Book Review: Kaitiaki o te Po: Essays, by J. P. Powley

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_kaitiaki_o_te_po_essays.jpgThere is a very specific form of discomfit in reading this collection of essays. Particularly for a middle-aged man, growing up in particular urban culture, and still mired in the education system. Powley is a social studies teacher who really can write essays.

The essays vary in form and length, and some are written in the third person. But all weave together consistent themes of grief, bordering on despair, and the restless search for new ground (often overseas), while exploring colonial New Zealand history. This involves going with his class to Opotiki, to learn about Rev. Volkner’s ghastly death and its local context; as well as a deconstruction of Anzac Day myths.

The title of the book is also that of the first essay, which sets the scene in many ways, both personally and culturally. The grief is for mostly men, first a friend named Matt who dies of natural causes in London. Along the way there are elegies for students who have committed suicide. And by the end we reach into the grief for his father, who died relatively young, and was never replaced as a parent. It is Powley senior that appears on the book’s cover, looking out over a braided river, on a bridge built in 1963. This isn’t made clear in the book, even if he remains a kind of presence within.

A lot of the content involves the teacher talking out of school, rather literally. This seems to be alright if the names are changed, and the schools are unnamed, but some of the language is unfortunate. The key one is titled ‘The March of Progress’, and is something of a masterpiece, if you can cope with the younger protagonists dying, and Powley’s guilt as a Dean, at leaving the particular school prematurely. The weave of historical context, based in the Wellington suburb of Berhampore, and the Japanese experience, both in a school trip and his own feeling for the culture, is rather brilliant.

Powley’s longer essays are written in numbered sections, and this allows jump cuts to other themes. In ‘Time Never Cares’ one of the sections is simply a quote, and the many references to other writers does not necessarily add to the elegy. Also, the fourth and seventh sections begin with the same paragraph, word for word, about a photograph of the young John-Paul and his mother in an awkward first day of school pose. He understands the first day nerves better, perhaps, than the distaff side of his family.

For me, the essay titled ‘Pastoral Scene’ is problematic. He seems to actually refer to the concept of ‘pastoral care’, as described in an opening quote from Judith Collins (Powley likes to quote from correspondence with National Party cabinet ministers). This revolves around his work as a Dean at the earlier school and a time capsule which is opened as the cohort leaves that school. He includes sections of dialogue with recalcitrant students, usually of Māori heritage. An analogy is introduced based on the writing of Eric Blair (George Orwell), and his shooting of an elephant while working as a colonial administrator in India, who had to be seen to please the natives. The theme seems to be the difficulty of disciplining children who are already a lost cause.

I’m reminded of an incident at my high school, when a social studies teacher was assaulted in class, but chose not to take any action. He left teaching and went on to be big in the financial world.

Powley’s last two essays concern the walk-out of the classroom by his late father, the suicide of rock icon Chris Cornell, and the taking anti-depressants. These stories descend into swearing and self pity without resolution.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Kaitiaki o te Pō: Essays
by J. P. Powley
Published by Seraph Press
ISBN 9780994134592

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.

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

….a sense of floating….
…..still…. slowly
….I died.
. Time….
….was shaken
out of me. ….
…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

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

by Nina Powles
Published by Seraph Press
ISBN 9780994134554

Book Review: Girls of the Drift, by Nina Powles

Available from selected booksellers nationwide.

cv_girls_of_the_driftNamed after a 1928 political pamphlet by the same name, Girls of the Drift is a defiantly pink debut from emerging poet, Nina Powles. Weaving real and fictional accounts of women’s stories, it is wrapped in the brightest pink imaginable. To encounter such historical poetry contained within its pages, particularly the delicate feminine portraits, is incongruous at first.

About her poem ‘Josephine’, based on Katherine Mansfield characters, Nina says she was interested in the way ‘the world opened up to [the women] in small moments of colour and brightness.’ The cover is more than just a moment, but perhaps that is the point. It is interesting to note that the women, from the story ‘Daughters of the late colonal’ are symbols of the opressed feminine, who came into themselves only after the death of their imposing father. Nina says she is drawn to thinking about ‘people and places stuck in the in between, caught in phrases of transition.’

