Book Review: Moth Hour, by Anne Kennedy

This book will be available from 19 September.

cv_the_moth_hourThis evocative volume is less a collection of Anne Kennedy’s poetic work and more a set of pieces built around a well defined theme. No spoilers here: her brother died. In 1973 she was a teenager and he was in his early twenties when he fell to his death in an accident. Moth Hour is about a life cut short, it’s about potential, loss and a particular time in Wellington’s history.

Each of the poems riff off one poem that Kennedy found in her brother’s manuscripts and published at the start of the book. It’s sweet and beautiful poem and she carries his imagery and spirit throughout. Moth Hour has the potential to be morose, dirge-like or overly nostalgic and sentimental. I was heartened to find that it is none of these things.

Kennedy honours her brother without turning him into a saint and explores her grief without fingering the wounds too thoroughly. Some of the poems appear to be about a deep missing

I hope to attend one of your parties
before I die
your death has already
been established

from ’20’.

Others seem to speak from her brother’s perspective, songs he may have sung, old rhymes and many voices. It became clear that  Kennedy is adept at shrugging on different coats, Moth Hour is not just about a sister left behind.

At times I felt I wasn’t the target audience for this work. I may have gotten more out of the book if I had lived through the 70’s, or maybe, if I had experienced decades with a hole in my family. I still got a lot from the exploration regardless, I felt like the ‘little sister’ again.

Moth Hour made me remember family holidays with my older siblings and particularly the elastic nature of time when you’re young. Time stretches as you mull over your loved ones, how you fit in their worlds. All those hours we’ve spent lying under the plum tree, organising mum’s button collection or in Anne Kennedy’s case, studying the Persian rug in the sitting room.

Reviewed by Lucy Black

Moth Hour
by Anne Kennedy
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408947

 

Book Review: ransack, by essa ranapiri

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ransack.jpgessa was the first (and is the only) person to ever ask me what my preferred pronouns are. It came in the middle of an unrelated messenger conversation, just a simple ‘Not to be rude or anything what are your pronouns? [sic]’ So for the first time in my life, completely casually, I told someone outside of my immediate close friend group that I don’t feel 100% comfortable using “woman” as an identifier. And then we went back to discussing the LitCrawl after party.

It seems like such a simple thing, like ticking a box on a form. She/Her, He/Him, They/Them. But more often than not that last box isn’t available for ticking. And that is the space that essa writes from, where many of the poems in ransack have been created. This collection takes that missing box, that void, and fills it to the brim with the previously unacknowledged.

Ransack is like a petri dish. When you read it you feel like you are examining a living thing through a microscope. There are scientific equations scattered throughout, so many references to the sea, an earthiness that is almost visceral. At times while reading it I felt the same feelings of awe I feel while watching a David Attenborough nature documentary.

Perhaps it’s that essa has lived a life where they, and everyone around them, has viewed their mind and body with a cool impersonal remove. They state in the poem the nonbinary individual:  ‘This shouldn’t tell you much because gender shouldn’t tell you anything / about a person.’

There is a yearning throughout many of the poems in ransack, a sense that essa just wants to be accepted for who they are, and yet they are still trying to figure out for themself exactly who that is.

There are a number of poems addressed to Orlando, the titular character of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, who begins the book as a boy, and at the age of around 30 wakes up one day as a woman, spending the rest of the book as such. You get the sense reading The Dear Orlando series that this character is a stand in for a real life confidante or role model. In the first Dear Orlando poem, which is the first poem of the collection, essa writes ‘I think about your gender as I think about my own. Would you find that funny Orlando? And would you let me make it a running joke?’

And so essa does, inserting Dear Orlando poems in between poems about their childhood, discordant and frenetic poems about growing up, about love, body dysmorphia, suicide, colonialism, multiple classical references, and references to classic literature. There are also Māori creation stories and genealogies. They sit comfortably in amongst everything else to complete the origin story of essa.

In the poem Koare, essa writes:
My path is Tūrongo
who went to the east
and Māhinaarangi in whose womb
Raukawa slept.

A line direct to myself

In a world which so often doesn’t make space for non-binary and gender fluid people, essa is clearly carving out their own space in ransack. And by doing so, with unapologetic and raw words, they are making space for others to follow. I can imagine one day in the future a young poet will publish a collection full of poems addressed the poem Dear essa.

reviewed by Gem Wilder

ransack
by essa ranapiri
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562374

Book Review: Lay Studies, by Steven Toussaint

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_lay_studiesIf you judge a book by its cover, then Steven Toussaint’s Lay Studies, due for publication by Victoria University Press this July, is elegant, sophisticated and artistic, with more than a hint of je ne sais quoi. In fact, I actually don’t know what the cover design represents, but the curves of the oriental-like calligraphy and calm background beige clear my mind before I have even opened the first page. The simplistic and tasteful colour scheme with a splash of red indicates that this tidy little book holds deliberate and considered poems.

