Book Review: poeta, by Cilla McQueen

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_poetaThere are two things which I think make a great selected works collection and they are nothing to do with the metric foot or rhyme; they are much more prosaic. When I open a selected works of poetry I want to see initial publication information and notes. The poems don’t have to be in chronological order, thematic organisation is often more interesting, but I like to know where they fit. And I want the gossip behind the poems.  Cilla McQueen’s selected and new poems collection, poeta, wonderfully provides both.

Selected poetry books which collect and gather a poet’s work are important. They give new life to work which might be out of print and are great for those studying the poet.  They are however often lengthy, the poetry doesn’t necessarily propel you through the pages and I approach the reading of them more to discover the poet than the poetry. poeta is very much like this – what stood out to me most while reading it is the quality and length of McQueen’s career and her continuous experimentation with form.

From her first collection, Homing In in 1982, McQueen has constantly produced work.  The first decade of her career in particular seemed to be jam-packed, with work appearing in poeta from five collections printed during that time. This opportunity, fueled no doubt by McQueen’s own hard work but also by an ongoing commitment from her publisher at the time, allowed her to build a body of work and an identity as a poet. Reading poeta I found myself wondering whether a poet writing in New Zealand today could develop the same career and sheer body of work over their 30 years of writing.  New Zealand will be the poorer if the answer to that question is ‘no’.

McQueen’s experimentation and her desire for her poetry to embody all possibilities is clear in this collection. Older poems experiment with aspects like punctuation (or the lack of it) and building narrative, while the new poems clearly play with internal white space and the page. Though most poems are free verse and many are lyrics, you also occasionally see her mastering traditional forms.

McQueen’s poetry is rich in metaphor and image and ranges across many concerns and themes. Often strongly grounded in place, from Bluff to Berlin, poems such as ‘Living Here’ capture a New Zealand condition, an isolation and complacency which remains even if we are no longer ‘just one big city with 3 million people with / a little flock of sheep each so we’re all sort of / shepherds.’ ‘Crikey’ is an example of a fun love poem while ‘Fuse’ is a powerful political poem without being overtly angry. McQueen has the skill of taking poems in unexpected directions.

poeta is a book for those who enjoy deep dives into New Zealand poetry. But more than that it is a book whose very ability to exist creates reflection. How can we ensure that poets today can continue to flourish, to WORK, in New Zealand across a lifetime career?

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

poeta
by Cilla McQueen
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531281

 

Book Review: Coming to it, by Sam Hunt

Available from bookshops nationwide.

cv_coming_to_it.jpgComing To It is a collection of selected poems from throughout Sam Hunt’s career (though it also includes many new poems). To review a poet who’s been working for over 50 years, who’s so well known, who’s been recognised by the Prime Minister and the Queen is a funny thing. So much is already established. Most reviews of it so far have been as much reviews of the man − his touring, his drinking, his remote eccentric lifestyle. They become reviews of Hunt’s contribution to New Zealand literature and identity.

But I’m not able to write a review like that. So let’s put it all − the man, the history, the career − to one side and look only at the poems which are in turns clever, lovely, funny, questioning and, the smallest of handfuls, out of step with the times.

Hunt is thought of as a poet whose lines aim to reflect natural speech yet they are full of rhyme and craft; it is not everyone who can overhear a conversation in a pub and turn it into a poem.

Most of the poems in the collection are grounded in Aotearoa − in the natural and manmade paths in Rangitikei; in the choppy waters of Cook Strait; in the salt of tidal rivers in Oterei and Kaipara. They are proudly focused on our communities, our place and the travels of the poet throughout it. The poem Notes from a journey is an example where the towns, the waters and the people all embody Hunt’s pride in this country.

He returns throughout the poems to those he loves − his mother, father and brothers; his sons. These are in turn touching and enchanting. In ‘No bells’ for example, the loss of his mother on the same night as the bamboo windbells on his verandah break are tied together to portray an irreparable sudden silencing. In the last poem, Brothers (which is perfectly placed) we find Hunt in the gaps, the white space around his brothers.

His poems about his lovers, and his descriptions of women generally, generate less delight for me. Women who love him in the poems are expected to accept that he will never be completely available to them; to be with him is to accept a level of loneliness. I find this especially difficult, this ‘arm’s reach’ attitude, from a poet and performer who treasures a deep connection with his audiences. While he is charming spectators, those who most deserve his attention are, like the partner in the poem My white ship, expected to accept:

The ethic of my love
For you remains that I
Am a lone sailor of
The night; captain of my
White ship: and though you be
A good day’s mate, your fight’s
Too weak to rise with me…

In another poem a desirable woman is compared to an unbroken horse; in another a woman’s domestic violence scars are mused over but hey, despite that black eye she is still a ‘sort of mystic hooker’. I wish these poem, and the rest of the poems in the collection, were labelled with a first publication date. Rightly or wrongly, it matters to me whether this was a view from decades ago or from today.

