Book Review: the moon in a bowl of water, by Michael Harlow

Available at selected bookshops nationwide.cv_the_moon_in_a_bowl_of_water

the moon in a bowl of water is a collection of prose poems, most of which are small journeys, tiny stories or precise portraits. But reading the collection sent me down a Michael Harlow rabbit hole, I even burrowed out a book he wrote over 20 years ago on teaching the writing of poetry (Take A Risk, Trust Your Language, published in 1985). I realised in the end that I was searching for his motivation – the drive behind this new collection of exclusively prose poems. I got as close as I’ll get with a quote from an essay Harlow published on ‘The Prose Poem’ in takahe – the prose poem celebrates ‘the strangeness that is in the familiar,’ he wrote.

To Harlow the prose poem is a place where ‘the reality of the imagination and the imagination of reality flourish.’ And you see this in the moon in a bowl of water where the poems prove that the author can maintain the musicality and even mystery of poetry within the prose sentences. For example, in the poem ‘A small magnificence, just buzz me Miss Blue’ there is the sentence ‘If you hear anything I haven’t heard, just Buzz me Miss Blue, and that dear hearts will do.’ With its internal rhyme and sound patterns, the poem clearly has all the signs of poetry. But with most poems having a tight narrative prose form I can’t help but think of another genre – flash fiction.

Indeed, reading the acknowledgements it is clear that some of the poems first appeared in the flash fiction collection Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (eds Frankie McMillan, James Norcliffe, Michelle Elvy, 2018). The difference between flash fiction and prose poetry currently rests (says Tim Jones in an essay in Bonsai) on where they’ve been published first and how the author defines them.

the moon in a bowl of water contains beautiful lines; one example – ‘I saw the conducting hand of the wind in the bodies of trees, all that leaf green music’ (from the poem For once, then, something.)  However, if you are wanting new interpretations of sonnets, to count syllables and see the mastery behind each line break this won’t be the poetry collection for you.  But, with 22 June bringing New Zealand National Flash Fiction Day,many readers may be curious of the origins and value of the growing form, may want to understand how it can be used and the stories it can create.

In an interesting way, this poetry collection is a great place to start.

reviewed by Elizabeth Kirby-McLeod

the moon in a bowl of water
by Michael Harlow
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531540

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand, 1914-20 By Jared Davidson

cv_dead_lettersAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

This is a curious book. It is obviously about wartime censorship, and provides an insight into the sometimes very strange actions of officialdom, and ordinary people, who feared an enemy within society. But somehow the book’s title does not convey exactly what the author is trying to achieve. The ‘dead’ letters, which were never seen by their intended recipients, are not actually dead. They were in fact preserved, and sent to the national archives, where an archivist (Jared Davidson) brings them to life.

In fact, Davidson brings a handful to life by repeating them in their entirety at the beginning of each chapter. This follows a longish opening chapter in which he provides a good overview of the system of censorship, and the key personnel involved. The chief censor was a British soldier, Colonel Charles Gibbon, who was sent over for the job, as part of his role as chief of general staff in New Zealand. The actual censorship was under the supervision of a William Tanner, based in the Wellington postal centre, and operating under the Solicitor-General’s regulations.

All of the officials were deeply involved in the war effort, as an imperial venture, but their practices went beyond this remit. Mail censorship included all letters written to people in neutral countries, and individuals were targeted for what would normally be legitimate dissent. The atmosphere created within a small society led to suspicions being cast on anyone considered a foreigner, and therefore denunciations followed. This accounts for some individuals whose lives were disrupted, if not destroyed, by the heavy hand of the State after letters were censored, even if not actually subversive.

Davidson has collected a small sample of these cases, basically one per chapter. Some of these people were just misfits, and would otherwise have been seen as eccentric, especially those from European cultures, such as Marie Weitzel, Hjelmar Dannevill, and Laura Anderson. Others had obvious opposition to imperial Britain, either as Irish catholics like Tim Brosnan, or Frank Burns, who decided to evade conscription in the West Coast bush. The author obviously has an interest in the fringes of the labour movement, and the so-called Wobblies, where there was organised dissent and forms of opposition, including the actions against the conscription of married men in 1917.

But mostly these are very individual stories of outsiders, and some troubled souls, who made the mistake of writing candidly to friends and family, or were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Davidson is able to follow up these stories, and find some relatives who were not aware of the letters, and the stories within them. There is a sense of justice finally being provided for some individual cases of harsh treatment.

There are also a few problems with the book. The narrative can be somewhat jumbled as it goes from the particulars of a contemporary letter, and then including a lot of contextual information, before trying to complete the story of an individual life story. Davidson has a habit of referring to published authors as ‘historian’, when he is actually referring to academics. Obviously these outsiders and dissenters are of great interest in history departments, but a lot of the detail is very obscure.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand, 1914-20
By Jared Davidson
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531526

Book Review: The Farewell Tourist, by Alison Glenny

Available from selected booksellers.

cv_the_farewell_tourish.jpgWith her Kathleen Grattan Poetry award-winning collection, The Farewell Tourist, Alison Glenny pushes the form of poetry to the edges, turning footnotes, dictionary definitions and letter fragments into their own kind of poetry. This is a book about absence, about white space and about how people grow apart even after being magnetized together.

