Book Review: The Trials of Minnie Dean: A verse biography, by Karen Zelas

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_trials_of_minnie_deanKaren Zelas tells the story of Minnie Dean: the first and only woman to be hanged in New Zealand after she was found guilty of infanticide. However, Dean also seems to have been a compassionate character who loved and cared for unwanted children. It was the deaths and disappearances of some of these children that led to Dean’s death in 1895. In this biography, Zelas asks the question of how guilty Minnie Dean truly was.

In the poem ‘Where would they be without me?, Zelas writes Minnie Dean as a kind-hearted woman unlike the harsh reports that surrounded her. In this piece, Dean is someone who helps the mothers of unwanted children start again: ‘I sweep their mistakes like dust / beneath the rug so they / may dance upon it / in white linens’.

And indeed, where would those children and their mothers have been without Minnie Dean? By exploring Dean’s story, Zelas is also studying the story of many struggling women. In the poem The home for fallen women, Zelas further explores the difficult position that mothers with unwanted children held during this period. She describes how, after giving birth, ‘at last their shame takes human form / it’s whisked away… here the nightmare ends/begins.

So perhaps Minnie Dean was a saviour for helping to alleviate a burden on other women. In  the poemNothing in this world, Zelas describes a scene where Dean brings back a child on the train. But to her shock, Dean looks to the child to see that she has died on the journey. The verse becomes erratic and Dean thinks, ‘the child is dead / what shall I do?… dorothy edith / dead’.  I couldn’t help sympathising with Dean, so much that I felt a little pang in my heart reading her despair. However, Minnie Dean is also an obsessive character; her endless trips to find more children become progressively more hazy and frantic. Overall, Zelas recognises the importance of investigating Dean through both the good and the bad.

At the end of the biography, Zelas then brings out the story to a modern conversation. Breaking out of the immersion of Dean’s world did leave me feeling jarred, but this section was also important in its own right. When Zelas is asked to bring her own thoughts to the case of Minnie Dean, her background in psychiatry comes to the fore as she suggests a new perspective: ‘minnie dean was a confabulist / & a liar’. The two things Dean cared about the most were her reputation and her children. She lied when she felt threatened, but evidence shows that she could have been a caring mother as well.

The Trials of Minnie Dean is heartbreaking and compelling in many ways. At its core is Minnie Dean, a woman just trying to survive and perhaps doing it in the most compassionate way she can. But along with her are many others trying to survive: the fallen women. Whether guilty or not, Zelas asks us to step back and reconsider Dean as a complex character, as well as how Dean’s story would be seen from a modern perspective. Perhaps in another time, another system that worked to support rather than shame, Minnie Dean and all those fallen women would have turned out differently.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

The Trials of Minnie Dean: a verse biography
by Karen Zelas
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129994

 

Advertisements

Book Review: Field Notes, by Mary Cresswell

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_field_notes.jpgField Notes is such a wonderful poetry collection because Mary Cresswell explores a vast number of forms in one book. Just a few of these forms are sonnets, ballads, and word clouds. And each form explores a new playing field where the rules are different.

Cresswell wonderfully employs repetition in her poem ‘Trespassers W’. She warps the normal by distorting a familiar phrase: trespassers will be prosecuted. Instead, Cresswell tells us how ‘Trespassers will be empathised. We will know their destination before they do, and we will tell them which road to take’. Creswell continues playing with the phrase and as a result, trespassers are not only pasteurised, but also exacerbated and liberated. It’s a witty little piece that plays on rhythm and words, with the imagery sometimes verging on the bizarre. My favourite? ‘Trespassers will be disambiguated. They will be turned into tigers and run around the pancake trees until they melt into butter’.

Cresswell’s poems are also very conscious of the world that they have been written in. One of these poems is ‘Indexers in love’. Cresswell uses themes surrounding love as entries in an index. For example, there’s ‘hazards, 56, 75, 113’. Then there’s longer entries in the index such as ‘heart: broken, 56; in mouth, 24-2; murmur, 123; of darkness, 307.’ It’s a beautiful and clever poem that reveals the very many concepts that surround love through the simple format of an index.

Moving on is an especially beautiful poem. The poem has four different parts, and I loved the final section, a small piece of prose poetry titled Borrowed light. In this ethereal and surreal piece, Cresswell turns the moon much more than just a circle of light in the dark sky. The moon is characterised as something closer to human. She is someone who ‘hoists herself over the hill heading for the sea’, who ‘flicks aside the stickiness of the stars’. When she finally finds her way to the sea, the moon is ‘grateful for the horizon at last’.