Lay Studies is a collection of very cerebral poetry. There are references to Pound, Odysseus, St. Francis, with a distinctly biblical feel in places. It is lyrical, and deserves to be enjoyed for the soft and measured flow of the language. If you are searching for the poems’ meanings, then it is not a light read. There is a Notes section at the back. But who can deny the beauty of the lines:

immaculate
the transept rose
in damask steel
cannot restore
with faithfulness
the hawthorn’s scent
to Amor’s nose

Toussaint’s phrasing has a luxurious fullness. There are ‘tea / and biscuits in the vestibule’ and ‘imaginary saturations / of foliage on the threshold’. In amidst the intellectualism, nature is a definite presence:

Wherever apple boughs
deliver, where thunder
earth with crimson bombs
we are.

As are people:

Her attention is an accident
of resistance, shattering
her reflection to get

clean, hammering
the water so hard  she might be

forging an object
amid the speculation, fresh

masterpiece.

Meanwhile, beautiful descriptions underscore the irony of man’s relationship with the world:

Fish too credulous
answer with a kiss
the jighead’s dancer,
and the long rod dips
with their wounding.

Maybe the most powerful lines in the book for me were within the poem ‘Agnus Dei’, meaning ‘Lamb of God’, conjuring a winter’s herd of sheep. Perhaps echoing Nietzsche, the poem states: ‘I believe in a God who can learn /to work new spindles’. He ends ‘I hope you feel safe when you die’.

Toussaint has already published one collection of poetry and one chapbook. He was born in Chicago, and his publisher states that he has adopted New Zealand as his second home. Toussaint does write himself into the landscape. The first third of the book has a poem titled ‘Mount Eden’, even if in terms of physical features, the poem gives us little to hold onto. Auckland property also makes an appearance.

It seems a funny thing to comment on when reviewing a book of poems, but like the cover, the space on the page is well proportioned and, generally there seems to be a lot of it. Not only in the poems, but in the gaps between lines. As an important consequence, none of these poems feel jammed or rushed; interestingly, in Indian music the time between the beats is called a lay. Lay Studies also has connotations of medieval song and poetics, and religion. All are indicative of the layers of meaning to be unravelled.

A commitment to explore these poems will bring an appreciation of their depth.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Lay Studies
by Steven Toussaint
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562404

 

 

Book Review: How I Get Ready, by Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_how_i_get_ready.jpgI saw this book and thought ‘this encapsulates my life’. The woman on the front of How I Get Ready looks like she’s having more than a bad hair day. She’s a Quentin-Blake-esque illustration, as scribbles eclipse her and what she’s wearing from the waist up. I almost burst out laughing. Perhaps it’s a meant to be a windy day in Wellington? Either way, I’m getting vibes of spontaneity and disorder. What a fantastic cover and title combo.

So, the poems. These are anything but slapped together and harried, but they are full of vivacity. Even though the poems seem to be about real life, they feel imagined and fantastical – for example, they leap from subject to subject in a way that reminds me of Lorelai off Gilmore Girls. Like, we start with a potato and somehow segue to a coral reef, an aquarium, blood and a balsawood aeroplane. It’s a mishmash, told by a sassy and energetic voice:

Tantruming moon throws light at my house
like unwanted treasure. Go on
do that one more time.

As well as a poet with a previous collection to her name, Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012), Young is the author of a collection of essays entitled Can You Tolerate This? (VUP, 2016). She is Poetry Editor for The Spinoff Review of Books and currently resides in Wellington. Her confident voice invokes her own name several times in her poems, giving the sense that these are personal, opening up her mind space. She delivers keys to private moments, and we can only guess at their meaning:

As you open your mouth
thousands of fish cross the room
and entirely clothe you in their fish shadow

and even though I cannot see you now,
it looks so good.

