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Remember Me: Poems to Learn by Heart from Aotearoa New Zealand
ed. Anne Kennedy

A 'generous, wide-ranging, and often fresh and dynamic' poetry anthology.

By October 18, 2023April 9th, 2024No Comments

Though I’ve been attempting poetry since I found out what it was, I’ve very rarely tried to memorise poems. When I was in Year 7, my class was tasked with reciting, by heart, a new poem each week, chosen from a list resembling the poetry version of a stock photo bank. I still remember rattling off my first selection at a rigid pace, facing the rest of Room 20 in the rank foot-smell of a Friday afternoon: ‘Cats sleep anywhere – any table, any chair.’

Nobody really enjoyed this recitation task, partly because we were eleven, tired, and restless, and partly because the poems were utilitarian and awful. We complied not out of keenness but because we feared our teacher. I think it was comforting, though, to repeat something until we got it right, more satisfying still to become so familiar with something we could say it with our eyes closed. On the rare occasion I attempt to memorise a poem these days, I’m reminded of Room 20, and I feel, in a good way, very small again.

There are plenty of books of poems curated with the goal of encouraging their readers to learn them by memory, all with vaguely similar titles: Poetry by Heart (edited by Andrew Motion) and By Heart (edited by Ted Hughes) are just two of them. The newest addition to this genre is Auckland University Press’s Remember Me, edited by Anne Kennedy alongside Robert Sullivan, consulting editor te reo Māori, and comprising poems exclusively by Aotearoa poets.

As Kennedy notes in her introduction, the selections of Motion and Hughes are, unsurprisingly, selections of mostly English and American poetry that have already been etched into the canon, and selections in which no Pacific poetry features. Kennedy’s selection, though it only draws from one country, is generous, wide-ranging, and often fresh and dynamic ­– a rarity for an anthology of this kind. That’s probably in part because Kennedy has chosen more than 200 poems, a great deal of which are by living poets. The goal here is less to honour a fixed canon, more to demonstrate that our literary tradition is still fluid, developing its form, and growing and growing.

In Kennedy’s introduction, she writes that the poems that don’t tend to translate to recitation are ones that are ‘autobiographical, that assume a persona.’ Indeed, her selections tend to favour poets’ softer, more abstract work over their more incisive, textured, and arguably stronger stuff. Sue Wootton, for example, is represented here by two very brief pieces that feel almost like aphorisms. They’re lovely, but I’d argue Wootton’s more rhythmically charged ‘Countdown’ or her assonant, affirming ‘As it is on Earth’, though longer, are more satisfying to speak and to hear, in part because of their specificity.

Memorising and reciting any poem involves putting on someone else’s persona, so why not let that persona be a fully fleshed-out, precisely articulated one? In what might be an attempt to make as many of these poems feel as universal as possible, sometimes weaker selections have been made where stunning ones seem to have been overlooked. Fortunately, the anthology isn’t overwhelmed by gentle poems. It’s spiked with sharpness, as in Tusiata Avia’s uniquely voiced, harsh-tender ‘Ode to da life’:

An also Jesus — I not forget Jesus
He’s say to us Now you can
Do anyfing you like
Have da boyfrien, drink da beer
Anyfing, even in front of your fadda
An never get da hiding
Jus happy an laughing every time.

And it meanders into the uncertain, like Erik Kennedy’s refreshingly slippery ‘There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime’:

Wait, am I thinking of the internet?
Oh, maybe not, but what I’m thinking of
is desperate and very, very like it.
I have in mind new forms of intimacy
that sadly elude me and huddle with
the young.

While the choice to order the poems within each section alphabetically by their poets’ surnames means the anthology sometimes misses the chance to make interesting pacing decisions, other times the alphabet imposes a serendipitous pace of its own, as when essa may ranapiri’s brief, seething ‘Have you gone out at night in your favourite dress and then felt like shit?’ follows Kiri Piahana Wong’s patient, soothing ‘This is It’.

I found myself questioning, at times, the choice of several poems by the same poet. The urge to showcase a poet’s tonal shifts is understandable, but that variety is something the poets can offer to each other. Do we need five James K. Baxter poems – and if there’s room for five Baxters or Sam Hunts or Robert Sullivans, isn’t there also room for more than one by Tayi Tibble? Tibble’s ‘Karakia 4 a Humble Skux’ is one of the more obviously memorisable selections. It’s resplendently repetitive, each line echoing itself immediately, stubbornly, edifyingly – a poem that has especial power learnt and spoken aloud.

I take a bath in my body of water
I take a bath in my body of water

I know I am the daughter of rangi papa tangaroa
I know I am the daughter of rangi papa tangaroa

& every yung god who fucked it up before me.
& every yung god who fucked it up before me.

Every day I breach the surface cleanly
Every day I breach the surface cleanly

& step out dripping so hard
& step out dripping so hard

ya better call a plumber
ya better call a plumber.

Of course, a successful poem is not inherently one that’s easy to memorise. Quantitative representation here shouldn’t be taken as an argument for one poet’s quality over another’s, and poets with longer careers almost always have larger bodies of work from which to select poems. But on a practical level, Kennedy’s tendency towards more rather than less that led her to place three poems by David Eggleton, for example, back-to-back – and not bite-sized poems, either – keeps this anthology from feeling as pick n’ mixy, as pleasurably perusable, as it maybe should be to serve a casual reader.

Clumpiness, and a possibly justifiable – but nonetheless stodgy – focus on Poets Laureate (and those who seem like they might’ve been) notwithstanding, Remember Me is worthwhile for its range and lushness. Instead of attempting to neatly define the country’s poetic identity, it serves as a proponent of multiplicity. This anthology suggests that Aotearoa poetry should play a functional role in our lives. I can imagine its offerings being slowly digested by some, picked at by others; recited in classrooms, at weddings in place of Shakespeare, at funerals instead of Teasdale, or maybe – maybe – just for fun.

Remember Me: Poems to Learn by Heart from Aotearoa NZ

ed. Anne Kennedy

Auckland University Press

ISBN: 9781869409562

Published: October 2023

Format: Paperback, 288 pages

Sophie van Waardenberg

Sophie van Waardenberg is a poet from Tāmaki Makaurau. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University in upstate New York, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of Salt Hill Journal. Her debut chapbook, does a potato have a heart?, was published in AUP New Poets 5. She lives in New York City.