Book Review: Luxembourg, by Stephen Oliver

Available in selected bookshops. 

cv_luxembourgLuxembourg – Google it to find a tiny European state with spires that point to infinity, cobbled streets, canels through the city. But the blurb on this collection of poems draws us away from Luxembourg, telling us that these are the poems of a New Zealand poet returning home after twenty years in Australia. It’s hard to ignore the word hiding in plain sight in the title – lux – meaning light. Indeed, there are stars and sunsets, twilights – in many poems the light carries with it a ‘darkening into dawn’ of old world versus new. Perhaps the light is the light of understanding.

I might start by saying that my mum picked up the book from my shelf and was unimpressed with the first page’s description of ‘Desiccated, middle-aged matriarchs’, in the poem Dreams of Flying. Further in, in a poem called Undercover I found:

…This is rural New
Zealand, where every woman over forty
looks like Janet Frame in a parallel universe
of the under privileged… 

These gripes aside, Oliver has a well-respected place in Australasian poetry. It seems a ripe time to admit that these are the first poems of Oliver’s which I have read (though this is his nineteenth collecton). It is on the basis of this collection that I call him a landscape poet. He writes about people, but it is in his consideration and depiction of the hills and valleys, skies and trees, that the poems carry the most beauty, weight, and originality of phrase. The poet’s language and eye is that of the painter as sights are drawn, spilt like paint on canvas rather than described, as in the poem Undercover:

The moon was half. As though the act
of clearing a space in the partially clouded
sky had worn itself away…

…The glass bowl tilts overhead

In the poem Road Notes, there is ‘fog / broiling off rounded hills’, the poplars rising ‘wind washed’. The ordinary sometimes appears; in the poem Dilapidated Dream – the poplars are ‘sentinels’, but also the stunning, as in the poem In the Blink: ‘Drought is the story of absences, equidistant / and everywhere.’ In the poem Apocrypha, Oliver describes houses like ‘a handful of croutons thrown over lumped up hills’. Descriptions of ideas are also catching, as in the poem Road Notes: ‘Memory has pulled tent pegs and moved on. / A sadness of light is all that remains, the mould broken’.

With the exception of a few poems close to the end of the book which caught me with their real feeling and humanness (the poem The Lost German Girl, and the closing lament for the friend who has died), the people in this book seem to be mostly vessels for the poems’ ideas. Not that the human is absent – fossils are ‘substances by which we sense / ourselves’. But the poems are highly intellectual, philosophical, scientific even, asking how and why we exist – Oliver is a name-dropper, a myth-dropper, a place-dropper. I needed a dictionary. The translation of the title poem, ‘Luxembourg’, into German is a nice touch, and the occasional Spanish or Latin phrase contributes to a feeling of intense working. The book is interposed with prose poems, a form growing in popularity. These tell stories and develop character, following a similar rhythm to the free verse which is more numerous.

Places in New Zealand appear – Te Kuiti, Piopio – I am happy to find the poet on the West Coast. But they submerge beneath the ripples of global citizenship that dominates Luxembourg. I keep coming back to the question, what lies at the heart of this collection? Why is it by the lamplights of Luxembourg or Europe or even Alaska that the poems choose to find a place in the world? It will take more than my two readings to interpret the heart of Luxembourg.

I do love the cover, and I’ll admit that as an old-fashioned romantic who loves landscape descriptions I chose the book because of its cover – the opera singer rendered in black and white, her heavy made-up, haunting eyes, staring into the unknown. She seems set in time – quite unlike these poems.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Luxembourg
by Stephen Oliver
Published by Greywacke Press
ISBN 9780646986968

Book Review: time to sing before the dark, by Helen Bascand

Available in selected bookshops. 

cv_time_to_sing_before_the_darkI read this book sprawled on my bed, straight off a six-hour-long bus ride, back in my flat in the big city after a week away: tired, sunsick, and homesick already. I raced through them, loving them. Then I had to go back and read the poems again. Everyone knows you shouldn’t rush poetry (I couldn’t help it; the words were comforting, the voice fresh but strangely familiar).

