Book Review: the moon in a bowl of water, by Michael Harlow

Available at selected bookshops nationwide.cv_the_moon_in_a_bowl_of_water

the moon in a bowl of water is a collection of prose poems, most of which are small journeys, tiny stories or precise portraits. But reading the collection sent me down a Michael Harlow rabbit hole, I even burrowed out a book he wrote over 20 years ago on teaching the writing of poetry (Take A Risk, Trust Your Language, published in 1985). I realised in the end that I was searching for his motivation – the drive behind this new collection of exclusively prose poems. I got as close as I’ll get with a quote from an essay Harlow published on ‘The Prose Poem’ in takahe – the prose poem celebrates ‘the strangeness that is in the familiar,’ he wrote.

To Harlow the prose poem is a place where ‘the reality of the imagination and the imagination of reality flourish.’ And you see this in the moon in a bowl of water where the poems prove that the author can maintain the musicality and even mystery of poetry within the prose sentences. For example, in the poem ‘A small magnificence, just buzz me Miss Blue’ there is the sentence ‘If you hear anything I haven’t heard, just Buzz me Miss Blue, and that dear hearts will do.’ With its internal rhyme and sound patterns, the poem clearly has all the signs of poetry. But with most poems having a tight narrative prose form I can’t help but think of another genre – flash fiction.

Indeed, reading the acknowledgements it is clear that some of the poems first appeared in the flash fiction collection Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (eds Frankie McMillan, James Norcliffe, Michelle Elvy, 2018). The difference between flash fiction and prose poetry currently rests (says Tim Jones in an essay in Bonsai) on where they’ve been published first and how the author defines them.

the moon in a bowl of water contains beautiful lines; one example – ‘I saw the conducting hand of the wind in the bodies of trees, all that leaf green music’ (from the poem For once, then, something.)  However, if you are wanting new interpretations of sonnets, to count syllables and see the mastery behind each line break this won’t be the poetry collection for you.  But, with 22 June bringing New Zealand National Flash Fiction Day,many readers may be curious of the origins and value of the growing form, may want to understand how it can be used and the stories it can create.

In an interesting way, this poetry collection is a great place to start.

reviewed by Elizabeth Kirby-McLeod

the moon in a bowl of water
by Michael Harlow
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531540

 

 

 

 

 

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

Book Review: Selected Poems, by Brian Turner

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selected_poems_turnerIn a single poetry collection you’re able to tell what is currently occupying a poet (it might be personal, like their family breakdown, or esoteric, like the role of science in art) and their next work usually comes with its own obsession. But over the life of a writer there’s often one or two ongoing concerns – ideas or questions or worries – they simply can’t put down. These lifelong concerns (which have been hiding in the folds of all their work) suddenly become clear in collected works. That’s true of Selected Poems by Brian Turner.

In this book, Victoria University Press has collected a selection of poems from Brian Turner’s forty plus years of writing poetry. These poems are presented chronologically, starting with some from the Commonwealth Poetry Prize winning collection Ladders of Rain (published in 1978), and followed by a small selection from each of his previously published collections up until Night Fishing (published in 2016). It finishes with a sizable collection of Turner’s previously uncollected work.

Often thought of as a ‘nature’ or ‘environmental’ poet, Brian Turner told Tim Watkins in 2005 that ‘half of my poems are actually about the politics of relationships or relationships themselves.’ And he is of course right. Over and over in this collection he returns to a concern about the interior of interpersonal relationships. There in his poems are failing relationships, observations about the parent and child relationship, and questions about how best to love and to remember that you have loved. In Furrows of the Sea, from his 1981 collection, he writes of a child in tears at his own failures and a father trying to respond – ‘He is hopeless / at keeping anything / to himself, and I / am even worse / at hiding anything / of value from him.’ Years later in Twilight Days (published in 2005) we see this parent and child dynamic again bewildering the poet, but this time he is a grown child and his mother is in tears – ‘She wouldn’t say / what had made her cry, / mainly because she preferred / not to lie…’

Despite this, reviewers do often classify Turner as a landscape poet and for good reason. There is no getting away from nature in his work. The seasons roll in and out of the collection as he captures their literal manifestations and their figurative effects on people who seem to change with them.

