Book Review: Vanishing Points, by Michele Leggott

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_vanishing_pointsVanishing Points is a poetry collection that brings a unique perspective to visual art. The collection itself is divided into eight parts, my favourite being a section titled ‘Self-Portrait: Still Life. A Family Story.’ In this section, Leggott depicts two different paintings in an exhibition, hanging opposite each other. The way Leggott describes each piece of art is a whirlwind of description that is incredibly evocative, even without the presence of the physical paintings themselves. It feels like Leggott herself is the artist, creating brush strokes as she moves from describing the background of the painting to the foreground, and then to smaller details.

When Leggott describes one of the paintings in a poem titled still life: self-portrait with lacewing, she starts by portraying the sunlit view of ‘swimmers no bigger than dots’. She then moves through a set of French doors and into a domestic scene before pinpointing even smaller details, such as flour and pink dough upon a table. Leggott presents a beautifully precise description of the scene. She describes how ‘pink stars are arranged on a baking tray to one side and the leftover dough shows the negative field of stars’. Leggott then picks out other details within the home: an apron, a measuring tape, a full-skirted sundress.

These details reappear throughout other poems in this section. Leggott delves deeper into the world of the painting by describing the possible life of the woman who inhabits it. She depicts a woman who is a creator, ‘a composer, an arranger, a sculptor of the bright air and light permeating surfaces visible and invisible’. She is also a woman who plans to bake pink stars and wear a new dress on Christmas Day.

Finally, Leggott turns to her own experience of these paintings. She talks about how these two pieces of art were part of an exhibition by Elva Bett. ‘I have no recollection of Elva Bett’s show’, Leggott tells us, but she knows that she must have been brought there. This is because she finds the exhibition as a diary entry in her mother’s journal. In this way, Vanishing Points talks about art while being a piece of art itself. These poems not only describe the paintings themselves, but they also portray the lives and experiences surrounding these paintings.

However, a wide array of images can also be overwhelming. In the final section of Leggott’s collection, ‘Figures in the Distance’, Leggott continuously puts forward one image after another. Some images are well connected enough to keep the piece flowing at a steady pace, allowing each image to take its turn in the spotlight. However, other images clashed and culminated to the point that they ended up creating clutter.

Nevertheless, Vanishing Points is a beautiful and unique collection of poetry that looks at visual art through the art of poetry itself. In the collection, Leggott also explores scenes captured through photographs and describes memories surrounding her father’s paintings and drawings. Using poetry as her lens, Leggott is able to reveal the other facets, interpretations, and lives that can be found within art.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Vanishing Points
by Michele Leggott
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408749

 

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Book Review: Ordinary Time, by Anna Livesey

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cv_ordinary_time‘Peter Singer believes we are all equally valuable and I believe him,’ Anna Livesey writes in the titular poem of her new collection, Ordinary Time. The poem is wonderfully casual, like a structured train of thought. ‘This means I should do more,’ Livesey continues. She then muses onwards and, wondering about the future, thinks, ‘One day there’ll be no book of mine left on the earth’.

These musings on the passage of time are what form the backdrop of Livesey’s collection. She specifically focuses on the time that passes with pregnancy, birth, and childhood. In doing so, she explores the world of parenthood. In the poem Speech and Comprehension, Livesey perfectly describes the innocence of new life that her baby has, the simple ‘infinitesimal knowledge of less than two weeks’. At this stage, parent and child speak in their own silent language.

However, the wonderful innocence of children also needs protection. In the poem Artificial Intelligence, Livesey portrays the worries that come with being a parent. She describes the earthquake drill procedure at Playcentre, which includes instructions to ‘fold over your child like a turtle and hold on’. When Livesey describes how the parents ‘give ourselves up, bend-bridge-wise / over small hearts that judder and fear’, Livesey highlights a vivid image. Each parent acts as both a physical and metaphorical buffer to the world’s dangers. In this way, Livesey perfectly describes both the care and worry that comes with parenthood. She softly ends the poem with a sentence that is simple, yet carries mountains of emotion: ‘One month post-partum, I find, you’ll cry at anything’.

Livesey’s wonder at the growth of her children also carries its own innocence. In the poem Your Mind Like a Pearl, Livesey ponders how she and her child were once together, telling her child that ‘before you were born, you, coalescent, bathed inside me’. Now the two are separate entities, parent and child both carrying their own thoughts within their own bodies. As her child thinks and moves, Livesey addresses her child and states how she can see ‘the physical presence of your mind, working’. Through her observations, Livesey herself seems struck with awe as well.

