Tuesday, July 24, 2012

New Zealand Post Book Awards Poetry Finalists 2012

To celebrate the upcoming National Poetry Day in New Zealand, Tuesday Poem is presenting a poem selected from each of the three Poetry finalists for the New Zealand Post Book Awards - the winner to be announced August 1. National Poetry Day on Friday July 27 has events all over the country and will involve a number of Tuesday Poets.

But first, one of this country's most magical of poets and storytellers Margaret Mahy died in Christchurch yesterday. The Booksellers NZ blog has posted The Fairy Child as a tribute to a remarkable writer who has touched so many around the world. It begins: 'The very hour that I was born/I rode upon a unicorn' - yes, Margaret Mahy, you did. RIP. [More tributes in our sidebar]

Now the poetry finalists ...

Editor: Andrew M. Bell.

Unknown Unknowns 

Maybe one day we will even teach in schools,
along with Homer again, and the Aeneid,
the equally complex songs of the whale,
graduate students composing theories 
about the mysterious bass shift
in song latitude 61˚ longitude 15˚
towards the end of 1971 –
still, we will never know the secret song
the whale sings to himself,
the heretic variations,
the secret pleasure
he allows himself in the silence and the dark;
any more than the poet’s biographer,
revealing everything he’s told,
accounting for contradictions
in accounts, gaps in the paper trail,
can know where the poet goes at night
when even his wife, lying beside him
in the dark, can’t know where he goes
in the privacy of his mind;
any more than we can know
what other worlds God might have dreamed up
too secret, too sentimental,
too erotic to be manifest
in the universe
of dust and light;
any more than we can know
it isn’t this one after all
that is the imaginary world 
too sentimental, too beautiful,
too privately pleasurable
really to be real.

(from Thicket by Anna Jackson, published by Auckland University Press)

More erudite and scholarly readers could tell you more about the literary features of this poem than I can, but I can tell you that it appealed to me because it manages to be playful and profound simultaneously.

I love that it explores magical possibilities, the "what ifs" that are the jumping off point for so much creative endeavour. I admire how Anna Jackson has woven the secret lives of whales, poets and God together so seamlessly.

Blood Work 

Sheep and cattle arrived by lorry,
the lorries were like yards on wheels.
It was a big deal, my father’s work, the smell
was stronger than the brewery.
I took wide paces in my gumboots,
matching his steel-toed stride, I followed him
into the killing room
and spoke my name to the other men.

Nothing stopped, the chain ground on,
sheep hung from hooks, each man with a knife
had his own bit of flesh to deal with.
My lungs ached, my eyes watered
as if there was a fire, the blood everywhere,
red and red over their white cover-alls.

My father handled the aftermath, the sheep
with no head, or feet, or skin, or gut.
Dead cold carcasses coming down a ramp
like fallen angels. He shouldered and stacked.

When the whistle blew
we sat drinking tea from tin mugs.
I was spoken of as his girl,
strong as his strong,
that’s when it started
in the blood: this was his life.
I felt the join no knife could part
and I couldn’t see
how I’d make the journey
going away and away from him.

(from Shift by Rhian Gallagher, published by Auckland University Press)

Regardless of the dynamics, families are a subject everyone can relate to. I love the richness of this poem, the finely wrought nuances and the way the poet strikes a balance between the visceral nature of her father's workplace with the love and tenderness she feels for her father.

The repetition of "the blood everywhere,/red and red" is beautifully echoed in the final line "going away and away from him." This is a poem with a huge, beating heart.

November, 2009 

There is a little girl whose head
fits into my hand and whose spine
you can finger like a row of pearl buttons.

Her breathing is brisk and she startles
—like a skink in a beach garden—
even when she sleeps.

Each hair on her head is fine
and soft and her eyebrows
are two raised dashes on a pale page.

They are dark blue, oval, and new
—her open eyes. Her mother looks into
them and calls her ‘sweet pea’, ‘tree-frog’

or ‘mouth’, which is a lovely one
especially when the bottom lip
comes out from somewhere and quivers.

It is smaller than a wallflower,
a daisy or a miniature rose.
It could be a little walnut
except it is always opening
to fit around a nipple.

Her body is the length
of my forearm and her long
oblong feet are shoving the air.

Everyone asks to see her fingers
and their tiny mirrors but look, the nails
are like pruning saws—they flail
and catch across her face.

You cannot imagine or even dream
what a little face will be
until it is here named Elsa
and the centre of everything.

(from The leaf-ride by Dinah Hawken, published by Victoria University Press)

It is often an extremely difficult thing to write an intimate poem which expresses joy and celebration without tipping over into mawkishness. That Dinah Hawken seems to achieve it so effortlessly speaks volumes for her experience, her precision and her artistry. I presume she is writing about a newborn grandchild and she builds her description of Elsa with such delicate craftsmanship, detail by startling detail, until the scene is intensely vivid in the reader's mind.

The above three poems are reproduced here at Tuesday Poem with the permission of the respective poets and publishers. On a personal note, I would like to thank the poets and the publishers of these three fine collections, each one richly deserving of its place as a finalist.

This week's editor, Andrew M. Bell, writes poetry, short fiction, plays, screenplays and non-fiction. His work has been published and broadcast in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Australia, England, Israel and USA. His most recent publications are Aotearoa Sunrise, a short story collection, and Clawed Rains, a poetry collection. Andrew lives in Christchurch with his family and loves to surf. 

After reading the poem at the hub, try the 30 Tuesday Poets in the sidebar, and the poems they've written or selected - you won't be disappointed!


Kathleen Jones said...

These are three fascinating poems Andrew. I have to say that my favourite is Anna Jackson's perhaps because it has so many layers.
Thank you.

Cattyrox said...

I love all these poems, Andrew - and feel blessed by their diversity. Thank you for posting them. I loved the relationship established in Rhian Gallagher's poem in all that strong and concrete imagery of death.

Sarah Jane Barnett said...

Fantastic post! The leaf-ride is so incredibly enjoyable to read.

Mary McCallum said...

Great poems and commentary, thanks so much Andrew. I like the way the three poems talk to each other about humanbeings, the secrets of the universe, love ... All three poets I adore. These are stunning collections.

Claire Beynon said...

Thank you, Andrew - a fabulous, celebratory post. I appreciate the love and close observation each of these three poet's demonstrate. Anna's lines about whales and their secret songs are exquisite.

Anonymous said...

Three most pleasurable and moving poems, Andrew and each so different.
Thanks for your choosing them and also for your very thoughtful commentaries.

Michelle Elvy said...

It must have been very hard indeed to choose only one poem from each of these collections to post, Andrew. These are marvellous, all of them rich and layered and I can see why they speak to you in the ways they do. I love the musical flow and the ending of Jackson's poem, the immediacy of the Gallagher's and those unbreakable bonds created in the most unexpected ways, and the delicately observed details in Hawken's poem. Thank you for choosing these and sharing with us!

Tim said...

Whales, poets, and God, but also the perversely exquisite philosophy of Donald Rumsfeld. Lovely poems all.

Unknown said...

Blood Work = 2.4
Elsa = 1.2
Unknown Unknowns = .6

According to the Poetry Assessor, Blood work is clearly the best.