Book Review: I Am Minerva, by Karen Zelas

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_i_am_minervaKaren Zelas has a light, airy, and playful tone that makes her poetry incredibly engaging. In her collection I Am Minerva, Zelas employs a wonderfully poetic voice that explores stories and histories, as well as the identity she crafts out of it.

In the first poem, Zelas presents a picture of herself in a modern context. In camera is a simple and short poem. It describes how, before the selfie, there was “always the invisible other” who wasn’t in the photo. The photographer helped complete the picture by taking the photo, and therefore also by not being present. The act of capturing the self was always left to someone else.

Zelas relies on spaces and breaks in verse to craft the tone of her collection, and create breathing spaces in her writing. Such a method wipes out the harsh break of full stops, and instead leaves every poem feeling like a long, drifting dream. In the poem Sound Waves, Zelas describes “open mouths tongues tripping / on syllables & the sibilance / of my heart ‘yes!’-ing”. The phrase “on syllables & the sibilance” especially rolls off the tongue in a satisfying way. Zelas’ writing voice is one that is very conscious of itself, and of how poetry wraps itself around a subtle rhythm.

Zelas’ poem Way point won the New Zealand Poems4Peace competition in 2014 and it’s easy to see why. The poem starts with the description of a place “where blue meets blue”. The description is not superfluous; the voice here is one that is gentle, kind, and patient. Despite the wide expanse of blue ocean, the poet reassuringly states “at that point will I find you… & as your ship breaks on my shore / I shall draw you to me”.

At times, Zelas also steps out of this voice. She presents a reminder about the dangers of pushing such a sweet voice to the point of romanticism. In the beginning is a poem that deals with the formation of the universe. At first, Zelas speaks in an expectedly lovely voice that portrays how “Sky & Earth / embraced in darkness”. Perhaps in reference to the many absurdities of ancient myth that are frequently skimmed over, Zelas undercuts this beauty at the end of the poem. She describes how “later that son fucked / his own daughter… & / there was night”.

The final poem is a piece of writing that beautifully twists the tongue. In the poem Born of the head of my father, Zelas confidently asserts “I am Minerva”. Then, she continues onwards: “I’m myth I’m rumour / madness mendacity / aftermath palimpsest” before ending on “I’m scribe”. Just like the goddess of Minerva, her wisdom includes both the histories of her own life and others. As a writer, these are the things that she turns into poetry. And in this poem, Zelas is able to finally present her own image of who she is.

The two images of the self—the camera selfie at the beginning, and the image of Minerva at the end—work as bookends of the collection in this way. In between, Zelas stunningly draws out a variety of settings with a subtle and soft tone. I Am Minerva plays with rhythm but never in a way that detracts from the images that are being brought forward. The whole collection carries a lightness that is wonderful to read, with Zelas holding up different images of herself into focus.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

I am Minerva
by Karen Zelas
Published by Submarine Books
ISBN 9780994129970

Book Review: The Book of Hat, by Harriet Rowland

Harriet Rowland was diagnosed with a rare cancer cv_the_book_of_hatwhen she was 17. This book is based on the blogs she decided to keep, and which she continued to write until shortly before she died in March 2014, at the age of 20.

What comes through every entry and all the photos is Hat’s wonderful personality, strength and sense of humour. Throughout the book are quotations from another remarkable book about terminal illness, John Green’s The Fault in our Stars, which clearly had a huge impact on Harriet, who has her own collection of remarkable comments and stories.

Hat’s story is one of a hugely courageous young woman, determined to make the most of every minute that she was well enough to enjoy. Her family and friends provided total support and love, as would any family in similar circumstances, and she talks about that a great deal. What stands out to me is her total commitment to doing as much as she possibly could, despite the rigours of cancer treatment, operations and long periods of hospitalisation. Her blog does not spare any details, and so even if you knew nothing about chemotherapy drugs before you read this book, you certainly will afterwards!

But her story is told with a total lack of self-pity, as in this quote: “It’s simple, I am dying, there is no changing this fact, so if something makes me happy I have been doing it”.
And also with such a nutty sense of humour, like this: “Later I went to my boyfriend’s house and watched him get dressed up in his beautiful prefect’s uniform. It left me howling on the floor. I suggest if anyone is feeling down they should watch their boyfriend dress up in a kilt!”

Despite the awful treatments and side effects of cancer drugs, Harriet was able to enjoy the short time she had remaining, and even managed a trip to Europe with a dear friend. Her positive attitude shines through everything and this is a gutsy, inspiring book.

I recommend it to anyone – but particularly to those who have friends or relatives who are dealing with cancer or any other life-threatening illness. It is happy, sad, funny, poignant, thought-provoking and inspiring all at once. Harriet Rowland was a remarkable, brave, clever, loving young woman whose life was tragically all too brief.

Read her book.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Book of Hat
by Harriet Rowland
Published by Submarine Books
ISBN 9780473272852

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