Book Review: Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2019, edited by Jack Ross

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_poetry_new_zealand_yearbook_19.jpgI look forward to The Poetry New Zealand Yearbook each year, because it’s so wonderfully filled with all things poetry. It’s also a great way to see the current landscape of New Zealand poetry, with familiar names making an appearance alongside newer poets.

The Featured Poet for this year’s volume is Stephanie Christie. Her poetry carries a strong voice that is raw and metallic. This voice runs through stanzas and lines that are proud to be unconventional; some lines run onwards while other lines are chopped, and then the words within those lines can be chopped again. The chopped lines and great pauses give the sense that the characters in Christie’s poems are languishing, while the use of sentences that run on through multiple lines brings a feeling of desperation. What forms is a unique mix that captures a dystopia-like setting. These are not safe places. In Microchasm,

Physical things leak aphorisms. Wash the hair again
for the second time this week
and all the weeks till we’re dead.

There is also the beautiful addition of an interview with Stephanie Christie, and this is where Christie also talks about how she crafts her art. In answer to a question about her writing style, she comments that she’s ‘magnetised towards words that are impossible to say, where the meaning multiples and gets out of control… mimicking the true ambivalence of the sure statements we shelter behind’. Considering the multiplicities in Christie’s work and how they form can also act as a writing prompt, a sparking point to inspire any poet to experiment with their own work. Christie wonderfully states that her creative practice includes ‘collaborations, poetry in theatre, sound poetry, visual poetry, songs… On a good day, I have no idea what I’m doing and am 100 percent committed to doing it. This is exactly where I need to be.”’

The winners of the Poetry Prize for 2019 are especially enthralling. Wes Lee’s first prize poem The Things She Remembers #1 is a swoon of images that shout and burst. Lee’s images also bring a sense that things are not quite right without actively stating it. She writes from moments that feel a little discomforting—

… A stranger sitting behind me
at the cinema leaning forward and
tugging a lock of my hair /

—to ones that are more stomach wrenching—

The patient who screamed like
a bird / her mouth wide as the abyss /

The New Poems are abound with strong pieces as well. Such as essa may ranapiri’s Gallows, which is full of sturdy images that are so clearly and satisfyingly described:

But you don’t seem to hear focused as you are on
trimming your fingernails. The plink of your ends hitting
the glass. And when I try to tell you in the morning
that the roof isn’t fixed; that I could see the streetlights
and blurred stars seep ghostly through the flimsy remains
of the ceiling, you just change the subject; put on your shoes and
leave through the open door.

I also appreciate the addition of reviews and essays in Poetry New Zealand, since creating discussions about poetry is also a rewarding process that brings new ideas to life. As well as being an important space for the work of New Zealand poets, this new instalment will inspire writers to continue writing and to introduce new methods in their craft.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2019
edited by Jack Ross
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780995102965

Book Review: Finding Frances Hodgkins, by Mary Kisler

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_finding_frances_hodgkins.jpgThis year marks 150 years since the birth of artist, Frances Hodgkins. Mary Kisler, Senior Curator, Mackelvie Collection, International Art at Auckland Art Gallery has written a remarkable book on the life and works of Frances Hodgkins. Her decision to travel to Europe and visit as many of the places where Hodgkins painted has resulted in a travelogue of Hodgkins’ work and the landscapes that inspired her. Kisler also uses Hodgkins’ diary to give us an understanding of the people and events which were so important in the paintings.

Arriving in 1901, Hodgkins was to spend most of her life in Europe with only two brief visits home to New Zealand. During these years she moved on average six times each year, only pausing during the wars when she could not visit her favourite places in France, North Africa, Holland and Spain. She enjoyed the company of others on her travels and accepted offers from friends and acquaintances to stay in new places. Kisler makes wonderful use of Hodgkins’ diaries to describe not only the landscapes, but also the social events that influence her life. Armed with photographs of Hodgkins’ paintings and her diaries and letters, it was a mammoth task to try to match each work to a specific place. While sometimes, this is achieved, a growing awareness of Hodgkins’ clever manipulation of form and space, helps Kisler to understand the way works are often composed of various elements rearranged by the artist.

