Book Review: Night Horse, by Elizabeth Smither

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_night_horseElizabeth Smither is a well-known figure in New Zealand poetry, and Night Horse proves again why this is so. In her eighteenth collection of poetry, Smither portrays an enchanting world by shining moonlight on the quirks of everyday life.

In this collection, Smither shows how skilfully she can render moments into soft and beautiful scenes. In the poem Wedding Car, she brings out the image of a 1926 Nash / in deep forest green’ driving down the road. Throughout the poem, Smither portrays a number of other blushed and brilliant images, as if the world were on pause: wheelspokes that ‘measured each revolution like time’, a bouquet, white ribbons in the wind. Finally, Smither states that ‘though, today, someone else will ride in it / you are both still there’. There are many layers to one moment, and the memory that Smither is recalling is just one of them.

Further on in the collection, Smither heightens this dreamy atmosphere into something eerie. In the poem Cat Night, she starts with a normal scene: cats walking through the street after the sun has set, ‘waiting to see how the night will shape itself’. There is something peculiar in this little description of suburbia. And at the end of the poem, Smither wonderfully declares ‘Let the street lights mark / the great promenade down which love will come / like black carriages on the Champs-Élysées’. Here, the everyday has been turned into something grand and enchanting.

Smither finds other peculiar moments in ordinary life. In the poem Oysters, she portrays a seemingly normal scene: a banquet table filled with food. But in this world, things morph and become strange. Standing out from the selection of food are six dozen oysters in a champagne bucket. After the oysters have been devoured, Smither draws out the uncomfortable image of ‘thin oyster lips’ and smiles, turning this moment into a scene that feels much more uneasy than a regular gathering.

My favourite poem in Night Horse is the final poem in the collection. From the title of the piece, Smither tells us that ‘The heart heals itself between beats’, and this anchoring phrase continues throughout the poem. She sets the scene in Middlesex Hospital, the bustle of doctors around her. It is in the chapel that Smither finds some quiet, watching as matrons and surgeons go about their duties. While she meanders, she also wonders about the heart and how it heals itself. She thinks, maybe each cell proposes a soliloquy to itself and speaks’. And then, in the final line, Smither beautifully concludes ‘The heart heals itself between beats / I heal myself between beats’.

Night Horse is a wonderful collection where each poem brings something new and unexpected. Smither perfectly captures an atmosphere that is dreamy and magical, yet also eerie. Her poems are the kind of pieces that will make you take a second glance at things in life that once seemed ordinary—statues in a park, a cat prowling through the streets—so you can stand for a moment and wonder what worlds they have seen.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Night Horse
by Elizabeth Smither
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408701

 

Book Review: Wolf, by Elizabeth Morton

cv_wolf_MortonAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Wolf by Elizabeth Morton is an atmospheric and breathtaking collection that explores all the strange and mysterious parts of life. It’s all about the sharp edges, the rough shadows, the things that sit in the back of your mind and fester. It’s the uncomfortable, the estranged, all tightly packed into a world where the moon never seems to set and the sun never seems to rise.

It begins with Wolf. He is wild and he is also lonely. Morton’s language is sharply attuned with the wild world of Wolf. She describes how “as a pup Wolf had mewed / tender words… taller now, Wolf barks consonants.” He walks through forests, visits suburbia, travelling with a feeling of loneliness that presses on him the whole way. In Wolf has a dream, this feeling is brought to the fore as Wolf howls “Mo-ther / Mo-ther… but she does not hear”. The way Morton contrasts the eerie wanderings of Wolf as well as Wolf’s own heartache leaves an unsettling feeling of melancholy.

Then Morton expands out from Wolf into her own world, although it’s still not a world removed from the strangeness of the wild forest. Morton’s metaphors are raw and her words are tough. One of my favourite poems of the collection, 17, is a beautiful yet eerie piece. Morton begins, “it was March. / we had city grit in our gums, / and heads violent with stars”. Descriptions such as these made me pause, consider her words, and imagine in new ways. Morton continues with more of her peculiar and unique imagery: “and at seventeen / we were the final flashing synapse in a wrecked brain. / the last dry thrust of a fish”.

In this world, although things are not as wild as Wolf’s forest, the presence of Wolf still lives on. In The Dream, Morton and her dog walk through a landscape filled with “steel-wool bushes, the bones of manuka”. Morton manages to turn even the everyday into something strange and almost menacing. In Sirius, Morton finds the presence of the canine and the wild again in the deep sky: “I found the Dog Star / winking white and black”.