And when Cresswell moves to more traditional forms of rhyme and verse, Cresswell’s own delight in the form shines through. In the poem ‘Evoking the muse (2)’, Cresswell proves that she is a wordsmith who is very much aware of the external and internal rhythms that each word carries. This is shown through the second verse of this poem, which is an absolute delight:

He licks in shape the purple flame

of perfervid fabrication

and scrambles for fresh figments

on my tree of inspiration

The sheer variety of forms in Field Notes was wonderful to read, and I hope Cresswell keeps exploring the different rules that she can adhere to as well as the different rules she can break. Cresswell’s Field Notes prompts us all to be open to the various forms that poetry can take. Poetry is riveting because it is so varied and Cresswell’s collection is a brilliant reminder that there is no objective way that poetry “should” be written.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Field Notes
by Mary Cresswell
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780994137951

 

Book Review: Bad Things, by Louise Wallace

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_bad_thingsBad Things, the blurb tells us, is about the different things we do to survive. At the start of the collection, on a single page, two strong sentences introduce this idea: ‘I did it for myself / I did what needed to be done’.

And what has been done? Wallace explores this in her poem The animal. In this piece, an animal lies ‘stuck in the mud, sick and barely moving’. The narrator’s first instinct is to reassure the frightened animal and come to its aid. But then the animal is quickly struck by a heavy piece of wood and the narrator looks up to see her sister, ‘anger still erupting from her slight form’. It seems that while the narrator saw compassion as a solution, her sister reverted to aggression. The uncomfortable ending where the two are left speechless seems to deny the option of reconciliation.

In the poem The olives, Wallace further explores consolation as an option for survival. She starts the piece with a character musing on the scenes of a cooking show. Wallace humorously describes how ‘the chef goes to Europe, and oohs and aahs at things the locals have been doing for centuries’. But then Wallace moves to observing other scenes: the comforting ‘sound of the olives falling onto the tarp’, people who ‘voice heartbreak for those who were shot and are then criticised by yet other people’. This leads to a reflection on the heartbreak that we all carry. The main character of the piece then returns to a reality where she spends ‘the long dark hours saying the same things over and over to her daughters’. What follows are words that she whispers like a prayer, words that we have all found ourselves saying to others: ‘it will be okay / I’m here / we are together’.

One of the most heart wrenching pieces in the collection is the poem Helping my father remember. In this piece, Wallace subtly sets the scene by describing her father at the kitchen bench, ‘his hand hovering / over an orange and a paring knife, / trying to think / what he had planned’. Throughout the poem, Wallace is there keeping an eye on her father, following him through ‘tall grasses, as high / as my head’. But a world of loss does not mean a world devoid of comfort. The ending seems to refer back to The olives when Wallace beautifully tells her father, ‘We won’t be lost / if we’re together’.

So how do we survive all the bad things? Through her collection, Wallace explores a variety of situations. There is no objective right or easy solution, but consolation seems to be a key theme throughout Bad Things. Wallace’s poem Reminders for December also offers a series of words to hold tight to and repeat in times of adversity, and it is a comforting piece in its simplicity. In the poem, Wallace provides a word on each page, similar to those reassuring phrases at the end of The olives. And she tells us, ‘cut / dig / gather / heel in / lift / protect’, reminders to keep on going.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Bad Things
by Louise Wallace
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561612

Book Review: Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, by Liz Breslin

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_alzheimers_and_a_spoonAlzheimer’s and a Spoon is about all the broken spaces, the crevices, the things that have been forgotten and lost. Liz Breslin’s first poem in the collection touches on this theme immediately. The poem is made up of words from actual conversations between Alois Alzheimer, who identified the disease that’s named after him, and Auguste Deter, the first person to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Some answers are fractured. “What year is it?” Alzheimer asks. It is 1901 and Deter responds, “Eighteen hundred”. And yet, some things stay grounded. When Alzheimer asks about the colour of snow, Deter responds, white. The sky, blue. Meadows, green. It is a short conversation but it shows what Alzheimer’s can take and what it decides to leave behind.

Breslin’s poem ‘dichotomy’ explored this idea as well. In the piece, Breslin asks, “please pass me a scrumpled ball… secret me the memories you don’t speak”. As Alzheimer’s grows and grows, words and memories start to disappear. And Breslin is trying to pull these moments back out before they slip away.

In the poem ‘Allies’, Breslin describes a vivid moment of her own. It’s a subtle poem recalling a memory of her babcia, her grandmother, in her boarding house in Oxford. Breslin describes how “the kitchen smelled of dill and those mushrooms beginning with ‘p’ that I can never remember, and mould… Everything in its place. Pressed and fiercely meek”. In this personal piece, Breslin perfectly describes the simple nostalgia that comes with visiting relatives, and the comfort that can be found through memory.

