Wonder: Poets Laureate at the National Library, an event held in association with the exhibition Mīharo Wonder: 100 Years of the Alexander Turnbull Library on August 6th 2021

A flock? A laurel wreath? A vine? A stanza? A chapter? A library? What collective noun might best define an assembly of Poets Laureate? Such national figureheads of the art of poesy-making are generally considered rugged individualists to be prized for their distinctive poetic voices, for their various 'ways of saying', rather than their harmonious concord.

New Zealand has had twelve poet laureates since the Laureateship was established by prime mover John Buck of Te Mata Estate Vineyard in Hawke's Bay in 1996. The badge of office for each of Aotearoa's Poets Laureate is their own tokotoko. The matua tokotoko or 'parent' orator's talking stick is held at the National Library Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, which became kaitiaki or guardian of the Laureateship in 2007, with Peter Ireland acting as facilitator.

The attending Poets Laureate and friends in front of Cliff Whiting's 'Te Wehenga' mural. Back row L to R: Brian Turner, (Wendy Buck), Bill Manhire, Selina Tusitala Marsh, (Peter Ireland of the National Library), Jenny Bornholdt, (Jacob Scott), David Eggleton,  Front row L to R: (John Buck), Cilla McQueen, Ian Wedde, Elizabeth Smither, Vincent O’Sullivan. Photo Mark by Beatty.

All the tokotoko thus far have been carved and fashioned by master carver and artist Jacob Scott (Ngāti Raukawa, Te Arawa, Ngāti Kahungunu), in consultation with the poet. Each Laureate receives their tokotoko at Matahiwi marae near Havelock North in Hawke's Bay. In a way, then, these customised wooden talismans might serve to suggest a single 'poet-tree' growing out of the land.

The large audience being welcomed to the Poets Laureate event by Rachel Esson, the National Librarian Te Pouhuaki.
Photo by Mark Beatty.

And so a tree of singing birds, a lorikeet-like flurry of laureates convened at the National Library in Wellington on Friday August 6th to mark 25 years by raising their tokotoko in the air and shaking them together in unison, while reciting Hone Tuwhare's poem 'Reign rain' — or almost. Michele Leggott and C.K. Stead couldn't be there, but Selina Tusitala Marsh, Vincent O'Sullivan, Ian Wedde, Cilla McQueen, Brian Turner, Elizabeth Smither, Jenny Bornholdt and Bill Manhire, along with myself, took part in the evening's celebrations, which included poetry readings expertly conducted by Master of Ceremonies Gregory O'Brien in the acoustically-resonant auditorium.

The occasion was also distinguished by the launch of a poetry chapbook in a limited edition of 100, hand-crafted by master printer Brendan O'Brien of Fernbank Studio in Wellington. Throw net: Upena ho'olei — a suite of poems from Hawai'i consists of nine poems drafted by me in various notebooks when I held the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer's Residency at the University of Hawai'i in Honolulu towards the end of 2018. These recently completed texts are accompanied by woodblock prints produced by my brother Tonu Shane, an artist who formerly lived in Hawai'i and taught at Windward Community College in Honolulu, and who now lives near Mendocino on the coast of Northern California.

Cover of Throw net: Upena ho'olei — a suite of poems from Hawai'i

I am extremely gratefully to Brendan and his helpers for all his hard work and the time involved in putting this exquisite publication together, from the actual letter-press printing, to the hand-sewn binding, to the choices of ink colours and textures, to the careful sourcing of high-quality papers from various places. And I would like to thank the National Library for enabling this project to happen. Images are below.

All in all a lambent occasion, highlighting contemporary New Zealand poetry, and ending with libations of fine wine and a raise-your-glasses toast to the history and the future of the Laureateship, proposed and delivered with a Falstaffian flourish by wine-maker and legend John Buck.

Throw net: Upena ho'olei — a suite of poems from Hawai'i

Below are images of the poem Throw Net and the woodblock that accompanies it in the book Throw net: Upena ho'olei — a suite of poems from Hawai'i  hand-crafted by master printer Brendan O'Brien of Fernbank Studio in Wellington.
Image of the poem Throw Net printed by Brendan O'Brien.

