Book Review: Are Friends Electric? by Helen Heath

Available in bookshops nationwide. Are Friends Electric is launched at Te Auaha on Thursday 14th June from 5.30 – 7.30pm, with Helen in conversation with Maria McMillan. 

are_friends_electric.jpgI know, I know: don’t judge a book by its cover. But when they’re as hauntingly beautiful as this one, it’d be remiss of me not to acknowledge it. It is tonally perfect for the poems that follow.

Reading this, Helen Heath’s second collection, was easy. And I don’t mean to intimate that it’s simple, it is not. It’s more a sense that Heath has done the work so you don’t have to. She’s already cut the flesh from the bone. It’s up to you how you eat it.

She has the sort of surefooted style that makes it seem effortless – which is of course a clear indication that it has not been.

For something that marries science with love and grief, the work is never too cold, too clever, too clichéd, or too dark. Instead it weaves a story of questions. What does motherhood mean? Fatherhood? Personhood? What does it mean to create (a) life, and to lose it? Can we ever hope to recall what mortality claims from us?

The title of Part One, ‘Are friends electric?’ references the Gary Numan lyric – ‘You know I hate to ask… Only mine’s broke down / and now I’ve no one to love.’

That sets a pretty strong scene.

One of the things I found refreshing about the first half of the book was Heath’s use of footnotes, many describing a poem as found or remixed. She willingly ‘shows her workings’ – instead of jealously guarding her process, she proactively answers that ridiculous question; ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

The very first poem – Reproach – was my favourite of this section. Its footnote explains that it includes text from Plato’s Phaedrus, a dialogue between Phaedrus and Socrates on the invention of writing.

You. Poet. You’re hungry to be read
but your words just create forgetfulness.
This trust in the written strips memory
and selves. You aid only reminiscence
and a false truth…

The second half of the book, Reprogramming the heart, begins with another scene-setting epigraph, this one from Arthur C. Clarke.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic.

Reading this half of the book I couldn’t help but to think to myself, ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’ not so much a conjuring of the novel as a kneejerk neural leap to those particular words and that particular question.

Heath is asking her own questions. Can and should androids be created to love humans? Do we love or despise them? Is it ever possible for them to fully replace us?

This sense of both philosophical and scientific enquiry is mixed with social commentary and creates a backdrop for the real impact of the poems; in the exploration of parenthood, grief and loss.

The poem In this machine is a good example of these things pooling together:

This small object, held in his hand daily, has taken him
inside it. A dead man’s phone still receives text messages, still
has his favourite playlist to listen to. Don’t reply to messages,
don’t accidentally like a Facebook post using his phone. His
spirit is in this machine. His emails, his apps, his photos.
These are his mouth, his mind, his eyes. The screen he ran
his fingers over.

Just as I was finishing the book, Heath made a public post on Facebook. ‘I created a playlist for my book,’ she said. ‘It will be interesting to see if people make connections between the songs and poems. Some are more obvious than others! Some are just more of a mood.’ The eclectic list included Aqua’s Barbie Girl, Daft Punk, Gary Numan (of course), and Flight of The Conchords’ Robots.

I was happy to be transported by Heath, even into places that made me uncomfortable (see: Uncanny Valley), or sad. And the book’s final poem, while undoubtedly sad, ends on a note of hope.

Something inside me that
was once irretrievably small
is expanding.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Are Friends Electric?
by Helen Heath
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561902

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Book Review: Failed Love Poems, by Joan Fleming

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_failed_love_poemsI remember wanting a copy of this book when it came out in 2015 and, being impoverished, I made a hopeful instruction to my future self. To Buy, it said. I Need This.
I discovered that note a couple of weeks ago and wondered why on earth I hadn’t done it before.

The book is split in thirds. After the poem Past Me’s emphatic instruction, I was surprised to find I didn’t really engage with the first section. It didn’t match the recollection I had of Fleming’s work, but I found what I was looking for in the second section; each poem as one paragraph with no line breaks and sometimes little punctuation. It was this semi-breathless narrative that hooked me then, and I found the same now. It is interesting to see how it sits as part of the collection, from the poems in the first section, which play quite extensively with space and breaks, to these in the middle which condense and run-together and tumble but should be read at no faster pace, and then to a mixture of the two in the final third.

