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The best way to take the pulse and determine the health of poetry in New Zealand is to crack open the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook. It is proof that the art form is very much alive and vibrant in 2017. As the first issue through Massey University Press, the journal covers a lot of ground. Since its inception in the 1950s, the journal continues to showcase poets of longstanding, such as Riemke Ensing, Michelle Leggott, Owen Marshall, Iain Britton and Elizabeth Smither, while introducing readers to younger, emerging poets, such as Devon Webb, Callum Stembridge and Harriet Beth.
The inclusivity of this issue is a sign of the times, with a curatorial tendency towards one or two poems from a larger pool, rather than several poems from fewer writers. This makes sense from a sales and marketing perspective. It widens the net of potential readers in the form of friends and families of the poets. As a reader, it is akin to the way television flits from image to image at breakneck speed; it allows little time for immersion and only a brief window into the sensibilities and fascinations of each poet.
On the subject of inclusion, Janet Charman’s feminist essay on the editorship of Alan Curnow is a brave and robust insight. In her well-researched piece, Charman explores the historical tendency toward erasure of the feminine within New Zealand poetry anthologies. In 2017, the journal celebrates and promotes the work of women poets, both through featuring their work and discussing their books in the review section.
Elizabeth Morton’s suite is accomplished and mesmerising. At times her work sends the reader on a surreal journey, like a Chagall painting. She drifts in and out of dark themes, from the personal (visiting someone in hospital) to the political (the refugee crisis). It is satisfying and intriguing work: ‘I bring you / blackberries, frankincense, / lorazepam. / I make marionettes with my hands / I make you the best alpaca you’ve ever seen.’
In terms of content, not many poets included attempt traditional forms, opting instead for mostly blank or free verse. The poems meant for performance are easy to spot, with their emphasis on the lyrical rhythm: ‘Do not become / your mother. / Not because you / do not love her, / you do… (Note to self).’ The inclusion of poetry from this milieu offers a fantastic glimpse of the generation gap in approaches to the craft (why labour over an enjambment when the meaning will be lost when read aloud?).
Of course, it wouldn’t be New Zealand poetry without the references to the great outdoors: ‘for several summers we camped there / canvas tents cheek-by-jowl guy-ropes… (Paraparaumu) and familiar settings (A Dunedin bar, the Wellesley Street intersection).’
This collection offers jumping off points for anyone, no matter your poetic inclination. Not one to be raced through, each reading brings a fresh new image, ‘when you least expect…a dull ache in the memory (When you least expect) …has the / power to flatten me.’ (Lithium).
Reviewed by Anna Forsyth
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017
edited by Jack Ross
Published by Massey University Press