Book Review: Aboriginal to Nowhere, by Brentley Frazer

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aboriginal_to_nowhere.jpgAboriginal to Nowhere is a love-letter to a world that ultimately rejects its people. It is a celebration of grunge, and a roll call of those things that are lame, cast-off, defunct and unlovable. It is about people divorced from the places they inhabit, and people who are disorientated in their own homes. Like those Talking Heads lyrics, ‘And you may tell yourself / this is not my beautiful house’, its people are bewildered. It also speaks to the profound loneliness ‘of the post-modern dispossessed’, the sort of grubby solitude that finds itself in a throng queuing for the Portaloos.

Frazer’s poems find beauty in the brokenness of things. Like Kintsugi, the Japanese practice of repairing fractured pottery with gold, Frazer conjures rich images from the ‘buckets of colonial rubbish’. While much of his poetry is sprawling and untethered, there are hushed moments:

‘The sky bruised over
slate roofs, the wind
moaning through louvres
leaves brown as coffee
rings.’

Most of his verse has a sort of musical harangue feel to it. The first poetic set, Aboriginal to Nowhere – Song Cycle of the Post Modern Dispossessed, pairs the technological and the ecological, through anxious reflections about man-made worlds and the alienation they can create. Frazer’s characters are watched by CCTVs and crows. They chart a course through a shifting Australia, one where ‘The indigenous goddess exits / stage left’ and people ‘bulldoze dream time for a freeway’. It is a rousing, rambling, and often irreverent, address to the nation. ‘Are you my mother, Australia?’ his speaker asks. The Australia that we find in the poems is more insouciant parent than maternal presence. And yet there are images, beyond the ‘broken hopes’, ‘generational displacement’ and ‘collapsed footpaths’, a sort of nostalgia for an Australia that may never have existed.

Aboriginal to Nowhere explores existential themes. Freewill and determinism wrangle in the cityscape. ‘Man, I didn’t get a choice where my consciousness / landed’. Cultural appropriation is prised open, xenophobia explored. There are questions of meaning in a world where the ‘Eternal Being’ is ‘an angry cynic’. ‘I don’t know what I am doing here’, the speaker exclaims. People depersonalise, aliens in their own skin. ‘Most days I feel like an actor ‘. And in a nod to Plato:

‘You are a piece of nothing,
shadows on the factory wall’

Frazer invites life’s dissonances to the table. Sometimes ‘the music and the lyrics / don’t match the visuals’. He entertains a ‘happy drowning feeling’. In all of this he steps lightly, capering around concepts, toying with the reader’s ability to hold two contrary ideas in mind.

Mostly, though, Aboriginal to Nowhere is about people – all sorts of folk. We meet hipsters and junkies, the mentally ill, beer guzzlers, strippers, rednecks, millennials, academics, immigrants, city slickers and farmers. Frazer’s is a world populated and full of noise, but ultimately nobody’s.

This is a thoughtful and fierce collection. Frazer is a visionary at a time when humanity risks losing touch with its core animality, and the real-world places in which it finds itself.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Aboriginal to Nowhere
by Brentley Frazer
Published by HeadworX
ISBN 9780473365677

Book Review: Lucky Punch, by Simone Kaho

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_lucky_punchFollowers of Simone Kaho’s poetry and spoken word performances on various stages will be delighted and surprised by her debut collection. As a performer, she is vivacious and alluring. Her captivating readings lure you in, captivating you with her tales of extended family foibles, childhood fascinations and modern city romance and heartbreak. At times Simone’s work has a dark undercurrent in the form of vignettes capturing various acts of violence and casual misogyny. Lucky Punch is in fact a string of inter-related vignettes, verging on prose poetry, with some more formal poems interspersed. Each one is short and succinct, requiring the reader to pause before moving to the next one. Set mainly in Waterview, Auckland in the 1980s, it is as much a coming-of-age story, as it is a poetic reflection of a domestic and urban life, through the eyes of a curious child.

The illustrations that grace the monochrome cover are courtesy of a young relative of Simone’s. They depict a child bobbing above the waves; the title submerged and a wide-eyed character navigating this subterranean world in big heels. On the back, we have a man and possibly a woman in freefall. The childish drawings are fitting for the experiences described within the covers, where hidden dangers lurk in the background of fantastical and mundane childhood experiences. The politics of growing up with Tongan culture is touched upon lightly in several poems, such as, Standards, where vegetarian Simone examines the cultural ideas and hypocrisy around meat eating.

…I gave up meat eating at sixteen.
They thought I was crazy in Tonga.

Or there’s, the poem, Here, that touches on the racial attitudes that are present toward the Tongan culture in New Zealand:

An Air New Zealand training manual gets leaked.
It says Tongans are softly spoken but drink the bar dry.
Maybe it’s Tongan thing, like gold teeth.

