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

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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: Lonely Earth by MaryJane Thomson

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_lonely_earth.jpgIn her second collection of poems, Lonely Earth, MaryJane Thomson explores the far reaches of the human mind in the 21st century, weighed down with concerns about humanity and the fate of the planet. Her poems are both universal and personal, striking up intense conversations with the reader, while still giving enough space to breathe. There is a mix of longer and shorter poems throughout the collection, the spaces in between allowing for the reader to think about the different ideas that Thomson explores. But intensity is felt in a few words just as much as in a page of text, and a single line can change the whole feeling of the writing.

Thomson engages with many of the ideas that we deal with in a daily basis, from questions about humanity and the environment, to capitalism and consumerism. In poems like Burger and Fries and Adidas, she questions our unquestioning obedience to our consumeristic lifestyle in the West.

Disgusting how they use words to motivate / movements of people, / physically speaking, telling you what to do / and while you do it what to think, and again the same sentiment is repeated Just show the people what to do / and they’ll do it. / Just like the ad, / all day I dream about sugar. / Adidas on your face.

These issues, while not resolved, are brought to the readers attention, placing us in a position of confrontation with ourselves.

In poems like Humanity and Which channel? we are faced with questions about our complacency towards human problems, ‘it’s always in TV, / someone else can handle it’. In the poem The Work Force Thomson looks at our repetitive lifestyle of working from 9 to 5, ending with ‘You open the bottle and pour / the day out. 5pm.’ These issues that we face every day are brought up again and again in Thomson’s writing, confronting the reader and causing us to think about how we live our lives.

But there are also other poems that appeal in a very different way. In particular, a poem like Without Love appeals more to our sentimentality, and the emotions portrayed are perhaps more human than any other found in Lonely Earth. This duality in the work, on one hand asking us to question our society and way of life, on the other appealing to our most human emotions, creates a very strange and unique experience. Whether you take away from this collection one or the other, or perhaps a bit of both, there is certainly something within these pages that appeals to everyone.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Lonely Earth
by MaryJane Thomson
Published by HeadworX
ISBN 9780473339739

Book Review: Main Trunk Lines: Collected Railway Poems, by Michael O’Leary

Available now in selected bookshops.

cv_main_trunk_linesFor prolific poet, author and jack-of-all poetry trades, Michael O’Leary, this latest thematic collection represents an impressive array of his railway-related poems. Railways and all their quirks have long occupied O’Leary and have formed a backdrop to his life in various guises. Spanning 30 years of his writing, Main Trunk Lines travels with him across the width and breadth of Aotearoa, via its railways. It is a bumpy ride showcasing the picturesque vistas on offer through train windows, both past and present. Historical asides peppered throughout add context and enlightening detail to the poems.

On working on the S9 track gang north of Dunedin (To the S9 Track Gang), O’Leary doesn’t pull any punches: ‘And the rails on which it ran, cut my young life in two.’ We learn that one fellow worker, Maia, ‘lost his fight for survival’ during the works (Waiata – a chant: te manga aho o te rerewe ki Seacliff). From the introductory poem, Self Deception, the reader is immediately reminded of this life’s journey on the ‘death express’, taking us to an eventual demise. O’Leary draws parallels between his younger self (an evaporating vision) and the children boarding the kinder transport to the death camps during the second world war. It is a sobering, if not morbid note with which to preface the wide-ranging selection. Overall, the book has enough light relief thanks to O’Leary’s signature cheekiness, to keep us buoyant.

As you would expect from a subject so rich in rhythmic material to draw from, we are treated to many lines deserving of performance or musical accompaniment. A fine example is the rap-like lines from the poem Make Love and War:
From the stations of My Lai and Lidice and Fallujah
It doesn’t matter who’s killing ya
If you’re being killed –

There is a lyrical lilt throughout, with a special treat in the middle section which features six Waiata chants – the perfect marriage of onomatopoeia and waiata form. They are of course a nod to the railway gang songs of days past, combined with O’Leary’s Maori heritage. One can only imagine the fun to be had from a public performance of this set of poems, with their humour, for example:

Clickety clack, Karakiti karakati – HUROA

It’s not a slinky cat nor a winged bat – it’s a rat.
From poem Te manga aho o te rerewe ki Taumaranui

These are an absolute delight to read, rich with delicious idiosyncratic images: ‘Rotorua projectionist, swaying loin-mat, the fat of the land handed down the valley on a saucer.’ At times absurdist, the reader is reminded of the work of fellow New Zealand poet, David Eggleton, employing rapid fire and sometimes surreal imagery.

Any reader living in New Zealand will find a familiar scene to relate to. For those of us less well travelled in our own nation, the book is a virtual tour that sparks a desire to explore more of New Zealand’s hidden pockets and quaint small towns. Overall, it’s a sublime collection, capturing the tracks and trajectories of a nation and a poet.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Main Trunk Lines: Collected Railway Poems
by Michael O’Leary
Published by HeadworX
ISBN 9780473329174