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

 

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Book Review: Aspiring Daybook – The Diary of Elsie Winslow, by Annabel Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aspiring_daybookIn Aspiring Daybook by Annabel Wilson, Elsie Winslow returns home to live with her father, Simon, and help care for her terminally ill brother, Sam. Her former lover Frank lives nearby. We share in Elsie’s life for a year through this book, her diary, which includes poems, yes, and also photographs, Facebook chats, emails and newspaper clippings. This is what Elsie chooses to record from her day, her month, her year. This structure means the reader is glimpsing small moments, gathering up character and events but has to let them go, not knowing how they might return.

Because of the form, Wilson’s characters, and perhaps most importantly their relationships, are slowly revealed; there is a cryptic, uncertain nature to them. This is powerfully used as the story unfolds. But it can get confusing – reading an email on page 69 I suddenly wasn’t sure who had cancer (I worked it out). This isn’t a book which can be dipped in and out of while expecting to keep track. It is better to be immersed in its images.

When I say images I mean both the photographs and the poetic imagery. I enjoy the mixed-media elements of the book but the strongest images are created in the poems. About her brother’s cancer treatment Elsie writes, ‘This is what they call burning down the house to get the mouse in the basement.’ Later she creates Ibiza with words – the people, flavours, scenery – and ends with ‘sunsets everyone claps for.’ Elsie remembers mountains ‘which bite the sky like a deathly incisor.’ My mind can see these teethy mountains extending into the sky just as I can look at the photograph of a mountain on page 40.

Aspiring Daybook is experimental, adventurous and mysterious. It’s a mixed-media narrative. And it’s the kind of thing I love; I’m predisposed to like this work. If you like experimental narratives or mixed-media storytelling than I think you too will find it’s a wonderful, moving, surprising read.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

Aspiring Daybook: The diary of Elsie Winslow
by Annabel Wilson
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780995109230

 

 

 

Book Review: Whisper of a Crow’s Wing, by Majella Cullinane

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_whisper_of_a_crows_wing.jpgPoetry collection Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is incredibly in tune with nature. The poem Winter Solstice exemplifies this. Here, Cullinane beautifully describes what the world is like on the shortest day of the year. Cullinane starts by telling us:

In the dark I cannot say what the day begins with. The curtains are closed
and dreams still drowse beneath our blankets.

This beginning perfectly captures the environment that envelops people and places in the middle of winter. The idea of dreams drowsing beneath blankets is a beautiful description of what life is like on these cold, winter days. Like we are all half-sleeping in winter, waiting for the sun to come out again. Even just these two sentences are enough to bring forward the image of slow days filled with grey.

Cullinane’s voice is beautifully lyrical and a perfect fit for the landscapes that she brings to life. The last stanza of the poem Learning to Breathe Again is a wonderful example of this, where she writes:

Better to consider
the small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world:
a snowflake flitting through the air,
swathes of blue and orange entangling the sky in their warm shawl,
glances to be tucked away like stones run smooth by rivers,
the shadows of our hands like wings, playing with the light.

Each image by itself is so clear and breathtaking. Placed together into a single verse, each image and sentence builds upon the last to help enrich the setting. By stacking up wonderful pieces of description in this way, Cullinane’s poetry tucks you into a stunning world. It feels like a world that has been touched by something magical, a world with a difference.

This way in which Cullinane lightly touches on the images around her makes her poetry so tender. Her poem Finale to the Season shows the world waking up from the winter landscapes that Cullinane had described in previous poems. Cullinane acknowledges:

We’re not there yet, but there are hints: in the pink-red clasp of sorrel,
the cicada easing a pitch lower, shedding its voice.

The subtle changes that come with the seasons is a wonderful subject that once again allows Cullinane to describe the nature around us so perfectly. She continues:

You are primed towards spring in the north, the light
drifting a little more each day like the black letters on this page
as they move across the white space, which remind me
of crows stalking frozen trees, or your breath hard and quick
as you sleep in the room we shared, each in our own narrow bed.

Cullinane’s reference to the poem on the page itself is excellent. The amount of light in each day grows incrementally with the onset of spring. Like this gradual change, the act of reading and moving across the page brings each word alive and into imagination.