Another poem I really loved in Wolf is Poem in which i am a zombie. It’s written in the same vein as others in this collection—menacing and melancholic— and the imagery is still absolutely beautiful. It feels like Morton has dropped me in an alluring world, but she has also pressed pause. With the remote in her hand, Morton is free to show us around while trapping us in a strange state of being in between. Morton describes “powerlines heavy with starlings”, how she walks “in dactylic hexameter”. Then the loneliness creeps in: “i remember my name. / it leaves a bad taste.” This loneliness reaches its height in the final poignant lines of the poem: “now and then / i turn on all the lights / and pretend somebody’s home”.

Wolf is an absolutely breathtaking collection of poetry that Morton has crafted together with perfection. There is a little bit of Wolf in her and in all of us: the jagged parts of the heart, the strangeness of the night, and ultimately, the sadness. And Morton touches on this all in a heartbreaking but alluring way that kept me enraptured all the way through.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Wolf
by Elizabeth Morton
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994137821

Book Review: Family History, by Johanna Emeney

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_family_history_bigFamily History by Johanna Emeney begins with a secret: Emeney’s mother is an adoptee. When Emeney’s mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, and the lines of family history become something different, Emeney and her mother both have to navigate through a landscape of hospitals and grief.

Emeney begins with her mother’s old photo albums in her poem Captions. Her album is filled with written captions, from ‘MR AND MRS DUNNE AT OURS’ to simply ‘ME’. But some of these photos are just ‘bare grey squares’. Perhaps these photos were moved around, or maybe they were taken and never returned. As a result, these words have no photo to caption. Although the past and some of its photos have gone, the album still lives on, declaring a certain family history.

And then, with the diagnosis of breast cancer, Emeney’s family starts to unravel. How large was your heart is a poem where Emeney crosses over from the medical into the poetic, proving that the two do not need to be kept separate. Emeney portrays the rush of unfamiliarity that comes with medical terminology, describing how ‘The coroner reports a haematoma / over the anterior pericardium’. It is a flow of words that means nothing to a reader like me, who doesn’t have the medical knowledge. But then Emeney unpacks it in her own tender words. Emeney claims that she has already felt the size of her mother’s heart in her own way; ‘she has felt its beat in full swell / through warm, unbroken ribs’.

Further on, in Anonymous, Emeney’s mother is reduced to a sample of tissue that will be used for cancer research. A letter labels Emeney’s mother as simply ‘YOUR DECEASED RELATIVE’. The letter ends with a simple sentence: ‘You can be assured / no one will ever know / who the donor was’. Although these words are meant to be comforting, they also cause unease. Is it that easy for a person – brain, thoughts, and all – to be reduced to a piece of tissue when it was once so much more? This is why Emeney’s poetry is so rousing: it crosses between medical terminology – ‘Today I learned that heartstrings / are called chordae tendineae’ – to the complexity of human feelings – a ‘spectacle of attachment and loss’. Emeney tries to understand moments both poetically and scientifically.

And she does it beautifully. In Dandelion, Emeney reminisces on times from her childhood, fixating on the image of cicada shells stuck on her school jumper. In the final heart wrenching verse, present day Emeney finds traces of dandelions on her clothes, and she thinks of them as ‘three white parachutes’. She sweetly describes how these little parachutes remind her of her mother. To Emeney, those dandelion strands are ‘little angels of your (her mother’s) imprint, your leaving’.

The way that Emeney combines the medical with the poetic in Family History brings the true complexity of the medical world to light. Although medical science is based on concrete fact, the people in its system are still people, and they feel a variety of emotions. It is a world where words are charged with meaning, where diagnoses and procedures change the lives of patients and their loved ones. And Emeney is there, bringing the reader into that experience. It’s not just a medical history; it’s a family history.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Family History
by Johanna Emeney
Published by Mākaro Press, part of the Hoopla series
ISBN 9780994137814

Book Review: Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017, edited by Jack Ross

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_poetry_nz_yearbookThe best way to take the pulse and determine the health of poetry in New Zealand is to crack open the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook. It is proof that the art form is very much alive and vibrant in 2017. As the first issue through Massey University Press, the journal covers a lot of ground. Since its inception in the 1950s, the journal continues to showcase poets of longstanding, such as Riemke Ensing, Michelle Leggott, Owen Marshall, Iain Britton and Elizabeth Smither, while introducing readers to younger, emerging poets, such as Devon Webb, Callum Stembridge and Harriet Beth.

The inclusivity of this issue is a sign of the times, with a curatorial tendency towards one or two poems from a larger pool, rather than several poems from fewer writers. This makes sense from a sales and marketing perspective. It widens the net of potential readers in the form of friends and families of the poets. As a reader, it is akin to the way television flits from image to image at breakneck speed; it allows little time for immersion and only a brief window into the sensibilities and fascinations of each poet.

