Book Review: Field Notes, by Mary Cresswell

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_field_notes.jpgField Notes is such a wonderful poetry collection because Mary Cresswell explores a vast number of forms in one book. Just a few of these forms are sonnets, ballads, and word clouds. And each form explores a new playing field where the rules are different.

Cresswell wonderfully employs repetition in her poem ‘Trespassers W’. She warps the normal by distorting a familiar phrase: trespassers will be prosecuted. Instead, Cresswell tells us how ‘Trespassers will be empathised. We will know their destination before they do, and we will tell them which road to take’. Creswell continues playing with the phrase and as a result, trespassers are not only pasteurised, but also exacerbated and liberated. It’s a witty little piece that plays on rhythm and words, with the imagery sometimes verging on the bizarre. My favourite? ‘Trespassers will be disambiguated. They will be turned into tigers and run around the pancake trees until they melt into butter’.

Cresswell’s poems are also very conscious of the world that they have been written in. One of these poems is ‘Indexers in love’. Cresswell uses themes surrounding love as entries in an index. For example, there’s ‘hazards, 56, 75, 113’. Then there’s longer entries in the index such as ‘heart: broken, 56; in mouth, 24-2; murmur, 123; of darkness, 307.’ It’s a beautiful and clever poem that reveals the very many concepts that surround love through the simple format of an index.

Moving on is an especially beautiful poem. The poem has four different parts, and I loved the final section, a small piece of prose poetry titled Borrowed light. In this ethereal and surreal piece, Cresswell turns the moon much more than just a circle of light in the dark sky. The moon is characterised as something closer to human. She is someone who ‘hoists herself over the hill heading for the sea’, who ‘flicks aside the stickiness of the stars’. When she finally finds her way to the sea, the moon is ‘grateful for the horizon at last’.

And when Cresswell moves to more traditional forms of rhyme and verse, Cresswell’s own delight in the form shines through. In the poem ‘Evoking the muse (2)’, Cresswell proves that she is a wordsmith who is very much aware of the external and internal rhythms that each word carries. This is shown through the second verse of this poem, which is an absolute delight:

He licks in shape the purple flame

of perfervid fabrication

and scrambles for fresh figments

on my tree of inspiration

The sheer variety of forms in Field Notes was wonderful to read, and I hope Cresswell keeps exploring the different rules that she can adhere to as well as the different rules she can break. Cresswell’s Field Notes prompts us all to be open to the various forms that poetry can take. Poetry is riveting because it is so varied and Cresswell’s collection is a brilliant reminder that there is no objective way that poetry “should” be written.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Field Notes
by Mary Cresswell
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780994137951

 

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Book Review: Bad Things, by Louise Wallace

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_bad_thingsBad Things, the blurb tells us, is about the different things we do to survive. At the start of the collection, on a single page, two strong sentences introduce this idea: ‘I did it for myself / I did what needed to be done’.

And what has been done? Wallace explores this in her poem The animal. In this piece, an animal lies ‘stuck in the mud, sick and barely moving’. The narrator’s first instinct is to reassure the frightened animal and come to its aid. But then the animal is quickly struck by a heavy piece of wood and the narrator looks up to see her sister, ‘anger still erupting from her slight form’. It seems that while the narrator saw compassion as a solution, her sister reverted to aggression. The uncomfortable ending where the two are left speechless seems to deny the option of reconciliation.

In the poem The olives, Wallace further explores consolation as an option for survival. She starts the piece with a character musing on the scenes of a cooking show. Wallace humorously describes how ‘the chef goes to Europe, and oohs and aahs at things the locals have been doing for centuries’. But then Wallace moves to observing other scenes: the comforting ‘sound of the olives falling onto the tarp’, people who ‘voice heartbreak for those who were shot and are then criticised by yet other people’. This leads to a reflection on the heartbreak that we all carry. The main character of the piece then returns to a reality where she spends ‘the long dark hours saying the same things over and over to her daughters’. What follows are words that she whispers like a prayer, words that we have all found ourselves saying to others: ‘it will be okay / I’m here / we are together’.

