Book Review: the moon in a bowl of water, by Michael Harlow

Available at selected bookshops nationwide.cv_the_moon_in_a_bowl_of_water

the moon in a bowl of water is a collection of prose poems, most of which are small journeys, tiny stories or precise portraits. But reading the collection sent me down a Michael Harlow rabbit hole, I even burrowed out a book he wrote over 20 years ago on teaching the writing of poetry (Take A Risk, Trust Your Language, published in 1985). I realised in the end that I was searching for his motivation – the drive behind this new collection of exclusively prose poems. I got as close as I’ll get with a quote from an essay Harlow published on ‘The Prose Poem’ in takahe – the prose poem celebrates ‘the strangeness that is in the familiar,’ he wrote.

To Harlow the prose poem is a place where ‘the reality of the imagination and the imagination of reality flourish.’ And you see this in the moon in a bowl of water where the poems prove that the author can maintain the musicality and even mystery of poetry within the prose sentences. For example, in the poem ‘A small magnificence, just buzz me Miss Blue’ there is the sentence ‘If you hear anything I haven’t heard, just Buzz me Miss Blue, and that dear hearts will do.’ With its internal rhyme and sound patterns, the poem clearly has all the signs of poetry. But with most poems having a tight narrative prose form I can’t help but think of another genre – flash fiction.

Indeed, reading the acknowledgements it is clear that some of the poems first appeared in the flash fiction collection Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (eds Frankie McMillan, James Norcliffe, Michelle Elvy, 2018). The difference between flash fiction and prose poetry currently rests (says Tim Jones in an essay in Bonsai) on where they’ve been published first and how the author defines them.

the moon in a bowl of water contains beautiful lines; one example – ‘I saw the conducting hand of the wind in the bodies of trees, all that leaf green music’ (from the poem For once, then, something.)  However, if you are wanting new interpretations of sonnets, to count syllables and see the mastery behind each line break this won’t be the poetry collection for you.  But, with 22 June bringing New Zealand National Flash Fiction Day,many readers may be curious of the origins and value of the growing form, may want to understand how it can be used and the stories it can create.

In an interesting way, this poetry collection is a great place to start.

reviewed by Elizabeth Kirby-McLeod

the moon in a bowl of water
by Michael Harlow
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531540

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Night As Day, by Nikki-Lee Birdsey

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_night_as_dayThe front and back covers of Night As Day relate to each other. We see the light casting the shadow of a knotted curtain onto a wall. The shadow encroaches over a picture frame. It is only when we turn the book over that we see the curtain itself and a window and the outside; cars on the road parked one in front of the other. These photos encapsulate the relationship this book has with truth and openness and the need to hide from trauma. As these photos interact to enhance the meaning provided so do the poems interact with more metatextual notes at the end of the book.

The poems throughout the book (split into three sections – that trace a kind of unravelling, a delicate exposure) are accompanied by endnotes which are crucial to make sense of the shadowy shape on the wall. I read the collection moving from poem to its accompanying note; from the ghost of a feeling to the statement that pushed its crystalline form into the world. How the endnotes interact with each poem creates this dual narrative that lifts each piece, creating a space that would otherwise not be present. It is a book of moving back and forth, both literally, as you turn from the poem to the note over and over again, fingers dealing with the problem of page, its rasping flutter, and in theme; the narrator of these poems is moving back and forth between place bringing a sense of unease with them.

the working class, Italian
countryside were skinny,
poor boys in tussock-coloured
frock coats with rich voices,
fleeing fascism.

This section was something of a lightbulb moment for me. The poems themselves are dense and give little away at the start. We are caught inside of a structure as strong as steel and as fine as the hairs on the back of the neck; but something starts to shift. The reasons for this looking-away – this vague sense of staring past the issue – becomes clear. We are looking into the world of trauma, and the real political reality, of upheaval, of fascism and misogyny and the ugliness that coaches it. Birdsey presents us a body that wants to live despite structures so invested in making it silent.

As every condition of the woman’s body
a state of war: clothing, ageing, pregnancy,
            reproductive health, sex

We get the sense that this struggle shadows the narrator, follows them whether they move under the neon lights of New York City or the Southern cross.

