Book Review: Coming to it, by Sam Hunt

Available from bookshops nationwide.

cv_coming_to_it.jpgComing To It is a collection of selected poems from throughout Sam Hunt’s career (though it also includes many new poems). To review a poet who’s been working for over 50 years, who’s so well known, who’s been recognised by the Prime Minister and the Queen is a funny thing. So much is already established. Most reviews of it so far have been as much reviews of the man − his touring, his drinking, his remote eccentric lifestyle. They become reviews of Hunt’s contribution to New Zealand literature and identity.

But I’m not able to write a review like that. So let’s put it all − the man, the history, the career − to one side and look only at the poems which are in turns clever, lovely, funny, questioning and, the smallest of handfuls, out of step with the times.

Hunt is thought of as a poet whose lines aim to reflect natural speech yet they are full of rhyme and craft; it is not everyone who can overhear a conversation in a pub and turn it into a poem.

Most of the poems in the collection are grounded in Aotearoa − in the natural and manmade paths in Rangitikei; in the choppy waters of Cook Strait; in the salt of tidal rivers in Oterei and Kaipara. They are proudly focused on our communities, our place and the travels of the poet throughout it. The poem Notes from a journey is an example where the towns, the waters and the people all embody Hunt’s pride in this country.

He returns throughout the poems to those he loves − his mother, father and brothers; his sons. These are in turn touching and enchanting. In ‘No bells’ for example, the loss of his mother on the same night as the bamboo windbells on his verandah break are tied together to portray an irreparable sudden silencing. In the last poem, Brothers (which is perfectly placed) we find Hunt in the gaps, the white space around his brothers.

His poems about his lovers, and his descriptions of women generally, generate less delight for me. Women who love him in the poems are expected to accept that he will never be completely available to them; to be with him is to accept a level of loneliness. I find this especially difficult, this ‘arm’s reach’ attitude, from a poet and performer who treasures a deep connection with his audiences. While he is charming spectators, those who most deserve his attention are, like the partner in the poem My white ship, expected to accept:

The ethic of my love
For you remains that I
Am a lone sailor of
The night; captain of my
White ship: and though you be
A good day’s mate, your fight’s
Too weak to rise with me…

In another poem a desirable woman is compared to an unbroken horse; in another a woman’s domestic violence scars are mused over but hey, despite that black eye she is still a ‘sort of mystic hooker’. I wish these poem, and the rest of the poems in the collection, were labelled with a first publication date. Rightly or wrongly, it matters to me whether this was a view from decades ago or from today.

Oh dear, I haven’t managed to review just the poetry have I? I have, like most other reviewers of Coming To It, come back to Hunt himself. And perhaps that was inevitable, because Hunt has always said his subject is his experience and this opening up of a New Zealand life for decade after decade is the ultimate gift his poetry has given us.

Reviewed by Libby Kirby-McLeod

Coming to it
by Sam Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503802

WORD Christchurch: Fast Burning Women – Selina Tusitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia

Fast Burning Women
featuring Selina Tusitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia

Selina Tusitala Marsh’s list of accomplishments needs a fair amount of time allocated to it’s recitation. Marsh is no layabout, and as her friend Tusiata Avia says after introducing her, ‘That CV is from earlier this year so you probably have to add about ten more things to it.’ tusiata selina.JPG

The focus of this session was on the juggling required of a woman in Selina’s position: Poet Laureate, lecturer and researcher, mother, runner, Writers in Schools ambassador, traveller, friend, wife, aunty….the list goes on. How does one keep so many plates spinning? How to stay a multi-tasking fast-burning woman without becoming a burnt out woman?

The pairing of Avia and Marsh meant we got a personal insight into just how Marsh is able to keep going. The two are friends, very similar in lifestyles and values, perfectionists who push themselves hard. Their closeness was evident in the easy manner in which they joked with each other, while championing and advocating for each other at the same time.

Avia opened up about her own story of burn out that saw her bedridden for 18 months. Incredibly, on the days she was able to get out of bed, she would still force herself to work. It wasn’t until the exhaustion started affecting her mentally and emotionally that she started turning down work. But how does someone get to this stage? A statement by Jesse Jackson that resonated with Marsh goes some way to explaining: ‘If you want to succeed as a person of colour you have to be excellent all the time.’ Avia points out that women of colour need to be doubly excellent.