Woodblock print that accompanies the poem Throw Net, produced by my brother Tonu Shane.

Poet Laureate’s Choice, August 2021 | Anne Kennedy

Poet Laureate’s choice, August 2021

The Poet Laureate's Choice, August 2021 is a portfolio sequence of new poems from poets chosen by the Poet Laureate. Today two new poems from Anne Kennedy.


Oh and once he cut his finger doing handstands
in the sand at Waimānalo. Some arsehole’s bottle,

still raw. I wasn’t there. Swim `ohana delivered him
to the door, his young blood pumping into a towel.

Next we’re all at ER in a delegation. Anaesthetic
doesn’t work. Because redhead, they say, and stitch him

anyway, and try distract - Ah you ginga! Later a surgeon,
calm as the Buddha, sews his nerve, the width of a hair.

A year of therapy, a brace, a box of tumbling wheat
teaching the finger not to curl, and no over-extend either.

At the very end he says, When I first did it, Mum, it was
so sore! My heart still thumps at his pain on the beach. 

Now down in Auckland working in a bar, he makes
cocktails so so fast, like a blur, in a frosted glass.

Anne Kennedy

Big in the Landscape

First you were small. Small was an adorable stage.
Your little body and the little space it took up.

But the bones and skin grew bigger.
Bones and skin expanded until they were big.
The blood and muscle, the sinews.

You got big in the landscape.

We are big in the landscape.


Then our memories got bigger.
They started off small like our bodies.
That was actually an adorable stage.

But memories of where we had been, what we had done,
they gathered and swelled and attached
and kept gathering and swelling and attaching.
They grew bigger than our bodies.

Memories are us. They are enormous.
They are big in the landscape.

We are big in the landscape.


You remember the school.
You got so big that the primary school looked wee. We are so big the primary school looks
wee. We say to each other, Oh my, the school has shrunk!

We are big in the playground.

We are big in the landscape.


You remember a holiday.

The motorway exploded behind us. We were big in the back of the car. We walked on a
glacier. It was big and we were dots on the landscape. Now the glacier looks wee. We say to
each other, The glacier has shrunk.

We were big on the motorway, we were big in the car, we were big on the glacier.

We are big in the landscape.


You moved from the place your little body had been, and from the place where your little
memories had been. You went on a plane and exhaust blasted into the sky. You were
plastered against your seat. You saw new things. You went back and forth and back and forth
from the new place to the old place.

You were big in the sky, you were big in your seat, you were big in the new place, you were
big going back and forth and back and forth from the new place to the old place.

We are big in the landscape.


There were trips to the mall. You drove to the mall. You bought things at the mall. T-shirts, children’s plastic shoes, synthetic duvet inners. You say, Look what I bought.

You were big in the mall, you were big in the car, you were big in the T-shirt, the children
were big in their plastic shoes, we were big under our duvets.

We are big in the landscape.


There were work trips. You went on a plane and exhaust blasted into the sky. You were
plastered against your seat. You flew up and down and up and down. You thought about new
ideas. You say, Look what I thought.

You were big on the plane, you were big in your seat, you were big flying up and down and
up and down, you were big thinking about new ideas.

We are big in the landscape.


There was a move to another country. We went on a plane and exhaust blasted into the sky.
We were plastered against our seat. We saw new things. We met new people. We went back
and forth and back and forth from the new place to the old place. We said, The new place!

We were big in the sky, we were big in our seat, we were big seeing new things, we were big
meeting new people, we were big going back and forth and back and forth from the new
place to the old place.

We are big in the landscape.


You put out the wheelie bin of recycling. The plastics, the cans, the cardboard and the glass,
they jostle like Christmas. You are full of joy.

You are big with the wheelie bin, you are big with the plastics, the cans, the cardboard and
the glass, the way they jostle like Christmas, you are big with joy.

We are big in the landscape.


There are books about climate change that you read sitting on the couch. You quote bits from
the books to your loved ones. You are so interested in books about climate change.

You are big reading books about climate change, you are big quoting bits from books on
climate change to your loved ones, you are big feeling so interested in books about climate

We are big in the landscape.