This is a threat.
I cannot put a date on this one,
pull me into the realm of forgetting.
The landscapes pass you by,
it’s everything and nothing specific.
I put coconut oil on my hands
and they still feel so dry,    

From what I have written so far you could get the impression that these poems are all drenched in doom but that is far from the case. There are many pieces here that explore the small moments, the delicate beauty we can find even in a world going to shit. Poems like ‘The Green Ray’ capture both struggle and earnest self-expression well the ‘sea yields seals, driftwood of varying/ creature, seabirds that glide alongside me’. And I am struck by how the book ends in this quiet place of sentiment that almost reads like a pop lyric if not contrasted with the weight that has come before;

I keep building this glowing world
with it’s glowing clouds.

This can be yours, too, so
don’t be worried, ever –

It’s you and me,
and we’re going to be
forever together

And for the last time I turn the page looking for the notes connected to this poem which is called One, the last word in a countdown. The note discusses John Hull and his ideas around rain and how it ‘brings out the contours of the audible environment.’ Which is what Birdsey’s book does for her ‘glowing world’ of things. We are not alone it says, just open your mouth and speak into the air and someone else’s world will vibrate with yours and the shadows that haunt our lives might just be twisted into light.    

Reviewed by essa may ranapiri

Night As Day
by Nikki-Lee Birdsey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562190

Book Review: Collected Poems, by Fleur Adcock

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_collected_poems_adcockThe black and white photograph on the orange dust cover of this smartly bound hardback shows a woman in profile, the poet in 1970 at the peak of her activity.  The firm set to her jaw and forthright gaze seem to show the poet in active consideration; judging the actions, faults and merits of those around her, but not sparing herself.

Many of Adcock’s poems in this VUP edition similarly observe, passionately review and categorise people, places and memories- a fitting collection for a writing career spanning over 60 years.

Adcock was born in New Zealand in 1934, spent the war years in England and returned to live in NZ from the mid-1940s to 1960s. This was when Adcock entered into the literary world. She and her novelist sister Marilyn Duckworth both dated writer Maurice Shadbolt. Adcock married fellow poet Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and also, briefly, to an abusive Barry Crump. She and Campbell were friends of James K Baxter (‘I married, you might say, into the art’) and their group held literary shop-talk over gin at fabled parties with ‘home brew and hotlines to poetic truth’.

The collection covers her books published between 1974 and 2017. Adcock primarily uses free verse, but dabbles in some longform and rhyming couplets. Her language is typically accessible, but deeper reading identifies literary allusions throughout. Adcock frequently structures her poems in stanzas that invite recitation at a measured pace, letting the tongue and lips linger over sensual, sibilant phrases. There is deliberation and precision in her word selection, as befits a poet who is also an editor and translator.

A number of her poems finish a balanced reflection with a satisfying (or heartrending) conclusion or coda (as with poems Mornings After and Prelude). Readers with aging parents are warned to have a hanky nearby when reading poems The Chiffonier, The Butterfly and My Father.

Adcock’s poems frequently focus on personal experiences rendered universal. There is love and loss, of course, and the pain of rejection, as in the poem Advice to a Discarded Lover.  Adcock’s dry wit rakes over lovers past who failed to live up to vain hopes, let alone expectations.  She coolly plans an exquisitely personal revenge on a callous ex in Instructions to Vampires, and delivers a brisk summary of a failed relationship in Send-off.  The balance of power is swapped to and fro between Adcock and the poems’ subjects; she grieves but is unsentimental in Poem Ended By A Death.

When writing of family life, her observations often feature softer comments on children’s naive joy or solemn interactions with their environment in the poem For a Five-Year-Old and For Andrew. Adcock effectively uses a child’s viewpoint to delicately frame a devastating adult situation in the poem Country Station.

In the poem Leaving the Tate, Adcock declares the world outside the gallery the best place to view beauty in the everyday: ‘Art’s whatever you choose to frame’. Adcock clearly delights in the natural world, which acts as an easy palette in poems Paths and The Spirit of the Place. In Adcock’s pastoral works, you can see the poet inspecting insects and her garden plants, or striding about blustery English country hills, pondering nature and impermanence. It’s not all intellectual pomposity, however; in the poem Prelude, a stroll amongst ‘hair-fine fronds’ sparks a quick erotic fantasy of rolling around in the grass with a long-term acquaintance.

