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BooksDecember 11, 2018

Official proclamation: The 20 best poetry books of 2018


All week this week we present the 20 best books of the year. Today: the 20 best collections of poetry.


Poūkahangatus by Tayi Tibble (Victoria University Press, $30)

The best book of poetry published in New Zealand in 2018. Tibble’s debut collection is agile, daring, compelling. The poems draw whānau close and the women who matter as they navigate dark and light, with sumptuous detail and breathtaking heart.

Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016 by Frank Bidart (Farrar, $40)

This year’s US Pulitzer Poetry winner includes dramatic monologues on child murderer Herbert White and an anorexic woman Ellen West, and confessional poetry about his own turbulent life growing up as a gay man and ruminations on friendships and mortality. Celebrated for his empathy and unique storytelling, Bidart recognises the monsters, the misfits and the misunderstood in this unflinching collection.

The Friday Poem: 100 New Zealand Poems edited  by Steve Braunias (Luncheon Sausage Books, $25)

Well of course this made the cut because it’s 100 poems which were first published at The Spinoff but more so because it’s the anthology to get this Xmas. Complete nobodies share the stage with familiar names; together, they deliver bright, vivid, always really readable poems about the central preoccupations of New Zealand life – love, death, race, Tony Veitch, poverty, family, and the neighbourhood.

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin  by Terrance Hayes (Penguin, $26)

A sequence of about 70 untitled sonnets, full of attack and passion and dazzling speed. That’s partly because they’re crammed with contemporary America. Here is Hayes on the 80-year-old congressional politician Maxine Waters, one of many models whom his poems turn to:

I love your mouth,

Flood gate, storm door, you are black as the gap

in Baldwin’s teeth, you are black as a Baldwin speech.

I love how your blackness leaves them in the dark.

I love how even your sound-bite leaves a mark.


One Hundred Poems and a Year by Bob Orr (Steele Roberts, $30)

New Zealand’s poet laureate of the working classes, of life lived waiting for the tide and drinking at the bar and milking on the farm.

Driving across Hauraki Plains

I glimpse a Jersey cow

in a paddock of buttercups –

a daughter of Fonterra


Walking to Jutland Street by Michael Steven (Otago University Press, $27.50)

More poems on working life in New Zealand, hard-edged and authentic.

men wearing blue overalls who worked as upholsterers, car wreckers, mechanics, panel beaters, spray-painters,

auto-electricians, scrap dealers, forklift operators,

lined up in Sandy’s lunch bar to buy pies and ham sandwiches

Who Is Mary Sue by Sophie Collins (Faber, $28)

This startling debut collection of poetry and prose was  famous before it was even published. The term “Mary Sue” satirises implausibly perfect female archetypes which Collins uses to expose the presumptive politics behind female creativity (women reflect, men create) with intelligent, comical allegory. A work for our times.

Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation edited by Maraea Rakuraku and Vana Manasiadis (Seraph Press, $20)

Powerful collection of poetry in te reo and English, featuring the epic “where does it start” by Maraea Rakuraku.

It isn’t recognising white privilege and entitlement, functioning under white privilege and entitlement, loving under white privilege and entitlement,

It doesn’t start with the huge fucking disappointment when a brown brotha is worse than the worst redneck you’ve encountered in your life


Sincerity by Carol Ann Duffy (Pan Macmillan, $35)

In this radical work, her last as England’s Poet Laureate, Duffy deftly moves between personal and political poetry. She assesses our current political situation with wit and wisdom and reflects on scenes from childhood, finding moments of grace in the complexities of life. Elegiac and moving.

He’s so MASC by Chris Tse (Auckland University Press, $30)

Following his award-winning debut, Tse’s knotty self-exposure moves from sharp to soft, from distant to intimate, from masquerade to music, masculinity to sexuality.

Rabbit by Sophie Robinson (UEA , $35)

A six year journey through love, heartbreak, obsession, devotion and addiction has resulted in this arresting work. Robinson’s poetry overflows with impossible excesses of feeling and punches with visceral, unsettling imagery.

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Pamper Me to Hell & Back by Hera Lindsay Bird (Smith|Doorstop Books, $17)

Love poems, exuberant, funny, sexy AF.

so what if I love you so much I am becoming stupid

my heart melting like red candles on Satan’s birthday cake


Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath (Victoria University Press, $25)

Grief poems, entwined with contemplations on science and technology.

We kiss goodbye in the morning –

a peck on the cheek and that’s it.

Then the phone call, like a bad movie.

The next time I kiss you goodbye

you are cold and still, and that’s it


Us  by Zaffar Kunial  (Faber, $35)

His first full book, which has come together slowly, patiently, over several years.  Many of the poems are movingly awkward and accessible explorations of his mixed identity.  He was born in Birmingham – his mother was English, his father from Kashmir. He can do clear-eyed and tender inside a single poem, without any hint of glibness. Fun fact: he used to earn his living writing verse for Hallmark cards.

Shrines of Upper Austria by Phoebe Power (Carcanet, $30)

Another debut collection. Power (born 1993) was awarded the Forward Poetry Prize for best first collection. . More than usual in the poetry world, these poems offer up stories and characters – sometimes almost as updated folktales, sometimes as satirical narratives, often about various kinds of displacement. The writing’s clean, surprisingly easy to read, resonant.

People from the Pit Stand Up by Sam Duckor-Jones (Victoria University Press, $30)

Another debut! It’s both mysterious and physical, and very good looking: the generous white space accommodates ideas, hungers and feelings to the point you get goosebumps as you read.

The Farewell Tourist by Alison Glenny (Otago University Press, $27.50)

Winner of the Kathleen Grattan Award, The Farewell Tourist offers multiple poetry pleasures with its innovative forms and erasures, and essential white space. The patterns of snow, disappearance and arrival are so prismatic second readings are an equal delight.

Poeta: Selected and New Poems by Cilla McQueen (Otago University Press, $39.95)

Former Poet Laureate Cilla McQueen’s stunning new book (it’s hardback!) pulls poems from 14 previous collections and puts them in thematic ‘rooms’. She is a fleetfooted poet who tests the white page as she writes of home and the wider world.

Baby, I Don’t Care by Chelsey Minnis (Wave Books, $38)

In her sardonic, melodramatic fifth collection, Minnis follows a sassy, flawed character in a cinematic world, adorned with diamonds, stinging with confidence and laughing through her pain.

I can send you a bill for the poem.
It costs a meat locker full of rubies


The Long Take by Robin Robertson (Picador, $27.99)

Shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker! An epic poem following a displaced WW II veteran across the US searching for anonymity and repair but finding a seedy post-war America. A haunting, noirish atmosphere permeates Roberston’s melancholic prose. Unexpected and hypnotic.

As chosen by our panel of readers Paula Green, Bill Manhire, Courtney Smith and Steve Braunias.

Previously: the 20 best kids books of 2018

All titles are available from Unity Books.

Keep going!