Oh dear, I haven’t managed to review just the poetry have I? I have, like most other reviewers of Coming To It, come back to Hunt himself. And perhaps that was inevitable, because Hunt has always said his subject is his experience and this opening up of a New Zealand life for decade after decade is the ultimate gift his poetry has given us.

Reviewed by Libby Kirby-McLeod

Coming to it
by Sam Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503802

Book Review: View from the South, by Owen Marshall, with Grahame Sydney

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cv_view_from_the_southOwen Marshall and Grahame Sydney have come together in poetry and photography for this collection, View From The South, which is a beautiful, hardcover, small coffee table book – in the best sense. Each page is roomy and the poetry and photography often work in tandem to project an overall image – like the full page photo of a tree covered in wet snow facing the sparse poem ‘The Big Snow’ which outlines it’s fate – ‘a great tree…borne down by soft, white death.’

In the poetry, Marshall places the grand events of life and history (birth, death, conquest) against life’s ordinary and even painfully mundane moments, often adding a dash of humour, for example in the prologue poem where it’s begged ‘God / Don’t let me die in Auckland.’ Later in ‘Tuoro’ the poem remembers Hannibal’s great victory at Trasimeno as the poem’s protagonists sit ‘at the end of a corridor / of time, and drink dark espresso in the sun.’

Sydney’s photography, beginning with the snow covered range at the end of a lone dirt road on the cover, display southern New Zealand as we northerns imagine it – vast and detailed, somewhat abandoned but with a few stoic people remaining. I assume these vistas are from the South Island – there is no information about the photos which is a pity for the curious.

View From The South does feature many poems set in the South Island but I think ‘the south’ here can also be interpreted as the later end of life. Marshall is looking across generations of his family (his father and his grandchildren in particular feature) and there is a consistent theme or ‘view’ of memory and remembrance throughout. This theme is heightened by the inclusion of several elegies. Marshall sees things differently from this view, for example in ‘Blowing Up Frogs With A Straw’ the poem lists the many ways as a boy the poem’s speaker experimented with killing animals. But not anymore.

Having experienced no suffering of
my own, I dished it out with gusto.
Yes.
and now I wince to step upon a snail.

Marshall isn’t doing anything new or experimental with the poetry in View From The South but the compact lyrics are solid and well crafted, letting you into the interior world. An investment has been made to create a beautiful poetry book, with space and colour, and all these factors pull together to make a book which is both thoughtful and delightful.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

View from the South
by Owen Marshall, with Grahame Sydney
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143771845

Book Review: People from the Pit Stand Up, by Sam Duckor-Jones

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cv_people_from_the_pit_stand_upPeople From The Pit Stand Up is Sam Duckor-Jones’ first published poetry collection, but he is no stranger to the act of creating art. Duckor-Jones is an established New Zealand sculptor whose work ‘Strong men point their toes‘ was exhibited at the Auckland Botanical Garden and whose other work is available through Bowen Gallery. This is important because many poems in People From The Pit Stand Up examine the lives of artists and the creating, viewing and coveting of art and creativity (and maybe even the coveting of life lived in joyful community. But let’s get back to the art).

There are many sections to the collection (which at 109 pages is generous). One of these sections is ‘Blood Work,’ a 20 poem sequence about the process of creating and experiencing a sculptural collection similar to ‘Strong men point their toes’. It examines the physical process of creation – “To make a man / consider your kit Large batt scraped clean not warped..” (‘…instructions‘) – but goes beyond that to the spiritual and emotional connections encountered when taking on the role of God, creating man from clay. Ducker-Jones’ poems in this sequence recreate the strange experience of living in a house where clay men are encountered around corners, asking something from you, perhaps for you to deliver a ‘quick death’ or to be ‘held by the shoulders & kissed’ (‘…some considerations’).

In People From The Pit Stand Up Duckor-Jones is drawn back again and again to what he knows so well – art and artists, creating and destroying. But that is not the only theme; throughout we get a feeling of loneliness, though he is too clever a poet to name it (for example in ‘On Isolation’ or ‘Speaking Diary’).

There is much to admire in this collection. Most poems interact with the page in detailed ways; blocks of white space and gappy lines, left and right alignments and lines falling across the page. Those who follow Duckor-Jones’ art will also covet the collection for his illustrations which divide the sections of poetry. But while I admired the craftsmanship on display in the collection, I didn’t feel much engagement or pleasure while reading People From The Pit Stand Up – I didn’t enjoy it thematically, but I certainly admire Duckor-Jones’ talent. One for the artist in all of us.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

People from the Pit Stand Up
by Sam Duckor-Jones
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561933

Book Review: Walking to Jutland Street, by Michael Steven

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_walking_to_jutland_streetI met Michael Steven in person before I met him in his poetry. I was attending a poetry workshop and Steven was seemingly able to hold and recall random poets, poems, even languages at will.  I can’t even recall the author of the last book I read.

