Book Review: Coming to it, by Sam Hunt

Available from bookshops nationwide.

cv_coming_to_it.jpgComing To It is a collection of selected poems from throughout Sam Hunt’s career (though it also includes many new poems). To review a poet who’s been working for over 50 years, who’s so well known, who’s been recognised by the Prime Minister and the Queen is a funny thing. So much is already established. Most reviews of it so far have been as much reviews of the man − his touring, his drinking, his remote eccentric lifestyle. They become reviews of Hunt’s contribution to New Zealand literature and identity.

But I’m not able to write a review like that. So let’s put it all − the man, the history, the career − to one side and look only at the poems which are in turns clever, lovely, funny, questioning and, the smallest of handfuls, out of step with the times.

Hunt is thought of as a poet whose lines aim to reflect natural speech yet they are full of rhyme and craft; it is not everyone who can overhear a conversation in a pub and turn it into a poem.

Most of the poems in the collection are grounded in Aotearoa − in the natural and manmade paths in Rangitikei; in the choppy waters of Cook Strait; in the salt of tidal rivers in Oterei and Kaipara. They are proudly focused on our communities, our place and the travels of the poet throughout it. The poem Notes from a journey is an example where the towns, the waters and the people all embody Hunt’s pride in this country.

He returns throughout the poems to those he loves − his mother, father and brothers; his sons. These are in turn touching and enchanting. In ‘No bells’ for example, the loss of his mother on the same night as the bamboo windbells on his verandah break are tied together to portray an irreparable sudden silencing. In the last poem, Brothers (which is perfectly placed) we find Hunt in the gaps, the white space around his brothers.

His poems about his lovers, and his descriptions of women generally, generate less delight for me. Women who love him in the poems are expected to accept that he will never be completely available to them; to be with him is to accept a level of loneliness. I find this especially difficult, this ‘arm’s reach’ attitude, from a poet and performer who treasures a deep connection with his audiences. While he is charming spectators, those who most deserve his attention are, like the partner in the poem My white ship, expected to accept:

The ethic of my love
For you remains that I
Am a lone sailor of
The night; captain of my
White ship: and though you be
A good day’s mate, your fight’s
Too weak to rise with me…

In another poem a desirable woman is compared to an unbroken horse; in another a woman’s domestic violence scars are mused over but hey, despite that black eye she is still a ‘sort of mystic hooker’. I wish these poem, and the rest of the poems in the collection, were labelled with a first publication date. Rightly or wrongly, it matters to me whether this was a view from decades ago or from today.

Oh dear, I haven’t managed to review just the poetry have I? I have, like most other reviewers of Coming To It, come back to Hunt himself. And perhaps that was inevitable, because Hunt has always said his subject is his experience and this opening up of a New Zealand life for decade after decade is the ultimate gift his poetry has given us.

Reviewed by Libby Kirby-McLeod

Coming to it
by Sam Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503802

Book Review: Minarets Issue 8

cv_minarets_issue8Minarets is a special journal to me, in that every time I read a new issue I can see it doing something different.  The poetry is exciting and strange and the humble and lovingly crafted form it comes in is a pleasure to engage with.

In this particular issue there are blue ink illustrations scattered throughout that seem to contrast with the poems in delightful and curious ways. My favourite illustrations are the meme-lite picture of C3PO playing a saxophone and another of what appears to be a bifurcated corn cob, that embody the playfulness that is inherent in this journal. The poets in this issue are Victor Billot, Freya Daly Sadgrove, Lee Thomson, Zack Anderson (US), Murray Edmond, Courtney Sina Meredith, Manon Revuelta, and Naomi Scully (US). Freya Daly Sadgrove’s ‘Bad Sex In Big Suburbs’ (which is one hell of a good title) is a playful beast, as quick to lick wounds as it is to create them.

         what will you give for closeness honey bun

         You can get anyone onside with enough booze

and ruthless gentleness       people are gagging

For a little kindness     people will kill for sympathy

I’ve always admired the voice in Sadgrove’s poems; how it takes and gives with equal measure, there is this sense of honest exposure in her work here that really hits home.

