Book Review: Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017, edited by Jack Ross

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_poetry_nz_yearbookThe best way to take the pulse and determine the health of poetry in New Zealand is to crack open the Poetry New Zealand Yearbook. It is proof that the art form is very much alive and vibrant in 2017. As the first issue through Massey University Press, the journal covers a lot of ground. Since its inception in the 1950s, the journal continues to showcase poets of longstanding, such as Riemke Ensing, Michelle Leggott, Owen Marshall, Iain Britton and Elizabeth Smither, while introducing readers to younger, emerging poets, such as Devon Webb, Callum Stembridge and Harriet Beth.

The inclusivity of this issue is a sign of the times, with a curatorial tendency towards one or two poems from a larger pool, rather than several poems from fewer writers. This makes sense from a sales and marketing perspective. It widens the net of potential readers in the form of friends and families of the poets. As a reader, it is akin to the way television flits from image to image at breakneck speed; it allows little time for immersion and only a brief window into the sensibilities and fascinations of each poet.

On the subject of inclusion, Janet Charman’s feminist essay on the editorship of Alan Curnow is a brave and robust insight. In her well-researched piece, Charman explores the historical tendency toward erasure of the feminine within New Zealand poetry anthologies.  In 2017, the journal celebrates and promotes the work of women poets, both through featuring their work and discussing their books in the review section.

Elizabeth Morton’s suite is accomplished and mesmerising. At times her work sends the reader on a surreal journey, like a Chagall painting. She drifts in and out of dark themes, from the personal (visiting someone in hospital) to the political (the refugee crisis). It is satisfying and intriguing work: ‘I bring you / blackberries, frankincense, / lorazepam. / I make marionettes with my hands / I make you the best alpaca you’ve ever seen.’

In terms of content, not many poets included attempt traditional forms, opting instead for mostly blank or free verse. The poems meant for performance are easy to spot, with their emphasis on the lyrical rhythm: ‘Do not become / your mother. / Not because you / do not  love her, / you do… (Note to self).’ The inclusion of poetry from this milieu offers a fantastic glimpse of the generation gap in approaches to the craft (why labour over an enjambment when the meaning will be lost when read aloud?).

Of course, it wouldn’t be New Zealand poetry without the references to the great outdoors: ‘for several summers we camped there / canvas tents cheek-by-jowl guy-ropes… (Paraparaumu) and familiar settings (A Dunedin bar, the Wellesley Street intersection).’

This collection offers jumping off points for anyone, no matter your poetic inclination. Not one to be raced through, each reading brings a fresh new image, ‘when you least expect…a dull ache in the memory (When you least expect) …has the / power to flatten me.’ (Lithium).

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2017 
edited by Jack Ross
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994136350

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Book Review: The Internet of Things, by Kate Camp

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_internet_of_thingsThe title of poet Kate Camp’s latest collection is telling. The Internet of Things is the latest phrase being bandied about by technology bloggers. According to the Internet (funnily enough), it was first coined by someone called Peter T. Lewis as far back as the end of the late 1980s. It refers to a future where physical objects are connected via, you guessed it, the Internet. Alternatively called ‘smart’ technology, the phrase evokes objects speaking to one another without the need for human intervention.

With that context in mind, we delve into Kate’s poems, where objects do indeed speak and tell stories, beginning with the title poem. Here, the narrator visits John Lennon’s aunt Mimi’s home in Liverpool and the surrounding ports (ports of course having a double meaning, pops up in several poems).  The cover picture of the seemingly miniature kitchen evokes the objects of a children’s tea party, with its symbolic collection of objects for various dining rituals. There is a feeling of unreality to the photograph, like a staged home in a museum. Each object is clean, with no traces of the ‘eggs and chips’ or the whistle and steam of the kettle as Mimi made John his cups of tea.

