Book Review: Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2019, edited by Jack Ross

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_poetry_new_zealand_yearbook_19.jpgI look forward to The Poetry New Zealand Yearbook each year, because it’s so wonderfully filled with all things poetry. It’s also a great way to see the current landscape of New Zealand poetry, with familiar names making an appearance alongside newer poets.

The Featured Poet for this year’s volume is Stephanie Christie. Her poetry carries a strong voice that is raw and metallic. This voice runs through stanzas and lines that are proud to be unconventional; some lines run onwards while other lines are chopped, and then the words within those lines can be chopped again. The chopped lines and great pauses give the sense that the characters in Christie’s poems are languishing, while the use of sentences that run on through multiple lines brings a feeling of desperation. What forms is a unique mix that captures a dystopia-like setting. These are not safe places. In Microchasm,

Physical things leak aphorisms. Wash the hair again
for the second time this week
and all the weeks till we’re dead.

There is also the beautiful addition of an interview with Stephanie Christie, and this is where Christie also talks about how she crafts her art. In answer to a question about her writing style, she comments that she’s ‘magnetised towards words that are impossible to say, where the meaning multiples and gets out of control… mimicking the true ambivalence of the sure statements we shelter behind’. Considering the multiplicities in Christie’s work and how they form can also act as a writing prompt, a sparking point to inspire any poet to experiment with their own work. Christie wonderfully states that her creative practice includes ‘collaborations, poetry in theatre, sound poetry, visual poetry, songs… On a good day, I have no idea what I’m doing and am 100 percent committed to doing it. This is exactly where I need to be.”’

The winners of the Poetry Prize for 2019 are especially enthralling. Wes Lee’s first prize poem The Things She Remembers #1 is a swoon of images that shout and burst. Lee’s images also bring a sense that things are not quite right without actively stating it. She writes from moments that feel a little discomforting—

… A stranger sitting behind me
at the cinema leaning forward and
tugging a lock of my hair /

—to ones that are more stomach wrenching—

The patient who screamed like
a bird / her mouth wide as the abyss /

The New Poems are abound with strong pieces as well. Such as essa may ranapiri’s Gallows, which is full of sturdy images that are so clearly and satisfyingly described:

But you don’t seem to hear focused as you are on
trimming your fingernails. The plink of your ends hitting
the glass. And when I try to tell you in the morning
that the roof isn’t fixed; that I could see the streetlights
and blurred stars seep ghostly through the flimsy remains
of the ceiling, you just change the subject; put on your shoes and
leave through the open door.

I also appreciate the addition of reviews and essays in Poetry New Zealand, since creating discussions about poetry is also a rewarding process that brings new ideas to life. As well as being an important space for the work of New Zealand poets, this new instalment will inspire writers to continue writing and to introduce new methods in their craft.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2019
edited by Jack Ross
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780995102965

Book Review: A Passage of Yellow Red Birds, by Robin Peace

Available in bookshops.

cv_a_passage_of_yellow_red_birdsRobin Peace’s A Passage of Yellow Red Birds is a wonderful collection immersed within nature. Peace also explores how human life is intertwined with the landscape.

Traveller’s tales is a stand out poem that pulls at the heart with talks of departure. It starts with a description of how it feels like to leave:

the pull away south, the tug of earth,
the lift into night sky somewhere
far from stars, metal wings tilting
flash the city braceleted below.

Here, Peace presents such a brilliant image of a city seen from the air, lit up by the hum of civilisation. After leaving, Peace moves to explaining the feeling of arrival. But, as it is with travelling, it is soon time to leave again. In this way, Peace explores that bittersweet loop of having to leave just as you’ve started to become familiar with a new place. And then Peace presents a string of further images from the plane that are just as wonderful:

Mongolian deserts: hectares of sand,
brown arms flung out with salt-encrusted sores.
Small waters fingered by trickling, dry stories,
ephemerally bright.

Peace is so very in touch with her landscapes, as she also shows in her poem Oslo autumn. She describes falling autumn leaves as:

emissaries, summoned
down to litter boats,
slide boots on pavements

And Peace delicately references her own home as she stares at the autumn around her. To her, Oslo is

A hemisphere excess
of naked trees that
draws up all I know
of southern green.

Since Peace is so in tune with the nature around her, she also builds up the idea that nature is symbolic of a world that is flourishing and at peace. As long as nature thrives, then us humans live happily amongst it, too. In The dove wait, Peace waits for these birds and what they represent. Without them,

Your fingers blue. Your breath
comes in gasps and stalls and
starts again.

