Book Review: Moth Hour, by Anne Kennedy

This book will be available from 19 September.

cv_the_moth_hourThis evocative volume is less a collection of Anne Kennedy’s poetic work and more a set of pieces built around a well defined theme. No spoilers here: her brother died. In 1973 she was a teenager and he was in his early twenties when he fell to his death in an accident. Moth Hour is about a life cut short, it’s about potential, loss and a particular time in Wellington’s history.

Each of the poems riff off one poem that Kennedy found in her brother’s manuscripts and published at the start of the book. It’s sweet and beautiful poem and she carries his imagery and spirit throughout. Moth Hour has the potential to be morose, dirge-like or overly nostalgic and sentimental. I was heartened to find that it is none of these things.

Kennedy honours her brother without turning him into a saint and explores her grief without fingering the wounds too thoroughly. Some of the poems appear to be about a deep missing

I hope to attend one of your parties
before I die
your death has already
been established

from ’20’.

Others seem to speak from her brother’s perspective, songs he may have sung, old rhymes and many voices. It became clear that  Kennedy is adept at shrugging on different coats, Moth Hour is not just about a sister left behind.

At times I felt I wasn’t the target audience for this work. I may have gotten more out of the book if I had lived through the 70’s, or maybe, if I had experienced decades with a hole in my family. I still got a lot from the exploration regardless, I felt like the ‘little sister’ again.

Moth Hour made me remember family holidays with my older siblings and particularly the elastic nature of time when you’re young. Time stretches as you mull over your loved ones, how you fit in their worlds. All those hours we’ve spent lying under the plum tree, organising mum’s button collection or in Anne Kennedy’s case, studying the Persian rug in the sitting room.

Reviewed by Lucy Black

Moth Hour
by Anne Kennedy
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408947

 

Book Review: irony | sincerity, by Hera Lindsay Bird and Klim Type Foundry

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_irony_sincerityirony|sincerity  is a collaboration between Hera Lindsay Bird and Klim Type Foundry. It is a book about irony and sincerity. Divided into three parts, Bird performs a version of irony on side of the book and sincerity on the other with an more essay type text separating the two parts. The conversation around irony and sincerity has been going for some time now, and this book posits that it is all performance, the lines that break your heart and the lines that make you guffaw come from the same artifice. This a very personal text in that people bother Bird about irony all the time seemingly missing the glowing heart of her work.

Bird is a f**king great poet, so when it comes down to the line to line level of the text, I can’t help be in love with it. And it’s concrete poetry in New Zealand by a New Zealand writer which is just so cool. Words move across the page in fun ways here, they change in font size to fill the space, or they are made small solitary blips in a black expanse, and for one section the words are italicised and shimmering on pink paper. There is just a lot of fun being had here; serious fun.

You have to save the dolphins
but you can only do so…

by killing

many,

many

dolphins.

We have the environmental concern being turned into a kind of nonsensical pattern. This is a section from the irony side and because of the razor sharp focus the poetry has this driving nature to it that keeps you reading. But even in it’s ironic state the text still deals with modern anxieties around work and environment, and there is still this sadness in the text. A quiet laugh turning into sobbing.

Because that is what irony is, it is a coping mechanism.

You
pray
so
often
that
God
refuses
to
exist,
just
to
spite
you.

This hurts my heart even if it isn’t meant to.

And the sincerity side of the book is no less funny or winking or painful. These two sides complement each other and we get the other side of the prayer; “anyway, / thanks / for / listening!” Funny things are often sad and sad things often funny, irony and sincerity aren’t any way to divide a book – and the central text lays this out very clearly. It’s a spoof of a lecture laying out an origin of the conversation around irony and sincerity.

And the argument is that ‘the problem with both attitudes is neither of them consider what it feels like to be alive. You can’t go through life without taking refuge in contradiction and absurdity, but you can’t live without meaning it either.’ This takes the exercise metatext tomfoolery to a place where we always knew it was – life is often a joke but it’s one that makes you cry just as much as laugh.

A part of what is so impressive is Bird here has essentially taken the hundreds or so comments that shit on her work for not being serious literature and turned that into serious literature like an alchemist or someone pretending to be a pharmacist when they’re not and the medicine they’re prescribing miraculously still works.

This experiment excites me, and I hope the design and poetry worlds blend more and get more public attention because I want to see more books with holographic letters on pink pages.

Reviewed by essa may ranapiri

irony | sincerity
by Hera Lindsay Bird and Klim Type Foundry
Published by Klim Type Foundry
ISBN 9780473448806

Book Review: The Presence of Love, by Michael Duffett

Available in selected bookshops.

cv_the_presence_of_love.pngMichael Duffett is a USA-based poet born in the UK. He has been a teacher, academic and minister, and is currently a professor in a Californian university. A new selection of his work spanning 40 years, The Presence of Love, is edited by Wellingtonian Mark Pirie. I say with great admiration that Duffett is a good old-fashioned poet who thinks deeply, but who knows how to phrase his thoughts in a way the common reader might clearly understand. These are good, solid poems, as the poem ‘The Corrective Lens’. Here

A man without a magnifying glass
Can certainly bear no blame
For not concentrating the rays of the sun
Nor missing in small print his name

To skip to the end of the poem:

So men without the corrective lens
Of intellect sharp as a knife
Must earn our compassion and not our ire
As we cut the bread of life.

