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

Available in bookshops nationwide.

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

Available in bookshops nationwide.

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

 

Book Review: Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_truth_and_beauty.jpgThere has been a surge in recent culture, and across disciplines, of what we could term as biographical impulse. Objects, diseases and cities, through to created historical figures in art works, have all been examined through this lens, which involves interpreting a range of material to construct a narrative. This surge has also led to increasing awareness of the tension in biographical enterprise: there is a constant process of resurrection and modification.

Both impulse and tension are reflected, and even cultivated, in the emergence of a new genre, which is subject to critical discussion in Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma. ‘Verse biography’ melds biography and poetry to produce works where ‘the competing and complementary claims of truth and beauty’ find home in historical figures, whose lives are rendered in poetry.

Biography often favours chronology as the driving narrative force or main thread of work, which is then fleshed out with anecdotes and facts, reliable accounts, and investigations of identity. But verse presents another way of looking at things – ‘a freedom from the concerns of conventional biography’. It emphasises moments, highlights omissions, plays with chronology and is free from the burden of establishing authority or authenticity. We see this tendency in Anne Carson’s lyrical treatment of Sappho’s fragments, where she plays with square brackets to indicate omission: ‘Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it.’

There is an inevitable jousting between the autobiographical and biographical in any act of interpretation or reconstruction, but verse biography stands apart in its approach – it is deliberate and self-aware, conscious of its subjectivity. Not only does verse biography provide another framing for the story of a historical person – for example a look at Billy the Kid in Michael Ondjaate’s work focuses on Billy’s later years, his intimates, what drives him to violence – his ‘trials and tribulations in New Mexico’. But there is also a framing of the relationship between subject and writer, which propels us to consider whose voice is speaking through these works? In Margaret Atwood’s rendering of Susanna Moodie we are unsure whether it is writer or subject: ‘The mouth produces words/I said I created/ myself, and these/frames, comma, calendars/ that enclose me’.

Through various poets’ treatments of figures such as Emile Bronte, Captain Cook and Akhenaten, the cycle of destruction and renewal – of resurrection and modification – ‘reminds us that historical figures are but characters marked beneath our current selves.’ With contributions from academics and poets (sometimes both), the essays survey the concerns of voice, palimpsests, masks, mythologising, characters as vehicles for contemporary messages – and bring this ‘construction of life’ to the reader’s attention – revealing the awareness of these verse biographers carry in their works.

Although this academic text is by no means light reading, Truth and Beauty holds a certain unruly appeal in that it captures a moment in time in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the emerging cultural practice of verse biography sits on the cusp of becoming something in particular. The collection of ten essays, which form this satisfying tome from Victoria University Press, critically analyses important verse biographers and captures this lively diversity, where ‘individual works are so variously influenced, so eclectic in approach to the idea of verse biography, and so various in form’. The range of possibilities before the institution of a canon or genre settles, and the freedom this entails, is exciting to consider. Indeed ‘verse biography expands the possibilities for both biography and lyric’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand
edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560974

 

Book Review: New Sea Land, by Tim Jones

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_new_sea_landYou can lick the salt off this poetry, half expect sand to spill from the centrefold. Tim Jones’ latest collection, New Sea Land, is part history, part rattling fortune-telling. It is a slap on the face by a wet fish, a digging up of heads-in-the-sand. Jones has spied a calamity from the shoreline, an oncoming deluge. History is repeating on us, and this time the tide is coming in full.

New Sea Land is salty, but it is not your run-of-the-mill nostalgic beach jaunt. The sea and land are dispassionate players in a human-instigated ecological meltdown. Jones’ sea ‘does not mean any harm’ and his ‘sea does not apologise’. The sea is a desultory child, nibbling at the edges of things, erasing ‘Beachfront property / … with the stroke of a pen’.

Jones’ work is didactic, but not earnest at the expense of a playful image or a great one-liner. He pokes tongue at the itch for beachfront investments, and the securing of LIM reports. In a great little anachronism, Jones has Noah’s (of the Ark) carpenter crew curse ‘zero hours contracts’ and swim away from the job. Then there’s an alternative history played out, wherein Captain Cook and Dracula take ‘tea and blood together’ in Kealakekua Bay. It is all fun-and-games, but the broader picture is sober and confronting.

The world is falling apart at its seams. This is a New Zealand where climate change is playing out. The sea floods Lambton Quay, rolls over childhood homes, and meets householders at their doorsteps. People are left with new geographies of which to make sense. Jones gives us a periscope to a time where myopic vision has crystallised into something tangible. It is only once the impact is ostensible that we realise we ‘backed the wrong horse’.