The bond between parent and child is also a relationship that plays out through Livesey and her own mother. Her mother suffers from time; Livesey brings out the image of her mother’s hands as she last saw her, in ‘the claw-twists of dementia’. She also describes her mother’s hands as they used to be when she was younger, the hands that taught her how to sew as well as the hands that held her close.

It seems that ordinary time has a firm grasp on those both in youth and in older age. Livesey’s own awe as her child grows reveals how inspiring this passage of time can be, even if it is not quite so comforting on the other side of the spectrum. And even if time rolls onwards and all the books we write are to disappear, as Livesey states at the end of her first poem, ‘Having started as a poet I suppose any contribution is a positive mark on the ledger’.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Ordinary Time
by Anna Livesey
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561605

 

Book Review: The Trials of Minnie Dean: A verse biography, by Karen Zelas

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cv_the_trials_of_minnie_deanKaren Zelas tells the story of Minnie Dean: the first and only woman to be hanged in New Zealand after she was found guilty of infanticide. However, Dean also seems to have been a compassionate character who loved and cared for unwanted children. It was the deaths and disappearances of some of these children that led to Dean’s death in 1895. In this biography, Zelas asks the question of how guilty Minnie Dean truly was.

In the poem ‘Where would they be without me?, Zelas writes Minnie Dean as a kind-hearted woman unlike the harsh reports that surrounded her. In this piece, Dean is someone who helps the mothers of unwanted children start again: ‘I sweep their mistakes like dust / beneath the rug so they / may dance upon it / in white linens’.

And indeed, where would those children and their mothers have been without Minnie Dean? By exploring Dean’s story, Zelas is also studying the story of many struggling women. In the poem The home for fallen women, Zelas further explores the difficult position that mothers with unwanted children held during this period. She describes how, after giving birth, ‘at last their shame takes human form / it’s whisked away… here the nightmare ends/begins.

So perhaps Minnie Dean was a saviour for helping to alleviate a burden on other women. In  the poemNothing in this world, Zelas describes a scene where Dean brings back a child on the train. But to her shock, Dean looks to the child to see that she has died on the journey. The verse becomes erratic and Dean thinks, ‘the child is dead / what shall I do?… dorothy edith / dead’.  I couldn’t help sympathising with Dean, so much that I felt a little pang in my heart reading her despair. However, Minnie Dean is also an obsessive character; her endless trips to find more children become progressively more hazy and frantic. Overall, Zelas recognises the importance of investigating Dean through both the good and the bad.

At the end of the biography, Zelas then brings out the story to a modern conversation. Breaking out of the immersion of Dean’s world did leave me feeling jarred, but this section was also important in its own right. When Zelas is asked to bring her own thoughts to the case of Minnie Dean, her background in psychiatry comes to the fore as she suggests a new perspective: ‘minnie dean was a confabulist / & a liar’. The two things Dean cared about the most were her reputation and her children. She lied when she felt threatened, but evidence shows that she could have been a caring mother as well.

The Trials of Minnie Dean is heartbreaking and compelling in many ways. At its core is Minnie Dean, a woman just trying to survive and perhaps doing it in the most compassionate way she can. But along with her are many others trying to survive: the fallen women. Whether guilty or not, Zelas asks us to step back and reconsider Dean as a complex character, as well as how Dean’s story would be seen from a modern perspective. Perhaps in another time, another system that worked to support rather than shame, Minnie Dean and all those fallen women would have turned out differently.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

The Trials of Minnie Dean: a verse biography
by Karen Zelas
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129994

 

Book Review: Field Notes, by Mary Cresswell

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cv_field_notes.jpgField Notes is such a wonderful poetry collection because Mary Cresswell explores a vast number of forms in one book. Just a few of these forms are sonnets, ballads, and word clouds. And each form explores a new playing field where the rules are different.

Cresswell wonderfully employs repetition in her poem ‘Trespassers W’. She warps the normal by distorting a familiar phrase: trespassers will be prosecuted. Instead, Cresswell tells us how ‘Trespassers will be empathised. We will know their destination before they do, and we will tell them which road to take’. Creswell continues playing with the phrase and as a result, trespassers are not only pasteurised, but also exacerbated and liberated. It’s a witty little piece that plays on rhythm and words, with the imagery sometimes verging on the bizarre. My favourite? ‘Trespassers will be disambiguated. They will be turned into tigers and run around the pancake trees until they melt into butter’.

Cresswell’s poems are also very conscious of the world that they have been written in. One of these poems is ‘Indexers in love’. Cresswell uses themes surrounding love as entries in an index. For example, there’s ‘hazards, 56, 75, 113’. Then there’s longer entries in the index such as ‘heart: broken, 56; in mouth, 24-2; murmur, 123; of darkness, 307.’ It’s a beautiful and clever poem that reveals the very many concepts that surround love through the simple format of an index.

