Book Review: Everything is Here, by Rob Hack

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_everything_is_here.jpgRob Hack’s poems have itchy feet. They are the product of transience, a ‘driftwood life’. Hack moves from Cannons Creek, Porirua, to Niue, to Rarotonga, Australia, and even Paris and Verona. Understated, yet evocative, these poems are cinematic postcards to all the homes where the heart might find itself. Hack is a citizen of the global village. One feels ‘everything is here’ and then here, and here too. There is a feeling that Hack is Outsider, though, that he is never realised as a person of one place.

Hack’s poetry is visual and sensual. It evokes a technicolour nostalgia, by proxy, for a time and locality which the reader may never have experienced. The ‘green cordial’, the ‘apple box wicket’, the Four Square with its lolly bags that hang in rows. There is a dark undercurrent to some of these quaint, and quintessentially Pacific, scenes, however. In the Four Square, Hack encounters racism in the guise of an accusatory shop keeper. There is a hurricane in Niue, which can be read as both literal and symbolic. There are regrets, final passages, earthmovers scraping a ‘government mistake’, there’s the isolation of work on a station in Kimberley, and the twin towers – broadcast ‘falling again and again’.

Hack has some gorgeous lines, often with a wry sense of fun. His poem ‘When you get to Aucklan’ (yes Aunty)’, is reminiscent of Tusiata Avia’s ‘Wild Dogs under my Skirt’. It is written in a Cook Island vernacular, and is insistent and funny:

Fine a Cook Islands man, tall, who works the
factory too, remember listen to him, he know.
Then you can be the happy girl ay?
Are you listen to me?

There are poems that transport their reader to the heat of the Cook Islands, as in the poem ‘All day on Mauke’. The imagery is bold and accessible:

All day the reef argues with the sea and no dogs bark.
Palm fronds fall across the road where
goats tied with rope bleat
and pigs scatter through tall grasses

Rob Hack writes with a rare sincerity. His poetry doesn’t toy with, or manipulate its reader. It doesn’t do party tricks, or hoodwink, or hoax. Like the collection’s title, Everything is Here, this poetry shows its full hand – and it is delightful hand, at that.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Everything is Here
by Rob Hack
Published by Escalator Press
ISBN 9780994118677     

Book Review: New Sea Land, by Tim Jones

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_new_sea_landYou can lick the salt off this poetry, half expect sand to spill from the centrefold. Tim Jones’ latest collection, New Sea Land, is part history, part rattling fortune-telling. It is a slap on the face by a wet fish, a digging up of heads-in-the-sand. Jones has spied a calamity from the shoreline, an oncoming deluge. History is repeating on us, and this time the tide is coming in full.

New Sea Land is salty, but it is not your run-of-the-mill nostalgic beach jaunt. The sea and land are dispassionate players in a human-instigated ecological meltdown. Jones’ sea ‘does not mean any harm’ and his ‘sea does not apologise’. The sea is a desultory child, nibbling at the edges of things, erasing ‘Beachfront property / … with the stroke of a pen’.

Jones’ work is didactic, but not earnest at the expense of a playful image or a great one-liner. He pokes tongue at the itch for beachfront investments, and the securing of LIM reports. In a great little anachronism, Jones has Noah’s (of the Ark) carpenter crew curse ‘zero hours contracts’ and swim away from the job. Then there’s an alternative history played out, wherein Captain Cook and Dracula take ‘tea and blood together’ in Kealakekua Bay. It is all fun-and-games, but the broader picture is sober and confronting.

The world is falling apart at its seams. This is a New Zealand where climate change is playing out. The sea floods Lambton Quay, rolls over childhood homes, and meets householders at their doorsteps. People are left with new geographies of which to make sense. Jones gives us a periscope to a time where myopic vision has crystallised into something tangible. It is only once the impact is ostensible that we realise we ‘backed the wrong horse’.