There were the hurricanes on the other side of the world. We were an audience to the
hurricanes. There was the orange sky from Australian bush fires that January day. We were
entertained by the hurricanes. We watched the marvel of the orange sky. We said to each
other, Oh my, look at the sky!

We were big on the internet, we were big on the radio, we were big on the TV, we were big
hearing about the hurricanes on the other side of the world, we were big looking at the orange
sky in January, we were big talking to each other about the orange sky.

We are big in the landscape.


We love our bodies. We love our memories. Our memories are enormous. Memories are us.


But the thing is the thing.

We think we are big in the landscape and so we are big in the landscape.

You know why the glacier is wee. Because it has melted.
You are not big you are small.
Our memories are not big they are invisible.

We are at an adorable stage.

Anne Kennedy

Anne Kennedy biography

Anne Kennedy is an Auckland poet, fiction writer, screenplay editor and teacher. Recent books are the poetry collection Moth Hour (AUP) and the novel The Ice Shelf (VUP). Awards and fellowships include the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry and the IIML Writers' Residency. Her new poetry collection The Sea Walks into a Wall is forthcoming from Auckland University Press in October. 

Anne Kennedy. Image by Robert Cross. 

Poet Laureate’s Choice, August 2021 | Paula Green

Poet Laureate’s choice, August 2021

The Poet Laureate's Choice, August 2021 is a portfolio sequence of new poems from poets chosen by the Poet Laureate. Today three new poems from Paula Green.

The moon

I could tell you about the moon bloated bright

in the midnight sky or the ribbon of white

clouds sending messages above the harbour and hills


but I stall on the slave-trade image and cheap

throw-away products and the way Māori

are still let down systematically and I stall

on the piercing wail of men and women

in India whose loved ones are dying listening

with heart freeze to that pitch of helpless

despair on India’s front line


I could tell you how I crouch on the damp

grass at midnight and hold out my palms

to cup moonlight and hope, so I can sleep

So I can sleep and sleep and sleep

Paula Green



She is building something with large Lego blocks

perhaps a bed she sits on top placing

one block above the other the light

is dim and then darkness crashes down

on her and she realises each block

is full of toxic things and

if she moves an inch in the pitch

black she will die.


She is trying to find the parking area

at Countdown but she feels like she

is in a Gabriel García Márquez novel

where nothing is at it seems and

the parking area is hard to pin

down. She leaves the car and buys

green tea with ginger and kawakawa

leaves but for the love of life

she cannot find her car no matter

which Byzantine maze she follows.


She finds herself in a room with young

men with long hair playing guitars

on embroidered cushions and then in a room

full of bouquets of irises and people reading

poems out loud all at the same time and

on the wayward steps outside she bumps

into Anna Jackson who also can’t find

her parking space.


The panic rises because they don’t know how

to get out of the surreal script let alone

the Countdown maze so they find

a yellow bench by a wide window

shut their eyes and wait.

— Paula Green


in the hand that holds the scratching pen

in the earth that holds the sprawling pumpkin


in the water that holds the body in pain

in the pot that holds the lentil soup simmering


in the arms that hold the daughters breathing

in the stone that holds the midday sun


in the shoulders that hold a world that’s suffering

in the road that holds the long way home

— Paula Green

Paula Green biography

Paula Green is a poet, anthologist, blogger and children’s author. She has published fifteen books, including five for children, and runs two blogs Poetry Box and Poetry Shelf. In 2017 she received The Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry, and was made a Member of the NZ Order of Merit for Services to Poetry and Literature. In 2019 she published three books: Groovy Fish and Other PoemsThe Track and Wild Honey: Reading NZ Women’s Poetry (shortlisted for Ockham New Zealand Book Awards).

Paula Green. Photo by Michael Hight.