On the subject of inclusion, Janet Charman’s feminist essay on the editorship of Alan Curnow is a brave and robust insight. In her well-researched piece, Charman explores the historical tendency toward erasure of the feminine within New Zealand poetry anthologies.  In 2017, the journal celebrates and promotes the work of women poets, both through featuring their work and discussing their books in the review section.

Elizabeth Morton’s suite is accomplished and mesmerising. At times her work sends the reader on a surreal journey, like a Chagall painting. She drifts in and out of dark themes, from the personal (visiting someone in hospital) to the political (the refugee crisis). It is satisfying and intriguing work: ‘I bring you / blackberries, frankincense, / lorazepam. / I make marionettes with my hands / I make you the best alpaca you’ve ever seen.’

In terms of content, not many poets included attempt traditional forms, opting instead for mostly blank or free verse. The poems meant for performance are easy to spot, with their emphasis on the lyrical rhythm: ‘Do not become / your mother. / Not because you / do not  love her, / you do… (Note to self).’ The inclusion of poetry from this milieu offers a fantastic glimpse of the generation gap in approaches to the craft (why labour over an enjambment when the meaning will be lost when read aloud?).

Of course, it wouldn’t be New Zealand poetry without the references to the great outdoors: ‘for several summers we camped there / canvas tents cheek-by-jowl guy-ropes… (Paraparaumu) and familiar settings (A Dunedin bar, the Wellesley Street intersection).’

This collection offers jumping off points for anyone, no matter your poetic inclination. Not one to be raced through, each reading brings a fresh new image, ‘when you least expect…a dull ache in the memory (When you least expect) …has the / power to flatten me.’ (Lithium).

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017 
edited by Jack Ross
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994136350

Book Review: The atomic composition of the seeming solid, by Shane Hollands

Available from selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_atomic_composition_of_the_seeming_solidA poet, a mystic, and a musician walk into a bar. No, they really do. Only, it’s Shane Hollands in each case, moving from one affectation to another, all within a single poem. Hollands is on something more than form. His poetry is abuzz with whisky and caffeine. And the fix is a contagion. The reader follows the verse into murky pubs, backs of cars, into the checkout of a Grey Lynn Foodtown. There is a grandiosity to his reach, counterweighted by the local and colloquial. We are served split-screens of celestial apparitions with the atomic, mythical opus with the simple tall-tale, global village then Motueka.

Shane Hollands is very Beat. But his voice sits comfortably within the New Zealand milieu. Whether in ‘Rotovegas’ or ‘Dorkland’, Shane has a way of importing his Beat energy, without it seeming forced. This is Kiwi bloke, meets Tom Waits. The geography is familiar, right down to the time-honoured cafés. We are on a trip. Shall we say we are tripping? We are on a sort of multisensory escapade, subject to the experiential blendings of a Synesthete. There is the ‘wild lonely road’, ‘the gnarl of sombre landscapes’. Hollands’ visual domain is pegged to emotion. It is atmospheric. There are times when you can smell the furniture, taste the music. There’s a pervasive tenebrosity, a wonderful grunginess about much of it. And there are lines that cut:
‘I wouldn’t give you a cigarette
unless you were on fire’

Hollands’ world has the lick of panpsychicism – His oceans are living, his storms are ‘wild with intent’. But the intentions of the poet take centre stage – chasing dreams, chasing love, chasing ecstatic lunacy, the free-range bliss that is ‘card-less / wallet-less and anonymous’. The result is feverish poetry. It rambles, it rages, but it is charming. There are hits from his ‘wordcore’ band, Freaky Meat, and there are quieter, more contemplative poems:
‘yet there were moments of beauty
when I sat on stone circles
watched you roll in perfect curls
on that wooden deck
I listened to you
moan’

This is work of a performer, but it defies the conventions of commonplace, and often didactic, spoken-word. Yes, Hollands’ poetry ‘wants to beat on your poetry’, and ‘would like to kick your poetry’s assonance’.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

The atomic composition of the seeming solid
by Shane Hollands
Published by The Back Shed Press
ISBN 9780473384128

Book Review: The Internet of Things, by Kate Camp

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cv_the_internet_of_thingsThe title of poet Kate Camp’s latest collection is telling. The Internet of Things is the latest phrase being bandied about by technology bloggers. According to the Internet (funnily enough), it was first coined by someone called Peter T. Lewis as far back as the end of the late 1980s. It refers to a future where physical objects are connected via, you guessed it, the Internet. Alternatively called ‘smart’ technology, the phrase evokes objects speaking to one another without the need for human intervention.

