Tuesday, September 16, 2014

SS Ventnor by Chris Tse

kawe mate

The departed       cargo            
thought doomed

to forgetful waters

instead finds its way
to open shores

         rescued by the people of the land.

te rerenga wairua

There is no reason to leave
the dead                 in such a state

the once-lost must find
their way upon             a bright line.

Death is the common ground       
when acknowledged with respect

gratitude           and the offering of joss.



And so the once-lost are salvaged
and laid to rest

among spiritual kin and tender ancestors

to be ghosts who only speak
              when spoken to

with no choice        in the path they are set upon. 

Chris Tse

This is a poem which draws you in by its grace and power.  Even if you were unfamiliar with the story of the SS Ventnor - a ship wrecked off the Hokianga coastline in 1902 while carrying the coffins of 499 Chinese men back home to their families - the themes of death, memory and redemption hit home.  Tse, as he does elsewhere in his debut collection How To Be Dead In A Year Of Snakes, exhibits an assured lightness of touch.  Thoughts drifting like his words come to rest delicately in corners of the mind. Like the bones they invoke, they are found by locals and taken home.

The dead men lost on the Ventnor - who rest to this day in the Hokianga - were not New Zealanders.  They were Chinese, coming to New Zealand to work in much the same mindset that modern fly-in fly-out workers have. They were here only to work and to bring fortune home to their families. They did not expect to die here. But given the harshness of their existence, many ran out of time, luck, money or all three. The Chinese believed strongly that if you were unable to make it home, you failed in your duty to your ancestors and your descendants.  Without a home and with no-one to feed your spirit, you were doomed to wander forever as a 'hungry ghost.'  Thus the Cheong Sing Tong Association was formed by surviving Chinese, to exhume and transport the bones of those who had died far away from family.  The SS Ventnor was the second such charter ship to depart for China.

Beginning each stanza with a Maori phrase, Tse weaves through the narrative of what happened next. After the Ventnor sank, all the coffins and the lives of 13 crewmen lost, some of the coffins floated ashore.  They were found by local Maori who recognised them as human remains and buried them in their own urupa (cemeteries). Kawe Mate refers to spiritual repatriation, the taking of memories and images home to family; te rerenga wairua is the place, at the very tip of Northland (Cape Reinga) where the spirits leap into the ocean, taking one last look back at the land they are leaving; karakia is prayer. In using these terms, Tse declares the universality of our cultural beliefs: "death is the common ground." To die is to be claimed by your loved ones. Without family, without a place to 'land', you might as well have never existed.  But Tse touches on notes of hope. Stranded in a foreign land, others can take the place of family.

With its evocation of family memory and duty, this poem frames the rest of the poems in Tse's collection, which are about the murder of Joe Kum Yung, a Chinese man gunned down in cold blood to prove a racist point.  Despite the heavy material, Tse's work is not without hope.  As he told me in this interview,
"The story is concerned with death and murder, but I didn't want to be trapped by or preoccupied with the heaviness that can come with that territory. I wanted to focus on Joe Kum Yung's search for light. It was important to me that the book carry a sense of hope, despite the life he had lived."

I remember the moment I first came across Chris' poetry online. I did a double take.  Chris Tse was the name of the first guy that I fell deeply and tragically in love with, and in four years of dating he'd never mentioned being a poet. After some frantic googling to ascertain that Chris Tse was not Chris Tse, I contacted him with the rather awkward message, "Hey, like your stuff. I used to date a guy with your name. Are you related?" 

Luckily, he was not, and we became good friends.  I've never teased him about being from Lower Hutt and he's always been polite about the fact I'm from Auckland. He's helped out with my plays (a friend who drags couches around Wellington in the middle of the night is a friend for life) and I've checked out his manuscripts.  I've always found his work exciting, an all-too-rare male Chinese Kiwi voice (although like me he hates being pigeonholed with a neat description like the one I've just used.)  I was stoked when I became one of the first people to receive a copy of his new book, which is launched next week - all invited.