Poet Laureate’s Choice, August 2021 | Reihana Robinson

Poet Laureate’s choice, August 2021

The Poet Laureate's Choice, August 2021 is a portfolio sequence of new poems from poets chosen by the Poet Laureate. Today three new poems from Reihana Robinson.

use both arms to hold on use your legs to kick *

I am this intuition tradition to the core, I am the sunshine in the song, the intimate
equation, the unfurled sheets, the jealous grace the concentration pure

I am your lifeboat slowly paddling to shore, come dance with me and find your nook, our
time is short and sweet, out here on the mantle we yearn for the core

our toes are sizzling atop the volcano, our lips demand more, each one of us clean, each
born into air, wanting, desiring more year after year and now I am impatient

and am I not an immigrant?

no ship will come, no spirit of vengeance, no rolling back the boulder, no incarnation,
voodoo, no jab to quell each prayer left in disarray, disenfranchise is a word

like flag and flagellate, a stone, a sound, a treatise from life to love to hate, sacrifice is
just a word supposed to bring men to heel, snap march click shoot, parade heroes leave

leave lovers, leave mothers, march to some drum,
yet only machines grind a universal language and the trees remain silent, their growing
unheeded, their bark un-embraced, leaves

coming and going

leaving no trace of what could be possible, were a pathway to be cleared, a radical
departure, a free belvedere propped up in a
clearing, push over bleak nullity stand up and rejoice

the war’s over, the war’s over, the war is over


* Use both arms to hold on use your legs to kick
During 2016 refugees became headline news in the ‘west’ as if these were the first refugees. The survival of those living in refugee camps for generations, amid extreme deprivation, is rarely in the news but suddenly the desperate sea journeys are news and this made me think about how we all desire belonging— somewhere, anywhere, without war. The title is a parent’s cry to their child as they hit the sea.

— Reihana Robinson

Who is not an immigrant?

I am an immigrant, an error of history, a spilled mystery
I span the globe, just like you and you and you, immigrants
with fingerprints and I too pay for floor length curtains

you step aside as if bearing the tide your resentment a storm cloud
your gaze like a razor stripping skin in long strips your nails
dig in, more claws than grips, your hatred is solid it weighs on your

soul, it is too big to handle and deep as a hole
you are definitely going to require employees
you are on the wrong side, could be saving the bees

how fast your glee grew, it cant be genetics or maybe
scientists tweaked genes yet I cant quite pity you
so you stand alone man, on your island of plenty, barely

breathing and wrath leaves you seething—are you listening?
the skin on your nipples, ripple desire oh yeah, turns your belly
to fire, you could light up a town or a city

and give back some joy, some laughter, oh boy
turn your glance turn handsome
turn your glance free


Who is not an immigrant?
In catharsis lies hope, where a realization of futility hits the prideful ambitious, not as punishment but as self-revelation. And how the creation of humans may well have been an aberration in the inventory of the galactic list of things to do. It leaves a skerrick to the imagination to allow something bold and beautiful yet to come. It is, to quote Peter Balakian’s August Diary, “the longing for the native place/between two selves” before the lid closes.

— Reihana Robinson

Ding dong bell oh Maui Maui Maui

Like the boy who put Pussy in the well
the demi-god is chastened for his misdeeds
Mista Sun is livid when he finds
his journey interrupted

Little humans had had to run
so the old ones say, Mista
Sun was moving too damn fast
they were worn out

But hey they weren’t obese
not diabetic
no time to beat
up their babies … wanted to make time for loving

so from a few perspectives they were
going along okay, perhaps a little sleep deprived
and we do know how that can screw you
take a look at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, lads

frequent flyer-ed from cell to interview
chamber, no sleep at all and so many secrets
but back in the day when the day is not so long
wahine knot a net to catch the Mista

to bargain with Mista to bring some ideas
to the table—negotiate, placate, ruminate
collective bargaining if you consider
the many elements

I mean who would seriously argue
with an eruptive prominence?
To escape captivity Mista slows right down
and for this bright light idea (one of

those eureka moments) the demi-god
is revered—Maui is the one who tosses the net
and let’s not forget
he did not weave the net but taught

the art and so it is the women who cut
their hair weaving a magical sieve
Mista Sun gets the idea and over time
the days and nights feel right until

little humans prolong the day
light candles, lamps, power up screens
decay the mauri once embraced
flickering light like a tanning machine

closest thing to a campfire
that being a fond memory
something their tīpuna used to light

— Reihana Robinson

Reihana Robinson biography

Following a career in teaching and art education in Wellington, Reihana Robinson threw it all away for a life of homesteading, writing, art and environmental research, and living off grid in the Coromandel.

