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

Book Review: There’s No Place Like The Internet in Springtime, by Erik Kennedy

Available in bookshops nationwide. Shortlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. 

cv_there's_no_place_like_the_internet_in_springtimePoets like to say that content is form and form is content. It gets said enough to be true, but reading Erik Kennedy’s There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime reminded me that to the average reader (and I’m not sure how many are left given that we go around declaring nuggets like the one above) – the average reader will find a difference between poetic craft and poetic content. They will respond to them differently. Poetic content is more personal – it’s going to be harder to respond to in a neutral, analytical way. Form on the other hand comes with guidelines. So let’s start there.

It’s indeed where Kennedy starts – his title and first poem in the collection is undoubtedly a sonnet. Its fourteen lines follow a slant petrarchan rhyme scheme and begin with a grandiose private contemplation of nature before a sudden turn in the eighth line ‘Wait, am I thinking of the internet? / Oh, maybe not, but what I’m thinking of / is desperate and very, very like it.’ I think form is where Kennedy likes to play. In an interview with his publisher about this Kennedy replied, ‘there’s nothing like conquering a form. Every time I complete a poem that obeys rules I feel like Edmund Hillary.’

Kennedy’s collection is a finalist in the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and his attention to form and rhyme may be a big reason why.

The risk in Kennedy collection lies here: in the reader feeling belittled. His irony could be read as condescension; his satire as mocking. In the poem Double Saw Final at the Canterbury A&P Show, for example, the poet’s eye could be read as ridicule; the poem I’m Impressed as a poem which praises foolishness.

I don’t think this is Kennedy’s intention, but it can happens in poems where Kennedy appears pleased with his own detachment, a smug onlooker. When he becomes more involved in the poem, engages and relates to the content, it couples with his form to create memorable poems. In the poem Four Directions at the Beach, Kennedy makes you look differently at a classic New Zealand scene. The poem Remembering America is like a sad country and western heartbreaker song. The poem The School of Naps is like a self-examination.

I have a close friend who on first meeting I detested; it was because I misunderstood her. I was like that with There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime. When I began reading it I felt like Kennedy wanted to make fun of me. If you feel like that too go back and try again and look at everything he is doing in each poem; you might find something else there which leads you to become close friends.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod

There’s No Place Like The Internet in Springtime
by Erik Kennedy
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561957

Book Review: A Mistake, by Carl Shuker

Available from today in bookshops nationwide. Launched tonight at Wellington’s Unity Books. 

cv_a_mistake.jpgI’m a sucker for any book about strong women, medicine, and Wellington. This book is a slam-dunk, because it covers all three, so, spoiler alert: I loved this book.

A Mistake, by New Zealand author Carl Shuker, follows a brilliant surgeon, Elizabeth Taylor, who is at the peak of her powers as a surgeon, but somehow continually getting in her own way as a human being. So devoted to perfection she will demolish an entire internal wall of her house to get rid of a barely perceptible imperfection, she has alienated almost every person she comes into contact with.

When surgery goes wrong and a patient dies, Elizabeth finds that the people and institutions she has sacrificed her adult life for would rather avert their eyes then stand by her. At the same time the government is preparing to publicly report surgical outcomes, with the potential to ruin a surgeon’s career overnight. Elizabeth has to navigate the opaque politics of the hospital, the DHB, and the medical community with enough skill to salvage her own career.

Elizabeth is, in many ways, not a particularly likeable person, so it is a huge tribute to Shuker’s skills as an author that I cared so much for her fate I could hardly put A Mistake down. A Mistake is a short book – only 182 pages – and Shuker writes with a brief, almost staccato style in places. Yet his characterisation is so deft I feel I know her like a friend. A friend who has continually battled the inherent sexism and deeply slanted gender politics of the medical profession for twenty years and still can’t rustle up one person she can actually rely on among her colleagues.

Elizabeth is a strong person with a laser focus on whatever task she decides to conquer, and an unbelievable loyalty to the teams of medical professionals she works with. She is also unpleasantly honest, demanding and not given to unnecessary niceties. This combination of behaviour raises her to the height of profession, and would be not only tolerated but rewarded and praised in a man. Yet for Elizabeth, this leads to her almost total alienation by her peers. It is a story that women have seen happen over and over again, and it is both slightly astonishing and deeply reassuring to see this recognised and reflected by a male author.