Courtney Sina Meredith is one of the best poets writing today and her poem ‘Pony’ which is displayed on the page like fragments really confirms this. It plays with how we remember our past selves and how family provides a kind of anchoring of the self. The numerous subtitles in this piece do a lot of heavy lifting;

Sex with strangers

The man leading the pony in circles was wearing a cowboy hat.

Memories can carry this sickening contrast that bites at the small in the back and nips at the corners of our elbows and this poem brings that feeling into full view.

Manon Revuelta (who’s poetry book girl teeth is a must read) uses movements of the body to talk about interiority. We are meat forms protesting the air;

Look at this busy dance I do with my hand

When I am talking to people

Shredding paper in the darkness of my pocket

She then contrasts this with what the hand is doing during prayer, which is exactly nothing. I feel like this goes past a simple critique of religion and instead investigates how honesty is about communication rather than the lack thereof. In the silence of stillness between two people one can construct so many lies.

The final poem in the journal which epitomizes the desire for experimentation is by Naomi Scully an American poet who hadn’t heard until reading this. ‘p.Rose’ is a dense and enthralling poem that presents fragmented thought after fragmented thought in a way that creates more feeling than meaning. It’s a total blast to read. What I pulled from it was the sense of a discussion on pedagogy and the ways in which we communicate and teach obedience and the ways in which we can deny that totalizing force.

The cube is concentric volumes… And it speaks to Hallelujah. I will not give in. To the heat that speaks of sins. Beyond the paradise of product lines, we juxtapose a mother set of rhymes. Possible. A trace is made between the fields. A function of discrete appeal. My filter dreams are structured why? For pursuit of scenes and substance.

This collection is currently out of print but I hope it gets a reprint, as Compound Press are providing a platform for some of the most interesting poetry around.

Reviewed by essa ranapiri

Minarets 8
Edited by Erena Shingade, art by Harry Moritz
Published by Compound Press
ISSN 2253-4873

Book Review: View from the South, by Owen Marshall, with Grahame Sydney

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_view_from_the_southOwen Marshall and Grahame Sydney have come together in poetry and photography for this collection, View From The South, which is a beautiful, hardcover, small coffee table book – in the best sense. Each page is roomy and the poetry and photography often work in tandem to project an overall image – like the full page photo of a tree covered in wet snow facing the sparse poem ‘The Big Snow’ which outlines it’s fate – ‘a great tree…borne down by soft, white death.’

In the poetry, Marshall places the grand events of life and history (birth, death, conquest) against life’s ordinary and even painfully mundane moments, often adding a dash of humour, for example in the prologue poem where it’s begged ‘God / Don’t let me die in Auckland.’ Later in ‘Tuoro’ the poem remembers Hannibal’s great victory at Trasimeno as the poem’s protagonists sit ‘at the end of a corridor / of time, and drink dark espresso in the sun.’

Sydney’s photography, beginning with the snow covered range at the end of a lone dirt road on the cover, display southern New Zealand as we northerns imagine it – vast and detailed, somewhat abandoned but with a few stoic people remaining. I assume these vistas are from the South Island – there is no information about the photos which is a pity for the curious.

View From The South does feature many poems set in the South Island but I think ‘the south’ here can also be interpreted as the later end of life. Marshall is looking across generations of his family (his father and his grandchildren in particular feature) and there is a consistent theme or ‘view’ of memory and remembrance throughout. This theme is heightened by the inclusion of several elegies. Marshall sees things differently from this view, for example in ‘Blowing Up Frogs With A Straw’ the poem lists the many ways as a boy the poem’s speaker experimented with killing animals. But not anymore.

Having experienced no suffering of
my own, I dished it out with gusto.
Yes.
and now I wince to step upon a snail.

Marshall isn’t doing anything new or experimental with the poetry in View From The South but the compact lyrics are solid and well crafted, letting you into the interior world. An investment has been made to create a beautiful poetry book, with space and colour, and all these factors pull together to make a book which is both thoughtful and delightful.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

View from the South
by Owen Marshall, with Grahame Sydney
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143771845

Book Review: XYZ of Happiness, by Mary McCallum

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cv_xyz_of_happinessThe title of Mary McCallum’s poetry collection, XYZ of Happiness, explains just what this book is about: those feelings of happiness that colour our lives. Each letter of the alphabet is used as the first letter of each poem. The first poem is titled, After reading Auden, the second, Bee story, the third, C, and on the poems go in alphabetical order until the final piece, Zambia.

