the unexpected greenness of trees, Alan Roddick and Claire Beynon (eds.).
Dunedin: Caselberg Press (2016).
RRP: $30. Pb, 114pp.
Reviewed by Jessie Neilson.
The Caselberg Trust is a Broad Bay-based arts trust established in 2006 to cultivate and promote the importance of art. Towards this end the Trust runs competitions and residencies, and the Board of Trustees and patron, Dame Gillian Whitehead, ensure its smooth running and visible profile. Earlier, artists and writers Anna and John Caselberg had provided a cottage to their daughter and it was then purchased by the fledgling Caselberg Trust. The adjacent property had been Charles Brasch’s, and so with a rich legacy of local visitors and social gatherings it seemed pertinent to continue to nurture this creative atmosphere, most notably in its artist’s residency.
Another project run by the Caselberg Trust is the annual poetry competition, set up in 2011. the unexpected greenness of trees collates the last six years of the selected award-winning poetry (2011-2016). With hundreds of entries every year, these are whittled down to merely a handful. The book’s title comes from the opening poem in the 2011 section, Mary McCallum’s “After reading Auden”: ‘The leaping light from the cliffs/the unexpected greenness of trees’ (p 14).
This selection is the first released under the imprint, Caselberg Press. It has an attractively laid-out and sparse format, which encourages the reader to dip in at will. Edited by Alan Roddick and Claire Beynon, the cover features a lancewood curl designed by the latter, and this distinctly New Zealand symbol, echoing the title and much of the landscape-based content, marks the divides between each year’s offerings.
Since there are no rigid guidelines for inclusion here other than those chosen for their poetic resonance by each year’s judge, one can expect diverse themes. However, that which stands out is the poet’s relationship with or observation from within our natural landscape, and many poems here hone in on wild Otago stretches of land.
Pat White’s “Another sunny day” is farm-based and meditative in its gentle acceptance of life as it is:
‘fences delineate this place and that/ the fence, see, along the top rail/ one bare foot past the other, placed to/ seek neither one side nor the centre, just/ grace and balance in each step, like so’ (p 80),
or Jessica Le Bas’ “Four photographs from a window”, where time makes all the difference, here in the Ida Valley, to that beheld:
‘The second shot/ in monochrome, like a century aged; before/ the thought of light. All is shadow/ and suggestion. A cliff face. A fist of trees’ (p 84),
while Jillian Sullivan’s “Molecular knowhow” focuses on small details of survival:
‘even the timothy, the cocksfoot, the rye,/ even the hawkweed, the lupins are graced/ with cellular knowledge/ on how to behave/ when a storm rocks out of the west’ (p 87).
Other themes touched upon include the universal, such as connections with other living creatures or with other individuals, instances of remembrance or nostalgia, and possessions or possessiveness and letting go. Two outstanding poems (to this reader) are Sandi Sartorelli’s “Cloud analysis”, which focuses on sudden loss and how those left behind can pull through:
‘numbed eternity of/ numbed eternity/ eternity of/ numbered days./ I returned, and turned to early gods,/ who reminded me how to feel again’ (pp 48-49),
and Micah Timona Ferris’ “The Tithonus doll”, a seemingly slight and understated work regarding a ventriloquist and his relationship to his doll Elizabeth. Within this poem so much is contained:
‘Her voice could coax/ this man into a heady corner, but her ache hangs/in the air like heavy silk’ (p 41).
Each year’s judge has words of insight for what they are seeking in a poem. Amongst these sentiments is for a poem to “shine a light in the world’s ear” so that through its words one is led to discovery; and another highlights the poem’s necessity of having an originating impulse as well as intrinsic chaos. From the mass of chaos some order can be assembled. Another interpretation is that a poem is ‘a little machine for remembering itself’, and this is expanded upon to include voicing the ‘unvoiceable’.
the unexpected greenness of trees is a lovely, New Zealand-based collection, bringing together diverse voices which nevertheless touch on a number of common themes. According to Vincent O’Sullivan, last year’s judge, ‘With a good poem, something new takes us by surprise – a rare turn of imagery, a compelling rhythmic drive…A good poem is always language earning its keep, in a voice that is seldom too like any other’. On rereading, one will find certain poems that jump out, as, like with any work, certain pieces will speak more to a reader. Familiar names mingle with newer writers, and all show themselves here, in their own manifestations, of having earned their poetic keep too.
Jessie Neilson studied English at Otago and also holds qualifications in the areas of second language teaching and library and information studies. She has taught international students here and abroad. Jessie is a regular reviewer for the Otago Daily Times and works in the University of Otago Central Library. She has broad interests in matters literary.