Book Review: The Presence of Love, by Michael Duffett

Available in selected bookshops.

cv_the_presence_of_love.pngMichael Duffett is a USA-based poet born in the UK. He has been a teacher, academic and minister, and is currently a professor in a Californian university. A new selection of his work spanning 40 years, The Presence of Love, is edited by Wellingtonian Mark Pirie. I say with great admiration that Duffett is a good old-fashioned poet who thinks deeply, but who knows how to phrase his thoughts in a way the common reader might clearly understand. These are good, solid poems, as the poem ‘The Corrective Lens’. Here

A man without a magnifying glass
Can certainly bear no blame
For not concentrating the rays of the sun
Nor missing in small print his name

To skip to the end of the poem:

So men without the corrective lens
Of intellect sharp as a knife
Must earn our compassion and not our ire
As we cut the bread of life.

Duffett moves deliberately and meaningfully through the issues he sees from his seat at home, those of global warming, violence and war, refugees, Syria and political strife, as he worries that ‘The pen is no longer mighter than / The sword’. ‘Jesus at the Border’ is reminiscent of Baxter’s ‘The Maori Jesus’. Polar bears and daisies huddle together against approaching visions of darkness.

Duffett views a future and often scary world through the eyes of old-fashioned values. Despite everything, he approaches life with generosity and positivity. He also celebrates the simple and immediate joy of ‘a clean shirt’. And the blue jay, who with great gusto consumes ‘the bulbous fruit’. Duffet reflects on his own life – the house in which he sits, the difference between youth and age, and how, as an older man, his adventures consist of sailing inner seas. These are easy-to-follow poems, written for himself rather than for the market, and they don’t seem to make any bold claims about his own literary greatness. They are enough in themselves.

The titular poem, ‘The Presence of Love’, comes about halfway through the book and calls the reader to remember, above all, love:

All that matters is the presence of love.
I may or may not have been promoted.

[…]

We may have to get rid of one of the cars,
Eat my favourite mushrooms less frequently,
Cut down on the expensive sparkling
Cider I enjoy to accompany food.
I’ll buy books less often but you will be there.
All that matters is the presence of love.

We should all be cutting down on cars whether or not we have money, but the basic message Duffett gets across is a timeless and necessary one that too many of us dismiss. This, then, is a collection of quiet and simple truths and thoughts which anyone can approach.

At the same time, Duffett’s poems show that he is a man of learning. His poems make reference to Newton, Aeschylus, Edward Said, but there is also his little dog and Socks the cat (a great name). He has clearly been touched by New Zealand poetry. Near the back of the book are a cluster of poems that feature, and indeed in a couple of instances are dedicated to, Allen Curnow and Denis Glover. An appendix details his own meeting with Glover in the late 1970s. He himself spots a mixing and melding of cultures in the Indian cup of tea brewed for him by his American son.

The Presence of Love gives a flavour of Duffett as a poet and a person. The poems are crafted but easily accessible. They give a warm, personable and conversational sense of Duffett’s concern for the world and human condition.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

The Presence of Love
by Michael Duffett
HeadworX
ISBN 9780473469153

 

 

Book Review: How I Get Ready, by Ashleigh Young

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_how_i_get_ready.jpgI saw this book and thought ‘this encapsulates my life’. The woman on the front of How I Get Ready looks like she’s having more than a bad hair day. She’s a Quentin-Blake-esque illustration, as scribbles eclipse her and what she’s wearing from the waist up. I almost burst out laughing. Perhaps it’s a meant to be a windy day in Wellington? Either way, I’m getting vibes of spontaneity and disorder. What a fantastic cover and title combo.

So, the poems. These are anything but slapped together and harried, but they are full of vivacity. Even though the poems seem to be about real life, they feel imagined and fantastical – for example, they leap from subject to subject in a way that reminds me of Lorelai off Gilmore Girls. Like, we start with a potato and somehow segue to a coral reef, an aquarium, blood and a balsawood aeroplane. It’s a mishmash, told by a sassy and energetic voice:

Tantruming moon throws light at my house
like unwanted treasure. Go on
do that one more time.

