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

By | 15 February 2023

I’ve gushed at length about musical and poetic polymath Cadence Chung’s Anomalia, with its vivisected specimens gazing back through the glass of the curio cabinet. Tate Fountain’s Short Films is a scintillating colour wheel, swatches of sweetness layering as words drift like wedding bouquet petals away from the left margins and into more daring shapes of erasures and landscape pages.

Khadro Mohamed’s We’re All Made of Lightning is a heartfelt journey on shifting sands, from her whakapapa in Somalia to Aotearoa, exchanging baobab trees for pōhutukawa. The book is rich with fragrances – paprika and sips of gingery shaah, goat’s milk and bay leaves, honey and lavender, hot lamb stew and burnt jabati. Roses bloom throughout Mohamed’s poems, even in a devastatingly deep-hearted sequence after the atrocities of the March 15th mosque attacks. In nomadic oddysseys, homesickness, and a gorgeous series of ‘Love Letters to the Motherland’, the book moves along to the rhythms of Ramadan, and the reliable moon that rises repeatedly through these poems that walk in the light of the lunar calendar. Mohamed’s poems glow with fireflies and lightning strikes, gleam with pāua and lilac petals in coils of hair.

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In ten years on the scene, indie Compound Press has published a range of discoveries unlike anything else in Aotearoa letters. The 2022 offering of Jasmine Gallagher’s Dirge Bucolic is no exception. Personal, intellectual, mystic and historical, this is New Zealand gothic that howls on the Nor’Wester – that aggravating wind which scours the psyche of those souls out working the soil in Mid-Canterbury, on Gallagher’s family farm and Mount Alford Station where I grew up, not far away as the kererū flies. I recognise this place in her words so keenly it cuts. Even if I hadn’t just written my own book about my own sheep and beef farm childhood it would be easy to ricochet me back to the yards:

I remembered Dad working in the sheep-yards on a nor’westery day. Swearing. Crushed sheep shit dust flying. Huntaways barking. Sheep trucks rolling in on the shingle road before rolling out again to the freezing works. But they still don’t turn the irrigators off here on days like this. The centre pivots groan.

Part prose narrative of chronic pain and loss, part airy / eerie / faerie poetry, Dirge Bucolic sets out a debilitating period in the author’s life – due to the onset of chronic pain after the trainee beekeeper develops an allergy to stings, and loses her father to lung cancer. The world doesn’t slow as she is increasingly debilitated, leading to isolations in town or country as she moves between dreary Dunedin, quake-rattled Christchurch, and the family farm.

But pain and grief do slow the world. Poems express this in scatterings and erasures, or spiky footnotes for supernatural citations. ‘A dull ache’ sees each stanza pressed into the inner lower corner of a page, blankness on the rest oppressing each eleven-line block of mourning text:

Then you eventually learn to 
swim in it and find it can carry 
you to a place where there is 
salty déjà vu and the uncanny. 
There are angry bees for a 
time, yet this will pass and the
weaving and spinning will be 
resumed. You have familiarised 
yourself with the bedroom 
walls, ruin porn and post-critical 
theory. Grown to love the decay

Even as the narrator begins to recuperate, there are attacks from older relatives ‘ describing my part-time doctoral research on contemporary poetry as fairy stuff, before stating that I should get a proper job and buy a house in Ashburton.’ But fairy stuff provides essential anchors into this world and the next; between the migrants of the Gallagher family and the descendants toughing it out in the infuriating wind. As her family reaches a hundred years farming the same Mid-Canterbury soil, Gallagher draws on Irish tales of seers and sprites, witchcraft and the properties of flowers, Pan and his nymphs, to meet the Patupaiarehe and flora of this land. Gallagher reaches back to knit her own sufferings with colonial histories, remixing ships’ passages and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, or Gold Rush opium dens and writerly habits for laudanum that preclude opiates, Amitriptyline and overprescribed SSRIs.

I’ve perhaps made the book sound a grimmer read than it is – whispers of folk heritage passing through the veils provide an elfin glimmer to the writing, honey with the bitter medicine. There’s a richness in Gallagher’s dark visions, and a necessary nuance to her picturing of land. See ‘Visitor’:

There was a visitation. An incantation. Crushed: nature and culture mashed together with a heaving density. Condensed on a window pane. Reflected. in a glass, darkly. This scene is one prone body laid down upon another: an atmospheric body of land and / or water. It matters little which one you choose to see. Both must pass through a thick fog. A wilderness in a different mood is an idyll. An idol. In order to reclaim a wetland, today a pasture seen from a distance could be overcome by rusted astroturf.

Compound founder and editor Chris Holdaway’s collection Gorse Poems was released this year by Titus Books, and also aims at a layered interpretation of landscape hauntologies through the organising principle of the titular invasive weed.

Star tetrahedron — gorse is evergreen — everyone of us
Growing into spines & thorny families.  Something is
Concealed—hedges of our colonial nursery—stand alone 
Windbreaks, now the good missionaries have gone by
Turning into everyone else not leaving.

Gorse Poems reaches to the legacy of Hart Crane, belatedly acknowledged as an enduring Romantic Modernist, whose seminal work The Bridge provides some scaffold to this text through quotations and corruptions. While I haven’t read that book (on what I broadly gather to be industrial American mythmaking from 1930), references add a relic density that echoes interestingly amid the idols and industries of the present day, contagions of capital reshaping the land for extractive industries that serve ethereal silicon commerce. ‘I see your telepathy of wires with telepathy / Of the air – song of grass and age of machines / Both buried in the rubble from a goldrush of pure / Numbers’. And some salient facts of Crane are plainly stated:

                                           I should explain – Hart Crane
Left his coat on deck and leaped for the Atlantic. May
You swallow enough of the tide to hold all time within
Your body like a world no longer in need of the old 
Seasons – as if being one were in fact infinite and
Immortality something other than survivor’s guilt.

In neatly prickly thickets of verse, capitalised lines a singular decision in an era of lowercase poets, Holdaway’s poetry rewards thoughtful rereading. An ecological despair pervades Gorse Poems, but illicit gardeners – hands speared with thorns – still reach from a city of volcanoes to ‘the very edge of biodiversity’, and gaze upon grand oblivions in ‘sublime / wilderness or metropolis’.

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