Book Review: Withstanding, by Helen Jacobs

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_withstandingHelen Jacobs’ memories and words are strongly focused within the landscape around her. In Withstanding, she writes poems describing her memories of journeying across these landscapes; she considers this against her own life in the present, where in her old age, these journeys are no longer so easy.

Jacobs’ outlook of nature is a unique one that contemplates each object in relation to everything else, including the stretch of buildings and her own human presence. A shrub becomes “a conversation piece” for another plant, a vine, before Jacobs expands to the image of city centres and shop fronts. Not one piece of the landscape loses its significance when seen in relation to another.

Eastbourne is a beautiful poem that creates a vivid snapshot of nature in this Wellington suburb. The land itself doesn’t change, but the place as a whole develops with each moment: the sky darkens, the waves move, the wind flurries. Jacobs’ only choice is to stay and watch it unfold; enraptured, she ‘cannot gather / all this into imagination’.

Evidently, nature is one of the loves of Jacob’s life and she finds solace in the plot of her garden, where ‘clematis stems / up the trellis / to a gentler air’. It is the broader landscapes of nature that she can no longer reach, and therefore can only look on with longing. She thinks about how she was once able to walk ‘over all the contours of the slopes’, describing the dips of the outdoors in a beautiful way. In the present, however, she is stuck to the safety of level ground and a small garden that can only offer the birds so little.

Despite this loss of experience, Jacobs still finds flickers of light in her life. A good day describes small moments that bring happiness to her daily life. The smile of a woman and a baby may be a small gesture from strangers but it is also an unexpected source of comfort. In this way, Jacobs can still find beauty in the world, where spaces are still ‘opening large and green’ even if they are not expanses that she can journey through anymore.

And, although she cannot walk through these landscapes, Jacobs can still write about them, even if her writing ‘operates in the past tense now’. The tender way Jacobs writes about her own body is a touching representation of learning to love the inevitable flaws that come with old age. In the poem Legs, she writes about how much she trusted her body to bring her through anything, whether it be through a bush or on a bike. However, now it is her job to care for them and ‘endear them back for a little longer’.

Even in her old age, Jacobs is a withstanding presence in the landscape. She still finds comfort in looking across at the world she loves, and manages to find sparks of happiness while finding new ‘vistas to step into’. Although she downsizes from bush to garden, both landscapes bring comfort to her life. In this way, Jacobs reminisces a love of journeying through nature that once came so readily to her, recognising that it is something beautiful even if reduced to a memory.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Withstanding
by Helen Jacobs
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994117281

Book Review: Where the fish grow, by Ish Doney

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_where_the_fish_growIsh Doney packs love and longing into her first collection of poetry, Where the fish grow. Describing Doney’s own move from New Zealand to Scotland, her writing resonates deeply through its portrayal of how bittersweet it is to leave old memories behind while making new ones.

One painful aspect of departure is leaving loved ones behind, and Doney expresses this in her poem Family. She beautifully describes the process as ‘packing up / grey Christchuch days… Folding up streets and parks’. The restraint of her language results in a tone that is modest and almost shy. In this way, the final verse of the poem is heartbreaking yet subtle. Here, Doney spends her time ‘remembering what it was like… to lie on the lino… under a hospital bed / and listen to my brother cry’.

Similarly in the poem Miscarriage, Doney describes a different kind of leaving, and one that she can’t quite fathom. Unable to comprehend what has happened, she repeats her chances like a plea: ‘Five percent. / We should have been okay’. The precision of Doney’s writing portrays a deep yet intangible kind of loss with no flamboyance or excessive description. She is simply a poet capturing an event for what it is: a loss that leaves pools of emptiness rippling through her life.

The heart is placed obliquely in the chest, is another beautiful poem that describes the heart and all its emotions as a literal concept. Some hearts are ‘bent or partially broken… hence, fracture takes place more readily’, suggesting that constant leaving and settling results in small cracks in a person. The use of short and simple lines presents these observations as strong and sturdy structures for the rest of poem. However, in the end, ‘The substance of the heart / is uncertain’; its complexity is left inexplicable.

Doney finds a constant through the ritual of making tea, and she uses this to find that sense of home again. She describes the motion as a process similar to making mud pies, of ‘mixing the garden together / and covering it with petals’. This is her way of grounding herself: through the imagery of the earth. Tea reappears throughout the collection and so does the sea; it is where the tang of salty air and fish becomes a prevalent memory for Doney. In the final poem, Seaside, she imagines ‘collecting the ocean / in coffee cups’, of being able to bring bits of home with her wherever she goes. It is an innocent way of making the unfamiliar seem familiar, of adjusting a new home in relation to the old.