As well as a poet with a previous collection to her name, Magnificent Moon (VUP, 2012), Young is the author of a collection of essays entitled Can You Tolerate This? (VUP, 2016). She is Poetry Editor for The Spinoff Review of Books and currently resides in Wellington. Her confident voice invokes her own name several times in her poems, giving the sense that these are personal, opening up her mind space. She delivers keys to private moments, and we can only guess at their meaning:

As you open your mouth
thousands of fish cross the room
and entirely clothe you in their fish shadow

and even though I cannot see you now,
it looks so good.

‘Fancy’ is catchy with its refrain ‘We should always overdress for each other’. Meanwhile, things get playful in ‘The Feeling of Action’:

And we agreed the feeling of action
as he was flying or jumping or leaping –
a flowing cape would give him movement
it really helped and
it was very easy to draw

These are clever, funny, complex poems, with plenty of ideas to explore. Young experiments with a variety of styles, presenting a poetry practice that is consistently evolving. And the final poem of the book, How I Get Ready, makes us think of a beginning rather than an end. It heralds a step into the unknown:

and the air turns over, gently exposing
its soft underbelly. My going-out clothes are waiting for me
ironed smooth, laid out like a disappearance.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

How I Get Ready
by Ashleigh Young
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562367

Book Review: The Fairies of Down Under and other Pākehā Fairy Tales, by Geoff Allen

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Have you ever seen a Pooka? Or a Welsh dragon in a taniwha’s cave? Or an enchanted girl made of books? Well, you could. If you look.

In this sizzling and unexpectedly clever collection, Geoff Allen contends that:

When European settlers sailed to the bottom of the world, to Down Under, they took with them: tools, seeds, livestock and their hope.

They did not take monsters.

Those crept aboard… all by themselves.

Welcome to a New Zealand where the fairies and monsters of the Old World meet those of the New… It was not only human settlers who arrived on Aotearoa’s shores with the first ships. To make things even more interesting, a trio of Dutch ghosts have been here since 1642.

Written in short, chapter-sized bites, these fairy tales would be great read aloud to a class of primary school children – or even older. There’s something ageless about fairy tales, and these fit the bill. Teachers whose classes enjoyed the rollicking of the likes of Harry Wakitipu (by Jack Lasenby) should sink their teeth into these. They’d make great bedtime stories for girls and boys alike.

The tales are well-researched, both in the origins of their mythical creatures (goblins, fairies and nymphs) and in how these are interwoven with New Zealand history. With this book comes a chance for kids to learn about the early colonial period and the type of characters who don’t usually appear in our children’s literature – think Dutch sailors, taiha-wielding kaumātua and even a cunning kea who was once a wizard. The lesson of the last is never refuse to marry a patupaiarehe.

We see the reaction of the magical creatures already resident in Aotearoa to their new neighbours. I loved the image of the two sea gods, Tangaroa and Poseidon, playing bowls with the Moeraki Boulders. And how refreshing to discover that ‘Dad Adventures’ are in fact real and you should definitely believe everything your dad has to say. My favourite tale was ‘King of the Fog Lands and the Book Daughter’ for its strong wāhine – the clever Book Daughter and the brave and smart princess Whakapono who successfully argues in court against the confiscation of her family’s land.

Overall? Incredibly funny and wonderfully inventive. Chances are you’ll like some of these tales more than others, but there’s something to appeal to everyone. I can see these becoming classics. Give them a try.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

The Fairies of Down Under and other Pākehā Fairy Tales
by Geoff Allen
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780995109285

 

Book Review: Hazel and the Snails, by Nan Blanchard

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hazel_and_the_snailsHazel and the Snails is an enchanting, thoughtful book, suited to readers about eight years old (give or take). Hazel, an energetic and matter-of-fact young girl probably about six or seven herself, is a super snail sleuth. We follow Hazel from home to school – along with her snails, who live in a cardboard box under her bed and are lovingly transported wherever she goes. Ms Taylor, a teacher a bit like Matilda’s Miss Honey says with a smile that ‘Snails are welcome at school but not on top of desks’.

