Book Review: ransack, by essa ranapiri

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ransack.jpgessa was the first (and is the only) person to ever ask me what my preferred pronouns are. It came in the middle of an unrelated messenger conversation, just a simple ‘Not to be rude or anything what are your pronouns? [sic]’ So for the first time in my life, completely casually, I told someone outside of my immediate close friend group that I don’t feel 100% comfortable using “woman” as an identifier. And then we went back to discussing the LitCrawl after party.

It seems like such a simple thing, like ticking a box on a form. She/Her, He/Him, They/Them. But more often than not that last box isn’t available for ticking. And that is the space that essa writes from, where many of the poems in ransack have been created. This collection takes that missing box, that void, and fills it to the brim with the previously unacknowledged.

Ransack is like a petri dish. When you read it you feel like you are examining a living thing through a microscope. There are scientific equations scattered throughout, so many references to the sea, an earthiness that is almost visceral. At times while reading it I felt the same feelings of awe I feel while watching a David Attenborough nature documentary.

Perhaps it’s that essa has lived a life where they, and everyone around them, has viewed their mind and body with a cool impersonal remove. They state in the poem the nonbinary individual:  ‘This shouldn’t tell you much because gender shouldn’t tell you anything / about a person.’

There is a yearning throughout many of the poems in ransack, a sense that essa just wants to be accepted for who they are, and yet they are still trying to figure out for themself exactly who that is.

There are a number of poems addressed to Orlando, the titular character of Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel, who begins the book as a boy, and at the age of around 30 wakes up one day as a woman, spending the rest of the book as such. You get the sense reading The Dear Orlando series that this character is a stand in for a real life confidante or role model. In the first Dear Orlando poem, which is the first poem of the collection, essa writes ‘I think about your gender as I think about my own. Would you find that funny Orlando? And would you let me make it a running joke?’

And so essa does, inserting Dear Orlando poems in between poems about their childhood, discordant and frenetic poems about growing up, about love, body dysmorphia, suicide, colonialism, multiple classical references, and references to classic literature. There are also Māori creation stories and genealogies. They sit comfortably in amongst everything else to complete the origin story of essa.

In the poem Koare, essa writes:
My path is Tūrongo
who went to the east
and Māhinaarangi in whose womb
Raukawa slept.

A line direct to myself

In a world which so often doesn’t make space for non-binary and gender fluid people, essa is clearly carving out their own space in ransack. And by doing so, with unapologetic and raw words, they are making space for others to follow. I can imagine one day in the future a young poet will publish a collection full of poems addressed the poem Dear essa.

reviewed by Gem Wilder

ransack
by essa ranapiri
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562374

Book Reviews: A book about, and a collection by Greville Texidor

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_all_the_juicy_pasturesI read the biography of and collection by Greville Texidor together, which turned out to be very good idea.

Margot Schwass has written a comprehensive, intelligent, and fascinating biography of Greville Texidor. Some of you might say, “Who?”. It’s a fair question.  Greville Texidor arrived in New Zealand as a refugee, in 1940. Others who fit this description include Lili Krauss, and Theo Schoon.

Greville, a Spanish Civil War veteran who had been interned in Holloway  after returning to England was now married to a German national, Werner Droescher. She came to New Zealand with Werner, and her mother and sister. They were sent to Kaipara, quite another country compared to Spain and England. That was an enormous culture shock.

Very early on, Frank Sargeson met them, and quickly became a mentor to Texidor. They began an intense correspondence, and when she began writing seriously, he read and commented on all her work. She became part of that group of writers who were enormously influenced and supported in their writing careers by Sargeson.

So, who exactly was Greville Texidor, and how does she come to be regarded as a New Zealand writer? I asked around a selection of friends for their opinions on just what are the criteria: variable, it transpires. However a strong opinion was that the writer should produce their work while living in New Zealand, regardless of the subject matter.  That seems good enough!

And certainly this qualifies Greville Texidor. Almost the entirety of her published work was written in New Zealand; she continued to write after leaving NZ, but none of it was completed, and much of it destroyed by her. Some of it appears in the collected stories, which was edited by Kendrick Smithyman more than 20 years after her death.

She was a deeply unhappy woman for the latter part of her life, despite her success as a writer. She never really came to terms with living in New Zealand, and certainly never regarded herself as a Kiwi. For a woman of her background and experiences, NZ in the late 40s and early 50s must have been a dire backwater, saved only by her connections with Sargeson and others.

Margot Schwass has brought this almost-unknown figure of NZ literature to life in her biography. It must have taken her a prodigious amount of time and effort to find more about Texidor, but she has created a fascinating work which keeps sending you to the stories.

