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August 10, 2014 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page [Review]

Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page
Edited by Siobhan Harvey, James Norcliffe and Harry Ricketts
4/5 stars

On a windy Thursday night in Wellington, Jenny Bornholdt read to a crowd gathered around her at Vic Books: “somewhere beyond the manuka/ the creek makes a low whicker/ as though the soul of the valley was a horse.”

A murmur, a few exhales of breath. A ripple went around the room. Some, like me, already awed to be standing in the same room as the great Jenny Bornholdt – then floored by this terrific poem by Cliff Fell.

Hinemoana Baker, Ashleigh Young, James Brown, Gregory O’Brien and Harry Ricketts also joined in reading their work at the launch. They are among 150 poets featured in Essential New Zealand Poems.

In the introduction, the editors confront a big question: what is an ‘essential New Zealand poem’? Firstly, they point out the sheer diversity of voices. This in itself is an ‘essentially New Zealand’ trait. Then there are more particular commonalities: distinctive New Zealand geography, and an engagement with our society or culture. But looking for ‘essentialness’ anywhere is problematic. They suggest a better title might have been Some Rather Good New Zealand Poems the Three of Us Rather Like. Either way, they ultimately hoped to offer “a memorable sounding of the depth, diversity and vitality” of New Zealand poetry today.

There are poems that could only have been written here, and poems that could have been written anywhere. “someone’s been sweeping the sky/ clean as linoleum after an accident” writes Amy Brown, while Glenn Colquhoun’s poem takes place “at the checkout/ counter of Whitcoulls bookstore in Hamilton/ on a faintly blue September Tuesday.”

At the launch, Harry Ricketts mentioned the difficulty and brilliance of allowing each poet only one poem, and choosing to arrange them alphabetically. Aside from the poems themselves, this is partly what makes Essential New Zealand Poems succeed.

The subtitle Facing the Empty Page comes from a poem by Elizabeth Nannestad. Harry Ricketts said he might have liked this to have been the title of the whole book. It ends with a fitting thought: “The empty page, it’s hell to live with. And to live without.” Anthologising something as limitless and diverse as contemporary New Zealand poetry can seem like an impossible task, but a necessary and rewarding one. Essential New Zealand Poems is a rich volume with many layers, voices, and worlds inside it. Anyone interested in New Zealand poetry, newcomer or expert, will find something new to love.

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