How to be dead in a year of snakes

By Chris Tse

To be launched by Chris Price.
5:30 pm, Monday 22 September 2014
Vic Books, 1 Kelburn Parade, Kelburn, Wellington

This week's editor is Renee Liang.
Renee, a second-generation Chinese Kiwi, is a poet, playwright, paediatrician, medical researcher and fiction writer. She organises community arts events such as New Kiwi Women Write, a writing workshop series for migrant women in association with Auckland Council. She is a regular contributor to The Big Idea, a website linking NZ's arts community. Renee has been published in a number of journals and anthologies, has produced three chapbooks of poetry and has written, produced and toured three plays: Lantern, The Bone Feeder and The First Asian AB. She is currently working on Paper Boats, a play about the journeys of Chinese-Kiwi women. Website:www.chinglish-renee.blogspot.com.

When you've read 'SS Ventnor' please head into the sidebar to find a host of other wonderful poems by the thirty poets who are Tuesday Poets. They're poems either selected or written by them.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Southbank by Petra White



When the system crashes, and the screens,
and palm-hugged
beaches that saved them,
crinkle out
the office tilts like a ship.
Small murmurs
of surprise, voices like children
who’d been playing in the shade,
shocked by sunlight,
flurry and subside.
The thermostat
shudders its seasons
of freeze and sweat;
furry square windows
seal in the boredom (a little man,
I’ve begun to suspect,
tweaks the levels each hour).

The quiet settles, doing nothing
settles, the sister of work.

The mind rises from its bubble,
and eyes unscrew from their
mid-screen float.
You rise and walk down the hall
like someone freed:
the woman who comes early
to work late sits darkly in her glass
as if waiting for a traffic light
to change, or an eclipse
in which nothing
is remembered, to end.

Time with nothing to smother it
creeps up like a mist from the river
and cuddles the office friendships,
emails caught mid-send, the million strands
of life rich as Pompeii.
Three women whisper in the kitchen.
Somebody laughs, someone else
cracks his finger joints.
Nobody stands and declares
All this was a dream, well, thank you, I’m off now!
Why should they? Over there a man,
pacing in his pod, has a deadline
as real to him as his wife.

So it starts again, you slip back
to your chair, the hard-drives
rev up in chorus, their
engines mingling with the rise-again joy
of humans working
with our without-purpose:
happy if we remember
whatever ten minutes before
fulfilled and/or consumed us.


time into money
that flits through our hands
faster than a solitary wren, faster than time;
houses, children, cars, dogs –
the self’s empire of proof,
menagerie of power, I am here.
Our time sold not hired,
our names as simulacra
show us up in our absence
on semi-partitions, brass-plated.
We forget, like monks, and serve
an abstract we must
not care too much for.

A prison of light, it dissolves
in the mind as you fork
home through traffic,
each former workplace that had you once
a sketchy edifice of neon,
you can’t quite remember
what was I there?
Our little day is rounded with
a commute and a sleep
a spend and a keep.


I am pleased to announce that Wayne Loy
    joins the Networks &
Infrastructure Team to give cover
    until Jill returns
from maternity leave. Wayne reports
    to me alongside
Jill, April, and Tarquin Dobrowski
   (in Sydney). Many
of you know Wayne already in his
    contract capacity;
I’m sure you’ll agree that he’s proved both
    able and helpful.
I welcome him to the team and ask
    your patience while he
learns many facets of his new role.


Out there they are bombed-to-nothing,
filed to one-sidedness, starved,
ejected by outrageous floods,
earthquakes with no sense
of timing or propriety,
but often a preference
for children in rickety schools.
Ears press down to speaking debris.
Is work a ‘necessary evil’?
Office workers lose approximately
two hours daily
reading news websites, ebaying,
chewing up email, fending off
fidgety distracted colleagues, scoffing
pink and yellow cupcakes.


Following on from the death of Bob Smithson
last Monday, Smithson employees world-
wide have been escalating messages of
sympathy, prayers and condolences, all of which
are moving and on a global basis I thank you personally.

Aptly described by one employee as ‘an icon of integrity, leadership,
philanthropy and business acumen’, Bob Smithson will be
sadly missed. The family are currently progressing options
for a public honouring of Bob. A nine-minute webcast
of the funeral will stream to your inboxes on Thursday.


