Karen Zelas has a light, airy, and playful tone that makes her poetry incredibly engaging. In her collection I Am Minerva, Zelas employs a wonderfully poetic voice that explores stories and histories, as well as the identity she crafts out of it.
In the first poem, Zelas presents a picture of herself in a modern context. In camera is a simple and short poem. It describes how, before the selfie, there was “always the invisible other” who wasn’t in the photo. The photographer helped complete the picture by taking the photo, and therefore also by not being present. The act of capturing the self was always left to someone else.
Zelas relies on spaces and breaks in verse to craft the tone of her collection, and create breathing spaces in her writing. Such a method wipes out the harsh break of full stops, and instead leaves every poem feeling like a long, drifting dream. In the poem Sound Waves, Zelas describes “open mouths tongues tripping / on syllables & the sibilance / of my heart ‘yes!’-ing”. The phrase “on syllables & the sibilance” especially rolls off the tongue in a satisfying way. Zelas’ writing voice is one that is very conscious of itself, and of how poetry wraps itself around a subtle rhythm.
Zelas’ poem Way point won the New Zealand Poems4Peace competition in 2014 and it’s easy to see why. The poem starts with the description of a place “where blue meets blue”. The description is not superfluous; the voice here is one that is gentle, kind, and patient. Despite the wide expanse of blue ocean, the poet reassuringly states “at that point will I find you… & as your ship breaks on my shore / I shall draw you to me”.
At times, Zelas also steps out of this voice. She presents a reminder about the dangers of pushing such a sweet voice to the point of romanticism. In the beginning is a poem that deals with the formation of the universe. At first, Zelas speaks in an expectedly lovely voice that portrays how “Sky & Earth / embraced in darkness”. Perhaps in reference to the many absurdities of ancient myth that are frequently skimmed over, Zelas undercuts this beauty at the end of the poem. She describes how “later that son fucked / his own daughter… & / there was night”.
The final poem is a piece of writing that beautifully twists the tongue. In the poem Born of the head of my father, Zelas confidently asserts “I am Minerva”. Then, she continues onwards: “I’m myth I’m rumour / madness mendacity / aftermath palimpsest” before ending on “I’m scribe”. Just like the goddess of Minerva, her wisdom includes both the histories of her own life and others. As a writer, these are the things that she turns into poetry. And in this poem, Zelas is able to finally present her own image of who she is.
The two images of the self—the camera selfie at the beginning, and the image of Minerva at the end—work as bookends of the collection in this way. In between, Zelas stunningly draws out a variety of settings with a subtle and soft tone. I Am Minerva plays with rhythm but never in a way that detracts from the images that are being brought forward. The whole collection carries a lightness that is wonderful to read, with Zelas holding up different images of herself into focus.
Reviewed by Emma Shi
I am Minerva
by Karen Zelas
Published by Submarine Books