Poetry review: Dear Heart

By Peter Simpson

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Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems ed by Paula Green
Godwit $36.99

Book cover of Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems edited by Paula Green. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems edited by Paula Green. Photo / Supplied

Paula Green's new anthology of love poems is not the first in the field. Gregory O'Brien and Jenny Bornholdt edited a much smaller selection, My Heart Goes Swimming (also published by Godwit), in 1996 and Lauris Edmond put together a collection (published posthumously) in 2000 similar in size to the Green collection.

Dear Heart takes its title from a poem by Michele Leggott addressed to her dead mother and is a pointer to what makes Green's collection different from its predecessors. Not all the poems she chooses are about sexual love; she also includes poems about love for a child (Janet Charman's warm loaf, Mary Stanley's Puer Natus), a grandchild (Elizabeth Smither's Ruby's heirloom dress), a mother (Leggott's Dear Heart, Albert Wendt's My Mother Dances), a father (Jeffrey Paparoa Holman's As big as a father), a place (Airini Beautrais' Love Poem for the Tauherenikau River, Peter Bland's The gift), the past (Brian Turner's Remembering Summer), even, of all things, a bike (James Brown's The Bicycle). In this book, "love" is defined by the lover's feelings not by the nature of the love-object.

The title, Dear Heart, operates in another way, too. Nine artists were commissioned to produce an art work illustrating one letter each of the title phrase. These works are distributed through the book and used on the dust jacket. So, "d" is done by Gregory O'Brien, "e" by Joanna Pegler, "a" by Emily Wolfe, "r" by Reuben Patterson, and so on.

Other artists involved are Dick Frizzell, Sam Mitchell, John Pule, John Reynolds and Michael Hight; the last-named also provided elegant end-papers and cover art, that is, the cover you see when you take the dust jacket off. The presence of these colourful and various images makes for a most attractive book. Credit should also go to the designer, Megan van Staden.

While some of Green's choices go back in time to the first half of last century - as in poems by Robin Hyde, Charles Spear, Ursula Bethell, A.R.D. Fairburn and Eileen Duggan - the great majority of her choices are recent, and even poets who have been around for decades such as Peter Bland, Elizabeth Smither and C.K. Stead are represented by newish work.

Green shows an intimate familiarity with the poetry of the present day, no doubt helped by the work she did for the recent anthology she co-edited with Harry Ricketts, 99 Ways into New Zealand Poetry (2010), and as poetry reviewer for Canvas. A strength of this book is the many snapshots it provides of poetry in the new century.

For many of the poets this is likely to be one of their first anthology appearances: poets such as Angela Andrews, Sarah Jane Barnett, Airini Beautrais, Sarah Broom, Jen Crawford, Jill Chan, Johanna Emeney, Joan Fleming, Anna Livesey, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Kiri Piahana Wong, Anna Smail, Michael Steven, and Chris Tse. How many of these have you heard of?

What makes a good love poem? Who can count the ways? It can be short or long (from four lines for Spear's Audrey to seven pages of He Waiata mo te Kare, a love poem by James K. Baxter to his wife (her poems addressed to him, on the other hand, cut to the chase and the quick).

A love poem can be heart-on-the-sleeve or enigmatic and oblique. It will need to contain that "necessary element of mystery or magic" that Allen Curnow thought all good poems needed. Bill Manhire's The Voyage is one that passes the test: "All night water laps/the hedges. I hold you in the middle/of the air."

So does Rhian Gallagher's Between: "Close in and distant, you had me./Whichever way you moved/ I was swept, arrested."

It is the evidence of a fresh young crop of women poets which has the most impact for me. Poems such as Joanna Preston's one about sending her lover a spoon, or Kapka Kassabova's haunting Love in the Dark Country or Sarah Broome's delightful Birdsong, which is linguistically adroit and ends well: "if you are still here/and still listening,/ then, if you can/ sing to me."

There's lots to muse on and amuse, intrigue and entertain in Dear Heart. Green has done an excellent job.

Peter Simpson is an Auckland reviewer.

- NZ Herald

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