Can any poem be considered essential? This question is posed by Siobhan Harvey, James Norcliffe and Harry Rickets in the introduction to Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page. Moreover, can any poem be considered as “essentially New Zealand”?
Rather than struggle to fit a collection of poems into this rather limiting definition, Harvey, Norcliffe and Rickets have focused on the second part of the title for their selections. Facing the Empty Page is the title of Elizabeth Nannestad’s poem included in the collection, and evokes the very act of creation as a writer “suggesting both courage and difficulty, blankness and making over, desperation and fresh start”.
The written word is such a subjective thing – and poetry perhaps the most subjective of all – that to say there is something for everyone in any collection seems a little presumptuous. However, for once I am confident in saying that in Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page, there is something for every lover of poetry. Even those who claim to be indifferent to poetry in any form may find themselves surprised. There are poems here that frustrate, anger, bewilder, soothe, charm – I am yet to find one that I can describe as bland or non-committal.
NZ poets are a talented group, and that talent is made clear in these pages. As I am writing this review, personal favourites include Fiona Farrell’s Fairytale (“The right words said with/love can spring a sudden transformation./So she lives, We hope happily./And we hope ever after.”) and Hinemoana Baker’s As A Child (“I was a seer. I haven’t seen it yet. I suspect that someone else is driving”) but honestly it is impossible to pick a permanent favourite, as by next week I may find myself drawn more to another poem in the collection.
Any writing has an element of curation, of choices to add some pieces here and leave out others there. In Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing The Empty Page, these curatorial choices have extended far beyond the selection of written words. The physical book is a beautiful object, with its yolk-yellow cloth binding (and matching ribbon), thick, creamy paper and vibrant turquoise endpapers. Ghostly black and white photographs punctuate the pages, multiple exposures of New Zealand beaches that are at once familiar and otherworldly – much like many of the poems. Even the spaces between words have been considered, and the result is stunning: the book really is an artwork in itself.
Some of these poems have a recognisably New Zealand voice, others could have been written anywhere in the world, but all the writing in Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page can stand up confidently on the world stage as being truly fantastic writing. This is a collection that deserves a place on any bookshelf.
REVIEWER: Arielle Walker
TITLE: Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page
AUTHOR(S): Siobhan Harvey, James Norcliffe, Harry Rickets
PUBLISHER: Penguin Random House