David Taylor assesses the 20/20 Poetry Collection, and what we’re exploring – and avoiding – in our literature of unease.
The 20/20 poetry project was devised in 2017 to celebrate 20 years of National Poetry Day in New Zealand. Twenty ‘acclaimed Kiwi poets’ were asked ‘to choose one of their own poems – a work that spoke to New Zealand now’. Those poets included Bill Manhire, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Kevin Ireland, Elizabeth Smither, Paula Green, Apirana Taylor and Cilla McQueen.
That group of poets were ‘also asked to select a poem by another poet they saw as essential reading’. Many of the selected ‘second twenty’ were young, new, or underrated voices who’d published a collection or had poems included in an anthology or journal – including Chris Tse, Lynley Edmeades, Gregory Kan, Johanna Emeney, Michael Steven, John Dennison and Simone Kaho.
The resulting forty poems offer an interesting cross-section sample of the current ideas, voices and concerns in contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand poetry. Many of the poets had their selected poems pasted around the country by Phantom Billstickers, current sponsors of National Poetry Day.
To comment on what these poems suggest about the subjects current in our poetry right now, and on why these poems may have been chosen, it’s necessary to make some generalisations – drawing observations from ‘repeated sightings of’ rather than from an exhaustive scientific survey. With so much diversity in our poetic voices the commonalities are not necessarily topics, themes and styles, as they once would have been. But there are definitely patterns here which are hard to ignore.
One is to do with the timeframe of these poems – in particular that many of them have very long temporal settings. The second is to do with a sense that many of these poems have an underlying sense of uncertainty – culminating in a collective sense of existential searching.
Three themes which I expected to be more prominent were very modestly represented and so some consideration is given to their absence – landscapes, cultural identity and relationships.
As a sample on which to run some quick tests, these poems suggest that we might be moving away from some more traditional areas of exploration but are not yet sure where to look or what we might be looking for, or what we are trying to avoid.
I slid outside the trap of time: the poems as temporal Thinking Putty
One of writing’s greatest magics is to allow us – to use Kiri Piahana-Wong’s phrase – to slide outside the trap of time. In writing, the here and now can give way to ponderings as broad as the infinite scale of time – from before the creation of the universe to beyond its destruction – or to the monumental turning point of a fraction of a second – lives made, ruined, obliterated while you were changing channel. From Nano-second to eons, the timescale is critical: it establishes the boundaries within which some kind of worthwhile knowledge has been cornered by the writer – some snippet of wisdom, important observation, or necessary truth.
Does this sample of forty poems reveal any patterns in the ways poets might be thinking about time, exploring time and using time to frame their work? In general, most of have long time scales. Apirana Taylor’s ‘haka’ is notable for being the only poem dealing with a very brief moment of time. His visceral description of the haka felt ‘in my bones/ and in my wairua, ‘flash[ing] like lightening/ up and down my spine’, and compulsively making his ‘eyes roll/ and my tongue flick’, slows down time to consider a range of sensations happening simultaneously in a short moment. That moment ultimately evaporates into the moment of first breath: ‘eeeee aaa ha haaa’. Tihei mauri ora.
A handful of poems occur around a particular event, employing a tableau style to set up a scene and then zoom in on particular details. In this way we see Josephine wearing ‘her Time Out guide as a hat and then… as a fan/ and then… as a hat again’ in Paula Green’s ‘Josephine Waits in a Queue’. We can observe the ‘black and white dog,/ her snappy tail on fast forward’ and ‘Mother at the upstairs/ open window’ just as a young boy is about to be killed by a car in Michael Harlow’s ‘The Late News’. In ‘This Paper Boat’, Gregory Kan shows a more mundane domestic moment with a ‘mother walking into the dining room’ while son and husband ‘both/ blow our noses’.
Like ‘haka’ these poems have a narrow temporal scope that gives an intensity to specific moments. But by encompassing a few hours in their ambit they have a more ponderous approach – we are observers of the scene with the speaker, whereas ‘haka’ tries to place us as a participant in the action.