Some of the poems are peppered with cultural references: Tongan time, the umu, and catching crayfish.

Simone’s fascination with the rhythms and quirks of nature is evident in the collection; something that may surprise fans of her stage work, which has a more urban and edgy mood. Firmly rooted in place, many of the images will be familiar to Aucklanders, such as hanging out at the local creek, running from bulls, pillaging blackberry bushes and taking trips to the local dairy for cheap bags of lollies. We all know the delight of finding a bird’s nest and pulling a disgusted face on discovering a weta for the first time. It’s relatable in a way that brings a smile to the face of the reader.

Expressed at times as a stream of consciousness, we look through the child’s eyes as events unfold and circumstances shift into uneasy young adulthood and all its rude awakenings. Simone holds our hand for the journey and we are right there with her, swinging from branches and experiencing our first kiss, our first sip of peach schnapps and our first gasp of recognition that the reality of growing up can hit you like a badly-thrown punch. When we walk away relatively unscathed, we feel lucky; we might even laugh about it later, or in Simone’s case, metabolise the experience into a poem.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Lucky Punch
by Simone Kaho
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473367510

Book Review: Snark, by David Elliot after Lewis Carroll

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_snarkThe creativity of authors and illustrators has always been a marvel to me, but Snark is a masterpiece that outdoes them all. How does a writer come up with such an amazing idea – to complete the backstory of Lewis Carroll’s best known Jabberwock and Hunting of the Snark poems?

David Elliott is based in Port Chalmers and has written and illustrated many award-winning books. He has also illustrated for others including Joy Cowley, Brian Jacques, Margaret Mahy and Australian John Flanaghan. This experience is evident in Snark which shows both his artistic, creative and linguistic skills.

David Elliot took as his starting point those mysterious poems which use ideas and language in ways new and exciting to the original readers, but still enticing to us today. I grew up reciting, “Twas brillig and the slithy toves..” Here we have the story of the individuals who set out to hunt the Snark. David Elliot has given a wonderful portrait in paint and in words of each of the participants in this ill-fated journey. He takes the information from Carroll’s work and builds it into a fuller portrait. The art work in this book is a joy on every page. By using pencil and wash with a limited palette, he creates images of energy and excitement. The expression on faces, the details of plants and maps, the towering cliffs and the valiant ship are all drawn superbly.

Within the story we are also given the two poems around which the story is based. This allows us to remember the details so important to understanding the tale. The Boots reveals the true story for the first time. What actually happened in the tulgey Wood, who got into trouble with the Jabberwock and what was the Snark? All these will be revealed when you delve between the pages.

Not only do we have the original poems beautifully illustrated anew, the tale of the actual voyage and its conclusion, we also get wonderful explanatory notes at the end. Here we are given the detail that those of a more scientific bent will be seeking. There are actual photos and diagrams, original items and historical facts to support the story. This lends a more serious gravitas to the book which some may be misguided enough to describe as fanciful.

I loved it. It is such a surprise to discover I was not the only reader who was dissatisfied with the abrupt ending to Carroll’s original poems. I am so grateful that the very creative and determined Mr Elliott has provided me with this beautiful book. I will not be sharing it with anyone else over the holiday season. Everyone ought to buy their own copy.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Snark
by David Elliot after Lewis Carroll
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781877578946

Book Review: An echo where you lie, by Polina Kouzminova

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cv_an_echo_where_you_liePolina Kouzminova captures a longing that tugs at the heart in her poetry collection, An echo where you lie. Amongst the tumultuous images of nature—snow, rushing water, glaciers—Kouzminova finds her emotions reflected in all aspects of the world around her.

Kouzminova was born in Siberia and from the age of ten, she was raised in New Zealand. The influence of these two cultures combined shows in her own poetry, where she reflects on all that she has left behind. Distance in both space and time is what defines the collection. Often, Kouzminova finds herself pausing in anticipation for this distance to close, for kilometres to be travelled, for hours to be finished. In the poem Chemistry, she waits silently, for “he will come, bringing / a thousand years’ absence home”. A quiet and unsettling atmosphere blankets the poem, a feeling of hushed and nervous expectation.

The poem Franz Josef Glacier is a soft and delicate piece about departure, and it’s my favourite poem in the collection. There are the familiar motifs come with this kind of scene: the act of letting go, a plane, a distance that only grows and grows. Kouzminova brings something special to these conventional images. She describes continents that “would lay themselves out / on the palm of my hand” and the dazed feeling of waking up and then having to again remember what’s been left behind. Especially heart-wrenching are these simple lines: “Now your softness will be touched / by somebody else; I do not exclude this.” The poem not only captures longing, but also a sense of bittersweet resignation, of having to let go of a warmth that could never quite be all hers.

