Book Review: Sidelights, by Mark Pirie

Sidelights: Rugby Poems, by Mark Pirie (Wellington: The Night Press, 2013), available via Mark’s website.

Sport, a big area of New Zealand life, has formed a surprisingly small part of New Zealand poetry. Mark Pirie has done a lot to remedy that lately, with his NZ cricket poetry anthology A Tingling Catch receiving a lot of very favourable press, not least from the prestigious Wisden Cricketer.

Mark is currently editing an anthology of New Zealand and international poems about football (that is, the round-ball variety). But when I was growing up, the world game was still called ‘soccer’ in New Zealand, as ‘football’ was reserved for use to describe the sport that all New Zealanders, and in particular all New Zealand males, were supposed to be obsessed by: rugby union.

I grew up in Southland, where rugby’s hold was arguably as complete as anywhere in the country – at Gore High School, it was a source of great embarrassment that those half-despised, half-pitied sooks who played soccer had actually managed to string together a few winning games, while the school’s rugby First XV, supposedly the bastion and exemplar of teenage masculinity, was completely useless.

(If women’s rugby was played anywhere in New Zealand in the 1970s, it most certainly wasn’t played in Gore.)

I only ever played one game of rugby, during which I invented the kicking No. 8 long before Zinzan Brooke had thought of the idea. And, despite my Pommy background and odd haircut, I did eventually get interested in the game and used to watch a lot of it – right up to the point at which the All Blacks won the 2011 Word Cup, at which point, to my surprise, my interest in the game evaporated almost completely. I still watch the occasional All Blacks match on TV, but no longer pay any attention to the domestic or Super 15 competitions.

But I remember those provincial passions, which is why I enjoyed Mark Pirie’s Sidelights, and why my favourite poem from it is The Divided Country, which explores the eternal duality between Hurricanes and Highlanders supporters. “School Days at Wellington College” has a great last line which it sets up perfectly, and I also particularly enjoyed the sequence “Five All Blacks poems”, which ends with a poem celebrating the moment All Blacks’ captain Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis Cup at the end of the 2011 World Cup tournament – that same moment that something in my brain appears to have decided that enough was enough.

Even in 2014, it’s hard to be in New Zealand for long without rugby starting to seep into your life: Sidelights is a good first step towards an understanding; or a valedictory to an era, long lost or recently ended, of liniment, the Sideline Eye, and the crowd rising to “E Ihowā Atua”.

Tuesday Poem: The Divided Country, by Mark Pirie

Walking to the dairy
to buy milk is no easy
thing when you’re in Dunedin.
Like this morning, I was
walking down Great King Street
when a car pulls up
and someone screams out the window,
I couldn’t help myself. I yelled
The guy was stunned. He hurled his can
at me, beer spraying
across the street. Then, he tore off
and I walked into the dairy. It seems
the Dunedin mornings
are the saddest. “Just wait,” says
the girl at the counter, “for the rain!”


Credit note: “The Divided Country” is published in Mark Pirie’s collection of rugby poems, Sidelights,, which I’ll be reviewing on this blog soon.

Tim says: When I think of a country divided by rugby, the first thing that comes to mind is the 1981 Springbok Tour. But this poem is about a different sort of division: the eternal divide between New Zealand’s five Super 15 franchises. I reckon I’ve walked to that dairy a few time, too.

The Tuesday Poem: Is the 2013 Takahē Poetry Competition winner.

Tuesday Poem: Forest: Banks Peninsula, by Jan Hutchison

Forest:  Banks Peninsula

(i) Valley

The kanuka was here before the felling.
When flowers weigh it down,
I feel the lowest branch drag along the ground.

All through the day, I overhear what the stumps
say to one another.  Each passes on
the same tale – how the first tall tree was formed
from feathers of a giant bird.

Last year a huddle of gorse settled on a bluff.
Its moths bring gossip but nothing consoles me.

(ii)  Labourers

We take turns sifting dirt and grit. Sometimes
dust whirls around us
but the land at the edge of the coast
cocks its thumb at the sea.

(iii) Trowels

We scratch layers and layers of loam away.
How many more until we touch the sand
in history’s lining?
It’s said that Tane’s feet are printed there.

Even the claws of birds have not
our patience.

(iv) Seeds

Here is the gorse, our winter shelter.
And here is the kanuka
that remembers the sky as we do.

One spring the kokako may return – the kokako
we heard as we slept.

(v)  Botanist

I open my notebook
and catch a faint scent of pine.



climbs up the page.

Credit note: “Forest: Banks Peninsula” is from Jan Hutchison’s collection The Happiness of Rain, published by and available from Steele Roberts, and is reproduced here by permission of the author.

Tim says: I interviewed Jan Hutchison in 2012 and ran the title poem of her collection as a Tuesday Poem at that time. Over the holidays, my reading backlog melted away, and I was finally able to read and enjoy Jan’s fine collection. This poem appealed for me both for its beautifully controlled language and as a tribute to those – some in Christchurch, others no longer there – who have been working so hard for so long to restore the forest on Banks Peninsula and the birdlife that rightly goes with it.

The Tuesday Poem: I’m pleased to see Joe Dolce make an appearance with his poem Bogong Moth. Joe is one of the poets included in the forthcoming anthology The Stars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry, co-edited by myself and P.S. Cottier.