The receptionist
who chills everyone is suddenly
being terribly nice, baking cakes, everyone
is suspicious –


What privilege
to put on a suit, walk upright –
since childhood
shaping ourselves
to be in the world: flourish up and work,
as the parents, the toaster,
house not falling down,
the family itself spun whole by years
of making, desires tamed and made to flow
in single file.
Each day a threat
by human rage,
a mother in the garden
smashing the family pottery –
and Heidegger said
only when things break down do we begin to see.


The paramedics come into the cafe –
jaunty in their blue and red uniforms, their solid black
police boots. Two espresso, their phones on the table,
antennae like the half-listening ear of a dog, they
dangle from the emergency that hasn’t
yet happened, that is less than a hum in fine air, she
with bright auburn hair, laughing.
He sits back, arms folded, legs outstretched like a man
who has the whole morning newspaper before him.


Skill tugs at the muscles, drives
the bones, the mind keen,
the child perfecting her scales,
blocking the din.

The child understands the adults,
ignores them, thinks she is innocent,
making herself. She reads
the dictionary, the bible,
dinnerplates of language,
at school dwarfs herself
with long words.
Priggish, pigeon-toed,
she walks her book in the schoolyard, stalks
blind through netball.

The thing we work for (rarely
work for its own sake) vanishes;
work persists, then too is lost:
the black hole of energy burns
through hands and minds.

A heaven somewhere,
a palm tree, a beach, a child, an apartment,
the quiet hum of one’s power
of being that flexes around days,
carries futures, saying
world is made for me as I make it:
small enough to garden by hand, large
enough to outscope me,
for I must not lose surprise: this illusion
I with my labour can sustain.


Elevators dim-lit, dark-polished all day
by a woman from Bosnia, cheerful as Sisyphus,

who greets you with a suicidal smile, her trolley
of rank cleaning products makes her sneeze,

fills her eyes with red wires; she apologises, grins.
She scales her never-done job, a moonwalker

trailing her cargo through the semi-mirrored
obsidian tangle of offices, herself glowing back at her.

You ride up with her, pin-prick halogen lights,
mirrored walls you vanish into, she polishes.


Through a fifth-floor window you can watch
the new tallest building in Melbourne being built
one gold brick at a time.

The city sprawls
in late-mid-morning, the workers
housed inside their work: time
is everywhere engaged.

The office a portal,
point of stillness from which the world extends;
a kind of sublime.

On the seventh floor the company director
muses on his monthly
email to all staff.
Three slabs of sky behind him, he faces
the fourth wall.
The football season is upon us
and business too progresses . . .

I went to a reading of young poets (under 35) here in Melbourne at the
Wheeler Centre to celebrate the John Leonard Press book Young Poets 
An Australian Anthology. And I heard some excellent work. Of course 
I invested in the book too. And then I read more excellent work. I hope 
to get permission from some of the other poets to post their poems, but 
to begin with here is Petra White.

Petra White was born in Adelaide in 1975, and lives in Melbourne, where she works
in a government department and is studying for a Master of Public Policy and
Management. Her first book of poetry, The Incoming Tide, was shortlisted for the
Queensland Premier’s Prize and the ACT Poetry Prize.
The Simplified World was shortlisted for the 2011 Judith Wright Prize in the A.C.T
Awards; and was shortlisted also for the John Bray Prize in the 2011 Adelaide Festival
Awards for Literature. Her most recent book A Hunger, was published in August 2014.
The Simplified World also shared the annual Grace Leven Prize for Poetry for 2010
with two other books, Patience, Mutiny by L K Holt and Phantom Limb by David
Musgrave, all of them published by JLP. In the Prize’s distinguished sixty-four-year
history, this is the first time that three books have been honoured together.