A significant majority of the 20/20 poems place themselves over much greater expanses of time, to the point where time itself is arguably a significant player in the poem. The idea of ‘searching’ will be discussed later in this essay, but it’s worth noting that the majority of these poems have large scale temporal parameters in which to look for their ‘truth’. The timeframes give context and boundaries: if I look inside here I’m bound to find what I’m looking for. In ‘Miscarriage’, Ish Doney sets a scene over two seasons to describe the cruel relationship between hope and despair. In ‘Hinerangi’, Kiri Piahana-Wong gives us a woman reflecting on ‘the end of my/ days’. Across the last lunar months of life she comes to an understanding of, and desire for, moving on from earthly life, to ‘let the world-song/ swallow me’.
Many of the poems here go much broader. ‘Whānau’ by Robert Sullivan, ‘Almost a Buddhist’ by Rob Hack, ‘Pukeroa’ by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, ‘At Frankton Supermarket, Queenstown’ by Richard Reeve and ‘I Cannot Write a Poem About Gaza’ by Tusiata Avia all have generational questions sitting in the background. With Sullivan, ‘Today we are following// the river, tracing the paths of our people,/ the great names and the previously unknown’. Hack considers the potential continuity or rupture of ideas over time by juxtaposing a biographer’s description of the imminent publication of Dr Zhivago with his own killing of an ant walking over the biography. He then declares he has lost ‘interest in history’.
For Te Awekotuku, the poem’s persona sits ‘against/ a tree’ while the ‘road before me stretches/ far into the cool twilight’ considering how ‘the white man… replaced our glorious heritage/ with muskets, fire and bricks’. Contemplating the rampant development of the Queenstown Lakes area, Reeve suggests ‘we have become the presiding custodians of perspective,/ paradisal grubs awaiting the gulp of a new long century’. Avia tries to confront the difficulties of writing about the multi-generation horrors of Palestine.
In each of the poems the validity of the main premise is heightened by the timeframe: Sullivan’s journey is more significant because of the many who have made it before; the killing of Hack’s ant somehow more significant for its links to Pasternak’s atheism decades earlier; the disenfranchisement in ‘Pukeroa’ for its historical origins in colonisation; the Frankton supermarket for the questions it asks about how we have commercialised ‘historic’ places; and the impossibly sad situation in Gaza is amplified if we multiply current suffering by the decades of occupation. In these ways referencing the distance of time enables the poems to claim an intensity for their positions.
In a slightly different way other poems here use the scope of a human lifetime: what wisdom can one life be distilled into? Indeed, ‘[t]here are times… when your whole life seems/ an open book’, as Karl Stead observes in ‘Into Extra Time’. The poem considers both what might be found in that book and, through reference to Captain Oates, what may be remembered of it by history. In this instance the uncomfortable truth that surfaces is a thought prompted by another poem that ‘what you really want is death’. In the first part of the poem this is enough to make the poet ‘say the time has come to stop this scribbling./ It’s late.’
‘Contained’, by Lynley Edmeades, follows a similar theme. Identifying that now ‘[w]inter has grown on us’ the years which ‘felt so long as a child’ are now ‘a mere tilt// of the head’, she concludes with allusions to failure like Stead’s: ‘what will be will never be contained’. Both of these poems are concerned with a failure of language to do justice to that life. One ends with a lack of containment for what ‘will be’, the other with Oates hearing ‘nothing – / nothing at all but the wind…’.
Some poems here take in a more cosmic sense of time. In ‘Frost’ by Cilla McQueen the subject is not just from history but ‘he is history, gone/ from this round world, he is starlight’: kua wheturangitia ia. This looking beyond – rather than within – our lives is also used by Diana Bridge in ‘Big Bang’. This poem reaches a long way back to when ‘God/ hovered over the waters before He let the light in’ to suggest our need for narrative – and in particular explanations of how we got to this moment: ‘long before/ we knew to write it down our race has liked a prologue’. Though these poems are set against a vast temporal background, they are still looking to interpret some mystery and provide some important observation. In this way the poet is Bridge’s ‘hierophant’, the poems are the ‘cells unfold[ing] like flights of living thoughts’. Importantly here, she finds a link between the large and small scale through the effect each can have: ‘[m]icroscopic, macroscopic, the reach is the same’.
