Book Review: Mister Hamilton, by John Dickson

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cv_mister_hamiltonMister Hamilton
is John Dickson’s first poetry collection in eighteen years, and it is clear he has honed his poetry well. The precision of Dickson’s writing is intense. It’s like being placed in a whole new country with so much to see, and there is an amazing rush in his writing as he shows us his world and more.

The story, like many stories, begins at home in New Zealand. ‘Plainsong’ is one of the first poems in Mister Hamilton. Often, images of home can become cliché after reading them over and over again. However, Dickson brings clarity to this poem with unique images that call your attention and make you stop for a moment. He describes ‘Southland’s slow intestinal rivers / laden with manuka dust / And my detachment from anything plain.’ Dickson perfectly captures the feeling of being homesick: a background noise that is always present, pervasive. Something that ‘smoulders still’despite all the time that has passed.

My favourite in the collection is the poem Something Else. While reading it, I wanted to speed up in anticipation of the words to come, as well as slow down in order to take everything in. I think what makes this poem so effective and enjoyable is how it brings you into its rush of words and images. Although it may seem fragmented at first, there is story underlying it all, with a selection of images that recur and words that repeat. At its heart, the poem tells of a lost girl and her father, who carries an ‘anguished stare’in his eyes. It is how Dickson uses this story to open up a certain world that makes it so interesting. There is a lost girl but she is also so much more than the girl others see on the six o’clock news. She is also the girl falling, the girl full of rage, the girl who finally stays silent and lets the snow enfold her.

Mister Hamilton is also a collection that’s very conscious of the rhythms of poetry. In Dickson’s own notes at the back of the book, he explicitly states: ‘I attempted to compose verses that would not only use the speech rhythms of other people as well as my own, but also match the rhythms with various metrical patterns’. ‘Sixties relic surveys his lawn’ is a satisfying poem that seems to sway with a steady rhythm, and captures the methodical nature of the exercise. The final verse in the poem mimics the motion of someone working back and forth while mowing the lawn: ‘you mow your fescue that way / way this fescue your mow you / you mow your fescue that way’.

As the dust settled from the rush of being brought into all of Dickson’s various worlds, I quietly finished Mister Hamilton. And I was left with an urge to go back and read some of my favourites in the collection again, and an additional urge to write my own. The words in some of these poems seem to crest like waves as you read them, and they rush with a mix of images that seek to both inspire and question.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Mister Hamilton
by John Dickson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408558

 

Book Review: An echo where you lie, by Polina Kouzminova

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cv_an_echo_where_you_liePolina Kouzminova captures a longing that tugs at the heart in her poetry collection, An echo where you lie. Amongst the tumultuous images of nature—snow, rushing water, glaciers—Kouzminova finds her emotions reflected in all aspects of the world around her.

Kouzminova was born in Siberia and from the age of ten, she was raised in New Zealand. The influence of these two cultures combined shows in her own poetry, where she reflects on all that she has left behind. Distance in both space and time is what defines the collection. Often, Kouzminova finds herself pausing in anticipation for this distance to close, for kilometres to be travelled, for hours to be finished. In the poem Chemistry, she waits silently, for “he will come, bringing / a thousand years’ absence home”. A quiet and unsettling atmosphere blankets the poem, a feeling of hushed and nervous expectation.

The poem Franz Josef Glacier is a soft and delicate piece about departure, and it’s my favourite poem in the collection. There are the familiar motifs come with this kind of scene: the act of letting go, a plane, a distance that only grows and grows. Kouzminova brings something special to these conventional images. She describes continents that “would lay themselves out / on the palm of my hand” and the dazed feeling of waking up and then having to again remember what’s been left behind. Especially heart-wrenching are these simple lines: “Now your softness will be touched / by somebody else; I do not exclude this.” The poem not only captures longing, but also a sense of bittersweet resignation, of having to let go of a warmth that could never quite be all hers.

However, leaving is not all bad. In the poem At the airport, Kouzminova describes the promise that comes with reaching her destination. She affectionately paints an image of her mother cooking in the evening, and thinks of the rest and warmth that she can finally have. Kouzminova captures the scene in one clear and crisp sentence: “These are the reasons to leave late nights / and fly back home”.

The poem If we aren’t careful is like a minimalist love poem, a poem that doesn’t demand much of its lover. Instead, it asks for the simple things: “Promise me / you will always be someone / from afar”. Distance seems to define Kouzminova’s life, and she is left to find echoes of other people in her memories. Even if she can’t see them in the flesh, her memories continue to reflect and bring them to life.