Fleming has a distinct talent not only at capturing character, but in unearthing and giving face to the feelings that occur at different and difficult stages of love and heartbreak, often through attention to the finest or commonest of details – a sagging couch where lovers meet in the middle, reheated meals, a small flat, ‘almost-folded’ clothes. For example, in 3. LEAVING.

….He always brought home soup.
…They had really tried. Let’s really try, she said.
…People here are the worst kind of hungry, he said
…Soup again, cold and welcome.
…And they loved each other and they loved each other and they loved each other, and they microwaved each other’s meal.

With many of these poems it is near impossible to pick out one or two lines – as with the final one in part two, 6. TRANSLATIONS, which is painfully beautiful. A relayed conversation between the narrator and an other – perhaps the therapist named in the first line, perhaps only themselves – it describes, to me, the vulnerability of falling in love, of having fallen, of what is left afterwards.

….(how intolerable is your solitude) I’ve talked it through so many times it’s like it doesn’t belong to me anymore and still it’s not gone (without his eyes on you are you still real is the question)

We break there to move to part 3, which is an interesting choice, as the first poem in this next section, First Loss, also feels like heartbreak.

… Sometimes,
you keep on losing someone even after they’ve left.

And this standout image:

your face in tender disintegration

I think it takes particular skill to create poetry in blocks of text. It can be easy to write something with arbitrary line breaks and call it a poem, but to write a full page of text – as Fleming has done with the poem Postcard with the dark in it – and have every line be just as important and beautiful as the last, takes a different level of craftsmanship. The scene of a midnight swim, the feeling of sadness –

…hurrying the careful stumble, faster to the shock. …
And the sea so cold, fuck, nothing you could help, though I loved you for something like helping, or I thought I did, as we staggered out while the phosphorescence curled its light back into itself like it didn’t exist without some bodies there to break it…

There are particular images that caught me all through the final poems, but none so much as in the second part of the poem The life of the body, which is a very good example and summation of the tender expression of everyday grief that is present throughout the book. This is one I will revisit for many years to come.

Goodbye is odd-sized and no
one came and let their fingers get caught
in my borrowed zip

(Note: I have done my best to indicate spacing and where I have selected lines from different parts of poems with ellipses. This unfortunately doesn’t convey the presentation or feeling of the full poem. Please use this as you own excuse to buy the book! I hope the author will excuse me).

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Failed Love Poems

by Joan Fleming
Published by VUP
ISBN 9780864739896

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 Facts, by Therese Lloyd

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_facts.jpg

When I save these words I’m reminded
this product is licensed to you.
(‘Light and Things,’ after Bill Culbert)

Therese Lloyd’s poems in The Facts are open about where their origins are owed. While the word processor in the poem Light and Things is owned by the narrator’s departing husband, these poems also incorporate a range of artists who inspire and influence the writing. This book is the product of Lloyd’s IIML doctoral thesis on the role of ekphrasis (responding to artwork via poetry) in the work of Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson.

The grand experiment of The Facts is purposeful and beguiling, as Lloyd investigates the role of artistic influence by immersing herself in the experience of being-influenced. The inability of these poems to exist in isolation from the art inextricably interwoven with Lloyd’s life is a convincing conceptual framework, exploring the way poems and other art ‘echo and re-echo against each other’ (as she quotes Jack Spicer). However, getting the best from this book is dependent on a reader’s existing knowledge of art and Anne Carson – or our preparedness to flip between the printed poems and Google search.

Some readers will find the ekphrastic aspect of The Facts delightful. Frequent credits to artists (like Bill Culbert and Graham Fletcher, musicians like Beck and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and Carson) offer an element of discovery by inviting readers to cross-reference to other texts. The way the lives and meanings of artworks spill over or drench through each other is an aspect of the book that enriches the subject matter of the individual poems, as the characters within collide and drift apart – bruising, staining, offering, conquering, relinquishing.  Part of the fun in the ekphrastic works about visual art is the way the ‘original’ artworks are themselves newly enlivened by Lloyd’s lyric reinvention. I was especially captivated by the inner worlds Lloyd lends to Edward Hopper’s painted women. She inhabits their restless stillness, their ambivalence between settling down or abruptly rising, without ever forcing a narrative or solution upon them.

