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

Undreamed of… 50 years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, by Priscilla Pitts and Andrea Hotere

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_undreamed_of_50_years.jpgArt books, coffee table books, travel books. There are so many out there and they all blur together making it hard to select one. This is not a problem when you come to Undreamed of…50 Years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship. It combines beautiful art, interesting background and a wealth of New Zealand artists and their stories. What more could you ask for?

The Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, established in 1966, supports artists by providing studio space and a stipend for a year. The first fellow was Michael Illingworth. Now it is an established part of the New Zealand art scene.

In 2016/17, the Dunedin Art Gallery and Hocken Gallery exhibited 50 years of work from the recipients of the award. This beautifully illustrated book commemorates the event and the artists involved.

The book begins with three superb articles on the importance of art, the establishment of the fellowship and its impact. I found each of these a work of art in itself. We have Hodgkins commenting on her own art:

‘This present line of work is good… I have got well into the spirit of the place & it is yielding up riches – undreamed of, at first sight…’

This was in 1930 from Flatford Mill where she had a studio and support to enable her to work without financial worries. It is this idea that gave rise to the fellowship, which enabled an artist to focus on their work. The link to the University of Otago was beneficial to the artist who had money and space to work. Julia Morison, Fiona Pardington and Heather Straka were inspired in their work by the Medical school and many artists had their work displayed by the University.

Priscilla Pitts looks closely at the impact of the Fellowship, while Joanne Campbell charts the founding of this award. Charles Brasch preferred to stay in the background but it appears from her research, that he played an important role in the creation and continuance of this grant. It was set up initially to nurture an identifiably national culture though in fact the first two recipients were English emigres. There were two occasions when the Fellowship was in danger from financial strife, as is often the case with awards dependent on sponsorship from outside. In both cases, a solution was found and 50 years of success suggests it will continue to flourish.

Finally, and this is the bulk of the book, come the artists. These are in alphabetical order and include photos, artworks and a biographical summary. In reality, it is a Who’s Who of the New Zealand art world. While the early recipients worked in the more traditional fields of painting and sculpture, the later years include installations, moving image and three-dimensional works. When looking through these pages, it becomes apparent that the selection panel got it right, time after time. The artworks are amazing and I am just disappointed the exhibition did not travel the country and enable us all to benefit from such a rich range of creativity.

I am not sure I will still be here to celebrate 100 years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, but after reading this book, I am sure it will occur.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Undreamed of…50 Years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship
by Priscilla Pitts and Andrea Hotere
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522568

Book Review: Casting Off – A Memoir, by Elspeth Sandys

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_casting_off_a_memoirCasting Off begins on the eve of Elspeth Sandys’ first marriage in Dunedin in the 1960s where she says, ‘Presbyterianism is in the air you breathe in this town. It is also, and always will be, in my bloodstream’.

This is the second volume of her memoir, the first What Lies Beneath, explained her interesting and challenging background and childhood.

I checked the the difference between an autobiography and memoir before I could write the review, and I learned the autobiography is a chronological recording of the person’s experience while the memoir relies more on the author’s memory, feelings and emotions
Sandys herself says, ‘I will try to stick to the facts, avoiding invention but guided, as I cannot help be, as I have always been, by imagination’.

I have not read the first volume but found this an interesting read and was able to pick up the facts of Sandys early life as the book progressed.

After her marriage the couple left New Zealand to live in England where they enjoy the arts and theatre scene. However, work is intermittent, and by 1968 she is divorced and back in New Zealand with a daughter.

The book is supported with photographs supporting many of the significant events in the author’s life. Many of the earlier photos are black and white but there are also a number of more recent coloured snaps, including The Long House, a home she lived in London during her next marriage.

I enjoyed the inclusion of poems appropriately slotted throughout the book which shows the versatility of Sandys writing.

She has published nine novels, and two collections of short stories as well as numerous original plays and adaptions for the BBC and RNZ, as well as scripts for film and television. She now lives in Wellington, has two children and six grandchildren.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Casting Off – A Memoir
by Elspeth Sandys
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522551

 

 

 

Book Review: A Strange Beautiful Excitement, by Redmer Yska

Available now from bookshops nationwide. 

cv_a_strange_beautiful_excitementA beautifully produced small-format hardback printed on good paper is a bit of a rarity these days, and this one is just a delight from start to finish.

Redmer Yska has written about his home town, Wellington, through the lens of Katherine Mansfield as a child and teenager, and the interwoven histories of the city and the writer are absorbing, engaging and enlightening. Yska writes with an immediacy that is compelling, and personal – as he writes about the research he is doing, you feel the excitement building and it’s catching! So when he does find a story written by a young Kathleen Beauchamp – and published in a national weekly magazine – a full seven years earlier than anything so far found, you want to join him in shouting with delight. Patience was truly rewarded, and the discovery is significant for NZ literature.

But there’s a lot before that exciting find. The society of early Wellington, the development of the city, the class consciousness brought over from England along with the first settlers is given great attention and – on occasion – criticism. The way Yska weaves his own childhood experiences in Karori into the reality of life in the time of Harold Beauchamp and his family brings a dimension which is unexpectedly vivid. He shows just how much impact Wellington, its weather, its society had on Katherine’s writing. She used her experience, her family, her schoolfriends, the neighbouring children and of course her imagination to create her amazing stories.

But what really resonates with me is the way Redmer Yska portrays the early settlement and development of Wellington –  innate racism, deforestation, the near-extinction of kakariki, polluted waterways, cholera and typhoid and more are all thoroughly researched, acknowledged and just eminently readable. It’s a long while since I have enjoyed a book as much as I did this one.

I think it’s a tour de force and an immensely valuable addition to our literature on Katherine Mansfield, but equally if not more importantly to the history of our city. It’s fresh, original, and I think all Wellingtonians should own a copy – it really IS that good.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888-1903
Reviewed by Redmer Yska
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522544