The first thing that struck me about Frankie McMillan’s collection, There are no horses in heaven, is the watercolour of the woman on the cover: her blue head tilted to one side, a single sun-ray eye staring back at me. McMillan is a poet and short-story writer who lives in Christchurch, and the design is by Lyttelton artist Nichola Shanley. The collection was designed and printed in a limited edition in collaboration with the Ilam School of Fine Arts, and the care taken with the book’s production (for instance, each of the book’s five sections are separated by a sky blue page) mirrors McMillan’s own care with language.
The poems in There are no horses in heaven are a unique combination of straight-talking and dreamlike. Read together, they give glimpses into a set of complex relationships that span time and place. I often felt as though I was watching a play where the curtains kept on opening and closing, only showing me part of the story. In this way, the collection is a wonderfully tantalising experience. While most of the collection is lyric poetry, there are a handful of prose poems (which is unsurprising as McMillan was the winner of the 2013 New Zealand National Flash Fiction Award). For me, the brief widening out of these poems was the highlight of the collection, especially the incredible poem, In the nick of time, a deer.
The collection is also, as the press notes state, “beautifully strange”. For instance, in the poem, In the corner of my mind, a boy, the speaker imagines a book she’d forgotten to write:
and though I can present the child however
I wish a chance encounter might be best:
say a glimpse through a key hole
to where a small boy sits
playing with his fingers in what would be
my parents’ wardrobe, the cotton dresses
falling on his shoulders,
my father’s trousers a stack of chimneys;
While many of the poems are surreal, McMillan always grounds them in ordinary details, whether that be a mundane workday, or people-watching.
The collection was edited by writer Emma Neale and it has been expertly ordered so the connections between poems are clear but unobtrusive. This is especially the case with the most engaging character in the collection, “My father, the oceanographer.” He is a man of eccentricities and tenderness, and many of the poems explore the father/child relationship: in one poem “Gaudi watches his father tend bees”, whereas in another, a church steeple keeper thinks about his relationship to the more heavenly “Father.” The poem, glass blower’s boy, may illuminate why McMillan returns to this relationship, as the boy’s father spins a dress from glass where the man’s wife used to be:
his father in dark goggles
thick hood over his head
molten is the word that conjures
the lassoing of glass
The theme might be how we spin the story of ourselves and of those closest to us. There are a few poems that feel distant and indefinite – usually those that do not draw on the repeated characters or themes – but it’s a surprising and superb collection.
Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett
There are no horses in heaven
by Frankie McMillan
Canterbury University Press, 2015