Review: Remember Me - Poems to Learn by Heart from Aotearoa New Zealand

Reviewed by Erica Stretton

‘Remember Me is full of poetry to read aloud and remember. For funerals, weddings, occasions, evenings at home etc... There’s long been a gap for this book and Auckland University Press has brought it to life.’

Remember Me is full of poetry to read aloud and remember. For funerals, weddings, occasions, evenings at home etc. Edited by Anne Kennedy, a distinguished poet who received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement for Poetry in 2021, it’s a collection to keep on the shelf as reference. Poems from Aotearoa New Zealand to learn by heart. There’s long been a gap for this book and Auckland University Press has brought it to life.

It’s always enjoyable to have a collection of writing that’s wholly Aotearoa. A sense of ownership and knowing comes over us as we read. And to remember a poem is to ‘hold that poem close to your heart,’ as Kennedy says in her editorial. ‘Poetry has its roots in the spoken.’ She details how the poems were chosen for their rhythm, metre, rhyme, repetition, narrative, declamatory style and/or humour. They are poems that work as performance.

“Poems represent all that we are,” Kennedy says, and then goes on, “as I researched for Remember Me, I was constantly staggered by the breadth of Aotearoa poetry. We're pretty wonderful! I've been a reader of poetry for a long time and I thought I knew quite a bit, but I discovered hidden treasures… … I finished with the idea that beautiful, memorable poetry is everywhere here.” 

And so, light and dark moments fill this book. James K Baxter’s High Country Weather, pulling on the strands of loneliness in ‘red-gold cirrus,’ opens the collection, jostling against Airini Beautrais’ much more hopeful Charm to Get Safely Home – ‘It is a wet night but I am dry.’

Seven sections are small anthologies of their own – whakatauki / wisdom is the first section, which includes Baxter and Beautrais, and finishes with Sue Wootton and What can’t be forgotten:

                 What can’t be forgotten

                must be knotted round your heart

                softly as gossamer

                hard as barbed wire.

The second section is Odes, where Sia Fiagel’s piece from Songs of the fat brown woman, shows the reader how territory is defended, owned:

                 And you can watch all you want

                And you can stare all you want

                But the fat brown woman will keep

                swaying her hip

and essa may ranapiri’s Silence, Part 2 asks repeatedly ‘Where are your bones?’ after Keri Hulme’s Silence.

The section on Whenua, moana, rangi/earth, sea, sky gives the reader a place to feel the physicality of Aotearoa and the reality of the world. Ben Brown gives the multiple sides of the knotted pūriri tree:

Tree of the dead

Of the green moth

And the tortured limb

Tree of anger

Tree of peace

This juxtaposition flows through nature and through this section, acknowledging and holding space for contradictions, as in Geoff Cochrane’s Our City and Its Hills:

The steampunk city’s Buddhist rain

Is not unkind to cats

It falls on cenotaph and crane

And blackens many hat

Love Songs, section 4, shades in light and dark, as you would expect; Te Awhina Rangimarie Arahanga gives us this in one poem, Pohutukawa Plays the Blues:

We can throw

our bodies down

stretch out

sweaty toes

pull our palms

beneath heads

to yearn

while lady above

plays the blues

and Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem, entitled I have come back from the dead to tell you I love you befriends loss and mourns love.

Section five is Whānau. Tusiata Avia gives us a sense of how wide-ranging a sense of belonging could possibly be, in Helicopter:

 You could have packed them all in

   Cousins like corned beef

   Aunties like elegi

   Uncles like saimigi

   Brothers like taro

   Sisters like cabinbread

   Nephews like bananas

Section six focuses on Histories, Stories. Here Bill Manhire leads us through a tragedy in his deadpan poetic voice: ‘There’s always a point at which a routine enquiry / turns into something else entirely’, and Janet Newman shows us a rural tale: ‘Her arms, varnished with lanolin / shine as under lights. The ewe’s skin / is pink and flushed.’

The last section is Politics. Some controversial; some wistful. Here’s Gregory Kan’s [There’s a room]:

 and in that voice

there’s a history of power

that we eat in black mouthfuls

barely coming up for breath.

The coverage of each section above is a taster. Many, many more poets grace these pages, established and emerging writers together. Paula Green, Tayi Tibble, Robert Sullivan, Ruby Solly, Cadence Chung, Hinemoana Baker, Ashleigh Young, David Eggleton, Cilla MacQueen, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Sam Hunt, Kevin Ireland, Michele Leggott and others.

Remember Me is designed to be memorised and spoken aloud. To this end, there are two short essays at the end of the book, by Zech Soukai and Rosalind Ali, teaching how to memorise and recite a poem. Soukai, a performance poet, states that memorisation means one is ‘able to become a vessel for a poem to breathe and speak new life into others.’ Rosalind Ali gives a practical path on memorisation, using her experiences as a teacher. ‘To learn a poem by heart is to carry it with you,’ she says.

This book is a bible for those who want a poem to speak to an occasion, for reciting on online platforms or in poetry appreciation groups. I asked Kennedy how this interacts with Spoken Word, an extremely vibrant community in Aotearoa. “Spoken Word exponents tend to perform their own poems which are not usually found in print…. AUP, publisher of Remember Me, is soon to bring out a spectacular volume of Spoken Word poems, Rapture, edited by Carrie Rudzinski and Grace Iwashita-Taylor. These anthologies are complementary.”  (See Kete next week for a questionnaire with Rudzinski and Iwashita-Taylor.)

Remember Me will live as a reference in libraries, homes, offices, and on desks. It could be read from cover to cover, but is more likely to passed around, dipped into, shared. As Kennedy points out, “While Remember Me is about performing word by others, it’s also about the pleasure of reciting a poem to yourself, remembering a poem in your head and your heart.”

Reviewed by Erica Stretton