There’s a passing of the torch, from one generation to the next, but one gets the sense that the flame has gone out. Jones’ people are asleep or in denial. They leave a legacy of rash decisions, a lack of investment in a future beyond their own:

‘You slept until you lost the path,

and woke to find your children’s path
blocked by rocks you long ago set falling’

New Sea Land glances backward, as much as it forecasts. It reflects on history, memory that ‘renders everything askew’. Jones stresses the importance of cognition of times-gone-by, in the navigation of a future. His people, though, are ‘so eager to obliterate the past’ that they ‘wash away the stepping stones’. Condemned to repeat past error, through disavowal of history, we find ‘all our futures / are hostage to our actions’.

Jones’ poetry is a caution and a premonition. ‘Nature doesn’t stuff around’. The sea and the land couldn’t care less about where we’re heading. Jones writes so well, you might lose sight of the fact you’re getting cold water thrown at you. You can lick the salt off this poetry, by all means. But Tim Jones doesn’t give you halcyon coastlines or ice-lollies on the beach. This is poetry that knows what’s coming, and insists you ‘keep your life raft close at hand’.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

New Sea Land
by Tim Jones
Submarine (an imprint of Mākaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129963

Book Review: Aboriginal to Nowhere, by Brentley Frazer

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aboriginal_to_nowhere.jpgAboriginal to Nowhere is a love-letter to a world that ultimately rejects its people. It is a celebration of grunge, and a roll call of those things that are lame, cast-off, defunct and unlovable. It is about people divorced from the places they inhabit, and people who are disorientated in their own homes. Like those Talking Heads lyrics, ‘And you may tell yourself / this is not my beautiful house’, its people are bewildered. It also speaks to the profound loneliness ‘of the post-modern dispossessed’, the sort of grubby solitude that finds itself in a throng queuing for the Portaloos.

Frazer’s poems find beauty in the brokenness of things. Like Kintsugi, the Japanese practice of repairing fractured pottery with gold, Frazer conjures rich images from the ‘buckets of colonial rubbish’. While much of his poetry is sprawling and untethered, there are hushed moments:

‘The sky bruised over
slate roofs, the wind
moaning through louvres
leaves brown as coffee
rings.’

Most of his verse has a sort of musical harangue feel to it. The first poetic set, Aboriginal to Nowhere – Song Cycle of the Post Modern Dispossessed, pairs the technological and the ecological, through anxious reflections about man-made worlds and the alienation they can create. Frazer’s characters are watched by CCTVs and crows. They chart a course through a shifting Australia, one where ‘The indigenous goddess exits / stage left’ and people ‘bulldoze dream time for a freeway’. It is a rousing, rambling, and often irreverent, address to the nation. ‘Are you my mother, Australia?’ his speaker asks. The Australia that we find in the poems is more insouciant parent than maternal presence. And yet there are images, beyond the ‘broken hopes’, ‘generational displacement’ and ‘collapsed footpaths’, a sort of nostalgia for an Australia that may never have existed.

Aboriginal to Nowhere explores existential themes. Freewill and determinism wrangle in the cityscape. ‘Man, I didn’t get a choice where my consciousness / landed’. Cultural appropriation is prised open, xenophobia explored. There are questions of meaning in a world where the ‘Eternal Being’ is ‘an angry cynic’. ‘I don’t know what I am doing here’, the speaker exclaims. People depersonalise, aliens in their own skin. ‘Most days I feel like an actor ‘. And in a nod to Plato:

‘You are a piece of nothing,
shadows on the factory wall’

Frazer invites life’s dissonances to the table. Sometimes ‘the music and the lyrics / don’t match the visuals’. He entertains a ‘happy drowning feeling’. In all of this he steps lightly, capering around concepts, toying with the reader’s ability to hold two contrary ideas in mind.

Mostly, though, Aboriginal to Nowhere is about people – all sorts of folk. We meet hipsters and junkies, the mentally ill, beer guzzlers, strippers, rednecks, millennials, academics, immigrants, city slickers and farmers. Frazer’s is a world populated and full of noise, but ultimately nobody’s.

