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

Available in bookshops nationwide.

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

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

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: Poūkahangatus, by Tayi Tibble

Available in good bookshops nationwide. 

poukuhangatusTayi has done some stunning work (in what is her first collection of poetry) that is at once personal and bodily at the same time as being an astute observation of gender and race politics in New Zealand. She grapples with the colonised body while paying tribute to her whānau and seeking to make contact with her tūpuna through the fog that colonising forces have placed on our vision.

This book speaks to me in an intensely personal way, as a Māori person trying to navigate both my own femininity and identity as a colonised subject. The collection starts with a lyric essay the titular ‘Poūkahangatus’ (a transliteration of Pocahontas); a bold move which showcases the multiplicities on offer here. Tayi blends Greek mythology with pop culture and Māori activism as well as a love letter to her sister. In this essay Tayi rewrites the damaging orientalist narrative of Pocahontas. One of the ways she does this is by utilizing the figure of Medusa; instead of being a threatening monster Medusa is a ‘master carver, engraving her existence in bone forever. Anything else said about her is a rumour and a violent appropriation,’ Medusa is an indigenous woman in this poem, often misunderstood, often responded to with violence but possessing her own skills and power.

My favourite moment in this book is a moment that highlights the contradictions that we as Māori exist in, which is done in such a succinct way within the poem Shame;

the winz lady who smiles
has a sign in her office that says
he aha te mea nui o te ao
he tangata, he tangata, he tangata

but she says the most important thing
in the world
is getting back into the workforce

Throughout this poem no name is given a capital letter from helen clark to papatūānuku, there is a flattening at work here that draws everything together under its title. These are the shames big and small that bind us.

There is a commitment to show the dark corners of this country: the poem Long White Clouds’ is another example of this. It is a prose poem of sorts where thoughts are cut short by slashes; ‘all anyone ever does around here / is grow weed and stare / into burnt out houses / into the rabbit hole / into the cards’. The start of the poem seems humourous before it twists on the slash. The poem keeps up this momentum until it ends with a “dive”. The singular section plummets the whole mass into the poem that waits for it on the next page which mirrors it in terms of formatting.

LBD is another dark poem which approaches sexuality and race. As with Long White Clouds there is an undeniable rhythm to the piece; ‘I want to dissolve / into the night /it fits / tight and acidic / like a womb / the Parisian catacombs / tombs / of bland white skulls’. Tayi’s sense of rhythm, informed by spoken word and modern hip hop, sets fire to the page.

The poem Identity Politics a piece you can find in the New Zealand edition of POETRY Magazine works so well at the tail end of this collection. I highly recommend just going and reading the piece because its brilliance speaks for itself, but here is a snippet from the start of the poem;

I buy a Mana Party T-shirt from AliExpress.
$9.99 free shipping via standard post.
Estimated arrival 14–31 working days.
Tracking unavailable via DSL. Asian size XXL.
I wear it as a dress with thigh-high vinyl boots
and fishnets. I post a picture to Instagram.
Am I navigating correctly? Tell me,
which stars were my ancestors looking at?

‘Am I navigating correctly?’ this is a question that follows me daily, one I am yet to have an answer to, but this book gives me comfort in uncertainty as it exists so bravely in a liminal space. It is okay not to have the answers sometimes.

The collection ends with a birth, a birth of a baby named ‘Hawaiki / like the paradise’. Tayi returns us to a precolonial garden or a decolonized space where we can imagine who are to be as who we once were;

where we were 
before we came here
by waka, or whale, or perhaps

that was where we were
before there was anything at all 

where we meant something

Reviewed by Essa Ranapiri

Poūkahangatus
by Tayi Tibble
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561926

 

Book Review: Whisper of a Crow’s Wing, by Majella Cullinane

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_whisper_of_a_crows_wing.jpgPoetry collection Whisper of a Crow’s Wing is incredibly in tune with nature. The poem Winter Solstice exemplifies this. Here, Cullinane beautifully describes what the world is like on the shortest day of the year. Cullinane starts by telling us:

In the dark I cannot say what the day begins with. The curtains are closed
and dreams still drowse beneath our blankets.

This beginning perfectly captures the environment that envelops people and places in the middle of winter. The idea of dreams drowsing beneath blankets is a beautiful description of what life is like on these cold, winter days. Like we are all half-sleeping in winter, waiting for the sun to come out again. Even just these two sentences are enough to bring forward the image of slow days filled with grey.

