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

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