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

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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

 

Book Review: Walking to Jutland Street, by Michael Steven

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_walking_to_jutland_streetI met Michael Steven in person before I met him in his poetry. I was attending a poetry workshop and Steven was seemingly able to hold and recall random poets, poems, even languages at will.  I can’t even recall the author of the last book I read.

So I was excited to read his first full-length poetry collection, Walking to Jutland Street, and wondered if that same deep, intellectual mind would be on display. With two Latin-titled poems beginning this collection, it did not disappoint.

But it’s not just Latin which you’ll find scattered through his poetry. It’s French too, world events, Greek and Hindu mythology. And also web-slang (in the Dropped Pin series), drug-addiction, homelessness and a capturing of an often brutal and dangerous New Zealand male experience (for example in The Panel Shop where ‘Things happened in the yard.  I was encouraged/not to say what…’). Steven rejects any easy assessment of who he is or of his experiences.

Introduced with a prologue and farewelled with an epilogue, the poetry is divided into four (seemingly arbitrary) sections, including one titled Walking to Jutland Street. This is my favourite, as he ranges across subjects and memories like the jazz guitarist Emily Remler, the fall of the twin towers, the constraints of artificial intelligence and Brazilian police brutality.

To me, Steven is at his best when he takes a specific memory or event or image and moves in surprising ways away from it.  For example, in the beginning of the poem Dropped Pin: Latimer Square, Christchurch:

Spring was slow thawing my dreams that year.

Each night, watching the hills darken,

I saw the arm and shoulder

of a sad father turning away from the troubled

districts of his children.

That’s a poem about the fall of the twin towers. But also about a time Steven lived in a homeless shelter. And also, it isn’t really ‘about’ either (see above about rejecting easy assessments).

The thoughtfulness of his lines startle too.  In the poem Keepers Park a simple, sweet rhyme is suddenly halted by, well, complications.  Just like simple, sweet love can so often be:

of the light itself, as lovers do

when their love is brand new

and yet to be affected by complications.

Steven clearly aligns these poems with his own experience through the beginning epigraph from James K. Baxter, ‘I invent nothing.’  In an interview with the Otago Daily Times, Steven says he found in in James K. Baxter ‘a sense of permission to start writing about my own life.’

Some of Walking to Jutland Street is confronting and the experiences traumatic.  Many people die. Several poems are ‘in memorial’ of people who have died. I am glad that Steven survived to write this first collection.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

Walking to Jutland Street
by Michael Steven
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531182

Book Review: Sidelights – Rugby Poems, by Mark Pirie

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sidelights_rugby_poems.jpgRugby is often regarded as New Zealand’s national sport; although analysis of sporting options and participation rates in schools and clubs may render this assertion as contentious. Nevertheless, rugby has played a crucial role in New Zealand’s economic, social, and political development over the last century or so. Rugby is a looking-glass on New Zealand; the glorious, the despicable, the fatuous, and the fortuitous can be discerned.

Mark Pirie’s work Sidelights – Rugby Poems serves as a personalised account of his relationship with rugby; several poems are remembrances to family members that played rugby in New Zealand at various levels. One suspects that these family members are, as Ron Palenski suggests, in his instructive foreword ‘not himself a great player but a player of a type which made the game great.’

The book is divided into three sections: The Open Side, The Blind Side, and The All Blacks.

In broad-brush terms the poems that feature in The Open Side section relate to the pre-professional era. An era without scientific analysis of every footstep a player makes on the paddock. There is reference to the supposed simplicity of rugby in the poem Rugby Explained. Pirie makes comment on the female rugby experience in the poems Women Playing Rugby and Portia Woodman as a result of his experience as a spectator.

The late Sir Colin Meads was regarded as a chief exponent of the great values of rugby; solitary dedication, humility in victory and defeat, rugby’s after-match function camaraderie. There is reference to this in the poem Heartland Rugby.