Cullinane’s voice is beautifully lyrical and a perfect fit for the landscapes that she brings to life. The last stanza of the poem Learning to Breathe Again is a wonderful example of this, where she writes:

Better to consider
the small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world:
a snowflake flitting through the air,
swathes of blue and orange entangling the sky in their warm shawl,
glances to be tucked away like stones run smooth by rivers,
the shadows of our hands like wings, playing with the light.

Each image by itself is so clear and breathtaking. Placed together into a single verse, each image and sentence builds upon the last to help enrich the setting. By stacking up wonderful pieces of description in this way, Cullinane’s poetry tucks you into a stunning world. It feels like a world that has been touched by something magical, a world with a difference.

This way in which Cullinane lightly touches on the images around her makes her poetry so tender. Her poem Finale to the Season shows the world waking up from the winter landscapes that Cullinane had described in previous poems. Cullinane acknowledges:

We’re not there yet, but there are hints: in the pink-red clasp of sorrel,
the cicada easing a pitch lower, shedding its voice.

The subtle changes that come with the seasons is a wonderful subject that once again allows Cullinane to describe the nature around us so perfectly. She continues:

You are primed towards spring in the north, the light
drifting a little more each day like the black letters on this page
as they move across the white space, which remind me
of crows stalking frozen trees, or your breath hard and quick
as you sleep in the room we shared, each in our own narrow bed.

Cullinane’s reference to the poem on the page itself is excellent. The amount of light in each day grows incrementally with the onset of spring. Like this gradual change, the act of reading and moving across the page brings each word alive and into imagination.

Cullinane’s poetry style carries its own grandeur like the landscapes she describes. Her voice is distinct and clear. And in Whisper of a Crow’s Wing, this voice holds your hand, leads you through terrain, and points out details that you may have once missed.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Whisper of a Crow’s Wing
by Majella Cullinane
Published by OUP
ISBN 9781988531229

Book Review: Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath

Available in bookshops nationwide. Are Friends Electric is launched at Te Auaha on Thursday 14th June from 5.30 – 7.30pm, with Helen in conversation with Maria McMillan. 

are_friends_electric.jpgI know, I know: don’t judge a book by its cover. But when they’re as hauntingly beautiful as this one, it’d be remiss of me not to acknowledge it. It is tonally perfect for the poems that follow.

Reading this, Helen Heath’s second collection, was easy. And I don’t mean to intimate that it’s simple, it is not. It’s more a sense that Heath has done the work so you don’t have to. She’s already cut the flesh from the bone. It’s up to you how you eat it.

She has the sort of surefooted style that makes it seem effortless – which is of course a clear indication that it has not been.

For something that marries science with love and grief, the work is never too cold, too clever, too clichéd, or too dark. Instead it weaves a story of questions. What does motherhood mean? Fatherhood? Personhood? What does it mean to create (a) life, and to lose it? Can we ever hope to recall what mortality claims from us?

The title of Part One, ‘Are friends electric?’ references the Gary Numan lyric – ‘You know I hate to ask… Only mine’s broke down / and now I’ve no one to love.’

That sets a pretty strong scene.

One of the things I found refreshing about the first half of the book was Heath’s use of footnotes, many describing a poem as found or remixed. She willingly ‘shows her workings’ – instead of jealously guarding her process, she proactively answers that ridiculous question; ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

The very first poem – Reproach – was my favourite of this section. Its footnote explains that it includes text from Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates on the invention of writing.

You. Poet. You’re hungry to be read
but your words just create forgetfulness.
This trust in the written strips memory
and selves. You aid only reminiscence
and a false truth…

The second half of the book, Reprogramming the heart, begins with another scene-setting epigraph, this one from Arthur C. Clarke.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic.

Reading this half of the book I couldn’t help but to think to myself, ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ not so much a conjuring of the novel as a kneejerk neural leap to those particular words and that particular question.

Heath is asking her own questions. Can and should androids be created to love humans? Do we love or despise them? Is it ever possible for them to fully replace us?

This sense of both philosophical and scientific enquiry is mixed with social commentary and creates a backdrop for the real impact of the poems; in the exploration of parenthood, grief and loss.

