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

Book Review: Feel a Little: Little Poems About Big Feelings, by Jenny Palmer, illustrated by Evie Kemp

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_feel_a_little_NZSharing our feelings is not only important for adults. The benefits of emotional literacy can be seen in children of all ages. This book is a collaboration by two people who addressed the need for this. It began as an online project where an emotion was featured each week. The poem for each emotion combines catchy rhymes with beautifully vibrant illustrations. There are 14 emotions in the book, a rainbow of expressions and images, that use colour to reinforce ideas. Following the success of the venture, the poems were gathered into this hard cover book which is best suited for 7-11 year olds.

While the poems are quite long and complex, they would make a useful starter as an educational focus. I could see myself in teaching, using a poem each week and basing activities on these. Movement, music and art would flow naturally from discussions about, “When I feel Sad”. In the home, the book might be read over a number of weeks allowing for family discussions about times when we have felt that emotion. I would struggle to read the whole book in a sitting, but do not feel this was the intended purpose of the authors.

Feel a Little is an exciting collaboration because it addresses the emotional needs of children in words and images. By choosing to publish these poems they will access a wider audience and be useful in many situations. My copy has already gone to my Grandaughter’s preschool who intend to use it in their programmes. That must be a sure sign of a successful book.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Feel a Little: Little Poems About Big Feelings
by Jenny Palmer, illustrated by Evie Kemp
Published by Little Love
ISBN 9780473384456

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