She was the inaugural recipient of the Te Atairangikaahu Poetry Award and was selected for AUP’s New Poets 3 in 2008.

Reihana has held artist residencies at the East West Center in Hawaii and at the Anderson Center, Minnesota.

Reihana's published poetry books are Aue Rona (Steele Roberts, 2012), a reimagining of the Māori myth of Rona and the moon; and Her Limitless Her (Mākaro Press, 2018). She is also author of The Killing Nation, New Zealand’s State-Sponsored Addiction to Poison 1080 (Off  the Common Books, 2017).

Reihana Robinson. Photo by Ahuwhenua.

Poet Laureate’s Choice, August 2021 | Michael Steven

Poet Laureate’s choice, August 2021

The Poet Laureate's Choice, August 2021 is a portfolio sequence of new poems from poets chosen by the Poet Laureate. Today a new poem from Michael Steven.

Intercity Bus Elegies



When I left your yard to bus north again
strange portents gathered in the sky.

Westward the setting sun turned
clouds into curlicues of orange flame.

Tweakers and glue sniffers combed
the terminal for coins, cigarette butts.

Backpacking Mormon foot soldiers
with pressed shirts and bryl-slick haircuts

waited on rides out to the provinces.
I envied for a moment the rigor

of their faith; its unerring certitude.
Dusk was copper and rippled with static.

I wanted beyond my limits to believe.
Strange portents were hanging in the sky




Summer taught the changing world’s vernacular.
January brought us a Sunday afternoon

darkened at three by the inconsolable
drift of bushes burning across the Tasman.
Nightly the news reports chilled us.
We watched corporate drones in real time

murk Iran’s top general near Baghdad.
An endgame seemed inevitable.

We found new words for hopeless.
February’s humid lassitude

delivered death and car crashes.
We waited through summer’s sleepless

soupy heat, keyed-in to panic,
for the empty stasis of tomorrow.




It was the hour of news speak algorithms.
Our hectic world emptied, inverted.

Planes grounded behind closed borders.
The people wailed partisan folk songs

from their balcony prisons while coffins
heaped up in Bergamo and Madrid.

Rings of satellites orbiting the stratosphere
beamed back down granular images

of trenches furrowed behind mosques.
In Brooklyn’s empty parking spaces

forklifts filled makeshift mortuaries.
Without marker the dead put to their rest

became black pixels, memorial smudges.
Night after night the news reports chilled us.




Past Norton Road’s jaundiced factories,
corroding foundries and scrap yards

walks a man with outstretched arms.
His palms are facing upwards,

aiming a supplication at heaven.
God updates his image for the times.

He will come to us in teal scrubs,
rubber sneakers and a surgical mask

caroling his ventilator gospels
from a kingdom of disinfectant clouds.

Traffic stalls to brake light haze.
Drivers download the day’s ending.

A stray dog shits beneath a lamppost.
The path the man walks on is a motorway.




From the new truck stop near Taupiri
late capitalism’s gleaming coronas

downsize the night’s first stars.
Back draft from passing freighters

shakes the bus cab and chassis.
In every seat: an islanded traveller’s

myopic face made lunar by screen glow.
Next to me a woman from Holland

swiping through her Kindle novel
mutters about the gone world.

Mallards crest an arc over the urupã.
Seaward the dark river slithers¾

eerily, unmediated and succinctly,
light sliding off its black liquid scales.




On every bus there rides a lay evangelist.
Tonight’s tweaker preacher clambers

along the aisle clutching at seats,
laying down his vision of original sin.

Pupils sprung from firing points of meth
he yammers louder than a rock drill

spitting parables at anyone who’ll listen—
“Does hate have a home in your heart?”

He spooks a couple of young backpackers—
“If it does, the Devil’s got your papers.”

The driver yells at him to sit back down.
He goes on raving in the darkness—

“My god has no name other than God.
The Devil’s got papers on every one of us.”




Above the racetrack at Hampton Downs
the sky discharges like a giant capacitor.