One of the most heart wrenching pieces in the collection is the poem Helping my father remember. In this piece, Wallace subtly sets the scene by describing her father at the kitchen bench, ‘his hand hovering / over an orange and a paring knife, / trying to think / what he had planned’. Throughout the poem, Wallace is there keeping an eye on her father, following him through ‘tall grasses, as high / as my head’. But a world of loss does not mean a world devoid of comfort. The ending seems to refer back to The olives when Wallace beautifully tells her father, ‘We won’t be lost / if we’re together’.

So how do we survive all the bad things? Through her collection, Wallace explores a variety of situations. There is no objective right or easy solution, but consolation seems to be a key theme throughout Bad Things. Wallace’s poem Reminders for December also offers a series of words to hold tight to and repeat in times of adversity, and it is a comforting piece in its simplicity. In the poem, Wallace provides a word on each page, similar to those reassuring phrases at the end of The olives. And she tells us, ‘cut / dig / gather / heel in / lift / protect’, reminders to keep on going.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Bad Things
by Louise Wallace
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561612

Book Review: Flow: Whanganui River Poems, by Airini Beautrais

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_flow_whanganui_river_storiesFlow is a collection of poems centred around the Whanganui River. In her dedication, Airini Beautrais tells us that this work is not a grand attempt to track the history of the river and its people. Rather, it is more of an attempt at a collage of stories: “some small, some large, some geological, some ecological, most human”.

The collection starts with part one, which is titled Catchment. This section covers an array of stories from different areas around the Whanganui River. Beautrais provides a location and a date as a subtitle to each poem. For example, in Clear Away, Beautrais gives the label Ōrākau 1864. In this piece, Beautrais brings us back to a world of conflict and describes the bodies of fallen soldiers, still bleeding. The poems in this section also stretch all the way to the present. In Huihui (subtitle Taumarunui 2014), Beautrais portrays a memory close to the river itself. Beautrais describes how “the water answers yes / to all of Mountain Safety’s unsafe-to-cross criteria: / it is moving faster than you can walk; / it is above your knees; you can’t see the bottom”. In the scene, women glide by in kayaks, a jet boat passes.

The next section of Flow is titled A Body of Water. Here, Beautrais provides more indefinite scenes involving the Whanganui River. In Snow, Beautrais beautifully describes how “The first snow falls / like sugar, sown / breath-thin / on each blank mountain’s face”. Her soft description perfectly portrays the wholesome memory and excitement that comes with the first snowfall. This section also contains pieces describing animals that live in the river. Her poem Tuna (subtitle Longfin eel / Anguilla dieffenbachii) supplies a portrayal of these fish, describing how “The leaf-shaped larvae drift the currents, turn to glass eels once / they’re home”.

Finally, Beautrais moves into poems within the town of Whanganui itself in her third section, The Moving Sand. Her piece PechaKucha perfectly describes the conflict of feelings that can arise with the journey home. She tells how, “When you drive / in, on the highway there’s this sign: Welcome Home. / And I get this sinking feeling, every time I arrive, / that I’ll be stuck there forever”. Home may be a familiar place, but it is also charged with memories that can pull you back, sometimes unwillingly.

In this way, Flow is a collection based around the Whanganui River, but it is about more than just the river itself. Beautrais also expands to stories around it, delving into the past as well as the present. She tells of the nature within it as well, and how it changes and lives with the river. Finally, human emotions and memories round off the collection at the end. As Beautrais tells us, “stories collect around bodies of water because people live there”. In Flow, she proves that these stories are not limited to one realm: there are stories to be found in many different worlds, whether they are human or not.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Flow: Whanganui River Stories
by Airini Beautrais
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561148

Book Review: Feel a Little: Little Poems About Big Feelings, by Jenny Palmer, illustrated by Evie Kemp

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_feel_a_little_NZSharing our feelings is not only important for adults. The benefits of emotional literacy can be seen in children of all ages. This book is a collaboration by two people who addressed the need for this. It began as an online project where an emotion was featured each week. The poem for each emotion combines catchy rhymes with beautifully vibrant illustrations. There are 14 emotions in the book, a rainbow of expressions and images, that use colour to reinforce ideas. Following the success of the venture, the poems were gathered into this hard cover book which is best suited for 7-11 year olds.

