Edited by Stu Bagby
AUP, $27.95 | Reviewed by Joan Fleming

I REMEMBER, last year, spontaneously reciting James K Baxter’s ‘On the Death of her Body’ to a group of East Porirua boys who were drinking at the next table at Havana. It’s a gorgeous poem about that most classic and inexhaustible of themes – sex versus death – and it’s always lodged with me. Its music, its grandness, its sense of feeling your limbs and pulsings most keenly when you’re whistling at the edge of infinity – I guess I’d had a few beers by that point, but some openness in these kids at the next table made it easy to move from small talk to reciting Baxter at 2am. After stumbling on the first stanza and having to start all over again, I managed to speak the whole poem aloud, with all my might, with my eyes closed, and when I finished, and looked up, the boys were totally rapt. Their eyes were wet. I’m not kidding. It was a goddam moment. And if sex is the way to get people to listen to poetry, well, hallelujah, so be it.

Here, editor Stu Bagby has pulled together a goodly spread of home-grown poems about sex, in all positions and flavours. Some celebrate the body’s just-right-ness, while others toast the awkward agonies of adolescence. There’s the joyful union and the unrequited. There’s voyeurism, reticence, abandon, the un-sexiness of medical jargon, infidelity and ennui. Though at times, the collection feels like it’s trying too hard to cover all the bases. Same-sex? check. Something Pasefika? check. Bored married sex? check.

It’s a kiwi collection. And it risks a domestic sameness. Since sex and its attendant emotions are far from straightforward, some of these poems are more about relationships than the act itself. But I found the choice of ‘relationship’ poems unsatisfying – taken as a whole, they seemed unreflective of the complexities that such a subject calls for. The few allowances of explicit description are stunning, like Geoff Cochrane’s “cleft mauve tulip” and Hone Tuwhare’s “nipples enlarged/but firm like/mumbled pebbles”.

Many of the poems are straightforward simple lyrics which yield momentary pleasure but don’t need a second go. But there’s much here that’s worth spending the night with: Anne Kennedy’s ‘Autumn, the ache called nothing’ is a plaintive, questioning cry of a poem which moves through the tactile world of two lovers who seem to not know how to save one another. It’s funny and sadly enriching, and ends with a sudden, floaty redemption: “The shape of a petal/she tried to brush from the sheet and it wouldn’t come it was/heavy and her body (and his probably) became weightless and/colourless and of no height and no history merely a string/bag to hold pleasure together.” Tusiata Avia’s sestina ‘Pa’u-stina’ is wicked, and Fleur Adcock’s ‘Against Coupling’ is an old favourite. I’ve always loved the way the poem turns from gorgeously fecund imagery (“his gaze/stirs polypal fronds in the obscure/sea-bed of her body”) to a droll rendering of the utter tiresomeness of it all: “one feels like the lady in Leeds who/ has seen The Sound of Music eighty-six times”.

What I like best about this anthology is that it’s a testament to the way poetry can invigorate and re-sensualise. By kneading and teasing and pushing at language, poetry can do new and amazing things with a subject that’s been exploited and disinfected by advertising. And a collection of verse that shows sex and sexuality in a fresh light is highly worth reading.