Cullinane’s poetry style carries its own grandeur like the landscapes she describes. Her voice is distinct and clear. And in Whisper of a Crow’s Wing, this voice holds your hand, leads you through terrain, and points out details that you may have once missed.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Whisper of a Crow’s Wing
by Majella Cullinane
Published by OUP
ISBN 9781988531229

Book Review: Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath

Available in bookshops nationwide. Are Friends Electric is launched at Te Auaha on Thursday 14th June from 5.30 – 7.30pm, with Helen in conversation with Maria McMillan. 

are_friends_electric.jpgI know, I know: don’t judge a book by its cover. But when they’re as hauntingly beautiful as this one, it’d be remiss of me not to acknowledge it. It is tonally perfect for the poems that follow.

Reading this, Helen Heath’s second collection, was easy. And I don’t mean to intimate that it’s simple, it is not. It’s more a sense that Heath has done the work so you don’t have to. She’s already cut the flesh from the bone. It’s up to you how you eat it.

She has the sort of surefooted style that makes it seem effortless – which is of course a clear indication that it has not been.

For something that marries science with love and grief, the work is never too cold, too clever, too clichéd, or too dark. Instead it weaves a story of questions. What does motherhood mean? Fatherhood? Personhood? What does it mean to create (a) life, and to lose it? Can we ever hope to recall what mortality claims from us?

The title of Part One, ‘Are friends electric?’ references the Gary Numan lyric – ‘You know I hate to ask… Only mine’s broke down / and now I’ve no one to love.’

That sets a pretty strong scene.

One of the things I found refreshing about the first half of the book was Heath’s use of footnotes, many describing a poem as found or remixed. She willingly ‘shows her workings’ – instead of jealously guarding her process, she proactively answers that ridiculous question; ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

The very first poem – Reproach – was my favourite of this section. Its footnote explains that it includes text from Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates on the invention of writing.

You. Poet. You’re hungry to be read
but your words just create forgetfulness.
This trust in the written strips memory
and selves. You aid only reminiscence
and a false truth…

The second half of the book, Reprogramming the heart, begins with another scene-setting epigraph, this one from Arthur C. Clarke.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic.

Reading this half of the book I couldn’t help but to think to myself, ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ not so much a conjuring of the novel as a kneejerk neural leap to those particular words and that particular question.

Heath is asking her own questions. Can and should androids be created to love humans? Do we love or despise them? Is it ever possible for them to fully replace us?

This sense of both philosophical and scientific enquiry is mixed with social commentary and creates a backdrop for the real impact of the poems; in the exploration of parenthood, grief and loss.

The poem In this machine is a good example of these things pooling together:

This small object, held in his hand daily, has taken him
inside it. A dead man’s phone still receives text messages, still
has his favourite playlist to listen to. Don’t reply to messages,
don’t accidentally like a Facebook post using his phone. His
spirit is in this machine. His emails, his apps, his photos.
These are his mouth, his mind, his eyes. The screen he ran
his fingers over.

Just as I was finishing the book, Heath made a public post on Facebook. ‘I created a playlist for my book,’ she said. ‘It will be interesting to see if people make connections between the songs and poems. Some are more obvious than others! Some are just more of a mood.’ The eclectic list included Aqua’s Barbie Girl, Daft Punk, Gary Numan (of course), and Flight of The Conchords’ Robots.

I was happy to be transported by Heath, even into places that made me uncomfortable (see: Uncanny Valley), or sad. And the book’s final poem, while undoubtedly sad, ends on a note of hope.

Something inside me that
was once irretrievably small
is expanding.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Are Friends Electric?
by Helen Heath
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561902

Book Review: Failed Love Poems, by Joan Fleming

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_failed_love_poemsI remember wanting a copy of this book when it came out in 2015 and, being impoverished, I made a hopeful instruction to my future self. To Buy, it said. I Need This.
I discovered that note a couple of weeks ago and wondered why on earth I hadn’t done it before.

The book is split in thirds. After the poem Past Me’s emphatic instruction, I was surprised to find I didn’t really engage with the first section. It didn’t match the recollection I had of Fleming’s work, but I found what I was looking for in the second section; each poem as one paragraph with no line breaks and sometimes little punctuation. It was this semi-breathless narrative that hooked me then, and I found the same now. It is interesting to see how it sits as part of the collection, from the poems in the first section, which play quite extensively with space and breaks, to these in the middle which condense and run-together and tumble but should be read at no faster pace, and then to a mixture of the two in the final third.

