Manifesto Aotearoa, 101 Political Poems. Philip Temple and Emma Neale, Editors.
Dunedin: OUP (2017).
RRP: $35. Hb, 184pp.
Reviewed by Erik Kennedy.
An anthology of political poems is the most dangerous book in the world – not because it’s going to smash the state, but because writing a political poem is fraught with peril. One false step to the right and you’ve written a tedious screed. One false step to the left and you’ve written a toothless meditation.
The editors of Manifesto Aotearoa: 101 Political Poems, Philip Temple and Emma Neale, have managed to enlist ninety-eight poets who mostly get the balance right. If you asked regular readers of contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand poetry, ‘What qualities do you think define our poets today?’ probably not many of them would answer ‘political commitment’. So it’s a pleasure to see the fighting spirit on display here.
Manifesto Aotearoa is divided into four sections: ‘Politics’, ‘Rights’, ‘Environment’, and ‘Conflict’. ‘Politics’ mostly means betrayal and intrigue. This book was published before the election last September, so unfortunately (fortunately?!) some of the gibes at National’s expense have dated very quickly. But cautionary tales like Maria McMillan’s “How they came to privatise the night” warn of threats that have not disappeared under the new government. And Vincent O’Sullivan’s “To miss the point entirely” ingeniously puts our troubles in (a global) perspective:
‘A country without snakes!’
as tourists at times are amazed to hear. ‘Then what
do people here die of?’, another traveller once
asked me. ‘Of being ourselves,’ I told him,
‘the big tourist pictures falling off the wall with mould.’ (p 24).
The poets in ‘Rights’ laser in on – among other things – Treaty issues and sexism, harassment, and abuse. This is as you’d expect; Māori and Pasifika poets are refreshingly well represented, and sixty per cent of the book’s contributors are women. High points are Anahera Gildea’s “Speaking rights”, Ruth Hanover’s “Talking about rape”, and Mere Taito’s “The quickest way to trap a folktale”.
With only fourteen poems, the section on the ‘Environment’ is slimmer than I’d have thought it would be, given that the desirability of a clean, green New Zealand is one of the few things you could get most of this country’s poets to agree on. But this section, perhaps because of an existing consensus, is the strongest and most focussed. “Ghost stoat” by Jonathan Cweorth, “Waste management” by Janet Charman, and “Frankton Supermarket, Queenstown” by Richard Reeve have real aesthetic and moral force. Bridget Auchmuty’s “Stamp of Dominion” incorporates (real or imagined) journal entries from her grandfather, who emerges as a representative of the world’s unwitting eco-villains. The poem resists easy quotation, but its passages about the transport of exotic (read: antipodean) animals are grim in their matter-of-fact-ness:
I have several animals and birds on board again
this homeward voyage, amongst them two opossums,
one of which got out and was found with its head
in the lime barrel and consequently died. (p 121).
The final section, ‘Conflict’, shows what happens when New Zealand poets turn their gazes outward and engage with topics like the 2014 Gaza war (Tusiata Avia), US gun violence (James Norcliffe), refugee crises (Majella Cullinane), and the pettiness of our squabbles when seen from space (Jane Graham George).
The book’s coverage is not comprehensive, of course. For example, there is no poem about child poverty, one of the defining issues of the 2017 election and one of the most serious problems in our society. Otago University Press are optimistic about this book’s likely impact. From the back cover copy: ‘A collection of political poems in its very essence argues for the power of the democratic voice.’ This can’t be correct; after all, there were official anthologies of approved socialist realist literature in the Soviet Union, and they did not vindicate the power of the ‘democratic voice’. I am more inclined to accept American poet Audre Lorde’s future-oriented vision of poetry’s efficacy from her essay ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’: ‘Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.’ On these terms, I am confident that Manifesto Aotearoa has given Aotearoa New Zealand literature something it has not had before, or at least not in recent years: a document on which to base a programme of progress.
Erik Kennedy’s first book of poems will be published in 2018 by Victoria University Press. He is the poetry editor for Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He lives in Christchurch and is Honorary Treasurer for takahē.