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.
‘Bold Feral and Tender’ by Leslie McKay
‘At the Caselberg House in Broad Bay, Dunedin’ by Riemke Ensing
‘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
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
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.
Learning My Partner’s Language
Except with language
I haven’t really had great love affairs.
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.
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;
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.