As we move through the poems, we are presented with an array of objects, from the most banal (the contents of a rubbish bin), to the paintings of Rembrandt and the subject, St Jerome’s slippers (Like those white towelling freebies from a hotel). The poet imbues the mundane with a cheeky questioning and likewise grounds the typically austere objects of the art world with connections to the everyday. It is a rich source of subject matter for a poet and one that Kate surveys with skill and ease.

Poems such as Lego Lost at Sea, offer a glimpse of how absurd some childhood objects appear in different contexts. Based on a true story where millions of pieces of Lego were lost overboard in 1997, the poem sketches a scenario where a diver is depicted in the wooden fashion of a Lego person and the cartoonish stories those of us who played with Lego created.

Utilising the metaphor of the title again, we find Kate describing the body as being made up of channels, tunnels and space (a light elusion to the idea of cyber space perhaps?) In the poem Woman at Breakfast, Kate writes:

as most of us is empty space
around which our elements move
in their microscopic orbits. 

Then, we find gems such as the line, the dull miraculous privacy of the human mind. Much like the internet, Kate renders the body as repetitious and boring, but also a thing of wonder. As the book progresses, we are treated to natural imagery as well, so that we are not given a mechanical treatise or a metallic insight into a dystopian future. Rather, the works are often miniature nostalgias; poems that are objects in their own right; speaking to us and connecting with each of us silently and dynamically, wherever we might be.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

The Internet of Things
by Kate Camp
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561063

Book Review: Lucky Punch, by Simone Kaho

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_lucky_punchFollowers of Simone Kaho’s poetry and spoken word performances on various stages will be delighted and surprised by her debut collection. As a performer, she is vivacious and alluring. Her captivating readings lure you in, captivating you with her tales of extended family foibles, childhood fascinations and modern city romance and heartbreak. At times Simone’s work has a dark undercurrent in the form of vignettes capturing various acts of violence and casual misogyny. Lucky Punch is in fact a string of inter-related vignettes, verging on prose poetry, with some more formal poems interspersed. Each one is short and succinct, requiring the reader to pause before moving to the next one. Set mainly in Waterview, Auckland in the 1980s, it is as much a coming-of-age story, as it is a poetic reflection of a domestic and urban life, through the eyes of a curious child.

The illustrations that grace the monochrome cover are courtesy of a young relative of Simone’s. They depict a child bobbing above the waves; the title submerged and a wide-eyed character navigating this subterranean world in big heels. On the back, we have a man and possibly a woman in freefall. The childish drawings are fitting for the experiences described within the covers, where hidden dangers lurk in the background of fantastical and mundane childhood experiences. The politics of growing up with Tongan culture is touched upon lightly in several poems, such as, Standards, where vegetarian Simone examines the cultural ideas and hypocrisy around meat eating.

…I gave up meat eating at sixteen.
They thought I was crazy in Tonga.

Or there’s, the poem, Here, that touches on the racial attitudes that are present toward the Tongan culture in New Zealand:

An Air New Zealand training manual gets leaked.
It says Tongans are softly spoken but drink the bar dry.
Maybe it’s Tongan thing, like gold teeth.

Some of the poems are peppered with cultural references: Tongan time, the umu, and catching crayfish.

Simone’s fascination with the rhythms and quirks of nature is evident in the collection; something that may surprise fans of her stage work, which has a more urban and edgy mood. Firmly rooted in place, many of the images will be familiar to Aucklanders, such as hanging out at the local creek, running from bulls, pillaging blackberry bushes and taking trips to the local dairy for cheap bags of lollies. We all know the delight of finding a bird’s nest and pulling a disgusted face on discovering a weta for the first time. It’s relatable in a way that brings a smile to the face of the reader.

