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: Rabbit Rabbit, by Kerrin P. Sharpe

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_rabbit_rabbitThe title poem of this enigmatic collection by Kerrin P. Sharpe is also the leading poem, setting the tone for the book. It is apt that the spirit animal of the collection is a rabbit, considering how Kerrin takes the reader on a journey down a rabbit hole of magical imagery and trickery. This title character turns out to be a newly acquired partner of her mother, who, obviously a whiskered fellow, appeases her by shaving. (He doesn’t do a good job, as he leaves blood on her towel). But by the end of the poem, the mother shows him who is boss by eating ‘…hunter’s oatmeal’. In other words, she has her prey and she will see to it that he is domesticated. It is an insightful and brutally honest opener. The literal rabbit caught in the headlights expression on the cover rabbit, while holding his dripping razor is clever and discomforting. The fact that it also a playing card also reinforces the idea that this character is a pawn, an acquisition ready to be used at will.

This other character of the narrator’s mother is someone who invades the poems in the first half, with her clothes being a central focus point, from her coats (The Astrakhan coat comes to life), to her hats. The menacing image of the cut throat barber/razor appears several times too, such as in the Russian spy narrative poem, Cleaning the Stables:

…and snow covers my spy life
like a corpse though once
when I passed a barber’s shop

I thought a man
was having is throat cut.

The book covers a lot of geographical ground, and reading it does feel like you are hopping from place to place, seemingly at random. One minute you are in Warsaw, the next Cape Reinga. Apart from the psychological mother exploration, this seems to be one of the organising principles. Other than that, the poems are not rooted in any particular place, or even century. Bill Manhire notes from the back cover that the poems “…make him think of migratory birds.” Which is a fair assessment and works well, considering the themes the poet is interested in exploring.

Overwhelmingly, the feeling we get is that we are looking at events through the eyes of a child with a great capacity for imagination. Adults become rabbits, coats come alive and pills become polka dots. This dreamlike imagery is often punctuated by the harsh and often brutal realities of migration and cultural micro-aggressions. Losing the language of your culture is touched on in several poems. Remnants from the author’s religious past are incorporated too, with references to cathedrals, sanctuaries, angels, prayers and Jesus on the cross along with a slightly nostalgic reminder of a particular denomination: “…and the jacket, from my army days, I call salvation.”

As a reader, it’s the personal threads that are the most touching. The references to her son’s asthma and bike riding bring this fantastical journey back to the ground, only to fly off again to some unfamiliar destination.

Reviewed by  Anna Forsyth

Rabbit Rabbit
by Kerrin P Sharpe
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560653

Book Review: There’s a Medical Name for This, by Kerrin P. Sharpe

Available now in bookstores nationwide. 

Kerrin P. Sharpe was born in Wellington and now lives in Christchurch where she is a cv_theres_a_medical_name_for_thispoet and teacher of creative writing. Her her first collection Three Days in a Wishing Well was published by VUP in 2012. As with her debut collection, the poems in There’s a Medical Name for This are distilled, spare, and arresting. Sharpe has a clear and unmistakable voice – her poems are often surreal and haunting, but she can also be funny. For example, in one memorable poem a deer builds a Portaloo! The world Sharpe creates in the surreal poems sits comfortably beside the ‘pilgrim poems’ in this collection, which explore the equally strange experience of loss and how we move forward.

One of the most successful aspects of the collection is the way Sharpe moves the reader – almost seamlessly – through time and location. In one poem we’re on a World War One battlefield; in another a man gets money out of an ATM before an earthquake in Christchurch. Sharpe’s characters are many: Antarctic explorers, a woman shopping, and Japanese rice planter in 1953. While this could easily make the collection feel disjointed, Sharpe’s consistent voice and purposefully limited palette of images pulls the collection together. We return to the same theme: we live in an uncertain world.

While Sharpe’s imagery is beautifully rendered, very little in this collection is literal or straight-forward. When first reading a poem I would often ask myself what it was about. This elusive quality is entirely intentional: it allows the poems to slowly reveal their themes, and through that revelation, be all the more powerful. One example is ‘the dictator’:

the brother of birds
smokes feathers

sucks a collar
of small black tunes

coaxes thick slices
of red berries
into his bunker

preorders gasoline
shoots his dog

crushes tiny skulls
of poison for his wife

persuades his gun to talk

Sharpe’s poems often have a fable-like quality which allows her to blend her own family history with broader events in world history. Being able to read her stories within this wider context is one of the strengths of the collection, and poems often bounce off each other. Many of the poems in the collection come in bunches, which gradually creates a story. For example, poems about snow appear together, as do a series of poems about horses (these are not the horses you’d expect, though. In one poem a ‘thesaurus horse’ joins the speaker’s father ‘by the fire // both of them searching / for the right word’.) The most heartbreaking series of the collection is about miscarriage, which I am assuming stems from Sharpe’s own family history. From the collection’s title poem:

she builds a baby
from steam and feather
from early snow

she cannot remember
who is still born
herself or her son

she lines a box
with pinus radiata wings
a scarf of grey sky

While I am still puzzling over a few of the poems, this is a moving and singular collection.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett 

There’s a Medical Name for This 
by Kerrin P. Sharpe
Victoria University Press, 2014
RRP $25.00, 68 pp.
ISBN 9780864739308