Fork lightning letters the space in between
with a jump cut of twenty-five years

back to night school, at Manukau Polytechnic.
We’re dropouts, baby dopers and drinkers.

The tutor, a former navy drill sergeant,
blasts us again with variants of Ohm’s law.

I‘m wedged between them in the front row:
the boy whose heart will blow out on speed,

the boy whose life will end as a flashpoint
between the terminals of an 11kv transformer—

ignorant and blazed while the tutor barks on
about fault currents finding the short path to earth.

Michael Steven

Michael Steven biography

Michael Steven was born in 1977. He is the author of numerous poetry chapbooks, as well as the acclaimed collections Walking to Jutland Street (2018) and The Lifers (2020), both published by Otago University Press. In 2018 he was awarded the Todd New Writer’s Bursary. Recent writing appears in Kete, Photoforum, Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2021 and Ōrongohau|Best New Zealand Poems. He lives in Tāmaki Makaurau.

Michael Steven. Photo by Michael Steven.

Poet Laureate’s Choice, August 2021 | Emma Neale

Poet Laureate’s choice, August 2021

The Poet Laureate's Choice, August 2021 is a portfolio sequence of new poems from poets chosen by the Poet Laureate. Today three new poems from Emma Neale.

The pearl in the bone

I placed my father’s skull

inside a lacquered wooden case

carved with closed lips, set with eyes

the swirling blue of gasoline on rain.

I hid the box in a crack in the rocks

as far from the seas as I could climb

then twined a wreath of common weeds –

broom, heather, thistles gone to seed –

as if to appease the small starved gods

whose hooked yellow teeth might want to notch

the clam-white bone that once locked safe

around the soft flesh pearl of him.


When the dawn fell open like a bourbon rose,

I wept afresh, for how heavy a head of care

can hang on the stem of a neck,

for how everything we strive to secure and perfect

thins like an old man’s hair silver as starlight

swallowed by time’s jade and gelid waters.

Emma Neale


We saw a tiny funeral on our walk today —
someone had taken such small care —
bumble bee on its side, striped scythe,
its buzz cut, furled like a black and yellow end-quote,
no more drum of hum quoth the bee

and beneath it someone had placed
a four-daisy bouquet
three white flowers, plus one pink-tipped,
all arranged like a witch’s broom for afterlife flight:
a funerary object to stow in a sarcophagus
the way the Egyptians packed combs, pots,
palettes for malachite eye-shadow.

I almost called her Sister Icarus
yet someone did feel the sting of this loss
though they, too, were just walking dully along;
and although they left her out
on the pavement’s lichened altar
as a banquet for wasps and ants
it’s still possible the birds
could discover her first
metabolize her licorice and butter lines
into patterned bars of song
to blast like hope from the radios
of the trees’ Spotify green.

— Emma Neale

Like girls were hot soft scones

For Emer Lyons

At Sunday School, I always felt bad for Adam
God taking away his rib like that
the hurt must have been worse
than the time I dislocated my toes,
when Dad wrenched their weird new burning hooks
back into their sockets again; though even that agony
meant zilch when I tripped and truly broke
the same two toes only moments later —
what great pain could come from such small things!

So imagine Adam, lying there, clay-dust-tan,
like a man buried to his neck in beach sand,
only he was the sand, a Sandman waking
out of God’s dream of having someone to show His tricks to:
then, poor man, having a deep part of him removed
as if now God thought cutting a live body
was just a children’s game of Operation —
how could you do that to someone you loved,
even to give them company? Would I have given a rib
to help make Jeffrey, or Darryl? The boys down the road
who after school walked me home, invited me to tinker
with off-cuts, nails, coping-saws, make swords
like wonky crosses, any misfire with a hammer
that blued a thumb enough to make all three of us cry?

Well, would I?
The questions the Bible raised,
they ached as if girls were hot, soft scones
and Sunday School teachers the glinting blades
avid to fillet us, spread blame like seed-pitted jam
gritty and sticky on our skins — but why feel responsible
for what Adam had lost, what Eve had done?

