Fiction Addiction

Book news and reviews with Bronwyn Sell and Christine Sheehy

Fiction Addiction: The best New Zealand love poems

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Old poems book and rose
Old poems book and rose

I once volunteered to find a New Zealand love poem to be read at a friend's wedding. I had a shelf groaning with poetry books, and I figured it would be easy and fun.
It was neither.

It being a wedding, the poem had to be optimistic. This was not the time for ARD Fairburn's 'Poem' ("Time will devour our days/love die before we die") or Fleur Adcock's 'Afterwards' ("We weave haunted circles around each other...")
So I searched my favourite books - Fairburn, Hone Tuwhare, Bob Orr, Janet Frame, Anne Kennedy... - and a stack of anthologies. Then I read every poem on the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre site. And I started getting discouraged.

Every poem about love seemed to be dark - love lost, a lover's revenge, the death of a loved one, unrequited love, falling out of love, domestic violence, jealousy... (Or they were about sex, which wasn't appropriate for the family setting.)

We all know relationships can be complicated, but this was a first (and only, I hope!) marriage of university sweethearts. A nod to supporting each other through the occasional and inevitable rough patch was acceptable, but bursting the bubble of love before the honeymoon was not. It was a time for unqualified hope.

(I also wanted a poem that was suitable for a third party to read, rather than a direct pledge of undying love. In hindsight I think that was asking too much.)

Thus, when my copy arrived this week of Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems, edited by poet Paula Green, I immediately put it to the wedding poem test - would this book have helped me six years ago?

And oh how I wished I'd had it back then. (Though, granted, some of the most soaring and intimate poems inside weren't written at that point.) Green has compiled a broad selection of poetry that appeals to the heart and the mind.

I got in touch with her and asked whether New Zealand poets were indeed fascinated by the dark side of love. Or had I just been looking for love (poetry) in all the wrong places? (I don't know how I missed Jenny Bornholdt's 'Wedding song', for starters...)

"I sometimes think it is easier to write the dark edge than uplifting joy," says Green.

"There are a lot of dark love poems around, but I was on the hunt for more than that. I didn't want an anthology dominated by despair, bitterness, loss, loathing, violence, regret and so on.

"I was searching for the 'look of love'. I had been on Going West's final steam-train journey and heard Meg and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell read in the Waikumete Cemetery. At one point they stopped reading and looked at each with such a look of love I was stalled in my tracks. The hairs on my arm stood on end. I then heard that 'look' in the subterranean pockets of their poems. This was what I was after in my search for love poems."

She says one of her favourite poems from the book is 'The treehouse' by Anna Jackson.

"This is a poem that haunts you long after you have absorbed its evocative simplicity - because of course Jackson's simplicity is deceptive. The poem takes you to so many places visually and emotionally.

"I like the poet's recognition of not having known the boy - she loves 'the man who has has grown up/over the child's bones'. I like that 'The treehouse' links back to the boy but that also stands for the intimacy (shared places) of adult love. I like the poet asking her lover for a story in the dark as they shine a torch into the forest. Love becomes mysterious, precious, private."

In case you're ever stuck finding the right poem for a quiet moment or grand occasion (wedding included), I asked Green for her recommendations:

Best poem to read at a wedding: Jenny Bornholdt's 'Wedding song'
Best poem for young lovers: Rachel McAlpine's 'Love Song'
Best poem to read to your husband before you fall asleeep: Karlo Mila's 'For the father of my children' or Anna Jackson's 'The treehouse'
Best poem for a golden wedding anniversary: 'You' by C K Stead
Best poem for a grandchild or child: 'A Lullaby' by Bill Manhire or 'Newborn' by Emma Neale
Best break-up poem: 'The Photograph' by Alison Wong
Best poem for Mother's Day: 'My Mother Dances' by Albert Wendt or 'My Mother's Voice' by Ingrid Horrocks or 'White Gold' by Jenny Powell
Best poem for Father's Day: Sam Hunt's 'A new plateau song' or 'The bird' by Glenn Colquhoun
Best poem for grieving: 'Because' by Sarah Broom or Peter Bland's 'Tell me you're waiting'
Best poem to read when your lover is not beside you: Brian Turner's 'Dream'

What are your favourite New Zealand poems?

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