AUP New Poets 6. Ben Kemp, Vanessa Crofsky, Chris Stewart (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2020). ISBN 9781869409098. RRP $29.99. 114pp.
Reviewed by Tim Grgec
AUP New Poets 6 is the second revival of the AUP New Poets series under the editorship of Anna Jackson. And what a revival it has been, bringing back to life a medium in which emerging writers can showcase a substantial body of work in book form, before going on to publish their own collections. Jackson herself was an original new poet in the 1999 AUP New Poets 1. Now, over twenty years later as editor, she advances the tradition she herself helped pioneer, allowing three emerging poets to announce themselves on the national stage.
Jackson’s selection displays the diverse range of voices in contemporary New Zealand poetry. From Ben Kemp’s quiet meditations on life in Japan and Aotearoa, to Vanessa Crofsky’s whirlwind political poetry about living as a twenty-something Hokkien Chinese New Zealander, to Chris Stewart’s sleep deprived review of fatherhood. While each poet is distinctly independent of one another, the three share complex explorations of identity. All three ask the question about what we inherit as individuals, interrogating both the parts of ourselves that are predetermined, and the parts that are more malleable. Each go rummaging through various experiences in search of a recognisable self.
Ben Kemp opens the collection with The Monks Who Tend the Garden with Tiny Scissors. Having spent ten years in Japan, Kemp’s work ‘explores the nexus between Japanese and Māori/Polynesian culture,’ a nexus that sees Māori gods wandering the narrow streets of Gōtoku-ji and a Japanese Kami-sama receiving his own kind of moko. There is a profound sense of quietness to his writing. The introspective space within Kemp’s own head serves as a refuge from the overwhelming bustle of metropolitan life. In “Juni-Gastu”, the opening poem, Kemp becomes the street level observer, meandering through the ‘arteries of Tokyo… / with ears open…’ listening and looking for details to help him comprehend his place in the world. Avoiding the monotony of routine, small observations are enlarged by the speaker’s long, winding sentences:
Walking to work,
the peddlers in steaming noodle carts have faces like nourished hide…
if you get close,
their foreheads are old photos,
with grandfathers, mothers,
brothers & uncles, resting over their brow.
Kemp’s words wander across the page like his speaker does the streets, slowly and languidly, taking in every detail.
His Japan is at its most delicate in the poem “Green Tea”. For Kemp, the individual tea leaf carries with it a culture and voice of ‘millions’. His speaker is captivated by the ‘quintessence of the tea flower’ and the subtle transformation ‘from chawan to lip’. Kemp’s interest in film is apparent here, favouring close-up snapshots of particular details to allow space for a wider contemplation. Like the poem’s unnamed warrior, the perspectives from within the tea house allow the speaker to observe the ‘view of his inner self’. It is a contemplation that stretches far beyond what’s directly in front of him. The drink of Japan’s Buddhist monks and samurai, each cup of green tea is full of history, holding within it a centuries-long legacy ‘swaddled in steam’.
With fierce velocity, the collection jumps to Vanessa Crofsky’s Shopping List of Small Violences. Crofsky’s section strikingly presents itself in a different font to Kemp and Stewart. We feel the struggle of a narrator maintaining friendships and lovers, moving between cities and flats, alienated by the boredom of work, all with a compulsive skin-picking that borders on self-harm. Crofksy’s work exhibits a remarkable variance in form, redefining the expectations of how a poem should look and behave. With a degree in visual art, Crofsky’s work appears as Excel spreadsheets, online recipe reviews, emoji-filled text messages, Post-it notes, and fold-out visual art pieces.
The most striking, though, is a reconstituted New Zealand Customs Passenger Arrival Card. Through a clever use of erasure, Crofsky reconstructs a banal requisite of international travel into a poem that challenges the xenophobic attitudes of a purportedly open-minded Aotearoa. With humiliating scrutiny, Customs officers ‘take their / time inspecting luggage. Sniffing bags. Frowning,’ challenging the identity of Crofsky’s speaker upon arrival. The process informs us of the disproportionate psychological burden placed on Asian New Zealanders entering their own country. Her poem ends with a crushing revelation: ‘The last time I arrived back in New Zealand, / SECURITY JOKED / if our suitcase had ANY DOG,’ revealing a casual perniciousness still, regrettably, alive and well in New Zealand.
We then move to Chris Stewart’s sleep-deprived haze, one all new parents can empathise with. It would be reductive, however, to categorise Stewart’s poetry as simply a reflection on fatherhood. In Gravity, Stewart explores how his new role as a father informs his place as a son. He confronts his own mortality, the mortality of his parents, and the inheritances we adopt and will inevitably leave behind. In “everyone wants to know how heavy they are,” Stewart’s speaker explains the magnetic forces that bond a parent to their child. As his children grow, so too does the weight of his love. More remarkable though than ‘knowing the kilograms,’ of your baby, his speaker muses, is the inexorable force ‘with which you are pulled’ towards it.
It is with this newfound magnetism — the fear of losing one’s child — that Stewart confronts the mortality of his own parents. “the chef”, for example, asks the question: how much are we products of our parents, and how much are we products of their absence? In the kitchen, seemingly trivial details like blowing on a hot wooden spoon serve as sharp reminders of a mother’s passing. Memories of the speaker’s mother come flooding back in Proustian clarity when he recreates her stew: ‘peeling carrots he hears / the winter voice of his mother’s recipe,’ remembering ‘the red taste of it’. It is an elegy for someone lost, yet his mother’s cooking is a tradition that will continue through him. Stewart reminds us how the dead continue to shape our lives, a pleasant comfort in grief, warming his heart and belly.
Tim Grgec is a Master’s graduate of English Literature and Creative Writing from Victoria University of Wellington. He was the 2018 recipient of the Biggs Family Prize in Poetry.