‘Fancy’ is catchy with its refrain ‘We should always overdress for each other’. Meanwhile, things get playful in ‘The Feeling of Action’:

And we agreed the feeling of action
as he was flying or jumping or leaping –
a flowing cape would give him movement
it really helped and
it was very easy to draw

These are clever, funny, complex poems, with plenty of ideas to explore. Young experiments with a variety of styles, presenting a poetry practice that is consistently evolving. And the final poem of the book, How I Get Ready, makes us think of a beginning rather than an end. It heralds a step into the unknown:

and the air turns over, gently exposing
its soft underbelly. My going-out clothes are waiting for me
ironed smooth, laid out like a disappearance.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

How I Get Ready
by Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562367

Book Review: Night As Day, by Nikki-Lee Birdsey

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_night_as_dayThe front and back covers of Night As Day relate to each other. We see the light casting the shadow of a knotted curtain onto a wall. The shadow encroaches over a picture frame. It is only when we turn the book over that we see the curtain itself and a window and the outside; cars on the road parked one in front of the other. These photos encapsulate the relationship this book has with truth and openness and the need to hide from trauma. As these photos interact to enhance the meaning provided so do the poems interact with more metatextual notes at the end of the book.

The poems throughout the book (split into three sections – that trace a kind of unravelling, a delicate exposure) are accompanied by endnotes which are crucial to make sense of the shadowy shape on the wall. I read the collection moving from poem to its accompanying note; from the ghost of a feeling to the statement that pushed its crystalline form into the world. How the endnotes interact with each poem creates this dual narrative that lifts each piece, creating a space that would otherwise not be present. It is a book of moving back and forth, both literally, as you turn from the poem to the note over and over again, fingers dealing with the problem of page, its rasping flutter, and in theme; the narrator of these poems is moving back and forth between place bringing a sense of unease with them.

the working class, Italian
countryside were skinny,
poor boys in tussock-coloured
frock coats with rich voices,
fleeing fascism.

This section was something of a lightbulb moment for me. The poems themselves are dense and give little away at the start. We are caught inside of a structure as strong as steel and as fine as the hairs on the back of the neck; but something starts to shift. The reasons for this looking-away – this vague sense of staring past the issue – becomes clear. We are looking into the world of trauma, and the real political reality, of upheaval, of fascism and misogyny and the ugliness that coaches it. Birdsey presents us a body that wants to live despite structures so invested in making it silent.

As every condition of the woman’s body
a state of war: clothing, ageing, pregnancy,
            reproductive health, sex

We get the sense that this struggle shadows the narrator, follows them whether they move under the neon lights of New York City or the Southern cross.

This is a threat.
I cannot put a date on this one,
pull me into the realm of forgetting.
The landscapes pass you by,
it’s everything and nothing specific.
I put coconut oil on my hands
and they still feel so dry,    

From what I have written so far you could get the impression that these poems are all drenched in doom but that is far from the case. There are many pieces here that explore the small moments, the delicate beauty we can find even in a world going to shit. Poems like ‘The Green Ray’ capture both struggle and earnest self-expression well the ‘sea yields seals, driftwood of varying/ creature, seabirds that glide alongside me’. And I am struck by how the book ends in this quiet place of sentiment that almost reads like a pop lyric if not contrasted with the weight that has come before;

I keep building this glowing world
with it’s glowing clouds.

This can be yours, too, so
don’t be worried, ever –

It’s you and me,
and we’re going to be
forever together

And for the last time I turn the page looking for the notes connected to this poem which is called One, the last word in a countdown. The note discusses John Hull and his ideas around rain and how it ‘brings out the contours of the audible environment.’ Which is what Birdsey’s book does for her ‘glowing world’ of things. We are not alone it says, just open your mouth and speak into the air and someone else’s world will vibrate with yours and the shadows that haunt our lives might just be twisted into light.    

Reviewed by essa may ranapiri

Night As Day
by Nikki-Lee Birdsey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562190

Book Review: Say It Naked, by Rachel Tobin

Available in bookshops.

cv_say_it_nakedMindfulness is the goal of Rachel Tobin’s Say It Naked. If there were any form to use to feel out the present and sit with it, it’s in the endless moment of poetry; the snapshots that pull you close. ‘Autumn, Waitaruke’ encapsulates this desire to appreciate what makes up the world around us, ‘A thin bronzed morning, / undressing. // A folded body, / a hill.’ Tobin takes the world and pushes it through thousands of bodies, the closeness of the body throughout the book is one of the things that makes it so engaging.

The narrative track of Say It Naked reflects life drawing, the nervous energy of committing a stranger’s body to the page, or the nervous patience of being that persons who is drawn.

Speaking of bodies, throughout the collection Tobin’s own drawings punctuate the collection, strange bodies vulnerable bodies, she undresses us all and finds beauty in that open display, there is no Biblical shame here. There are worlds in these expressive images, as there are worlds held in the poems. There is a stretching out, a curiosity that of course lands on the political. The poem ‘On the behalf of…’ stabs with efficiency and empathy, Tobin uses personification to evoke the horrors of global warming;

I heard the Ross Sea is getting acid,
though it never asked for a trip.