While the poems are quite long and complex, they would make a useful starter as an educational focus. I could see myself in teaching, using a poem each week and basing activities on these. Movement, music and art would flow naturally from discussions about, “When I feel Sad”. In the home, the book might be read over a number of weeks allowing for family discussions about times when we have felt that emotion. I would struggle to read the whole book in a sitting, but do not feel this was the intended purpose of the authors.

Feel a Little is an exciting collaboration because it addresses the emotional needs of children in words and images. By choosing to publish these poems they will access a wider audience and be useful in many situations. My copy has already gone to my Grandaughter’s preschool who intend to use it in their programmes. That must be a sure sign of a successful book.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Feel a Little: Little Poems About Big Feelings
by Jenny Palmer, illustrated by Evie Kemp
Published by Little Love
ISBN 9780473384456

Book Review: Wolf, by Elizabeth Morton

cv_wolf_MortonAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Wolf by Elizabeth Morton is an atmospheric and breathtaking collection that explores all the strange and mysterious parts of life. It’s all about the sharp edges, the rough shadows, the things that sit in the back of your mind and fester. It’s the uncomfortable, the estranged, all tightly packed into a world where the moon never seems to set and the sun never seems to rise.

It begins with Wolf. He is wild and he is also lonely. Morton’s language is sharply attuned with the wild world of Wolf. She describes how “as a pup Wolf had mewed / tender words… taller now, Wolf barks consonants.” He walks through forests, visits suburbia, travelling with a feeling of loneliness that presses on him the whole way. In Wolf has a dream, this feeling is brought to the fore as Wolf howls “Mo-ther / Mo-ther… but she does not hear”. The way Morton contrasts the eerie wanderings of Wolf as well as Wolf’s own heartache leaves an unsettling feeling of melancholy.

Then Morton expands out from Wolf into her own world, although it’s still not a world removed from the strangeness of the wild forest. Morton’s metaphors are raw and her words are tough. One of my favourite poems of the collection, 17, is a beautiful yet eerie piece. Morton begins, “it was March. / we had city grit in our gums, / and heads violent with stars”. Descriptions such as these made me pause, consider her words, and imagine in new ways. Morton continues with more of her peculiar and unique imagery: “and at seventeen / we were the final flashing synapse in a wrecked brain. / the last dry thrust of a fish”.

In this world, although things are not as wild as Wolf’s forest, the presence of Wolf still lives on. In The Dream, Morton and her dog walk through a landscape filled with “steel-wool bushes, the bones of manuka”. Morton manages to turn even the everyday into something strange and almost menacing. In Sirius, Morton finds the presence of the canine and the wild again in the deep sky: “I found the Dog Star / winking white and black”.

Another poem I really loved in Wolf is Poem in which i am a zombie. It’s written in the same vein as others in this collection—menacing and melancholic— and the imagery is still absolutely beautiful. It feels like Morton has dropped me in an alluring world, but she has also pressed pause. With the remote in her hand, Morton is free to show us around while trapping us in a strange state of being in between. Morton describes “powerlines heavy with starlings”, how she walks “in dactylic hexameter”. Then the loneliness creeps in: “i remember my name. / it leaves a bad taste.” This loneliness reaches its height in the final poignant lines of the poem: “now and then / i turn on all the lights / and pretend somebody’s home”.

