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

Book Review: Under Glass, by Gregory Kan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_under_glassIt helps to approach Gregory Kan’s new work Under Glass expecting a creative encounter rather than a series of poems which will tell you something. If you anticipate rightly you’ll have a great experience, because poetry will not always offer what you’d expect.  I don’t think Kan is using language to create meaning or to communicate; instead as Malcolm Budd says, ‘it is the imaginative experience you undergo in reading the poem’ which is on offer.  That’s a way of saying that Kan’s poetry is art and (like many other art forms) the experience of it is paramount.

Under Glass is a dialogue between interlacing prose and verse poems. The prose poems focus on a strange physical landscape which is void of others. These poems are active – the speaker is moving through and within a science-fiction like environment which may seem strangely familiar – because it is. Kan singles out the influence and sampling of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation novel which shares some similar scenery with the prose poems in Under Glass – a lighthouse, the finding of an old photograph, a huge pile of written text. In many ways the speaker is trying to discover the nature of ‘the second sun’ (Kan singles out The Crystal Text by Clark Coolidge as inspiration for the figure of the second sun).

This referencing and borrowing is part of how Kan writes. ‘For me, creative labour is essentially driven by organisation and reorganisation, combination and recombination.’ Kan told Carolyn DeCarlo in an interview for http://cordite.org.au. ‘It is not about creation ex nihilo, creating something from nothing. This is not a coherent concept to me. Everything new in the universe is assembled from something or some things that preceded it. Sampling in music is now something that is widely accepted, and I’d like to see the same happen in writing.’

In contrast to the prose, the verse poems focus on an internal landscape where the speaker talks regularly to the “you”, the “we”, the “they”. The verse poems are more observant, the speaker seems unwillingly stuck –’Here is the place where they will keep me’ he recites on page 35. There are intersections between the two landscapes, but where? That is the place for the reader to discover.

Kan is a master of creating atmosphere on the page, and it’s this atmosphere that provides an engaging  experience through its 65 pages. But if you want to stay you could stay a long time – Kan acknowledges a sampling for 22 other texts, can you find them? What is it like to read the sequences separately – all prose then all verse? How is the experience changed if you take a deep breath at each double spaced line, or if you say the lines out loud? You won’t find a firm narrative line in Under Glass, or even poems which resolve; but Kan offers you so much else.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod

Under Glass
by Gregory Kan
Published by AUP
9781869408916

Book Review: Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean, by Sugar Magnolia Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_because_a_womans_heartIt is impossible to know what to say about this book because I want to say so many things about this book. It is complex and honest and heavy and light and tender and brutal. It is narrator and narrated. It is the moon and the people looking at the moon.

Sugar Magnolia Wilson graduated with her MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2012 and while she’s done so much since then, including publishing work independently and in journals and co-founding Sweet Mammalian, it feels as if she has spent the better part of six years creating this book. Like only a long incubation could form something so delicate and weighty and sharp.

I opened first to the titular poem. I wanted to know what question the title was answering. Why is a woman’s heart this way? Are we defending her actions, or accusing her? Is it simply because her heart is as unknowable as a needle at the bottom of an ocean, and with the same potential to cause you to bleed if you were to ever uncover it?

The poem answers none of those questions for me. But with its play on narrative voice, it’s mixture of English and Mandarin, it’s evocations of gender and nature, it does set the scene for the book.

As does the opening series; nine poems, each titled Dear Sister, which appear from language and detail to take place in history, but could as easily be a conversation between women today. The fourth describes the needle of a woman’s heart through a gifted horse.

I think the theory presented here by this gifted horse is: you can’t
take the wild from the heart of a girl, but maybe you can put the
wild girl upon a horse and teach her to master some of her own
terrible hysteria. I am expected to ride her and learn to hold my
tongue. But really, she is a strange letter with a heartbeat asking
me not to be myself.

From Dear Sister we wind into the present, where we traverse the uneasiness of children watching their parents love other people, or not be present at all, hot, sick places where

Everyone is slick and fast
even if they’re sad

And then into the consuming terrain of culture and interracial relationship. I fell in love with the poem Snow chart, the story of one person drawing the seasonal nature of feelings for another with a graph. The line –

But love is just another way of looking at the weather, I think.

leading to the final –

You wave the paper at me. See did you see that?
This is how much I love you now.
I nod. We both look out the window, where the
snow has covered everything.

I loved the bizarre, captivating imagery of throwing golden dogs in the air in Pup art, like so much hope catching the sun, and the cold mirror for this in Moon-baller, with the blossoming of the first couplet –

Open up your mouth and
we’ll press our lives together

and the soft, brittle closing of the door in the final stanza –

So, I’ll kiss you on your
big, pink mouth, but leave before
I learn it’s me who’s not fit
for life.

The weaving and shifting of voices and perspectives leaves it unclear where the poems are true to the author’s life – true as a poem can ever be – and where we’ve shifted into a more imaginary landscape. This alone is a testament to Wilson’s craft.

Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean tells us secrets about ourselves, invites us into strange new worlds, and shines kind, wry light on dark places. It’s a collection I see myself returning to again and again and again.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean
By Sugar Magnolia Wilson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408909

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