With that context in mind, we delve into Kate’s poems, where objects do indeed speak and tell stories, beginning with the title poem. Here, the narrator visits John Lennon’s aunt Mimi’s home in Liverpool and the surrounding ports (ports of course having a double meaning, pops up in several poems).  The cover picture of the seemingly miniature kitchen evokes the objects of a children’s tea party, with its symbolic collection of objects for various dining rituals. There is a feeling of unreality to the photograph, like a staged home in a museum. Each object is clean, with no traces of the ‘eggs and chips’ or the whistle and steam of the kettle as Mimi made John his cups of tea.

As we move through the poems, we are presented with an array of objects, from the most banal (the contents of a rubbish bin), to the paintings of Rembrandt and the subject, St Jerome’s slippers (Like those white towelling freebies from a hotel). The poet imbues the mundane with a cheeky questioning and likewise grounds the typically austere objects of the art world with connections to the everyday. It is a rich source of subject matter for a poet and one that Kate surveys with skill and ease.

Poems such as Lego Lost at Sea, offer a glimpse of how absurd some childhood objects appear in different contexts. Based on a true story where millions of pieces of Lego were lost overboard in 1997, the poem sketches a scenario where a diver is depicted in the wooden fashion of a Lego person and the cartoonish stories those of us who played with Lego created.

Utilising the metaphor of the title again, we find Kate describing the body as being made up of channels, tunnels and space (a light elusion to the idea of cyber space perhaps?) In the poem Woman at Breakfast, Kate writes:

as most of us is empty space
around which our elements move
in their microscopic orbits. 

Then, we find gems such as the line, the dull miraculous privacy of the human mind. Much like the internet, Kate renders the body as repetitious and boring, but also a thing of wonder. As the book progresses, we are treated to natural imagery as well, so that we are not given a mechanical treatise or a metallic insight into a dystopian future. Rather, the works are often miniature nostalgias; poems that are objects in their own right; speaking to us and connecting with each of us silently and dynamically, wherever we might be.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

The Internet of Things
by Kate Camp
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561063

Book Review: Mister Hamilton, by John Dickson

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cv_mister_hamiltonMister Hamilton
is John Dickson’s first poetry collection in eighteen years, and it is clear he has honed his poetry well. The precision of Dickson’s writing is intense. It’s like being placed in a whole new country with so much to see, and there is an amazing rush in his writing as he shows us his world and more.

The story, like many stories, begins at home in New Zealand. ‘Plainsong’ is one of the first poems in Mister Hamilton. Often, images of home can become cliché after reading them over and over again. However, Dickson brings clarity to this poem with unique images that call your attention and make you stop for a moment. He describes ‘Southland’s slow intestinal rivers / laden with manuka dust / And my detachment from anything plain.’ Dickson perfectly captures the feeling of being homesick: a background noise that is always present, pervasive. Something that ‘smoulders still’despite all the time that has passed.

My favourite in the collection is the poem Something Else. While reading it, I wanted to speed up in anticipation of the words to come, as well as slow down in order to take everything in. I think what makes this poem so effective and enjoyable is how it brings you into its rush of words and images. Although it may seem fragmented at first, there is story underlying it all, with a selection of images that recur and words that repeat. At its heart, the poem tells of a lost girl and her father, who carries an ‘anguished stare’in his eyes. It is how Dickson uses this story to open up a certain world that makes it so interesting. There is a lost girl but she is also so much more than the girl others see on the six o’clock news. She is also the girl falling, the girl full of rage, the girl who finally stays silent and lets the snow enfold her.

Mister Hamilton is also a collection that’s very conscious of the rhythms of poetry. In Dickson’s own notes at the back of the book, he explicitly states: ‘I attempted to compose verses that would not only use the speech rhythms of other people as well as my own, but also match the rhythms with various metrical patterns’. ‘Sixties relic surveys his lawn’ is a satisfying poem that seems to sway with a steady rhythm, and captures the methodical nature of the exercise. The final verse in the poem mimics the motion of someone working back and forth while mowing the lawn: ‘you mow your fescue that way / way this fescue your mow you / you mow your fescue that way’.

As the dust settled from the rush of being brought into all of Dickson’s various worlds, I quietly finished Mister Hamilton. And I was left with an urge to go back and read some of my favourites in the collection again, and an additional urge to write my own. The words in some of these poems seem to crest like waves as you read them, and they rush with a mix of images that seek to both inspire and question.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Mister Hamilton
by John Dickson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408558