This short chapter book deals with the serious issues of the illness of a loved one, death and grief from the point of view of a child. As Hazel’s dad progressively worsens, meaning Mum is away more while Hazel and her nose-studded brother Henry are looked after by her grandmother, Hazel remains absorbed in her snails and everyday adventures. Hazel lives in a distinctly contemporary New Zealand (I love the references to WeetBix and to Lilybee Wrap).

Hazel and the Snails shows, in a very everyday way, what it looks and feels like to be Hazel and sensitively introduces the idea of death and dying in a child’s life. I found myself thinking of the adventures of Milly-Molly-Mandy as I thumbed its pages – and was rewarded to see a reference to Milly-Molly-Mandy herself partway through! A lovely, honest and simple story by a first-time children’s author, complemented by pencil drawings by Giselle Clarkson. Grown ups will enjoy the story too – and might indeed benefit from this insight into children’s minds.

I look forward to seeing what else new writer Nan Blanchard has up her sleeve.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Hazel and the Snails
by Nan Blanchard
Published by Annual Ink
ISBN 9780995113589

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Luxembourg, by Stephen Oliver

Available in selected bookshops. 

cv_luxembourgLuxembourg – Google it to find a tiny European state with spires that point to infinity, cobbled streets, canels through the city. But the blurb on this collection of poems draws us away from Luxembourg, telling us that these are the poems of a New Zealand poet returning home after twenty years in Australia. It’s hard to ignore the word hiding in plain sight in the title – lux – meaning light. Indeed, there are stars and sunsets, twilights – in many poems the light carries with it a ‘darkening into dawn’ of old world versus new. Perhaps the light is the light of understanding.

I might start by saying that my mum picked up the book from my shelf and was unimpressed with the first page’s description of ‘Desiccated, middle-aged matriarchs’, in the poem Dreams of Flying. Further in, in a poem called Undercover I found:

…This is rural New
Zealand, where every woman over forty
looks like Janet Frame in a parallel universe
of the under privileged… 

These gripes aside, Oliver has a well-respected place in Australasian poetry. It seems a ripe time to admit that these are the first poems of Oliver’s which I have read (though this is his nineteenth collecton). It is on the basis of this collection that I call him a landscape poet. He writes about people, but it is in his consideration and depiction of the hills and valleys, skies and trees, that the poems carry the most beauty, weight, and originality of phrase. The poet’s language and eye is that of the painter as sights are drawn, spilt like paint on canvas rather than described, as in the poem Undercover:

The moon was half. As though the act
of clearing a space in the partially clouded
sky had worn itself away…

…The glass bowl tilts overhead

In the poem Road Notes, there is ‘fog / broiling off rounded hills’, the poplars rising ‘wind washed’. The ordinary sometimes appears; in the poem Dilapidated Dream – the poplars are ‘sentinels’, but also the stunning, as in the poem In the Blink: ‘Drought is the story of absences, equidistant / and everywhere.’ In the poem Apocrypha, Oliver describes houses like ‘a handful of croutons thrown over lumped up hills’. Descriptions of ideas are also catching, as in the poem Road Notes: ‘Memory has pulled tent pegs and moved on. / A sadness of light is all that remains, the mould broken’.

With the exception of a few poems close to the end of the book which caught me with their real feeling and humanness (the poem The Lost German Girl, and the closing lament for the friend who has died), the people in this book seem to be mostly vessels for the poems’ ideas. Not that the human is absent – fossils are ‘substances by which we sense / ourselves’. But the poems are highly intellectual, philosophical, scientific even, asking how and why we exist – Oliver is a name-dropper, a myth-dropper, a place-dropper. I needed a dictionary. The translation of the title poem, ‘Luxembourg’, into German is a nice touch, and the occasional Spanish or Latin phrase contributes to a feeling of intense working. The book is interposed with prose poems, a form growing in popularity. These tell stories and develop character, following a similar rhythm to the free verse which is more numerous.

Places in New Zealand appear – Te Kuiti, Piopio – I am happy to find the poet on the West Coast. But they submerge beneath the ripples of global citizenship that dominates Luxembourg. I keep coming back to the question, what lies at the heart of this collection? Why is it by the lamplights of Luxembourg or Europe or even Alaska that the poems choose to find a place in the world? It will take more than my two readings to interpret the heart of Luxembourg.