This linking of the micro and the macro is achieved with precision in ‘There’s Always Things to Come Back to the Kitchen For’, by Alison Wong, where in seven short lines we move from the minutiae of everyday domesticity – ‘a bowl of plain steamed rice/ a piece of bitter dark chocolate’ to children ‘on long elliptical orbits’ who can be like ‘comets’ or ‘moons’. Here it is the suggestion that those ‘long elliptical orbits’ will continue to lengthen even as they provide a link between the here and now and the passing of time.
Overall, nearly three-quarters of the poems grouped here set themselves against a background of time which is well beyond a passing moment, afternoon or even a couple of days. As an indicator of patterns these poems suggest that contemporary poets are concerned more with compressing time than stretching it. They are explorations of Big Time. Like conclusions drawn from Big Data, this seems like the noticeable insight from a great expanse. Perhaps because of the role time plays in these poems, there is a strong sense of something being searched for – a looking for understandings that ultimately elude. We might have escaped ‘the trap of time’, but what have we escaped with?
If I could speak/all you’d hear is an echo/ over here/ – no, over here: the poems as a loss of certainty
All writing, it could be argued, is some kind of evidence of a chase – the writer, having pursued an idea or set of ideas, holds up the words as evidence of the remains of the pursuit. So it’s unsurprising that the idea of searching for some kind of useful observation or knowledge emerges strongly in these poems as a group. Many seem to struggle with having any certainty about what they find.
This is not a criticism – a poem doesn’t need to find definitive and robust answers to the questions it asks. Indeed, the asking is much more important in many ways than the answering. But it’s interesting that so many of these poems seem to reach a position of uncertainty.
Earlier I talked about knowledge being ‘cornered’ by the writer. When a poem gives itself the length of a whole life, or longer, to explore and find its wisdom, it’s not merely a case of cornering but sending in the hounds to flush it out. A number of these poems are able to hold the quarry up – to give us some certainty or conclusion. Chris Tse, in ‘In which the Author Interviews Light’, asserts that ‘[e]ach event that punctuates/ the arc carries its own intention,/ as does each storyteller’s/ tongue laced with favour and prejudice’. Alison Wong is convinced that ‘There is Always Something to Come Back to the Kitchen For’. Kiri Piahana-Wong’s kuia tells us from the grave that not only did she not meet back up with the husband she pined away for, but that ‘[t]he truth is,/ I did not care’ and that in death she ‘was more than myself now’.
The truth from Ngahuia Te Awakotuku’s scanning of history is that ‘the white man/ – has come, and has conquered/ wiped from beneath us/ that base we knew so well’. Tusiata Avia reveals that that she can indeed write about Gaza. As noted earlier, Diana Bridge decides that the ‘reach’ of microscopic and macroscopic is the same. Stead declares that ‘[t]he songs of/ your youth have forgotten you’. We find out from Leilani Tamu that ‘Avaiki Rain’ would ‘take my muted grief/ and grant it the right// to echo’. In ‘Children’, Bill Manhire tells us that ‘[t]he likelihood is/ the children will die/ without you to help them do it’. Each of these poems, of course, is trying to ‘get at’ something and many, as in these examples, are able to hang it up for us to see.
But perhaps the most notable commonality in the wisdom-finding of these poems is the uncertainty or elusiveness of broader connections. So many of them struggle to come away with a definitive sense of understanding – there are a few small offerings, as seen above, but the big connections are missing or equivocal. While ‘Flying Across Australia’, Kevin Ireland discovers that understanding the immensity of the Australian landscape requires ‘some sort of theory/ to tidy up everything’ but ‘I didn’t feel it was down to me to figure it out’. In ‘Knowing What It’s About’, Vincent O’Sullivan reveals that bees have ‘a life ‘more direct than ours’’ and that they know ‘what it’s about’. By implication then, the certainty of life-knowledge of the bee has escaped us.