The poems in this collection are clear-eyed and intense, arranged in three subject-categories of time, desire, and absence. The titular poem The Facts is a crisp, considered, punch-in-the-gut telling of a toxic love affair that doubles as a meditation on the science-cum-wizardry of writing truth from memory. I love these lines on the paradox of writing “the facts” of memoir, despite the amorphous nature of memory and perspective:

To write about us in the past tense forces form
on the formless, parentheses on the eternal. A neat, parabolic air settles and makeshift wisdom
takes the place of the real. Yet here I am
dedicating lines to the short glitch of us. I want to complete
this thought. I want this thought to end.
(The Facts)

Poems like By Sunday and Rebound are also razor-sharp stand-alone poems, self-contained in deceptively stark images; a refused grapefruit and obsolete kettle. Through this book Lloyd explores rejections of all magnitudes – received with rage; confusion; grace. Poems like Rebound deftly work through those haunting everyday questions (why repair when you can replace?) that determine relationships with domestic appliances and with people.

Between the failing marriage, the toxic ex, and the rotating cast of inspirational artists, Lloyd’s constant companion throughout this book is Anne Carson. ‘What happens when a poet (you or me, your preference)              decides to spend three years of their grown-up life side by side, arm           in arm with another poet?’

There’s risk of reader frustration in framing the book so explicitly around another writer’s work. It could be intimidating to readers who may not want to do a PhD’s worth of study to familiarise themselves with the ‘original’ text, and also position the new work as eternally secondary to its predecessor; always after Anne Carson. The drawing-in of the conceptual and creative work of other artists in attempts to understand life through this work does demonstrate the value of art as a means to guide one’s perception, in current experience or hindsight. Lloyd says she, like Carson, ‘accrues tools along the way to help in her investigations usually dead writers and painters, their wisdom trapped so they can never create anything new, or, more crucially, defend themselves.’

Whether Lloyd’s explicit acknowledgement and interrogation of influence is a success or a weakness of the book, is likely dependent on the reader. The framing of The Facts around the concepts in Lloyd’s doctoral thesis lends an intellectual experiment that is inevitably more rewarding if you’re interested in meta-analysis and are familiar with Anne Carson’s work. Carson’s The Glass Essay is an ideal starting point for new readers, especially if you enjoy this book, which is possible even without encyclopaedic knowledge of Carson, as long as one doesn’t mind feeling out of their depth in reference.

Occasionally, I found myself wishing Lloyd’s raw tellings of thwarted desire depended less on Carson’s collapsing triangle concept so I could feel less like a guilty student who hadn’t done all her homework and could more fully immerse myself in the world of the poems, to experience rather than intellectualise the addictiveness of yearning. But as an academic-ish type myself I often make the argument that intellectualising is a way of experiencing. Tripping up on references which at first mystified me, then seeking out their origin, has made re-reads of this book all the richer. Besides, the poems in this collection – compassionate but unflinching – are rewarding even if you don’t want to be assigned extra reading.

Reviewed by Rebecca Hawkes

The Facts
by Therese Lloyd
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561810

Book Review: Hoard, by Fleur Adcock

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hoardFleur Adcock’s Hoard is a compilation of poems that weren’t included in Adcock’s last two poetry books, The Land Ballot and Glass Wings, because they didn’t suit the theme of these collections. The poems in Hoard instead reflect on Adcock’s own life through a variety of topics.

In Six Typewriters, Adcock uses six typewriters she owns as springboards to different moments in her life. She begins by talking about her ‘father’s reconditioned / German keyboard… with a spiky Gothic ‘o’’. Then she describes ‘Barry Crump’s portable / Empire Corona’, and how it has been slowly rusting away. She ends with a typewriter that her mother gave to her. Adcock claims that this typewriter was so efficient that she didn’t care for computers. Then, with what I would imagine would be a wry smile, Adcock ends the poem declaring that, of computers ‘I shall say nothing’.

This subtle wit is a large part of Adcock’s poetic voice and it carries on throughout the collection. Although Adcock has lived in Britain since 1963, she was born in New Zealand and makes regular visits to New Zealand as well. For this reason, New Zealand features heavily in Adcock’s poetry as a defining feature of her life.

