Siobhan Harvey reviews a selection of fresh New Zealand poetry to emerge after lockdown.
"Poetry," wrote Audre Lorde, "is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change." It's heartening how, when faced with adversities like the lockdown, people turned to books for comfort and sustenance. It's heartening also to see that the power of the word to provide succour and insight continues to flourish, with the release of a plethora of New Zealand poetry titles.
Take, for instance, award-winning Dunedin author Kay McKenzie Cooke's uplifting third collection, Upturned (The Cuba Press, $25). Here's a book that moves lyrically between domestic landscapes like Dunedin, Gore and inland Otago as well as the distant reaches of the Baltic coast and the melting-pot metropolis, Berlin. The splendour the author finds in fauna and flora everywhere becomes a touchstone for poetic story and personal sustenance. Ditto, in poems like Standing at the lights, relationships with grown children and the slivers of memories which linger from past lives. Upturned is a series of deeply-mulled reflections upon self, survival and wellbeing.
It's been nearly a decade since Rhian Gallagher's last book won the New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry. So though her latest, Far-Flung (Auckland University Press, $25), has been a long time coming, it's well worth the wait. Like McKenzie Cooke, Gallagher is an author deeply rooted in discovering profound life lessons in New Zealand geography and the natural world. For instance, a veritable aviary inspires poems here like Kāhu and Small Bird without a Sky, birds a conduit to poetically exploring terrains from Taranaki to Stewart Island and the deep memories found there. Gallagher's metaphysical melding of experience with setting and wildlife endures into Far-Flung's evocative second section, "Seacliff Epistles", in which ancestral stories of Victorian Ireland illustrate the lasting impact of displacement and trauma upon contemporary souls.
Christchurch writer Philip Armstrong's Sinking Lessons (Otago University Press, $28) won the prestigious Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry. The author's cadent, impressionistic prose composes life in rich yet tightly measured ways. Shipwrecks, strandings, arctic adventures and underworld explorations are a marine stage for Armstrong's poetic reimagining of fables featuring Orpheus, Frankenstein, Scheherazade and his own family. The many standouts include Eel Dream and Book of Beasts. The result offers the ocean's importance as legend, exploit and environmental barometer, as well as an outstanding first collection.
The cosmos is muse for Rata Gordon's Second Person (Victoria University Press, $25). Here are contemplations about the weight of neutron stars, the Big Bang Theory, the Age of Mammals and motherhood as spiritual and evolutionary concepts. Here, too, are intimate moments involving pīpīwharauroa, kāka and huia, the claustrophobia of small-town life and an OE in India. The whole is an enlightenment in which science meets poetry, Gordon's concise, rhythmic language and form fused to a mindset at once meditative and investigative.
Robert McLean's weighty Enduring Love (Cold Hub, $40) offers a sequence of collected poems that find passion in localities near and far, commonplace and extraordinary. The physical sweep of McLean's lyrical ruminations extend from the Canterbury Plains and Lake Coleridge to Rome, New Orleans and Crete. These are interlaced with re-imaginings involving a diffuse caste of the intelligentsia, including Anne Sexton, Charles Fourier and Andrei Tarkovsky. These are poems that are epic in form and melodic in style; everywhere profundity reigns.