Many other poems are similarly inconclusive – the hunt completed, all agree there was something there, something important, but it somehow got away. In ‘Poi Girls’, Louise Wallace’s child narrator never gets to the bottom of the antipathy and antagonism between herself and the Poi Girls. In the end we get silence rather than enlightenment. Explanations, like the movement of the Poi Girls’ poi, are absent. They ‘hang still/ from their hands/ and today say nothing at all’. Similarly, ‘Almost a Buddhist’ can’t give us a definitive resolution but gives us just that – almosts. Pasternak is ‘almost an atheist’, the dead ant becomes a question mark in a history book. Stead leaves us outside the tent with Oates wondering if he paused to listen for voices calling him back. Another question mark in history.
‘The Whys and Zs’ by Bill Nelson starts by telling us that ‘[h]is last four years have nothing to say,/ not because they don’t want to// but because there are no real words/ to choose from’. This failure is echoed in ‘Whānau’ when Robert Sullivan, asking many questions about his eponymous ancestor, tells us that ‘[t]hese questions remain to date’. At least some of the whānau from the title are mysteries. All this leads us back to Edmeades’ observation: ‘the point remains the same:/ what will be will never be contained’. Collectively we have, then, uncertainty and impermanence.
Many of these poems set out large grounds to search for certainties and though they don’t come back entirely empty handed, there is a sense that many, in the face of the mysteries of time and history, are resigned to not coming away with the answers.
It’s interesting that when asked to pick works which ‘spoke to New Zealand now’ and poems deemed ‘essential reading in 2017’, this is what turns up. It’s beyond the scope of this survey to assess whether this is new, or sustained, or widespread in our writing at the moment or what the impulse behind it might be, but given that we find ourselves inhabiting a world where the extent of poverty, ecological degradation, housing shortages, suicide rates and sexual violence have removed any agency from words like ‘crisis’ and ‘critical’ and ‘urgent’, it may not be surprising many people, including poets, are searching for answers to how we got to this point and are struggling to find answers – or experiencing a general sense of unease and uncertainty which is reflected in their writing.
If that seems like drawing a long bow based on this selection of poems, I would direct you to the person sitting at the marae, looking at the cars going past and being angry about colonisation in ‘Pukeroa’. To the ‘two thousand/ one hundred and sixty-eight dead Palestinians’ in ‘I Cannot Write a Poem About Palestine’. To the absurd ‘Atlantic lobster’ for sale in the Queenstown supermarket. To the sky that ‘would be stricken,/ inconsolable’, in Brian Turner’s words, by ‘what we’re doing/ down here’. To Jillian Sullivan’s goat milker ‘sneak[ing] to the edge/ of a ruined life and look[ing]/ down at how far I will fall’. To the ‘truth’ in James Norcliffe’s ‘Questions With Which to Interogate a Witch’, a truth which ‘will come// as it always comes: terrible/ in an iron helmet with spikes/ on the inside’. To Selina Tusitala Marsh’s imperative to ‘[l]ead when you want to end all injustice’. To the loss of sleep in ‘Into Extra Time’ – ‘behind closed eyes/ the words, like rats, are working’.To ‘let[ting] the world-song/ swallow me’ in ‘Hinerangi’. To Josephine ‘taking of her shoes and belt and surrendering her bags… after three/ hours’ in her queue. To needing the light left on in at night in Simone Kaho’s ‘Prey’. And on.
It’s difficult to look at these poems and not get a sense of them balancing an uncertainty or even a whiff of existential angst – a grasping for meaning and response to something much bigger, and much more historically rooted. There may be a reason to look across increasing larger spans of time for some explanations and organising principles.
each angled rock face spawns waterfalls: the poems as freedom campers
Perhaps one aspect of the myth-making attendant on the Great New Zealand Landscape is that it features prominently in our writing. The presence of the landscape (in a Department of Conservation sense) in Aotearoa New Zealand writing has been well documented in the past, as has the role of bush and wilderness areas on collective national identity myths. As John Newton has observed, ‘The Romantic inheritance may be poison, but it seems to be all we have.’