The title poem is literally at the heart of the book, a 1929 letter from one poet to another (New Zealand poets, Jessie Mackay and Blanche Baughan) that references the above pamphlet and urges her friend to write again (she put down her pen after a period of illness). The reader is immediately thrown into a sensual experience here from the first line:

I pressed a sprig of manuka into the envelope…

Can you smell it? The wild, dry
dust-honey smell of summer in the gorge.

It is fitting that the green twine holding the chapbook together is like holding the sprig there in your hand. There is something reminiscent of tying a string around your finger in order to remember something important. In this letter, it is the girls of the drift, the ones who might drift into domesticity with barely an education, that Blanche promises to remember through her activism. This thought is echoed in the strings, knots and ribbons that pepper the poems. These symbols can of course also refer to apron strings and matrimonial bindings.

The continual reference to birds is a metaphor for the ability of women to soar above and beyond these traditiional constraints. These conditions are likened to sticky jars filled with bitter marmalade and honey (a trap?) in several poems. This is brought home distinctly (and in capitals no less) in the poem ‘Burn Back’:


With this reading in mind, the book becomes essentially feminist and a reflection on what it is to be a woman on the verge in a colonial context. The two prophetic wise owls on the cover could be the two poet friends, casting a wise, watchful eye over the girls of the drift.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Girls of the Drift
by Nina Powles
Published by Seraph Press
ISBN 9780473308438

Book Review: The Rope Walk, by Maria McMillan

This book is available from selected bookstores now.

This collection of poetry was produced in a very limited cv_the_rope_walkprint run of 150 numbered and hand bound copies by the small Wellington publishing house Seraph Press. And what a beautiful book it is! The stunning edging like illustration of an old fashioned sailing vessel viewed through a porthole on the rough cardboard cover evokes life at sea. One of the main themes of the book is the long voyage by sea British, or Scottish in this case, settlers had to endure on their way to a promising yet uncertain new life.

You can firmly smell the salty air, hear the waves crashing against the hull in stormy weather, yet also almost palpably feel the solitude and desperation of people stuck in a wooden prison in the middle of the ocean. The marine theme also comes through in the poem of the title The Rope Walk, where you can feel the claustrophobic darkness of the long dockyard building.

Visually, the book is a cross between an old fashioned exercise book and a Captain’s log. I’m not sure whether Maria McMillan is a performance poet, but a large portion of the book would certainly lend itself to being performed or to be shouted, or in some cases murmured, against the raging sea.

This is especially true for the poem Ghosts:
I have seen ghosts
sliding under the surface,
skittish things flitting
in the boat’s wake

Reviewed by Melanie Wittwer,

The Rope Walk
by Maria McMillan
Published by Seraph Press
ISBN  9780473236328

Book review: The Baker’s Thumbprint by Paula Green

cv_the_bakers_thumbprintThis book is in bookstores now

The Baker’s Thumbprint is Paula Green’s sixth collection of poetry for adults. While Green is well known and respected for her poetry, she has also published books for children, and last year edited the best seller, Dear Heart: 150 New Zealand Love Poems (Random, 2012).

The Baker’s Thumbprint is Green’s first book to be published by Wellington boutique publisher, Seraph Press.

Green’s writing is interesting and challenging because, in part, each collection tries something different. The voice of this collection has a light touch, and is full of play and whimsy. At the Wellington launch of the book, Green said she writes from love, and the idea can be seen in the poems’ many descriptions of making and sharing food, and the people she celebrates and admires. While Green’s last book was about her battle with breast cancer, this collection feels more personal; there is less distance between the poet and the reader. One poem states, “A poem should not be mean,” and none of these are; they document what the poet loves.