Rugby served as a vital morale-boosting pastime during wartime. Pirie recounts that experience of some servicemen during a match in the poem A Letter About The War. Schools are the nurseries for young players in New Zealand. At high schools keen, fit, strong, and fast young players vie for selection into the prestigious First XV. In older and especially boys’ schools, support for the top team is fierce. The poems Two Rugby Epigrams show this. Pirie completes the section with dedicatory poems to his grandfather and mother.

The Blind Side section relates to Pirie’s personal experience of rugby players and matches. As Pirie is a Wellington poet, Hurricanes players, feature as poem topics. The demise of Jerry Collins, the success of Piri Weepu, the crowd adoration of Ma’a Nonu all feature in poems. The poem Patu ’81 is a reference to Merata Mita’s 1983 documentary film on the 1981 Springbok Tour. The last three lines: ‘a girl / watching her parents / cried in my film class’ is indicative of many New Zealand families at the time; fractured, tense, and forthright.

The poem Super Final exposes the common problem of ticket profiteering in the professional era. The poem Sevens recounts a comment that was indicative of the demise of the Wellington Sevens tournament that was ruined by the ‘fun police.’ The poem The Divided Country illustrates the tribalism between the provinces in New Zealand. Chris Laidlaw once wrote that ‘beer and rugby are more or less synonymous.’ Pirie continues this theme in the poem Ode To Molly Malones.

The last section is dedicated to The All Blacks. Prominent modern-day All Blacks feature in a number of poems in this section. Dan Carter, The Exquisite Cory Jane, Kieran Read: Tape Man, and Jonah Lomu are all titles of poems that present and extol the virtues of these players. The poem The Cup describes the time Ritchie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2011. This poem signifies a major national moment for many New Zealanders. The poem Covered In Boks’ Glory is testament to the All Blacks greatest rival and the muscular battles over nearly a century. The poem Ode, In the Bellevue captures the viewing experience of many followers watching matches in pubs and clubs throughout the country.

The book ends with an epilogue: Two Poems For Tom Lawn. These are ruminations on a grandfather ‘the man I never knew.’ The book is dedicated to Pirie’s late grandfather.

Rugby has changed over the decades and generations to be what it is today. Mark Pirie’s poems are the result of being a match observer, enthusiast, crowd listener, player, and thinker on the effects rugby has on families, players, and New Zealand society. This work is, as the late Bill McLaren often declared, a ‘thundering run.’

Reviewed by C.A.J. Williams

Sidelights Rugby Poems
by Mark Pirie
Published by HeadworX Publishers
ISBN 978047340868-8

Book Review: 仁 surrender, by Janet Charman

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_surrendersurrender is a poetry collection that Janet Charman began to write during a 2009 residency at the International Writers’ Workshop at Hong Kong Baptist University. It was during a guest readership at the 2014 Taipei International Poetry Forum that Charman completed the first draft. And the influence of these locations is potent all throughout 仁 surrender.

Charman begins with familiar concrete images related to travel. A ‘felt carpeted box / with a pin number’ holds a passport and an envelope of cash. Charman takes her time going through the routine of washing her clothes, hanging them on an elastic and a ledge above the window-bay. She pauses for a moment, letting herself take in the view as she stands within this new temporary space.

Throughout 仁 surrender, there is a ‘you’ that Charman speaks of with affection. Small snippets from different poems tell us more about this ‘you’. In the poem where people are, Charman explains how she is ‘but one whose work you’ve translated’. And even without mentioning a name or a physical characteristic, Charman builds up this ‘you’ into a strong figure. It is someone who gives Charman the ‘sharp of your (their) tongue’ when they realise that Charman has not brought an electronic dictionary with her. ‘Western cultural hegemony’, Charman states in explanation of her actions, and her own shame is evident when she writes that this ‘you’ has every ‘right to be angry’. As a result, Charman is left considering, ‘what will be left of the Chinese culture / when Capitalism has finished planting its landscapes with Coca-Cola’.

