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

AWF18: Between Two Worlds, featuring Alison Jones and Redmer Yska

AWF: Between Two Worlds, featuring Alison Jones and Redmer Yska

The regimented nature of the festival is clearest when sitting in sessions in the Heartland Festival Room or the Upper NZI Room – both of which edge onto Aotea Square and are well within earshot of the Auckland Town Hall Clock Tower. It chimed 10am right as the speakers took their seats. Tick!

Chair Geoff Walker gave a brief introduction to the session itself and the featured authors. Kuni Kaa Jenkins was unable to make the session, but her co-author Alison Jones was present, as was the session’s other featured author, Redmer Yska. Both books being focused on in the session, Jones’ and Jenkins’ Ockham-winning Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds (Bridget Williams Books) and Yska’s A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington (Otago University Press), share a parallel of citizens of Aotearoa travelling to the other side of the world, in a manner that Yska described as resembling the journey of godwits.

‘’They’re both doing a form of OE, really. That hunger for what’s out there in the world… that wide-eyed tradition that comes from being so far-flung.’
threeppl_awf.JPG
While both Tuai and KM (as Mansfield was fondly referred to by chair and author alike throughout the session) did hail from New Zealand, they were from entirely different worlds – temporally (Tuai’s early 19th century vs. KM’s late 19th century/early 20th), geographically (Bay of Islands vs. Karori) and of course, the tangata whenua vs. pākehā divide.

Both authors provided a bit of backstory into the whys and hows they decided to undertake these particular projects. Jones spoke of Tuai popping up while she and Jenkins were working on their earlier collaboration He Kōrero. ‘He sort of threw himself at us,’ Jones commented. ‘He wanted to be written about!’

Meanwhile, Yska described how ‘our famous writer with the bob and the faraway gaze’ is well biographied… but not necessarily by New Zealanders who have a full understanding of her formative years in Thorndon and Karori. ‘They’re in Wellington for 10 minutes, they acknowledge the wind and then go.’ So Yska took it upon himself to tell these Wellington stories, creating ‘an intimate atlas’.

Jones spoke on Tuai’s place in the establishment of wary trust between colonial travellers and Māori. ‘He was of that first generation of Māori who were confident with Pākehā ships coming into New Zealand.’ That same generation, she said, were the ones who began to see the exciting possibilities across the sea, as they witnessed both white men coming and going, and Māori travelling to Australia and returning.

In lovely little insights into his personality quirks, there was recurring reference to Tuai’s penchant for European fashion. ‘Māori are still fashion mavens!’ Jones said. There was also commentary on Tuai’s terse relationship with missionaries, with Jones noting that he was never convinced of the need for the Pākehā god in Aotearoa – after all, that god lived in England! ‘There were plenty of atua in New Zealand – why did they need another one?’

A contrast in the two protagonists can be seen in their relationship with their people and families. While Tuai was deeply connected to his people, as a young chief of his Ngare Raumati hapū, KM was ‘such a punk, really’ according to Yska. ‘She was quite anarchistic, with no allegiance to anyone’.

In examining KM’s other traits, Yska also described her as ‘a hustler. She was a businesswoman in many ways, and quite mercantilist.’ Tuai meanwhile had his ‘cultural flexibility’ highlighted by Jones. ‘They were able to move within these cultural frames [of New Zealand and Europe] with dignity and integrity.’

Before things wrapped up with question time, there was a brief discussion of the sense of shared ownership that both books would potentially have. For Tuai, this was due to his place within the whakapapa of a hapū and iwi that neither Jones nor Jenkins had any immediate connection to (‘I was Pākehā, Kuni was Ngāti Porou, I wasn’t sure about who was more out of place asking these questions up north!’). Meanwhile with KM, it was more about the sense of the ardent fans out there, always seeking a new tidbit of information to get new insights into their (our, to be honest – there are Mansfield tattoo plans in the works for this reviewer) short story pioneering heroine.

A great hour spent looking into two figures of New Zealand history that brought their own versions of the Kiwi experience with them to Europe – and brought those experience back home again.

Reviewed by Briar Lawry

Click through the links below to see any further sessions. Both books mentioned are available at bookshops nationwide.

Alison Jones

Kuni Kaa Jenkins

Redmer Yska

 

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: the ones who keep quiet, by David Howard

Available in selected bookshops nationwide

cv_the_ones_who_keep_quietNear the end of the first, exquisitely crafted poem in David Howard’s new collection, the ones who keep quiet,  there are the lines, ‘Here I am trying to control/details others ignore’ (The Ghost of James Williamson 1814-2014). It seems a fitting meta-poetic statement for his poetry. The Ghost of James Williamson 1814-2014 is a poem which, over 58 stanzas, maintains control of a tight line structure and rhyme pattern which many casual readers probably won’t notice on a conscious level. And it’s not just that poem – throughout the collection you are required to keep up because he is doing so much all the time. Look at these three words in the poem ‘Because Love Is Something Left’ – ‘Penknife, pliers forceps…’ and notice all that connects those words aurally, visually and in image.

