Book Review: Tightrope, by Selina Tusitala Marsh

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_tightropeSelina Tusitala Marsh is well known for being the 2016 Commonwealth Poet, an honour that involved writing a poem and performing it for the Queen at Westminster Abbey. Marsh also includes this poem in Tightrope. Titled ‘Unity’, this piece is a smooth poem that captures ideas of inclusivity. Marsh beautifully writes how ‘though 53 flags fly for our countries / they’re stitched from the fabric of our unity’. Throughout the poem, Marsh further explores this idea, repeating the phrase ‘There’s a ‘U’ and an ‘I’ in unity / costs the earth and yet it’s free’.

Marsh then follows this poem with other afterthoughts of the event. One of these poems is named ‘Pussy Cat’, where Marsh’s personality and identity stands strong. She paints a beautiful and vivid image of herself in the scene, talking about how ‘I frightened the Western world with my big hair… My moana blue Mena… My blood red lips / My Va philosophising / My poetic brown hips’. She wonderfully ends the poem by reiterating the theme of her previous poem, ‘Unity’. Here, she states, ‘Inverting West is Best / Instead drawing a circle / Encompassing all the rest’.

Marsh also explores other ways of describing identity. In the poem ‘Led by Line, Marsh portrays identity as something formed by several different factors. She tells how ‘We are led by line / blood line love line land line… when out of line / with the colonial line’, and how these lines—some part of us, some imposed upon us—make up our identity. Marsh then goes on to describe how we craft that identity by realigning and ‘drawing our line in the sand’. We must navigate what we ourselves feel is true. In doing so, we walk the tightrope of all these lines.

In the poem ‘Explanation of Poetry to My Immigrant Mother, Marsh also wonderfully portrays the joys of writing. She starts with describing the forms that a poem can take, how a poem can feel like ‘the kids’ lucky dip bin / love, grief, rage wrapped in headlines’. And then Marsh tells how a poem can also be a passport and send you to new places. She describes how a poem ‘can transit the likeness of you from New Lynn / to Niutao… can launch you across lined waters / where in another country / you find yourself / home’.

Throughout Tightrope, Marsh also included several black out poems. Black out poetry involves blacking out existing words and, in doing so, bringing out certain words and thus creating a new text. As well as being simple and sweet, Marsh’s black out pieces created a nice interlude between longer works. Using Albert Wendt’s novel Pouliuli, Marsh finds various parts of poetry within this broader context. One poem implores, ‘wake up Samoa and bring a New Zealand storyteller a pen’. Another declares, ‘discover the question recognise how to follow’.

I loved the fierceness and strength that Marsh invokes through her writing in Tightrope. Her recognition of identity and the multiple lines that create it is especially crucial in an ever-changing world. Marsh’s own pride is a stunning facet of her identity, and it shows through in her poetry.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Tightrope
by Selina Tusitala Marsh
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408725

Book Review: Sport 45, edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sport_45Sport 45 is packed with an array of new and brilliant pieces from New Zealand writers. There’s poetry, there’s essays, there’s even a novella. It’s a collection that’s not afraid to widen its scope, and this is how it provides a wonderful snapshot of new writing.

While reading through each piece of short fiction, I couldn’t help but recognise common themes. I discovered many characters who were estranged, isolated, alone. I saw the loneliness of waiting, as reflected in Tracey Slaughter’s story ‘Cicada Motel’. I stumbled through the bush with Kerwin in John Summers’ short story ‘Own Shadow’, as he tried to understand what was haunting him.

But the dynamic between characters also spoke volumes. Displaced in new and unfamiliar places, characters were left to try and make sense of each other. In Melissa Day Reid’s short story ‘I Will Come and Find You’, a husband and wife have travelled to Barcelona on a whim. They have also decided to abandon planning for spontaneity instead. Reid portrays Barcelona in a wonderful dream-like way; she describes a snapshot image of ‘arm, neck, lips, ear, tears, drums, and firecrackers’. But shifts in dialogue reveal a growing rift between this husband and wife. In fact, the two seem to be talking on top of each other. The wife points out a candlelit room in a building; her husband sees an alleyway below it and starts making his way there instead. As the story progresses, this rift widens. The piece seems to capture the natural but inevitable drift that sometimes takes place in friendships and relationships. It’s a palpable and bittersweet emptiness. And in this story, Reid explores whether this rift can be stitched up again.

Nicole Phillipson’s novella, ‘Moulin d’Ornes’ touches upon these estranged themes as well. Paul travels to a commune in France, intending to get away from the world so he can write. It’s a quiet setting where ‘the old, grand beauty of Europe… made his memories of New Zealand seem slightly cheap.’ In her novella, Phillipson highlights an interesting advantage to moving away: the delight of cutting away old connections.

