Book Review: The Glass Rooster, by Janis Freegard

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_glass_roosterThis sophomore poetry collection from poet and novelist, Janis Freegard, covers a lot of ground, both physically and metaphorically. The book is divided into eight distinct sections, labelled ‘Echo-systems’. Physically, the reader is transported all the way from Reykjavík to the Himalayas and on to the Mexican Desert, among other locales.

The ecological subject matter of the book is never heavy handed or clichéd. You can see the author’s love for the variety of species populating this planet, with several poems acting as almost a roll call. The poet obviously finds great pleasure in listing the various creatures.

The spirit animal of the work is of course the glass rooster of the title, who appears in several of the poems throughout the book. It originates from a poem of Freegard’s included in the now-defunct journal, Six Little Things, and was subsequently published in her first collection. When the strange, fragile animal first appears, we are told he is ‘well-travelled…confident in his own resplendence.’ It is no coincidence that he is unware of his own fragility, or the fact that he can no longer usher in the day, or issue a warning of any kind. He is impotent. He is nature objectified; ornamental.

In his next appearance, in the ironic poem, ‘Not’, the rooster is still singing his own praises:

Have you seen my feathers? How the colours glint
in the dappled light. Have you heard my call? Oh I am king
of all I see. Hear me, hear me. This tree, mine. This whole
forest, mine.

His ultimate destination is spelled out by Freegard in the final line of the book: ‘You will find you have become a poem.’ He has become memorialised. His fragility is spelled out in this poem, perhaps unnecessarily. There is a sense of foreboding rendered through this pitiful creature, such as in ‘Ectoplasm’: ‘The darkness lay on him heavily’. There is a note of grief; perhaps at the resplendent creature is now merely a decoration; a blank canvas for man’s projections. The unease is thematic. ‘…the land’s uneasy, the sun begins its long descent’.

If you create a poem from last lines in the book, you get an idea of the sense of loss underpinning the poems. Could the last line here be an assertion that we are (or at least the narrator is) in fact the rooster?

A heavy rain will come, and wash things clean
Turned out backs to the sea
Never quite dissolved
Somewhere different
Well away, well away
Collection of porcelain shells
& dance together, among the falling petals
The ultimate prophecy
Yesterday and yesterday I was young.
Why we missed them.
We took the path of least resistance.
I am the rooster. I am made of glass.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

The Glass Rooster
by Janis Freegard
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408336

Book Review: Buddy’s Brother, by Pete Carter

cv_buddys_brotherAvailable at selected booksellers nationwide.

A mix of charming prose, poems and photography, Buddy’s Brother is Pete Carter’s second collection of poems. We discover that Buddy’s brother is in fact Pete’s father-in-law, a precocious 87-year-old, who has the same cheekiness and earthy nature as the poet himself.

There are shades of Barry Crump humour in this work, the kind of everyman writing style that spurns figurative language, or ‘riddles’ as Pete puts it, in favour of the matter of fact. Here is someone who calls a spade a spade. It’s a refreshing read, an amble through memoir and personal reflections, from a writer who loves his family and his pets. He may not like poems he doesn’t understand, but what he does know is the value of a sense of humour and the occasional jaunt (or cycle) to blow away the cobwebs and get things in perspective.

The centrepiece of the book is Pete’s reflective memoir of ticking off an important item on his bucket list, walking the South West Coast Path in the UK (over 1000 kilometres). It is a pilgrimage of sorts, in the footsteps of his father, who had a personal connection to the historic path. The photo reveals a quintessential lake district vista of stone walls and green, rolling hills. It wasn’t all a walk in the park however, to coin a phrase:

Some days were glorious, cliff-top walking at its finest, some days
were miserable, stuck between a barbed-wire fence and a hawthorn
hedge, unable to see the sea or the slippery path through brambles
and nettles and sweat.

Pete touches on the original purpose of the path – for coastguards to keep an eye out for smugglers. Regardless of any romantic tales and eccentric local hosts (a punk rocker who fought in the Falklands), the walk was mostly just hard yakka. ‘So I’ve done it. I’ve knocked the bastard off,’ he tells us. You can tell from the photo of him at the end of it, that it was taxing.

In between the slightly grumpy nostalgic prose, we have Pete’s photographs, and a smattering of poems about New Zealand birds. His portrait of the kereru is pleasing, the poem humorous: ‘an over-indulged specimen…the feathered glutton…they’re good eating apparently.’ It is caricature that brings a chuckle. His take on the tui borders on sacrilegious: ‘these swooping miscreants…with testicles on their throats…a gang of hyperactive flying kids…’ Not quite your usual Tourism New Zealand portrait of the much-loved bird. It’s curmudgeonly but somehow endearing, with similarities to Denis Glover.

Overall, reading Buddy’s Brother is akin to sitting down for a cuppa with your favourite uncle and having a laugh and a bit of a yarn.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Buddy’s Brother
by Pete Carter
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780994129901

Book Review: Otari: Poems and Prose, by Louise Wrightson

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_otariLouise Wrightson knows her subject. Boots on and I’m off for a quick clip into Otari – My Trail. She has lived near to Otari-Wilton Bush for awhile, and her local knowledge, firsthand experience and love of the area is evident in Otari: Poems & Prose. The cover of her book is hardy, much like the flora it details. It’s one of those books you could carry in your bag, perhaps on a visit to the area. It’s a poetic field guide to part of the original Wellington bush.  Otari has been described as a “living museum”.