Where the fish grow portrays the many of emotions of departure when home is so close to someone’s heart. The heart is a complex and difficult thing and Doney’s attempt to understand it is through the description of a magical world, a world where the smell of tea brings back certain memories and the tide brings in layers and layers of the past. Where The Fish Grow is an enjoyable poetry collection that captures both the wonder of the new and the bittersweet feeling that comes with leaving the old.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Where The Fish Grow
by Ish Doney
Published by Makaro Press (Part of the Hoopla series)
ISBN 9780994123718

Book Review: Bones in the Octagon, by Carolyn McCurdie

cv_bones_in_the_octagonAvailable in selected bookshops nationwide.

In this poetry collection, Carolyn McCurdie brings magic to every moment, no matter how everyday. Bones in the Octagon is full of poems that are simple and sweet; one focuses on the memories associated with a blue and white tablecloth while another details the smell of freshly baked bread.

McCurdie’s writing easily carried me through the collection, maintaining a steady tone all the way. This, combined with the dream-like imagery, resulted in some very striking description. One poem depicts how “our eyes are less on the stars, / more on the spaces between”. Another captures memory as paint “on the dreaming / walls of my mind.”

‘Power poles along the street’ is an interesting piece despite being, as the title reveals, very commonplace. The poem has no full stops or commas; instead McCurdie relies on line breaks to create these pauses. This creates a small breath in between phrases and a similar effect to punctuation. The lack of full stops, however, reduces the harshness of each break and therefore results in an atmosphere that is more light and airy.

One of my favourite poems was ‘Invitation to dance’. It is a piece that dares the reader to “Walk with me. / Pack no bags.” Still, the poet doesn’t forget to remind the reader that the past is important, and how it’s where “You might look through your blinking to that younger / self”. This final stanza captures a feeling that, despite having no name, is so pervasive: the want to tell your younger self what you, in the present, know. It explores the importance of being able to accept your old self and recognise the distance between old and new. It is this common yet complex feeling that McCurdie manages to craft so deftly.

I felt that many of McCurdie’s poems were on the edge of something different like a beginning or a kind of rebirth. ‘January Begins’ is an obvious example, as it details the connection between Janus the two faced god and the idea of open doors and possibility that comes with the new year. Its final line—”Go through”—is a striking ending in its simplicity.

Although I would’ve liked a couple of longer poems, Bones in the Octagon was still a beautiful collection to read. The consistency of McCurdie’s writing allowed me to truly immerse myself in her words, where enchanting language could be found in the most ordinary comparisons and objects.

The final poem still felt fresh and new even at its place right at the back of the book. The title of the poem itself, ‘The time of fire is over’, reminds me of the rebirth of a phoenix from the flames and it invites the same kind of possibility explored in ‘January begins’. McCurdie describes how “your skin is growing brittle” but still “your feet stand firm.” The final lines—”your toes curl, grasp / the edge”—are a strong affirmation and conclusion that describes the sensation of being at the cusp of something new; it is an ending that feels hopeful.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Bones in the Octagon
by Carolyn McCurdie
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994117212

The story of Hoopla – three at a time, by Mary McCallum

On my desk at Mākaro Press, I have the four winds, I have all the hoopla, I have a book my friend Vana gave me to write poems in. I’ve started writing in the beautiful handmade book, but not nearly enough. As a new publisher, I find there’s too little time to write, or to read books published by others. It’s all about the books I’m making.mary_mcCallums_desk

Of course Four Winds Press is one of those ‘other’ publishers, or was. And a small Wellington one too, founded by author Lloyd Jones. His vision was to publish essays by New Zealand writers in sets of three – small, smart, thought-provoking books. I collected them until they stopped, and still look for them in secondhand shops. They helped inspire the ‘hoopla’ on my desk: the series of poetry that I launch every year in April, in sets of three: small, smartly designed, thought-provoking collections of poems.

HOOPLA was named for its connotations of commotion, extravagance and play. And three at a time because we like them marching out together – supporting each other at launches and readings and in bookshops, making a splash. Deliberately, we have a late-career, mid-career and first-time published poet, and we make sure we spread ourselves geographically … always a South Islander.

On the bookshelf behind me as I sit at my desk is another series that has always inspired me: Faber poetry. Those plain, bright, font-driven covers I grew up with that – even now – look like they’re in loud and earnest conversation.

Our Hoopla series began in 2014 with the trio of Michael Harlow (Love absolutely I can), Helen Rickerby (Cinema) and Stefanie Lash (Bird murder). Three beautiful, provocative poetry collections in reds, yellows and blues on the themes of ‘love’, ‘film’ and ‘crime’.

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The three poets behind their collections. L-R Carolyn McCurdie, Jennifer Compton and Bryan Walpert.

This year, the colours are oranges, yellows, and greens, with a touch of bone. The poets are Jennifer Compton (Mr Clean and The Junkie), Bryan Walpert (Native Bird) and Carolyn McCurdie (Bones in the Octagon), and the themes are ‘vice’, ‘settler’ and ‘south’ (in that order). What a whanau! They cry out (I believe) to be bought, borrowed, held, read, re-read, read from, heard from, collected.

