Book Review: The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell

Available in bookshops nationwide.Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_collected_poems_of_alistair_te_ariki_campbellThe Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell wonderfully captures the breadth of Campbell’s literary career. The collection is based on a spiral-bound manuscript titled “Complete Poems 1947-2007” that was found after Campbell’s death. The volume is divided into six categories that track the development of Campbell’s writing.

Of Wild Places encapsulates the early poems of Campbell’s career. These pieces are connected to the rough exterior of the land. The first poem, The Return, is one that finds its power in the ferocity of the landscape. Humans are reduced to small figures on the beach as Campbell revels in the image of “fires going out on the thundering sand… the mist, the mist moving over the land”.

Tongareva to Aotearoa serves a nice contrast to the previous chapter, by expanding further into the interior of the land, and exploring Polynesian imagery as well as Campbell’s own Polynesian identity. Campbell moves from his own personal meaning in poems such as A Childhood in the Islands, to grander figures such as old chiefs “meaner even than Te Rauparaha”.

Love Poems is a special chapter full of beautiful and light poetry. Many of these pieces are dedicated to Campbell’s wife, Meg. My favourite poem in this section is Love Song for Meg. The piece describes the sun as “points of light” that come in through the branches. It feels like a summer dream where everything in nature feels fresh and a little magical.

War Poems explore the experience of Campbell’s father in Gallipoli as well as the story of the 28 (Maori) Battalion. The poems in this section detail the struggle of these wars through first person narration. The way Campbell moves through different points creates a flow from one action to another. Even though there are so many names, some forgotten, Campbell does his best to portray the steely exterior of these men whose minds are now filled with death and “darkness, the sound of roaring, / and emptiness”.

I enjoyed the section titled Poets in Our Youth the most, where Campbell writes autobiographical letters to his contemporaries in verse. I loved how this gave an outlook into Campbell during his years at university. In exploring his own life, Campbell also sheds light on figures like James K. Baxter, who is lauded as a sort of “Kiwi superstar”. However, in Campbell’s letter, it is evident that Baxter is someone who has his vices and adversaries like all of us.

The collection ends with Looking at Kapiti, a blissful and beautiful picture of the everyday. Against the tumultuous tone of some of the previous sections, this one takes its time describing the world of Pukerua Bay, a familiar and domestic world that Campbell is used to. In About the House, Campbell draws on aspects of his home like his dog and the nature around him through bad days as well as good days.

The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, by covering the many different topics that Campbell has written on throughout his life, portrays how his words and writing has changed with time. However, at the core of all these pieces is a writer with an authentic and strong voice. This extensive volume truly does a wonderful job of showing this and emphasising the inspiration that his poetry still brings.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell
Published by VUP
ISBN  9781776560677

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Book Review: Selected Poems, by Jenny Bornholdt

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selected_poemsIn Deborah Smith’s intriguing cover photo for Jenny Bornholdt’s Selected Poems, the eye is drawn to the bright fly agaric mushrooms torn up by the roots. They sit like thought or speech bubbles above the woman’s head. Laid out carefully on paper towels, the dirt is still fresh on the base of their stems. Of course, the metaphor here is obvious, but digging a little deeper (excuse the pun) it astounds; not dissimilar to Jenny’s work. Firstly, parboiling these mushrooms (to avoid poisoning), renders the eater literally intoxicated. They are psychoactive, mind-altering little beasties. They come with a warning. You get the picture. These are not morsels to be trifled with. At first glance, they are things of beauty and objects of intrigue, but they carry a deeper magic (literally).

This idea is brought to the fore early on in this book, particularly within the garden, where an unearthed white onion flower is, ‘a plain enough thing’ but truly, it is a ‘decoy of simplicity’. This speaks to the viewer of an art work hanging in a gallery, or someone reading a poem excerpt. Every poem in fact, has a whole world that has contributed to its creation, a process that is dynamic and ongoing, as the reader or viewer plays their active role. The last stanza sums this up perfectly:

So we have a white flower
propped on the top of a green stem
a plain enough thing
while underneath
the feelers are out
hooking into other systems
forming a network
the flower an undercover agent
posted on the watch
a decoy of simplicity.

For a dexterous poet like Jenny to call a flower simply, white and green, speaks to a simplistic way of looking at art; reductionist. Jenny is a poet whose senses are alive to wonder and the interconnected ideas and neural pathways that form the root system of a poem, or a group of works. It would be too easy to equate a poetry collection with a book of pressed flowers but Jenny’s poems here are a living collection.

