Tracey Slaughter

Poetry Yearbook 2023: Afterburn

(Massey: Massey University Press, 2023)  ISBN: 9781991016355. RRP: $37.00. 392 pp.

Poetry can haul us from our collective weariness, the bitter ashes of the pandemic, and strike a match in the darkness. Sculpted by the insightful editorial eye of Dr Tracey Slaughter, each poem in Poetry Aotearoa Yearbook 2023: After Burn is a spark.

The annual yearbook is the country’s longest running poetry anthology. Formerly Poetry New Zealand – the title was updated this year to better reflect our national identity – it’s an essential piece of our literary landscape, a time capsule that captures the zeitgeist of poetry that emerged during a given year in Aotearoa. 

Every day I point at something and ask how long 
has that been there and you always say forever.

(Jane Arthur, “The sky is bigger”)

It might be an institution but this year’s yearbook, with its cover scorched by flames, is anything but staid. Slaughter notes that she had riches to select from, well over 1000 submissions, a sign that poetry is alive and well across the motu. The 110 poems that made it into After Burn have sharp teeth, are ‘beautiful, urgent fierce’ (Michele Powles, “There you are, dancing”).

The voices in Poetry Aotearoa Yearbook 2023: After Burn are wide ranging, with well-known poets and emerging poets, a range of diversity in background and age, a section of essays, and a rewarding section of reviews of recent New Zealand poetry collections. Slaughter describes her editorial intent in this year’s yearbook as crafting ‘a space where a whole spectrum of poets can deeply connect with each other’s work, offering intense, wide-ranging concentration to all the sounds, skins, sources that sustain our collective song.’[1]  No mean feat, but through astute curation, the poems bounce off each other, and the collection thrums with a magnetic, compelling power.

The yearbook’s title Afterburn is a refrain, a metallic taste in our mouths as the poems ask us to grapple with thorny questions. In her introduction, Slaughter describes each poem as an ‘encounter.’ The poems are tender, painful, bleak, joyful, but they are not passive.

I cup this moment in my hands like a
            small secret fire. It remains despite
            everything else.

            (Lily Holloway, “Part-lament for the girl who dreamt she was a hermit crab”)

Featured poet Tyla Harry Bidois, a Jewish poet, author, illustrator and musician, kicks After Burn off with a series of vivid, electrifying poems, signposting the way the whole collection will grip us and not let go. The poems pulse, seeming to whisper, look at us, we may be bloodied and broken, world weary, but we are unquestionably alive.

Following the poems there is an interview with Bidois in which she describes her intent in writing, the longing and potential of poetry as ‘one of the best places to explore the impact and potential of human connection.’

Here are a couple of dazzling soundbites:

            If I can’t love you without hurting you, would I live in you
like a wound

(Tyla Harry Bidois, “Teeth”)


            everything is the envelopment
of stars dying, alive;
we explode into each other.

(Tyla Harry Bidois, “Darling”)

The strongest poems in the rest of the collection continue to fly like shards of light in the darkness. John Allison’s five-year-old child in “How to Sing Sunlight” comments: 

Sunlight is so hard to catch, she says
But it catches everything in the whole wide world

The cumulative result of reading this collection feels as though it is inching us towards a truer sense of being alive. Demanding over and over again that we ‘wonder what we had to lose’ (‘spaces fill silver, Rebecca Ball).

It serves as a poetic stocktake of where we are as a country, emerging battle worn post-pandemic, grappling with the climate emergency, and is a call to action to participate loudly in the joyful, painful world around us.

In a life that shines: the moon, a star,
you speak of the thin edge of existence

            (Michele Powles, “There you are, dancing”)

Chantelle Xiong could be speaking for all the poems in Poetry Aotearoa Yearbook 2023: After Burn when her poem, “Aged”, finishes the collection by asking in the very last line:

Have I lit a fire?

[1] From a Q and A with Dr Tracey Slaughter:

Heidi North


Heidi North won an Irish poetry award in 2007, leading to her debut Possibility of Flight (2015). A poem from her
second collection We are tiny beneath the light (2019) was used in U2’s Australasian tour.

Works Published