That inevitable couple, age and nostalgia, appear in Adcock’s later poems.  Funerals become more common, so elegies abound; body parts fail; people and places from childhood emerge from memory. The poems resulting from Adcock’s genealogical research, although technically adept, are unfortunately about as interesting to non-family members as someone reciting their family tree aloud.

While Adcock lives in the UK, much of her family is still in New Zealand, regularly drawing her observant eye back. Adcock is willing to concede that the country has developed a more cosmopolitan outlook. In the 2017 poem Blue Stars, however, Adcock the expatriate wryly notes that ‘to qualify as a New Zealander’, one must turn against the ubiquitous agapanthus.

It is most satisfying to read poems that concisely capture universal thoughts and feelings, such as in the poem Things (1979).

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.

In producing this collection, VUP honours a master poet who is rightly regarded as a taonga of both New Zealand and the United Kingdom. May she continue to write and publish, casting her thoughtful gaze upon the world.

Review by Jane Turner

Collected Poems
by Fleur Adcock
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562091

Book Review: How to take off your clothes, by Hadassah Grace

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_how_to_take_off_your_clothesGrace’s debut collection is a feminist treatise and a raw exploration. It feels like the atmosphere at a first-year university party where everyone pre-gamed Chardon and there’s that one girl with the legs who always gets naked. It’s both self-conscious, testing its own edges, and confident in its skin. It doesn’t need you to like it because it likes itself, but it wants to be seen. It yells.

It is without artifice, but not without intention and finesse.

The opening inscription points out that wide margins were left deliberately, ‘to write down any thoughts these poems might inspire, to plot your revolution, or improve them by writing your own poetry.’

That’s almost sacrilegious (the writing in books, not the plotting, which is entirely justified) and the invite shows an openness, a willingness to be a conversation starter – which this book absolutely will be.

The intersection of sex and poetry was not invented with Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem Keats is dead so fuck me from behind, or Tayi Tibble’s Poukahangatus, but they were certainly part of a rekindling in local literature. Grace’s style is as bawdy for our times as Shakespeare was for his. A uniquely New Zealand text, it traverses sex, the sex industry, relationships, identity, and politics, tripping from Christchurch to Wellington to Auckland and back.

The feminism throughout is explicit and confronting. In the poem Ruin, we find unapologetic sexuality, messiness, hunger. This is the raw side of women, the ‘unladylike’ behaviour condemned or hidden. This is the impact of patriarchy and rape culture and millennia of oppression. This is a poem I would love to see Grace perform. These final stanzas in particular:

we’re the 52% but we’ve been sleeping
too busy counting calories to count on each other
too busy carrying you to notice how strong we’ve grown
but we have grown so very strong

and you? You had your chance
2000 years of chances
now we are everything you’ve always wanted
everything you’ve always feared
and we will ruin
everything

Vulnerability and bravado play off each other throughout the book – the same way they do in many women’s lives. At times soft, at times full of teeth, this is the way we respond to patriarchal pressure, both internalised and otherwise. This uncertainty and distrust manifests in the poem Smoke From Burning Paper Lanterns Stings Your Eyes, with the line ‘Did it hurt when my brother tore the heads off paper dolls?’ and these:

with you, I pulled my own clothes off
slowly, from the ground up
it was weeks
before my neck slipped into view

Possibly the most expressive of this tension and resistance is the poem women>pain, another poem I’d love to hear performed.

you hear the echo of your mother’s voice
“This is just part of being a woman. Take some painkillers. Get on with it.”

this is not a poem
it’s a diagnosis
C-PTSD
which is a doctor’s way of saying
yours will be a life lived underwater

and the line: ‘if you’d only been greater or lesser’

and this stanza:

so now this is not a poem
it’s a hashtag
a raised hand
a spotlight
it’s resistance
it is dignity
it’s f@#k you pay me*
it’s an open letter
a witch hunt
a spell
it’s viral
it’s impeachment
it’s a jail term
it’s a riot
it’s you
this is you

Grace’s voice is raw and confronting and unique, and I expect this book to occupy an equally unique space. Readers will want to plot their own revolution.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

How To Take Off Your Clothes
by Hadassah Grace
Published by Dead Bird Books
ISBN 9780473453176

*NB the actual word is used here, I’ve just changed the letters for the sake of inbox filters!