Perhaps in connection to this memory, cutlery makes its appearance throughout the collection. ‘when life gives you spoons’ is a whimsical poem that repeats “when life gives you spoons, measure sugar, stir the juice / when life gives you spoons, fix tyres… call them ladles… scoop the innards, carve a heart… collect a set”.

Breslin is the one who watches memories disappear in others but for a moment, she also imagines what it would be like to be the person with the broken memories. In ‘Alzheimer’s and a spoon, she asks, “Where are they off to, these words / I am losing?” There is a sad resignation throughout the piece that shows the disconnection between herself and what was once hers. Her own ideas feel like someone else’s, and Breslin wonders about “words that were mine”, words that she can’t seem to grasp anymore.

For this reason, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon is a tangled collection. Alongside Breslin, the reader has to navigate a landscape of broken memories. It shows how exhausting the world would be without the memory we rely on every day. I felt lost trying to connect all the fragments of Breslin’s grandmother together, when she was such a key figure throughout the collection. This left me confused at times, and perhaps Breslin could have provided more poems to help string it all together. But also, I recognised that maybe this was the point: sometimes gaps can’t be filled and sometimes fragments are all that’s left.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Alzheimer’s and a Spoon
by Liz Breslin
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522988

Book Review: Flow: Whanganui River Poems, by Airini Beautrais

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_flow_whanganui_river_storiesFlow is a collection of poems centred around the Whanganui River. In her dedication, Airini Beautrais tells us that this work is not a grand attempt to track the history of the river and its people. Rather, it is more of an attempt at a collage of stories: “some small, some large, some geological, some ecological, most human”.

The collection starts with part one, which is titled Catchment. This section covers an array of stories from different areas around the Whanganui River. Beautrais provides a location and a date as a subtitle to each poem. For example, in Clear Away, Beautrais gives the label Ōrākau 1864. In this piece, Beautrais brings us back to a world of conflict and describes the bodies of fallen soldiers, still bleeding. The poems in this section also stretch all the way to the present. In Huihui (subtitle Taumarunui 2014), Beautrais portrays a memory close to the river itself. Beautrais describes how “the water answers yes / to all of Mountain Safety’s unsafe-to-cross criteria: / it is moving faster than you can walk; / it is above your knees; you can’t see the bottom”. In the scene, women glide by in kayaks, a jet boat passes.

The next section of Flow is titled A Body of Water. Here, Beautrais provides more indefinite scenes involving the Whanganui River. In Snow, Beautrais beautifully describes how “The first snow falls / like sugar, sown / breath-thin / on each blank mountain’s face”. Her soft description perfectly portrays the wholesome memory and excitement that comes with the first snowfall. This section also contains pieces describing animals that live in the river. Her poem Tuna (subtitle Longfin eel / Anguilla dieffenbachii) supplies a portrayal of these fish, describing how “The leaf-shaped larvae drift the currents, turn to glass eels once / they’re home”.

Finally, Beautrais moves into poems within the town of Whanganui itself in her third section, The Moving Sand. Her piece PechaKucha perfectly describes the conflict of feelings that can arise with the journey home. She tells how, “When you drive / in, on the highway there’s this sign: Welcome Home. / And I get this sinking feeling, every time I arrive, / that I’ll be stuck there forever”. Home may be a familiar place, but it is also charged with memories that can pull you back, sometimes unwillingly.

In this way, Flow is a collection based around the Whanganui River, but it is about more than just the river itself. Beautrais also expands to stories around it, delving into the past as well as the present. She tells of the nature within it as well, and how it changes and lives with the river. Finally, human emotions and memories round off the collection at the end. As Beautrais tells us, “stories collect around bodies of water because people live there”. In Flow, she proves that these stories are not limited to one realm: there are stories to be found in many different worlds, whether they are human or not.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Flow: Whanganui River Stories
by Airini Beautrais
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561148

Book Review: As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry, by Vivienne Plumb, with illustrations by Glenn Otto

cv_as_much_gold_as_an_ass_could_carryAvailable in bookshops nationwide. 

Vivienne Plumb’s collection As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry  collects a vibrant selection of poetry, plays and short prose from this always-innovative author. These are pieces composed over a writing career begun in Aotearoa New Zealand theatre and leading up to Plumb’s recent attainment of a PHD in creative writing from The University of Wollongong, Australia. General readers and those lured by the mysteries of the PHD will be equally intrigued to read the extracts here from her thesis manuscript The Glove Box and other stories. (Spineless Wonders, 2014) This collection earned her the prestigious doctoral award. Her Australian publisher’s ironically acerbic trade name is also entirely in keeping with Plumb’s own rapier wit and comic timing.