So now, to the stories.

cv_in_fifteen_minutes_you_can_say_a_lot.jpgThe collection includes what many have described as her best work, the novella These Dark Glasses. Janet Frame said of this work that she was “impressed and quietly depressed by their assurance and sophistication”.

Texidor wrote really well. These Dark Glasses is set somewhere in the south of France, quite possibly in a small town we know as Cassis. It’s fascinating – this is how it begins:

‘SUNDAY – Calanques: I am used to not being met. Comrade Ruth Brown is not the clinging type……..And Jane never did meet anyone at the station. We always considered it bourgeois…..’

That either repels or draws you in, I think. I decided to be drawn in and see what this writer was about. I think that her stories – and I won’t mention them all – are cleverly drawn from her own experiences, and obviously not entirely works of fiction. But then what is? She writes well about relationships, and catches personalities and attitudes in small exchanges of conversation.

The stories are variously set in New Zealand, France, Spain . One which stood out for me is the story An annual affair.

This is at once familiar, sad, provides some  moments of recognition and many others where you think ‘“thank goodness my father/family/etc were not like that.’ It’s a Boxing Day picnic in a small town somewhere in NZ. Early in the day dad ‘has to meet a chap’ and heads to the pub. The kids in their good clothes end up covered in mud and have to change into the spares their thoughtful, long-suffering mother has brought along. It sounds like any dire picnic in the 50s, on a fairly miserable summerish day. Windy, not warm enough to swim, pub too close and food predictable. But the observations of the narrator turn it into a remarkable story.

And I think that’s the key to Greville Texidor – she observes so clearly what is going on beneath the surface, behind the comments and in the looks! She’s well worth discovering, if you have not found her already. And when you do read her stories, read Margot Schwass’ excellent biography alongside. You won’t be disappointed.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

All the juicy pastures: Greville Texidor and New Zealand
by Margot Schwass
VUP
ISBN 9781776562251

In fifteen minutes you can say a lot: selected fiction   
by Greville Texidor
VUP
ISBN 9780864730466

Book Review: Dead People I Have Known, by Shayne Carter

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dead_people_i_have_knownEveryone has heard of the ‘Dunedin Sound’, and this book by frontman of Straitjacket Fits, Shayne Carter, will bring back memories for those who lived through those years when the music was in its infancy.

Carter says he used to keep a diary, and although he dumped them years ago, that style of recording everything features throughout the book. There are certainly no holds barred regarding his childhood and family life. He grew up in a family that used alcohol as a crutch, and at times during his life, he did too. A lot of fights and disagreements with band members – his own band and those from acts he played alongside or supported – litter the book.

He’s very honest about his battles with alcohol, drugs, depression, and – I think – his own talent. Despite the accolades, he seems uncomfortable with the fame he achieved and always wanted things to be better.

Making it big in New Zealand saw the band head overseas, but for some reason they never quite achieved their potential. Carter resents some of those he feels didn’t deserve to achieve success in the industry, but he’s also very generous to those who have been there for him and helped his musical career along the way.

There are some surprising revelations in the book, like his early love of Cilla Black and Donny Osmond, but when bands like the Sex Pistols hit the scene, he’d found music he could really identify with. The songs he wrote started having more meaning, and the industry started taking notice. Despite all this, Carter writes for himself and his fans, and therefore they actually mean something.

I’m not sure I would have enjoyed seeing him live as he recounts many instances of abusing the audience, but I’d say a lot of that was down to his heavy drinking rather than wanting to have a go.

Hearing he’d started out as a cadet reporter on a Dunedin radio station wasn’t surprising as he spins a good yarn. A man of many contrasts, I reckon he’d spin a good yarn in person too. It’s an engaging read, even for someone like myself who tends more towards the rock and pop end of the spectrum. For those who are fans of New Zealand music and musicians, you won’t find a better present.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

Dead People I Have Known
by Shayne Carter
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562213

Book Review: Lay Studies, by Steven Toussaint

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cv_lay_studiesIf you judge a book by its cover, then Steven Toussaint’s Lay Studies, due for publication by Victoria University Press this July, is elegant, sophisticated and artistic, with more than a hint of je ne sais quoi. In fact, I actually don’t know what the cover design represents, but the curves of the oriental-like calligraphy and calm background beige clear my mind before I have even opened the first page. The simplistic and tasteful colour scheme with a splash of red indicates that this tidy little book holds deliberate and considered poems.

