The 10 best New Zealand poetry collections of 2019

Presenting: the fourth and final instalment in our best-of-the-year series, put together by the Spinoff and various benevolent elves. This time it’s poetry, and there was a lot of it this year, so it was extremely difficult to choose just ten titles. These are just a handful of the poetry collections that moved us, that we walk around with in our heads, and that we are giving for Christmas, smug with the certainty that they’re absolutely kick-ass.

See also:

The 10 best NZ fiction books of 2019

The 10 best NZ non-fiction books of 2019

The 10 best NZ children’s books of 2019

Decade in Review: 10 defining New Zealand books of the 2010s

Under Glass by Gregory Kan (Auckland University Press, $24.99)

Hera Lindsay Bird writes: 

This is a very important collection of poetry to me, and is one of the most astonishingly beautiful and moving pieces of writing of my life. When I read Greg’s poetry, I feel myself going deep into the labyrinth, but at the same time, there is a great feeling of rightness and sweetness and clarity. I want to be buried with it, like a great dead pharaoh. 

The Black and the White by Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press, $25)

Jim Wilson writes: 

The Black and the White by Geoff Cochrane is my favourite Kiwi release of the year. I like it because Geoff can still get grumpy. Everyone else is like they just got off their shift at the Chelsea sugar factory.

More of Us edited by Adrienne Jansen, with Clare Arnot, Danushka Devinda and Wesley Hollis (Landing Press, $22.00)

Ashleigh Young writes: 

This is a collection of poems by 46 people who came to New Zealand as migrants or refugees. Some are high school students, some are well-known poets. Many of these poems are moving, of course, but many are also unexpected and fascinating and often funny. There’s a poem about dogs, ‘My Dogs’, by a student named Kongpop Puakprom, and I think it’s become one of my favourite poems of all time. A full review of the collection is here.

Postcard Stories by Richard von Sturmer (Titus Books, $35)

Anne Kennedy writes: 

In a Year of the Pig and a great many poetry books, this gorgeous publication is unmissable. Zen and the art of the postcard, i.e. profound, beautiful, funny, aching, spare, new, aural, visual, moment by moment. It changed me.  

Neon Daze by Amy Brown (Victoria University Press, $25.00)

Harry Ricketts writes:

This verse journal (with substantial footnotes) records and reflects on the author’s first four months as a mother. The page-turning result is a whole new way of doing a long poem, which will fascinate and flip your heart over.

Collected Poems by Fleur Adcock (Victoria University Press, $50)

Ashleigh Young writes:

Fleur Adcock’s Collected is immense. Her formal range, her intelligence, and her registers and moods are extraordinary, from the brilliantly savage ‘Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow’ (Thank you; there is no need to go on’) and ‘Against Coupling’, to her gentler addresses to old friends and family ancestors, and her exasperated self-mockery. Insects and animals appear as a way into storytelling, as in ‘Macular Degeneration’, when she’s out birdwatching: 

Now they’re off again, wheeling and swooping,
waterskiing. If only they would
kindly stop all this buggering about
and proceed calmly in my direction.

The word ‘acerbic’ is often used about Adcock, and rightly so, but much of her work is also streaked with melancholy. I will confess, at first I was bothered by how much Fleur doesn’t like dogs, which are ‘unlovable’, or ‘hysterical at something’, or barking in ‘vague slow bursts’, or named Wordsworth. But then, somehow, secretly, it made me like her even more. 

Noonday by Ursula Robinson-Shaw (Puncher & Wattman, $20)

Freya Daly Sadgrove writes: 

Ursula is treasure. Her first chapbook is so looming and apocalyptic and seething, but also somehow manages to teach me how to love. Reading her poems is like… she’s peeling open a lychee with her fingernails, and the lychee is like………. just under your sternum.

Craven by Jane Arthur (Victoria University Press, $25)

Oscar Upperton writes:

This book is vulnerable and boastful and certain and uncertain. From ‘Idiots’: ‘I can get up in the morning / I do things’. And from ‘Situation’: ‘We take things that aren’t ours, I don’t know.’ And from ‘Circles of Lassitude’: ‘Are you trying to start something? // You’re looking at me like / you’re trying to start something.’ 

Kate Camp writes:

My first encounter with Craven was late in the year, when Arthur read and talked about her poem ‘The Real Reason Why Hollywood Won’t Cast Jane Arthur Anymore’ at the Verb Festival session How to Read My Poem. Her introductory spiel (now published on The Pantograph Punch) was fantastic, and I loved the poem. The way the household appliances anchored its different phases, the sense of desperation and risk that it injected into a domestic setting, and the way it rambled between the past and the present in a way that feels so natural and relaxed, but demonstrates such technical control – just brilliant. I bought the book, read the book, loved the book. It’s hard for poems to be funny without undermining their own seriousness, but Arthur’s are like that. Can’t wait to see what she does next.

Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word edited by David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu (University of Queensland Press, AUD$29.95) 

Ashleigh Young writes:

I want to highlight this anthology even though it’s published by an Australian press, because many New Zealand poets are included in it and because spoken word (described by the editors as ‘a lived and living thing: within the skin of the text, the song of the line, the architecture of sound’) is a source of a new kind of electricity in contemporary Australian and New Zealand poetry. Selected from work published from 2008 to 2018, these poems are personal, political, and often confronting. As well as writers like Selina Tusitala Marsh, Hera Lindsay Bird, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Mohamed Hassan and Tayi Tibble, who are known as poets, though not necessarily as performance poets, there’s Taika Waititi, John Clarke, and Courtney Barnett. (The editors: ‘This is one of the most beautiful aspects of spoken word – there’s room for everyone.’) Typographically the book does whatever it wants, with some poems turned sideways to run the full length of the page, and use of bold type, all caps, and crossed-out text. It’s refreshing to see poetry being given such space to move. 

Lost and Somewhere Else by Jenny Bornholdt (Victoria University Press, $25)

Bill Manhire writes:

I like poets when they change gear without swerving off the road. Jenny Bornholdt’s terrific new book Lost and Somewhere Else will at first feel familiar: gardens, family and friends, moments of precarious contentment and attentive warmth. But the word that strikes me most in the book’s first four lines gets a whole line to itself:

Where do I stand?
in the little square of sunlight
by the back door.

If you want to test what that ordinary word means for the book as a whole, take a look at the dazzling poem ‘Flight’ – and be prepared for a healthy dose of existential dread.

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