Fleming has a distinct talent not only at capturing character, but in unearthing and giving face to the feelings that occur at different and difficult stages of love and heartbreak, often through attention to the finest or commonest of details – a sagging couch where lovers meet in the middle, reheated meals, a small flat, ‘almost-folded’ clothes. For example, in 3. LEAVING.

….He always brought home soup.
…They had really tried. Let’s really try, she said.
…People here are the worst kind of hungry, he said
…Soup again, cold and welcome.
…And they loved each other and they loved each other and they loved each other, and they microwaved each other’s meal.

With many of these poems it is near impossible to pick out one or two lines – as with the final one in part two, 6. TRANSLATIONS, which is painfully beautiful. A relayed conversation between the narrator and an other – perhaps the therapist named in the first line, perhaps only themselves – it describes, to me, the vulnerability of falling in love, of having fallen, of what is left afterwards.

….(how intolerable is your solitude) I’ve talked it through so many times it’s like it doesn’t belong to me anymore and still it’s not gone (without his eyes on you are you still real is the question)

We break there to move to part 3, which is an interesting choice, as the first poem in this next section, First Loss, also feels like heartbreak.

… Sometimes,
you keep on losing someone even after they’ve left.

And this standout image:

your face in tender disintegration

I think it takes particular skill to create poetry in blocks of text. It can be easy to write something with arbitrary line breaks and call it a poem, but to write a full page of text – as Fleming has done with the poem Postcard with the dark in it – and have every line be just as important and beautiful as the last, takes a different level of craftsmanship. The scene of a midnight swim, the feeling of sadness –

…hurrying the careful stumble, faster to the shock. …
And the sea so cold, fuck, nothing you could help, though I loved you for something like helping, or I thought I did, as we staggered out while the phosphorescence curled its light back into itself like it didn’t exist without some bodies there to break it…

There are particular images that caught me all through the final poems, but none so much as in the second part of the poem The life of the body, which is a very good example and summation of the tender expression of everyday grief that is present throughout the book. This is one I will revisit for many years to come.

Goodbye is odd-sized and no
one came and let their fingers get caught
in my borrowed zip

(Note: I have done my best to indicate spacing and where I have selected lines from different parts of poems with ellipses. This unfortunately doesn’t convey the presentation or feeling of the full poem. Please use this as you own excuse to buy the book! I hope the author will excuse me).

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Failed Love Poems

by Joan Fleming
Published by VUP
ISBN 9780864739896

Book Review: Floods another Chamber, by James Brown

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_floods_another_chamberI was given James Brown’s The Year Of The Bicycle when it was published in 2006 and enjoyed it a lot.

Floods Another Chamber is his sixth collection, and I expected to feel the same. I didn’t have quite the emotional reaction as I’d hoped. It took me until about the third read-through to start engaging with the work. I don’t think Brown’s style has necessarily changed, but my taste has.

I tend to look for myself in poetry, and when I can’t relate, I move on. A lot of this work explores Brown’s own experiences, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that as a young (ish), non-athletic (I don’t think I’ve gotten on a bicycle since 2002) woman, I didn’t immediately find a way in. That probably makes me egocentric, an argument furthered by the fact that several of the standout moments for me were in pieces where Brown examines poems, the poet, and the nature of poetry. Here, I found myself.

Like this stanza in the middle of Unresolved Poem.

… When I looked inside
Inside myself, all I saw were people having 

conversations. Some were animated, some not,
and in quite a few one person was sitting in

Silence. …

… Poetry

takes over your life
and makes it sad.

This loneliness suggests to me several things – how poems might live inside a person, how self-examination is necessary to produce a good poem, how the writing life can be an isolating one. I’m a sucker for a good final stanza and that one does it for me.

That feeling echoes throughout the book, particularly in the side-by-side poems Tlaloc (God of Rain), and Ghosting. Each has a sense of eerie beauty, a narrator on the search for something, and a final stanza that could hint at malice.

Our tongues taste
distant blood.

and

… Then
I am beside myself.