Lay Studies is a collection of very cerebral poetry. There are references to Pound, Odysseus, St. Francis, with a distinctly biblical feel in places. It is lyrical, and deserves to be enjoyed for the soft and measured flow of the language. If you are searching for the poems’ meanings, then it is not a light read. There is a Notes section at the back. But who can deny the beauty of the lines:

immaculate
the transept rose
in damask steel
cannot restore
with faithfulness
the hawthorn’s scent
to Amor’s nose

Toussaint’s phrasing has a luxurious fullness. There are ‘tea / and biscuits in the vestibule’ and ‘imaginary saturations / of foliage on the threshold’. In amidst the intellectualism, nature is a definite presence:

Wherever apple boughs
deliver, where thunder
earth with crimson bombs
we are.

As are people:

Her attention is an accident
of resistance, shattering
her reflection to get

clean, hammering
the water so hard  she might be

forging an object
amid the speculation, fresh

masterpiece.

Meanwhile, beautiful descriptions underscore the irony of man’s relationship with the world:

Fish too credulous
answer with a kiss
the jighead’s dancer,
and the long rod dips
with their wounding.

Maybe the most powerful lines in the book for me were within the poem ‘Agnus Dei’, meaning ‘Lamb of God’, conjuring a winter’s herd of sheep. Perhaps echoing Nietzsche, the poem states: ‘I believe in a God who can learn /to work new spindles’. He ends ‘I hope you feel safe when you die’.

Toussaint has already published one collection of poetry and one chapbook. He was born in Chicago, and his publisher states that he has adopted New Zealand as his second home. Toussaint does write himself into the landscape. The first third of the book has a poem titled ‘Mount Eden’, even if in terms of physical features, the poem gives us little to hold onto. Auckland property also makes an appearance.

It seems a funny thing to comment on when reviewing a book of poems, but like the cover, the space on the page is well proportioned and, generally there seems to be a lot of it. Not only in the poems, but in the gaps between lines. As an important consequence, none of these poems feel jammed or rushed; interestingly, in Indian music the time between the beats is called a lay. Lay Studies also has connotations of medieval song and poetics, and religion. All are indicative of the layers of meaning to be unravelled.

A commitment to explore these poems will bring an appreciation of their depth.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Lay Studies
by Steven Toussaint
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562404

 

 

Book Review: How I Get Ready, by Ashleigh Young

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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: Night As Day, by Nikki-Lee Birdsey

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_night_as_dayThe front and back covers of Night As Day relate to each other. We see the light casting the shadow of a knotted curtain onto a wall. The shadow encroaches over a picture frame. It is only when we turn the book over that we see the curtain itself and a window and the outside; cars on the road parked one in front of the other. These photos encapsulate the relationship this book has with truth and openness and the need to hide from trauma. As these photos interact to enhance the meaning provided so do the poems interact with more metatextual notes at the end of the book.

The poems throughout the book (split into three sections – that trace a kind of unravelling, a delicate exposure) are accompanied by endnotes which are crucial to make sense of the shadowy shape on the wall. I read the collection moving from poem to its accompanying note; from the ghost of a feeling to the statement that pushed its crystalline form into the world. How the endnotes interact with each poem creates this dual narrative that lifts each piece, creating a space that would otherwise not be present. It is a book of moving back and forth, both literally, as you turn from the poem to the note over and over again, fingers dealing with the problem of page, its rasping flutter, and in theme; the narrator of these poems is moving back and forth between place bringing a sense of unease with them.

the working class, Italian
countryside were skinny,
poor boys in tussock-coloured
frock coats with rich voices,
fleeing fascism.

This section was something of a lightbulb moment for me. The poems themselves are dense and give little away at the start. We are caught inside of a structure as strong as steel and as fine as the hairs on the back of the neck; but something starts to shift. The reasons for this looking-away – this vague sense of staring past the issue – becomes clear. We are looking into the world of trauma, and the real political reality, of upheaval, of fascism and misogyny and the ugliness that coaches it. Birdsey presents us a body that wants to live despite structures so invested in making it silent.

As every condition of the woman’s body
a state of war: clothing, ageing, pregnancy,
            reproductive health, sex

We get the sense that this struggle shadows the narrator, follows them whether they move under the neon lights of New York City or the Southern cross.

This is a threat.
I cannot put a date on this one,
pull me into the realm of forgetting.
The landscapes pass you by,
it’s everything and nothing specific.
I put coconut oil on my hands
and they still feel so dry,    

From what I have written so far you could get the impression that these poems are all drenched in doom but that is far from the case. There are many pieces here that explore the small moments, the delicate beauty we can find even in a world going to shit. Poems like ‘The Green Ray’ capture both struggle and earnest self-expression well the ‘sea yields seals, driftwood of varying/ creature, seabirds that glide alongside me’. And I am struck by how the book ends in this quiet place of sentiment that almost reads like a pop lyric if not contrasted with the weight that has come before;

I keep building this glowing world
with it’s glowing clouds.

