Book Review: Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, by Liz Breslin

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_alzheimers_and_a_spoonAlzheimer’s and a Spoon is about all the broken spaces, the crevices, the things that have been forgotten and lost. Liz Breslin’s first poem in the collection touches on this theme immediately. The poem is made up of words from actual conversations between Alois Alzheimer, who identified the disease that’s named after him, and Auguste Deter, the first person to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Some answers are fractured. “What year is it?” Alzheimer asks. It is 1901 and Deter responds, “Eighteen hundred”. And yet, some things stay grounded. When Alzheimer asks about the colour of snow, Deter responds, white. The sky, blue. Meadows, green. It is a short conversation but it shows what Alzheimer’s can take and what it decides to leave behind.

Breslin’s poem ‘dichotomy’ explored this idea as well. In the piece, Breslin asks, “please pass me a scrumpled ball… secret me the memories you don’t speak”. As Alzheimer’s grows and grows, words and memories start to disappear. And Breslin is trying to pull these moments back out before they slip away.

In the poem ‘Allies’, Breslin describes a vivid moment of her own. It’s a subtle poem recalling a memory of her babcia, her grandmother, in her boarding house in Oxford. Breslin describes how “the kitchen smelled of dill and those mushrooms beginning with ‘p’ that I can never remember, and mould… Everything in its place. Pressed and fiercely meek”. In this personal piece, Breslin perfectly describes the simple nostalgia that comes with visiting relatives, and the comfort that can be found through memory.

Perhaps in connection to this memory, cutlery makes its appearance throughout the collection. ‘when life gives you spoons’ is a whimsical poem that repeats “when life gives you spoons, measure sugar, stir the juice / when life gives you spoons, fix tyres… call them ladles… scoop the innards, carve a heart… collect a set”.

Breslin is the one who watches memories disappear in others but for a moment, she also imagines what it would be like to be the person with the broken memories. In ‘Alzheimer’s and a spoon, she asks, “Where are they off to, these words / I am losing?” There is a sad resignation throughout the piece that shows the disconnection between herself and what was once hers. Her own ideas feel like someone else’s, and Breslin wonders about “words that were mine”, words that she can’t seem to grasp anymore.

For this reason, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon is a tangled collection. Alongside Breslin, the reader has to navigate a landscape of broken memories. It shows how exhausting the world would be without the memory we rely on every day. I felt lost trying to connect all the fragments of Breslin’s grandmother together, when she was such a key figure throughout the collection. This left me confused at times, and perhaps Breslin could have provided more poems to help string it all together. But also, I recognised that maybe this was the point: sometimes gaps can’t be filled and sometimes fragments are all that’s left.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Alzheimer’s and a Spoon
by Liz Breslin
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9780947522988

Book Review: As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry, by Vivienne Plumb, with illustrations by Glenn Otto

cv_as_much_gold_as_an_ass_could_carryAvailable in bookshops nationwide. 

Vivienne Plumb’s collection As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry  collects a vibrant selection of poetry, plays and short prose from this always-innovative author. These are pieces composed over a writing career begun in Aotearoa New Zealand theatre and leading up to Plumb’s recent attainment of a PHD in creative writing from The University of Wollongong, Australia. General readers and those lured by the mysteries of the PHD will be equally intrigued to read the extracts here from her thesis manuscript The Glove Box and other stories. (Spineless Wonders, 2014) This collection earned her the prestigious doctoral award. Her Australian publisher’s ironically acerbic trade name is also entirely in keeping with Plumb’s own rapier wit and comic timing.

In whatever genre or persona she operates Plumb’s writing is intellectually incisive and visually complex. But it frequently also carries a depth finding tincture of melancholy. Jillian Sullivan’s excellent discussion of this dimension of Plumb’s poetics is analysed in the wonderful essay ‘Landscape and Lament: Anti-consolation in the Poetry of Vivienne Plumb’, which features on-line in the current issue of Ka Mate Ka Mate.

As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry is an indispensable repository of Plumb’s oeuvre. The unflinching honesty of her narratives illuminate the human condition with nuances that make even life’s greyest moments shine with a diamond energy. Her barbed appraisals of suburbia, the universe, and everything, make an indispensable contribution to New Zealand writing.