An echo where you lie is simply a stunning collection of work, and I love the way Kouzminova threads images together into crisp scenes. This is only Kouzminova’s debut collection, and I definitely want to read more of her poetry. She perfectly captures the strangeness that comes with moving, of having pieces of home scattered in different places and never quite feeling full. The stories she pulls together aren’t fantastical but everyday. The magic is in how she renders these familiar actions: leaving, arriving, forgetting, remembering. This is what holds up her words and what makes her work so bittersweet yet beautiful.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

An echo where you lie
by Polina Kouzminova
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129949

Book Review: Songs of the City, by MaryJane Thomson

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_songs_of_the_citySongs of the City is a collection that explores the contemporary world through a voice that seeks to look beyond the surface. Thomson splits the book into four different sections; each section focuses on a specific aspect of life with a slightly different voice.

In the first section, Finding Your Light, Thomson brings in a sharp voice that clearly expresses what it thinks of the world. Evolution is a poem that wonderfully describes life as “falling with the minutes / Building up hours”. The poem effectively highlights the preoccupation with time that defines modern life. Another piece, titled Just Surfing, criticises the modern day and age that’s caught up in digital screens. Although the voice in this poem is much severe, and borders on preaching, it clearly pinpoints the dangers of the digital world.

The tone slows down in the next section, Watch, where Thomson moves to reflections on faith. Prophet Nina Love is a piece that sees the world through the lens of the spiritual; Thomson sees “lines of David in the songs, / prophets in the poems”. Here, a prophet is not a grand person who only lives in heaven. Thomson states that these prophets are also “on earth through and through”.

This is followed by Funny Sun Kissed Fantasy, a section of poems on love. This is clarity of reality is a simple poem that expresses the realisation and epiphany that comes with a breakup: the change from moping to moving. There were some moments when Thomson’s expressions of love involved cliché phrases. Nevertheless, this second remove away from the critical and further into the personal worked well.

Conversations and Songs is the final section, and these are poems about music and letters. Some of these are positive and light, while others portray harsh realities. Night clubs depicts the negative truth of nights out in town. Although there is a feeling of excitement that kicks in, Thomson also reminds herself of the people out there with “motives they will / Forget in the morning”. Meanwhile, in The great contralto mezzo soprano, Thomson writes of the delight and freedom that comes with music. The poem, in describing music, has its own music too. The title itself rolls off the tongue and the piece is a tightly written poem with short, effective lines that roll in one after the other like dancers.

Overall, Songs of the City is a collection of poetry that looks at modern life with a keen eye. Thomson is not afraid to criticise and this results in a sharp and strong voice in her pieces. However, she also brings a nice sense of subjectivity in exploring her own personal thoughts. Her spiritual poems and love poems are two sections that add this depth. Each section is a different lens against the contemporary world and Thomson reveals that there is good and bad in all of these lenses. She introduces them to the reader and lets them dwell on these issues against their own lives.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Songs of the City
by MaryJane Thomson
Published by Headworx
ISBN 9780473365660

Book Review: The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell

Available in bookshops nationwide.Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_collected_poems_of_alistair_te_ariki_campbellThe Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell wonderfully captures the breadth of Campbell’s literary career. The collection is based on a spiral-bound manuscript titled “Complete Poems 1947-2007” that was found after Campbell’s death. The volume is divided into six categories that track the development of Campbell’s writing.

Of Wild Places encapsulates the early poems of Campbell’s career. These pieces are connected to the rough exterior of the land. The first poem, The Return, is one that finds its power in the ferocity of the landscape. Humans are reduced to small figures on the beach as Campbell revels in the image of “fires going out on the thundering sand… the mist, the mist moving over the land”.

Tongareva to Aotearoa serves a nice contrast to the previous chapter, by expanding further into the interior of the land, and exploring Polynesian imagery as well as Campbell’s own Polynesian identity. Campbell moves from his own personal meaning in poems such as A Childhood in the Islands, to grander figures such as old chiefs “meaner even than Te Rauparaha”.

Love Poems is a special chapter full of beautiful and light poetry. Many of these pieces are dedicated to Campbell’s wife, Meg. My favourite poem in this section is Love Song for Meg. The piece describes the sun as “points of light” that come in through the branches. It feels like a summer dream where everything in nature feels fresh and a little magical.

War Poems explore the experience of Campbell’s father in Gallipoli as well as the story of the 28 (Maori) Battalion. The poems in this section detail the struggle of these wars through first person narration. The way Campbell moves through different points creates a flow from one action to another. Even though there are so many names, some forgotten, Campbell does his best to portray the steely exterior of these men whose minds are now filled with death and “darkness, the sound of roaring, / and emptiness”.