Wolf is an absolutely breathtaking collection of poetry that Morton has crafted together with perfection. There is a little bit of Wolf in her and in all of us: the jagged parts of the heart, the strangeness of the night, and ultimately, the sadness. And Morton touches on this all in a heartbreaking but alluring way that kept me enraptured all the way through.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Wolf
by Elizabeth Morton
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN 9780994137821

DWRF 2017: Word Balm, with Glenn Colquhoun, David Galler and Sue Wootton

Available in bookshops nationwide.
pp_glenn_colquhounDWRFIt was a mild autumnal night as a nearly sold-out crowd of 100 or so ventured out to listen to three expert witnesses talk about ‘what literature can do for Medicine’. Glenn Colquhoun (right), David Galler and Sue Wootton all have experience in the worlds of medicine and words, and they were a thoughtful expert panel in consideration of this topic.

The three authors read from their work, with Colquhoun and Wootton sharing exquisite poetry that bridges what seems to be the divide between medicine and the arts, perhaps specifically the art of being human.  The final line of Colquhoun’s shared poem, written for a teenage client of his medical clinic, expressed with tenderness the remodeling or deconstruction that is perhaps needed when we think about illness and ill-health: ‘learn to love the broken bits’.

pp_sue_woottonSue Wootton’s poem ‘Wild’ was a reminder of what is at the heart of our human being: Measure my wild. /Down to my last leaf,/my furled, my desiccated. This deciduousness,/this bloom …’ The sharing of this poem followed a discussion of the clinical nature (sometimes thankfully, sometimes awfully) of medicine and the medical tests and interventions that come from living in a bio-technological era.

pp_david-galler_3_origA lot of the discussion was centred around how to gain/regain human connection in the medical world.  At one stage this dialogue considered the role of touch in the professions, and how touch can be more than just the corporeal laying on of hands, although that, too, was discussed as sometimes fitting. Galler (left) shared his experience of having a serious accident, and the recognition from the staff upon being admitted to hospital. They wanted to talk; he needed the morphine.  To Galler, the sharing of this anecdote expressed the subtle and artistic evaluations medical practitioners need to make in the moments, and how crucial and important these are to a patient’s sense of humanity. The ‘touch’ here could be in assessing with compassion what is most needed in the moment.

Glenn Colquhoun’s metaphor further exploring this, in which he compared his role as doctor with that of a surfer catching waves, was perfect; if you wait too long or take off too soon, you miss the wave.  This, he said, is like the art of listening that occurs in the relationship with a patient; you need to feel out when it is time to talk and time to listen; when it’s time to move forward and to move back.  Here, the ‘touch’ is in the words, or their absence.

I left the discussion wishing, as Colquhoun also mentioned, that the medical world was not so separate from the human, everyday one we exist in. If, as he says, the ‘white walls and white sheets’ could be or become more integrated with our lived experience, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a scary and sometimes isolating place to inhabit, as we all inevitably do, either as patient or family member.

Event attended and reviewed by Lara Liesbeth on behalf of Booksellers NZ

Word Balm – An event at Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival 2017
Featuring Glenn Colquhoun, Sue Wootton and David Gellar 

Programme for the DWRF, running from 9 – 14 May

Lonesome When You Go: A Q & A with Saradha Koirala

cv_lonesome_when_you_goLonesome When You Go is Saradha Koirala’s first YA book, after having released two collections of poetry. We are happy to be able to participate in the Lonesome When You Go blog tour this week, following Kids’ Books NZMs Blair recommends, and Hooked on NZ Books He Ao Ano.

From our review by 14-year-old Isabelle Ralston: “Lonesome When You Go follows the story of a teenage girl named Paige as she faces all sorts of challenges with her bandmates, friends and family. Over the course of the novel Paige discovers that she can’t always control everything in her life. This novel is filled with lots of fun, quirky unique characters, who help Paige discover that she’s never alone even when it seems like no one is there.”