For the editor and poet to handpick poems for a collection, from a body of work that spans around 30 years, is no mean feat. We live in a day and age where music albums and other artistic media are consumed piecemeal, with songs and poems extracted from their original contexts. Many consumers latch on to the singles, or the anthologised poems, without ever reading or listening to a collection in its entirety. In a way, the cover image speaks to that. There is still dirt on the roots. These poems have their genesis elsewhere. If you want to go further down the rabbit hole, so does each individual poem, before it is strung together in any collection. It is like a bunch of flowers. The number of possible arrangements is infinite and each presentation offers another layer of meaning. The whole is larger than the sum of its parts.

Of course, there are is the inevitable search for aesthetic links to The Bill Manhire School of poetry. Leading the way as the country’s first laureate and with Jenny under his wing for a time, both poets do share a delight in the ‘tender observation’ (NZ Book Council) of the everyday.

In her author photo, also by the renowned Deborah Smith, we see a retro watering can. It’s a symbol of looking back over the planting, watering and harvesting of ideas; the work. There are many fertile minds in the world, but few with the dedication and skill to cultivate longevity and a poetic life, such as Jenny Bornholdt’s. Of course, a laureateship and several other awards go a small way to recognising the results of her commitment to her craft and her contribution to the New Zealand poetic landscape, both through her work as an anthologist and or course, as a poet.

It is with that knowledge that the reader can pick up this fine volume and examine each fragment, each piece, knowing that they have been extracted purposefully and with great care. Prepare to be intoxicated by the work of one of her generation’s finest poets.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Selected Poems
by Jenny Bornholdt
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776560660

Book Review: I Am Minerva, by Karen Zelas

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cv_i_am_minervaKaren Zelas has a light, airy, and playful tone that makes her poetry incredibly engaging. In her collection I Am Minerva, Zelas employs a wonderfully poetic voice that explores stories and histories, as well as the identity she crafts out of it.

In the first poem, Zelas presents a picture of herself in a modern context. In camera is a simple and short poem. It describes how, before the selfie, there was “always the invisible other” who wasn’t in the photo. The photographer helped complete the picture by taking the photo, and therefore also by not being present. The act of capturing the self was always left to someone else.

Zelas relies on spaces and breaks in verse to craft the tone of her collection, and create breathing spaces in her writing. Such a method wipes out the harsh break of full stops, and instead leaves every poem feeling like a long, drifting dream. In the poem Sound Waves, Zelas describes “open mouths tongues tripping / on syllables & the sibilance / of my heart ‘yes!’-ing”. The phrase “on syllables & the sibilance” especially rolls off the tongue in a satisfying way. Zelas’ writing voice is one that is very conscious of itself, and of how poetry wraps itself around a subtle rhythm.

Zelas’ poem Way point won the New Zealand Poems4Peace competition in 2014 and it’s easy to see why. The poem starts with the description of a place “where blue meets blue”. The description is not superfluous; the voice here is one that is gentle, kind, and patient. Despite the wide expanse of blue ocean, the poet reassuringly states “at that point will I find you… & as your ship breaks on my shore / I shall draw you to me”.

At times, Zelas also steps out of this voice. She presents a reminder about the dangers of pushing such a sweet voice to the point of romanticism. In the beginning is a poem that deals with the formation of the universe. At first, Zelas speaks in an expectedly lovely voice that portrays how “Sky & Earth / embraced in darkness”. Perhaps in reference to the many absurdities of ancient myth that are frequently skimmed over, Zelas undercuts this beauty at the end of the poem. She describes how “later that son fucked / his own daughter… & / there was night”.

The final poem is a piece of writing that beautifully twists the tongue. In the poem Born of the head of my father, Zelas confidently asserts “I am Minerva”. Then, she continues onwards: “I’m myth I’m rumour / madness mendacity / aftermath palimpsest” before ending on “I’m scribe”. Just like the goddess of Minerva, her wisdom includes both the histories of her own life and others. As a writer, these are the things that she turns into poetry. And in this poem, Zelas is able to finally present her own image of who she is.

The two images of the self—the camera selfie at the beginning, and the image of Minerva at the end—work as bookends of the collection in this way. In between, Zelas stunningly draws out a variety of settings with a subtle and soft tone. I Am Minerva plays with rhythm but never in a way that detracts from the images that are being brought forward. The whole collection carries a lightness that is wonderful to read, with Zelas holding up different images of herself into focus.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

I am Minerva
by Karen Zelas
Published by Submarine Books
ISBN 9780994129970

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: Rabbit Rabbit, by Kerrin P. Sharpe

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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: Withstanding, by Helen Jacobs

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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