The opening line of the title pantoum, A dark wind roars in the pines, seems to be in conversation with the last two lines of the book, like book ends, Breathe out and in, keep warm. As an introduction, the poem is a flood of sight and sound, immediately assailing the reader’s senses and plunging us into the vibrant world of the Wellington bush. It is teeming with nature, with all its familiar onomatopoeia.

Louise’s love for natural history is the unifying force of this book, and she references several texts within her work, such as, A Photographic Guide to Mushrooms and other Fungi in New Zealand, in the poem Fungal Foray. Needless to say, it’s a niche subject, but Louise obviously enjoyed writing about these kitsch objet d’art of the natural world:

 It listed their common names: the witch’s
 butterjelly, sticky-bun bolete, olive oyster and slippery jelly baby,
the sociable inkcap and hotlips puffball, the flabby poreconconch
and balding webcap, and my favourite, the cinnamon deceiver.

It’s a rich source of poetic material and Louise dives into it effortlessly. Unlike many similar books, the mix of poetry and prose in Otari is unusual and provides great textural counterpoint with delightfully refreshing narratives. Within the mix of stories and poems, we see the gritty imagery of human life displayed, almost as a parallel museum, filled with delicious objects, such as the remnants of the totorere shell we used to wear as rings, wine corks, plywood boxes (a coffin) and gumboots; flotsam of our lives and deaths.

The glossary of Māori words is a delight, as are the notes. These items are often overlooked in works of fiction. Their inclusion shows Louise’s dedication to the mana of her subject matter. Overall, Otari is akin to a marvellous bush walk. The kind where you come out scratched and tired, but ultimately full of wonder at this rugged country and its many facets, ripe for exploration.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Otari: Poems and Prose
by Louise Wrightson
Published by Otari Press
ISBN 9780473288792

Interview in Booknotes Unbound

Wellington’s NZ Festival features For the Birds, a visual art show in Otari-Wilton bush. Perhaps you may like to buy this book as a companion-piece!

 

Book Review: Girls of the Drift, by Nina Powles

Available from selected booksellers nationwide.

cv_girls_of_the_driftNamed after a 1928 political pamphlet by the same name, Girls of the Drift is a defiantly pink debut from emerging poet, Nina Powles. Weaving real and fictional accounts of women’s stories, it is wrapped in the brightest pink imaginable. To encounter such historical poetry contained within its pages, particularly the delicate feminine portraits, is incongruous at first.

About her poem ‘Josephine’, based on Katherine Mansfield characters, Nina says she was interested in the way ‘the world opened up to [the women] in small moments of colour and brightness.’ The cover is more than just a moment, but perhaps that is the point. It is interesting to note that the women, from the story ‘Daughters of the late colonal’ are symbols of the opressed feminine, who came into themselves only after the death of their imposing father. Nina says she is drawn to thinking about ‘people and places stuck in the in between, caught in phrases of transition.’

The title poem is literally at the heart of the book, a 1929 letter from one poet to another (New Zealand poets, Jessie Mackay and Blanche Baughan) that references the above pamphlet and urges her friend to write again (she put down her pen after a period of illness). The reader is immediately thrown into a sensual experience here from the first line:

I pressed a sprig of manuka into the envelope…

Can you smell it? The wild, dry
dust-honey smell of summer in the gorge.

It is fitting that the green twine holding the chapbook together is like holding the sprig there in your hand. There is something reminiscent of tying a string around your finger in order to remember something important. In this letter, it is the girls of the drift, the ones who might drift into domesticity with barely an education, that Blanche promises to remember through her activism. This thought is echoed in the strings, knots and ribbons that pepper the poems. These symbols can of course also refer to apron strings and matrimonial bindings.

The continual reference to birds is a metaphor for the ability of women to soar above and beyond these traditiional constraints. These conditions are likened to sticky jars filled with bitter marmalade and honey (a trap?) in several poems. This is brought home distinctly (and in capitals no less) in the poem ‘Burn Back’:

MY WORDS ARE WASTED ON THINGS THAT DON’T FIT INTO JARS

With this reading in mind, the book becomes essentially feminist and a reflection on what it is to be a woman on the verge in a colonial context. The two prophetic wise owls on the cover could be the two poet friends, casting a wise, watchful eye over the girls of the drift.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Girls of the Drift
by Nina Powles
Published by Seraph Press
ISBN 9780473308438

Book Review: Some of us eat the Seeds, by Morgan Bach

cv_some_of_us_eat_the_seedsAvailable from bookshops nationwide.