Alison Glenny compiles in four distinct sections a heart-breaking story in poetry about absence and erasure. The poetry was found in Antarctica pulled from the snow with the snow still on it; ‘The practice of concealing part of a poem by covering it with snow’. The first section titled ‘The Magnetic Process’ is a narrative of lovers told in 29 parts, all prose poem fragments, that brings to mind the feel of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. These 29 parts show Glenny’s wonderful ability to evoke worlds in a matter of lines; ‘Growing up in a house filled with harps and bicycles, he / pursued nature with nets, a light trap, and a killing bottle.’ This line gives us a view into who one of protagonists are – this man who seeks to pull facts from the world. The parts move back forth between he and she, tracking how both characters live separately, where they intersect and ultimately return to lives without each other. This line from the end of the sequence takes the heart from you and places it gently on your tongue;

even the ghosts would depart. The pictures would walk out
of their frames and disappear, leaving only vacancy and
a scattering of loose snow.

With that, the reader is left in the space of absence, in the spaces of obfuscation, of erasure. The next long section is comprised of footnotes to observably blank pages. Glenny uses form to showcase the margins, the narratives that are obscured pushed to the side. With these Glenny paints a ghostly outline of a larger story; an absence that casts a white shadow over everything. This might sound all a bit too portentous, but rest assured the poetry is still full of little details that spark on the page; ‘He declared his intention of taking the ponies, five dozen sled / dogs, and “a motor car for use wherever there were no mountains”.’

The final section is comprised of fragments of correspondence; communication has been broken down by time and weather and the inability to express within the restrictions of language. You feel a pang in the side or an ache in the heart that has nothing to do with the nervous system and you can’t do anything to evoke what this conjured in you; you can only sit with it in vain. These fragments gesture towards everything unspoken. Glenny leaves us with these two lines that speak to so much while showing so little, the old iceberg cliché stands here;

You are twisted into my being
[The remainder of the letter is missing]

This collection is a beautiful snowfall that leaves you cold and reaching for warmth. It is a stunning achievement and a successful experiment with language and form. I look forward to reading more work by Glenny in the future, to witness the other ways in which Glenny evokes the unspoken.

Reviewed by essa ranapiri

The Farewell Tourist
by Alison Glenny
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531298

 

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: The World’s Din: Listening to Records, Radio, and Films in New Zealand, 1880-1940, by Peter Hoar

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_worlds_dinPeter Hoar provides us with a very worthwhile insight into the world of sound that emerged for New Zealanders as radio, musical record, and film sound was imported and adapted to local needs. This is nonetheless a partial insight, as it tries to convey in text, and illustrations, mostly a lost world of sound and entertainment forms. While it may only be a glimpse of what our forebears listened to, it remains a fascinating one.

The World’s Din is organised into three parts, based on: recorded technology and musical recordings; then radio technology, and the emergence of radio stations in between the wars; and finally a look at the musical accompaniment to the booming film and cinema industry. Hoar provides some context where necessary, and most of the text is placed within New Zealand social history, the key point being the way locals received the new technology from overseas, and adapted it in a cultural sense. This raises other cultural questions, such as with early commercial recordings of Maori singers. This was helpful to the performers, but they remained very much ‘cover’ versions.

Perhaps it is the chapters on the development of radio which include the most obvious evidence of local expertise, and perhaps of an enduring legacy. Interestingly, Hoar includes a chapter on ‘military radio’ and its influence on the later development of commercial radio after World War One. Not only does he remind us of characters such as Eric Battershill and Clive Drummond, who went from ham radio enthusiasts through the military, and then became commercial radio figures. But he also examines in detail how the early radio operators found life in remote places, whether that be on top of Tinakori Hill (in Wellington), or in the garrison captured from Germans in Samoa, in 1914. These chapters also have interesting archival photographs, including the raising of a large aerial radio mast on the Chatham Islands, and the operator of a radio set in the desert of Mesopotamia, who was enduring over 40 degrees of heat.

Back home, and after the war, there were also forgotten female pioneers in radio, such as Gwen Shepherd in Wellington. Her wedding was apparently broadcast live on 2YA in 1930, with a large crowd also in attendance at Old St. Pauls. Aunty Gwen, as she was known, was just as popular as the avuncular men who got into broadcasting between the wars, though none may have been as well known as Maud Basham (Aunt Daisy) in the post-war era. Hoar not only looks at the content ‘on’ the radio, and debates over musical styles, but also the role of the actual radio in interior design.

Towards the end there is more consideration of the broader cultural context. Although films became very popular over time, there is a sense in which some of the local flavour was lost, as accompanying music was supplanted by the ‘talkies’. And with the talkies came a particularly American form of entertainment, in a period in which the British influence was officially still predominant. It is always difficult to gauge the role of popular culture in historical events, in general, but this book indicates how the local and indigenous cultural forms are present and then perhaps quickly forgotten.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

The World’s Din: Listening to Records, Radio, and Films in New Zealand, 1880-1940 by Peter Hoar
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531199

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: 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