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This is Frances Samuel’s first collection, slightly notable for the fact that Samuel finished the IIML MA programme in 2003. It seems to have been a book a long time coming. The book itself gets a back cover blurb exhorting the richness and strangeness of its poems describing the locales as exotic elsewheres. I don’t agree with this. The theme of exotic elsewheres is definitely strong in the book. But this is a consistent trend in New Zealand and even English language colonialist poetry where other cultures are plundered as scenes, settings and flavour for poems. This isn’t very new or exciting. Samuel continues the trend of quiet poems with a perspective of emotional distance, something I would classify as pretty much de rigueur for poetry being published by many publishers in New Zealand today.
There’s a strong theme of whiteness in the book. White light is mentioned on more than one occasion and there are people wearing white gloves, white bread, white pigeon shit on a white night. And snow, a lot of snow. It’s hard to say whether all this whiteness is just unconscious symbolism or an attempt to address the ubiquity of whiteness and its default position and setting of normality. I am siding on unconscious symbolism because there is very little obvious critique. The poems journey through Latvia and Japan, we have Tolstoy and Po Chu-I, Hebrew words and Pākehā ancestry listed as strings of nationalities. Samuel is a museum exhibitions writer and I suspect this has given me a bias towards wanting the book to be complex and analytical of its own obsessions and stealing.
The poetry itself has a voice that’s a bit different than other writers in New Zealand at present. It’s at times a little sing-song. There’s repetition, though not too much. The poems are overall what I would describe as sweet. One poem talks about Japanese funeral rites and ancestors. It is describing something being looked at rather than experienced, which is a key theme in the book I think. The poem I like the most is titled Duckshooting. It is strange in its own way without really needing to cherry pick strangeness from other cultures. There’s a seventh budgie, which is compelling, and the last line finishes the poem perfectly. A lot of the poems have a certain fairytale feeling to them. Some of them seem to be pitched at children to my eyes and others have elements of a dreaminess that pervades the whole book.
The collection holds together well and progresses through its sections in a way that makes sense and flows. And it is well written. I think I would like a little more strangeness in this collection that’s not about how other cultures are different. It’s a time honoured tradition and one I’m keen to see the back of, especially in a book that is sold on its back cover with promises of its strangeness and richness.
Reviewed by Emma Barnes
Sleeping on Horseback
by Frances Samuel
Published by Victoria University Press