I heard today the shells of molluscs
making a living there are dissolving.

The humour here stings with a precise efficiency. Another aspect of her writing I really love is the way she can get into those small moments; these quiet spaces become a quilt to wrap yourself in. One of my favourite poems from the collection would have to be the poem On waking, a crystalline study of intimacy;

My voice is cut husk and diamond; your heart
unrolls like bedding when I sing.

My eyes unruffled water; I gaze in the face
of your unrest, and see a sun, nesting.

My hand is dappled silk and litmus; it knows
at first touch, the animal crouched inside your heart.

It follows on like this details that perspire on the skin and leave the mouth in breathless shuffles. We are all bodies throbbing and pulsing inside a dying world, trying to avoid the baton, trying to find a laugh, trying to find a moment, trying to find each other. These lines from the last poem in the collection really underline what Tobin is doing with these poems;

A dog barks.
A man walks past.
The smell of a sewer rides on the wind.
The day is an open heart.

Say It Naked is heart at it’s most open.

reviewed by essa may ranapiri

Say It Naked
by Rachel Tobin
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 978-0-9951092-5-4

Book Review: Selected Poems, by Brian Turner

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selected_poems_turnerIn a single poetry collection you’re able to tell what is currently occupying a poet (it might be personal, like their family breakdown, or esoteric, like the role of science in art) and their next work usually comes with its own obsession. But over the life of a writer there’s often one or two ongoing concerns – ideas or questions or worries – they simply can’t put down. These lifelong concerns (which have been hiding in the folds of all their work) suddenly become clear in collected works. That’s true of Selected Poems by Brian Turner.

In this book, Victoria University Press has collected a selection of poems from Brian Turner’s forty plus years of writing poetry. These poems are presented chronologically, starting with some from the Commonwealth Poetry Prize winning collection Ladders of Rain (published in 1978), and followed by a small selection from each of his previously published collections up until Night Fishing (published in 2016). It finishes with a sizable collection of Turner’s previously uncollected work.

Often thought of as a ‘nature’ or ‘environmental’ poet, Brian Turner told Tim Watkins in 2005 that ‘half of my poems are actually about the politics of relationships or relationships themselves.’ And he is of course right. Over and over in this collection he returns to a concern about the interior of interpersonal relationships. There in his poems are failing relationships, observations about the parent and child relationship, and questions about how best to love and to remember that you have loved. In Furrows of the Sea, from his 1981 collection, he writes of a child in tears at his own failures and a father trying to respond – ‘He is hopeless / at keeping anything / to himself, and I / am even worse / at hiding anything / of value from him.’ Years later in Twilight Days (published in 2005) we see this parent and child dynamic again bewildering the poet, but this time he is a grown child and his mother is in tears – ‘She wouldn’t say / what had made her cry, / mainly because she preferred / not to lie…’

Despite this, reviewers do often classify Turner as a landscape poet and for good reason. There is no getting away from nature in his work. The seasons roll in and out of the collection as he captures their literal manifestations and their figurative effects on people who seem to change with them.

Along with seeing what concerns have stayed the same for the poet, we also see in collected works the way that their perspectives have shifted. As the years progress Turner becomes more obvious in his growing environmental concerns, sometimes becoming so blunt as to lose the poetry in preference for the message. His early works on New Zealand and New Zealanders are witty, he looks at us with amusement such as in the 2001 poem Semi-Kiwi. In the poem the speaker is no good at the ‘great Kiwi DIY tradition’ but he can back a trailer expertly, ‘so all is not lost.’ Only ten years later however his len has turned sardonic. In the poem titled New Zealanders, a Definition there is only the sole line ‘Born here, buggered it up.’

Brian Turner’s poems for the most part of not formally inventive – he sticks mainly to the left of the page with three of four word lines in fairly even stanzas. It doesn’t hurt his work however, for even as poetry movements and trends have come and gone he has continued to write moving, memorable poems. The previously uncollected work shows this, some are among the best in the collection, including Athens and Andros where ‘mythology / reminds us we’ve long been both / creative and destructive everywhere.’

Poetry is a funny thing – ‘difficult’ is a compliment, ‘easy to read’ is a sneer. But this collection is easy and enjoyable to read because Brian Turner has opened himself up to us as New Zealanders for over forty years. And he continues to invite us into his questioning – even while being grumpy at our destructiveness.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod 
ekirkbymcleodauthor.com

Selected Poems
by Brian Turner
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562183