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.

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