And the tenderness of Peace’s love of nature truly shows in her poem All of it. The setting is a funeral and nature makes a wonderful appearance throughout different parts of the scene. There is an Indian cloth, earth in colour and embroided with flowers. Then Peace describes a multitude of flowers, all in layers. These seem to be the flowers of the “your” that was evoked in The dove wait:

magnolia, rangiora; purple-blue
lavender, bluebell, iris, ranunculi;
pink-red rose, poppy, primula

The list of flowers goes on and on. And since they come from someone’s garden, I can imagine that there are a whole host of memories that can be evoked from each flower. Memories of planting the flowers intially, to caring for them and watching them bloom. Nature lives alongside human life and accompanies it. And Peace wonderfully ends the poem with this connection again. She explains how there, they stood

and looked to release your view across the plain
toward that forest of your embattled love.

Peace’s love of nature fills her life and others with such colour. A Passage of Yellow Red Birds is a wonderful read for anyone who loves the delicate way the earth creates such beautiful backdrops to human life.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

A Passage of Yellow Red Birds
by Robin Peace
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780995109261

Book Review: louder, by Kerrin P. Sharpe

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_louder.jpgThe modern world is a catastrophic uproar of voices, all speaking with the hope that someone is listening. Even the act of listening can feel like a painful way to navigate the world. There is so much to hear, to try and understand, and the breadth of variety in human life is incomprehensible. The act of saying anything at all can feel helpless amongst the noise. But in this collection of poetry, Kerrin P. Sharpe seems to say, go louder, still.

The title poem of louder starts off with an imagined scene:

elephants paint their faces
to restore themselves

adding tusks where poachers
took their ivory

The idea of imagined elephants taking back what has been taken from them is a bittersweet image. Sharpe continues:

even as guns are raised
and calves stumble
into scopes even as

trunks and heads are mutilated
their painting continues
louder than bullets

The imagined elephants are like peaceful protestors, claiming the small semblance of autonomy that they can through the art of self-creation. And although it is an inspiring image, it is a helpless image too. Painting in 2D can only bring back so much, even if it is through self-expression. The original is still lost, something has been lost, something has been taken by force. And the bullets are still ongoing.

The elephants, like the elephant on the cover, are the beginning march and voice of this collection. Sharpe portrays another powerful voice in her piece they are found in the sea. In this poem, Sharpe explores the viewpoint of a refugee at sea. She explores how strange it is to be amongst the ocean for so long and to be travelling so far away.

my world is the sea
my eyes the sky

All that is seen is sky, vision is turned into sky, eyes become sky. Sharpe continues to explore this fantastical world of sea and sky, with humans stuck in between. She explains how:

my brothers are birds
they wear beaks

But the most moving image comes at the end of the poem. The world of sea and sky may be fantastical and alluring, but there is still one greater wish for home and the comfort of land.

bury me
in the pelt of trees

The final section of Sharpe’s collection, where will the fish sleep?, was also incredibly moving. In this section, Sharpe provides answers to this title question. Maybe the fish will sleep still in the sea after a tsunami, after some great disaster. The zoo will crumble with the fish too. After all,

men climbed the great domes and towers to bring back to Earth spires bells crosses
to melt into money to build a zoo
when the flood came priests told us the zoo was never an ark

I did find the collection overwhelming, but I expected it to, as these issues can be just as overwhelming in real life. The amount of empathy required to understand every voice is a true endeavour. By cataloguing voices and views into concrete words that bring images together, Sharpe is clearing the uproar a little. Being able to identify all these issues, with great evocative images, is a way to work towards them.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

louder
by Kerrin P. Sharpe
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561964

Book Review: XYZ of Happiness, by Mary McCallum

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_xyz_of_happinessThe title of Mary McCallum’s poetry collection, XYZ of Happiness, explains just what this book is about: those feelings of happiness that colour our lives. Each letter of the alphabet is used as the first letter of each poem. The first poem is titled, After reading Auden, the second, Bee story, the third, C, and on the poems go in alphabetical order until the final piece, Zambia.

The poem After Reading Auden won the Caselberg International Poetry Prize and it’s a wonderful start to the sequence. Happiness here is found in the midst of nature. McCallum describes the force

of the river’s intimacy, its deep
soundless need—not sour,
not shiftless, but lucid, expressive,
sweet.

It seems the river is something full of power and emotion, yet still carries a softness. She goes on to describe the sensation of being in the river and falling into all that beauty:

we, the girls
and I, dissolving

And we dissolve with her into the bliss of the moment.

The poem Things they don’t tell you on Food TV was one of my favourites in the collection. In the piece, McCallum shows how food is a great conjurer of happy memories. McCallum talks about the

sun blooming in a bowl, and spooning
yoghurt and honey into a hungry mouth
on whitewashed steps with a turquoise sea

and a donkey crowing and someone calling
kalimera into the bleaching light is just like
scooping up the sun and eating it.