What you’ll notice immediately when reading The Baker’s Thumbprint is that historical figures pop in and out the poems. The poet picnics with Gertrude Stein, has sandwiches with Florence Nightingale, and cooks with Copernicus. In later poems she travels to New York with Copernicus and Simone de Beauvoir. While such poems could easily go wrong, Green balances the ‘big names’ by placing them in every-day domestic scenes (the idea of domestic routines and relationships being a common theme for Green). The appearance of Plato at Sunday lunch seems natural and unremarkable. Would he like a cup of tea? Of course!

These ‘historical figure’ poems are addictive to read, and certainly take advantage of my desire for wish-fulfillment. I also want to hang out with Plato and Jane Austen. But, on reading, it also becomes clear that Green wants to show how people and places become part our imaginative lives. Other poems in the collection (for example, those about Green’s childhood) also suggest what I believe is the central idea of the book: the power of imagination.

While the book travels to different locations (New York, ancient Athens, and Rome), it also places itself firmly in New Zealand. In one poem we find ourselves at a “New World supermarket,” and another in Auckland in the 1970s. The poems also mention New Zealand writers such as Baxter, Bornholdt, Frame, and Sargeson. In this way, the collection has great reach, and shows that poets can write both locally and globally (and that it doesn’t have to be one or the other).

Those readers familiar with Green’s poems will recognise her poetic traits. For example, the collection includes short poems, instructional poems, list poems, and surreal poems (which are probably my favourite). Many poems feature repetition—a constant of Green’s voice. For example, from “Ode to Vegetables”:

All the birds fade.
Simone de Beauvoir fades.
The grass that needs cutting fades.
The water tank half empty fades.
The television channels on replay fade.
Firefly on DVD fades.
The long evenings fade.
The cold beer on the tongue fades.
The mosquitoes that buzz in the night fade.

Copernicus opens a book of local odes
and recognises the beauty that bursts
from the autumn heart.

The many themes and locations of the collection made me, as a reader, feel less guided than with previous books. I also felt a handful of poems, such as those at the beginning of section three on early New Zealand life, and war, felt like they belonged to another collection, as did the poem on learning Te Reo.

The book’s title – The Baker’s Thumbprint – suggests the impressions we leave behind; the idea of artistry and mark making. This is certainly a beautiful and genuine collection. Maybe these poems are Green’s way of showing where her artistry comes from, both in terms of her physical home, but also the home of her imagination.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

The Baker’s Thumbprint
by Paula Green
Published by Seraph Press, 2013
ISBN 9780473236311

98 pp. $25 RRP

Tuesday poem: Tincture by Helen Lehndorf

At eight I learned the word ‘tincture’. I carried
the word around on my tongue. I chanted it
like holy word, like spell. Before that, it was
just ‘potion’ or sometimes ‘perfume’. Flower
petals collected, leaves. Certain grasses would
bleed milk. Breath of Heaven for the scent.
Clings of spider web. An old cupboard door
for a chopping board. A river rock for pummelling.
Jams jars with creek water. I would cut and crush.
You had a gun and I had a knife. Chop and stir.
Mix it in with a stick until full
and frothy. The tang of damp nature.

It’s a tincture. It’s a potion. It’s special perfume.

Set free for whole mornings, whole afternoons.
Our house made of bamboo. Our tyre swing.
With our pockets full of crackers and boiled lollies,
we would go. Across the road, down to the creek.
Into the goat cave high up a mud wall. We’d scramble up
and sit, ankle deep in goat shit, on wooden beer crates.
Try to catch the fresh water crabs, belly crawling
along the creek edge. I had a knife. You had a gun.
Aged eight, aged six. Shimmying along
back fences stealing fruit. Acid stomachs
from too many sweets and apples. We stayed
until it got dark, or there was a call from home.

It is a tincture. It is a trick. It is a treat

It is a locket, for locking
and hiding down a shirt,
against a heart.

From The Comforter by Helen Lehndorf
Published by Seraph Press
Used with the permission of Seraph Press

This poem has been posted as part of the Tuesday Poem scheme