Along with seeing what concerns have stayed the same for the poet, we also see in collected works the way that their perspectives have shifted. As the years progress Turner becomes more obvious in his growing environmental concerns, sometimes becoming so blunt as to lose the poetry in preference for the message. His early works on New Zealand and New Zealanders are witty, he looks at us with amusement such as in the 2001 poem Semi-Kiwi. In the poem the speaker is no good at the ‘great Kiwi DIY tradition’ but he can back a trailer expertly, ‘so all is not lost.’ Only ten years later however his len has turned sardonic. In the poem titled New Zealanders, a Definition there is only the sole line ‘Born here, buggered it up.’

Brian Turner’s poems for the most part of not formally inventive – he sticks mainly to the left of the page with three of four word lines in fairly even stanzas. It doesn’t hurt his work however, for even as poetry movements and trends have come and gone he has continued to write moving, memorable poems. The previously uncollected work shows this, some are among the best in the collection, including Athens and Andros where ‘mythology / reminds us we’ve long been both / creative and destructive everywhere.’

Poetry is a funny thing – ‘difficult’ is a compliment, ‘easy to read’ is a sneer. But this collection is easy and enjoyable to read because Brian Turner has opened himself up to us as New Zealanders for over forty years. And he continues to invite us into his questioning – even while being grumpy at our destructiveness.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod 
ekirkbymcleodauthor.com

Selected Poems
by Brian Turner
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562183

Book Review: Coming to it, by Sam Hunt

Available from bookshops nationwide.

cv_coming_to_it.jpgComing To It is a collection of selected poems from throughout Sam Hunt’s career (though it also includes many new poems). To review a poet who’s been working for over 50 years, who’s so well known, who’s been recognised by the Prime Minister and the Queen is a funny thing. So much is already established. Most reviews of it so far have been as much reviews of the man − his touring, his drinking, his remote eccentric lifestyle. They become reviews of Hunt’s contribution to New Zealand literature and identity.

But I’m not able to write a review like that. So let’s put it all − the man, the history, the career − to one side and look only at the poems which are in turns clever, lovely, funny, questioning and, the smallest of handfuls, out of step with the times.

Hunt is thought of as a poet whose lines aim to reflect natural speech yet they are full of rhyme and craft; it is not everyone who can overhear a conversation in a pub and turn it into a poem.

Most of the poems in the collection are grounded in Aotearoa − in the natural and manmade paths in Rangitikei; in the choppy waters of Cook Strait; in the salt of tidal rivers in Oterei and Kaipara. They are proudly focused on our communities, our place and the travels of the poet throughout it. The poem Notes from a journey is an example where the towns, the waters and the people all embody Hunt’s pride in this country.

He returns throughout the poems to those he loves − his mother, father and brothers; his sons. These are in turn touching and enchanting. In ‘No bells’ for example, the loss of his mother on the same night as the bamboo windbells on his verandah break are tied together to portray an irreparable sudden silencing. In the last poem, Brothers (which is perfectly placed) we find Hunt in the gaps, the white space around his brothers.

His poems about his lovers, and his descriptions of women generally, generate less delight for me. Women who love him in the poems are expected to accept that he will never be completely available to them; to be with him is to accept a level of loneliness. I find this especially difficult, this ‘arm’s reach’ attitude, from a poet and performer who treasures a deep connection with his audiences. While he is charming spectators, those who most deserve his attention are, like the partner in the poem My white ship, expected to accept:

The ethic of my love
For you remains that I
Am a lone sailor of
The night; captain of my
White ship: and though you be
A good day’s mate, your fight’s
Too weak to rise with me…

In another poem a desirable woman is compared to an unbroken horse; in another a woman’s domestic violence scars are mused over but hey, despite that black eye she is still a ‘sort of mystic hooker’. I wish these poem, and the rest of the poems in the collection, were labelled with a first publication date. Rightly or wrongly, it matters to me whether this was a view from decades ago or from today.

Oh dear, I haven’t managed to review just the poetry have I? I have, like most other reviewers of Coming To It, come back to Hunt himself. And perhaps that was inevitable, because Hunt has always said his subject is his experience and this opening up of a New Zealand life for decade after decade is the ultimate gift his poetry has given us.

Reviewed by Libby Kirby-McLeod

Coming to it
by Sam Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503802