Moving on is an especially beautiful poem. The poem has four different parts, and I loved the final section, a small piece of prose poetry titled Borrowed light. In this ethereal and surreal piece, Cresswell turns the moon much more than just a circle of light in the dark sky. The moon is characterised as something closer to human. She is someone who ‘hoists herself over the hill heading for the sea’, who ‘flicks aside the stickiness of the stars’. When she finally finds her way to the sea, the moon is ‘grateful for the horizon at last’.

And when Cresswell moves to more traditional forms of rhyme and verse, Cresswell’s own delight in the form shines through. In the poem ‘Evoking the muse (2)’, Cresswell proves that she is a wordsmith who is very much aware of the external and internal rhythms that each word carries. This is shown through the second verse of this poem, which is an absolute delight:

He licks in shape the purple flame

of perfervid fabrication

and scrambles for fresh figments

on my tree of inspiration

The sheer variety of forms in Field Notes was wonderful to read, and I hope Cresswell keeps exploring the different rules that she can adhere to as well as the different rules she can break. Cresswell’s Field Notes prompts us all to be open to the various forms that poetry can take. Poetry is riveting because it is so varied and Cresswell’s collection is a brilliant reminder that there is no objective way that poetry “should” be written.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Field Notes
by Mary Cresswell
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780994137951

 

Book Review: Bad Things, by Louise Wallace

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cv_bad_thingsBad Things, the blurb tells us, is about the different things we do to survive. At the start of the collection, on a single page, two strong sentences introduce this idea: ‘I did it for myself / I did what needed to be done’.

And what has been done? Wallace explores this in her poem The animal. In this piece, an animal lies ‘stuck in the mud, sick and barely moving’. The narrator’s first instinct is to reassure the frightened animal and come to its aid. But then the animal is quickly struck by a heavy piece of wood and the narrator looks up to see her sister, ‘anger still erupting from her slight form’. It seems that while the narrator saw compassion as a solution, her sister reverted to aggression. The uncomfortable ending where the two are left speechless seems to deny the option of reconciliation.

In the poem The olives, Wallace further explores consolation as an option for survival. She starts the piece with a character musing on the scenes of a cooking show. Wallace humorously describes how ‘the chef goes to Europe, and oohs and aahs at things the locals have been doing for centuries’. But then Wallace moves to observing other scenes: the comforting ‘sound of the olives falling onto the tarp’, people who ‘voice heartbreak for those who were shot and are then criticised by yet other people’. This leads to a reflection on the heartbreak that we all carry. The main character of the piece then returns to a reality where she spends ‘the long dark hours saying the same things over and over to her daughters’. What follows are words that she whispers like a prayer, words that we have all found ourselves saying to others: ‘it will be okay / I’m here / we are together’.

One of the most heart wrenching pieces in the collection is the poem Helping my father remember. In this piece, Wallace subtly sets the scene by describing her father at the kitchen bench, ‘his hand hovering / over an orange and a paring knife, / trying to think / what he had planned’. Throughout the poem, Wallace is there keeping an eye on her father, following him through ‘tall grasses, as high / as my head’. But a world of loss does not mean a world devoid of comfort. The ending seems to refer back to The olives when Wallace beautifully tells her father, ‘We won’t be lost / if we’re together’.

So how do we survive all the bad things? Through her collection, Wallace explores a variety of situations. There is no objective right or easy solution, but consolation seems to be a key theme throughout Bad Things. Wallace’s poem Reminders for December also offers a series of words to hold tight to and repeat in times of adversity, and it is a comforting piece in its simplicity. In the poem, Wallace provides a word on each page, similar to those reassuring phrases at the end of The olives. And she tells us, ‘cut / dig / gather / heel in / lift / protect’, reminders to keep on going.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Bad Things
by Louise Wallace
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561612

Book Review: Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, by Liz Breslin

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cv_alzheimers_and_a_spoonAlzheimer’s and a Spoon is about all the broken spaces, the crevices, the things that have been forgotten and lost. Liz Breslin’s first poem in the collection touches on this theme immediately. The poem is made up of words from actual conversations between Alois Alzheimer, who identified the disease that’s named after him, and Auguste Deter, the first person to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Some answers are fractured. “What year is it?” Alzheimer asks. It is 1901 and Deter responds, “Eighteen hundred”. And yet, some things stay grounded. When Alzheimer asks about the colour of snow, Deter responds, white. The sky, blue. Meadows, green. It is a short conversation but it shows what Alzheimer’s can take and what it decides to leave behind.

