Short Poems of New Zealand edited by Jenny Bornholdt

(VUP, 2018)

Reviewed by Jenny Clay

Jenny Bornholdt has selected from a wide range of New Zealand poems for this elegant little hardback, titled Short Poems of New Zealand. Bornholdt began collecting the poems together in 2010, jammed into a brown manila folder. Then life got in the way, as it does, and she didn’t get back to them again until 2017.

In her Introduction, she discusses the criteria she used for small poems. Initially, she thought of six lines and under as small. This seemed too restrictive and she went to ten. But, as there are many ten-line poems, she decided that was too long, and settled on nine instead.

Among the chosen ones are a few poems with only two lines, packing a punch way above their word count. There is Frances Samuel’s “Anorexia” — ‘electric doors / don’t sense her’ — and Bill Manhire’s “My World I Poem”: ‘Inside each trench, the sound of prayer. / Inside each prayer, the sound of digging.’

Keri Hulme’s untitled poem stretches to three:

I asked for riches
you gave me
scavenging rights on a far beach.

Some of the poems are familiar and still powerful, such as Hone Tuwhare’s “Haiku (1)”:

your sniveling

come rain hail
and flood-water

laugh again

Many of those chosen are by well-known poets, so some of the poems are also well-known, such as James K. Baxter’s “High Country Weather” and Allen Curnow’s onomatopoeic “Wild Iron”. Denis Glover has four poems in the volume, and a small poem of history captured my attention, called “Radio”:

Now we are alone at last,
You and I together,
Talk to me, 3YA,
Tell me about the weather.

Eileen Duggan also has four chosen poems. I especially liked “Night” — ‘You are the still caesura / That breaks a line in two.’ My eyes were drawn to other lines of poems from familiar authors, such as the final lines in David Eggleton’s “Big City Rush Hour” — ‘This town stands as open as an airport lounge, / Everyone looks like a new arrival.’ And Peter Bland’s “Listening” — ‘When we take our earphones off we can hear // earth’s huge silence listening back.’

A few of the poems are in te reo, including two older poems in Māori translated into English by Margaret Orbell. One, called “Planting Spell / Tangi te kawekaweā”, is a seasonal poem — ‘They are waiting for the summer, when the warmth will come.’ It finishes with the admonition ‘Dig!’ — ‘Kōia!’ Janis Freegaard’s ‘Forest Song’ is shaped by the Māori names for plants, ‘mingimingi karaka tarata karo.’

Reading the short poems, I am reminded of ones I previously enjoyed: Fiona Farrell’s “Seven wishes”, and Fleur Adcock’s “Things”:

There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.

Gregory O’Brien, Jenny Bornholdt’s husband, has small illustrations separating the five sections of the book. The separate themes were not obvious to me, nor were the links between the poems and the illustrations. Although, sometimes elements in the illustration did seem to coincide with the first poem of the section. For example, there is a fish in a window before Cliff Fell’s “Adultery in the Age of Pisces”.

Most of the poems are by New Zealand’s established writers. There is a range of voices, male and female, historic and more recent, such as “text message” by Sam Ducker-Jones. What the poems have in common is a wonderful succinctness. Here is Keri Hulme’s untitled:

Ah, sweet life, We share it
with cancers and tapeworms
with bread moulds and string beans
and great white sharks…

Selecting poems for an anthology is an individual choice, often veering towards those more familiar that have been heard or read several times. Having said this, I really enjoyed this volume of poetry, and many of the poems resonated with me. They have been carefully chosen and well presented. The size of the poems gives them breathing space on the page, and the book has visual as well as intellectual appeal. It is a book for dipping in and out of, or for reading cover to cover. It finishes with James Brown’s “Opening”:

There is too much
poetry in the world

and yet

here you are.