This is a thoughtful and fierce collection. Frazer is a visionary at a time when humanity risks losing touch with its core animality, and the real-world places in which it finds itself.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Aboriginal to Nowhere
by Brentley Frazer
Published by HeadworX
ISBN 9780473365677

Book Review: Anatomy, by Jamie Trower

‘this is my disability.
there are thousands like it,
but this one is mine’

cv_anatomyAnatomy is about falling – and getting back up again. But this is no slight stumble. Trower was nine years old when he sustained a severe brain injury, falling onto ‘that BLOODY rock’ when skiing. The fall is literal and mythical. Trower is angel and superhero, ‘Boy Wonder’, shaken from his ‘cloud nine’ and emerging in a world of darkness, speechlessness and foreign anatomy. The trajectory we ride out with him is excruciating and alienating, with struggles both physical and internal. There is retrospection, and an agonised rehashing of trauma. There is escapism – ‘Just wanted to fly away from / everything’, and full frontal confrontation. We are often forced to sit in a state of dissonance. It is uncomfortable but real. It is Jamie Trower’s disability, not ours, but we have front row seats.

Trower’s poetry is pared down and vital. Spaces between words, indeed even between letters, speak to us as loud as the poetry itself. Ampersands lend to a feeling that this poetry has pace, a sort of frenzied notation. Parentheses offer us asides, and add context to the immediate poem. It is Jamie Trower’s disability – not ours. As such, we are the outsiders peering in, and Trower is the gatekeeper, providing clues and captions to bridge the experiential divide.

Anatomy is sometimes ‘a love letter to disability’, sometimes a lamentation to a youth derailed. Sometimes, from our front row seats, we can feel the spittle of Trower’s rage – ‘big BLOODY broken skulls’, the ‘BLOODY awful wheelchair’. But Trower’s work is also a recognition of the tenderness of injury, the rediscovered beauty in the world. And it is a eulogy for the ‘unknown soldiers’, the other children at the Wilson Centre, where he lived out a rehabilitation.

This is a collection with a hopeful end. Trower flips disability on its head. ‘You will see disability / as a strength, / disability as spirited’. Trower comes to a junction, a critical point ‘when I realised that I wasn’t alone in the / world’, a time when he transcends his ‘coma anatomy’, and will fly back to his ‘cloud nine’.

Jamie Trower’s debut collection is fierce and untamed. It is inspirational without adjunct soppiness. It is not self-help. It is not glorification. But it may just startle its reader into fresh self-assessment.

‘once there was a boy
& he called himself bird,
& he had christmas tree lights
on the tips of his fingers
so he could find his
light through the darkness’

Review by Elizabeth Morton

Anatomy
by Jamie Trower
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994106988

Going West Festival: The Poetry of Place, with Paula Green, Kerry Hines & Leilani Tamu

pp_kerry_hinesPaula Green’s NZ Poetry Shelf is a blog I pop in on regularly. Green claims that she only writes about poetry that she enjoys, which makes her reviews a breathe-easy and pleasurable read. She reliably sniffs out great local poetry, so my interest was roused when she announced that both session guests, Kerry Hines (right) and Leilani Tamu (below), had been subjects for her blog. Hines and Tamu are very different writers. But Green expressed that both drew uncannily similar responses in her reviews. As if to echo the uncanny, when asked to read from their collections, each chose poems with a titular ‘beach’. In both cases, the poems were atmospheric, and anchored to place.

Concept of place features heavily in both writers’ work. It is discussed that place can be temporal as well as spatial, and that place is often about people, politics, and the memories people have of place that morph over time.

pp_Leilani_tamuKerry Hines’ collection, Young Country, draws inspiration from the images of nineteenth-century photographer, William Williams. These haunting photographs were presented to us in a slide-show, and feature alongside the poetry in her book. Leilani Tamu spoke about the photography (one photograph in particular) that set her on her poetry journey, along with influences of writers such as Albert Wendt and Karlo Mila.

These two poets are informed by their academic interests – Leilani’s Master thesis was titled ‘Re-defining ‘the beach’ – the municipality of Apia, 1879-1900’ and Hines’ doctoral thesis, ‘After the fact: Poems, photographs and regenerating histories’. Each poet spoke about the importance of archives to their writing process, the importance of libraries.

These are two poets I’ll be sure to keep an eye on.

