Every morning for a whole year a blackbird sat on the wire outside my attic room in Tainui Terrace, Wellington and tumbled out a scrabble of notes. Every day the song was different.
I should have been like the composer Messiaen. I should have recorded the bird, at least for a week or two, but sadly I was too lazy, too inexpert, too otherwise bothered, and I didn’t, so the opportunity was lost. Imagine it, every day a different tumble of knots and bobbles and curlicues and whistles and dots and streamers and points-verguiles, the punctuation turning into French in the soft lemony light that glows (on a fine day) at 5.00am behind the trees on the hillock that’s somehow been named Mt Victoria.
Sometimes I thought I heard, very faintly, another blackbird, way down in Aro Valley. Who knows what the birds were saying - ‘I am so happy to be alive’ perhaps, or ‘get outa my face why don’t you’ or ‘ hi honey, how ‘bout we meet up in Brooklyn?’Whatever, I found myself listening more and more intently, trying to pick up and remember the differences in each day’s notation. The pattern of sounds dug deep into my memory. Things were stirred up there, things to do with mystery, the interconnectedness of things and the possibility of untranslatable meaning, all lying just below the surface of the familiar, the ordinary.
In other words, I was beginning to read the birdsong as poetry.
I joked when people asked me what it was like to be the editor of Best (published) New Zealand Poems 2011. It’s the best way to lose friends, I said. I quite like danger, I said. I like having power and I like working alone. It saved me from Christmas.
The truth of the matter is that I felt honoured to be invited to do this work. Furthermore, I have enjoyed marvellous company during the editing process: the poems themselves that arrived in published books, in literary magazines, on paper, online and by email; and the charming notes and greetings that accompanied them. It’s been a great pleasure being in touch with so many of the poets (the majority surely) who had work in print during the past year. I’ve really appreciated their work and their good wishes. I also want to thank all the editors who, often at their own expense, support poetry and make sure that it’s available to a wide audience. Theirs is essential and heroic work.
Among the vast number of poems I have read and re-read over many months, twenty-five have become for me ‘The Crown of Good Company’. I’ve taken this expression from a traditional Irish wedding song my daughter had me read at her wedding in Christchurch in November last year. There was no earthquake on the day, no wind and no rain, so there we were, all counting our blessings. ‘You are the Crown of Good Company’ – this was the final line in the wedding song, surely a most gorgeous expression of love and devotion. The words and their structuring are simple. The metaphor is evocative and visual, there’s elegance and wit and intensity and surprise in the line’s making. It offers a kind of embrace that reaches out way beyond the individual, the singular.
In other words it has the many of the qualities that I admire and am drawn to in a poem.
There is, however, one more element in poetry that I find irresistible. It’s a capacity for unsettlement. The thing in a poem that works against the expected, against dogma and rhetoric and convention, against an all too knowing presence. It’s something shy and uncertain and stubborn and lovely. It can be challenging, it can be shocking. It knows how to insinuate itself within the body of a poem as silently and cunningly as a cat in a forbidden bedroom.
Major events have shaken Aotearoa New Zealand in recent times and it was wonderful to see how strong the voice of poetry was in response. The tragedies of the Pike River mine collapse and the Christchurch earthquakes are here, held in words that have been allowed to ferment and flow, as it were, through the psyche, the body and the creative intelligence of the poet. We recognise what is specific in these poems even as we experience their universality.
There’s a potential in poetry for shape-changing, for fluidity and flow in and out of matter and substance and imagination, which I guess owes much to the power of metaphor. The way one thing can inhabit another. I’ll call it ‘slippage’. So, when it comes to the poems of catastrophe, there’s slippage between the darkness of the mine and the blindness of the poet who must rely on her seeing-eye dog, Olive. There’s slippage between body and soul in the mayhem of Wairua Rd, a kind of transmigration that sets everything whirling. The present slips into a long historical view as ‘disdain’ and a stoical ‘indifference’, as stubborn as that of the Emperor Nero’s one time friend and tutor, offer neither safety not comfort in the presence of earthquakes. Nor do the beautiful things we have made, the houses and the gardens.
There’s the slippage that takes us back to the terrors of childhood and the tendernesses too. No wonder there’s anxiety, after all this is the 21st century, but in many of these poems there’s a gutsy hilarity too. There’s slippage between human and non-human. Interesting, now that modern technology is giving us more and more information about the languages of the non-human. And perhaps there’s something too from the current interest in quantum theory, the way elements in creation can now be seen through scientific investigation to be engaged in conversation with each other and with the whole. We are introduced to entrepreneurial ‘gators and gentle cows and emotionally mature sheep and a delightful slender-ankled kune kune. They all seem very steady in their own lives.
There’s the kind of slippage that occurs between the poet and the poem, when they’re trying to sort each other out. So we have the satirical stance, the piratical stance and even the agricultural one as writers, in the absence of a Classical muse, try to find out just what it is that they, as poets, are up to. There’s the wise humour that arises when a word is looked at squinty ( as in ‘stares’ where you might expect stairs) or when pressure is applied to a word as in the case of the builder’s ‘bolt’. There are inhabited narratives where voices slip in and out of hearing. There’s slippage in human communication as it moves through a variety of registers– legal, surreal, colloquial. There are even the flailing attempts of an English speaking computer to translate Māori –which oddly enough seems to point towards some small illumination, or is it highlighting the lack of one.
I didn’t set out to fashion an anthology, I had no programme in mind as I worked through the poems published in 2011. I took each one as it grabbed me. It was as exciting for me as for a new reader to see what happened when they all sat down at the table together. In all this movement and curiosity and daring and open heartedness, there’s a freshness that says to me that all is bubbling away quite healthily in New Zealand poetry. We have much to be proud of in our own unique and essential version of birdsong.