On first glance, the title of Morgan Bach’s debut poetry collection seems to be a cheeky defiance. The messy, tumbling of the leaves and text on the cover suggest something discarded, with a slight hint of the trajectory of tears we encounter in the book. While eating the seeds might not appear to be a large act of rebellion, it acts as a centerpiece for the collection. Each poem seems to balance on the fulcrum of it somehow. We see her grow as the poems progress, as travel, difficult relationships and separation from family and country cause the central character to develop (with a dash of cynicism from her experiences at times).

At its core, the title poem is about breaking away from painful and difficult histories, including those created by our families and our culture. It also touches on the sense of dread at watching the destruction of our natural world (that is ultimately “making people disappear”). Bach likens the break with the past or tradition to being ‘…on a lifeboat out of the past, rowing away from the landscape my mother fought for’. There is recognition and perhaps a twinge of guilt at separating from something that was so hard won. Later, in “Education”, Bach returns to this image with:

but we’re still
moving forward, and then with a thump
we go over

The first line of the book is “What do I inherit?” (What they made). With this frame in mind, we see that Bach has placed the poems in the context of an inquiry. The first part ends with the phrase “tame gardens”. The equivalent of genetically modified fruit, bred to be seedless. Seeds can speak of inheritance, of future prosperity and of course, of fertility. There are several allusions to oral sex in the book. But for the most part, the central metaphor is left up to the reader to pin down completely.

The poem comes to us right at the beginning, straight after the hard-hitting opener, “What they made” that offers scenes of physical abuse. It pictures a rural land of disappointment, shame and a “basic sadness”.

This sense of loss or grief washes gently through the pages of this book, reflected in the recurring motif of the shifting seasons and temperamental climate.

Throughout the book, Bach shifts from dream-like sequences (In ‘Pictures’), to retellings of familiar New Zealand childhood experiences (marmite, swings, swimming pools colouring books). It is a book firmly rooted in place, even as its heroine is uprooted and struggling with the pangs of separation from the very place to which she feels she owes so much. Hers is a story many New Zealanders would relate to. But Bach never strays too far into obvious catharsis or melodrama, her hand firmly on the tiller. With her ability to write with restraint (not an easy task to do well), she proves that even at this stage in her career, she is a capable and astute writer.

It feels as if Bach’s life work has already been poured through the winepress into this volume. It could have even had some material held over for another collection. But some people like their books bursting. The same way they like their fruit.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Some of us eat the Seeds
by Morgan Bach
Published by VUP
ISBN 9780864739872

Book Review: Shaggy Magpie Songs, by Murray Edmond

cv_shaggy_magpie_songsAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

On first impressions, this new offering from Murray Edmond could be mistaken for an Australian book, its native magpie superimposed over a busker near the aptly named Story Bridge in Brisbane. But it’s an image New Zealanders will relate to nonetheless, as the magpie, the trickster, collector and master of mimicry is a recognisable character. In ‘Conversations with my Uncle’ we see Edmond give the nod to the Glover poem.

It makes sense for an experienced dramaturge and playwright such as Edmond to explore the world from a multiplicity of voices and disguises. We know that magpies can mimic up to 35 species of birds, animals and of course humans. At this point in his career, Edmond has indeed developed his own ‘lexicon of whistles’ (from Clowns on Skates). This collection has a strong lilt and lyricism that is lighter than some of his previous work. It is cheeky, but as always from Edmond, accomplished and sharp poetry. At times it does veer into twee territory with heavy rhyme, but it feels like jive talking. Not quite beat poetry, but perhaps a magpie listening in a children’s playground and showing off to his mates back in the bush.

This book is both songbook (divided into praise, blues and pop) and museum of curiosities. Swooping across continents and locales, the images tumble into each other, (fluffy little rabbit tail, silken rose…tattooed by a nun, Navajo blankets, all tightly wrapped and swaddled…). Edmond is himself a collector of the curious, the absurd and sometimes even the surreal. He makes a point of this especially in the glorious, rich cornucopia of “Forty-two boxes”.

His use of onomatopoeia is not heavy handed, but adds a cheeky, stuttering effect to several of the poems. Edmond is well-read and well-travelled and we see more evidence of this in this book than in some of his others. He references writers from a wide variety of oeuvres, from Conrad to Leonard Cohen.

Alongside being an astute commander of words, Edmond also manages to cast his beady eye over societal issues, from the Ice Bucket Challenge (The Poet Returns to New York) to the strangeness of colonialism (Romantics in search of adventures in music). Having lived in New Zealand and also the colonial motherland, Edmond is well-placed to comment on the curious peculiarities of colonial life, such as in the final stanza of Matakitaki, 1822:

when the Queen of England drinks her tea
she points her little pinky oh she points her pinky
and points that pinky at the likes of you and me

It is interesting to note that these two poems are in the ‘blues’ section of the book. The categories are loosely named, and never rely too heavily on tropes of the musical genres, but give the occasional acknowledgement in the form of a repeated refrain or a reference to rock ‘n roll / Jelly Roll (Morton).

Here is a book showcasing a true lover of language. It sings, without being cliché. It is an acknowledgement, as Edmond puts it, that we ‘live in a language game’. Some, like Edmond himself, are truly adept at it.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Shaggy Magpie Songs
by Murray Edmond
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN  9781869408411