Brenda Ann Burke
New Zealand
Bio: I was born in Northern Ontario, in a rocky place where it’s very cold in the winter.  People do freeze to death, especially people who can’t afford to pay the heating bill.  Or unlucky people caught in the bush at night.

Respecting your place has always been important to me—the place you come from and the place you are.  I love the way Aotearoa looks out to the sea.  But this land, like Canada, carries risk.  Cook Strait in a June southerly is unforgiving.  We live not with the spectre of the icy barrens but with the certainty of convulsing earth.  It’s our insurance against complacency, against getting too comfortable.

I think the odds are stacked against us living well, and those who do are heroes.  I try never to write in anger and to honor the small things.

Kia kaha

Brenda Ann Burke


you can farm for food
but not for profit
you can buy Weet-bix with your benefit
but not wine
Wine is for those who can afford it.

you can go to school and learn a trade.
you can make the team
although it’s not fair.
My kid is just smaller.

You can have your cake
and eat it
provided you save me the biggest piece.
You can even keep your damned mountain

but you gotta let me climb it
How about right now?

On second thought, I don’t feel like climbing a mountain today.
Go ahead.  I’ll watch on telly
I might even cheer for you.

Imagine, all those eyes watching
waiting for you to fall.

Polish hills

(Authors note: The Polish hills were in western Quebec in Canada)

two hours from the city
long twisty rough road
too many stones to run on
not easy to drive—wouldn’t want to try it if you’d had a few
although they did, often

overgrown acres thick with goldenrod
desperately blue sky
a stream with a swimming hole

watch the current!

a few more miles and the road trails into pine stands
once the lifeblood of this place
this marginal land where new immigrants from Europe
mixed with the French
who had been here for generations

this is the “stopping place”
where teams of men rested
before heading back into the forest
for weeks at a time
with dogs and sleighs, or on foot
to fell the timber

my grandmother had a hotel here

as her daughter climbs from the dusty car
the bright day is enveloped in the past
they are all dead now, she observes
(as you get older loss ceases to be an event)

But you should have been here when this place was in its heyday
Your grandmother had a big staff
and six sisters, to help her run the place

parties in the summer
girls in white dresses courted by rich Americans
come to fish and hunt

we danced to Uncle Prosper’s violin
outside on the verandah

hearts were broken

bright gas lanterns and baskets of hanging flowers

I want so much to see what she sees
But for me
a few pitted foundation-stones
a rusted-out Ford
butterflies and purple lupine

As we fold back into the car
I leave the doors open, for a moment, against the heat
As it does in the late afternoon
the wind picks up, the crickets call

Do you hear it? her life, my life
singing in the pines?


she was always on time
much of each evening devoted to preparing
for the next morning
so there would be no hitches

she was good to her mother
never forgot birthdays
and had her fringe trimmed every three weeks
on a Friday

if she met a man
he quickly understood
that she was a Responsible Girl

then one man
(who was pretty hot)
said “the money or the bag”

to her surprise she did not sleep well that night

he went away
she lost her bankcard
and forgot to pack clean undies when she went to the gym

the next morning
she had carbohydrates for breakfast
and started work at ten

But on the third day she rose at dawn.

she made her list, paid the bills and finished a report

Then she rang him.

the last I heard
they were living in Motueka
without a clock


came a day that he didn’t want to do it anymore
what they lived for, he laughed at

having lost his edge
he lost his job

when asked, in surveys
he would write “independent contractor”
or “company director”
neither of which was true

he was “x, unemployed, of Johnsonville”

people would ask
he would say
I watch, and listen

He suffered a decline in material outcomes
thought about going on the market
but who wants a man without an edge?

came a day that he learned how to live on the margin
a slim space, but enough
he made things, paid attention, provided small services
walked more, dreamed more, judged less

he moved out of Johnsonville
he was very happy


Grey November in that other hemisphere
planning for escape
New Orleans
smoky sexy sax
refuge of Cajuns before us
I cooked you jambalaya
we were both nervous
drank too much, talked a lot
listened to jazz

now the dream is drowned
how? a tropical storm
not a punishment for wanton ways
An indictment.
They don’t care as long as they protect their money.

Despair, streets of Havana, my current aspiration!
In this world
the wreckers can reach even our fantasies