A few essays also slipped in next to these pieces of fiction, taking their place comfortably amongst other genres. Giovanni Tiso’s essay ‘Before the Earthquake’ is one of these essays. Tiso describes the possible calamities that could occur if a serious earthquake were to hit Wellington. But he also describes the emotional state that Wellington is already living in because of this possible earthquake. Wellington’s next serious earthquake is not an if, but a when. As Tiso states, ‘we live before the earthquake. Everything around us is foreshadowing’.

There is also an array of beautiful poems in Sport 45. Helen Heath’s poem ‘A Rise of Starlings’ is delightful; she beautifully weaves the image of ‘wild celestial fields’ and messages traced ‘in particles of dust and light’. Natalie Morrison’s poem ‘Three edible grandmothers’ is a peculiar and whimsical little piece that sounds like it came from a fairy tale.

Overall, Sport 45 is a delightful instalment of this annual magazine, and there are a variety of pieces that provoke wonder and rumination.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Sport 45
edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561995

 

Book Review: Night Horse, by Elizabeth Smither

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_night_horseElizabeth Smither is a well-known figure in New Zealand poetry, and Night Horse proves again why this is so. In her eighteenth collection of poetry, Smither portrays an enchanting world by shining moonlight on the quirks of everyday life.

In this collection, Smither shows how skilfully she can render moments into soft and beautiful scenes. In the poem Wedding Car, she brings out the image of a 1926 Nash / in deep forest green’ driving down the road. Throughout the poem, Smither portrays a number of other blushed and brilliant images, as if the world were on pause: wheelspokes that ‘measured each revolution like time’, a bouquet, white ribbons in the wind. Finally, Smither states that ‘though, today, someone else will ride in it / you are both still there’. There are many layers to one moment, and the memory that Smither is recalling is just one of them.

Further on in the collection, Smither heightens this dreamy atmosphere into something eerie. In the poem Cat Night, she starts with a normal scene: cats walking through the street after the sun has set, ‘waiting to see how the night will shape itself’. There is something peculiar in this little description of suburbia. And at the end of the poem, Smither wonderfully declares ‘Let the street lights mark / the great promenade down which love will come / like black carriages on the Champs-Élysées’. Here, the everyday has been turned into something grand and enchanting.

Smither finds other peculiar moments in ordinary life. In the poem Oysters, she portrays a seemingly normal scene: a banquet table filled with food. But in this world, things morph and become strange. Standing out from the selection of food are six dozen oysters in a champagne bucket. After the oysters have been devoured, Smither draws out the uncomfortable image of ‘thin oyster lips’ and smiles, turning this moment into a scene that feels much more uneasy than a regular gathering.

My favourite poem in Night Horse is the final poem in the collection. From the title of the piece, Smither tells us that ‘The heart heals itself between beats’, and this anchoring phrase continues throughout the poem. She sets the scene in Middlesex Hospital, the bustle of doctors around her. It is in the chapel that Smither finds some quiet, watching as matrons and surgeons go about their duties. While she meanders, she also wonders about the heart and how it heals itself. She thinks, maybe each cell proposes a soliloquy to itself and speaks’. And then, in the final line, Smither beautifully concludes ‘The heart heals itself between beats / I heal myself between beats’.

Night Horse is a wonderful collection where each poem brings something new and unexpected. Smither perfectly captures an atmosphere that is dreamy and magical, yet also eerie. Her poems are the kind of pieces that will make you take a second glance at things in life that once seemed ordinary—statues in a park, a cat prowling through the streets—so you can stand for a moment and wonder what worlds they have seen.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Night Horse
by Elizabeth Smither
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408701

 

Book Review: Wolf, by Elizabeth Morton

cv_wolf_MortonAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Wolf by Elizabeth Morton is an atmospheric and breathtaking collection that explores all the strange and mysterious parts of life. It’s all about the sharp edges, the rough shadows, the things that sit in the back of your mind and fester. It’s the uncomfortable, the estranged, all tightly packed into a world where the moon never seems to set and the sun never seems to rise.

It begins with Wolf. He is wild and he is also lonely. Morton’s language is sharply attuned with the wild world of Wolf. She describes how “as a pup Wolf had mewed / tender words… taller now, Wolf barks consonants.” He walks through forests, visits suburbia, travelling with a feeling of loneliness that presses on him the whole way. In Wolf has a dream, this feeling is brought to the fore as Wolf howls “Mo-ther / Mo-ther… but she does not hear”. The way Morton contrasts the eerie wanderings of Wolf as well as Wolf’s own heartache leaves an unsettling feeling of melancholy.