However, leaving is not all bad. In the poem At the airport, Kouzminova describes the promise that comes with reaching her destination. She affectionately paints an image of her mother cooking in the evening, and thinks of the rest and warmth that she can finally have. Kouzminova captures the scene in one clear and crisp sentence: “These are the reasons to leave late nights / and fly back home”.

The poem If we aren’t careful is like a minimalist love poem, a poem that doesn’t demand much of its lover. Instead, it asks for the simple things: “Promise me / you will always be someone / from afar”. Distance seems to define Kouzminova’s life, and she is left to find echoes of other people in her memories. Even if she can’t see them in the flesh, her memories continue to reflect and bring them to life.

An echo where you lie is simply a stunning collection of work, and I love the way Kouzminova threads images together into crisp scenes. This is only Kouzminova’s debut collection, and I definitely want to read more of her poetry. She perfectly captures the strangeness that comes with moving, of having pieces of home scattered in different places and never quite feeling full. The stories she pulls together aren’t fantastical but everyday. The magic is in how she renders these familiar actions: leaving, arriving, forgetting, remembering. This is what holds up her words and what makes her work so bittersweet yet beautiful.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

An echo where you lie
by Polina Kouzminova
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129949

Book Review: Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe, by James Norcliffe

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cv_dark_days_at_the_oxygen_cafeJames Norcliffe is a well-known name in New Zealand poetry and the soft, subtle writing of his newest collection confirms why this is so. Norcliffe’s restrained and delicate style crafts Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe into an atmospherically cohesive collection that portrays a variety of different lives.

His poem Double Indemnity conveys the quick and suave style of the Film Noir movie the piece is based on. The narrator sounds just like a hard-boiled detective of the genre, a man who describes how his “glass / clinked with the sudden ice in my heart”. Norcliffe portrays Phyllis, the femme fatale, as alluring and dangerous as she is in the movie. The poem focuses on a snapshot of images that make up the heart of this classic black and white movie.

Meanwhile, in James Dean, two characters describe the image of this eponymous and captivating figure; the tilt of a grin, the recurring cigarette. Stories become concrete once written, and through this metaphor, the piece acknowledges the permanence of the past. James Dean will forever be immortalised as the man before his death: young, handsome, and always grappling with danger like that perpetually smoking cigarette.

In another poem, Laika, Norcliffe writes about the first animal to orbit the earth, a stray dog from Moscow named Laika. Norcliffe’s note at the back of the book explains how Laika would have probably died after a few hours in space. And so, Norcliffe renders her brief life in the cosmos into something strange and wonderful but also especially sad. It is a world where human achievement happens at the cost of an animal’s life, a world where “we will keep the cosmos company… as what remains of Laika / falls like incandescent snow”.

The Amnesia Aquarium is an especially beautiful piece. In the depth of the aquarium, snippets of memory are like brief flashes of light that reflect off the scales of fish. The accumulation of this memory becomes a whirlpool of images; Norcliffe poignantly describes them as “nebulae you can barely remember / shining in a familiar sky”, mixing the cosmos into his aquarium of memory.

The scope of well-known figures and those less familiar creates a collection of poems that are fragments of both stories and lives. The final life, a poem titled The death of Seneca, closes off Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe. It portrays the indifference of Seneca who, when ordered to commit suicide, could only go through the motions in a strange, disassociated way, telling his servants to “bring him sharp blades, bring him pomegranates”. Here, Seneca is another character who captures a moment of frailty. This moment is so striking that Seneca has been remembered for thousands of years after his death.

Although death is a common theme for the characters Norcliffe presents, his writing is reassuring in its subtle beauty. Since many of these characters are stuck within concrete events that have already happened, Norcliffe also shows how emotions like longing are timeless. He renders this feeling across multiple stories and lives, each character or creature with their own experience of pleasure and pain.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe  
by James Norcliffe
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560837

Book Review: Salt River Songs, by Sam Hunt

cv_salt river songsWith around 20 poetry books under his belt, well-loved poet Sam Hunt has once again captured readers with his latest collection, Salt River Songs. Although a thin volume, it is no less weighty or full of treasures than previous collections.

Long-time friend, biographer and occasional collaborator, Colin Hogg writes in his generous intro, that Sam doesn’t know what ‘typically New Zealand poetry is’. This topic has no doubt been debated often over the years, but not many people would argue that Sam’s poetry has contributed healthily to a semblance of a poetic vernacular in this nation. He has a reputation for his everyman, lyrical style grounded deeply in the New Zealand soil. His poems have always emerged from the fertile country of his birth. This collection is no different.