In whatever genre or persona she operates Plumb’s writing is intellectually incisive and visually complex. But it frequently also carries a depth finding tincture of melancholy. Jillian Sullivan’s excellent discussion of this dimension of Plumb’s poetics is analysed in the wonderful essay ‘Landscape and Lament: Anti-consolation in the Poetry of Vivienne Plumb’, which features on-line in the current issue of Ka Mate Ka Mate.

As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry is an indispensable repository of Plumb’s oeuvre. The unflinching honesty of her narratives illuminate the human condition with nuances that make even life’s greyest moments shine with a diamond energy. Her barbed appraisals of suburbia, the universe, and everything, make an indispensable contribution to New Zealand writing.

Finally however, I must demur in one key respect from the design values in this collection. It’s marvelous illustrations by Glenn Otto are a kinetic calligraphy, which brilliantly complements Plumb’s own take no prisoners approach to every topic. However, in my opinion her editors should have restricted this artist’s contribution to the white spaces of the text. Plumb’s material deserves the uninterrupted limelight. She should not have to compete with Otto. Where his strokes spill exuberantly into the textual black space they return the reader’s imagination to the page surface, competitively disrupting narratives in which Plumb’s own extreme vistas and experimental narrative close-ups would otherwise offer the reader enjoyment unbounded.

Reviewed by Janet Charman

As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry
by Vivienne Plumb
with illustrations by Glenn Otto
Published by split/fountain
ISBN 9780473373184

Book Review: Tightrope, by Selina Tusitala Marsh

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_tightropeSelina Tusitala Marsh is well known for being the 2016 Commonwealth Poet, an honour that involved writing a poem and performing it for the Queen at Westminster Abbey. Marsh also includes this poem in Tightrope. Titled ‘Unity’, this piece is a smooth poem that captures ideas of inclusivity. Marsh beautifully writes how ‘though 53 flags fly for our countries / they’re stitched from the fabric of our unity’. Throughout the poem, Marsh further explores this idea, repeating the phrase ‘There’s a ‘U’ and an ‘I’ in unity / costs the earth and yet it’s free’.

Marsh then follows this poem with other afterthoughts of the event. One of these poems is named ‘Pussy Cat’, where Marsh’s personality and identity stands strong. She paints a beautiful and vivid image of herself in the scene, talking about how ‘I frightened the Western world with my big hair… My moana blue Mena… My blood red lips / My Va philosophising / My poetic brown hips’. She wonderfully ends the poem by reiterating the theme of her previous poem, ‘Unity’. Here, she states, ‘Inverting West is Best / Instead drawing a circle / Encompassing all the rest’.

Marsh also explores other ways of describing identity. In the poem ‘Led by Line, Marsh portrays identity as something formed by several different factors. She tells how ‘We are led by line / blood line love line land line… when out of line / with the colonial line’, and how these lines—some part of us, some imposed upon us—make up our identity. Marsh then goes on to describe how we craft that identity by realigning and ‘drawing our line in the sand’. We must navigate what we ourselves feel is true. In doing so, we walk the tightrope of all these lines.

In the poem ‘Explanation of Poetry to My Immigrant Mother, Marsh also wonderfully portrays the joys of writing. She starts with describing the forms that a poem can take, how a poem can feel like ‘the kids’ lucky dip bin / love, grief, rage wrapped in headlines’. And then Marsh tells how a poem can also be a passport and send you to new places. She describes how a poem ‘can transit the likeness of you from New Lynn / to Niutao… can launch you across lined waters / where in another country / you find yourself / home’.

Throughout Tightrope, Marsh also included several black out poems. Black out poetry involves blacking out existing words and, in doing so, bringing out certain words and thus creating a new text. As well as being simple and sweet, Marsh’s black out pieces created a nice interlude between longer works. Using Albert Wendt’s novel Pouliuli, Marsh finds various parts of poetry within this broader context. One poem implores, ‘wake up Samoa and bring a New Zealand storyteller a pen’. Another declares, ‘discover the question recognise how to follow’.

I loved the fierceness and strength that Marsh invokes through her writing in Tightrope. Her recognition of identity and the multiple lines that create it is especially crucial in an ever-changing world. Marsh’s own pride is a stunning facet of her identity, and it shows through in her poetry.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Tightrope
by Selina Tusitala Marsh
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408725