Event reported by Elizabeth Morton

Young Country
by Kerry Hines
Published by AUP
ISBN: 9781869408237

The Art of Excavation
by Leilani Tamu
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473290047

Going West Writer’s Festival: Plumbing the Depths

rachel_barrowmanWith shiny new books at my hip, I re-entered the hall to hear Rachel Barrowman, in conversation with Geoff Chapple (Gee’s cousin), about her biography of Maurice Gee. This was a fascinating talk about a man who they described in turns as mild-mannered and self-assured, with a sensitivity at odds with the often disturbing subjects of which he writes. A complex man, and a prolific writer, whose work is oftentimes an iteration of the darkness that is accompanist to life, even in childhood.

Barrowman and Chapple chattered about the centrality of the creek and the kitchen to Gee’s boyhood, the trials of his adolescence (it seems Gee’s mother was a ‘secular puritan’, and this rubbed off on her son). They spoke about his turbulent on-off relationship with Hera Smith, with whom he had a child; about his jobs as teacher, postie, hospital porter and librarian. They chronicled his overseas spells, and his eventual meeting with Margaretha Garden, who would become his wife and the mother of two daughters.

Gee’s writings were discussed too, with it noted that Gee had been on the writing path since sixteen, inspired, in part, by a year reading Charles Dickens. Discussion turned to Plumb, with Barrowman and Chapple teasing out family biography from fiction.

This was a very interesting event, but somewhat awkward to behold. Chapple unremittingly cut through Barrowman’s speech, to the visible exasperation of some of the audience. Barrowman did not seem overly fazed by these disturbances, and the session generated what was largely intelligent and nuanced dialogue.

Event attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Going West Writer’s Festival: Events featuring Stephanie Johnson, then Elspeth Sandys

10am, 12 September: Take That!

stephanie_johnsonStephanie Johnson has her finger in many literary pies, co-founding the Auckland Writers’ Festival and writing numerous novels, short stories, poetry and screenplays. So it is that she has many a yarn to tell about the institutions within the writing world, and the characters that inhabit it. Today, Stephanie took the stage alongside Harry Ricketts to discuss her latest novel, The Writers’ Festival, which is a sequel to her 2013 novel, The Writing Class. What unfolded was something hilarious and penetrative.

It seems Johnson’s latest book has conspicuous parallels to the local, real life festival scene. Ricketts and Johnson had us in giggle-fits describing writerly antics on the festival run. There are writers who refuse to breathe the same oxygen as their fellow authors, let alone sit at the same stage (in real life, Johnson found cookbook authors and historians to be among the worst for this). There are moments of ‘cultural cringe’ as a character, returning from New York, beats more experienced locals to assume a job in festival organisation. Johnson tells us about festival politics, the obstructive trepidation of festival sponsors when a Chinese dissident is set to attend as a speaker. These things spill from life into fiction and back again.

Johnson tells Ricketts about the importance of performance as a writer, and the privileges of being young and pretty in the industry. There was also some discussion, in question time, about heckling from audiences at festivals, which again drew some wonderful anecdotes.
…..
12 noon, 12 September: What Lies Beneath

pp_Elspeth SandysElspeth Sandys is a novelist and short-story and script writer, whose novel, River Lines, was long-listed for the Orange Prize. At noon she spoke with Murray Gray about her 2014 memoir, (as distinct from autobiography, she stresses) What Lies Beneath’ She tells us that people become writers so that they can live out  alternative lives. She speaks about the nature of memory, its lapses, and suggests a non-linear description of time.

Her quest is to flesh out the characters of her birth-parents. She describes her discovery that her mother (who, at one point, she imagines was a ballerina) is a very different, and rather stronger, woman than she had depicted. Asked whether the process of writing this was cathartic, Sandys replies that she had already processed much of her life issues through her fiction novels. But she says it was ‘surprising’, insofar as her memoir was accepted for publication, and in that people were interested in her memories.

It is not so surprising, hearing her read a couple of excerpts from her memoir. Her writing is lush and transportive. I’m keen to get my paws on a copy.

Now for a lunch break… when I will probably spend far too much money on books!

Events reviewed by Elizabeth Morton for Booksellers NZ