If I took a pinch from a Play-Doh man
to make a Play-Doh woman
they smelled, tasted, squashed back down the same.
Weren’t they both just clay? Tangy, salty, equal clay?
If Eve was cursed to have her sorrow multiplied,
always to be dissatisfied, did the rope of not fair
that coiled my throat mean God was one big long
nyah-nyah, told you so?

I hadn’t stolen the apple, neither had my mum.
Nor my baby sister, nor any of the girls at school,
not even the ones in lace-topped socks I was jealous of.
God was overreacting. He needed to be sent outside,
put on his own back doorstep, so he could see
the orange comets of money spiders
shoot across the concrete in their busy-work,
ladybirds lift their red ponchos to show black satin,
moths dock the tiny white yachts of themselves
in the quiet green bay of a leaf — so He could, from that place,
like the kitchen radio sang, look down on Creation
feel his rage dissipate into the sunny butter-melt of calm,
still the closest thing to heaven we have found.

— Emma Neale

Emma Neale biography

Emma Neale’s most recent novel, Billy Bird, published in 2016 by Vintage, Penguin Random NZ, was short-listed for the Acorn Prize at the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and long-listed for the 2018 Dublin International Literary Award.

Emma, who is the author of six poetry collections, received the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution to New Zealand Poetry 2020. From November 2017 to May 2021, Emma edited Landfall Review Online and Landfall. Her first collection of short stories, The Pink Jumpsuit, is due out from Quentin Wilson Publishing in 2021. She lives in Ōtepoti/Dunedin, where she works as an editor.

Emma Neale. Photo Caroline Davies.

Poet Laureate’s Choice, August 2021 | Gregory O’Brien

Poet Laureate’s choice, August 2021

The Poet Laureate's Choice, August 2021 is a portfolio sequence of new poems from poets chosen by the Poet Laureate. Today three new poems from Gregory O’Brien. 


It comes back to you. At the School
for the Deaf, the waltzing class,
           a balloon placed between each couple

to maintain appropriate
      distance. ‘You were that much taller
and then some.’ This afternoon’s

balloon replaced with a flutter
      of hands, as if gathering altitude, as if
                   ‘I could fall from

the height of you’. It comes back
      as a vocabulary or untethering,
            for every outward breath, a breath

breathed in. The space between us that once
         might have whispered ‘I am listening’ or
                ‘I can see you
                                      through the red balloon.’

Gregory O’Brien

Styx, Central Otago, late summer

As it happens over fellfield and peneplain
          as if
     raining. On weedle and wedge
and Mr Haye’s lone metal arm
               as if snowing.

Over blue tussock and somnambulant
               the sun gone
     from bough to bulb and
everything between
     a cricket ball bowled

not particularly well
at nothing
     in particular.

Gregory O’Brien

The Spaniards of Italian Creek

(Speargrass above Lake Dunstan, Central Otago, Aotearoa/New Zealand)

Urchins of this raised
undersea, at once
ocean-bedded and blue sky’d,

your foreign accent
we forgive you,
your barbed inflorescence

upon which our wits too
are sharpened. In this
the gleaming hour or

golden age of
such things, the water race
that runneth under

low land and lupin, spear-
grass and shotgun shell,
chattering, as if to say

we were expecting you
mid-morning, clad in
edelweiss, spinescent.

Blue bells and coral
lichen make up your bed,
the coolest of linens upon which

this armada sails, these
syllables worn and pressed,
sea-eggs of the stratosphere
     in snow’s pocket.

Gregory O’Brien

Gregory O’Brien biography

Gregory O’Brien is a Wellington-based poet, art-writer, curator and artist. He has curated major exhibitions by a number of artists, including Fiona Hall, Rosalie Gascoigne, Noel McKenna, Jo Braithwaite and Euan Macleod. His recent books include Always song in the water — an oceanic sketchbook (Auckland University Press 2019) and a collection of poems, Whale Years (AUP 2015). In 2019, he exhibited paintings, made in collaboration with Euan Macleod, at Watters Gallery, Sydney. Early in 2022, Auckland University Press is publishing a collection of his poems and paintings, House and Contents, and, in September 2022, his extensive monograph on painter Don Binney.

Gregory O’Brien. Photo Bruce Foster