And so how does Marsh not burn out? What tools and tips does she have for those of us who feel the mother guilt, who battle perfectionism, who are working under the weight of the communities we represent? Who does she look to for inspiration? Her answer came in the form of Oprah Winfrey’s book What I Know For Sure. As Marsh read it she realised what was missing from her own life, in comparison to Oprah, was a trusted friend, a sister to call on, and most importantly, a soundboard. Someone who got it. ‘I was Oprah without a Gayle.’ So Marsh and Avia embarked on what they call their earbud relationship. One where they call each other almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and check in, providing advice and counsel.

With Avia at the end of the telephone, Marsh is able to carry the tokotoko of the Poet Laureate wherever it takes her. She is able to ask for what she needs. She is able to share her load. Marsh noted: ‘When I was able to redefine what support means to me and my life, that’s when I found support.’

Both Marsh and Avia continue to write and create through the many challenges they face. An audience member asked Avia how her illness had affected her writing and she begins with coyness, saying she hasn’t written much. ‘That’s not true,’ Marsh corrects her. She knows Avia is working on a new book, and you can see the pride she has in her friend, Shine Theory in action. Marsh is working on a graphic novel (‘I’ve always doodled; Spike Milligan is my idol.’). She wants to make poetry accessible to all communities.

Leaving the session my friend remarked that most New Zealanders don’t know how lucky we are to have Selina Tusitala Marsh as our Poet Laureate. Everyone who attended Fast Burning Women knows, and we also know how lucky Marsh is to have Tusiata Avia at the end of the phone line, spurring her on.

Reviewed by Gem Wilder

Tusiata Avia will appear in two more events during WORD Christchurch 2018: 

Black Marks on the White Page: A Roundtable
Sonya Renee Taylor: The Body is not an Apology

Book Review: XYZ of Happiness, by Mary McCallum

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_xyz_of_happinessThe title of Mary McCallum’s poetry collection, XYZ of Happiness, explains just what this book is about: those feelings of happiness that colour our lives. Each letter of the alphabet is used as the first letter of each poem. The first poem is titled, After reading Auden, the second, Bee story, the third, C, and on the poems go in alphabetical order until the final piece, Zambia.

The poem After Reading Auden won the Caselberg International Poetry Prize and it’s a wonderful start to the sequence. Happiness here is found in the midst of nature. McCallum describes the force

of the river’s intimacy, its deep
soundless need—not sour,
not shiftless, but lucid, expressive,
sweet.

It seems the river is something full of power and emotion, yet still carries a softness. She goes on to describe the sensation of being in the river and falling into all that beauty:

we, the girls
and I, dissolving

And we dissolve with her into the bliss of the moment.

The poem Things they don’t tell you on Food TV was one of my favourites in the collection. In the piece, McCallum shows how food is a great conjurer of happy memories. McCallum talks about the

sun blooming in a bowl, and spooning
yoghurt and honey into a hungry mouth
on whitewashed steps with a turquoise sea

and a donkey crowing and someone calling
kalimera into the bleaching light is just like
scooping up the sun and eating it.

As I read the poem, I was instantly in Greece. The things that McCallum highlights in this poem are beautiful moments that I remember from my time there too. The combination of yoghurt and honey is a wonderful image, and her description of eating the sun and swallowing up that light perfectly describes how heart-warming such a scene can to be. As McCallum states, these memories are things that they don’t tell you on Food TV. They are personal stories.

The danger of writing with such a deep focus on happiness is that it can seem excessive and overdone. Some poems tipped a little to this side. In her poem Just Happiness, McCallum talks about a shop selling ‘Happiness Bowls’ and the image feels overwrought.