Duffett moves deliberately and meaningfully through the issues he sees from his seat at home, those of global warming, violence and war, refugees, Syria and political strife, as he worries that ‘The pen is no longer mighter than / The sword’. ‘Jesus at the Border’ is reminiscent of Baxter’s ‘The Maori Jesus’. Polar bears and daisies huddle together against approaching visions of darkness.

Duffett views a future and often scary world through the eyes of old-fashioned values. Despite everything, he approaches life with generosity and positivity. He also celebrates the simple and immediate joy of ‘a clean shirt’. And the blue jay, who with great gusto consumes ‘the bulbous fruit’. Duffet reflects on his own life – the house in which he sits, the difference between youth and age, and how, as an older man, his adventures consist of sailing inner seas. These are easy-to-follow poems, written for himself rather than for the market, and they don’t seem to make any bold claims about his own literary greatness. They are enough in themselves.

The titular poem, ‘The Presence of Love’, comes about halfway through the book and calls the reader to remember, above all, love:

All that matters is the presence of love.
I may or may not have been promoted.

[…]

We may have to get rid of one of the cars,
Eat my favourite mushrooms less frequently,
Cut down on the expensive sparkling
Cider I enjoy to accompany food.
I’ll buy books less often but you will be there.
All that matters is the presence of love.

We should all be cutting down on cars whether or not we have money, but the basic message Duffett gets across is a timeless and necessary one that too many of us dismiss. This, then, is a collection of quiet and simple truths and thoughts which anyone can approach.

At the same time, Duffett’s poems show that he is a man of learning. His poems make reference to Newton, Aeschylus, Edward Said, but there is also his little dog and Socks the cat (a great name). He has clearly been touched by New Zealand poetry. Near the back of the book are a cluster of poems that feature, and indeed in a couple of instances are dedicated to, Allen Curnow and Denis Glover. An appendix details his own meeting with Glover in the late 1970s. He himself spots a mixing and melding of cultures in the Indian cup of tea brewed for him by his American son.

The Presence of Love gives a flavour of Duffett as a poet and a person. The poems are crafted but easily accessible. They give a warm, personable and conversational sense of Duffett’s concern for the world and human condition.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

The Presence of Love
by Michael Duffett
HeadworX
ISBN 9780473469153

 

 

Book Review: Lay Studies, by Steven Toussaint

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_lay_studiesIf you judge a book by its cover, then Steven Toussaint’s Lay Studies, due for publication by Victoria University Press this July, is elegant, sophisticated and artistic, with more than a hint of je ne sais quoi. In fact, I actually don’t know what the cover design represents, but the curves of the oriental-like calligraphy and calm background beige clear my mind before I have even opened the first page. The simplistic and tasteful colour scheme with a splash of red indicates that this tidy little book holds deliberate and considered poems.

Lay Studies is a collection of very cerebral poetry. There are references to Pound, Odysseus, St. Francis, with a distinctly biblical feel in places. It is lyrical, and deserves to be enjoyed for the soft and measured flow of the language. If you are searching for the poems’ meanings, then it is not a light read. There is a Notes section at the back. But who can deny the beauty of the lines:

immaculate
the transept rose
in damask steel
cannot restore
with faithfulness
the hawthorn’s scent
to Amor’s nose

Toussaint’s phrasing has a luxurious fullness. There are ‘tea / and biscuits in the vestibule’ and ‘imaginary saturations / of foliage on the threshold’. In amidst the intellectualism, nature is a definite presence:

Wherever apple boughs
deliver, where thunder
earth with crimson bombs
we are.

As are people:

Her attention is an accident
of resistance, shattering
her reflection to get

clean, hammering
the water so hard  she might be

forging an object
amid the speculation, fresh

masterpiece.

Meanwhile, beautiful descriptions underscore the irony of man’s relationship with the world:

Fish too credulous
answer with a kiss
the jighead’s dancer,
and the long rod dips
with their wounding.

Maybe the most powerful lines in the book for me were within the poem ‘Agnus Dei’, meaning ‘Lamb of God’, conjuring a winter’s herd of sheep. Perhaps echoing Nietzsche, the poem states: ‘I believe in a God who can learn /to work new spindles’. He ends ‘I hope you feel safe when you die’.

Toussaint has already published one collection of poetry and one chapbook. He was born in Chicago, and his publisher states that he has adopted New Zealand as his second home. Toussaint does write himself into the landscape. The first third of the book has a poem titled ‘Mount Eden’, even if in terms of physical features, the poem gives us little to hold onto. Auckland property also makes an appearance.

