Book Review: How to take off your clothes, by Hadassah Grace

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_how_to_take_off_your_clothesGrace’s debut collection is a feminist treatise and a raw exploration. It feels like the atmosphere at a first-year university party where everyone pre-gamed Chardon and there’s that one girl with the legs who always gets naked. It’s both self-conscious, testing its own edges, and confident in its skin. It doesn’t need you to like it because it likes itself, but it wants to be seen. It yells.

It is without artifice, but not without intention and finesse.

The opening inscription points out that wide margins were left deliberately, ‘to write down any thoughts these poems might inspire, to plot your revolution, or improve them by writing your own poetry.’

That’s almost sacrilegious (the writing in books, not the plotting, which is entirely justified) and the invite shows an openness, a willingness to be a conversation starter – which this book absolutely will be.

The intersection of sex and poetry was not invented with Hera Lindsay Bird’s poem Keats is dead so fuck me from behind, or Tayi Tibble’s Poukahangatus, but they were certainly part of a rekindling in local literature. Grace’s style is as bawdy for our times as Shakespeare was for his. A uniquely New Zealand text, it traverses sex, the sex industry, relationships, identity, and politics, tripping from Christchurch to Wellington to Auckland and back.

The feminism throughout is explicit and confronting. In the poem Ruin, we find unapologetic sexuality, messiness, hunger. This is the raw side of women, the ‘unladylike’ behaviour condemned or hidden. This is the impact of patriarchy and rape culture and millennia of oppression. This is a poem I would love to see Grace perform. These final stanzas in particular:

we’re the 52% but we’ve been sleeping
too busy counting calories to count on each other
too busy carrying you to notice how strong we’ve grown
but we have grown so very strong

and you? You had your chance
2000 years of chances
now we are everything you’ve always wanted
everything you’ve always feared
and we will ruin
everything

Vulnerability and bravado play off each other throughout the book – the same way they do in many women’s lives. At times soft, at times full of teeth, this is the way we respond to patriarchal pressure, both internalised and otherwise. This uncertainty and distrust manifests in the poem Smoke From Burning Paper Lanterns Stings Your Eyes, with the line ‘Did it hurt when my brother tore the heads off paper dolls?’ and these:

with you, I pulled my own clothes off
slowly, from the ground up
it was weeks
before my neck slipped into view

Possibly the most expressive of this tension and resistance is the poem women>pain, another poem I’d love to hear performed.

you hear the echo of your mother’s voice
“This is just part of being a woman. Take some painkillers. Get on with it.”

this is not a poem
it’s a diagnosis
C-PTSD
which is a doctor’s way of saying
yours will be a life lived underwater

and the line: ‘if you’d only been greater or lesser’

and this stanza:

so now this is not a poem
it’s a hashtag
a raised hand
a spotlight
it’s resistance
it is dignity
it’s f@#k you pay me*
it’s an open letter
a witch hunt
a spell
it’s viral
it’s impeachment
it’s a jail term
it’s a riot
it’s you
this is you

Grace’s voice is raw and confronting and unique, and I expect this book to occupy an equally unique space. Readers will want to plot their own revolution.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

How To Take Off Your Clothes
by Hadassah Grace
Published by Dead Bird Books
ISBN 9780473453176

*NB the actual word is used here, I’ve just changed the letters for the sake of inbox filters!

Book Review: Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean, by Sugar Magnolia Wilson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_because_a_womans_heartIt is impossible to know what to say about this book because I want to say so many things about this book. It is complex and honest and heavy and light and tender and brutal. It is narrator and narrated. It is the moon and the people looking at the moon.

Sugar Magnolia Wilson graduated with her MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2012 and while she’s done so much since then, including publishing work independently and in journals and co-founding Sweet Mammalian, it feels as if she has spent the better part of six years creating this book. Like only a long incubation could form something so delicate and weighty and sharp.