Book Review: There’s No Place Like The Internet in Springtime, by Erik Kennedy

Available in bookshops nationwide. Shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. 

cv_there's_no_place_like_the_internet_in_springtimePoets like to say that content is form and form is content. It gets said enough to be true, but reading Erik Kennedy’s There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime reminded me that to the average reader (and I’m not sure how many are left given that we go around declaring nuggets like the one above) – the average reader will find a difference between poetic craft and poetic content. They will respond to them differently. Poetic content is more personal – it’s going to be harder to respond to in a neutral, analytical way. Form on the other hand comes with guidelines. So let’s start there.

It’s indeed where Kennedy starts – his title and first poem in the collection is undoubtedly a sonnet. Its fourteen lines follow a slant petrarchan rhyme scheme and begin with a grandiose private contemplation of nature before a sudden turn in the eighth line ‘Wait, am I thinking of the internet? / Oh, maybe not, but what I’m thinking of / is desperate and very, very like it.’ I think form is where Kennedy likes to play. In an interview with his publisher about this Kennedy replied, ‘there’s nothing like conquering a form. Every time I complete a poem that obeys rules I feel like Edmund Hillary.’

Kennedy’s collection is a finalist in the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and his attention to form and rhyme may be a big reason why.

The risk in Kennedy collection lies here: in the reader feeling belittled. His irony could be read as condescension; his satire as mocking. In the poem Double Saw Final at the Canterbury A&P Show, for example, the poet’s eye could be read as ridicule; the poem I’m Impressed as a poem which praises foolishness.

I don’t think this is Kennedy’s intention, but it can happens in poems where Kennedy appears pleased with his own detachment, a smug onlooker. When he becomes more involved in the poem, engages and relates to the content, it couples with his form to create memorable poems. In the poem Four Directions at the Beach, Kennedy makes you look differently at a classic New Zealand scene. The poem Remembering America is like a sad country and western heartbreaker song. The poem The School of Naps is like a self-examination.

I have a close friend who on first meeting I detested; it was because I misunderstood her. I was like that with There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime. When I began reading it I felt like Kennedy wanted to make fun of me. If you feel like that too go back and try again and look at everything he is doing in each poem; you might find something else there which leads you to become close friends.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod

There’s No Place Like The Internet in Springtime
by Erik Kennedy
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561957

Book Review: Say It Naked, by Rachel Tobin

Available in bookshops.

cv_say_it_nakedMindfulness is the goal of Rachel Tobin’s Say It Naked. If there were any form to use to feel out the present and sit with it, it’s in the endless moment of poetry; the snapshots that pull you close. ‘Autumn, Waitaruke’ encapsulates this desire to appreciate what makes up the world around us, ‘A thin bronzed morning, / undressing. // A folded body, / a hill.’ Tobin takes the world and pushes it through thousands of bodies, the closeness of the body throughout the book is one of the things that makes it so engaging.

The narrative track of Say It Naked reflects life drawing, the nervous energy of committing a stranger’s body to the page, or the nervous patience of being that persons who is drawn.

Speaking of bodies, throughout the collection Tobin’s own drawings punctuate the collection, strange bodies vulnerable bodies, she undresses us all and finds beauty in that open display, there is no Biblical shame here. There are worlds in these expressive images, as there are worlds held in the poems. There is a stretching out, a curiosity that of course lands on the political. The poem ‘On the behalf of…’ stabs with efficiency and empathy, Tobin uses personification to evoke the horrors of global warming;

I heard the Ross Sea is getting acid,
though it never asked for a trip.

I heard today the shells of molluscs
making a living there are dissolving.

The humour here stings with a precise efficiency. Another aspect of her writing I really love is the way she can get into those small moments; these quiet spaces become a quilt to wrap yourself in. One of my favourite poems from the collection would have to be the poem On waking, a crystalline study of intimacy;

My voice is cut husk and diamond; your heart
unrolls like bedding when I sing.