First to note is the title, time to sing before the dark – words scrawled on a page found in Helen Bascand’s papers by her friend and writing partner, Joanna Preston, who edited this posthumous collection. The title acknowledges the poet’s death; however, the sense is not of stillness or ending, but vitality:

when you hear the birds’ urgent evening chatter
then you know it’s time to sing before the dark

These are the last words said, the last poems published, the final performance. While fear works its way in between the lines, the poet does not despair but rather opens up.

Bascand writes in a graceful free verse that does not feel at all fusty, but has an immediacy and the boldness of real life – recounting teaching her young husband to hang a towel. The poems address painting, history, and myth. We see the earth shifting, hear the voice of the moon. Poems which recreate myths bring their characters close – Bascand’s Leda is not victim; she embraces lust. The poem Persephone retells the ancient myth in a voice that is tangible and tactile:

just a simple descent, he said,
through layers of old seasons – down
into a winter of desire and lust clinging to her skin.

Persephone in the dark night, shuffles fragile memories
like used playing cards – this crumpled picture, a woman
in a paddock of clover – tears burning where they fall.

Many of these poems can be illuminated by their mythic origins, but they read fluently without this knowledge, speaking on a human level. There is a sense of rebellion simmering, especially in the poems which treat on women – Bascand writes of reaching into the tree’s branches to shake the snake coiled on the fruit (Thought).

‘The dancing language (for my sister)’ is one of my favourite poems, as the poet watches her sister dance on the blue coffee house carpet. These do not read like the poems of an old woman, but a woman in the midst of life. They move from childhood to courtship to age. There are enchanting, intimate moments. Bascand has a knack of making memories come alive:

Last night
Orion stood on his head
in December’s sky, and the stars
were as close as magic, as if
we stood on a virgin ridge
and stretched up
to pluck them. (Ring out wild bells)

Ordinary moments are received perceptively: words weave meaning. They theorise on trees, while in the poem The weight of words:

Outside the window, the pear tree simply
stands within the gravity of pears
and their letting go. 

Perhaps why I found the collection so comforting was its appearance of simplicity, its elegant truths. This apt piece comes from within the poem ‘Shifting’:

Arriving

Going
towards the new house
turn
into the street, the front door,
unpack supplies, make a bed,
pick
a flower for the jam jar

boil an egg, the jug –

say

home.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to call these poems simple. There are the wild moments which take breath away. In ‘Reading the night’ the poet states:

It was the wind that did it,
tore through the butterfly-wings of meaning,
left a tattered gap, wide enough for moonlight,
but too fragile to climb through – as you  might
over a sill before jumping to freedom –

Not only are the poems beautiful in themselves, but in the way these have been arranged beneath the marbled blue and white jacket with its single bird still singing by the light of the moon. Most touching is the titular phrase reproduced in a handwritten scrawl on the back cover. This is a book undertaken with delicacy and thought. My feeling about posthumous collections is that while they are the author’s work, they inevitably carry something of the editor with them as well –  they are not, cannot be the book as the author would have made it. There is a tenderness in time to sing’s arrangement that shows the strength of the friendship between the editor and the writer.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Time to sing before the dark
by Helen Bascand
Published by The Caxton Press
ISBN: 978 0 473 45128 8

Book Review: Sport 46, edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

sport_46Literary journal Sport has returned for its 46th instalment, featuring a great variety of fictional pieces by 49 New Zealand writers. It’s a little difficult to know how to properly review Sport 46 as a book when it covers so many styles and formats. Each essay, poem, story and interview really needs to be considered in its own review. There are some very distinctive voices here, and each one demands your full attention; despite this, they feel perfectly at home alongside eachother.

The anthology opens with a interview with Bill Manhire by Anna Smaill, and from there covers an impressive range of fiction. Amongst the more traditional stories and poetry, seven essays fit in seamlessly, as does Barry Linton’s brightly coloured comic, My Ten Guitars. This is a story told through a list of the guitars that have followed the author through his life; from Hamilton to Auckland, from his first guitar at 16 to his friend’s Yahama guitar before it got stolen. The list of guitars survived by the author tell an autobiographical story in such a refreshing way; it would be wonderful to see more comics in future editions of Sport, as they are such an effective yet underrated storytelling medium.

