Book review: Short Poems of New Zealand, edited by Jenny Bornholdt

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_short_poems_of_new_zealandI’ll be the first to admit I didn’t expect to like this book. I loved the concept – the idea of a collection of short poems by New Zealand writers – but I saw the list of authors and felt a little disappointed

Experienced, known writers are usually the ones people gravitate towards. We figure if they got to where they are, they must be good. We feel safe in their hands.

I’m the opposite. I prefer to read new writers with different voices. I don’t often pick up Janet Frame or Sam Hunt, which probably makes me a philistine and a traitor to New Zealand literature.

Bornholdt’s vision was a collection of poems that ‘relate stories, describe memorable scenes, set off emotional grenades, sense death, declare love, make jokes.’ She had to decide what defined “short” – ten lines felt too long, six too restrictive. She settled on nine.

‘Ive begun to think of short poems as being the literary equivalent of the small house movement. Small houses contain the same essential spaces as large houses do. Both have places in which to eat, sleep, bathe and sit; the difference being that small houses are, well, smaller. … You might have to go outside to swing the cat, but you can still have the thought indoors.’

I liked the concept. I’ve always been a strict editor, I appreciate the talent involved in brevity. And though I opened the book with the belief that I’d find little to grab me, I was happy to be proved wrong.

I use cardboard gift tags to mark pages when I’m reviewing. This small book is now plump with card, so there’s no way of doing everything justice here. However, some beg noting, like this by Keri Hulme –

I asked for riches
you gave me
scavenging rights on a far beach

James K Baxter’s High Country Weather –

Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.

Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.

Elizabeth Nannestad’s You gave me a shoulder –

smelling of the sun
I can bite on, or weep.

What can I give you
so it’s fair?

Take
my rough, unsteady
compassion while you sleep.

I also reacted strongly to Fleur Adcock’s Things, Stephanie de Montalk’s The Hour, and Ashleigh Young’s Rooms, and ten others besides.

There really is something special about this length of poem, the life it condenses, the feeling it squeezes out of you.

In an interesting editorial choice, the book finishes with James Brown’s ‘The opening’ –

There is too much
poetry in the world

and yet

here you are.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Short Poems of New Zealand
edited by Jenny Bornholdt
Published by VUP
ISBN  9781776562022

 

Book Review: Photos of the Sky, by Saradha Koirala

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

screen-shot-2018-10-18-at-9-02-06-am.jpgPhotos of the Sky is Saradha Koirala’s third poetry collection. The Nepali/ Pākehā writer currently lives in Melbourne where she teaches English, literature and creative writing.

The collection is arranged in four sections or subheadings – Reach, Shift, Reach, This Time. It spans her move across the Tasman, the reaching for other times, places, people.

The attempts towards, the shifting of perspectives, the attempts again, the relief. I felt the image of a trapeze artist, swinging out to try to catch someone else’s hands, falling back, swinging again, and finally meeting.

I had no previous experience of Koirala’s work and enjoyed trying to get inside this collection. I flipped back and forth, interested in the placement of the poems in each section, the illumination of certain moments.

The first poem I bookmarked to come back to was Yard Duty, the third poem in the third section. Describing Koirala’s duties as a teacher, it follows her interactions with students in the classroom as they struggle to find the name of ‘that feeling like butterflies in your stomach, but not excitement?’ ‘”Anxiety” I tell them. “Anxiousness,” they say.’

The second stanza follows her on shooing students outside during lunchtime. But the third stanza, which pulls the previous two together, was the one to give me made me stop and go back.

Today a bird was trapped inside. There was a warm breeze
and the sun was out, but that bird was obsessed with the
unopenable window at the top of the stairs, wouldn’t
move from the windowsill, fluttered its wings like the
butterflies in our stomachs, oblivious to the door we’d
opened at the end of the empty hall.

I’ve been everyone in this poem – the teacher, the students, and the bird. So very often the bird.

Spaces between – stairways and wells, train stations, the heavy air inside an aeroplane – are known as liminal. Each poem seems to evoke this in its own way, none more so than (sub)Liminal, which falls early in the first section. ‘I’m a little bit in love with the world again today,’ it opens, then describing ‘this afternoon city of doors’ and how ‘Sent words map out wherever it is you are.’ The final stanza leaving us with saturated feeling of hope and in-between.

a little bit in love and a gallery of images
on trains, at stations: forever moving
or waiting to be moved again.

I happened to be out of town attending a funeral when I read the book the first time, so Tidal, the second poem in the section called Shift, was sadly appropriate. The poem, detailing the ‘ritual and effort’ a grandmother used to put into getting dressed up, and the passing of time since the grandfather’s passing on. The final stanzas drew a lump of recognition in my throat.

Five months since Grandma was last out, confused but pleased
to see us all, wishing Grandad could have lasted a few days
longer as if then he could have seen us all too.

As if we still would have come.

In Looking Up, we’re met again by the liminal, in a familiar scene that takes place on a moving train. ‘The optometrist prescribed looking up more / and I don’t blame her.’ The moment where we choose to ignore someone we sort-of know, or maybe once knew, in favour of keeping ‘eyes on that chunk of universe / floating just ahead.’

It always helps to know which station
is the one before yours

and which you’ll be at if you’ve gone too far.