Exploring the physical landscape, however, is not particularly common in these poems. In terms of establishing temporal and spatial boundaries in which to look for observations of note, very few of these poems go to the ‘great outdoors’ for answers. They are far more domestic in situation.
The poem with the clearest focus on the wildness of nature is ‘Rakaia’ by David Eggleton. His description of the river’s descent from the mountains and on to the sea is vibrant and has a visual intensity. The ‘ridges ripple with snow melt’, becoming ‘a youthful stampede of spring creeks’ before the river ‘springs out of the mountains’. There are glimpses of landscape in other poems but they are more glimpses seen in passing than major elements. ‘Hinerangi’ and ‘Whānau’ find great significance in their locations – the first with Hinerangi ‘[a]nchoring/ myself deep in the earth’ and then being laid ‘in te urupa’; the second with the search for tupuna starting with ‘[t]he grass at Te Kaaretu… renowned/ for its softness’ which the ancestors would use for their bedding before heading downriver ‘tracing the paths of our people’.
Richard Reeve still gives us a sense of deep respect for the land in ‘At Frankton Supermarket, Queenstown’ but juxtaposes the sublime mountainous landscape of the Queenstown area with SUVs, subdivisions, selfies, and that Atlantic lobster. The poem doesn’t necessarily criticise the people in this landscape but it raises questions about the commercialisation of such places. ‘Milking’ by Jillian Sullivan is notable for being the only poem set in a rural landscape, but with the ‘daunted kitchen,/ with the cupboards nailed/ shut against the rates’ it is definitely more in the tradition of the pastoral dystopia.
Questions of culture and identity (individual and national) are something we’re often told is ‘happening’ in our writing; apparently it’s all about telling our stories. Again, this was not all that evident in these poems, chosen as exemplars of work speaking to New Zealand now.
A few of the poems deal explicitly with cultural identity, dislocation and colonisation. ‘Whānau’ by Robert Sullivan and ‘Pukeroa’ by Ngahuia Te Awakotuku are both trying to understand or establish a connection between past and present. For one that means following tracks that tūpuna would have walked and seeking to answer questions about whom they were. For the other it is sitting at the marae, watching traffic go past and trying to understand the painful impact of colonisation on her people.
‘Hinerangi’ is a retelling of a story that implicitly looks for wisdom that may be applicable in the modern world. What ‘haka’ says about the importance of culture is hopefully self-evident. Interestingly, this small group are actually pairs within this project: Robert Sullivan chose Te Awakotuku’s poem; Apirana Taylor chose Piahana-Wong’s. Among non-Māori writers there is very little evidence here that similar questions need asking, or a sense of te ao Māori as part of their own world. The notable exception is Louise Wallace’s ‘The Poi Girls’. This poem bravely takes as a starting point a Pākehā feeling a resentment and antipathy towards a group of Māori girls that deepens over the course of the poem and never resolves. This ‘gap’ in cultural understanding between children encapsulates the same gap – antipathy, resentment, poor understanding, lack of willingness to learn – played out over and over in relationships between Treaty partners at all levels.
Among the poems by Pasifika writers, ‘Avaiki Rain’ by Lailani Tamu is an emotive take on the dislocation that migration can bring. The loss of the Aviaki rain which would ‘take my muted grief/ and grant it the right// to echo’ and the loss of ‘the solace she gave me/ when all that was left/ was the rain’ expresses a sense of sorrow common to many with a history of migration.