The poem After Reading Auden won the Caselberg International Poetry Prize and it’s a wonderful start to the sequence. Happiness here is found in the midst of nature. McCallum describes the force

of the river’s intimacy, its deep
soundless need—not sour,
not shiftless, but lucid, expressive,
sweet.

It seems the river is something full of power and emotion, yet still carries a softness. She goes on to describe the sensation of being in the river and falling into all that beauty:

we, the girls
and I, dissolving

And we dissolve with her into the bliss of the moment.

The poem Things they don’t tell you on Food TV was one of my favourites in the collection. In the piece, McCallum shows how food is a great conjurer of happy memories. McCallum talks about the

sun blooming in a bowl, and spooning
yoghurt and honey into a hungry mouth
on whitewashed steps with a turquoise sea

and a donkey crowing and someone calling
kalimera into the bleaching light is just like
scooping up the sun and eating it.

As I read the poem, I was instantly in Greece. The things that McCallum highlights in this poem are beautiful moments that I remember from my time there too. The combination of yoghurt and honey is a wonderful image, and her description of eating the sun and swallowing up that light perfectly describes how heart-warming such a scene can to be. As McCallum states, these memories are things that they don’t tell you on Food TV. They are personal stories.

The danger of writing with such a deep focus on happiness is that it can seem excessive and overdone. Some poems tipped a little to this side. In her poem Just Happiness, McCallum talks about a shop selling ‘Happiness Bowls’ and the image feels overwrought.

But for the most part, McCallum presents happiness in a subtle way. There are poems about when happiness is missing too, and when it’s something that’s being searched for. In the poem C, McCallum talks about a tender subject. The second part of the piece is titled 2. CHEMOTHERAPY. Here, she describes a body

young enough to smell of milk
in the morning, one the mother must
return to sit beside and stand over

McCallum shows a scene of vulnerability and presents the protection that the mother brings. Part of this section’s title is in bold for a reason. Chemotherapy, mother. And from here, McCallum highlights a great little wordplay within the word:

How could we not see it? Listen closely
now for the rest, say the word with soft
mouth lest you miss them: first and last
and barely there, but holding mother like
ribs, the key to (almost) happy.

It leaves you rolling the word chemotherapy in your mouth. She’s right, the mother is always there. Trying to hold things together like ribs, trying to create safe spaces of contentment. Complex poems that explore the different kinds of satisfaction we can feel and create, like this one, gave a true depth to the collection beyond simple bliss.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

XYZ of Happiness
by Mary McCallum
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780995109223

Book Review: Luminescent, by Nina Powles

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_luminescentI’ve been following Nina Powles’ work since 2014, when her first book Girls of The Drift was published by Seraph Press. She produced the zine (auto)biography of a ghost the following year.

Poems from these works have gone on to form part of the unique collection that is Luminescent. It is an unusual and striking thing – not just one book, but a series of five presented together in a single folder. The Seraph website says they’re designed to be read in any order.

The first time I opened the book, (Auto)biography and Her And The Flames were last, which made sense to me these felt like earlier work chronologically. I began with The Glowing Space Between The Stars.

One of the things I find interesting about Nina’s work is that it draws on extensive research, and while she touches on personal experience, it’s not confessional, at least not in an obvious way. Don’t get me wrong, I love confessional; I’m all over reading other people’s doomed love affairs and existential angst and identity crises.

But with Nina, there’s a steady self-assurance, and while she may be doing some exploration of her own personhood, it’s mostly done through the lens of the lives of others. This confidence and thoughtful handling of subject sets her apart from some of her cohort and is one of the things that drew me to her work four years ago.

Each book finds its inspiration in the life of a woman from New Zealand history. Cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley gives light to The Glowing Space Between the Stars. Betty Guard, reportedly the earliest Pakeha woman settler in the South Island, provides anchor in Whale Fall, and dancer Phillis Porter, who died after her dress caught on fire in Wellington’s Opera House, becomes Her and The Flames.