It seems a funny thing to comment on when reviewing a book of poems, but like the cover, the space on the page is well proportioned and, generally there seems to be a lot of it. Not only in the poems, but in the gaps between lines. As an important consequence, none of these poems feel jammed or rushed; interestingly, in Indian music the time between the beats is called a lay. Lay Studies also has connotations of medieval song and poetics, and religion. All are indicative of the layers of meaning to be unravelled.

A commitment to explore these poems will bring an appreciation of their depth.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Lay Studies
by Steven Toussaint
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562404

 

 

Book Review: How I Get Ready, by Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_how_i_get_ready.jpgI saw this book and thought ‘this encapsulates my life’. The woman on the front of How I Get Ready looks like she’s having more than a bad hair day. She’s a Quentin-Blake-esque illustration, as scribbles eclipse her and what she’s wearing from the waist up. I almost burst out laughing. Perhaps it’s a meant to be a windy day in Wellington? Either way, I’m getting vibes of spontaneity and disorder. What a fantastic cover and title combo.

So, the poems. These are anything but slapped together and harried, but they are full of vivacity. Even though the poems seem to be about real life, they feel imagined and fantastical – for example, they leap from subject to subject in a way that reminds me of Lorelai off Gilmore Girls. Like, we start with a potato and somehow segue to a coral reef, an aquarium, blood and a balsawood aeroplane. It’s a mishmash, told by a sassy and energetic voice:

Tantruming moon throws light at my house
like unwanted treasure. Go on
do that one more time.

As well as a poet with a previous collection to her name, Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012), Young is the author of a collection of essays entitled Can You Tolerate This? (VUP, 2016). She is Poetry Editor for The Spinoff Review of Books and currently resides in Wellington. Her confident voice invokes her own name several times in her poems, giving the sense that these are personal, opening up her mind space. She delivers keys to private moments, and we can only guess at their meaning:

As you open your mouth
thousands of fish cross the room
and entirely clothe you in their fish shadow

and even though I cannot see you now,
it looks so good.

‘Fancy’ is catchy with its refrain ‘We should always overdress for each other’. Meanwhile, things get playful in ‘The Feeling of Action’:

And we agreed the feeling of action
as he was flying or jumping or leaping –
a flowing cape would give him movement
it really helped and
it was very easy to draw

These are clever, funny, complex poems, with plenty of ideas to explore. Young experiments with a variety of styles, presenting a poetry practice that is consistently evolving. And the final poem of the book, How I Get Ready, makes us think of a beginning rather than an end. It heralds a step into the unknown:

and the air turns over, gently exposing
its soft underbelly. My going-out clothes are waiting for me
ironed smooth, laid out like a disappearance.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

How I Get Ready
by Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562367

Book Review: To The Occupant, by Emma Neale

cv_to_the_occupantAvailable in selected bookshops nationwide.

Since 2018 Emma Neale has been the editor of Landfall, someone who judges and selects, curates and discards creative work on a daily basis. But she is also still a writer, producing her own work, defining her own voice and in her latest poetry collection, To the Occupant, she proves she isn’t caged in an ivory tower but is herself awake and aware in our world.

What Neale does so well is to ask us to look at an ordinary scene – waiting in a checkout queue, walking with a child, or eating a muesli bar – and then turns us around until we are facing something more extramundane. A great example of this is the poem ‘The Tasti™ Taste Guarantee’ which begins with the confession that a muesli bar meant for a child’s lunchbox has been eaten by the mother. Yet after that admission the poem floats away into an examination of our mortality, our human failures and the fact that sometimes,

when I catch a glimpse 
of time’s webbed, oil-black wings…I’m so stunned and dread-run that even eating
a candy bar in Supergrain disguise
seems to be the opposite of inaction.

It is because she does this so well that the odd occasion when it doesn’t happen, when the poem keeps you stuck in the stasis of the moment, it feels like a let down.  You want her to always spin you from the ordinary, to point at our cosmic reality and whisper, ‘Look!  Look!  Can’t you see?’

Of course this isn’t all Neale does in her poetry. Notably in this collection, she plays with creating meaning without words. In ‘Tone Poem’ she lays words out between musical bars and mixes musical notations with poetry. In ‘Two Birds Billing’ and ‘It Goes Without Saying’ Neale uses only non-alphabetical characters. These are fun and clever poems but underlying them they ask us to question how meaning is transmitted across black marks on a white page.

Neale also captures objects and nature in surprising yet totally suitable ways. A radio is ‘hunched in the kitchen corner’; chickens are ‘laughing as if they’d woken to tell each other outrageous dreams’; unseasonal weather patterns are ‘the chills of a planet running high fevers’. Of course they are! And yet –  would we ever have thought to describe them that way?

Emma Neale’s last book was a novel, Billy Bird, and To the Occupant certainly has its share of boys and of birds, a sort of literary Neale signature. But it is her strong, compassionate wide-open writer’s eye which most defines her, whatever the genre.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod 

To The Occupant
by Emma Neale
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531687

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