Detailed construction is found everywhere in the ones who keep quiet and his approach reminds me of the one advocated by Glen Maxwell in his book On Poetry. Maxwell  wants poetry of pattern, ‘new forms. But still, forms,’ he demands.  Maxwell and Howard are also similar in their use of verse for the craft of playwriting and the ones who keep quiet has a short ‘play’ in the form of the poem The Mica Pavilion.

My  favourite in the collection however, is the poem Prague Casebook which Howard tells us ‘circles the character of the New Zealander and alleged spy Ian Milner’.  It has wonderful lines, for example, ‘The people here are strangers, they show/scant compassion; they smile like real estate agents.’  Or this wonderfully hideous example, ‘Socialism is soup made of cow lips./Smack smack.’  Gross!  I love it!

Remember the poem I mentioned before which continued for 58 stanzas? At times I felt I was limping towards the finish of a poem, like an athlete at the end of a marathon. Howard would always reward me with a short poem as if aware of my need to stay on just one page for a bit. The placement of poems in this collection is a gift to the reader.

Howard includes detailed notes about some of the characters and history the poems reference. This is good, but it raised my expectations and I was disappointed when a poem did not have accompanying information in the notes. Why for example does Howard not tell me anything about the music referenced in the poem Der Abend?  But this is a minor criticism of an otherwise thoughtful collection.

In the synopsis on the back cover, Howard is praised for his ‘metaphysical mulling’. He is not using his poetry to display his theology yet God, the Word (a reference to Christ in the Bible), heaven, hell, the details of our souls, are all here in Howard’s poems without his own specific beliefs being present. It is a hard thing, to depersonalise ideas about faith, and this to me is the most difficult thing, of all the difficult things, that Howard achieves.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

the ones who keep quiet
by David Howard
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522445

 

Book Review: The Yield, by Sue Wootton

Available in bookshops nationwide. 
This book is a finalist in the Poetry category of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

cv_the_yieldIn attempting to describe The Yield and my response to it, I found myself referring again and again to the poem Lingua incognita, which is quoted on the back of the book and is, if I was pushed to name it, probably my favourite poem in the collection.

Some words dwell in the bone, as yet
unassembled…

Down in the bone the word-strands glimmer and ascend
often disordered, often in dreams,

bone-knowledge beating a path through the body to the throat
labouring to enter the alphabet.

and sometimes the only word to assemble in the throat is Yes
and sometimes the only word to assemble in the throat is No.

The best word I can assemble to describe my feelings about this book is seen. I was casting metaphorical looks over my shoulder the whole time I read it. How very rude, I thought, and Please stop, and You don’t know me!

But of course, she does, at least in the way a poet knows an experience that transcends the individual, and can translate it so accurately.

I didn’t expect to enjoy The Yield. I’m ambivalent about the focus of New Zealand poetry on the New Zealand landscape, and more specifically the New Zealand backyard. But to call this book a book about nature would be to greatly underestimate it.

I read the first three words and thought, oh. Oh no. How very dare you? – outrage being my usual reaction when another poet displays their talent.

‘Measure my wild,’ the first poem invites, perhaps expanding the invitation to encompass everything to follow.

In the poem Wild, we’re invited to consider nature as doctor, which fascinated me and took me by surprise. I took pains to not read anything about Wootton’s life or this collection before opening it, so I wasn’t aware of her medical background or the role this would play in her work. As a sick poet, it is therefore unsurprising that I felt seen.

Examine my yearn, and treat it with trees.
Un-pane me. Wilden my outlook.

Having read the book, I consider my outlook wildened.

I generally do not like long poems. I am a harsh editor – if you give me a long poem, I will send it back cut in half. To me, the challenge and deep delight of poetry has always been in how much you can say with how little. I like denseness. I want one crucial word that does the work of ten.

Wootton has shown herself to be a master in this regard. There is not a single word in this book that does not need to be there.

I am in the habit of using cardboard gift tags to mark notable pages when reading books for review. Unfortunately, this scheme doesn’t prove so useful when you are sticking one in every second page.

This is not to say I liked every poem. I didn’t, and I’m not meant to. A collection will, hopefully, contain something for everyone. By extension that will mean there’s things that do not speak to me as loudly as others. In any case, I am more in the habit of falling in love with individual lines than entire poems, and in this way Wootton has rendered me something of a nymphomaniac.