You can find out more about the series on our website and order there, or better: go and ask your local independent bookstore to order the books in (if they haven’t already).

Meanwhile, I am not writing enough in Vana’s book. Nor anywhere else for that matter. I miss it and will redress the balance soon. But it’s early days with Mākaro and it needs me. This too I know … collaborating in making books out of a tendril of an idea or a digital file or dog-eared manuscript is in itself a fabulous creative act. Like an excellent series of books, it gathers its power from the numbers involved, and from its own collective joy.

by Mary McCallum
Publisher, Mākaro Press

Book Review: Bird Murder, by Stefanie Lash

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Bird Murder is available now, at selected bookstores.

Birds of a feather flock together, or so they say.
And Mākaro Press bunches three first-class poets in its Hoopla Series. Stefanie Lash, an archivist from Wellington, is the fledgling of this group, with Bird Murder her first collection.

Lash’s collection evades pigeonholes. Perhaps it is best pegged as a poetic thriller (indeed, the cover does cast it as ‘crime’). But Lash resists conformity to any one mode. Bird Murder flitters between legalese and the natural sciences, between steampunk and colonial New Zealand history. Norse and Greek references couple with local geography.

The work is a hodge-podge of elements, but by no means a mess. Imagery is integrated. The ‘not-quite-fictional’ setting of Tusk and its colourful inhabitants are vivid and convincing. Yet the reader is torn between feelings of repulsion and delight. There is something both exquisite and abhorrent about this other-world. The ‘pretty bird’ becomes ‘grotesque’ in death, and there is something oddly artful about the ‘creamy intestines’, the ‘teacup of blood’.

Bird Murder is in turns haunting and hilarious. It is verse as storytelling. However, this is no linear tale. Rather, each verse acts as a clue to the overarching narrative. Characters are sketchily rendered. Birds, birdmen and human forms move in and out of view. There is an element of theatre in the movements of characters − the maid stands at ‘stage right’, people adopt the ‘contrapposto pose’.

This is theatre at the ‘World’s End’. One senses the credits have fallen, and Tusk is a world in its death-throws. The slaying of the huia bird, an almost magical entity, is symptomatic of such breakdown. And in the dystopian dim it seems ‘no good can come of seeing faces fully after dark’. The huia, once taxidermied, is purged of its magic − ‘the actual animal is released’.

In Bird Murder, Lash has gifted us fairy-tale and caution. A bird in the hand is worth nothing if it is dead. ‘No man should revel in extinction’. But Lash’s tone is not didactic. Her style is more ‘show’ than ‘tell’. Lash invites us into a world rich with imagery – from the anatomical to the culinary.

This is poetry with guts.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Bird Murder
by Stefanie Lash
Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780473276492

Book Review: Cinema, by Helen Rickerby

Available now at selected bookstores. 

Grab your popcorn.cv_cinema_helen_rickerby Adjust your vision to the dim of the theatre. Helen Rickerby is taking us
to the cinema. But this is no standard ninety minute B-grade flick. This is a movie buffet. And Rickerby pans cinematic history, and its people, in her new collection.

Rickerby introduces the cinema as a ‘revolution’, conquering ‘distance and memory’, bringing about the annihilation of time. In Cinema, time can be travelled and situations rehashed. Characters can be transformed into ‘wittier, more stylish’ versions of themselves. Yet Cinema‘s characters ‘do not think, (they) are thought’, and their fates are governed by their directors – the likes of Kubrick, Malick, Lynch and Campion.

Cinema is an Escher-scape, where recursion is the crux of reflection, where one might announce, ‘this is myself, playing myself playing myself’ or ‘I have glasses over my glasses’. Hidden meanings lurk beneath objects. ‘A bathroom means a closed door, a sanctuary, asylum…’. Objects are not all they seem – ‘her mirror is her mother’. People change form to become flowers.

Cinema straddles the line between fiction and reality. Narrators may be unwittingly deceitful and the reader may ask ‘Can the people be trusted? Can he trust himself’. It is a place wherein doppelgängers prowl, spontaneous combustion may or may not happen, and an ‘anteater of self-doubt’ may land upon the unsuspecting.

Rickerby’s world is at once compelling and absurd. One gets the feeling one is not in Kansas anymore. As Rickerby’s poem, ‘New Worlds’, suggests – ‘this is a strange place, a foreign land’.

Strange as this place Rickerby takes us to may be, there is entertainment beyond the discombobulation. Rickerby’s poem, ‘This is the way the world ends’, articulates this perfectly:

‘This story is about remembering
and forgetting

Not knowing where you are
or if it’s real

But you can die with a martini in your hand’.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Cinema
by Helen Rickerby
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780473276485