But for the most part, McCallum presents happiness in a subtle way. There are poems about when happiness is missing too, and when it’s something that’s being searched for. In the poem C, McCallum talks about a tender subject. The second part of the piece is titled 2. CHEMOTHERAPY. Here, she describes a body

young enough to smell of milk
in the morning, one the mother must
return to sit beside and stand over

McCallum shows a scene of vulnerability and presents the protection that the mother brings. Part of this section’s title is in bold for a reason. Chemotherapy, mother. And from here, McCallum highlights a great little wordplay within the word:

How could we not see it? Listen closely
now for the rest, say the word with soft
mouth lest you miss them: first and last
and barely there, but holding mother like
ribs, the key to (almost) happy.

It leaves you rolling the word chemotherapy in your mouth. She’s right, the mother is always there. Trying to hold things together like ribs, trying to create safe spaces of contentment. Complex poems that explore the different kinds of satisfaction we can feel and create, like this one, gave a true depth to the collection beyond simple bliss.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

XYZ of Happiness
by Mary McCallum
Published by Mākaro Press
ISBN 9780995109223

Book Review: Luminescent, by Nina Powles

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_luminescentI’ve been following Nina Powles’ work since 2014, when her first book Girls of The Drift was published by Seraph Press. She produced the zine (auto)biography of a ghost the following year.

Poems from these works have gone on to form part of the unique collection that is Luminescent. It is an unusual and striking thing – not just one book, but a series of five presented together in a single folder. The Seraph website says they’re designed to be read in any order.

The first time I opened the book, (Auto)biography and Her And The Flames were last, which made sense to me these felt like earlier work chronologically. I began with The Glowing Space Between The Stars.

One of the things I find interesting about Nina’s work is that it draws on extensive research, and while she touches on personal experience, it’s not confessional, at least not in an obvious way. Don’t get me wrong, I love confessional; I’m all over reading other people’s doomed love affairs and existential angst and identity crises.

But with Nina, there’s a steady self-assurance, and while she may be doing some exploration of her own personhood, it’s mostly done through the lens of the lives of others. This confidence and thoughtful handling of subject sets her apart from some of her cohort and is one of the things that drew me to her work four years ago.

Each book finds its inspiration in the life of a woman from New Zealand history. Cosmologist Beatrice Tinsley gives light to The Glowing Space Between the Stars. Betty Guard, reportedly the earliest Pakeha woman settler in the South Island, provides anchor in Whale Fall, and dancer Phillis Porter, who died after her dress caught on fire in Wellington’s Opera House, becomes Her and The Flames.

I don’t know if I should make a metaphor
Out of everything that astonishes me

So begins Astonishing objects, in The Glowing Space Between The Stars. That’s probably something most poets have asked themselves, but Nina describes how there were eight spiders inside the Columbia space shuttle that burnt up in 2003. How one of the crew had observed electric currents shooting up from lightning clouds, just days before the accident.

What are we supposed to do,
knowing that all this happened? …

I have collected up so many astonishing objects
that I have nowhere to put them down.

Of course, in Luminescent she has found a receptacle for these objects – and not just that, but a vehicle for telling their stories.

These stories and her telling have a unique place, descriptive as they are of New Zealand history.

In Whale Fall, she imagines herself into the life of a whaler’s wife. The titular poem is haunting, describing what happens when a dead whale drifts to the sea floor, becoming an ecosystem for other organisms.

4.
The place where whales fall is never touched by sunlight.
… the darkness is only sparsely interrupted
by bursts of bioluminescent light.
You can see them
when you shut your eyes.

Sunflowers explores the author’s relationship with Katherine Mansfield, moving through responses to her work, to portraits of her, to talks about her. An erasure poem, Lucid Dream, uses a section of Mansfield’s journal from 1919. This sort of poem shows a particular kind of skill I don’t see many people master. It is difficult to accurately reproduce in text, but assume ellipses to be the erased sections.

…. Cold….
….dream…
….And suddenly I felt
…like glass.
Long…. shiver,…

….a sense of floating….
…..still…. slowly
….I died.
. Time….
….was shaken
out of me. ….
I…
…see… sun… and… violets-

In Her And The Flames, Nina imagines herself into the life and death of ill-fated dancer Phyllis Porter. The poem The echo captures a moment, perhaps the one before she died, perhaps one that keeps her alive.