I don’t know if I should make a metaphor
Out of everything that astonishes me

So begins Astonishing objects, in The Glowing Space Between The Stars. That’s probably something most poets have asked themselves, but Nina describes how there were eight spiders inside the Columbia space shuttle that burnt up in 2003. How one of the crew had observed electric currents shooting up from lightning clouds, just days before the accident.

What are we supposed to do,
knowing that all this happened? …

I have collected up so many astonishing objects
that I have nowhere to put them down.

Of course, in Luminescent she has found a receptacle for these objects – and not just that, but a vehicle for telling their stories.

These stories and her telling have a unique place, descriptive as they are of New Zealand history.

In Whale Fall, she imagines herself into the life of a whaler’s wife. The titular poem is haunting, describing what happens when a dead whale drifts to the sea floor, becoming an ecosystem for other organisms.

4.
The place where whales fall is never touched by sunlight.
… the darkness is only sparsely interrupted
by bursts of bioluminescent light.
You can see them
when you shut your eyes.

Sunflowers explores the author’s relationship with Katherine Mansfield, moving through responses to her work, to portraits of her, to talks about her. An erasure poem, Lucid Dream, uses a section of Mansfield’s journal from 1919. This sort of poem shows a particular kind of skill I don’t see many people master. It is difficult to accurately reproduce in text, but assume ellipses to be the erased sections.

…. Cold….
….dream…
….And suddenly I felt
…like glass.
Long…. shiver,…

….a sense of floating….
…..still…. slowly
….I died.
. Time….
….was shaken
out of me. ….
I…
…see… sun… and… violets-

In Her And The Flames, Nina imagines herself into the life and death of ill-fated dancer Phyllis Porter. The poem The echo captures a moment, perhaps the one before she died, perhaps one that keeps her alive.

There is a moment
inside of the echo
of the last note
when she holds
herself en pointe
…. so
still as if she
is no longer
a living breathing
girl but a spirit
… caught
in the space between
the inhale
and the exhale…

In a similar theme, (Auto)biography of a Ghost imagines the life and tragic end of the woman reported to haunt a belltower in Nina’s old high school. The ghost in love describes how she fell to her death, rushing to meet the husband she thought was returning home.

There is nothing in the story
about how all her breath rushed from her body
when her foot missed a step; …
nothing about the moment when the air
that held her skin apart from his
collapsed and she was
weightless.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Luminescent
by Nina Powles
Published by Seraph Press
ISBN 9780994134554

Book Review: People from the Pit Stand Up, by Sam Duckor-Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_people_from_the_pit_stand_upPeople From The Pit Stand Up is Sam Duckor-Jones’ first published poetry collection, but he is no stranger to the act of creating art. Duckor-Jones is an established New Zealand sculptor whose work ‘Strong men point their toes‘ was exhibited at the Auckland Botanical Garden and whose other work is available through Bowen Gallery. This is important because many poems in People From The Pit Stand Up examine the lives of artists and the creating, viewing and coveting of art and creativity (and maybe even the coveting of life lived in joyful community. But let’s get back to the art).

There are many sections to the collection (which at 109 pages is generous). One of these sections is ‘Blood Work,’ a 20 poem sequence about the process of creating and experiencing a sculptural collection similar to ‘Strong men point their toes’. It examines the physical process of creation – “To make a man / consider your kit Large batt scraped clean not warped..” (‘…instructions‘) – but goes beyond that to the spiritual and emotional connections encountered when taking on the role of God, creating man from clay. Ducker-Jones’ poems in this sequence recreate the strange experience of living in a house where clay men are encountered around corners, asking something from you, perhaps for you to deliver a ‘quick death’ or to be ‘held by the shoulders & kissed’ (‘…some considerations’).

In People From The Pit Stand Up Duckor-Jones is drawn back again and again to what he knows so well – art and artists, creating and destroying. But that is not the only theme; throughout we get a feeling of loneliness, though he is too clever a poet to name it (for example in ‘On Isolation’ or ‘Speaking Diary’).

