Judge’s Report by Vincent O’Sullivan

No writer who has ever entered a competition needs to be reminded how much depends on the assumptions, the expectations, the vagaries of the judge’s imposing eye and assessing ear. So before the whistle is blown, so to speak, on this year’s Caselberg, it’s as well to know what the referee was inclined to be alert to, the linesman (presuming the one person plays at both) on the watch for. Which was this: anything confirming his belief that good poetry for the most part comes down to how language is engaged with, and to what is done with the enormously varied potential for saying things in ways that have not been said quite like that before. With a good poem something new takes us by surprise – a rare turn of imagery, a compelling rhythmic drive, a sense of strangeness or the unexpected shading the everyday, and at best, such elements combining towards a satisfaction that can’t in fact be aimed for until voilà, there it is! (Think of how even the arch-formalist Paul Valéry placed such store on chance.)

It is a truism that you cannot read 250 poems of varying quality without their telling you something, quite apart from poetry, about the community they share. You note how the greater number of them want to talk about loss, about loneliness; and when it comes to love, more about its disappointments than its satisfactions. This shouldn’t surprise us too much. Pick up many anthologies and you are struck by the same thing. Here are experiences, moods, attempts at clarification that poetry always has attended to. In New Zealand you can certainly say there is no shortage of such motifs. But you may find not much irony, and little that’s satirical; and surprisingly, not as much as you might expect that engages with the natural world and how we relate to it, estimate it, mess it about (far less than in contemporary Australian poetry).

There’s an overwhelmingly preponderance of poems unlikely to be drawn to formal or apparent structure, or to the challenges of extended design; there’s a faith in the quick-hit metaphor, in the hope a sudden swerving from continuity to random association is a proven ‘poetic’ move. These remarks are generalisations, of course, and there are poems that give them the lie. You might say this is more of sociological relevance anyway, as one passes from what a poem occupies itself with in a straightforward topical sense to the far more interesting question of how it is made, how it stands on its own feet as it goes beyond the occasion that set it ticking. A good poem is always language earning its keep, in a voice that is seldom too like any other – its syntax, its rhythm, its visual flare, its direct or indifferent or cunning way with ideas, demanding we look to the craft of how it was brought off.

After a narrowing down to twenty or so poems, I chose ‘Bold Feral and Tender’ for how deftly it drew out the possibilities of its title, for the way it demonstrated why each of those words was so justly apt. At times its lines may have hovered on over-statement, its diction sloped towards more than may have been called for, and yet that sense of risk in itself added a constant sense of control to the impact it carried. The romantic assumption of some lines, the didactic tone of others, the steely eye that dominated what you could call the persistent balance, finally met and settled on the toughness and wit of the last line. While on the way towards that, I admired the rhythmic drive of the four- and five-stress lines, so close to casual speech yet clearly more, and the effect of the confidently extended sentences across twenty seven lines that dispensed with conventional punctuation. Another risk, but again one brought off, as if enacting that broad notion of freedom and swoop so central to the poem.

The second-placed poem, ‘At the Caselberg House in Broad Bay, Dunedin’, impressed me for a similar reason. Here was an experience, a sequence of observations, grasped at and held in a sustained pattern, imaginatively complete. Everything in its total effect seemed carefully prepared for, which is a very different thing from simply pre-designed. (Here was an inevitable expansion to its taking in of how a particular scoping of place and occasion might be framed.)

‘Agreement Made on this Day’ drew me with its sharp mordant wit, its impression of language played as a game, before the realisation that it was a good deal more than that, as it touched the poignancy, the individual bewilderment, that can be there in the cold corridors of legalese.

These others too, for different reasons: ‘Learning my Partner’s Language’ with its notion that we define ourselves (by the extent that experience is aligned to how free we are to speak of it), that not having the right words when we need them can be part of an imposed abuse; ‘Milking’ putting me in mind of that rich tradition in our poetry – Ruth Dallas, so much of Baxter, Glover, more recently Bob Orr – in which how we talk about what we physically do as everyday routine, is a way to talk of so much more than that, a way to assess the reality that defines us. ‘The Comfort of Stories’ gave me the sense that here was a complete statement, each section worked at for itself, and that attention carrying it through to its place in a larger framing of grief, maturity, composure.

‘Sure-footed’ was an apt title for a poem of adroit technical finesse, a ‘free-range’ sonnet which precisely caught the emphases of a child’s awareness, with an adult’s patterning eye. In ‘Clearing Out My Parents’ House’ a writer finds a heightened sense of her own immediacy in the surviving scraps and relics of what had been her parents’ lives, a direct poem that manages to thread celebration through what is, of course, a context of total loss, yet do so in a way that is also curiously up-beat and sardonic.