I opened first to the titular poem. I wanted to know what question the title was answering. Why is a woman’s heart this way? Are we defending her actions, or accusing her? Is it simply because her heart is as unknowable as a needle at the bottom of an ocean, and with the same potential to cause you to bleed if you were to ever uncover it?

The poem answers none of those questions for me. But with its play on narrative voice, it’s mixture of English and Mandarin, it’s evocations of gender and nature, it does set the scene for the book.

As does the opening series; nine poems, each titled Dear Sister, which appear from language and detail to take place in history, but could as easily be a conversation between women today. The fourth describes the needle of a woman’s heart through a gifted horse.

I think the theory presented here by this gifted horse is: you can’t
take the wild from the heart of a girl, but maybe you can put the
wild girl upon a horse and teach her to master some of her own
terrible hysteria. I am expected to ride her and learn to hold my
tongue. But really, she is a strange letter with a heartbeat asking
me not to be myself.

From Dear Sister we wind into the present, where we traverse the uneasiness of children watching their parents love other people, or not be present at all, hot, sick places where

Everyone is slick and fast
even if they’re sad

And then into the consuming terrain of culture and interracial relationship. I fell in love with the poem Snow chart, the story of one person drawing the seasonal nature of feelings for another with a graph. The line –

But love is just another way of looking at the weather, I think.

leading to the final –

You wave the paper at me. See did you see that?
This is how much I love you now.
I nod. We both look out the window, where the
snow has covered everything.

I loved the bizarre, captivating imagery of throwing golden dogs in the air in Pup art, like so much hope catching the sun, and the cold mirror for this in Moon-baller, with the blossoming of the first couplet –

Open up your mouth and
we’ll press our lives together

and the soft, brittle closing of the door in the final stanza –

So, I’ll kiss you on your
big, pink mouth, but leave before
I learn it’s me who’s not fit
for life.

The weaving and shifting of voices and perspectives leaves it unclear where the poems are true to the author’s life – true as a poem can ever be – and where we’ve shifted into a more imaginary landscape. This alone is a testament to Wilson’s craft.

Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean tells us secrets about ourselves, invites us into strange new worlds, and shines kind, wry light on dark places. It’s a collection I see myself returning to again and again and again.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Because a Woman’s Heart is Like a Needle at the Bottom of the Ocean
By Sugar Magnolia Wilson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408909

Book review: Short Poems of New Zealand, edited by Jenny Bornholdt

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_short_poems_of_new_zealandI’ll be the first to admit I didn’t expect to like this book. I loved the concept – the idea of a collection of short poems by New Zealand writers – but I saw the list of authors and felt a little disappointed

Experienced, known writers are usually the ones people gravitate towards. We figure if they got to where they are, they must be good. We feel safe in their hands.

I’m the opposite. I prefer to read new writers with different voices. I don’t often pick up Janet Frame or Sam Hunt, which probably makes me a philistine and a traitor to New Zealand literature.

Bornholdt’s vision was a collection of poems that ‘relate stories, describe memorable scenes, set off emotional grenades, sense death, declare love, make jokes.’ She had to decide what defined “short” – ten lines felt too long, six too restrictive. She settled on nine.

‘Ive begun to think of short poems as being the literary equivalent of the small house movement. Small houses contain the same essential spaces as large houses do. Both have places in which to eat, sleep, bathe and sit; the difference being that small houses are, well, smaller. … You might have to go outside to swing the cat, but you can still have the thought indoors.’

I liked the concept. I’ve always been a strict editor, I appreciate the talent involved in brevity. And though I opened the book with the belief that I’d find little to grab me, I was happy to be proved wrong.

I use cardboard gift tags to mark pages when I’m reviewing. This small book is now plump with card, so there’s no way of doing everything justice here. However, some beg noting, like this by Keri Hulme –

I asked for riches
you gave me
scavenging rights on a far beach

James K Baxter’s High Country Weather –

Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.

Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.

Elizabeth Nannestad’s You gave me a shoulder –

smelling of the sun
I can bite on, or weep.

What can I give you
so it’s fair?