Charman’s experience with this ‘you’ also touches on issues of being a woman. While talking about this figure, Charman states that she is someone ‘who fears men for every good reason / and still wants to be wrong about them’. Meanwhile, in another poem, Charman finds an exhibition about a woman called Lydia Sum. Charman sees costumes on display, each piece ‘alive with jouissance’. But when Charman mentions the exhibition to one of the others at the hotel, she learns that Lydia Sum was sometimes ‘referred to as ‘Fatty’ / affectionately’. And hearing this, Charman writes, “i want to burst into tears”.

In the poem writing exercise, Charman goes on to explain why she writes the way she does, with minimal capitalisation. For her, lower-case first person represents:

‘the interrupted narratives of women’s lives
menstruation domestic celebration’

Whereas upper-case first person:

‘reads as the default generic setting

of uninterrupted male subjectivity

as neutral and universal in patriarchy

in relation to which

a woman artist

must perpetually distinguish herself’

Comparing the conventional, or the male, against the unconventional, or the female, in this way is an enlightening process. It also brings a valuable insight into Charman’s own work and opens up how her poetry can be read. In this way, 仁 surrender is more than just a collection of poems about new places and locations. It highlights the issues that follow us wherever we go in the world, some that go far beyond the concrete and into the invisible frameworks that hum in the background and define what is acceptable.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

surrender
by Janet Charman
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531106

Book Review: He’s so MASC, by Chris Tse

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

‘This is my blood oath with myself: the only
dead Chinese person I’ll write about from now on
is me.’

cv_hes_so_mascSo writes Chris Tse in his poem, Punctum. And this quote is the first thing I find in the blurb of He’s so MASC after flipping over the dazzling cover. If you’re familiar with Tse’s debut poetry collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, which revisited the murder of Cantonese goldminer Joe Kum Yung, then you know how incredibly potent this single sentence is.

Tse’s promise to be personal involves exploring a variety of identities. In doing so, Tse brings visible light onto invisible minorities. In Punctum, he describes a Chinese girl ‘behind the counter being bullied into saying “fried rice”‘. Here, she thinks about her own bleak future; she knows that there is no career progression for her unless she marries her boss’s son.

And what about her children? They could be actors taking on different identities, from a pregnant teen goth to a simple restaurateur. But even as Tse spins out all these possibilities, these are still simply acts. Even if her children do take on new identities, they will never be removed from the race they were born with; race is the first thing that others will see and judge them against accordingly. She knows that when she dies, she’ll be left wondering whether she pushed her children ‘hard enough to never settle / for being the token Asian in a crowd scene’. And when Tse asks, ‘Can you see her?’ at the end of the piece, it is evident that the answer is nothing close to yes. She, like many other minorities, is only a small little dot. A punctum.

All throughout He’s so MASC, Tse plays with this idea of personal identity, and the influence of the identities we carry. In Performance—Part 2, Tse goes through a variety of characters, who are all belittled in some way because of their identity. He starts with ‘CHRIS TSE AS DELETED SCENE’, who tells us that he didn’t have the ‘right look / to play a New Zealander’ even though he sounds like a native speaker. The next character is written in a way that speaks volumes. Tse simply states: ‘CHRIS TSE AS ASIAN HITMAN #1: / (non-speaking part)’.

Tse also delves into the personal in a tender and precious way. In the poem Next year’s colours, Tse ponders why we take photos while travelling, and how our phones end up filling up with photos that once meant something. He portrays the desperation of recording memories when in new places. Another tender poem is Release, which explores the emotions that come with letting go of a lover. The piece is so gentle, even if it’s about heartbreak, and Tse portrays each moment with such clarity. Especially moving is a verse where Tse describes himself going through the motions of the day, and then at last:

returning home to

duvet, sheets and pillows

hastily abandoned

and finally finding the time

to cry.’

In He’s so MASC, Chris Tse takes an oath to explore the personal. As well as exploring the emotions that come with memories and growth, his poems make you reconsider the layers of identity that you hold true. They also make you consider the identities that you appropriate onto others, and the ones that they appropriate onto you.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

He’s so MASC
by Chris Tse
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408879