There’s a passing of the torch, from one generation to the next, but one gets the sense that the flame has gone out. Jones’ people are asleep or in denial. They leave a legacy of rash decisions, a lack of investment in a future beyond their own:

‘You slept until you lost the path,

and woke to find your children’s path
blocked by rocks you long ago set falling’

New Sea Land glances backward, as much as it forecasts. It reflects on history, memory that ‘renders everything askew’. Jones stresses the importance of cognition of times-gone-by, in the navigation of a future. His people, though, are ‘so eager to obliterate the past’ that they ‘wash away the stepping stones’. Condemned to repeat past error, through disavowal of history, we find ‘all our futures / are hostage to our actions’.

Jones’ poetry is a caution and a premonition. ‘Nature doesn’t stuff around’. The sea and the land couldn’t care less about where we’re heading. Jones writes so well, you might lose sight of the fact you’re getting cold water thrown at you. You can lick the salt off this poetry, by all means. But Tim Jones doesn’t give you halcyon coastlines or ice-lollies on the beach. This is poetry that knows what’s coming, and insists you ‘keep your life raft close at hand’.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

New Sea Land
by Tim Jones
Submarine (an imprint of Mākaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129963

Book Review: Aboriginal to Nowhere, by Brentley Frazer

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aboriginal_to_nowhere.jpgAboriginal to Nowhere is a love-letter to a world that ultimately rejects its people. It is a celebration of grunge, and a roll call of those things that are lame, cast-off, defunct and unlovable. It is about people divorced from the places they inhabit, and people who are disorientated in their own homes. Like those Talking Heads lyrics, ‘And you may tell yourself / this is not my beautiful house’, its people are bewildered. It also speaks to the profound loneliness ‘of the post-modern dispossessed’, the sort of grubby solitude that finds itself in a throng queuing for the Portaloos.

Frazer’s poems find beauty in the brokenness of things. Like Kintsugi, the Japanese practice of repairing fractured pottery with gold, Frazer conjures rich images from the ‘buckets of colonial rubbish’. While much of his poetry is sprawling and untethered, there are hushed moments:

‘The sky bruised over
slate roofs, the wind
moaning through louvres
leaves brown as coffee
rings.’

Most of his verse has a sort of musical harangue feel to it. The first poetic set, Aboriginal to Nowhere – Song Cycle of the Post Modern Dispossessed, pairs the technological and the ecological, through anxious reflections about man-made worlds and the alienation they can create. Frazer’s characters are watched by CCTVs and crows. They chart a course through a shifting Australia, one where ‘The indigenous goddess exits / stage left’ and people ‘bulldoze dream time for a freeway’. It is a rousing, rambling, and often irreverent, address to the nation. ‘Are you my mother, Australia?’ his speaker asks. The Australia that we find in the poems is more insouciant parent than maternal presence. And yet there are images, beyond the ‘broken hopes’, ‘generational displacement’ and ‘collapsed footpaths’, a sort of nostalgia for an Australia that may never have existed.

Aboriginal to Nowhere explores existential themes. Freewill and determinism wrangle in the cityscape. ‘Man, I didn’t get a choice where my consciousness / landed’. Cultural appropriation is prised open, xenophobia explored. There are questions of meaning in a world where the ‘Eternal Being’ is ‘an angry cynic’. ‘I don’t know what I am doing here’, the speaker exclaims. People depersonalise, aliens in their own skin. ‘Most days I feel like an actor ‘. And in a nod to Plato:

‘You are a piece of nothing,
shadows on the factory wall’

Frazer invites life’s dissonances to the table. Sometimes ‘the music and the lyrics / don’t match the visuals’. He entertains a ‘happy drowning feeling’. In all of this he steps lightly, capering around concepts, toying with the reader’s ability to hold two contrary ideas in mind.

Mostly, though, Aboriginal to Nowhere is about people – all sorts of folk. We meet hipsters and junkies, the mentally ill, beer guzzlers, strippers, rednecks, millennials, academics, immigrants, city slickers and farmers. Frazer’s is a world populated and full of noise, but ultimately nobody’s.

This is a thoughtful and fierce collection. Frazer is a visionary at a time when humanity risks losing touch with its core animality, and the real-world places in which it finds itself.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Aboriginal to Nowhere
by Brentley Frazer
Published by HeadworX
ISBN 9780473365677