It Isn’t the World That Makes Us Think
Courtney Sina Meredith’s “Could you connect me to a diverse community?” gradually deletes itself. The first line reads: “I am aware of my privilege. Could you connect me to a diverse community?” The second line is identical, but a strip of black ink covers its first word. In the third line, ink blocks out the first two words—and so on until the poem’s final line, which is simply a dark stripe. This progressive erasure creates a jagged staircase of ink that slices the poem in two, calling to mind the rifts wrought by privilege and racism, as well as the complexities of social ascent and descent.
The poem’s oft-repeated question implies another: to whom is the speaker speaking? Tellingly, Meredith doesn’t provide any hints. The person capable of providing “connection” with a “diverse community”—likely a member of that community—has no voice in the poem, and thus builds no connection with either speaker or reader. Instead, the reiteration of the question hints at the domination of the privileged person’s perspective. Yet the poem finds ways of challenging that perspective: in addition to gradually erasing the question, Meredith positions it on top of the ink staircase. It traces a downward diagonal across the page, as if to ultimately sink from view.
Bill Manhire’s “Polly” is a study of birds and words: early on, a parrot chants “pretty pretty pretty.” Throughout the poem, Manhire follows that chirpy example, rhyming and repeating terms. “Tip” appears twice and “pretty” four times, chiming with “nitty,” “gritty,” “city,” and “committee.”
To a parrot, “pretty” could mean pretty much anything, and Manhire’s theme is the slipperiness of language. He ponders what to call things: “I take stuff to the dump…or maybe it’s the tip?”—a term for “dump” in New Zealand English. He also uses “tip” in another sense: “a bar where you ought to leave a tip.” And he concludes with an illuminating tweak of a statement by WWI poet Wilfred Owen. Owen wrote: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” For Manhire, though, “the poetry is … in the pretty”—a similar-sounding word whose totally distinct definition transforms Owen’s observation. Is it now as meaningless as the bird cry that it parrots?
Then again, perhaps there’s no source of meaning like the confusions surrounding language. “It isn’t the world that makes us think,” Manhire writes, “it’s words that we can’t come up with.”
In “Sedition—a letter to the writer from Meri Mangakāhia,” Anahera Gildea operates as both writer and reader. She channels Mangakāhia (1868–1920), who campaigned for women’s suffrage in New Zealand—and who, over the course of the poem, campaigns for more Gildea-specific causes. After addressing the poet as “kōtiro” (“girl” in Māori, the language of indigenous New Zealanders), she advises “clipping at words like overgrown maikuku — / return the blankets of domestic life; don’t fold / washing or wear shoes, polish these rerenga kē.” In two languages, she urges Gildea to forgo domestic tasks in favor of literary labor: “maikuku” means “fingernails or toenails”; “rerenga kē” means “sentences instead.”
Even as Mangakāhia writes in Māori, she hints at the risks of doing so: “Māori been jailed for nouns, phrases; // butcher up a clause, get buried / in Pākehā kupu”—the words of New Zealanders of European extraction. With “butcher” and “buried,” Gildea uses violent language to conjure the dangerous consequences of using the once-suppressed Māori language. But in “Sedition,” she unburies and revives a long-gone Māori activist, giving her voice. And in turn, Mangakāhia urges her to speak as well.
C. K. Stead’s “Barry” zigzags through time. The war poem begins with the word “later,” and its last stanza describes the soldiers’ “first foes.” Every stanza includes a temporal marker, whether “and then,” “sometimes,” or—intriguingly—“and then (or earlier).” Its first lines sketch an event that the fourth stanza returns to in detail, complete with names and dialogue. Thus, as we move forward in the poem, we also move backward; “and then (or earlier)” applies to our reading process as well as to the events the poem describes.
Who were those “first foes”? “Mosquitoes / who took our blood / and flew away with it / like bees, Barry joked / taking pollen / from the full flower of our youth.” These lines contain their own brand of indirection: they compare mosquitoes to bees, even as neither mosquitoes nor bees—with their benign business of cross-pollination—are the true threat to the soldiers’ well-being. And they conclude with a joke, though the situation could not be more serious. “My friend took one full in the chest / and went down without a word”: this event, buried in the middle of the poem, inspires the speaker’s words, and its horrors explain his obliqueness. How to tell such a truth but slant?