I enjoyed the section titled Poets in Our Youth the most, where Campbell writes autobiographical letters to his contemporaries in verse. I loved how this gave an outlook into Campbell during his years at university. In exploring his own life, Campbell also sheds light on figures like James K. Baxter, who is lauded as a sort of “Kiwi superstar”. However, in Campbell’s letter, it is evident that Baxter is someone who has his vices and adversaries like all of us.

The collection ends with Looking at Kapiti, a blissful and beautiful picture of the everyday. Against the tumultuous tone of some of the previous sections, this one takes its time describing the world of Pukerua Bay, a familiar and domestic world that Campbell is used to. In About the House, Campbell draws on aspects of his home like his dog and the nature around him through bad days as well as good days.

The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, by covering the many different topics that Campbell has written on throughout his life, portrays how his words and writing has changed with time. However, at the core of all these pieces is a writer with an authentic and strong voice. This extensive volume truly does a wonderful job of showing this and emphasising the inspiration that his poetry still brings.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell
Published by VUP
ISBN  9781776560677

Book Review: I Am Minerva, by Karen Zelas

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cv_i_am_minervaKaren Zelas has a light, airy, and playful tone that makes her poetry incredibly engaging. In her collection I Am Minerva, Zelas employs a wonderfully poetic voice that explores stories and histories, as well as the identity she crafts out of it.

In the first poem, Zelas presents a picture of herself in a modern context. In camera is a simple and short poem. It describes how, before the selfie, there was “always the invisible other” who wasn’t in the photo. The photographer helped complete the picture by taking the photo, and therefore also by not being present. The act of capturing the self was always left to someone else.

Zelas relies on spaces and breaks in verse to craft the tone of her collection, and create breathing spaces in her writing. Such a method wipes out the harsh break of full stops, and instead leaves every poem feeling like a long, drifting dream. In the poem Sound Waves, Zelas describes “open mouths tongues tripping / on syllables & the sibilance / of my heart ‘yes!’-ing”. The phrase “on syllables & the sibilance” especially rolls off the tongue in a satisfying way. Zelas’ writing voice is one that is very conscious of itself, and of how poetry wraps itself around a subtle rhythm.

Zelas’ poem Way point won the New Zealand Poems4Peace competition in 2014 and it’s easy to see why. The poem starts with the description of a place “where blue meets blue”. The description is not superfluous; the voice here is one that is gentle, kind, and patient. Despite the wide expanse of blue ocean, the poet reassuringly states “at that point will I find you… & as your ship breaks on my shore / I shall draw you to me”.

At times, Zelas also steps out of this voice. She presents a reminder about the dangers of pushing such a sweet voice to the point of romanticism. In the beginning is a poem that deals with the formation of the universe. At first, Zelas speaks in an expectedly lovely voice that portrays how “Sky & Earth / embraced in darkness”. Perhaps in reference to the many absurdities of ancient myth that are frequently skimmed over, Zelas undercuts this beauty at the end of the poem. She describes how “later that son fucked / his own daughter… & / there was night”.

The final poem is a piece of writing that beautifully twists the tongue. In the poem Born of the head of my father, Zelas confidently asserts “I am Minerva”. Then, she continues onwards: “I’m myth I’m rumour / madness mendacity / aftermath palimpsest” before ending on “I’m scribe”. Just like the goddess of Minerva, her wisdom includes both the histories of her own life and others. As a writer, these are the things that she turns into poetry. And in this poem, Zelas is able to finally present her own image of who she is.

The two images of the self—the camera selfie at the beginning, and the image of Minerva at the end—work as bookends of the collection in this way. In between, Zelas stunningly draws out a variety of settings with a subtle and soft tone. I Am Minerva plays with rhythm but never in a way that detracts from the images that are being brought forward. The whole collection carries a lightness that is wonderful to read, with Zelas holding up different images of herself into focus.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

I am Minerva
by Karen Zelas
Published by Submarine Books
ISBN 9780994129970

Book Review: Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe, by James Norcliffe

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cv_dark_days_at_the_oxygen_cafeJames Norcliffe is a well-known name in New Zealand poetry and the soft, subtle writing of his newest collection confirms why this is so. Norcliffe’s restrained and delicate style crafts Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe into an atmospherically cohesive collection that portrays a variety of different lives.

His poem Double Indemnity conveys the quick and suave style of the Film Noir movie the piece is based on. The narrator sounds just like a hard-boiled detective of the genre, a man who describes how his “glass / clinked with the sudden ice in my heart”. Norcliffe portrays Phyllis, the femme fatale, as alluring and dangerous as she is in the movie. The poem focuses on a snapshot of images that make up the heart of this classic black and white movie.