In the poem Fowlds Park, Adcock speaks fondly about her time in this park. She talks about the memories attached to the area and how ‘Everything here matters to someone: / the swings, the coin-in-the-slot barbecue…’ However, Adcock chooses to talk about the bad as well as the good. She also states that the park’s beauty is something short-lived because ‘The bastards will get their hands on it… they will come with their development schemes’. Adcock’s fondness for the park does not mean she is blinded by the fact that it can be ruined, and that other precious green spaces in New Zealand have already been altered.

Adcock’s playful wit also comes to light in Raglan. At the start of the poem, Adcock asks, ‘What do you do in Raglan when it’s raining?’ Well, according to Adcock, you could sit outside the library and use the free Wi-Fi. You could go to the museum but, as Adcock states, ‘when you’ve seen it / you’ve seen it’, and you’ve probably already seen it if you live there. Through this good-humoured tone, Adcock highlights a specifically New Zealand condition: what it’s like to live in a small town like Raglan.

Adcock’s imagery is also particularly vivid, and this shows through her poem The Lipstick. In this piece, Adcock describes a shade of lipstick that is so ‘shudderingly wrong’. She imagines what it will be like when she throws it away and when it ends up in the landfill:

seeping and oozing, leaking fats
through its patiently corroding
armour, wailing invisibly
into the soil with its puce voice.

Fleur Adcock’s hoard of poems cover a wide array of topics, all reflecting on different moments in her life. Although there is no underlying theme, Adcock’s voice threads all these pieces together into a diary of memories.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Hoard 
by Fleur Adcock
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561674

 

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: He’s so MASC, by Chris Tse

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

‘This is my blood oath with myself: the only
dead Chinese person I’ll write about from now on
is me.’

cv_hes_so_mascSo writes Chris Tse in his poem, Punctum. And this quote is the first thing I find in the blurb of He’s so MASC after flipping over the dazzling cover. If you’re familiar with Tse’s debut poetry collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, which revisited the murder of Cantonese goldminer Joe Kum Yung, then you know how incredibly potent this single sentence is.

Tse’s promise to be personal involves exploring a variety of identities. In doing so, Tse brings visible light onto invisible minorities. In Punctum, he describes a Chinese girl ‘behind the counter being bullied into saying “fried rice”‘. Here, she thinks about her own bleak future; she knows that there is no career progression for her unless she marries her boss’s son.

And what about her children? They could be actors taking on different identities, from a pregnant teen goth to a simple restaurateur. But even as Tse spins out all these possibilities, these are still simply acts. Even if her children do take on new identities, they will never be removed from the race they were born with; race is the first thing that others will see and judge them against accordingly. She knows that when she dies, she’ll be left wondering whether she pushed her children ‘hard enough to never settle / for being the token Asian in a crowd scene’. And when Tse asks, ‘Can you see her?’ at the end of the piece, it is evident that the answer is nothing close to yes. She, like many other minorities, is only a small little dot. A punctum.

All throughout He’s so MASC, Tse plays with this idea of personal identity, and the influence of the identities we carry. In Performance—Part 2, Tse goes through a variety of characters, who are all belittled in some way because of their identity. He starts with ‘CHRIS TSE AS DELETED SCENE’, who tells us that he didn’t have the ‘right look / to play a New Zealander’ even though he sounds like a native speaker. The next character is written in a way that speaks volumes. Tse simply states: ‘CHRIS TSE AS ASIAN HITMAN #1: / (non-speaking part)’.

Tse also delves into the personal in a tender and precious way. In the poem Next year’s colours, Tse ponders why we take photos while travelling, and how our phones end up filling up with photos that once meant something. He portrays the desperation of recording memories when in new places. Another tender poem is Release, which explores the emotions that come with letting go of a lover. The piece is so gentle, even if it’s about heartbreak, and Tse portrays each moment with such clarity. Especially moving is a verse where Tse describes himself going through the motions of the day, and then at last:

returning home to

duvet, sheets and pillows

hastily abandoned

and finally finding the time

to cry.’

In He’s so MASC, Chris Tse takes an oath to explore the personal. As well as exploring the emotions that come with memories and growth, his poems make you reconsider the layers of identity that you hold true. They also make you consider the identities that you appropriate onto others, and the ones that they appropriate onto you.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

He’s so MASC
by Chris Tse
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408879