Finally however, I must demur in one key respect from the design values in this collection. It’s marvelous illustrations by Glenn Otto are a kinetic calligraphy, which brilliantly complements Plumb’s own take no prisoners approach to every topic. However, in my opinion her editors should have restricted this artist’s contribution to the white spaces of the text. Plumb’s material deserves the uninterrupted limelight. She should not have to compete with Otto. Where his strokes spill exuberantly into the textual black space they return the reader’s imagination to the page surface, competitively disrupting narratives in which Plumb’s own extreme vistas and experimental narrative close-ups would otherwise offer the reader enjoyment unbounded.

Reviewed by Janet Charman

As Much Gold as an Ass Could Carry
by Vivienne Plumb
with illustrations by Glenn Otto
Published by split/fountain
ISBN 9780473373184

Book Review: Night Horse, by Elizabeth Smither

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cv_night_horseElizabeth Smither is a well-known figure in New Zealand poetry, and Night Horse proves again why this is so. In her eighteenth collection of poetry, Smither portrays an enchanting world by shining moonlight on the quirks of everyday life.

In this collection, Smither shows how skilfully she can render moments into soft and beautiful scenes. In the poem Wedding Car, she brings out the image of a 1926 Nash / in deep forest green’ driving down the road. Throughout the poem, Smither portrays a number of other blushed and brilliant images, as if the world were on pause: wheelspokes that ‘measured each revolution like time’, a bouquet, white ribbons in the wind. Finally, Smither states that ‘though, today, someone else will ride in it / you are both still there’. There are many layers to one moment, and the memory that Smither is recalling is just one of them.

Further on in the collection, Smither heightens this dreamy atmosphere into something eerie. In the poem Cat Night, she starts with a normal scene: cats walking through the street after the sun has set, ‘waiting to see how the night will shape itself’. There is something peculiar in this little description of suburbia. And at the end of the poem, Smither wonderfully declares ‘Let the street lights mark / the great promenade down which love will come / like black carriages on the Champs-Élysées’. Here, the everyday has been turned into something grand and enchanting.

Smither finds other peculiar moments in ordinary life. In the poem Oysters, she portrays a seemingly normal scene: a banquet table filled with food. But in this world, things morph and become strange. Standing out from the selection of food are six dozen oysters in a champagne bucket. After the oysters have been devoured, Smither draws out the uncomfortable image of ‘thin oyster lips’ and smiles, turning this moment into a scene that feels much more uneasy than a regular gathering.

My favourite poem in Night Horse is the final poem in the collection. From the title of the piece, Smither tells us that ‘The heart heals itself between beats’, and this anchoring phrase continues throughout the poem. She sets the scene in Middlesex Hospital, the bustle of doctors around her. It is in the chapel that Smither finds some quiet, watching as matrons and surgeons go about their duties. While she meanders, she also wonders about the heart and how it heals itself. She thinks, maybe each cell proposes a soliloquy to itself and speaks’. And then, in the final line, Smither beautifully concludes ‘The heart heals itself between beats / I heal myself between beats’.

Night Horse is a wonderful collection where each poem brings something new and unexpected. Smither perfectly captures an atmosphere that is dreamy and magical, yet also eerie. Her poems are the kind of pieces that will make you take a second glance at things in life that once seemed ordinary—statues in a park, a cat prowling through the streets—so you can stand for a moment and wonder what worlds they have seen.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Night Horse
by Elizabeth Smither
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408701

 

Book Review: Where the fish grow, by Ish Doney

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_where_the_fish_growIsh Doney packs love and longing into her first collection of poetry, Where the fish grow. Describing Doney’s own move from New Zealand to Scotland, her writing resonates deeply through its portrayal of how bittersweet it is to leave old memories behind while making new ones.

One painful aspect of departure is leaving loved ones behind, and Doney expresses this in her poem Family. She beautifully describes the process as ‘packing up / grey Christchuch days… Folding up streets and parks’. The restraint of her language results in a tone that is modest and almost shy. In this way, the final verse of the poem is heartbreaking yet subtle. Here, Doney spends her time ‘remembering what it was like… to lie on the lino… under a hospital bed / and listen to my brother cry’.

