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: Selected Writings, by Blanche Baughan

Available in selected bookstores nationwide.

cv_selected_writings_baughanBlanche Baughan knows how to set a scene and make you not just believe it, but feel it. Her book of selected writings, taken from work written between 1898 and 1936, is a masterpiece of description of early settler life in New Zealand. You feel you are standing right beside the poor souls who lived the hard life, making their way in 19th century New Zealand as you read Baughan’s lively sketches. If you’ve read Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, you know her characters would also have felt right at home in these portraits of our early settlers.

Selected Writings ventures into different aspects of life for the people who chose to make a life in New Zealand in the 1800s, and is skilfully written in both prose and poetry. Some stories bring to life characters such as the rag tag old Maori woman, or the family fresh off the settler boat dispiritingly seeing nothing but bush, tents and huts; other sketches are simply wonderfully detailed depictions of New Zealand scenery. Blanche Baughan was also well known for her later dedication to social work and her significant contribution to prison reform in New Zealand. Two stories in Selected Writings share lively and compassionate portraits of some of the prison inmates she befriended. If you wanted to know what prison was like in the early 1900’s, then these are some raw but compassionate accounts.

My favourite section of the book was the pinpoint accurate descriptions of New Zealand’s most remarkable landscapes. Anyone who hikes and appreciates nature will be captivated by the beautiful, spirit-filled descriptions of the soft green, feathery and waving ferns, little blue pools and shining sky-blue water. She truly captures the spirit of the New Zealand outdoors with her writings; the few of these that we read are pulled from Studies in New Zealand Scenery (1916).

I can recommend the book as perfect for a hiker to take on the trail: nice and light, it will fit in your pack with ease. You’ll relish reading the stories of NZ’s early outdoors life whilst you are nestled comfortably in your sleeping bag, wind whistling around the small rickety hut, rather similar, you imagine, to settlers’ homes almost 200 years ago. People interested in historical accounts and New Zealand history will also enjoy this book, and it might be a nice introduction to the art of poetry, I certainly found it so.

By Amie Lightbourne

Selected Writings
by Blanche Baughan
published by Erewhon Press
ISBN 9780473309435