My eyes unruffled water; I gaze in the face
of your unrest, and see a sun, nesting.

My hand is dappled silk and litmus; it knows
at first touch, the animal crouched inside your heart.

It follows on like this details that perspire on the skin and leave the mouth in breathless shuffles. We are all bodies throbbing and pulsing inside a dying world, trying to avoid the baton, trying to find a laugh, trying to find a moment, trying to find each other. These lines from the last poem in the collection really underline what Tobin is doing with these poems;

A dog barks.
A man walks past.
The smell of a sewer rides on the wind.
The day is an open heart.

Say It Naked is heart at it’s most open.

reviewed by essa may ranapiri

Say It Naked
by Rachel Tobin
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 978-0-9951092-5-4

Book Review: Selected Poems, by Brian Turner

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selected_poems_turnerIn a single poetry collection you’re able to tell what is currently occupying a poet (it might be personal, like their family breakdown, or esoteric, like the role of science in art) and their next work usually comes with its own obsession. But over the life of a writer there’s often one or two ongoing concerns – ideas or questions or worries – they simply can’t put down. These lifelong concerns (which have been hiding in the folds of all their work) suddenly become clear in collected works. That’s true of Selected Poems by Brian Turner.

In this book, Victoria University Press has collected a selection of poems from Brian Turner’s forty plus years of writing poetry. These poems are presented chronologically, starting with some from the Commonwealth Poetry Prize winning collection Ladders of Rain (published in 1978), and followed by a small selection from each of his previously published collections up until Night Fishing (published in 2016). It finishes with a sizable collection of Turner’s previously uncollected work.

Often thought of as a ‘nature’ or ‘environmental’ poet, Brian Turner told Tim Watkins in 2005 that ‘half of my poems are actually about the politics of relationships or relationships themselves.’ And he is of course right. Over and over in this collection he returns to a concern about the interior of interpersonal relationships. There in his poems are failing relationships, observations about the parent and child relationship, and questions about how best to love and to remember that you have loved. In Furrows of the Sea, from his 1981 collection, he writes of a child in tears at his own failures and a father trying to respond – ‘He is hopeless / at keeping anything / to himself, and I / am even worse / at hiding anything / of value from him.’ Years later in Twilight Days (published in 2005) we see this parent and child dynamic again bewildering the poet, but this time he is a grown child and his mother is in tears – ‘She wouldn’t say / what had made her cry, / mainly because she preferred / not to lie…’

Despite this, reviewers do often classify Turner as a landscape poet and for good reason. There is no getting away from nature in his work. The seasons roll in and out of the collection as he captures their literal manifestations and their figurative effects on people who seem to change with them.

Along with seeing what concerns have stayed the same for the poet, we also see in collected works the way that their perspectives have shifted. As the years progress Turner becomes more obvious in his growing environmental concerns, sometimes becoming so blunt as to lose the poetry in preference for the message. His early works on New Zealand and New Zealanders are witty, he looks at us with amusement such as in the 2001 poem Semi-Kiwi. In the poem the speaker is no good at the ‘great Kiwi DIY tradition’ but he can back a trailer expertly, ‘so all is not lost.’ Only ten years later however his len has turned sardonic. In the poem titled New Zealanders, a Definition there is only the sole line ‘Born here, buggered it up.’

Brian Turner’s poems for the most part of not formally inventive – he sticks mainly to the left of the page with three of four word lines in fairly even stanzas. It doesn’t hurt his work however, for even as poetry movements and trends have come and gone he has continued to write moving, memorable poems. The previously uncollected work shows this, some are among the best in the collection, including Athens and Andros where ‘mythology / reminds us we’ve long been both / creative and destructive everywhere.’

Poetry is a funny thing – ‘difficult’ is a compliment, ‘easy to read’ is a sneer. But this collection is easy and enjoyable to read because Brian Turner has opened himself up to us as New Zealanders for over forty years. And he continues to invite us into his questioning – even while being grumpy at our destructiveness.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod 
ekirkbymcleodauthor.com

Selected Poems
by Brian Turner
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562183