Saturday 13 May 2017

A cursory survey by THOMAS of the poetry section finalists in the Ockham New Zealand Books Awards:

Fits & Starts by Andrew Johnston
Johnston’s poems seek to capture something of the crystalline qualities of haiku, the difference being that haiku know when to stop. These poems sometimes seem overly reliant on their poemishness, and I did feel, reading this collection, that the racking of poems by titling them as a) books of the Old Testament and b) the radio alphabet did not help to make the poems feel necessary. I must admit that, unlike Johnston (and indeed many poets, I suppose), I do not attach much semantic significance to either rhyme or pun. A nicely presented collection, though.

Fale Aitu by Tusiata Avia
What Avia’s poems sometimes lack in subtlety they certainly make up for in vigour. Muscular, energetic, angry, mocking, sometimes bitter but shot through with sudden humour, the poems confront social, sexual, racial and political injustice, rape, trauma and the insecurity of feeling home to be a place of threat. Clearly written for performance, Avia draws on Samoan tradition for the incantatory form of many of these poems. Sometimes the form outweighs or overly dictates the content, flattening the effect, and sometimes it is the effect.

This Paper Boat by Gregory Kan
I didn’t know anything about / the past except / for what the past has left me.” The strongest poems in this collection are the series which imagine the experiences of the poet’s parents in Singapore, China and New Zealand. The strong emotion that Kan unearths avoids the sentimentality usual in such enterprises by tending to slip into ethnographic or historical or scientific matter-of-factness at just the right moments (some of these pieces are written, appropriately, in paragraph form), and the splicing of the experiences and words of Iris Wilkinson/Robin Hyde with threads personal to Kan’s family adds an extra suppleness to these poems. Occasionally Kan walks an uneasy line between too light a touch and too heavy, and I wonder about the inclusion of an italicised sequence in the latter half of the book, but generally Kan is revealed as an subtly gifted and serious poet.

Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird
Before this book was published I was asked to interview Hera at last year’s Nelson Readers and Writers Festival. She had already achieved an enviable notoriety through the publication of some of her poems on-line, but by the time of the festival she had burst fully and extravagantly upon the world, with The Guardian and iD according her the responsibility of resuscitating poetry for a new generation. The ambiguity of being a phenomenon at risk of being overshadowed by an epiphenomenon is entirely appropriate to Bird’s poetry: just as the book takes the name of the poet and thus becomes a replacement for the poet, throughout the book persona replaces identity, poetry replaces experience (“Writing poetry about fucking / When you could be fucking / Is the last refuge of the stupid.”), and the authentic and the ironic are revealed to be reflexive halves of an unstable whole. Often painfully funny, the poems leap across and back over existential vacuums (so to call them), revealing and reconcealing to great effect the kinds of experiences seldom thought of as literary and lampooning those that are. The book’s cover is perfect: the poet on a parched lawn dressed for rain. Bird throughout demonstrates the virtues of being inappropriately prepared: “I wrote this book, and it is sentimental / Because I don’t have a right-sized reaction to the world. / To write a book is not a right-sized reaction.” My pick to win the poetry prize at the Ockhams.

No comments:

Post a Comment