Expressed at times as a stream of consciousness, we look through the child’s eyes as events unfold and circumstances shift into uneasy young adulthood and all its rude awakenings. Simone holds our hand for the journey and we are right there with her, swinging from branches and experiencing our first kiss, our first sip of peach schnapps and our first gasp of recognition that the reality of growing up can hit you like a badly-thrown punch. When we walk away relatively unscathed, we feel lucky; we might even laugh about it later, or in Simone’s case, metabolise the experience into a poem.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Lucky Punch
by Simone Kaho
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473367510

Book Review: Selected Poems, by Jenny Bornholdt

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selected_poemsIn Deborah Smith’s intriguing cover photo for Jenny Bornholdt’s Selected Poems, the eye is drawn to the bright fly agaric mushrooms torn up by the roots. They sit like thought or speech bubbles above the woman’s head. Laid out carefully on paper towels, the dirt is still fresh on the base of their stems. Of course, the metaphor here is obvious, but digging a little deeper (excuse the pun) it astounds; not dissimilar to Jenny’s work. Firstly, parboiling these mushrooms (to avoid poisoning), renders the eater literally intoxicated. They are psychoactive, mind-altering little beasties. They come with a warning. You get the picture. These are not morsels to be trifled with. At first glance, they are things of beauty and objects of intrigue, but they carry a deeper magic (literally).

This idea is brought to the fore early on in this book, particularly within the garden, where an unearthed white onion flower is, ‘a plain enough thing’ but truly, it is a ‘decoy of simplicity’. This speaks to the viewer of an art work hanging in a gallery, or someone reading a poem excerpt. Every poem in fact, has a whole world that has contributed to its creation, a process that is dynamic and ongoing, as the reader or viewer plays their active role. The last stanza sums this up perfectly:

So we have a white flower
propped on the top of a green stem
a plain enough thing
while underneath
the feelers are out
hooking into other systems
forming a network
the flower an undercover agent
posted on the watch
a decoy of simplicity.

For a dexterous poet like Jenny to call a flower simply, white and green, speaks to a simplistic way of looking at art; reductionist. Jenny is a poet whose senses are alive to wonder and the interconnected ideas and neural pathways that form the root system of a poem, or a group of works. It would be too easy to equate a poetry collection with a book of pressed flowers but Jenny’s poems here are a living collection.

For the editor and poet to handpick poems for a collection, from a body of work that spans around 30 years, is no mean feat. We live in a day and age where music albums and other artistic media are consumed piecemeal, with songs and poems extracted from their original contexts. Many consumers latch on to the singles, or the anthologised poems, without ever reading or listening to a collection in its entirety. In a way, the cover image speaks to that. There is still dirt on the roots. These poems have their genesis elsewhere. If you want to go further down the rabbit hole, so does each individual poem, before it is strung together in any collection. It is like a bunch of flowers. The number of possible arrangements is infinite and each presentation offers another layer of meaning. The whole is larger than the sum of its parts.

Of course, there are is the inevitable search for aesthetic links to The Bill Manhire School of poetry. Leading the way as the country’s first laureate and with Jenny under his wing for a time, both poets do share a delight in the ‘tender observation’ (NZ Book Council) of the everyday.

In her author photo, also by the renowned Deborah Smith, we see a retro watering can. It’s a symbol of looking back over the planting, watering and harvesting of ideas; the work. There are many fertile minds in the world, but few with the dedication and skill to cultivate longevity and a poetic life, such as Jenny Bornholdt’s. Of course, a laureateship and several other awards go a small way to recognising the results of her commitment to her craft and her contribution to the New Zealand poetic landscape, both through her work as an anthologist and or course, as a poet.

It is with that knowledge that the reader can pick up this fine volume and examine each fragment, each piece, knowing that they have been extracted purposefully and with great care. Prepare to be intoxicated by the work of one of her generation’s finest poets.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Selected Poems
by Jenny Bornholdt
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776560660

Book Review: Salt River Songs, by Sam Hunt

cv_salt river songsWith around 20 poetry books under his belt, well-loved poet Sam Hunt has once again captured readers with his latest collection, Salt River Songs. Although a thin volume, it is no less weighty or full of treasures than previous collections.