Then Morton expands out from Wolf into her own world, although it’s still not a world removed from the strangeness of the wild forest. Morton’s metaphors are raw and her words are tough. One of my favourite poems of the collection, 17, is a beautiful yet eerie piece. Morton begins, “it was March. / we had city grit in our gums, / and heads violent with stars”. Descriptions such as these made me pause, consider her words, and imagine in new ways. Morton continues with more of her peculiar and unique imagery: “and at seventeen / we were the final flashing synapse in a wrecked brain. / the last dry thrust of a fish”.

In this world, although things are not as wild as Wolf’s forest, the presence of Wolf still lives on. In The Dream, Morton and her dog walk through a landscape filled with “steel-wool bushes, the bones of manuka”. Morton manages to turn even the everyday into something strange and almost menacing. In Sirius, Morton finds the presence of the canine and the wild again in the deep sky: “I found the Dog Star / winking white and black”.

Another poem I really loved in Wolf is Poem in which i am a zombie. It’s written in the same vein as others in this collection—menacing and melancholic— and the imagery is still absolutely beautiful. It feels like Morton has dropped me in an alluring world, but she has also pressed pause. With the remote in her hand, Morton is free to show us around while trapping us in a strange state of being in between. Morton describes “powerlines heavy with starlings”, how she walks “in dactylic hexameter”. Then the loneliness creeps in: “i remember my name. / it leaves a bad taste.” This loneliness reaches its height in the final poignant lines of the poem: “now and then / i turn on all the lights / and pretend somebody’s home”.

Wolf is an absolutely breathtaking collection of poetry that Morton has crafted together with perfection. There is a little bit of Wolf in her and in all of us: the jagged parts of the heart, the strangeness of the night, and ultimately, the sadness. And Morton touches on this all in a heartbreaking but alluring way that kept me enraptured all the way through.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Wolf
by Elizabeth Morton
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994137821

Book Review: Family History, by Johanna Emeney

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cv_family_history_bigFamily History by Johanna Emeney begins with a secret: Emeney’s mother is an adoptee. When Emeney’s mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, and the lines of family history become something different, Emeney and her mother both have to navigate through a landscape of hospitals and grief.

Emeney begins with her mother’s old photo albums in her poem Captions. Her album is filled with written captions, from ‘MR AND MRS DUNNE AT OURS’ to simply ‘ME’. But some of these photos are just ‘bare grey squares’. Perhaps these photos were moved around, or maybe they were taken and never returned. As a result, these words have no photo to caption. Although the past and some of its photos have gone, the album still lives on, declaring a certain family history.

And then, with the diagnosis of breast cancer, Emeney’s family starts to unravel. How large was your heart is a poem where Emeney crosses over from the medical into the poetic, proving that the two do not need to be kept separate. Emeney portrays the rush of unfamiliarity that comes with medical terminology, describing how ‘The coroner reports a haematoma / over the anterior pericardium’. It is a flow of words that means nothing to a reader like me, who doesn’t have the medical knowledge. But then Emeney unpacks it in her own tender words. Emeney claims that she has already felt the size of her mother’s heart in her own way; ‘she has felt its beat in full swell / through warm, unbroken ribs’.

Further on, in Anonymous, Emeney’s mother is reduced to a sample of tissue that will be used for cancer research. A letter labels Emeney’s mother as simply ‘YOUR DECEASED RELATIVE’. The letter ends with a simple sentence: ‘You can be assured / no one will ever know / who the donor was’. Although these words are meant to be comforting, they also cause unease. Is it that easy for a person – brain, thoughts, and all – to be reduced to a piece of tissue when it was once so much more? This is why Emeney’s poetry is so rousing: it crosses between medical terminology – ‘Today I learned that heartstrings / are called chordae tendineae’ – to the complexity of human feelings – a ‘spectacle of attachment and loss’. Emeney tries to understand moments both poetically and scientifically.

And she does it beautifully. In Dandelion, Emeney reminisces on times from her childhood, fixating on the image of cicada shells stuck on her school jumper. In the final heart wrenching verse, present day Emeney finds traces of dandelions on her clothes, and she thinks of them as ‘three white parachutes’. She sweetly describes how these little parachutes remind her of her mother. To Emeney, those dandelion strands are ‘little angels of your (her mother’s) imprint, your leaving’.

The way that Emeney combines the medical with the poetic in Family History brings the true complexity of the medical world to light. Although medical science is based on concrete fact, the people in its system are still people, and they feel a variety of emotions. It is a world where words are charged with meaning, where diagnoses and procedures change the lives of patients and their loved ones. And Emeney is there, bringing the reader into that experience. It’s not just a medical history; it’s a family history.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Family History
by Johanna Emeney
Published by Mākaro Press, part of the Hoopla series
ISBN 9780994137814

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