As I read the poem, I was instantly in Greece. The things that McCallum highlights in this poem are beautiful moments that I remember from my time there too. The combination of yoghurt and honey is a wonderful image, and her description of eating the sun and swallowing up that light perfectly describes how heart-warming such a scene can to be. As McCallum states, these memories are things that they don’t tell you on Food TV. They are personal stories.

The danger of writing with such a deep focus on happiness is that it can seem excessive and overdone. Some poems tipped a little to this side. In her poem Just Happiness, McCallum talks about a shop selling ‘Happiness Bowls’ and the image feels overwrought.

But for the most part, McCallum presents happiness in a subtle way. There are poems about when happiness is missing too, and when it’s something that’s being searched for. In the poem C, McCallum talks about a tender subject. The second part of the piece is titled 2. CHEMOTHERAPY. Here, she describes a body

young enough to smell of milk
in the morning, one the mother must
return to sit beside and stand over

McCallum shows a scene of vulnerability and presents the protection that the mother brings. Part of this section’s title is in bold for a reason. Chemotherapy, mother. And from here, McCallum highlights a great little wordplay within the word:

How could we not see it? Listen closely
now for the rest, say the word with soft
mouth lest you miss them: first and last
and barely there, but holding mother like
ribs, the key to (almost) happy.

It leaves you rolling the word chemotherapy in your mouth. She’s right, the mother is always there. Trying to hold things together like ribs, trying to create safe spaces of contentment. Complex poems that explore the different kinds of satisfaction we can feel and create, like this one, gave a true depth to the collection beyond simple bliss.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

XYZ of Happiness
by Mary McCallum
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780995109223

Book Review: Whisper of a Crow’s Wing, by Majella Cullinane

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_whisper_of_a_crows_wing.jpgPoetry collection Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is incredibly in tune with nature. The poem Winter Solstice exemplifies this. Here, Cullinane beautifully describes what the world is like on the shortest day of the year. Cullinane starts by telling us:

In the dark I cannot say what the day begins with. The curtains are closed
and dreams still drowse beneath our blankets.

This beginning perfectly captures the environment that envelops people and places in the middle of winter. The idea of dreams drowsing beneath blankets is a beautiful description of what life is like on these cold, winter days. Like we are all half-sleeping in winter, waiting for the sun to come out again. Even just these two sentences are enough to bring forward the image of slow days filled with grey.

Cullinane’s voice is beautifully lyrical and a perfect fit for the landscapes that she brings to life. The last stanza of the poem Learning to Breathe Again is a wonderful example of this, where she writes:

Better to consider
the small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world:
a snowflake flitting through the air,
swathes of blue and orange entangling the sky in their warm shawl,
glances to be tucked away like stones run smooth by rivers,
the shadows of our hands like wings, playing with the light.

Each image by itself is so clear and breathtaking. Placed together into a single verse, each image and sentence builds upon the last to help enrich the setting. By stacking up wonderful pieces of description in this way, Cullinane’s poetry tucks you into a stunning world. It feels like a world that has been touched by something magical, a world with a difference.

This way in which Cullinane lightly touches on the images around her makes her poetry so tender. Her poem Finale to the Season shows the world waking up from the winter landscapes that Cullinane had described in previous poems. Cullinane acknowledges:

We’re not there yet, but there are hints: in the pink-red clasp of sorrel,
the cicada easing a pitch lower, shedding its voice.

The subtle changes that come with the seasons is a wonderful subject that once again allows Cullinane to describe the nature around us so perfectly. She continues:

You are primed towards spring in the north, the light
drifting a little more each day like the black letters on this page
as they move across the white space, which remind me
of crows stalking frozen trees, or your breath hard and quick
as you sleep in the room we shared, each in our own narrow bed.

Cullinane’s reference to the poem on the page itself is excellent. The amount of light in each day grows incrementally with the onset of spring. Like this gradual change, the act of reading and moving across the page brings each word alive and into imagination.

Cullinane’s poetry style carries its own grandeur like the landscapes she describes. Her voice is distinct and clear. And in Whisper of a Crow’s Wing, this voice holds your hand, leads you through terrain, and points out details that you may have once missed.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Whisper of a Crow’s Wing
by Majella Cullinane
Published by OUP
ISBN 9781988531229

Book Review: Hoard, by Fleur Adcock

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hoardFleur Adcock’s Hoard is a compilation of poems that weren’t included in Adcock’s last two poetry books, The Land Ballot and Glass Wings, because they didn’t suit the theme of these collections. The poems in Hoard instead reflect on Adcock’s own life through a variety of topics.

In Six Typewriters, Adcock uses six typewriters she owns as springboards to different moments in her life. She begins by talking about her ‘father’s reconditioned / German keyboard… with a spiky Gothic ‘o’’. Then she describes ‘Barry Crump’s portable / Empire Corona’, and how it has been slowly rusting away. She ends with a typewriter that her mother gave to her. Adcock claims that this typewriter was so efficient that she didn’t care for computers. Then, with what I would imagine would be a wry smile, Adcock ends the poem declaring that, of computers ‘I shall say nothing’.