While I love a good poem – and Sport 46 certainly has no shortage of very good poems – short stories are always the pieces I tend to enjoy most in an anthology. Amongst my favourite pieces in Sport 46 is The Pests, a short story by Zoe Higgins. A teenager who builds landscape models discovers that her perfect miniature worlds are being invaded by mysterious creatures. Another short story that particularly captured my attention was Blue Horse Overdrive by Anthony Lapwood. A group of young friends experience a number of startling things in a short amount of time; their band is noticed by a record company, the bass player begins routinely fainting while perfoming, and most concerningly, the band begin to see an electric blue horse appearing in the crowds during their gigs. The supernatural elements of both of these stories make them so enthralling to read; I thoroughly enjoyed them.

I strongly recommend that you get your hands on a copy of Sport 46 and sample some of the best work to come from New Zealand writers in 2018. There is an excellent combination here of the bizarre and the familiar, the distortion of a dream and the comfort of home.

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon

Sport 46
edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall & Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562343

Book review: Short Poems of New Zealand, edited by Jenny Bornholdt

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_short_poems_of_new_zealandI’ll be the first to admit I didn’t expect to like this book. I loved the concept – the idea of a collection of short poems by New Zealand writers – but I saw the list of authors and felt a little disappointed

Experienced, known writers are usually the ones people gravitate towards. We figure if they got to where they are, they must be good. We feel safe in their hands.

I’m the opposite. I prefer to read new writers with different voices. I don’t often pick up Janet Frame or Sam Hunt, which probably makes me a philistine and a traitor to New Zealand literature.

Bornholdt’s vision was a collection of poems that ‘relate stories, describe memorable scenes, set off emotional grenades, sense death, declare love, make jokes.’ She had to decide what defined “short” – ten lines felt too long, six too restrictive. She settled on nine.

‘Ive begun to think of short poems as being the literary equivalent of the small house movement. Small houses contain the same essential spaces as large houses do. Both have places in which to eat, sleep, bathe and sit; the difference being that small houses are, well, smaller. … You might have to go outside to swing the cat, but you can still have the thought indoors.’

I liked the concept. I’ve always been a strict editor, I appreciate the talent involved in brevity. And though I opened the book with the belief that I’d find little to grab me, I was happy to be proved wrong.

I use cardboard gift tags to mark pages when I’m reviewing. This small book is now plump with card, so there’s no way of doing everything justice here. However, some beg noting, like this by Keri Hulme –

I asked for riches
you gave me
scavenging rights on a far beach

James K Baxter’s High Country Weather –

Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.

Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.

Elizabeth Nannestad’s You gave me a shoulder –

smelling of the sun
I can bite on, or weep.

What can I give you
so it’s fair?

Take
my rough, unsteady
compassion while you sleep.

I also reacted strongly to Fleur Adcock’s Things, Stephanie de Montalk’s The Hour, and Ashleigh Young’s Rooms, and ten others besides.

There really is something special about this length of poem, the life it condenses, the feeling it squeezes out of you.

In an interesting editorial choice, the book finishes with James Brown’s ‘The opening’ –

There is too much
poetry in the world

and yet

here you are.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Short Poems of New Zealand
edited by Jenny Bornholdt
Published by VUP
ISBN  9781776562022

 

Book Review: A Passage of Yellow Red Birds, by Robin Peace

Available in bookshops.

cv_a_passage_of_yellow_red_birdsRobin Peace’s A Passage of Yellow Red Birds is a wonderful collection immersed within nature. Peace also explores how human life is intertwined with the landscape.

Traveller’s tales is a stand out poem that pulls at the heart with talks of departure. It starts with a description of how it feels like to leave:

the pull away south, the tug of earth,
the lift into night sky somewhere
far from stars, metal wings tilting
flash the city braceleted below.