Breslin’s poem ‘dichotomy’ explored this idea as well. In the piece, Breslin asks, “please pass me a scrumpled ball… secret me the memories you don’t speak”. As Alzheimer’s grows and grows, words and memories start to disappear. And Breslin is trying to pull these moments back out before they slip away.

In the poem ‘Allies’, Breslin describes a vivid moment of her own. It’s a subtle poem recalling a memory of her babcia, her grandmother, in her boarding house in Oxford. Breslin describes how “the kitchen smelled of dill and those mushrooms beginning with ‘p’ that I can never remember, and mould… Everything in its place. Pressed and fiercely meek”. In this personal piece, Breslin perfectly describes the simple nostalgia that comes with visiting relatives, and the comfort that can be found through memory.

Perhaps in connection to this memory, cutlery makes its appearance throughout the collection. ‘when life gives you spoons’ is a whimsical poem that repeats “when life gives you spoons, measure sugar, stir the juice / when life gives you spoons, fix tyres… call them ladles… scoop the innards, carve a heart… collect a set”.

Breslin is the one who watches memories disappear in others but for a moment, she also imagines what it would be like to be the person with the broken memories. In ‘Alzheimer’s and a spoon, she asks, “Where are they off to, these words / I am losing?” There is a sad resignation throughout the piece that shows the disconnection between herself and what was once hers. Her own ideas feel like someone else’s, and Breslin wonders about “words that were mine”, words that she can’t seem to grasp anymore.

For this reason, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon is a tangled collection. Alongside Breslin, the reader has to navigate a landscape of broken memories. It shows how exhausting the world would be without the memory we rely on every day. I felt lost trying to connect all the fragments of Breslin’s grandmother together, when she was such a key figure throughout the collection. This left me confused at times, and perhaps Breslin could have provided more poems to help string it all together. But also, I recognised that maybe this was the point: sometimes gaps can’t be filled and sometimes fragments are all that’s left.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Alzheimer’s and a Spoon
by Liz Breslin
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522988

Book Review: Flow: Whanganui River Poems, by Airini Beautrais

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cv_flow_whanganui_river_storiesFlow is a collection of poems centred around the Whanganui River. In her dedication, Airini Beautrais tells us that this work is not a grand attempt to track the history of the river and its people. Rather, it is more of an attempt at a collage of stories: “some small, some large, some geological, some ecological, most human”.

The collection starts with part one, which is titled Catchment. This section covers an array of stories from different areas around the Whanganui River. Beautrais provides a location and a date as a subtitle to each poem. For example, in Clear Away, Beautrais gives the label Ōrākau 1864. In this piece, Beautrais brings us back to a world of conflict and describes the bodies of fallen soldiers, still bleeding. The poems in this section also stretch all the way to the present. In Huihui (subtitle Taumarunui 2014), Beautrais portrays a memory close to the river itself. Beautrais describes how “the water answers yes / to all of Mountain Safety’s unsafe-to-cross criteria: / it is moving faster than you can walk; / it is above your knees; you can’t see the bottom”. In the scene, women glide by in kayaks, a jet boat passes.

The next section of Flow is titled A Body of Water. Here, Beautrais provides more indefinite scenes involving the Whanganui River. In Snow, Beautrais beautifully describes how “The first snow falls / like sugar, sown / breath-thin / on each blank mountain’s face”. Her soft description perfectly portrays the wholesome memory and excitement that comes with the first snowfall. This section also contains pieces describing animals that live in the river. Her poem Tuna (subtitle Longfin eel / Anguilla dieffenbachii) supplies a portrayal of these fish, describing how “The leaf-shaped larvae drift the currents, turn to glass eels once / they’re home”.

Finally, Beautrais moves into poems within the town of Whanganui itself in her third section, The Moving Sand. Her piece PechaKucha perfectly describes the conflict of feelings that can arise with the journey home. She tells how, “When you drive / in, on the highway there’s this sign: Welcome Home. / And I get this sinking feeling, every time I arrive, / that I’ll be stuck there forever”. Home may be a familiar place, but it is also charged with memories that can pull you back, sometimes unwillingly.

In this way, Flow is a collection based around the Whanganui River, but it is about more than just the river itself. Beautrais also expands to stories around it, delving into the past as well as the present. She tells of the nature within it as well, and how it changes and lives with the river. Finally, human emotions and memories round off the collection at the end. As Beautrais tells us, “stories collect around bodies of water because people live there”. In Flow, she proves that these stories are not limited to one realm: there are stories to be found in many different worlds, whether they are human or not.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Flow: Whanganui River Stories
by Airini Beautrais
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561148