Despite the long and persistent history of love poetry in all its manifestations and relationship stages, this collection offers little about intimate relationships. Paul Schimmel’s ‘With Words’ explicitly addresses seduction and intimacy: ‘I would touch your skin/ everywhere, between all/ the different parts of you/ with the word love’. But this level of overt physicality is unusual in this collection of poems. In ‘Your Being’, David Kārena Holmes gives us a cosmic declaration of love. The object of the desire ‘is/ a blazing star/ that turns and burns/ like Achenar… towards that light/ I set my face’. ‘In the Bonds’ by Marisa Cappetta is a more domestic poem of devotion, a portrait in which we learn ‘[m]y wife is a massed display of devotion,/ a crackle of kindling on a frosted morning’ as well as being ‘the aroma of cardamom, cinnamon and cloves’. All three of these poems play with the balance between tenderness and intensity.
A different angle is taken by Johanna Emeney in ‘Subtext’, a break-up poem in which the tenderness turns to bruises and the intensity turns to disappointment, and the poem struggled to find the right words. One other poem in the 20/20 Collection deals with the end of a relationship but this time through death. Cilla McQueen finds an extraordinary way to express this loss in ‘Frost’, acknowledging that ‘[t]ime comes when my compass/ trembles to your true absence// and I must turn you/ to the third person’. It is a short poem but one which does the heavy and heart-breaking job of admitting that ‘he is history, gone/ from this round world, he is starlight’. In this we again get the association of love with cosmic bodies but this time to acknowledge loss.
Writing in New Zealand, as elsewhere, has always had a diverse range of interests and modes of expression, some ideas persisting over time where others fade. Arguably, there is a greater diversity of voices now than ever before. For these reasons it is problematic to make pronouncements about ‘the overall state’ of any aspect of writing. As explored above, three themes which I was expecting to see in 20/20 – where are we, who are we, how do we love each other – are in short supply. So why are the ideas of ‘time’ and ‘a lack of certainty’ noteworthy enough to dwell on?
I find it intriguing just how strong the sense of ‘searching’ is in these poems. Earlier I suggested that it might seem far-fetched to claim some relationship between the large time scale and lack of certainty, and wider social and political problems but whether consciously or not (I suspect often unconsciously) these poems are struggling to be definitive. Indeed, several poems actually leave us with a failure of language to ‘speak’ altogether – and there are many silences.
In so many ways we are living in ever more uncertain times. There are many ways in which the world is in flux and the outer wave lengths of that flux seem ever more extreme. The issues we face today are complex. Decisions in the past as to whether one should support the Vietnam War, the Springbok Tour or nuclear armament came down to really quite simple arguments on each side and people’s moral compass would fall one way or the other. But many of the big issues these days require a specialist knowledge which puts certainty beyond most people. So many points of contention have scientific, legal, economic or policy experts arguing with one another. You can’t end child poverty the way you can end a rugby tour. You can’t ban climate change the way you would a nuclear warship. It’s not always obvious that a trade agreement might damage both countries in the way that a war does. So it’s not a big step to think the uncertainty and anxiety of contemporary life – nor wondering how the past might explain how we got to this position – may somehow have woven themselves into the collective question-asking of our literary work.
If our art is a reflection of our society this may be a very accurate reflection on where we find ourselves at the moment. Rights we have long considered to be a part of everyday life – food, shelter, freedom from violence – are no longer experienced by all in an increasingly unequal society. We have world leaders promoting nationalism, individualism, racism and violence as guiding principles. I’m not suggesting that it is up to poets to address these issues or even to write specifically about them – though Tusiata Avia’s offering shows just how powerful language can be when it comes to these discussions. Rather, I’m suggesting that the increasingly precarious state of the world – environmentally, politically and economically – as well as the realisation that we have persistently ignored serious issues domestically, make for a sense of unease. It is no surprise if this is reflected in what we write about, and how we write.
David Taylor is Assistant Head of English at Northcote College, and wrote the Teachers’ Notes for National Poetry Day’s 20/20 Collection. In 2015 he received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching to study in the US, and in 2017 he was one of only four teachers to be awarded the prestigious Woolf Fisher Fellowship, which he used to study school literacy strategies around Australia.
(Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day 2018 will be held on Friday 24 August.)
*Original feature photo on <a href=”https://foter.com/re/7c1e7a”>Foter.com</a>