Long-time friend, biographer and occasional collaborator, Colin Hogg writes in his generous intro, that Sam doesn’t know what ‘typically New Zealand poetry is’. This topic has no doubt been debated often over the years, but not many people would argue that Sam’s poetry has contributed healthily to a semblance of a poetic vernacular in this nation. He has a reputation for his everyman, lyrical style grounded deeply in the New Zealand soil. His poems have always emerged from the fertile country of his birth. This collection is no different.

We see through Sam’s eyes from a spot on the verandah or the wharf. While both platforms bring to mind images of ageing, they are spots we all know; as familiar as the vantage of a pohutukawa branch or a deck chair under a tent awning; never far from salty waters. They are themselves etched with the salty wind of family, love and loss; as are these poems.

The title refers to the five salt rivers of the Kaipara Harbour, including Arapaoa, where Sam lives. The title poem is also divided into five sections, each including the leitmotif ‘on Kaipara time’. You can almost feel the salt air in this work, with its allusion to sea shanties and maritime folk songs. It touches on the settler history and nature of time and tide in love and grief. It’s a short cycle; not quite melancholic, but rather wistful. The line ‘it’s a muddy creek for me’ is repeated and closes the piece. It shows Sam’s love of uninhibited nature and a slower pace, far from the sanitised and often frantic urban life in a metropolis, such as Auckland.

Speaking of sanitisation, Hogg recalls Sam’s mum chastising him for using too many F words in his poetry, after accompanying him on tour. There’s a few F-Bombs in this collection for the reader to help us recognise the larrikan performance poet we all know and love. The loveable maverick with his collar up and buttons undone still wanders through these poems, from the bed hair profile pic, to the Hone Tuwhare-style sex poems. But Sam is never crude; cheeky perhaps, but always endearing.

Yes, as Hogg points out, this collection does hold a grief, this through-line of death and loss; the salt rivers themselves a perfect metaphor for tears shed, a poet well-seasoned by the weather of life. (We live close to death, old mate…without even knowing it.) But it never flounders into sentimental territory. It is simply a poet acknowledging the fragility of things: the world [is] held together by cobwebs. But Sam’s philosophy toward the whole thing is summed up in the poem Piping The Fife. Musing on the death of someone he didn’t feel that warmly towards, he writes:
We each get on with our life
as well as we can. For me
I lie low, piping the fife.

He’s committed to the music of life and what plays out, keeping out of trouble. So to quote Sam, ‘I hope he keeps singing that song’ for many years to come.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Salt River Songs
by Sam Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503031

Book Review: Hera Lindsay Bird, by Hera Lindsay Bird

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hera_lindsay_birdWhen a young poet gets an endorsement from a superstar with as much influence as Lorde, you know they are set to make ripples. The team at Victoria University Press have taken a calculated risk with this debut collection, which has already paid off it seems, with a poem republished online receiving thousands of views. Unity Books sold out soon after the print copy hit the shelves. While it may alienate readers who are more accustomed to more traditional poetry offerings from academic presses, it is sure to appeal for readers looking for something fresh, irreverent and hilariously relatable.

With the release of HBO’s TV series, Girls, created by Lena Dunham, we saw a logical extension of the no-holds-barred, female-perspective sexuality made popular by Sex in the City. That this has spawned a trend across different media genres is no accident, with gatekeepers jumping at the chance to capture the next generation. In Hera Lindsay Bird, what we have is not only a signature honesty and sharp wit, but also a poetic agility that many well-seasoned poets would kill for. The work is well-formed, muscular and intelligent.

At times the stories encased in the poems are akin to a car crash or a horror scene, where you feel a sense of bodily shock, but can’t wrench your look away. For all its humour, it’s a dark set piece. Despite its art-world quirkiness, this is no Zoey Deschanel, manic pixie dream. There is no sugar coating here. The word ‘black’ features over 40 times, along with a litany of other words Blake would blush at. Her work might not pass the filter test on your work computer.