Jennifer Compton is this week's editor. She blogs at stillcraic. Jennifer was born in 
Wellington, New Zealand, but now lives in Melbourne, Australia. Her book Now 
You Shall Know will be out soon with Five Islands Press.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

candle by Hinemoana Baker


By the time I reach the basket of rose petals
held by the young girl with the green sash
there are none left. Still, she holds
the basket out to me

like an air steward offering sweets
in the last fifteen minutes of the flight.
I breathe in the smoke
of myrrh from the censer
and breathe it out towards your photograph.

If this were a waltz it might go something like:
in space sound don’t travel and everyone floats
won’t somebody light my candles

It would be sung in the voice you sang in
when you sang Johnny Cash
and there would be a visual element, of course
a silent film of a free diver
frogging down from the sparkling surface
to the place where the very water
becomes the sinking anchor tied to your feet.


The stone with a muka rope
tied through a single chiseled hole
the one we’ll give a name to when it washes up
a thousand years later in the shape
of an island white with gulls.


We wrote words on pieces of paper and stuck them to our foreheads.
My mouth was on the plastic tap sticking out of the plastic bag.
Later I used my lips to free the sound of an insect from you.
I miss you (buzz). Pass me your lighter.

When I opened the door there was a cake on the front porch.
Someone had made patterns of waves in the off-white icing.
A single word in capital letters sang itself in chocolate.

Oh where is the cradle and where is the crime
Won’t somebody light my candles
There’s fire in the chapel and ice in the rhyme
Won’t somebody light my candles


Is it possible to perform this word? To own this word?
To kick this word once in the face and want to do it again?
Is it something one can acquire, like land or collectibles?

Oh yes, yes it is a veritable killer whale of a word
creamy and foamy in its black and white propensities
and its refusal to speak English.


I am trying to leave you behind, my love
I am trying to leave you behind

The boat was a mouth, the word was a whale,
the moon was a flying fish, the swoop of a letter.
I miss you, it’s like a cave in this mouth.
It’s a terrible saxophone solo.
It’s what passes for a lie down.


from ‘waha | mouth’, Victoria University Press, 2014, posted here with the permission of the author

editor: Mary McCallum

waha | mouth
Hinemoana Baker's collection, launched last month is already being reprinted. An astonishing fact for a book of poetry in this country. It must surely make her a bestselling poet which is so rare as to be almost an oxymoron. And this wonderful woman who lives on the New Zealand's Kapiti Coast is not just a poet on the page but a poet of the mouth – a wonderful reader of her work, and a singer, too. waha | mouth – perfect. 

'candle' is Hinemoana's favourite in the collection. I asked her to send me her favourite and this is the one that arrived in my inbox not long after midnight. I'd been remiss in not contacting her earlier and in not buying the book – what was I thinking? I waited too long and the first print run simply sold out. An exciting thing to happen, and a tribute to the wonders of this wonder woman. 

In this poem, 'candle', is a mouth: a mouth that is a boat, that hauls in or rides alongside words as big as whales, that has in its recesses a cave of grief for a former lover who's died. A mouth that – with this person still alive and breathing – did it all: breathed, sang, named things, drank wine from a plastic tap, had sex, ate cake, smoked. And now I guess, blows out a candle – or lights one? – and tries to rest. 

It's so hard to write the poem of grief or absence, to make it approachable and fresh, and not to push the reader too hard to feel the deep upwelling ugly thing. 'candle' is powerful for its restraint and its ranging unexpectedness. For its cavernous, versatile waha that does everything except cry. I am hanging out for the whole collection now. Find it here.

Hinemoana Baker
credit: hinemoana.co.nz
Hinemoana – she of the top hat – is the current writer in residence at Victoria University of Wellington's International Institute of Modern Letters. She publishes and performs, has released 5 CDs of her music and poetry,  edited an anthology and teaches creative writing. Hinemoana is descended from Ngāi Tahu in the South Island, and Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Ati Awa in the North. 

Her first book of poetry, mātuhi | needle, was co-published in New Zealand and the US in 2004. Actor, writer and artist Viggo Mortensen's publishing house Perceval Press co-published the book, which features paintings of Ngāi Tahu artist Jenny Rendell. Her second book of poems: kōiwi kōiwi | bone bone was published by VUP in 2010.

