My role as selecting editor for Best New Zealand Poems 2004 has given me some insight into the challenges there must be in compiling directories like the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide travel series. Destination New Zealand poetry: and the sightseer only has a limited time ‘to find for himself his earth, his sky, his sea’.[1] How on earth (indeed) to fully embrace the best?

The overall series editor, Bill Manhire, was clear and strict about the format: offer no more than 25 routes into the vibrant, dense and various national reserve. I could weep for the number of byways I’ve had to leave off the map. (‘Can we stop here one day?’ we used to plead on summer holidays, as our parents drove on past lakes, rivers, and bays that contracted to the size of a car’s wing mirror, in dazzling gradations of blue... )

Of course the poets chosen here offer great consolation. Yet I hope that their readers will discover not only the joys and virtues of each author’s full bibliography, but also that they’re enticed towards the wider poetry field. For me, that field has offered further delights, such as work by the extraordinarily prolific and versatile Mark Young; or the canny and moving ‘Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction I’ (with its echoes of The Ancient Mariner) by Olivia Macassey, a postmodernist whose art seems at once shrewd and sensitive; Leonard Lambert’s wonderful ‘Meeting Mr Huhu’, Janet Frame’s oddly affecting ‘Eater of Crayfish’; the elliptical, Ashbery-esque (yet far terser) work of Sam Sampson; Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s sonnet on the bird’s nest picture of his childhood soul; Chris Else’s philosophical and digital comedy, his Sisyphus sequence; a foretaste of a Madonna series by Anna Jackson and Jenny Powell-Chalmers (the collection released just too late for me to consider here); Gregory O’Brien’s elegy for Michael King; ‘fish & chips’ by Janet Charman; new writers Robert Mclean and Stefanie Lash, or the when-they-were-very-young poets Pansy Duncan, Claire Edgar and Lizzie Murphy (from the Epsom Girls’ Grammar anthology, The Silver Road); the strangely disturbing ‘Mai’ from Tagata Kapakiloi by John Pule; the seriously, exuberantly comic Nick Ascroft; poems by Michael Harlow, Tracey Slaughter, Brian Potiki, Tony Beyer, and also, reprints of previously published work by Ian Lonie, James Norcliffe, Richard Sullivan, Allen Curnow and Bernadette Hall.

You’ll understand, from that long-list, that local publishers, magazines and newspapers all made my job exhilaratingly difficult. Yet (and I hope that readers will excuse me, as I step slightly outside the website’s frame) editor Jack Ross at brief, and Riemke Ensing as envoy, must share the accolade for publishing if not the best, then the most important poem this year. That prize must go to the chain of versions of Ahmed Zaoui’s ‘In a Dream’ (brief 31, Spring 2004); of which the most successful, to my mind, is the version given by Ensing herself. At the time of the poem’s first publication, Ahmed Zaoui, who still seeks refugee status in New Zealand, had been imprisoned without charge or conviction for almost two years. His guilt or otherwise of suspected terrorism had not been tested under trial in accordance with United Nations human rights conventions.

The first stanza of Ensing’s translation runs:

He Will Come Back, the One I am Waiting For
In the dream, I am travelling.
I am walking in a beautiful forest.
Suddenly a man calls out to me. He is a woodsman.
He recognizes me as a stranger and reaches to shake my hand.
I am delighted, thinking we are friends, but he stares at me,
rigid, like wood. He takes spectacles from my pocket
and peers more closely. ‘You are a foreigner,’ he says,
‘I accuse you! You will die, but it will have nothing to do with me.’
He glares at me again. His face a grimace. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says,
‘we will prepare you a coffin and a shroud.’[2]

Why the most important poem? For its role as a nexus of politics and aesthetics. (I’d be delighted if my necessarily curt discussion here leads to seminar room and pub-snug fracases about what exactly the relationship is between ‘best’ and ‘important’ …Can a poem be the most important if it isn’t also the best? What is the relationship between artistic excellence and social impact?)

‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, WH Auden once wrote; yet he then continued ‘it survives/ In the valley of its making’.[3] I’ve always read that continuation as a counter to the first statement. That is, although poetry alone might make nothing happen, it can italicise the collective voice of any particular cause. The poem can also persist beyond the circumstances which carved it out, to speak to us across apparent barriers of era, gender, sexuality, and culture.

However, Ahmed Zaoui’s ‘In a Dream’, and the record of the efforts made at its translation, are also a poignant demonstration of where the lyric and post-modern strands meet. (Strands which have long been engaged in a grumpy battle in New Zealand letters). Zaoui uses the lyric form for all its intensity, its claims for the locus of authenticity, and its distillation of identity and self. It is a form that asserts the basic human right to be heard, to be allowed to state one’s case.

Yet through Riemke Ensing’s essay in brief, the cry of the soul is brought up against the hard wall of poem as technical artefact, an object made in language, a social construct, as the translators debate and struggle with how to render it best in English. In the history of this poem, the post-modern and the traditional each must have their due. It seems to me that the poem is a vital presence on our poetry radar, even though the difficulties in rendering it effectively, fluently, and fully in English means that no single version could make it one of the year’s best.

One of the poems included on this website, ‘The Translator’, by Tim Jones, is a haunting gloss on the very process of transposing a foreign poem into another language. It was selected before I read the work in brief, which has increasingly felt like a premonition of the ways poems on this site converse with their contemporaries within and beyond it.

‘The Translator’ itself gradually unfolds into an eerie and dreamlike state, yet it is also irrefutably political – albeit in the most generalised sense. It haunts, and so re-enacts the haunting experienced by the speaker of the poem. It shows, therefore, what I feel the best poetry achieves: a syntax and semantics which mimic the mind’s progress as it encounters experience, struggles with it, or moves towards understanding. When I read a fine poem, there is usually a sense of actively arriving at layers of new knowledge, of discovering experience, or even belief, simultaneously with the speaker or personality in that poem. All of the poems I’ve chosen exhibit something of this character.

It might seem evasive and eccentric to offer an introduction to the poets here, while mentioning only one of them. My excuse is this: the chosen poems and poets have been given the chance to speak for themselves; the right that the voice of the Zaoui poem craves. While I could expand on how each work has invigorated, taught, challenged or comforted me, the writers’ own words now seem to me to make the more urgent announcements.

Elizabeth Smither’s poem, ‘The Year of Adverbs’, also gives me a cheeky kind of license to say simply that the poets here, in all their variety, speak persuasively, comically, shockingly, movingly, iconoclastically, resonantly, intimately, courageously, irreverently, with compelling ambiguity: beautifully.

It has been my great privilege to be their audience.

1. “Holiday in Reality” from The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (London: Faber and Faber, first pub. 1954, repr. 1984)
2. Ensing notes one of Zaoui’s recurrent wordplays: the director of Security Intelligence Services is Richard Woods.
3. ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, from Collected Poems by WH Auden, ed. by Edward Mendelson (London: Faber and Faber, 1976, new edn 1991)


Emma Neale, Editor
March 2005




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