WILD HONEY: READING NEW ZEALAND WOMEN'S POETRY
by Paula Green (Massey University Press, $45)
Reviewed by Kiran Dass
The first thing that hits you about Paula Green's generously compiled tribute to New Zealand women poets Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women's Poetry is the evocative front and back cover design.
Washes of pinks, greens and steely greys, unmistakably from the hand of artist and writer Sarah Laing, depict a languid garden salon scene with Katherine Mansfield's house in the background. Look closely at the pastoral scene and you'll notice multiple conversations are taking place simultaneously: Robin Hyde is there talking to Blanche Baughan. Jenny Bornholdt sits under a tree while jotting down her thoughts. Hinemoana Baker and Tusiata Avia are sharing what looks like a wry in-joke, Selina Tusitala Marsh luxuriously reclines, dreamily sky-gazing. It alludes to the different conversations between poets and poems, the multiple ways into poetry and also the way poetry can foster community.
It was Green's intention with Wild Honey to challenge the way women poets have been barely visible, excluded, misread and devalued in the past, "by writing a book out of love and connections rather than toxicity and attack and by resisting expectations of how a book of criticism ought to behave".
She writes about the current re-examinations of the role of male gatekeepers of our literature in the 1940s and 1950s and how women are now finally a strong and vital presence in diverse contemporary poetry scenes. It took Green four years to complete work on Wild Honey but the idea had been simmering away in her head for a decade.
"For a long time it felt like a book that needed to be written; I wanted to bring New Zealand women poets out of the shadows and to open up how we read and write poetry," she says.
And Green has done so in the most attentive way. Rather than produce a book that lightly skates over the surface, she dives deep. There's around 200 women covered in this celebration of past and present poets. The book surveys and puts into social and cultural context a dizzying array of poets - from the first New Zealand women published in English; Jessie Mackay, Eileen Duggan and Blanche Borne, to the new guard of fresh emerging voices like Tayi Tibble, Essa May Ranapiri and everything in between. Every page holds a revelation or reminder, and just reading the biography notes for each poet at the end of the book is fascinating and absorbing enough.
Green has beautifully framed this book. Rather than a dry encyclopedia, she deftly weaves together memoir, biography and criticism alongside poetry in a lively way that not only elevates the poems she explores, but makes for an engaging read. Her deep understanding of and passion for poetry is evident throughout and Wild Honey is made richer for Green's close and earnest reading of the poems.
The structure of Wild Honey is inventive and thoughtful. With poems that explore themes of politics, the domestic, death and illness, spirituality and relationships, each chapter takes the structure of a house: We move from the Foundation Stones of Jessie Mackay and Eileen Duggan and through the Hallway, the Shoe Closet, the Kitchen, the Music Room, the Mantlepiece, the Sickbed. Then we venture beyond the Door and into the Garden, the Countryside and the City, ending with the Sky. It's a lovely journey, bringing together what might seem as unlikely links between poets: Elizabeth Smither is studied alongside Lisa Samuels, Fiona Kidman meets Blanche Baughan. In the music room, Green casts her sharp eye over the lyrics of songwriters Aldous Harding, Ella Yelich-O'Connor, Nadia Reid and Chelsea Jade, activating their work in a new light.
"On my study wall, I had a huge map of the house I was 'building' and the world beyond. I was strongly committed to a diversity of voices across generations. I would take a few women into a room and see what happened. Not all rooms made it which meant not all poets made it. That was heartbreaking!"
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"The house was my starting point; the foundation stones were the first local women published in English. I wanted the doors and windows wide open to let fresh air through and, as I entered a room or approached an object, I wanted writing to be a matter of discovery."
The beauty of Wild Honey is how it serves as a terrific entry point for those eager to learn about New Zealand women poets, but it would also satisfy serious and knowledgeable consumers of poetry, a balance Green strikes with finesse.
"I didn't want to write a theoretical book for a gated community. I wanted to show we can write with both intelligence and warmth, without authority and with open arms. With aroha."
Paula Green A poem can say anything
A poem can stutter sing hold you close catch bees and heartbreak stomp shout chime and clatter spy mountains oceans daisies keep secrets keep the beat scream whisper open hatches drift like clouds glide like ice skates hum dawdle daydream crash confess harmonise
A poem can speak of mothers fathers children ancestors winter soup summer heat broken bones catastrophe beauty melting glaciers melting hearts whenua mānuka kererū crippling doubt loathsome greed warming skin warming gifts he she they peace love courage
A poem can travel to the moon New York New Delhi Pride and Prejudice The Lion in The Meadow Kaikōura Kerikeri famine storms kitchens railroads polar caps Janet Frame's writing desk abundant gardens political protests personal protests Te Whiti-o-Rongomai at Parihaka
A poem can make you weep gasp laugh empathise sway switch dance rage rave enthuse float tingle tango kōrero sing in public write a letter gaze out the window forget the washing remember the cabbage hearts swim against the current feel your beating heart
A poem can do anything
A poem is breath
* Paula Green has three new books out: a book of children's poems called Groovy Fish (The Cuba Press, $25) written from titles children gave her through her blog NZ Poetry Box and visits she made to schools and libraries. The Track (Seraph Press, $25) traces a hike she took on the Queen Charlotte Track when she slipped and injured herself and had to walk out for nine hours on a broken foot – a journey made more dramatic by an ongoing storm. To get through, and alleviate the pain, she composed poems in her head.