Meanwhile, in James Dean, two characters describe the image of this eponymous and captivating figure; the tilt of a grin, the recurring cigarette. Stories become concrete once written, and through this metaphor, the piece acknowledges the permanence of the past. James Dean will forever be immortalised as the man before his death: young, handsome, and always grappling with danger like that perpetually smoking cigarette.

In another poem, Laika, Norcliffe writes about the first animal to orbit the earth, a stray dog from Moscow named Laika. Norcliffe’s note at the back of the book explains how Laika would have probably died after a few hours in space. And so, Norcliffe renders her brief life in the cosmos into something strange and wonderful but also especially sad. It is a world where human achievement happens at the cost of an animal’s life, a world where “we will keep the cosmos company… as what remains of Laika / falls like incandescent snow”.

The Amnesia Aquarium is an especially beautiful piece. In the depth of the aquarium, snippets of memory are like brief flashes of light that reflect off the scales of fish. The accumulation of this memory becomes a whirlpool of images; Norcliffe poignantly describes them as “nebulae you can barely remember / shining in a familiar sky”, mixing the cosmos into his aquarium of memory.

The scope of well-known figures and those less familiar creates a collection of poems that are fragments of both stories and lives. The final life, a poem titled The death of Seneca, closes off Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe. It portrays the indifference of Seneca who, when ordered to commit suicide, could only go through the motions in a strange, disassociated way, telling his servants to “bring him sharp blades, bring him pomegranates”. Here, Seneca is another character who captures a moment of frailty. This moment is so striking that Seneca has been remembered for thousands of years after his death.

Although death is a common theme for the characters Norcliffe presents, his writing is reassuring in its subtle beauty. Since many of these characters are stuck within concrete events that have already happened, Norcliffe also shows how emotions like longing are timeless. He renders this feeling across multiple stories and lives, each character or creature with their own experience of pleasure and pain.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe  
by James Norcliffe
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560837

Book Review: Tail of the Taniwha, by Courtney Sina Meredith

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cv_tail_of_the_taniwhaThe gold hardcover of Courtney Sina Meredith’s short story collection, Tail of The Taniwha, catches the light in a magical way. The writing inside is just as beautiful. Meredith’s lyrical style stems from her background in not only prose but also poetry, and she’s not afraid to push at the boundaries between the two. In her story The Coconut King, Meredith tags the beginning of each line with a slash in a way that’s reminiscent of poetry, while retaining the kind of full-formed narrative expected of prose.

Other ways of telling stories are explored in this lovely collection. In Patriarch, Eldest Son, Ghost Son, Daughter, Meredith strips back the text to just its dialogue. Stylisation, such as the use of italics, is the only means of assigning parts of speech to certain characters. Dialogue is what uncovers the relationships between them. This backstory is crafted up in such a subtle way that by the time I got to the ending, I had to turn back a couple pages and read it all over again. My second reading was with this newfound knowledge of what these characters meant to each other.

I especially loved how Meredith worked with format in her story Aotahi. This story begins with five sentences, lyrical but seemingly unrelated to each other, from “You were very small, Aotahi” to “It’s like swimming back to yourself from a great distance”. However, with each page, Meredith added gaps to the story, edging out details and building up the plot. My assumptions were changed and expectations deformed. Each addition felt like a new star coming to the horizon, with all of these stars eventually creating a whole galaxy at the end, a whole new story.

The tension of this format was further evoked in the story Leaning Trees. Along with forming details about the central character, various news headlines were used to fill in these gaps. These headlines became a sort of distraction, or possibly even a solace to the narrator, who seemed to be trying to avoid the acknowledgment of her situation until the last crucial detail was revealed on the final page.

These little details brought complexity to the lives of Meredith’s characters. In The Youthful Dead, Meredith presents a girl called Ava who is dreams of someday being like her sister, of moving away from home and living her own life. Meredith crafts a haunting scene of loneliness where Ava is reduced to a shadow, forever following the orders of others. The moon becomes an eerie guardian in the sky as Ava “unfolds her bucket list in the moonlight”. “I will”, she thinks, “I will visit Greece… I will feel the sun on my face”.

Meredith’s style is poetic and beautiful, and Tail of The Taniwha is a striking collection of the many forms that the short story can take. Meredith’s style is also a voice that’s strong and fearless. In her stories, she dreams and wishes. But she is also a woman of action, who mulls over what these dreams mean, who wants to “find all the black holes”. It is a voice that is aware of what others expect of her, whilst acknowledging that she is much more multi-faceted than these expectations could ever be.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Tail of The Taniwha
by Courtney Sina Meredith
Published by Beatnik Publishing
ISBN 9780992264895