I do love the cover, and I’ll admit that as an old-fashioned romantic who loves landscape descriptions I chose the book because of its cover – the opera singer rendered in black and white, her heavy made-up, haunting eyes, staring into the unknown. She seems set in time – quite unlike these poems.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Luxembourg
by Stephen Oliver
Published by Greywacke Press
ISBN 9780646986968

Book Review: time to sing before the dark, by Helen Bascand

Available in selected bookshops. 

cv_time_to_sing_before_the_darkI read this book sprawled on my bed, straight off a six-hour-long bus ride, back in my flat in the big city after a week away: tired, sunsick, and homesick already. I raced through them, loving them. Then I had to go back and read the poems again. Everyone knows you shouldn’t rush poetry (I couldn’t help it; the words were comforting, the voice fresh but strangely familiar).

First to note is the title, time to sing before the dark – words scrawled on a page found in Helen Bascand’s papers by her friend and writing partner, Joanna Preston, who edited this posthumous collection. The title acknowledges the poet’s death; however, the sense is not of stillness or ending, but vitality:

when you hear the birds’ urgent evening chatter
then you know it’s time to sing before the dark

These are the last words said, the last poems published, the final performance. While fear works its way in between the lines, the poet does not despair but rather opens up.

Bascand writes in a graceful free verse that does not feel at all fusty, but has an immediacy and the boldness of real life – recounting teaching her young husband to hang a towel. The poems address painting, history, and myth. We see the earth shifting, hear the voice of the moon. Poems which recreate myths bring their characters close – Bascand’s Leda is not victim; she embraces lust. The poem Persephone retells the ancient myth in a voice that is tangible and tactile:

just a simple descent, he said,
through layers of old seasons – down
into a winter of desire and lust clinging to her skin.

Persephone in the dark night, shuffles fragile memories
like used playing cards – this crumpled picture, a woman
in a paddock of clover – tears burning where they fall.

Many of these poems can be illuminated by their mythic origins, but they read fluently without this knowledge, speaking on a human level. There is a sense of rebellion simmering, especially in the poems which treat on women – Bascand writes of reaching into the tree’s branches to shake the snake coiled on the fruit (Thought).

‘The dancing language (for my sister)’ is one of my favourite poems, as the poet watches her sister dance on the blue coffee house carpet. These do not read like the poems of an old woman, but a woman in the midst of life. They move from childhood to courtship to age. There are enchanting, intimate moments. Bascand has a knack of making memories come alive:

Last night
Orion stood on his head
in December’s sky, and the stars
were as close as magic, as if
we stood on a virgin ridge
and stretched up
to pluck them. (Ring out wild bells)

Ordinary moments are received perceptively: words weave meaning. They theorise on trees, while in the poem The weight of words:

Outside the window, the pear tree simply
stands within the gravity of pears
and their letting go. 

Perhaps why I found the collection so comforting was its appearance of simplicity, its elegant truths. This apt piece comes from within the poem ‘Shifting’:

Arriving

Going
towards the new house
turn
into the street, the front door,
unpack supplies, make a bed,
pick
a flower for the jam jar

boil an egg, the jug –

say

home.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to call these poems simple. There are the wild moments which take breath away. In ‘Reading the night’ the poet states:

It was the wind that did it,
tore through the butterfly-wings of meaning,
left a tattered gap, wide enough for moonlight,
but too fragile to climb through – as you  might
over a sill before jumping to freedom –

Not only are the poems beautiful in themselves, but in the way these have been arranged beneath the marbled blue and white jacket with its single bird still singing by the light of the moon. Most touching is the titular phrase reproduced in a handwritten scrawl on the back cover. This is a book undertaken with delicacy and thought. My feeling about posthumous collections is that while they are the author’s work, they inevitably carry something of the editor with them as well –  they are not, cannot be the book as the author would have made it. There is a tenderness in time to sing’s arrangement that shows the strength of the friendship between the editor and the writer.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Time to sing before the dark
by Helen Bascand
Published by The Caxton Press
ISBN: 978 0 473 45128 8