We asked Saradha a few questions about the basis for the book, what comes next, and what her favourite YA titles are at the moment.

pp_saradha_koirala1. When did you begin writing Lonesome When You Go – was there a particular trigger?
I started writing Lonesome ages ago! It was around the end of 2011 when I’d been teaching at a girls’ school for a few years and had ideas about what was perhaps lacking in the library for some of my students. I wanted to have a cool female lead with a strong voice – actually I probably wanted her to be cool and nerdy at the same time, but I’m not quite sure that’s how Paige turned out! I was lucky in 2012 to receive some funding to write my second book of poetry, Tear Water Tea, and used some of that bought time to also make progress on Lonesome When You Go.

2. Was it a book that came quickly? Can you describe some of the challenges writing the book, perhaps around disguising characters who were somewhat real?
None of the characters started off as real people (although they feel very real to me now!) and I realise this I could have explained this to my high school friends and ex-band mates up front, to alleviate their anxieties about me writing this book!

The main challenges for me were around creating a coherent plot. I’m primarily a poet, so I really got stuck into writing “scenes” – little snapshots of imagery and emotion – and struggled to tie these together into a story. I got some help from an awesome writing group, but the structure and story arc did not come easily at all.

Another challenge was time. I started teaching full time again about halfway through 2012, but dedicated my summer to working on Lonesome. It really was quite a long process of writing – mostly for a few hours on Monday evenings once school went back – and I put the whole manuscript away for about sixth months before I dared look at it again and then crafted it into something I felt okay about sending to a publisher.

3. You also experienced having a band in Rockquest as a teen: what was that like? Did you make it to finals? Are the winners still around now? (did you go to their concerts and boo?)
It was completely amazing to be part of Rockquest ’96! 1996 remains one of may favourite ever years for my own memories, but also what an incredible time for rock music! (I go on this rant often.)

Our band formed just for that year and we had some really fun and messy times rehearsing. My brother was the lead guitarist, his best friend on vocals and my boyfriend of the time was the drummer! As you can imagine it was fraught with love, arguments and shifting allegiances. We made it to the regional finals in Nelson and I vividly remember our performance in front of a mind-blowingly huge crowd (although some of that memory is now mixed with Paige’s fictional experience!) but remember little else from the night. I have no idea who won, but they’re probably incredibly wealthy and famous now.

4. What are you in the midst of now? How do you balance writing poetry with writing YA?
Last year I completed a third poetry collection and another YA novel. With time and space this one came much more easily to me. Now I’m busy trying to get some of the poems out into the world and am working on a third YA novel (1996 features heavily) that is somewhat more challenging to write than the first two. It’s a bit unwieldy at the moment, but I’m really enjoying trying out different styles and structures.

I still find writing poetry comes a bit more naturally to me and I have to really make a concerted effort to focus on writing fiction. Not that it’s a chore – I completely love it and I feel incredibly lucky to have time to dedicate to writing at the moment – but it takes plotting and planning and there are more rules and expectations when writing fiction, I find.

5. What are your favourite current YA books set in high schools?
People keep asking me variations on this question and I find my answers keep changing! Probably because there are so many favourites and so many great YA books to choose from, so I’ll just take it as an opportunity to mention some more awesome YA books!

In terms of books set in high schools, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky rates very highly for me. I also think John Green and David Levithan capture the high school vibe really well – Paper Towns in particular has some nice quirky schooly moments. I grew up with a rather Americanised version of high school life from movies and books, which really wasn’t anything like my experience at all. When Michael Met Mina, by Randa Abdel-Fattah feels like a very real and authentic high school story (especially for me now living in Australia) and Abdel-Fattah always does a great job of exploring issues that should definitely be being discussed among young people in the classrooms and corridors of high school.

Thank you Saradha: tomorrow sees My Best Friends are Books take on the tour, courtesy of Zac McCallum.

Lonesome When  You Go
by Saradha Koirala
Published by Makaro Press
ISBN  9780994123749