Ockham Shortlist 2020: Lay Studies by Steven Toussaint

Below is an excerpt from the poetry collection Lay Studies by Steven Toussaint, which is shortlisted for this year’s Mary and Peter.Biggs Award for Poetry at the  Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. 

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About the poet:

Steven Toussaint was born in Chicago in 1986. In 2011, he immigrated to New Zealand and now lives in Auckland. He has studied poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the International Institute of Modern Letters, and philosophical theology at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of a previous collection, The Bellfounder (2015), and a chapbook, Fiddlehead (2014).

About the book:

In Lay Studies, Steven Toussaint conducts an impressive range of lyric inventions, pitching his poems to that precarious interval between love and rage. Beneath their formal dexterity and variety, these études sustain a continuous meditation on the concords and dissonances of worshipful life in an age dominated by spectacle, violence, and environmental devastation. With great skill and compassion, he depicts scenes of domestic life in his adopted home of New Zealand, a transient year of religious and artistic soul-searching in the United Kingdom, and a growing sense of dislocation from his native United States in the Trump era. These are poems of profound contemplative inwardness, conjuring and conversing with a vast tradition of literature, scholarship, and art. Lay Studies is a powerful collection and a welcome music.

These are elegant poems. They have verve, they have wit and no little learning. They reveal a mind like a knife. An ear of the same quality. All of which = what’s needed in a calamitous time that calls itself the Information Age. —John Taggart

Steven Toussaint writes with a formidable blend of intellectual toughness and technical command. These finely worked poems range over a wide territory, local and global, religious, social (a devastatingly intelligent piece, ‘Yes or No’, evoking the world of online pseudo-discourse), and offer many memorable images and phrases (a favourite is ‘The furious pleasure / of a man being listened to’). This is an excellent collection of demanding and rewarding poetry.—Rowan Williams




(Victoria University Press)







Six pips

when the apparently real


grace relents

and the morning news begins


a mother’s voice

pitchless in the day’s chorale.


Grief so total

it resembles abundance



by the paradox of surplus


in a very bad year.



one indifferent signal

for another


you adjust

your figment’s threshold


a pinnate leaf’s width

on the dial


to find the season’s violence

sensible again



in the weather whisperer’s


impartial mysticism.

Such severe



like fanfare as you push


the leaves from yard to yard

all because


a little air has left the world.

The warnings turn


to traffic

and you to the sweeping under


blank façades

where later you will shake the olive


and the bay

and you will gather up


their bloodless panes

anything to stretch this needless


peace another hour.

The trees are not deciduous









© Steven Toussaint, 2019, published in Lay Studies, Victoria University Press.

'There’s a kind of heaven that comes from hearing another writer interpret the mysteries of process' - Tracey Slaughter

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