people were) by an awareness that all of it could crash and vaporise at any moment.

'Reading the news daily made it increasingly obvious that the pandemic exposed and exacerbated many long-term economic divisions and cultural injustices; it also underlined the sense that any work security we had could be pulled out from under us by the ripple effects of global crisis. I was thinking a lot about the privileges I’ve had since birth, and the dissonance between these and the fact that with all the good fate in the world, we humans can still have messy feelings: anxiety, fear, paralysis, claustrophobia, boredom. My eldest son and I were having frequent conversations about inequality, climate crisis, racism, despots, imperialism, and radical system change. We also mentioned to each other that we were noticing the variety of natural forms around us more: we were both paying closer attention to trees, leaves, flowers, lichen, mosses, etc. more than usual. All of this churns around in the poem, but to try to harness and ride out my own sense of  "the overwhelm", I tried to discipline it all by attempting terza rima. The poem doesn’t achieve the form fully, which is probably fitting - even when I wanted to mimic the airlessness of stasis, or limbo, the randomness and chaos of the irrational kept leaking through.'

​Poem source details >


Academy of New Zealand Literature member page

Read NZ Te Pou Muramura writer file

Otago University Press author page

Penguin Random House NZ author page

Photographer credit: Caroline Davies