Book Review: Transit of Venus / Venustransit, by Hinemoana Baker et al

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_transit_of_venusFour years ago three New Zealand and three German poets went on a journey to Tolaga Bay to witness the transit of Venus, an event that occurs in pairs every 120-odd years. Famously, Captain Cook landed on that very spot during a transit of Venus some 250 years ago, for what is regarded as the first friendly encounter between Europeans and Maori.

Now the poems written on and around this trip in 2012 have been curated in a marvellous collection in German and English, some with a Māori component. A number of poems are juxtaposed with their respective translation, some remain within their language; an added air of mystery for monolingual readers. Many of the poems delve into the mysterious, pick up on the goddess theme, such as Uwe Kolbe’s total mythology mash-up Venus, Ein europäischer Transit … , or bring the surroundings into the poetry; and then there is the odd (very odd) shanty.

Just as the Transit of Venus can only be observed through a telescope, many of the translations involved an intermediary to aid with clarity between the languages. Translations were collaborated on via skype, which means the poems went up into space before landing back on earth in their altered form. It is this complex web of interaction and intermediacy, which makes this project so interesting.

The collection is rounded off with a profile of each poet and an interview with the three German poets, at least one of whom had never been to New Zealand before. Another first encounter for them.

This collection is exciting on so many levels. The reader does not need to know all the languages involved to be able to enjoy the interplay, but it sure adds another level. What we have here is a voyage of discovery, an experience of proximity and distance in time, space and language. A connection forged between two continents. May it persist and prosper.

Reviewed by Melanie Wittwer, English/German translator

Transit of Venus | Venustransit
by Hinemoana Baker, Ulrike Almut Sandig, Glenn Colquhoun, Uwe Kolbe, Brigitte Oleschinski, Chris Price
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739797

Book Review: Puna Wai Kōrero: An anthology of Maori poetry in English, edited by Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan

cv_puna_wai_koreroAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

Puna Wai Kōrero is a hefty book − both in ambition and in brute size. Edited by Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan, this is the first anthology of Maori poetry in English. With almost eighty poets included, with work ranging from traditional modernist poetry to slam poetry, this is a poetical soup − or, more fittingly perhaps, a boil-up.

Poets are arranged alphabetically, aside from Apirana Ngata who kick-starts the collection as lauded progenitor of Maori poetry in English. With its ‘doth’s and its ‘thou’s, and its appeal to Greek deities, Ngata’s poetry is a very different kettle of fish to the subsequent work. What follows is something largely more loose, more conversational.

Is this Maori poetry? Probably. But this is, in the first instance, human poetry. From the prosaic, to the political, to the speculative − Puna Wai Kōrero has the whole caboodle. Terrestrial mythology fuses with science fiction in Sullivan’s ‘Waka 46′, while Menzies’ ‘Māui steals time’ is a metaphysical and mythological romp dedicated to Stephen Hawking. There are playful poems such as Blank’s ‘What to wear to a gynaecology examination’, political poems, as in Boyed’s ‘Clearing the land’. There are traditional poems and nature poems − but so too there are poems which displace us from the land, and lead us to the suburbs where we meet social workers, gangs, neighbourhood dogs and that unrelenting-Waka − the Honda Civic.

Within are poems by literary rock-stars − the likes of Ihimaera and Hulme. And these folks show they’re every bit as much poets as they are writers of prose. But the poems of Kiri Pirihana-Wong and Hinemoana Baker − with their tenderness, and raw sentimentality, linger longest in my mind.

As with every anthology, there are omissions (One may wonder at the exclusion of Alistair Campbell, the late Cook Island Maori poet). There are also ghosts. James K Baxter, though not included, is resurrected through the work of his wife and daughter, while his poem The Maori Jesus is parodied by Ben Brown. Hone Tuwhare is another such ghost. While he is largely represented in the anthology, he is also alluded to in the poetry of Tania Hinehou Butcher, Tru Paraha and Michael O’Leary.

In Puna Wai Kōrero the parameters have been set wide. Critics may argue that the brush is too broad, the net too widely cast. However, I believe such gamut will determine this anthology as the prime authority on Maori Poetry in English for years, perhaps decades, to come.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Puna Wai Kōrero: An anthology of Maori poetry in English
edited by Reina Whaitiri and Robert Sullivan
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408176

Book Review: Waha | Mouth, by Hinemoana Baker


Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

Hinemoana Baker has a mouthful. Her latest collection of poetry, Waha | Mouth, has plenty to yak about, from the quotidian to the unorthodox. There are bovine sperm, ‘mother and father dinosaurs’, digitally enhanced crickets, pink flamingos and rectal cameras. Baker casts the things we can name into play scrupulously, and one feels that she could be acquiring Scrabble points as a side-project. Some of the words are delicious – ‘malapropic’, others send one scurrying to a dictionary – ‘infraspinatus’ and ‘subscapularis’. To Baker, words are more than aggregates of letters. There is the ‘veritable killer whale of a word’, the word marked by its ‘refusal to speak English’, and there are words unsaid – the ‘gag’ and the ‘mute’.

The poems within are more than a catalogue of pretty words, however. At times they are nostalgic. ‘The Adjective Game’, introduces a playful family diversion, while ‘School’ transports the reader to a place for which no packed lunch could prepare them. There are fuzzy renderings of family members, childhood friends. A ‘waha | mouth’ is a point of entry and departure. Characters enter and pass away. But this is no sappy collection, no sentimental walk in the park.

Baker’s poetry is cerebral. As her ‘Manifesto’ declares, this ‘poetry waits in a crate with a lock’. Some of the pieces read like arcane utterances of a Sphinx. What does she mean by ‘My country is a mother moose’? What is meant by ‘be the parrot on your own shoulder’?

Baker is a clever cookie. Thumbing through her collection one sees she can straddle many subjects and write in various formats. Within are ‘found’ poems, a collaborative poem, and a piece resembling flash-fiction.

Hinemoana Baker likes to think that ‘opening this book to read is like standing at the mouth of a cave, or a river, or a grave, with a candle in your hand’. And while one may, in moments, wish the candle were a flashlight, there is something mesmeric about bumping around in the dim with Baker’s words and imagery.

Waha | Mouth
by Hinemoana Baker
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739704

Book Review: Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page, edited by Harry Ricketts, Siobhan Harvey and James Norcliffe

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 cv_essential_nz_poemshands. 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
ISBN 9781775534594