I was impressed by the gentle patience of Kisler, who also chose companions for her travels. Language, lack of signage and the ravages of time, made her task daunting. The colour plates that sit alongside the text help the reader to follow the development of Hodgkins’ art. Her fascination with shapes and light, and the way she reduces a scene to blocks of colour, helped me better appreciate her work.

Here is a tribute to a truly great New Zealand artist. By melding her diaries, artworks and the actual landscape together, we arrive in awe of the output and quality of work that Frances Hodgkins produced. This was her life, and she worked hard at her craft, which was not always easy. My hope is that the touring exhibition of her work allows us a chance to truly stand in wonder at her works.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Finding Frances Hodgkins
by Mary Kisler
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780995102972

Book Review: With Them Through Hell: New Zealand Medical Services in WW1, by Anna Rogers

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_with_them_through_hellAlongside the New Zealand soldiers who fought in World War I, there was a large team of dedicated medical (and veterinary – New Zealand also sent about 10,000 horses) personnel who did everything they could to save lives and treat the injured. Anna Rogers has painstakingly researched the history of the medical services and tells their story in all its gory detail, right from the early days when female doctors, nurses and volunteers had a battle on their hands just to be allowed to serve overseas.

With Them Through Hell is an extremely comprehensive book on the medical services, more of a history textbook than a book you would sit down and read in one sitting. It certainly isn’t a jolly hockey-sticks tale of what went on – it’s a far more sobering and factual account, and anyone reading it will be shocked at the challenges they dealt with on a daily basis, both in the lead-up to their dispatch to the war zones and also during the conflicts.

Divided into four sections – Feeling the Heat; From Chaos to Care; Unexpected and Unsung; and Maimed and Mended, which are then further divided into a total of 16 chapters – the book goes into great detail about the part these medical personnel played in the war. There are numerous photographs (predominantly black and white, apart from reproductions of oil paintings) and also copies of letters and cartoons. The photographs illustrate the conditions they worked under, but the text carries far more detail about the hardships they endured during the war.

It must be hard to tell the story of so many people over many years without using quotes from both published and unpublished sources, but I found the quoted material tended to slow my reading of much of the book. This was particularly noticeable in some sentences that contained more than one partial quote, as there was no attribution alongside. The book is substantial, so flicking to the footnotes at the back was not something I wanted to keep doing, and often the source would just be given as a newspaper article.

I read the introduction and then dipped in and out of the book, reading chapters that particularly interested me rather than reading from start to finish in sequence. As each chapter is comprehensive in itself, this is a reasonable way to proceed.

It is great that the medical services’ dedication to duty has been recognised and given its own tribute in With Them Through Hell. For historians and those who work in the medical services today, this book will be a fascinating history of the work carried out by medical personnel and the pioneering advances in treatment they made under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances.

With Them Through Hell: New Zealand Medical Services in the First World War
by Anna Rogers
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780995100190

 

Book Review: Heartland Strong, ed Margaret Brown, Bill Kaye-Blake and Penny Payne

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_heartland_strong.jpgWhile I am a dyed-in-the-wool ‘townie’, it would be hard to travel around New Zealand over the last 20 or 30 years as I have, and not notice how farming has changed. I also think television and the media in general have had huge influence on what a lot of New Zealanders now think of farming in New Zealand. Once upon a time, the countryside was littered with family farms which were in those days handed down to the eldest son. This has been one of the biggest changes in farming. Increasingly, farms are not owned by families but by a corporate and syndicate form of ownership.

From Wairoa to Southland, the book’s team of 14 writers found great examples of resilience and ways in which it was built by different communities. ‘It came up repeatedly that relationships, connectedness and support networks were what made each town,’ the book editors say.

20 years ago, the landscape in rural communities would there would have been farming of sheep and beef but now farms with hard to farm hill country have sheep. Dairy expansion has bought increased total numbers of herds, as well as increasing the size of the herds.