Take
my rough, unsteady
compassion while you sleep.

I also reacted strongly to Fleur Adcock’s Things, Stephanie de Montalk’s The Hour, and Ashleigh Young’s Rooms, and ten others besides.

There really is something special about this length of poem, the life it condenses, the feeling it squeezes out of you.

In an interesting editorial choice, the book finishes with James Brown’s ‘The opening’ –

There is too much
poetry in the world

and yet

here you are.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Short Poems of New Zealand
edited by Jenny Bornholdt
Published by VUP
ISBN  9781776562022

 

Book Review: Photos of the Sky, by Saradha Koirala

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

screen-shot-2018-10-18-at-9-02-06-am.jpgPhotos of the Sky is Saradha Koirala’s third poetry collection. The Nepali/ Pākehā writer currently lives in Melbourne where she teaches English, literature and creative writing.

The collection is arranged in four sections or subheadings – Reach, Shift, Reach, This Time. It spans her move across the Tasman, the reaching for other times, places, people.

The attempts towards, the shifting of perspectives, the attempts again, the relief. I felt the image of a trapeze artist, swinging out to try to catch someone else’s hands, falling back, swinging again, and finally meeting.

I had no previous experience of Koirala’s work and enjoyed trying to get inside this collection. I flipped back and forth, interested in the placement of the poems in each section, the illumination of certain moments.

The first poem I bookmarked to come back to was Yard Duty, the third poem in the third section. Describing Koirala’s duties as a teacher, it follows her interactions with students in the classroom as they struggle to find the name of ‘that feeling like butterflies in your stomach, but not excitement?’ ‘”Anxiety” I tell them. “Anxiousness,” they say.’

The second stanza follows her on shooing students outside during lunchtime. But the third stanza, which pulls the previous two together, was the one to give me made me stop and go back.

Today a bird was trapped inside. There was a warm breeze
and the sun was out, but that bird was obsessed with the
unopenable window at the top of the stairs, wouldn’t
move from the windowsill, fluttered its wings like the
butterflies in our stomachs, oblivious to the door we’d
opened at the end of the empty hall.

I’ve been everyone in this poem – the teacher, the students, and the bird. So very often the bird.

Spaces between – stairways and wells, train stations, the heavy air inside an aeroplane – are known as liminal. Each poem seems to evoke this in its own way, none more so than (sub)Liminal, which falls early in the first section. ‘I’m a little bit in love with the world again today,’ it opens, then describing ‘this afternoon city of doors’ and how ‘Sent words map out wherever it is you are.’ The final stanza leaving us with saturated feeling of hope and in-between.

a little bit in love and a gallery of images
on trains, at stations: forever moving
or waiting to be moved again.

I happened to be out of town attending a funeral when I read the book the first time, so Tidal, the second poem in the section called Shift, was sadly appropriate. The poem, detailing the ‘ritual and effort’ a grandmother used to put into getting dressed up, and the passing of time since the grandfather’s passing on. The final stanzas drew a lump of recognition in my throat.

Five months since Grandma was last out, confused but pleased
to see us all, wishing Grandad could have lasted a few days
longer as if then he could have seen us all too.

As if we still would have come.

In Looking Up, we’re met again by the liminal, in a familiar scene that takes place on a moving train. ‘The optometrist prescribed looking up more / and I don’t blame her.’ The moment where we choose to ignore someone we sort-of know, or maybe once knew, in favour of keeping ‘eyes on that chunk of universe / floating just ahead.’

It always helps to know which station
is the one before yours

and which you’ll be at if you’ve gone too far.

And finally, honourable mention must go to Love Song – a rumination on whakapapa, and love poem about running into Taika Waititi while buying kitchenware a Wellington Warehouse.

The book’s epigraph, I feel, works just as well as a conclusion –

A light went on when he told me
not everything is a metaphor
some things are just as they seem

I sleep better with the light left on.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Photos of the Sky
by Saradha Koirala
Published by The Cuba Press
ISBN 9780995110748

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: 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

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