Book Review: Working the Tang, by Nicola Easthope

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cv_working_the_tang.jpgKāpiti Coast dweller Nicola Easthope’s second collection, Working the Tang, plays on the word Tang’s multi-layered meanings. In Old Norse it is a spit of land, as well as the point of a knife and the place where the sharp piece is inserted into the handle; in Middle English it is a serpent’s tongue believed to sting; in the Orkney Islands it is the seaweed growing on the rocks above low tide, and ‘wirkin’ the tang’ refers to the eighteenth-century kelp-burning industry. Easthope says it is ‘the salt in the ocean winds’ and ‘the pressures and flavours that sharpen my writing’.

The book cover shows us two women, warmly wrapped in headscarves and long skirts, in what seems to be a hostile and chilly landscape. Stare at the picture and you can almost feel the cold, smell the smoke of the fire they tend and the salt of the seaweed as it burns. Easthope’s poems strongly feature the ocean, speaking not only of the Coast where she now lives, but also reaching back into the past, across the sea to her British ancestors.

The poems in this collection make for a feast that is both sweet and tart. Our first taste is the catchy ‘Salt blood song’:

I’m six parts loch ’n’ whisky
I’m two parts iron ‘n’ rose
I’m four parts gorse ‘n’ heather
I’m four parts broch ‘n’ stone

Leaving the Scottish ghosts to fend for themselves, the reader arrives at ‘Terra Australis Incognita (after Captain James Cook)’, where we find Captain Cook regarding the sight of smoke on land and thinking that this is a ‘favourable opportunity’. His promises – ‘you will come to no hurt’ – are undercut by the line ‘The cliffs are crumbling, the Indian lies / dead upon the ground’. Moving on again, the ghost of James K. Baxter crashes his own anniversary seminar to knock some microphones about. A teacher stares woebegone at the pile of papers to be marked on her desk: ‘Oh, decrepit red pen! Oh, bloody Monday!’ And the poet asks (with wry humour) the just question:

When you say
women don’t earn
the same rate of pay
as men
because of the number
of absences due to
monthly sickness

does that mean
now that I am peri-menopausal
I will get a pay raise?

Easthope’s awareness of the natural world around her and the human damage inflicted on the planet appears in the sight of chicks unsuccessfully trying to vomit up small bits of ingested plastic – ‘an immortal coil of cap-tube-bottle’. At last we arrive at a lover in a 45 degree bath, rock pools reflecting silver, and a daughter’s birthday. There’s plenty of the flavour of contemporary life. From pop songs to rock star posters to roller skating to twitter, to date nights with Pineapple Lumps on ice. More seriously, ‘White pearls, hanging ears’ reminds readers of the importance of listening to other points of view, and being aware of Pākeha privilege.

Easthope’s style is engaging and personal, but also elevated, patient, poetic. Some poems place the landscape before us and allow us to form our own conclusions. Others take us directly into a busy day, or into the bends and turns of thought. There is a willingness to experiment with poetic style: changing line breaks and leaving space between words, some of which amounts to offering readers a map and allowing them to choose the way between the phrases themselves. The poems are practised, but fresh.

Savour this collection slowly. It’ll definitely leave a tang.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Working the Tang
by Nicola Easthope
Published by The Cuba Press
ISBN 9780995110724

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