Similarly in the poem Miscarriage, Doney describes a different kind of leaving, and one that she can’t quite fathom. Unable to comprehend what has happened, she repeats her chances like a plea: ‘Five percent. / We should have been okay’. The precision of Doney’s writing portrays a deep yet intangible kind of loss with no flamboyance or excessive description. She is simply a poet capturing an event for what it is: a loss that leaves pools of emptiness rippling through her life.

The heart is placed obliquely in the chest, is another beautiful poem that describes the heart and all its emotions as a literal concept. Some hearts are ‘bent or partially broken… hence, fracture takes place more readily’, suggesting that constant leaving and settling results in small cracks in a person. The use of short and simple lines presents these observations as strong and sturdy structures for the rest of poem. However, in the end, ‘The substance of the heart / is uncertain’; its complexity is left inexplicable.

Doney finds a constant through the ritual of making tea, and she uses this to find that sense of home again. She describes the motion as a process similar to making mud pies, of ‘mixing the garden together / and covering it with petals’. This is her way of grounding herself: through the imagery of the earth. Tea reappears throughout the collection and so does the sea; it is where the tang of salty air and fish becomes a prevalent memory for Doney. In the final poem, Seaside, she imagines ‘collecting the ocean / in coffee cups’, of being able to bring bits of home with her wherever she goes. It is an innocent way of making the unfamiliar seem familiar, of adjusting a new home in relation to the old.

Where the fish grow portrays the many of emotions of departure when home is so close to someone’s heart. The heart is a complex and difficult thing and Doney’s attempt to understand it is through the description of a magical world, a world where the smell of tea brings back certain memories and the tide brings in layers and layers of the past. Where The Fish Grow is an enjoyable poetry collection that captures both the wonder of the new and the bittersweet feeling that comes with leaving the old.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Where The Fish Grow
by Ish Doney
Published by Makaro Press (Part of the Hoopla series)
ISBN 9780994123718

Book Review: The Glass Rooster, by Janis Freegard

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_glass_roosterThis sophomore poetry collection from poet and novelist, Janis Freegard, covers a lot of ground, both physically and metaphorically. The book is divided into eight distinct sections, labelled ‘Echo-systems’. Physically, the reader is transported all the way from Reykjavík to the Himalayas and on to the Mexican Desert, among other locales.

The ecological subject matter of the book is never heavy handed or clichéd. You can see the author’s love for the variety of species populating this planet, with several poems acting as almost a roll call. The poet obviously finds great pleasure in listing the various creatures.

The spirit animal of the work is of course the glass rooster of the title, who appears in several of the poems throughout the book. It originates from a poem of Freegard’s included in the now-defunct journal, Six Little Things, and was subsequently published in her first collection. When the strange, fragile animal first appears, we are told he is ‘well-travelled…confident in his own resplendence.’ It is no coincidence that he is unware of his own fragility, or the fact that he can no longer usher in the day, or issue a warning of any kind. He is impotent. He is nature objectified; ornamental.

In his next appearance, in the ironic poem, ‘Not’, the rooster is still singing his own praises:

Have you seen my feathers? How the colours glint
in the dappled light. Have you heard my call? Oh I am king
of all I see. Hear me, hear me. This tree, mine. This whole
forest, mine.

His ultimate destination is spelled out by Freegard in the final line of the book: ‘You will find you have become a poem.’ He has become memorialised. His fragility is spelled out in this poem, perhaps unnecessarily. There is a sense of foreboding rendered through this pitiful creature, such as in ‘Ectoplasm’: ‘The darkness lay on him heavily’. There is a note of grief; perhaps at the resplendent creature is now merely a decoration; a blank canvas for man’s projections. The unease is thematic. ‘…the land’s uneasy, the sun begins its long descent’.

If you create a poem from last lines in the book, you get an idea of the sense of loss underpinning the poems. Could the last line here be an assertion that we are (or at least the narrator is) in fact the rooster?

A heavy rain will come, and wash things clean
Turned out backs to the sea
Never quite dissolved
Somewhere different
Well away, well away
Collection of porcelain shells
& dance together, among the falling petals
The ultimate prophecy
Yesterday and yesterday I was young.
Why we missed them.
We took the path of least resistance.
I am the rooster. I am made of glass.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

The Glass Rooster
by Janis Freegard
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408336