Hinemoana's first album, puāwai (Jayrem Records 2004) was a finalist for the NZ Music Awards and the APRA Silver Scrolls Māori Language Award. More on Hinemoana and her music and poetry publications here. And you can hear her singing ...

When you've read 'candle' please head into the sidebar to find a host of other wonderful poems by the thirty poets who are Tuesday Poets. They're poems either selected or written by them.

This week's editor Mary McCallum is a publisher with the new Wellington publishing house Mākaro Press which publishes poetry as part of its annual Hoopla series as well as individual titles. Mary is a poet herself, a novelist and children's writer. Her most recent book is 'Dappled Annie and the Tigrish' (Gecko Press 2014). 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Baobab Tree by Rachel Sawaya

You know he is there, standing
in a field, like all the others,
but he is not like them.
The children do not eat his leaves,
or sugar coat his pulpy fruit.
His trunk has not been stripped
by women hoping to calm
a fever. He cannot soothe you.
He can only hold you after
your last shred is torn away.

You were told anyone can visit him,
as long as they are respectful.
You let your blue bike fall into the furrows
and do not lean it on his girth.

You stand back and you can see
the knobbly places
where he might have grown
his freckled flesh over the bones
of young mothers,
dead in childbirth
or of dwarves,

to rest in the ground.

You step to the left.
A pale jumble is revealed
in his patulous maw. One sliver so tiny
it can only be an unborn finger.
Cradled, safe inside
his kind, woody womb.

Poem published with permission of  Rachel Sawaya
Editor: Andrew M. Bell

This poem won the Takahe 2012 Poetry Competition. The judge of that competition, Kerrin P. Sharpe, said of this poem: This is a sustained and mysterious poem which draws you into its mystery. I found myself being drawn into an African setting, perhaps along with others crowding round me, to witness the tree’s mysterious influence.”

I was immediately captivated by this poem when I read it in Takahe. Rachel paints a really vivid picture of this tree. I've never travelled to Africa, but these trees also grow in northern parts of Australia. For those readers unfamiliar with this tree, a magnificent example would look like this:

whereas the one described in this poem probably looks more like this:

or this perhaps:

You can interpret from the poem that this tree is special. It is venerable because of its age and it has attained a spiritual significance. This tree is not used like the others because of the power it emanates so, although it is not a pragmatic or utilitarian tree, "He can only hold you after your last shred is torn away."

For me the wonderful lines, "You let your blue bike fall into the furrows/and do not lean it on his girth" evoke the image of a child standing in wonderment and awe looking up at the tree.

I love the idea that this old tree is spreading and growing over the dead, reclaiming them into the natural world. And the tree, unlike humans, is not judgemental, but forgiving and it gives final resting place to "young mothers,/dead in childbirth/or of dwarves,/forbidden/to rest in the ground."

And I'm sure, poets being the word collectors that they are, like me, you will love the use of the word: "patulous".

Rachel's poem is so well-executed that like the child standing before the ancient baobab, I am in awe of its power and beauty.

Rachel has provided me with this short and very modest bio:

Rachel Sawaya is a New Zealand author and poet. She has won a few competitions and been published several times. She has a Masters of Creative Writing from Victoria University as well as sundry other degrees and diplomas. She tends to move around a lot. 

But I would like to add:

Rachel Sawaya won the Biggs Poetry Prize in 2011. She has been published in magazines such as Sport and Poetry New Zealand, and has self-published a YA novella under the pen name Joey Deleen.

This week's editor, Andrew M. Bell, writes poetry, short fiction, plays, screenplays and non-fiction. His work has been published and broadcast in New Zealand/Aotearoa, Australia, England, Israel and USA. His most recent publications are Aotearoa Sunrise, a short story collection, and Clawed Rains, a poetry collection. He is about to release his second poetry collection, Green Gecko Dreaming, before the end of this month.

Andrew lives in Christchurch and loves to surf. More of Andrew’s poetry can be found at Bigger Than Ben Hur. Or check out his website at: www.biggerthanbenhurproductions.com

Please take the time to read some of the other fabulous poems posted by the other Tuesday Poets in the sidebar to your left.