The poem In this machine is a good example of these things pooling together:

This small object, held in his hand daily, has taken him
inside it. A dead man’s phone still receives text messages, still
has his favourite playlist to listen to. Don’t reply to messages,
don’t accidentally like a Facebook post using his phone. His
spirit is in this machine. His emails, his apps, his photos.
These are his mouth, his mind, his eyes. The screen he ran
his fingers over.

Just as I was finishing the book, Heath made a public post on Facebook. ‘I created a playlist for my book,’ she said. ‘It will be interesting to see if people make connections between the songs and poems. Some are more obvious than others! Some are just more of a mood.’ The eclectic list included Aqua’s Barbie Girl, Daft Punk, Gary Numan (of course), and Flight of The Conchords’ Robots.

I was happy to be transported by Heath, even into places that made me uncomfortable (see: Uncanny Valley), or sad. And the book’s final poem, while undoubtedly sad, ends on a note of hope.

Something inside me that
was once irretrievably small
is expanding.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Are Friends Electric?
by Helen Heath
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561902

Book Review: Floods another Chamber, by James Brown

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_floods_another_chamberI was given James Brown’s The Year Of The Bicycle when it was published in 2006 and enjoyed it a lot.

Floods Another Chamber is his sixth collection, and I expected to feel the same. I didn’t have quite the emotional reaction as I’d hoped. It took me until about the third read-through to start engaging with the work. I don’t think Brown’s style has necessarily changed, but my taste has.

I tend to look for myself in poetry, and when I can’t relate, I move on. A lot of this work explores Brown’s own experiences, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that as a young (ish), non-athletic (I don’t think I’ve gotten on a bicycle since 2002) woman, I didn’t immediately find a way in. That probably makes me egocentric, an argument furthered by the fact that several of the standout moments for me were in pieces where Brown examines poems, the poet, and the nature of poetry. Here, I found myself.

Like this stanza in the middle of Unresolved Poem.

… When I looked inside
Inside myself, all I saw were people having 

conversations. Some were animated, some not,
and in quite a few one person was sitting in

Silence. …

… Poetry

takes over your life
and makes it sad.

This loneliness suggests to me several things – how poems might live inside a person, how self-examination is necessary to produce a good poem, how the writing life can be an isolating one. I’m a sucker for a good final stanza and that one does it for me.

That feeling echoes throughout the book, particularly in the side-by-side poems Tlaloc (God of Rain), and Ghosting. Each has a sense of eerie beauty, a narrator on the search for something, and a final stanza that could hint at malice.

Our tongues taste
distant blood.

and

… Then
I am beside myself.

You are beside me
then

Even in those poems that don’t have an emotional impact for me, there is a cleverness that comes from Brown’s years of experience. His skill is apparent in moments of sly wit; a deft turn-of-phrase; an unpicking of theory; a very sure-footed word selection. It’s like the snap of light off the tale of a fish as it about-turns under water. This is apparent in the poem Postmodernism Explained.

You’re dreaming. In the
dream you fall asleep and dream
you’re writing. If to

write is to reflect
what you’ve already read, and
thus to reread, to

read is also to
rewrite. What are you saying?
Wake up, you tell me.

Along with the examined life of the poet, there is a recurrent theme of time and its concepts, which plays out in the poem Museum for the Future. The poem has a suspenseful, recalcitrant tone and reminds me of my own ability to procrastinate and argue with editors when I should be “rewriting” with “innovative adaptability.” The final stanza is a perfect example of that slicing wit.

Given a choice, I’d take the firing squad
and look the bastards in the eye because
even with your hands tied and back to the wall
they could still completely miss the point

(I did wonder if perhaps this last could also be levelled at certain poetry reviewers).

And here is the poet again, in lines like ‘You will never be employed in an industry that makes money’, and ‘It is possible to show too loudly’, from the poem The AM Sound, which also contains the titular ‘With every repeat of the desperate riff and chorus, / your despair floods another chamber’.

In Letter to Hugo, we see it all – the poet, the act of poetry, and the passage of time. I found myself in the frustration of the second stanza, which made me laugh and then stop when I got hit in the face with that darn fish.

Hugo, your poems continue to annoy me
Their main purpose seems to be to show
how clever you are… No domestic
detail for you, as if truth and beauty can never be
a walk in the park.

These lines, while not the final stanza, tied things off nicely for me. The man has made his point.

I think we write poems because it makes us happy
I think we rewrite poems to make life better

But don’t rewrite your poems
to please me, Hugo. Poetry is freedom.

 
Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Floods Another Chamber
by James Brown
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561599