Short Poems of New Zealand by Jenny Bornholdt, Editor
Wellington: VUP (2018)
RRP: $35. Hb, 175pp
Reviewed Janet Charman
This little hardback comes with a pretty silk and on its mint green cover sleeve, a scattering of dark plant sprigs – thereby signalling that each of the 144 short poems inside it can be thought of as a kind of “slip” or “stem”, which the reader has only to heel in (with a Google search, or a visit to the library) in order to enjoy a substantial flowering from any one of Jenny Bornholdt’s eighty contributors.
Short Poems of New Zealand is divided into five sections. But quite how these were arrived at was not immediately apparent to me. That uncertainty led me to look to Greg O’Brien’s quirky separating illustrations, for cues. I eventually decided that his little line drawings function more like “pocket parks” than signposts in the avowedly mixed poetic neighbourhoods Jenny Bornholdt maps here.
Her introduction describes the nine-line limit she has imposed as her collection’s maximum poem length, as having parallels with the small house movement. A metaphorical “planning” constraint, which at one poem per person per page, maximizes inclusivity and implies an editorial refusal of literary elitism. Within this framework the diverse environmental, economic, spiritual, social and political characteristics represented by her contributors suggest ‘New Zealand’ as a destination able to accommodate all comers – but only if they are prepared to fit in with their neighbours. This amounts to a quiet declaration on Bornholdt’s part that it is only right, in a decent society, to ensure there is a place for everyone.
Her text welcomes a wide diaspora of talent.
There are older writers like Ursula Bethell, Hubert Witheford and Denis Glover. There are neat rumpty-tum rhymes alongside phrasings that dangle in airy white space. There are younger names like Rhian Gallagher, Ashleigh Young and Janis Freegard. Te Reo rubs shoulders, in what is an assertively multi-cultural space, with the work of notable Kiwi expatriates. Patrician Pacifica poets speak as loudly as revered local voices. This is a setting where historically marginalized, newly noticed and even anonymous writers take curtain calls in the same line-up as leading actors. But Bornholdt’s ensemble casting has also produced a clearly subjective selection, in which a good number of contributors, simply because she knows and loves them, receive several outings.
In gender terms, she represents women poets as often as men. However I have always felt that conspicuous gender equality in a poetry anthology can mask the literary precedence habitually granted to males. If I am right in thinking that the pool of women writing and publishing poetry in Aotearoa New Zealand is significantly larger than the pool of men working in this genre, a fifty/fifty gender representation must privilege male voices relative to their more numerous female peers. I would be keen to see any statistics that can determine the legitimacy or otherwise of my (admittedly anecdotal) impression that in this country most men have still not put their inhibitions behind them with regard to poetics.
As far as identifying particular collection highlights goes – as with any prowl around the neighborhood – what is a delightful prospect for one reader will cause a visceral shudder in another. As an example of my own moment of gritted teeth, I must point to the sterile vista that forms the initial premise of James K Baxter’s ‘High Country Weather’. His first line, ‘Alone we are born’ (Bornholdt, p. 53) naively overlooks the fact that every baby arrives on this earth in the company of its mother. But a few sections away, I found welcome relief from Baxter’s dissimulation, in the transgressive complexity of Anna Livesey’s ‘Eleven Days’ (Bornholdt, p. 76):
The rotten flesh-stump that joined us
has fallen off.
I haven’t washed her.
I haven’t healed.
In these early days, wrapt in our own salty language,
we swear a fealty
I know we cannot rely on.
Doubtless there will be some readers as offended by the ‘salty language’ of Livesey’s poem as I was impressed by it: one person’s awesome party is another’s noise complaint.
Jenny Bornholdt has adopted editorial constraints that presume good fences make good neighbours, but the sedate look of her collection may not be to everybody’s taste. Yet there is nothing to stop the reader heading off from this meet-and-greet, with new companions, after dark, to places unknown.
Janet Charman’s poetry collection, ‘仁 Surrender’ (OUP, 2017), chronicles her writing residencies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Her monograph Smoking: The Homoerotic Subtext of Man Alone, A Matrixial Reading (Genrebooks, Dunedin, 2018) is free to download at: http://www.genrebooks.co.nz/