Available in bookstores nationwide. There is also a nationwide tour accompanying this publication, details can be found here.
Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page (2014) weighed heavily in my hands. It had some major shoes to fill. Its predecessor and titular sibling of thirteen years earlier, edited by Edmond and Sewell, was my first guide to New Zealand poetry. A veritable treasure trove − I found New Zealand poetry pioneers Bethell, Fairburn, Mason within the pages, as well as shiny new gems from the likes of Emma Neale and Vivienne Plumb. With time, I wondered at the title. The word ‘essential’ troubled me. Could New Zealand’s rich body of poetic works really be sieved through to reveal its ‘essence’?
In this latest anthology, Harvey, Norcliffe and Ricketts approach this issue head on and, with admirable candidness, describe the collection as ‘Some Rather Good New Zealand Poems the Three of Us Rather Like’. Moreover, the new collection has an adjunct title, ‘Facing the Empty Page’, taken from a poem authored by Elizabeth Nannestad. The problem of ‘essence’, though scarcely resolved, seems to be shrunk.
Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page is a literary slumber party, where old-hands and newcomers coalesce. Baxter is bedfellow with Hinemoana Baker, Kiri Piahana-Wong is bunked down with Alistair Paterson. The assemblage is egalitarian, insofar as each author is represented by one poem. Poets are arranged, not chronologically, but in alphabetical sequence. Such an arrangement lends itself to surprises. A page turned can occasion a completely new mood and style. Bub Bridger’s comedic ‘A Christmas Wish’ jolts the reader out of Diana Bridge’s meditational and exquisite ‘Jars, Bubble Bowls and Bottle Vases’. Approaching the book from cover to cover, the reader is sent on an affective rollercoaster. And though giddiness may ensue, the buzz is something addictive.
This anthology, unlike its predecessor, kicks off in the 1950s. So while Curnow is included, Bethell and Mason are not. This is a shortcoming, perhaps, but it does serve to open up the field to a greater number of lesser known contemporary poets. Helen Heath, Courtney Sina Meredith and Ashleigh Young are new kids on the block but, in each case, their poems hold their own.
The book itself is testament to the survival of books as pulp and ink. It is a handsome production − cloth bound, and peppered with haunting greyscale images of New Zealand landscapes. These images serve as reminders that this poetry is ‘earthed’, that the works within were born into the New Zealand context.
Yet many of the pieces featured extend beyond their geographical location. Fleur Adcock’s ‘Having Sex with the Dead’ introduces Greek mythology, Koenraad Kuiper’s ‘Tales’ hauls in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Then there are poems that take us on trips through our very own streets. We are in Titirangi with David Eggleton, the Maniototo with Kevin Ireland, Banks Peninsular with Denis Glover. And James K Baxter enlightens us about Auckland, that ‘great arsehole’ of a city.
This is a beautiful and considered collection. Essential or not, this book is worth getting your hands on.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton
Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page
edited by Harry Ricketts, Siobhan Harvey and James Norcliffe
Published by Random House NZ