Here, Peace presents such a brilliant image of a city seen from the air, lit up by the hum of civilisation. After leaving, Peace moves to explaining the feeling of arrival. But, as it is with travelling, it is soon time to leave again. In this way, Peace explores that bittersweet loop of having to leave just as you’ve started to become familiar with a new place. And then Peace presents a string of further images from the plane that are just as wonderful:

Mongolian deserts: hectares of sand,
brown arms flung out with salt-encrusted sores.
Small waters fingered by trickling, dry stories,
ephemerally bright.

Peace is so very in touch with her landscapes, as she also shows in her poem Oslo autumn. She describes falling autumn leaves as:

emissaries, summoned
down to litter boats,
slide boots on pavements

And Peace delicately references her own home as she stares at the autumn around her. To her, Oslo is

A hemisphere excess
of naked trees that
draws up all I know
of southern green.

Since Peace is so in tune with the nature around her, she also builds up the idea that nature is symbolic of a world that is flourishing and at peace. As long as nature thrives, then us humans live happily amongst it, too. In The dove wait, Peace waits for these birds and what they represent. Without them,

Your fingers blue. Your breath
comes in gasps and stalls and
starts again.

And the tenderness of Peace’s love of nature truly shows in her poem All of it. The setting is a funeral and nature makes a wonderful appearance throughout different parts of the scene. There is an Indian cloth, earth in colour and embroided with flowers. Then Peace describes a multitude of flowers, all in layers. These seem to be the flowers of the “your” that was evoked in The dove wait:

magnolia, rangiora; purple-blue
lavender, bluebell, iris, ranunculi;
pink-red rose, poppy, primula

The list of flowers goes on and on. And since they come from someone’s garden, I can imagine that there are a whole host of memories that can be evoked from each flower. Memories of planting the flowers intially, to caring for them and watching them bloom. Nature lives alongside human life and accompanies it. And Peace wonderfully ends the poem with this connection again. She explains how there, they stood

and looked to release your view across the plain
toward that forest of your embattled love.

Peace’s love of nature fills her life and others with such colour. A Passage of Yellow Red Birds is a wonderful read for anyone who loves the delicate way the earth creates such beautiful backdrops to human life.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

A Passage of Yellow Red Birds
by Robin Peace
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780995109261

Book Review: Photos of the Sky, by Saradha Koirala

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

screen-shot-2018-10-18-at-9-02-06-am.jpgPhotos of the Sky is Saradha Koirala’s third poetry collection. The Nepali/ Pākehā writer currently lives in Melbourne where she teaches English, literature and creative writing.

The collection is arranged in four sections or subheadings – Reach, Shift, Reach, This Time. It spans her move across the Tasman, the reaching for other times, places, people.

The attempts towards, the shifting of perspectives, the attempts again, the relief. I felt the image of a trapeze artist, swinging out to try to catch someone else’s hands, falling back, swinging again, and finally meeting.

I had no previous experience of Koirala’s work and enjoyed trying to get inside this collection. I flipped back and forth, interested in the placement of the poems in each section, the illumination of certain moments.

The first poem I bookmarked to come back to was Yard Duty, the third poem in the third section. Describing Koirala’s duties as a teacher, it follows her interactions with students in the classroom as they struggle to find the name of ‘that feeling like butterflies in your stomach, but not excitement?’ ‘”Anxiety” I tell them. “Anxiousness,” they say.’

The second stanza follows her on shooing students outside during lunchtime. But the third stanza, which pulls the previous two together, was the one to give me made me stop and go back.

Today a bird was trapped inside. There was a warm breeze
and the sun was out, but that bird was obsessed with the
unopenable window at the top of the stairs, wouldn’t
move from the windowsill, fluttered its wings like the
butterflies in our stomachs, oblivious to the door we’d
opened at the end of the empty hall.

I’ve been everyone in this poem – the teacher, the students, and the bird. So very often the bird.

Spaces between – stairways and wells, train stations, the heavy air inside an aeroplane – are known as liminal. Each poem seems to evoke this in its own way, none more so than (sub)Liminal, which falls early in the first section. ‘I’m a little bit in love with the world again today,’ it opens, then describing ‘this afternoon city of doors’ and how ‘Sent words map out wherever it is you are.’ The final stanza leaving us with saturated feeling of hope and in-between.

a little bit in love and a gallery of images
on trains, at stations: forever moving
or waiting to be moved again.

