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: Fallen Grace, by MaryJane Thomson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_fallen_graceTo have a poet of such stature as Riemke Ensing endorse your poetry is a great sign. In her cover blurb to the slender volume, Ensing likens Thomson’s voice to ‘the music of the street…a questioning voice…wanting freedom from restraint.’ Having little knowledge of Thomson’s work, this was as good a framework to start with as any for a close reading or review.

Looking through a musical lens, the poems vary in cadence. Some poems, such as land, could have been influenced by the beat poets or rap in their essential rhythms, and would work well in any live reading. There is a definite lyricism to much of the work, which lends itself well to being spoken aloud. There are musical references peppered throughout the book, like a delicate seasoning, for example, ‘dissonant tones, lines in a refrain, improvisation or simmering melody’, all of which are used in a poetic sense in Thomson’s poems. There are too many great examples, but the most obvious is the echoing rhyme that so often forms a refrain, ‘…pre-ordainment, lifting containment, elevating to derangement.’ (From the poem Hustle)

Ensing is right when she says much of the work feels ‘…alienated from much of the material world as we know it.’ This is not a negative criticism, but a recognition of the poet favouring the philosophical over the concrete throughout the collection. This out-of-body experience as a reader, gives the poems an ethereal quality, as if we ourselves are drifting like ghosts across the landscapes Thomson creates, observing them from a distance. ‘The world mapped out…because they so high…’ (One Strike) Then, occasionally, like nervous birds, we are brought in close for a fleeting moment – ‘sitting cigarette in hand…staring at feather…’ (Pondering Belief). Then, we zoom out again into the nebulous world of ideas. ‘Ruminating over your small world, looking out from within…Fade in fade out new day…time to slow things down.’ (Nerve At Work)

At times, this distance creates a blurriness or the reader, drawing them in. Like a film that pulls in and out of focus, unnerving in its fuzzy edges. It is fitting that Thomson is also a photographer. The cover photo in itself a blurred forest, perfectly illustrating the poet’s chosen style throughout. It is almost as if Thomson, being a visual artist longs to eschew this world for a change, to wax lyrical and use the page to ponder greater themes, without having to tether them to a fixed set of concrete images.

Like the jazz influence of the beat poets, the unsettled energy of the underlying rhythm defines much of the world. We feel the moments where traditional form would seek to land us, but are transported elsewhere. It is like listening to Miles Davis and not knowing exactly where he will take you next. It’s a beautiful feeling.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Fallen Grace
by MaryJane Thomson
Published by The Night Press
ISBN  9780473281526

Book Review: Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother by MaryJane Thomson

cv_sarah_vaughan_is_not_my_motherThis is in bookshops now.

The interesting thing about reading memoir, for a seasoned fiction reader, is that memoir (being life) refuses to bow to any of the rules of fiction with which we are so unconsciously familiar. In fiction, if a character has an interesting and significant conversation with, say, a taxi driver, the taxi driver will undoubtedly turn up again later in the story. In memoir though, things happen in a random series of individual events, and any attempt at unravelling or predicting what will happen next is thwarted by the untidiness of life.

In MaryJane Thomson’s Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother, this disconnect is even more evident as the main character, MaryJane herself, is in the throes of psycho-affective disorder, has been sectioned under the mental health act, and is incarcerated in a mental health facility. MaryJane spends her days surviving the monotony of the ward with nicotine and black coffee, and creating artworks on the floor of her bedroom with cold tea, fruit and Coke bottles. To shake off her dependency on illegal drugs, she is numbed instead by prescription medication which, despite its many undesirable side effects, seems to do little to quiet the voice in her head.

The voice in MaryJane’s head is one of the most interesting characters in the book, and although it’s hard to know how accurate her depiction of this might be, it is an interesting and compelling account of what it might be like to live with this type of illness. Her voice variously tells her she is the incarnation of Jesus, has been violently assaulted by pretty much every member of her family and all her friends, and that she is actually black, the natural daughter of music legends Jimi Hendrix and Sarah Vaughan, but that she was “bleached” at birth to disguise her origins.

MaryJane sometimes obeys the voice, sometimes believes it but is hesitant to act on what it tells her to do, and sometimes outright disbelieves it, and tells it so. Her reaction to the voice at any given point is a good indicator of her mental state throughout the book – the more mistrustful she is of the voice, the closer she seems to be to stable mental health.

The dialogue in the book is often quite stilted and unnatural, but it’s hard to tell whether this is the result of a writer unfamiliar with writing dialogue, or a deliberate choice to heighten the surreal nature of MaryJane’s situation. Whichever it was, I found it quite distracting, and more liberal use of contractions (e.g. “I’ve…” rather than “I have…”) and more attention to the natural rhythms of the dialogue would have increased the book’s readability.

The other thing I found unusual about the book was the portion of her story that MaryJane has chosen to tell. Rather than describe her first descent into mental ill-health, or her climb out of it towards recovery, this memoir describes a rather arbitrary section in the middle. Only the author’s note gives us any contextual information about MaryJane, and the epilogue feels a bit tacked on the end. The book itself lacks any sort of character arc, or definite beginning, middle and end, although this is another peculiarity of memoir, as opposed to fiction.

MaryJane’s story is compelling, and provides an honest but sympathetic portrayal of what it is like to be sectioned under the mental health act, suffering from a psychiatric disorder. I would particularly recommend this book to anyone who has a friend or family member going through any sort of struggle with mental ill health, or anyone who has worked in or is interested in working in the mental health sector.

Reviewed by Renée Boyer-Willisson

Sarah Vaughan is not my Mother: A Memoir of Madness 
by MaryJane Thomson
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781877551802 (paperback)
ISBN 9781877551819 (e-book)