Land management has changed, with storage ponds and a higher number of irrigators which enables farmers to intensify their production systems to grow crops that 20 years ago couldn’t have been grown. All of these changes have affected rural communities. A lot of the farms now need more people to work on them, and to retain good people is increasingly difficult. Less New Zealanders want to work on forms with possible ownership of farms becoming less achievable, so farmers are having to use transient labour. Some rural communities are struggling as a result.

The effect of these changes is not all negative. Some towns are flourishing through the expansion and diversification of agriculture in the area.

The increase in regulation compliance has led to attention grabbing signs on farm gates alerting visitors to all kinds of hazards. There is also an increased monitoring of health and safety regulations, animal welfare regulations; chemical and prescription medicine handling regulations, water quality requirements- fencing and planting of riparian strips on some streams. They are now recording animal movements so they can trace their movements, allowing them to create strategies to lowering the environment impact.

There are also case studies located in a range of New Zealand settings. Only around 20 percent of the population lives in the countryside and while decisions are being made by people that live mainly in urban areas, many do not fully understand or have empathy with their rural neighbours.

While I found this book fascinating, I confess to finding myself out of my depth. This book, in my opinion, has been written for people in the farming industry or on the fringes of it.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Heartland Strong – How rural New Zealand can change and thrive
Edited by Margaret Brown, Bill Kaye-Blake and Penny Payne
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780995109599

 

Book Review: Wanted: The search for the modernist murals of E. Meryvn Taylor, by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith

Available in bookshops nationwide.
Shortlisted for the 2019 Ockham Book Awards.  

cv_wantedThis beautifully produced book is both a delight and a cause for a bit of national soul-searching.

If you do a quick Google search on ‘forgotten public art’ it’s clear to see that NZ has a poor track record of maintaining and caring for its public art works, never mind keeping a registry of what we have.

The title should give you a clue. What happened to them? The large murals which Taylor produced as commissioned work were partly his own idea, as shown in this quote by Kennedy Warne from NZ Geographic October 2007: ‘Taylor came to regard architecture as “the mother of the arts”, recalled one of his friends, the eminent Wellington architect Maurice Patience. “[He] loved our profession, and one could guarantee that if he were in architectural company discussion would soon turn to the artist’s role in buildings.” Every contract for a major new building, Taylor argued, should include a sum of money allocated to a commissioned work of art to be associated with the building. There was a degree of self-interest here, of course: Taylor hoped he would be one of the commissionees.’

In 1945, Taylor was appointed as art editor for the New Zealand School Journal. Many of us will recognise and remember his brilliant woodcut illustrations. Bryan James in his excellent book about Taylor says ‘Above all, he wanted his art to be accessible to the everyday New Zealander. He believed art should be for the common man as well as the cultured elite.’

As with nature, Taylor felt it was his role as an artist to make Māori culture accessible to his countrymen. He saw himself as an artist-craftsman or artist-designer, writes James, someone rooted in the community and whose duty was to improve the lot of his fellow man. ‘He had little time for art that did not have a direct function of purpose, that could not be part of everyday living.’

By the early 1960s, murals were Taylor’s major form of work, produced in ceramic tiles, carved in wood or painted. James notes of Taylor’s work in this period that a distinguishing feature was his incorporation of Māori elements. ‘It was something he consciously set out to do, because he saw Māori as an essential part of the natural order of life in New Zealand, who could no more be excluded from his art than could the bush, the landscape, or the individual creatures he featured.’ Few other non-Māori artists of the time cared to feature Māori culture so prominently in their work.

So, back to the book itself. Bronwyn Holloway-Smith chanced upon some of Taylor’s work in three dusty boxes in storage in Auckland. This began her passionate journey to find out what happened to the eleven other murals and I think she’s probably in line for a National Treasure award!

The very first pages are photos of the original works, with single word titles: Found, Missing, Hidden, Lost. 7 have been found. 2 are missing, 2 are hidden, one is lost. Holloway-Smith’s work in locating and documenting these murals has been a massive undertaking, and this wonderful book is the culmination of that work.

