What Blooms Beneath a Blood-Red Sky: A Year in Aotearoa Poetry

By | 15 February 2023

Image by Ebony Lamb

Poetry is booming in Aotearoa, and nobody can quite say why. What’s stirring our blood in the plague years / this sixth mass extinction / our deteriorating climate of political and literal atmospheres? We can’t all be doing it for the karaoke after the poetry readings. But poetry is so hot right now, the bright young rhapsodists proclaim (if largely to a devoted audience of each other). Are we just saying, we’re hot now, evidencing the glow-up since high school, the already-anxiety of what it will mean for our newness to fade when we’ve truly emerged and the first-book fetish fades? Nah. Let the record hear: we will always be babes.

Anyways. As Joan Fleming reflected in Cordite Poetry Review’s last summation of letters across the ditch, the times have been utterly cooked, and remain so. We can no longer pretend to any resumption of stability, if such a thing really existed pre-pandemic. We have all either become terminally online or logged off entirely. To write in this time of intensifying ecological, economic and social chaos can feel like the This Is Fine Meme Dog jotting down limericks in a burning house. Yet as many of Aotearoa’s finest writers will remind you, the house Jack built has been burning for a while… In a time of crisis exhaustion, the poems that scorched through me in 2022 are urgent, awe-full, impulsive. They drip mammalian desire from their jaws, stare out at the gloaming from dilated eyes, or purr unprecedented tenderness.

The year was personally colossal for me as a writer and editor, seeing years of work bear fruit in print. I’ve unleashed my own bloodthirsty first book (Meat Lovers, via Auckland University Press) in her sickly baby-shower palette of raw-pork pinks and eggshell blues. 2022 also saw us finally launch the anthology of climate poetry for Aotearoa and our Pacific cousins (No Other Place to Stand, co-edited with Essa Ranapiri, Jordan Hamel and Erik Kennedy, also AUP) – a project initiated three years prior under eerie ruby skies, as Australian bushfire smoke wafted over Aotearoa. That at least makes two texts you don’t have to hear me harp on about further here, though they have their place as embers in the conflagration.

Aside from assured vitality of voice, little characterises the cornucopia of poets published in 2022 into a singular movement. Browsing my new accumulation of books from the glut, in the poems I found myself seeing again and again the skies run red – heralding new dawns and shepherd’s warnings, sunsets settling on gory epochs or invoking the many delights of twilight. Initially, gathering my wits for this piece, I thought it’d be cute to collage quotes for this essay – but so many snippets dissected from the fullness of their poems lost their atmospheric effect. Perhaps I may as well have said ‘hmm, couple of poems about the moon this year!’ But in the red sky there’s some pent-up pyromania – and the books which move me to wax lyric have an undeniable hot-bloodedness.

For some semblance of brevity, the following reflections focus on book-length works of poetry published in 2022. Still there are necessarily exclusions from this survey. Even I, a hog-wild simp for verse, simply haven’t yet been able to read every book printed in the calendar year. Nor could I offer every book the attention it deserves, wanton with the wordcount though I’ve been! It is a luxury problem to see so much worthy work published that the gothic castle of poetry with its ever-expanding rooms could take more than any one lifetime to explore. That said, let me now take my candelabra in hand to guide you through some choice chambers. My burning torch alone can’t illuminate every aspect of the year’s poetic offerings, but hopefully this brief tour encourages you to travel deeper into Aotearoa letters yourself.

🔥 🔥 🔥

Firstly, from Te Herenga Waka University Press (onomatopoeically THWUP; previously VUP), Essa Ranapiri’s Echidna is a masterwork of intertextuality, queer embodiment, and sheer eroticism. The ‘Greek Mother of Monsters and messy takatāpui wahine’ Echidna transplants her scaly mythology to Aotearoa to mix with atua and taniwha, Christian archangels and guillotine-able billionaires (‘when not if’ being sworn to Bezos in lieu of a bio in the Dramatis Personae).

All Classical myth is essentially fanfic, so it feels right to witness Echidna go through their Emo phase, pleading a poster of Gerard Way to wait for her – damn, girl, same. As many characters from pop-culture and pūrākau intertwine, a highlight is the steamy subplot of tricksters Māui-Pōtiki and Prometheus through flirtation, tragedy and white-hot embrace. When Prometheus is chained to Mount Elbrus for stealing fire from the Gods, Māui comes upon him in hawk form for ‘all amount of swallowing’:

Māui holds back the sun       to make the night
last longer and longer       he places the hook
in Prometheus’ mouth      feels solid and melting
tips riddled with flame      they tuha together
make the rock hot               with fluids
crowning Elbrus with waitātea

In Echidna’s paean for outsiderness and belonging, the mythic collides with scenes of the New Zealand mundane. Supernatural powers and shapeshifting bodies meet with bog-standard prejudice at family Christmas. Echidna digs painted fingernails into the discomforts of colonialism and indigeneity, of takatāpui and transgender identity, and of class (Echidna ‘white-washed by the classics’, can’t afford a name change to Hinenākahirua after ‘WINZ cut her payments when they found out / about her moonlighting at the meatworks’).

Breaking the chains of othered monstrosity, there is a profound community woven through Ranapiri’s Echidna. The poems narrate encounters with elders, allies and fellow sufferers, lusts and loves of all shades; takeaways shared on a park bench to fucking in the back of car. There are many moments of startling warmth – like when Narcissus shows Echidna how to see their own beauty in the tattered mirror of a river:

do i look like a question mark / to u they ask sitting with a clock between their legs /  echidna thinks what a thing to be
the punctuation that throws / everything into wonder

A young Echidna selling fundraising chocolate knocks on the door of Hine-nui-te-pō, where she has a shivery recognition of another door opening, to the future – the kind of unsayable thrill I remember as a kid meeting queer adults. Poems are abundantly dedicated to IRL writers from Harry Josephine Hiles to Michelle Rahurahu, often in the guise of legends – the sublime Hineraukatauri & Her Lover portrays fellow writer, taonga puoro practitioner and music therapist Ruby Solly as the moth-winged atua of song.

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