Vincent O’Sullivan

Winning entry:

‘Bold Feral and Tender’ by Leslie McKay

Runner-up:

‘At the Caselberg House in Broad Bay, Dunedin’ by Riemke Ensing

Highly Commended:

‘Agreement Made on this Day’ by Paula Clare King

‘Learning my Partner’s Language’ by Michaela Keeble

‘Milking’ by Jillian Sullivan

‘The Comfort of Stories’ by Riemke Ensing

‘Sure-footed’ by Kerrin Sharpe

‘Clearing Out My Parents’ House’ by Lynne Kohen

Leslie McKay

Bold Feral and Tender

Her hands sang as she fed Avro Vulcan

the orphaned falcon dead cockerel chicks

as bright and sweet as toys in eggs

of Easters past if not for their bloody beaks

She abhorred the hint of suffering

but deep in bird eat bird reality

bowed to nature with alacrity

the refugee from the quivering city

on the deviant plain where she made a living

with her head and often felt empty

before her flight into the alpine valley

laughed at the lie as fast became slow

as her green fingers became leaves

branching into honeydew trees

where the murmuring bees bumbled her face

as though she were a flower on the mountainside

recording the autobiography of the earth

bold feral and tender as any romance

the farmers were killing with possession

the world chose not to see

If Avro Vulcan were an imported dove

she could hold in a cage and coo

she would miss her carved and precision pointed

from beak to tail comical at times

when she demanded extra food on the lawn

where if she could speak with her talons spread wide

she would say come on bitch night is falling

Riemke Ensing

At the Caselberg House in Broad Bay, Dunedin

Open the door

and you enter a painting

all blue and space

whirling its turbulence out in resolute sweeps

towards a winter horizon.

Space is what we look for. That difficult freedom

giving room to move, to think, to be other

than the every desperate day.

Paintings turning white under Otago clouds.

The still centre escaping into melancholy sky.

Must everything be metaphor?

Look at the water.

Every movement exploding with light into glorious fractures.

Each wave smoothing down rocks into palettes of colour.

Viridian, sienna, emerald green, gold, yellow ochre, orange deep

– none off the names in my father’s pre-war wooden paint box

quite matching that complicated sheen caressed from millennia.

The palest jade. The colour of kina shells.

I think of the painter and her small range of pigments.

How scattered silver changes not only the colour of sky.

How empty spaces speak.

Paula Clare King

Agreement made on this day

(‘I’) and (‘You’) are the owners of and have legal interests in certain recitals: (‘I’) and (‘You’) are the skin white ring left on my finger. (‘I and You’) commenced living together (‘the relationship’). One day (‘I’ and ‘You’) became something else. There are two small native plants by the drive in front of the (‘home’). (‘I’) wondered if you wanted these. They may get damaged when the (‘home’) is moved. Would (‘I’) be able to have them please if (‘You’) don’t want them? Also any other plants (‘You’) don’t want. (‘I’) ceased to live inside and wish to record that in writing. (‘You’) are the boxes of paperwork filled in the nineties. As to respective rights (‘I’) acknowledge that (‘I’) ceased living for more than two years. (‘I’) have been apart and sewn back together again. (‘I’) shall continue with (‘the home’) on the deposited square metres more or less. The (‘home’) to (‘I’) paying the sum of loss and the gain of freedom within days of division. (‘You’) are the weeds round the garden seat and the broken umbrella and with that division (control) shall remain separate. All possession shall remain separate. (‘You’) are the bath full of seaweed. All joint accounts shall be closed as if (‘You’ and ‘I’) had never been. (‘You’) are now the marketplace who pretends not to know (‘I’). (‘You’) are the eyes that lead the blind up the garden path. (‘You’) are the light bulbs never to be replaced and the fire alarm with fake batteries. (‘You’) are the rat that creeps through the walls. (‘You’) are the message light that doesn’t blink. Agreement by this agreement which of this agreement shall be solely to this agreement. This is not limited to signing all documents. (‘You’) are the empty letterbox and no apportionment will be made in respect of of of this agreement. (‘I’) acknowledge that this agreement was never a gift gift gift executed. This agreement agreement this agreement shall be binding reconciliation dissolution death one or both this agreement shall be binding.