Each mural has an essay written by someone with an interest in, or connection to, the work or the place in which it was originally installed, and they are accordingly very different and intriguing to read.

The generous illustrations throughout, and the quality of this book make it a real treasure.

Let’s hope that public art work in Aotearoa, from now on, is more carefully documented and preserved so that we never again lose work by artists of such high calibre and brilliance.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Wanted: The search for the modernist murals of E. Meryvn Taylor
by Bronwyn Holloway-Smith
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780994141552

You can see a sample here on the Massey University Press website. 

Book Review: The Writing Life – Twelve New Zealand Authors, by Deborah Shepard

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_writing_life_shephardThere are so many things to like about this book, The Writing Life Twelve New Zealand Authors. Deborah Shepard has interviewed the twelve authors and produced a book incorporating the very personal interviews, accompanying photographs and extra information. The book itself is well made, with a soft cover beneath a matching dust cover, and with pleasingly thick paper reminiscent of the days when new books arrived with uncut pages. It has a heft which promises a feast of good things and it doesn’t disappoint.

The twelve authors are men and women who have written in various genres throughout the years 1959 to 2018, on topics addressing such themes as death and loss, the joy they have found in writing and much more. For aspiring authors there is also advice on writing itself, which, given the depth of talent and length of time these ones have been engaged in their craft, is an invaluable treasure.

Distinguished photographer, John McDermott, was commissioned to take photographs of each of the authors, and the setting each one has chosen to be presented in gives further insight into their personality, as do the photos of the rooms in which a particular writer produces his or her work. I enjoyed examining those photos, searching for a further glimpse into each life. As an older person myself, who has read and admired much of the work of these twelve, I know that this beautiful tribute to them will be a book that I will delve into time and time again over the years ahead. It will be an asset, too, to teachers of literature as well as those who desire to write.

These twelve men and women have laid down a huge body of work for those who are coming on behind them and we owe them a debt of gratitude both for the work they have done throughout their life and for their willingness to tell us their stories. The Writing Life is more than a book, it is a treasure.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

The Writing Life – Twelve New Zealand Authors
by Deborah Shepard
Published by Massey University Press
ISBN 9780995109537

Book Review: Fearless: The extraordinary untold story of New Zealand’s Great War airmen, by Adam Claasen

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_fearlessThe Ministry for Culture and Heritage commissioned a number of works on the Centenary of the Great War. Fearless is an amazing collection and distillation of the vast amount of information on the part played by New Zealand airmen.

The whole story of aviation in New Zealand has never been told previously. Here we have the background which looks at aviation development in New Zealand; we see the vision of Henry Wigram who was asking for support from the Government as early as 1909. Funding was always going to be a problem as there was no navy, and sea was seen as more important to New Zealand’s defenses than air. The whole idea of military aviation was in its early stages, but already there were some who saw the advantages.

Fearless is not a dry history about the planes and their parts. Rather, it combines the military and political scene with the stories of individuals. We learn the stories of the early pioneers, the political activists, the daring adventurers. It is here – in the stories of the passion and persistence of some of these young men who were determined to fly into war -that I found the greatest interest. Their stories are detailed, lively and often humorous.

The illustrations bring the text to life and add faces to the names, the planes and the events. The photograph of RAF officers paying tribute at the burial of Manfred von Richthofen (The Red Baron), taken at Keith Park’s Bertangle airfield, summed up the depth of this book. Park’s leadership in the Great War gave him a superb platform for his important role in World War 2. His is one of the many stories covered in this wonderful book.

New Zealanders played a very important part in the Great War on land and sea. After reading Fearless, I also appreciate their role in the air. It has taken 100 years for this publication to emerge. But it was worth the wait.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Fearless: The extraordinary untold story of New Zealand’s Great War airmen
by Adam R. A. Claasen
Published by Massey University Bookshop
ISBN 9780994140784