I happened to be out of town attending a funeral when I read the book the first time, so Tidal, the second poem in the section called Shift, was sadly appropriate. The poem, detailing the ‘ritual and effort’ a grandmother used to put into getting dressed up, and the passing of time since the grandfather’s passing on. The final stanzas drew a lump of recognition in my throat.

Five months since Grandma was last out, confused but pleased
to see us all, wishing Grandad could have lasted a few days
longer as if then he could have seen us all too.

As if we still would have come.

In Looking Up, we’re met again by the liminal, in a familiar scene that takes place on a moving train. ‘The optometrist prescribed looking up more / and I don’t blame her.’ The moment where we choose to ignore someone we sort-of know, or maybe once knew, in favour of keeping ‘eyes on that chunk of universe / floating just ahead.’

It always helps to know which station
is the one before yours

and which you’ll be at if you’ve gone too far.

And finally, honourable mention must go to Love Song – a rumination on whakapapa, and love poem about running into Taika Waititi while buying kitchenware a Wellington Warehouse.

The book’s epigraph, I feel, works just as well as a conclusion –

A light went on when he told me
not everything is a metaphor
some things are just as they seem

I sleep better with the light left on.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Photos of the Sky
by Saradha Koirala
Published by The Cuba Press
ISBN 9780995110748

Book Review: louder, by Kerrin P. Sharpe

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_louder.jpgThe modern world is a catastrophic uproar of voices, all speaking with the hope that someone is listening. Even the act of listening can feel like a painful way to navigate the world. There is so much to hear, to try and understand, and the breadth of variety in human life is incomprehensible. The act of saying anything at all can feel helpless amongst the noise. But in this collection of poetry, Kerrin P. Sharpe seems to say, go louder, still.

The title poem of louder starts off with an imagined scene:

elephants paint their faces
to restore themselves

adding tusks where poachers
took their ivory

The idea of imagined elephants taking back what has been taken from them is a bittersweet image. Sharpe continues:

even as guns are raised
and calves stumble
into scopes even as

trunks and heads are mutilated
their painting continues
louder than bullets

The imagined elephants are like peaceful protestors, claiming the small semblance of autonomy that they can through the art of self-creation. And although it is an inspiring image, it is a helpless image too. Painting in 2D can only bring back so much, even if it is through self-expression. The original is still lost, something has been lost, something has been taken by force. And the bullets are still ongoing.

The elephants, like the elephant on the cover, are the beginning march and voice of this collection. Sharpe portrays another powerful voice in her piece they are found in the sea. In this poem, Sharpe explores the viewpoint of a refugee at sea. She explores how strange it is to be amongst the ocean for so long and to be travelling so far away.

my world is the sea
my eyes the sky

All that is seen is sky, vision is turned into sky, eyes become sky. Sharpe continues to explore this fantastical world of sea and sky, with humans stuck in between. She explains how:

my brothers are birds
they wear beaks

But the most moving image comes at the end of the poem. The world of sea and sky may be fantastical and alluring, but there is still one greater wish for home and the comfort of land.

bury me
in the pelt of trees

The final section of Sharpe’s collection, where will the fish sleep?, was also incredibly moving. In this section, Sharpe provides answers to this title question. Maybe the fish will sleep still in the sea after a tsunami, after some great disaster. The zoo will crumble with the fish too. After all,

men climbed the great domes and towers to bring back to Earth spires bells crosses
to melt into money to build a zoo
when the flood came priests told us the zoo was never an ark

I did find the collection overwhelming, but I expected it to, as these issues can be just as overwhelming in real life. The amount of empathy required to understand every voice is a true endeavour. By cataloguing voices and views into concrete words that bring images together, Sharpe is clearing the uproar a little. Being able to identify all these issues, with great evocative images, is a way to work towards them.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

louder
by Kerrin P. Sharpe
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561964