You are beside me
then

Even in those poems that don’t have an emotional impact for me, there is a cleverness that comes from Brown’s years of experience. His skill is apparent in moments of sly wit; a deft turn-of-phrase; an unpicking of theory; a very sure-footed word selection. It’s like the snap of light off the tale of a fish as it about-turns under water. This is apparent in the poem Postmodernism Explained.

You’re dreaming. In the
dream you fall asleep and dream
you’re writing. If to

write is to reflect
what you’ve already read, and
thus to reread, to

read is also to
rewrite. What are you saying?
Wake up, you tell me.

Along with the examined life of the poet, there is a recurrent theme of time and its concepts, which plays out in the poem Museum for the Future. The poem has a suspenseful, recalcitrant tone and reminds me of my own ability to procrastinate and argue with editors when I should be “rewriting” with “innovative adaptability.” The final stanza is a perfect example of that slicing wit.

Given a choice, I’d take the firing squad
and look the bastards in the eye because
even with your hands tied and back to the wall
they could still completely miss the point

(I did wonder if perhaps this last could also be levelled at certain poetry reviewers).

And here is the poet again, in lines like ‘You will never be employed in an industry that makes money’, and ‘It is possible to show too loudly’, from the poem The AM Sound, which also contains the titular ‘With every repeat of the desperate riff and chorus, / your despair floods another chamber’.

In Letter to Hugo, we see it all – the poet, the act of poetry, and the passage of time. I found myself in the frustration of the second stanza, which made me laugh and then stop when I got hit in the face with that darn fish.

Hugo, your poems continue to annoy me
Their main purpose seems to be to show
how clever you are… No domestic
detail for you, as if truth and beauty can never be
a walk in the park.

These lines, while not the final stanza, tied things off nicely for me. The man has made his point.

I think we write poems because it makes us happy
I think we rewrite poems to make life better

But don’t rewrite your poems
to please me, Hugo. Poetry is freedom.

 
Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Floods Another Chamber
by James Brown
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561599

 

Book Review: Walking to Jutland Street, by Michael Steven

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_walking_to_jutland_streetI met Michael Steven in person before I met him in his poetry. I was attending a poetry workshop and Steven was seemingly able to hold and recall random poets, poems, even languages at will.  I can’t even recall the author of the last book I read.

So I was excited to read his first full-length poetry collection, Walking to Jutland Street, and wondered if that same deep, intellectual mind would be on display. With two Latin-titled poems beginning this collection, it did not disappoint.

But it’s not just Latin which you’ll find scattered through his poetry. It’s French too, world events, Greek and Hindu mythology. And also web-slang (in the Dropped Pin series), drug-addiction, homelessness and a capturing of an often brutal and dangerous New Zealand male experience (for example in The Panel Shop where ‘Things happened in the yard.  I was encouraged/not to say what…’). Steven rejects any easy assessment of who he is or of his experiences.

Introduced with a prologue and farewelled with an epilogue, the poetry is divided into four (seemingly arbitrary) sections, including one titled Walking to Jutland Street. This is my favourite, as he ranges across subjects and memories like the jazz guitarist Emily Remler, the fall of the twin towers, the constraints of artificial intelligence and Brazilian police brutality.

To me, Steven is at his best when he takes a specific memory or event or image and moves in surprising ways away from it.  For example, in the beginning of the poem Dropped Pin: Latimer Square, Christchurch:

Spring was slow thawing my dreams that year.

Each night, watching the hills darken,

I saw the arm and shoulder

of a sad father turning away from the troubled

districts of his children.

That’s a poem about the fall of the twin towers. But also about a time Steven lived in a homeless shelter. And also, it isn’t really ‘about’ either (see above about rejecting easy assessments).

The thoughtfulness of his lines startle too.  In the poem Keepers Park a simple, sweet rhyme is suddenly halted by, well, complications.  Just like simple, sweet love can so often be:

of the light itself, as lovers do

when their love is brand new

and yet to be affected by complications.

Steven clearly aligns these poems with his own experience through the beginning epigraph from James K. Baxter, ‘I invent nothing.’  In an interview with the Otago Daily Times, Steven says he found in in James K. Baxter ‘a sense of permission to start writing about my own life.’

Some of Walking to Jutland Street is confronting and the experiences traumatic.  Many people die. Several poems are ‘in memorial’ of people who have died. I am glad that Steven survived to write this first collection.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

Walking to Jutland Street
by Michael Steven
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531182