And finally, honourable mention must go to Love Song – a rumination on whakapapa, and love poem about running into Taika Waititi while buying kitchenware a Wellington Warehouse.

The book’s epigraph, I feel, works just as well as a conclusion –

A light went on when he told me
not everything is a metaphor
some things are just as they seem

I sleep better with the light left on.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Photos of the Sky
by Saradha Koirala
Published by The Cuba Press
ISBN 9780995110748

Book Review: louder, by Kerrin P. Sharpe

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_louder.jpgThe modern world is a catastrophic uproar of voices, all speaking with the hope that someone is listening. Even the act of listening can feel like a painful way to navigate the world. There is so much to hear, to try and understand, and the breadth of variety in human life is incomprehensible. The act of saying anything at all can feel helpless amongst the noise. But in this collection of poetry, Kerrin P. Sharpe seems to say, go louder, still.

The title poem of louder starts off with an imagined scene:

elephants paint their faces
to restore themselves

adding tusks where poachers
took their ivory

The idea of imagined elephants taking back what has been taken from them is a bittersweet image. Sharpe continues:

even as guns are raised
and calves stumble
into scopes even as

trunks and heads are mutilated
their painting continues
louder than bullets

The imagined elephants are like peaceful protestors, claiming the small semblance of autonomy that they can through the art of self-creation. And although it is an inspiring image, it is a helpless image too. Painting in 2D can only bring back so much, even if it is through self-expression. The original is still lost, something has been lost, something has been taken by force. And the bullets are still ongoing.

The elephants, like the elephant on the cover, are the beginning march and voice of this collection. Sharpe portrays another powerful voice in her piece they are found in the sea. In this poem, Sharpe explores the viewpoint of a refugee at sea. She explores how strange it is to be amongst the ocean for so long and to be travelling so far away.

my world is the sea
my eyes the sky

All that is seen is sky, vision is turned into sky, eyes become sky. Sharpe continues to explore this fantastical world of sea and sky, with humans stuck in between. She explains how:

my brothers are birds
they wear beaks

But the most moving image comes at the end of the poem. The world of sea and sky may be fantastical and alluring, but there is still one greater wish for home and the comfort of land.

bury me
in the pelt of trees

The final section of Sharpe’s collection, where will the fish sleep?, was also incredibly moving. In this section, Sharpe provides answers to this title question. Maybe the fish will sleep still in the sea after a tsunami, after some great disaster. The zoo will crumble with the fish too. After all,

men climbed the great domes and towers to bring back to Earth spires bells crosses
to melt into money to build a zoo
when the flood came priests told us the zoo was never an ark

I did find the collection overwhelming, but I expected it to, as these issues can be just as overwhelming in real life. The amount of empathy required to understand every voice is a true endeavour. By cataloguing voices and views into concrete words that bring images together, Sharpe is clearing the uproar a little. Being able to identify all these issues, with great evocative images, is a way to work towards them.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

louder
by Kerrin P. Sharpe
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561964

Book Review: poeta, by Cilla McQueen

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_poetaThere are two things which I think make a great selected works collection and they are nothing to do with the metric foot or rhyme; they are much more prosaic. When I open a selected works of poetry I want to see initial publication information and notes. The poems don’t have to be in chronological order, thematic organisation is often more interesting, but I like to know where they fit. And I want the gossip behind the poems.  Cilla McQueen’s selected and new poems collection, poeta, wonderfully provides both.

Selected poetry books which collect and gather a poet’s work are important. They give new life to work which might be out of print and are great for those studying the poet.  They are however often lengthy, the poetry doesn’t necessarily propel you through the pages and I approach the reading of them more to discover the poet than the poetry. poeta is very much like this – what stood out to me most while reading it is the quality and length of McQueen’s career and her continuous experimentation with form.

From her first collection, Homing In in 1982, McQueen has constantly produced work.  The first decade of her career in particular seemed to be jam-packed, with work appearing in poeta from five collections printed during that time. This opportunity, fueled no doubt by McQueen’s own hard work but also by an ongoing commitment from her publisher at the time, allowed her to build a body of work and an identity as a poet. Reading poeta I found myself wondering whether a poet writing in New Zealand today could develop the same career and sheer body of work over their 30 years of writing.  New Zealand will be the poorer if the answer to that question is ‘no’.

McQueen’s experimentation and her desire for her poetry to embody all possibilities is clear in this collection. Older poems experiment with aspects like punctuation (or the lack of it) and building narrative, while the new poems clearly play with internal white space and the page. Though most poems are free verse and many are lyrics, you also occasionally see her mastering traditional forms.

McQueen’s poetry is rich in metaphor and image and ranges across many concerns and themes. Often strongly grounded in place, from Bluff to Berlin, poems such as ‘Living Here’ capture a New Zealand condition, an isolation and complacency which remains even if we are no longer ‘just one big city with 3 million people with / a little flock of sheep each so we’re all sort of / shepherds.’ ‘Crikey’ is an example of a fun love poem while ‘Fuse’ is a powerful political poem without being overtly angry. McQueen has the skill of taking poems in unexpected directions.

poeta is a book for those who enjoy deep dives into New Zealand poetry. But more than that it is a book whose very ability to exist creates reflection. How can we ensure that poets today can continue to flourish, to WORK, in New Zealand across a lifetime career?

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

poeta
by Cilla McQueen
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531281

 

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