We see through Sam’s eyes from a spot on the verandah or the wharf. While both platforms bring to mind images of ageing, they are spots we all know; as familiar as the vantage of a pohutukawa branch or a deck chair under a tent awning; never far from salty waters. They are themselves etched with the salty wind of family, love and loss; as are these poems.

The title refers to the five salt rivers of the Kaipara Harbour, including Arapaoa, where Sam lives. The title poem is also divided into five sections, each including the leitmotif ‘on Kaipara time’. You can almost feel the salt air in this work, with its allusion to sea shanties and maritime folk songs. It touches on the settler history and nature of time and tide in love and grief. It’s a short cycle; not quite melancholic, but rather wistful. The line ‘it’s a muddy creek for me’ is repeated and closes the piece. It shows Sam’s love of uninhibited nature and a slower pace, far from the sanitised and often frantic urban life in a metropolis, such as Auckland.

Speaking of sanitisation, Hogg recalls Sam’s mum chastising him for using too many F words in his poetry, after accompanying him on tour. There’s a few F-Bombs in this collection for the reader to help us recognise the larrikan performance poet we all know and love. The loveable maverick with his collar up and buttons undone still wanders through these poems, from the bed hair profile pic, to the Hone Tuwhare-style sex poems. But Sam is never crude; cheeky perhaps, but always endearing.

Yes, as Hogg points out, this collection does hold a grief, this through-line of death and loss; the salt rivers themselves a perfect metaphor for tears shed, a poet well-seasoned by the weather of life. (We live close to death, old mate…without even knowing it.) But it never flounders into sentimental territory. It is simply a poet acknowledging the fragility of things: the world [is] held together by cobwebs. But Sam’s philosophy toward the whole thing is summed up in the poem Piping The Fife. Musing on the death of someone he didn’t feel that warmly towards, he writes:
We each get on with our life
as well as we can. For me
I lie low, piping the fife.

He’s committed to the music of life and what plays out, keeping out of trouble. So to quote Sam, ‘I hope he keeps singing that song’ for many years to come.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Salt River Songs
by Sam Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503031

Book Review: Exits and Entrances, by Barry Southam

Available in selected bookshops.

cv_exits_and_entrancesExits and Entrances is a collection of both prose and poetry that describes characters at different points of their lives. Some of these figures are closer to the edge of certain exits and entrances, while others watch these borders being crossed in front of them.

Southam’s poetry is short and sweet, describing images that hint at lives beyond what can be seen. The poem Footpath Conundrum describes a torn photo as a ‘quartet of colour’. Lost without an owner, the photo is a fracture that ‘remains unanswered’; even the smallest things like a photo on the footpath carry their own resonances. His poetry also hints at change that is yet to occur; the poem Artist’s Studio is a piece that works in this way. It describes paint as’lifeblood’ for an unnamed character that works in the studio. These splashes of colour will soon become part of another canvas that is yet to be mounted, and therefore another piece of art. Without even describing the artist himself, a rich landscape is instead formed through the setting.

Southam’s pieces of prose also broke up the poetry nicely. Made In Heaven describes a rushed marriage through a cheeky main character who suggests, ‘If war breaks out, I’m going to maintain the Switzerland position,’ when drama seems imminent. Playing upon the setting of a wedding gone wrong, Southam brings just the right amount of absurdity to explore the complexity of human emotions that lead to such decisions. Sunday Crossroads is another piece of prose that looks at human nature, this time in the setting of a bush walk; it explores the tugs between pride and fear, the unknown and the safety of home. It is only the good sense of one of the figures that gets the characters out of the bush before it gets too dark. Needing to be reassured but unable to find it in the people around him, another character repeats “We’re okay now… We’re okay now” to himself like a mantra.

However, many of these prose characters fell flat, especially against the richness of the poetic language that surrounded it. A few of the stories were told through the perspective of characters who were passive figures that observed others undergoing change, rather than actively changing themselves. For this reason, I found myself wanting to know more about characters that weren’t focalised through the narrative, causing the actual main characters pale in comparison.

Nevertheless, Southam ends the collection sweetly with a section titled Two Memoirs. The poem Walking With Jim is a casual conversation that portrays the easiness between two characters while they mull over their history. Meanwhile, the poem Another Town, Another Time focuses on change in relation to place, describing the small town of Kawhia, before inevitably moving on to bigger cities.

The final poem, On Daffodil Day, is a pensive piece that describes a man in a hospital cancer department, surrounded by “terminal decisions”. In this way, the collection ends on an exit, but the former poems reflecting on change makes it clear that there were many entrances and exits along the way that lead to this final departure.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Exits and Entrances
by Barry Southam
Published by Copy Press
ISBN 9780994129598