There is a moment
inside of the echo
of the last note
when she holds
herself en pointe
…. so
still as if she
is no longer
a living breathing
girl but a spirit
… caught
in the space between
the inhale
and the exhale…

In a similar theme, (Auto)biography of a Ghost imagines the life and tragic end of the woman reported to haunt a belltower in Nina’s old high school. The ghost in love describes how she fell to her death, rushing to meet the husband she thought was returning home.

There is nothing in the story
about how all her breath rushed from her body
when her foot missed a step; …
nothing about the moment when the air
that held her skin apart from his
collapsed and she was
weightless.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Luminescent
by Nina Powles
Published by Seraph Press
ISBN 9780994134554

Book Review: Poūkahangatus, by Tayi Tibble

Available in good bookshops nationwide. 

poukuhangatusTayi has done some stunning work (in what is her first collection of poetry) that is at once personal and bodily at the same time as being an astute observation of gender and race politics in New Zealand. She grapples with the colonised body while paying tribute to her whānau and seeking to make contact with her tūpuna through the fog that colonising forces have placed on our vision.

This book speaks to me in an intensely personal way, as a Māori person trying to navigate both my own femininity and identity as a colonised subject. The collection starts with a lyric essay the titular ‘Poūkahangatus’ (a transliteration of Pocahontas); a bold move which showcases the multiplicities on offer here. Tayi blends Greek mythology with pop culture and Māori activism as well as a love letter to her sister. In this essay Tayi rewrites the damaging orientalist narrative of Pocahontas. One of the ways she does this is by utilizing the figure of Medusa; instead of being a threatening monster Medusa is a ‘master carver, engraving her existence in bone forever. Anything else said about her is a rumour and a violent appropriation,’ Medusa is an indigenous woman in this poem, often misunderstood, often responded to with violence but possessing her own skills and power.

My favourite moment in this book is a moment that highlights the contradictions that we as Māori exist in, which is done in such a succinct way within the poem Shame;

the winz lady who smiles
has a sign in her office that says
he aha te mea nui o te ao
he tangata, he tangata, he tangata

but she says the most important thing
in the world
is getting back into the workforce

Throughout this poem no name is given a capital letter from helen clark to papatūānuku, there is a flattening at work here that draws everything together under its title. These are the shames big and small that bind us.

There is a commitment to show the dark corners of this country: the poem Long White Clouds’ is another example of this. It is a prose poem of sorts where thoughts are cut short by slashes; ‘all anyone ever does around here / is grow weed and stare / into burnt out houses / into the rabbit hole / into the cards’. The start of the poem seems humourous before it twists on the slash. The poem keeps up this momentum until it ends with a “dive”. The singular section plummets the whole mass into the poem that waits for it on the next page which mirrors it in terms of formatting.

LBD is another dark poem which approaches sexuality and race. As with Long White Clouds there is an undeniable rhythm to the piece; ‘I want to dissolve / into the night /it fits / tight and acidic / like a womb / the Parisian catacombs / tombs / of bland white skulls’. Tayi’s sense of rhythm, informed by spoken word and modern hip hop, sets fire to the page.

The poem Identity Politics a piece you can find in the New Zealand edition of POETRY Magazine works so well at the tail end of this collection. I highly recommend just going and reading the piece because its brilliance speaks for itself, but here is a snippet from the start of the poem;

I buy a Mana Party T-shirt from AliExpress.
$9.99 free shipping via standard post.
Estimated arrival 14–31 working days.
Tracking unavailable via DSL. Asian size XXL.
I wear it as a dress with thigh-high vinyl boots
and fishnets. I post a picture to Instagram.
Am I navigating correctly? Tell me,
which stars were my ancestors looking at?

‘Am I navigating correctly?’ this is a question that follows me daily, one I am yet to have an answer to, but this book gives me comfort in uncertainty as it exists so bravely in a liminal space. It is okay not to have the answers sometimes.

The collection ends with a birth, a birth of a baby named ‘Hawaiki / like the paradise’. Tayi returns us to a precolonial garden or a decolonized space where we can imagine who are to be as who we once were;

where we were 
before we came here
by waka, or whale, or perhaps

that was where we were
before there was anything at all 

where we meant something

Reviewed by Essa Ranapiri

Poūkahangatus
by Tayi Tibble
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561926

 

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