So I was excited to read his first full-length poetry collection, Walking to Jutland Street, and wondered if that same deep, intellectual mind would be on display. With two Latin-titled poems beginning this collection, it did not disappoint.

But it’s not just Latin which you’ll find scattered through his poetry. It’s French too, world events, Greek and Hindu mythology. And also web-slang (in the Dropped Pin series), drug-addiction, homelessness and a capturing of an often brutal and dangerous New Zealand male experience (for example in The Panel Shop where ‘Things happened in the yard.  I was encouraged/not to say what…’). Steven rejects any easy assessment of who he is or of his experiences.

Introduced with a prologue and farewelled with an epilogue, the poetry is divided into four (seemingly arbitrary) sections, including one titled Walking to Jutland Street. This is my favourite, as he ranges across subjects and memories like the jazz guitarist Emily Remler, the fall of the twin towers, the constraints of artificial intelligence and Brazilian police brutality.

To me, Steven is at his best when he takes a specific memory or event or image and moves in surprising ways away from it.  For example, in the beginning of the poem Dropped Pin: Latimer Square, Christchurch:

Spring was slow thawing my dreams that year.

Each night, watching the hills darken,

I saw the arm and shoulder

of a sad father turning away from the troubled

districts of his children.

That’s a poem about the fall of the twin towers. But also about a time Steven lived in a homeless shelter. And also, it isn’t really ‘about’ either (see above about rejecting easy assessments).

The thoughtfulness of his lines startle too.  In the poem Keepers Park a simple, sweet rhyme is suddenly halted by, well, complications.  Just like simple, sweet love can so often be:

of the light itself, as lovers do

when their love is brand new

and yet to be affected by complications.

Steven clearly aligns these poems with his own experience through the beginning epigraph from James K. Baxter, ‘I invent nothing.’  In an interview with the Otago Daily Times, Steven says he found in in James K. Baxter ‘a sense of permission to start writing about my own life.’

Some of Walking to Jutland Street is confronting and the experiences traumatic.  Many people die. Several poems are ‘in memorial’ of people who have died. I am glad that Steven survived to write this first collection.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

Walking to Jutland Street
by Michael Steven
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531182

Book Review: the ones who keep quiet, by David Howard

Available in selected bookshops nationwide

cv_the_ones_who_keep_quietNear the end of the first, exquisitely crafted poem in David Howard’s new collection, the ones who keep quiet,  there are the lines, ‘Here I am trying to control/details others ignore’ (The Ghost of James Williamson 1814-2014). It seems a fitting meta-poetic statement for his poetry. The Ghost of James Williamson 1814-2014 is a poem which, over 58 stanzas, maintains control of a tight line structure and rhyme pattern which many casual readers probably won’t notice on a conscious level. And it’s not just that poem – throughout the collection you are required to keep up because he is doing so much all the time. Look at these three words in the poem ‘Because Love Is Something Left’ – ‘Penknife, pliers forceps…’ and notice all that connects those words aurally, visually and in image.

Detailed construction is found everywhere in the ones who keep quiet and his approach reminds me of the one advocated by Glen Maxwell in his book On Poetry. Maxwell  wants poetry of pattern, ‘new forms. But still, forms,’ he demands.  Maxwell and Howard are also similar in their use of verse for the craft of playwriting and the ones who keep quiet has a short ‘play’ in the form of the poem The Mica Pavilion.

My  favourite in the collection however, is the poem Prague Casebook which Howard tells us ‘circles the character of the New Zealander and alleged spy Ian Milner’.  It has wonderful lines, for example, ‘The people here are strangers, they show/scant compassion; they smile like real estate agents.’  Or this wonderfully hideous example, ‘Socialism is soup made of cow lips./Smack smack.’  Gross!  I love it!

Remember the poem I mentioned before which continued for 58 stanzas? At times I felt I was limping towards the finish of a poem, like an athlete at the end of a marathon. Howard would always reward me with a short poem as if aware of my need to stay on just one page for a bit. The placement of poems in this collection is a gift to the reader.

Howard includes detailed notes about some of the characters and history the poems reference. This is good, but it raised my expectations and I was disappointed when a poem did not have accompanying information in the notes. Why for example does Howard not tell me anything about the music referenced in the poem Der Abend?  But this is a minor criticism of an otherwise thoughtful collection.

In the synopsis on the back cover, Howard is praised for his ‘metaphysical mulling’. He is not using his poetry to display his theology yet God, the Word (a reference to Christ in the Bible), heaven, hell, the details of our souls, are all here in Howard’s poems without his own specific beliefs being present. It is a hard thing, to depersonalise ideas about faith, and this to me is the most difficult thing, of all the difficult things, that Howard achieves.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

the ones who keep quiet
by David Howard
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522445