Like the writer of The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides, Lindsay Bird captures that intriguing shadow side of existence, acknowledging that the world is not as shiny and full of kittens and rainbows as Katy Perry or Taylor Swift would have us believe. It makes sense that Lorde aligns herself with Hera’s work, as the dark antihero scorning the romantic view of women as pastel, smiling and infantilised objects for the male gaze. The cover may have Hera in a bright yellow coat, but it is interesting to note the shadow, the dual names, the owning of the dark and light. It is no surprise then that we get a generous amount of gothic imagery throughout the book. This, combined with the pop culture references (e.g. Monica from Friends!) give us a dark, cynical take on the familiar, hyper-colour media fed to us as representative of the youth of today.

A standout piece in this collection is the concrete poem, Mirror Traps, broken into several parts, sectioned off by an internet buffering symbol. Its broken, fractured lines embody the fragmented period of emerging womanhood, perfectly summed up in the line, “…wait for the heart to finish buffering.” Encapsulated in this poem is the idea that sometimes our actions, our hearts and even the mirror can be disconnected. This is not a malady unique to the young, but possibly more prevalent among females, who are thrown into a world of “…discount facial peels” and “cucumber slices”. The “mohair of loneliness” sums up the image of the lone model in mohair. We are reminded that no amount of glamour or beauty treatments can purchase the kind of human connection and love we all crave; this despite how much we are sold this idea from a young age.

It’s an intriguing, fresh and well-crafted debut; one you won’t want to put down.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Hera Lindsay Bird
by Hera Lindsay Bird
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560714

Book Review: Rabbit Rabbit, by Kerrin P. Sharpe

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_rabbit_rabbitThe title poem of this enigmatic collection by Kerrin P. Sharpe is also the leading poem, setting the tone for the book. It is apt that the spirit animal of the collection is a rabbit, considering how Kerrin takes the reader on a journey down a rabbit hole of magical imagery and trickery. This title character turns out to be a newly acquired partner of her mother, who, obviously a whiskered fellow, appeases her by shaving. (He doesn’t do a good job, as he leaves blood on her towel). But by the end of the poem, the mother shows him who is boss by eating ‘…hunter’s oatmeal’. In other words, she has her prey and she will see to it that he is domesticated. It is an insightful and brutally honest opener. The literal rabbit caught in the headlights expression on the cover rabbit, while holding his dripping razor is clever and discomforting. The fact that it also a playing card also reinforces the idea that this character is a pawn, an acquisition ready to be used at will.

This other character of the narrator’s mother is someone who invades the poems in the first half, with her clothes being a central focus point, from her coats (The Astrakhan coat comes to life), to her hats. The menacing image of the cut throat barber/razor appears several times too, such as in the Russian spy narrative poem, Cleaning the Stables:

…and snow covers my spy life
like a corpse though once
when I passed a barber’s shop

I thought a man
was having is throat cut.

The book covers a lot of geographical ground, and reading it does feel like you are hopping from place to place, seemingly at random. One minute you are in Warsaw, the next Cape Reinga. Apart from the psychological mother exploration, this seems to be one of the organising principles. Other than that, the poems are not rooted in any particular place, or even century. Bill Manhire notes from the back cover that the poems “…make him think of migratory birds.” Which is a fair assessment and works well, considering the themes the poet is interested in exploring.

Overwhelmingly, the feeling we get is that we are looking at events through the eyes of a child with a great capacity for imagination. Adults become rabbits, coats come alive and pills become polka dots. This dreamlike imagery is often punctuated by the harsh and often brutal realities of migration and cultural micro-aggressions. Losing the language of your culture is touched on in several poems. Remnants from the author’s religious past are incorporated too, with references to cathedrals, sanctuaries, angels, prayers and Jesus on the cross along with a slightly nostalgic reminder of a particular denomination: “…and the jacket, from my army days, I call salvation.”

As a reader, it’s the personal threads that are the most touching. The references to her son’s asthma and bike riding bring this fantastical journey back to the ground, only to fly off again to some unfamiliar destination.

Reviewed by  Anna Forsyth

Rabbit Rabbit
by Kerrin P Sharpe
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560653