Michaela Keeble

Learning My Partner’s Language

Except with language

I haven’t really had great love affairs.

Every day

I say the same simple things

Eat your food

Wash your hands.

I keep saying these things

Eat your food

Wash your hands

In company and alone

In the company of speakers

and those who should be speakers

or who would have been speakers.

I love this language

like a dangerous boyfriend

who loves the language

he was not allowed

to speak in school.

Without a parent

to keep me safe

Without a stick

against my calves

I’m free to keep on

making your tongue.

Jillian Sullivan

Milking

Sometimes when I milk the goat

early morning, her freckled, sagging udder

familiar in my fingers, clean milk

foaming in the bowl, I do not know

how long I can keep believing

in the sanctity of marriage.

I carry milk to the daunted kitchen,

with the cupboards nailed

shut against the rates,

where honeysuckle seeps

through wallboards and in winter

the sun doesn’t shine.

Sometimes I sneak to the edge

of a ruined life and look

down at how far I will fall, until the children

cry for their breakfast;

warm milk

on warm oats.

If there was someone else, but there is only

the idea of someone else, who

takes a turn at the plashing bowl

on the rickety milk stand, or bends

beside me in the rows of silverbeet

sharing the sun, and the spade.

And in the evening

when he comes home, his arms tell me

I belong here, and how sweet

the goat’s breath when she turns

her whiskered face to my own face

laid on her warm, white flank.

She gives up her milk for us,

as I could give up everything

for the small ones, who didn’t ask to be here.

If there was a stream

I would take the path beside it,

I would listen for that moment

when the water

falls from the rock, that hallowed space

before everything is over.

Riemke Ensing

The comfort of stories

thinking about Emilia Oppenheim around the anniversary of her death (18 April 2013)

I’m looking towards Maraetai

where it all started. There’s unrest in the air.

Soon a ‘blood moon’ will darken the sky.

Lightning will electrify the night.

Already texts are quoted citing predictions and fear.

The days move towards Easter.

The trees on the ridges raise their hackles

against a wind setting up pace across the harbour.

Someone with your name died in Shoah.

The hills are parched. A strange painterly yellow

evoking the ‘burning bush’ and all those stories

you grew into like a tree spreading its branches

for shelter and comfort. ‘The worst drought for years.’

It rained when they took you North to lie beside Roger.

The harbour there an oyster shell grey brooding on history.

The valley like an open palm cupped to receive you.

It will rain again when the whanau journeys to be with you

at Waitaruke under Taratara, waiting and watchful.

The bones of the ancestors will sing.

Why would heaven weep when you rejoiced to leave?

The rain like blessings from the sky gods conjuring rainbows

‘to dance upon the mountains like a flame’.

Kerrin Sharpe

Sure-footed

When she started school, everyone ran to the mat

at show and tell time. You had to wait your turn.

You had to be chosen. Even then

she wished they would get on with it. Even then

she knew being half of anything was difficult.

Though she flew round Redcliffs like Piwakawaka

she knew when her twin Jonathan was hurt.

She does not remember how she changed a girl called Joan

into a Karitane nurse. She does remember

how she found perspective in the arms of the walnut tree

in Duncan St. While she sleeps in Reserve Tce

high cranes from the port weave a path.

She never stumbles over broken wooden boats.

Sure-footed. Meaning, her small soft leather boots.

Lynne Kohen

Clearing Out My Parents’ House

Forty-eight cupboards and five damp closets,

sixty-two years of marriage.

Culling books with wounded spines,

birthday cards, the spidery greetings of dead aunts, Polaroids

with faces whose eyes stare through time into mine,

a tangled dream-catcher, necklaces of home-baked beads,

my mother’s makeup purse, its snappy gold compact

and smears of Folly, the wine-red lipstick she wore daily

even after her memory scattered like confetti

and she forgot her husband’s name.

Three days in, among the cobwebs of the last cubby,

I find my own history,

my own wedding dress shrouded in rice paper,

still smelling of the musk we wore in the ‘80s. Look

at the sweetheart neck, hundreds of seed pearls, hand-stitched,

all that effort to fulfil my idea of forever.

Tucked under the satin, a photo of us at the church door,

our fingers entwined, our confidence so palpable

my arms goose bump.

That flash of rapture, still alive.

I hesitate,

feeling the yellowed tulle,

the inconsequential heft of regret.

Then I squash it all

into a plastic supermarket bag

and put it with the other artifacts

destined for the hospice shop,

and the chance

for a second time around.

Chloe Geoghegan