There is much to admire in this collection. Most poems interact with the page in detailed ways; blocks of white space and gappy lines, left and right alignments and lines falling across the page. Those who follow Duckor-Jones’ art will also covet the collection for his illustrations which divide the sections of poetry. But while I admired the craftsmanship on display in the collection, I didn’t feel much engagement or pleasure while reading People From The Pit Stand Up – I didn’t enjoy it thematically, but I certainly admire Duckor-Jones’ talent. One for the artist in all of us.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

People from the Pit Stand Up
by Sam Duckor-Jones
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561933

Book Review: Poūkahangatus, by Tayi Tibble

Available in good bookshops nationwide. 

poukuhangatusTayi has done some stunning work (in what is her first collection of poetry) that is at once personal and bodily at the same time as being an astute observation of gender and race politics in New Zealand. She grapples with the colonised body while paying tribute to her whānau and seeking to make contact with her tūpuna through the fog that colonising forces have placed on our vision.

This book speaks to me in an intensely personal way, as a Māori person trying to navigate both my own femininity and identity as a colonised subject. The collection starts with a lyric essay the titular ‘Poūkahangatus’ (a transliteration of Pocahontas); a bold move which showcases the multiplicities on offer here. Tayi blends Greek mythology with pop culture and Māori activism as well as a love letter to her sister. In this essay Tayi rewrites the damaging orientalist narrative of Pocahontas. One of the ways she does this is by utilizing the figure of Medusa; instead of being a threatening monster Medusa is a ‘master carver, engraving her existence in bone forever. Anything else said about her is a rumour and a violent appropriation,’ Medusa is an indigenous woman in this poem, often misunderstood, often responded to with violence but possessing her own skills and power.

My favourite moment in this book is a moment that highlights the contradictions that we as Māori exist in, which is done in such a succinct way within the poem Shame;

the winz lady who smiles
has a sign in her office that says
he aha te mea nui o te ao
he tangata, he tangata, he tangata

but she says the most important thing
in the world
is getting back into the workforce

Throughout this poem no name is given a capital letter from helen clark to papatūānuku, there is a flattening at work here that draws everything together under its title. These are the shames big and small that bind us.

There is a commitment to show the dark corners of this country: the poem Long White Clouds’ is another example of this. It is a prose poem of sorts where thoughts are cut short by slashes; ‘all anyone ever does around here / is grow weed and stare / into burnt out houses / into the rabbit hole / into the cards’. The start of the poem seems humourous before it twists on the slash. The poem keeps up this momentum until it ends with a “dive”. The singular section plummets the whole mass into the poem that waits for it on the next page which mirrors it in terms of formatting.

LBD is another dark poem which approaches sexuality and race. As with Long White Clouds there is an undeniable rhythm to the piece; ‘I want to dissolve / into the night /it fits / tight and acidic / like a womb / the Parisian catacombs / tombs / of bland white skulls’. Tayi’s sense of rhythm, informed by spoken word and modern hip hop, sets fire to the page.

The poem Identity Politics a piece you can find in the New Zealand edition of POETRY Magazine works so well at the tail end of this collection. I highly recommend just going and reading the piece because its brilliance speaks for itself, but here is a snippet from the start of the poem;

I buy a Mana Party T-shirt from AliExpress.
$9.99 free shipping via standard post.
Estimated arrival 14–31 working days.
Tracking unavailable via DSL. Asian size XXL.
I wear it as a dress with thigh-high vinyl boots
and fishnets. I post a picture to Instagram.
Am I navigating correctly? Tell me,
which stars were my ancestors looking at?

‘Am I navigating correctly?’ this is a question that follows me daily, one I am yet to have an answer to, but this book gives me comfort in uncertainty as it exists so bravely in a liminal space. It is okay not to have the answers sometimes.

The collection ends with a birth, a birth of a baby named ‘Hawaiki / like the paradise’. Tayi returns us to a precolonial garden or a decolonized space where we can imagine who are to be as who we once were;

where we were 
before we came here
by waka, or whale, or perhaps

that was where we were
before there was anything at all 

where we meant something

Reviewed by Essa Ranapiri

Poūkahangatus
by Tayi Tibble
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561926