For all the emotion explored here, there is little heaviness. In fact, another reviewer used the term ‘exuberance,’ and I would add ‘exultant.’ There is a worship occurring; of the world around us, and of our bodies and the many things they are capable of. The poem The needlework, the polishing opens:

‘I like an empty church, forgive me…’

The line echoed in my head for days, like a refrain from a choir. And, to finish:

‘The kneeling rail. I kneel. I quietly rail.’

<insert deep exhalation from the reviewer> The religious imagery at play here spoke to me profoundly. As someone whose illness has given them a complex relationship with spirituality, I felt at home in this poem. It was interesting to come inside, from that other, wild church we worship throughout the book. To come inside, to kneel, to express grief and anger in a such a very contained way.

The poem Pray revisits a difficult relationship with god, one which could find its answer in ‘A treatise of the benefits of moonbathing’, where science offers medical impetus for a centuries-old communion. The moon, the poem suggests – its feminine iconography a counterpoint to the male-lead religion in other parts of the book – could cure insomnia if consumed appropriately.

… two thousand feet above worry level with the moon’s smile sailing over the fence
Mare Frigoris
A moonbath in spring is a spritz to the hibernated soul.
One skips back, freshly rinsed
with sparkling thoughts like moonwash gilds us all the same, O our beautiful bones!

I could go on – the multitude of gift tags mock me – but it’s important to recognise the futility of doing an entire collection justice in 1000 words. So I will finish with the final lines from ‘Graveyard poem,’ which etched itself neatly inside my ribs.

… all the children with their terrifying ages engraved stark against bewilderment –
it’s right to be so afraid
of love.

and the angels dip their wingtips to our occasionally touching palms
and the leaves rustle underfoot: risk it, risk it.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

The Yield
by Sue Wootton
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522483

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: Phoney Wars – New Zealand Society in the Second World War, by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Hugh Eldred-Grigg

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_phoney_warsThis book is intended to be a maverick account of the Second World War, a kind of anti-military historian view. As a chronicle of dissent in New Zealand during World War Two it might have some value. However, I think that the writers get the tone wrong, if indeed, Hugh Eldred-Grigg is also one of the authors. He certainly writes the introduction, which states what the book is not about – not what it is about.

The younger Eldred-Grigg states: ‘our rejection of New Zealand’s participation in the war is not prompted by some juvenile contrarianism that draws satisfaction from puncturing common conceptions…’.

While it may not be juvenile, I certainly believe that the book is based on contrarianism, rather than principle. I also don’t find it very well researched for something that claims to be a history. Hugh Eldred-Grigg adds a note on method, in which he claims that conventional sources, what historians call primary sources, have weaknesses that he can offset. This is how he justifies the use of literary texts to supplement the main source, which are contemporary newspaper articles. Although the concentration on secondary sources, i.e. previously published sources, may be standard in political science, it does not work in a detailed history.

This is obvious from certain errors of fact and interpretation in the first chapter, which examines the prelude to the war in the 1930s. This period has now been covered very extensively, and in great detail with regard to political history. The obvious errors include referring to Henry Cornish, the Solicitor-General, as a government minister. The Solicitor-General is a civil servant, whereas the Attorney-General is a Cabinet minister. This seems to have been an example where a printed publication was not relied upon. A more general problem is the habit of referring to contemporary writers and commentators with their perceived political affiliation. This might be alright if it was always accurate. However, using an obvious example, they state that A.N. Field wrote for Social Credit, whatever that connotes. In literal terms, Field wrote for Sir Henry Kelliher’s publication; and he also wrote many anti-Semitic letters to friends.

One of the other misinterpretations involves the financing of war. The authors claim that printing money was involved to finance the war in the First World War, if not the second. In fact, this is not logically possible. There was no New Zealand currency extant in 1914, the legal currency was sterling; and only the trading banks could actually print money. But later in the text the authors refer to the War Expenses Account in the 1940s. The detail comes from contemporary newspaper articles, as do the figures on the sale of War bonds to the public. It is difficult to see how the press articles shed more light on the subject than departmental records would; nor does it solve the question of exactly how the war was funded, and how much currency was created by the central bank.

The book has two basic premises: one is that there was no compelling reason for New Zealand to go to war with Germany or Japan; the second is that, since New Zealand could not make a substantive difference to the outcome, it shouldn’t have really bothered at all. And a third, perhaps, is that historians should acknowledge the cost to German and Japanese citizens. This was illustrated among the contemporary cartoon and artworks reproduced in the book, which were the highlights of the book for me.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Phoney Wars: New Zealand Society in the Second World War
by Stevan Eldred-Grigg with Hugh Eldred-Grigg
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522230