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’. 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
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
He glares at me again. His face a grimace. ‘Don’t worry,’
‘we will prepare you a coffin and a shroud.’
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
‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, WH Auden once wrote; yet
he then continued ‘it survives/ In the valley of its making’.
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
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