This can be yours, too, so
don’t be worried, ever –

It’s you and me,
and we’re going to be
forever together

And for the last time I turn the page looking for the notes connected to this poem which is called One, the last word in a countdown. The note discusses John Hull and his ideas around rain and how it ‘brings out the contours of the audible environment.’ Which is what Birdsey’s book does for her ‘glowing world’ of things. We are not alone it says, just open your mouth and speak into the air and someone else’s world will vibrate with yours and the shadows that haunt our lives might just be twisted into light.    

Reviewed by essa may ranapiri

Night As Day
by Nikki-Lee Birdsey
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562190

Book Review: Collected Poems, by Fleur Adcock

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_collected_poems_adcockThe black and white photograph on the orange dust cover of this smartly bound hardback shows a woman in profile, the poet in 1970 at the peak of her activity.  The firm set to her jaw and forthright gaze seem to show the poet in active consideration; judging the actions, faults and merits of those around her, but not sparing herself.

Many of Adcock’s poems in this VUP edition similarly observe, passionately review and categorise people, places and memories- a fitting collection for a writing career spanning over 60 years.

Adcock was born in New Zealand in 1934, spent the war years in England and returned to live in NZ from the mid-1940s to 1960s. This was when Adcock entered into the literary world. She and her novelist sister Marilyn Duckworth both dated writer Maurice Shadbolt. Adcock married fellow poet Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and also, briefly, to an abusive Barry Crump. She and Campbell were friends of James K Baxter (‘I married, you might say, into the art’) and their group held literary shop-talk over gin at fabled parties with ‘home brew and hotlines to poetic truth’.

The collection covers her books published between 1974 and 2017. Adcock primarily uses free verse, but dabbles in some longform and rhyming couplets. Her language is typically accessible, but deeper reading identifies literary allusions throughout. Adcock frequently structures her poems in stanzas that invite recitation at a measured pace, letting the tongue and lips linger over sensual, sibilant phrases. There is deliberation and precision in her word selection, as befits a poet who is also an editor and translator.

A number of her poems finish a balanced reflection with a satisfying (or heartrending) conclusion or coda (as with poems Mornings After and Prelude). Readers with aging parents are warned to have a hanky nearby when reading poems The Chiffonier, The Butterfly and My Father.

Adcock’s poems frequently focus on personal experiences rendered universal. There is love and loss, of course, and the pain of rejection, as in the poem Advice to a Discarded Lover.  Adcock’s dry wit rakes over lovers past who failed to live up to vain hopes, let alone expectations.  She coolly plans an exquisitely personal revenge on a callous ex in Instructions to Vampires, and delivers a brisk summary of a failed relationship in Send-off.  The balance of power is swapped to and fro between Adcock and the poems’ subjects; she grieves but is unsentimental in Poem Ended By A Death.

When writing of family life, her observations often feature softer comments on children’s naive joy or solemn interactions with their environment in the poem For a Five-Year-Old and For Andrew. Adcock effectively uses a child’s viewpoint to delicately frame a devastating adult situation in the poem Country Station.

In the poem Leaving the Tate, Adcock declares the world outside the gallery the best place to view beauty in the everyday: ‘Art’s whatever you choose to frame’. Adcock clearly delights in the natural world, which acts as an easy palette in poems Paths and The Spirit of the Place. In Adcock’s pastoral works, you can see the poet inspecting insects and her garden plants, or striding about blustery English country hills, pondering nature and impermanence. It’s not all intellectual pomposity, however; in the poem Prelude, a stroll amongst ‘hair-fine fronds’ sparks a quick erotic fantasy of rolling around in the grass with a long-term acquaintance.

That inevitable couple, age and nostalgia, appear in Adcock’s later poems.  Funerals become more common, so elegies abound; body parts fail; people and places from childhood emerge from memory. The poems resulting from Adcock’s genealogical research, although technically adept, are unfortunately about as interesting to non-family members as someone reciting their family tree aloud.

While Adcock lives in the UK, much of her family is still in New Zealand, regularly drawing her observant eye back. Adcock is willing to concede that the country has developed a more cosmopolitan outlook. In the 2017 poem Blue Stars, however, Adcock the expatriate wryly notes that ‘to qualify as a New Zealander’, one must turn against the ubiquitous agapanthus.

It is most satisfying to read poems that concisely capture universal thoughts and feelings, such as in the poem Things (1979).

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.

In producing this collection, VUP honours a master poet who is rightly regarded as a taonga of both New Zealand and the United Kingdom. May she continue to write and publish, casting her thoughtful gaze upon the world.

Review by Jane Turner

Collected Poems
by Fleur Adcock
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562091