This subtle wit is a large part of Adcock’s poetic voice and it carries on throughout the collection. Although Adcock has lived in Britain since 1963, she was born in New Zealand and makes regular visits to New Zealand as well. For this reason, New Zealand features heavily in Adcock’s poetry as a defining feature of her life.

In the poem Fowlds Park, Adcock speaks fondly about her time in this park. She talks about the memories attached to the area and how ‘Everything here matters to someone: / the swings, the coin-in-the-slot barbecue…’ However, Adcock chooses to talk about the bad as well as the good. She also states that the park’s beauty is something short-lived because ‘The bastards will get their hands on it… they will come with their development schemes’. Adcock’s fondness for the park does not mean she is blinded by the fact that it can be ruined, and that other precious green spaces in New Zealand have already been altered.

Adcock’s playful wit also comes to light in Raglan. At the start of the poem, Adcock asks, ‘What do you do in Raglan when it’s raining?’ Well, according to Adcock, you could sit outside the library and use the free Wi-Fi. You could go to the museum but, as Adcock states, ‘when you’ve seen it / you’ve seen it’, and you’ve probably already seen it if you live there. Through this good-humoured tone, Adcock highlights a specifically New Zealand condition: what it’s like to live in a small town like Raglan.

Adcock’s imagery is also particularly vivid, and this shows through her poem The Lipstick. In this piece, Adcock describes a shade of lipstick that is so ‘shudderingly wrong’. She imagines what it will be like when she throws it away and when it ends up in the landfill:

seeping and oozing, leaking fats
through its patiently corroding
armour, wailing invisibly
into the soil with its puce voice.

Fleur Adcock’s hoard of poems cover a wide array of topics, all reflecting on different moments in her life. Although there is no underlying theme, Adcock’s voice threads all these pieces together into a diary of memories.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Hoard 
by Fleur Adcock
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561674

 

Book Review: 仁 surrender, by Janet Charman

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_surrendersurrender is a poetry collection that Janet Charman began to write during a 2009 residency at the International Writers’ Workshop at Hong Kong Baptist University. It was during a guest readership at the 2014 Taipei International Poetry Forum that Charman completed the first draft. And the influence of these locations is potent all throughout 仁 surrender.

Charman begins with familiar concrete images related to travel. A ‘felt carpeted box / with a pin number’ holds a passport and an envelope of cash. Charman takes her time going through the routine of washing her clothes, hanging them on an elastic and a ledge above the window-bay. She pauses for a moment, letting herself take in the view as she stands within this new temporary space.

Throughout 仁 surrender, there is a ‘you’ that Charman speaks of with affection. Small snippets from different poems tell us more about this ‘you’. In the poem where people are, Charman explains how she is ‘but one whose work you’ve translated’. And even without mentioning a name or a physical characteristic, Charman builds up this ‘you’ into a strong figure. It is someone who gives Charman the ‘sharp of your (their) tongue’ when they realise that Charman has not brought an electronic dictionary with her. ‘Western cultural hegemony’, Charman states in explanation of her actions, and her own shame is evident when she writes that this ‘you’ has every ‘right to be angry’. As a result, Charman is left considering, ‘what will be left of the Chinese culture / when Capitalism has finished planting its landscapes with Coca-Cola’.

Charman’s experience with this ‘you’ also touches on issues of being a woman. While talking about this figure, Charman states that she is someone ‘who fears men for every good reason / and still wants to be wrong about them’. Meanwhile, in another poem, Charman finds an exhibition about a woman called Lydia Sum. Charman sees costumes on display, each piece ‘alive with jouissance’. But when Charman mentions the exhibition to one of the others at the hotel, she learns that Lydia Sum was sometimes ‘referred to as ‘Fatty’ / affectionately’. And hearing this, Charman writes, “i want to burst into tears”.

In the poem writing exercise, Charman goes on to explain why she writes the way she does, with minimal capitalisation. For her, lower-case first person represents:

‘the interrupted narratives of women’s lives
menstruation domestic celebration’

Whereas upper-case first person:

‘reads as the default generic setting

of uninterrupted male subjectivity

as neutral and universal in patriarchy

in relation to which

a woman artist

must perpetually distinguish herself’

Comparing the conventional, or the male, against the unconventional, or the female, in this way is an enlightening process. It also brings a valuable insight into Charman’s own work and opens up how her poetry can be read. In this way, 仁 surrender is more than just a collection of poems about new places and locations. It highlights the issues that follow us wherever we go in the world, some that go far beyond the concrete and into the invisible frameworks that hum in the background and define what is acceptable.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

surrender
by Janet Charman
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531106