Book review: Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017 edited by Dr Jack Ross
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017
edited by Dr Jack Ross
Massey University Press, $35
Wellington poet Louis Johnson established the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook in 1951. It has just received a well-deserved makeover by Massey University Press. The new design is eye-catching, the writing has room to breathe and the content is eclectic. With Victoria and Otago University Presses publishing Sport and Landfall, it is good to see a literary magazine finding a home in Auckland. It is the only magazine that devotes sole attention to poetry and poetics, with an abundant measure of poems, reviews and essays.
Editor Dr Jack Ross aims to spotlight emerging and established poets and include "sound, well-considered reviews". There are just under 100 poets in the issue, including Nick Ascroft, Riemke Ensing, Elizabeth Smither, Anna Jackson, Michele Leggott and Kiri Piahana-Wong. When I pick up a poetry journal, I am after the surprise of a fresh voice, the taste of new work by a well-loved poet, the revelatory contours of poetry that both behaves and misbehaves when it comes to questionable rule books. The annual delivers such treats.
A welcome find for me is the featured poet: Elizabeth Morton. Morton's debut collection will be out this year with Makaro Press, so this sampler is perfect with its lush detail, lilting lines and surreal edges. My favourite poem, Celestial Bodies is by Rata Gordon ('When you put Saturn in the bath/ it floats./ It's true.'). Fingers-crossed we get to see a debut collection soon.
Mohamed Hassan's breath-catching poem, the cyst, is another favourite: "In the small of my back/ at the edge of where my fingertips reach/ when I stretch them over my shoulder/ it is a dream of one day going home for good."
You also get the sweet economy of Alice Hooton and Richard Jordan; the shifted hues of Jackson and Leggott ('She is my rebel soul, my other self, the one who draws me out and folds me away'); the humour of Smither.
To have three essays – provocative and fascinating in equal degrees – by Janet Charman, Lisa Samuels and Bryan Walpert is a bonus.
Ross makes great claims for the generous review section suggesting "shouting from the rooftops doesn't really work in the long-term". A good poetry review opens a book for the reader as opposed to snapping it shut through the critic's prejudices. However on several occasions I felt irritated by the male reviewers filtering poetry by women through conservative and reductive notions of what the poems are doing.
Ross' review of Cilla McQueen's memoir In a Slant Light highlighted a book that puzzled him to the point he did not not know exactly what she wanted "to share". In contrast I found a poignant book, ripe with possibility and the portrait of a woman poet emerging from the shadows of men.
Poetry New Zealand Yearbook, in its revitalised form, and as a hub for poetry conversations, is now an essential destination for poetry fans. Not all the poems held my attention, but the delights are myriad.