Interwoven with Elizabeth’s narrative is a parallel retelling of the timeline of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle tragedy. This might sound forced and out of place, but in Shuker’s hands it makes perfect sense, both echoing and enhancing Elizabeth’s story – in a complex machine, as in a human being, the smallest failure can lead to disaster. Even though the world knows how the Challenger’s trajectory played out, I still found I was racing to read the next instalment of the timeline.

Wellington plays a small but significant part in the charm of this book. It is surprising that it is still, in 2019, relatively rare to read a book that celebrates its New Zealand-ness rather than smothering it or bleaching it to the point it could be set in any country in the world. So it still feels to me like a fresh delight to read a book so assuredly set in New Zealand.

This is Shuker’s fifth novel and the first I have read. My unread books pile is threatening to engulf my entire house, but based on the strength of A Mistake, I’m willing to add the rest of Shuker’s oeuvre to the towering stack.

Reviewed by Emma Marr

A Mistake
by Carl Shuker
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 978177656145

Book Review: Portrait of The Artist’s Wife, by Barbara Anderson

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_portrait_of_the_artists_wife.jpgVUP has a treat for all lovers of Barbara Anderson’s books – new editions of her books Girls High and Portrait of the Artist’s Wife have been published this year.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife was originally published 27 years ago, in 1992. It has aged well. The themes she explores – the nature of marriage, the place of women in marriage and society, the bone-crunching work of raising children, the rhythms of rural life, the passing of generations – resonate as well in 2019 as they did in 1992.

The novel spans nearly five decades of the life of Sarah Tandy, a talented painter who finds herself married to her childhood friend and the love of her life, Jack Macalister. Jack is an archetypal tortured novelist, a world-class philanderer, and a handy boozer as well. Sarah suffers, silently, for decades as Jack’s needs and wants eclipse all of her own.

Anderson shines a spotlight on the place of women in the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s and to a large extent the 1980s and at the end of this book I had to ask myself, things are better now but are things better enough? It would be interesting to see what the fictional Sarah would make of then gender politics of 2019. Sarah had to live with people questioning whether she could continue to paint as a mother – echoes of our own Prime Minister’s experience as she entered motherhood.

The novel follows Sarah through the birth of children, heartbreak and bereavement, the loss of family and friends, betrayals and triumphs. Anderson paints a portrait of Sarah as fully-fledged flawed and brilliant human being – the injustice, the joy, the grief and the shame feel as real as if it were happening to a best friend.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, the Goodman Fielder Wattie 1992 Book of the Year, is a delightful read. I found myself re-reading passages several times to savour the artful descriptions and the sharp observations.

Anderson has the ability to write about things in a way that make you think about them differently, look at them differently, and appreciate them so much more. Her microscopic attention to detail doesn’t overwhelm, rather it delivers a gift of insight with every description. Describing a cantankerous caretaker she writes that ‘enraged quivering thatches of hair leapt about his forehead and set single spies across the bridge of his nose.’ [p. 223]

When Sarah is having an argument with Jack, who always found the words when she could not, Anderson describes her plight: ‘Words were no use to her, as always they skidded away from what she wished to say, immiscible as petrol scum on puddles.’ [p. 338]

Unlike Sarah, Anderson’s words have considerable staying power, and well deserve their re-publication.

Reviewed by Emma Marr

Portrait of The Artist’s Wife
by Barbara Anderson
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562121

Book Review: End of the Golden Weather, by Bruce Mason

Available at bookshops nationwide.

cv_end-of_the_golden_weather.jpgThis is one of the books re-released as VUP classics.

Like most readers, at least most of my vintage, this is a very familiar work. I have read it, seen it many times, but I had never read the interview which forms the preface to this edition.

It’s absolutely fascinating, and threw up all kinds of reminders. I saw the NZ Players, when they were doing school tours in the early 1960s. I remember the name Bute Hewes as a producer of television. But what stands out from this interview text is the amazing ability of Bruce Mason, not only as a writer but as a performer. More than 500 solo performances of this work is a staggering achievement. Add to that no props at all, and you can only be stunned at the determination and the audacity (Mason says that Emlyn Williams, when asked for advice, appeared stupefied at Mason’s audacity in thinking he could pull this off at all!) that drove Mason. He wanted us to see this work, and if no-one else would perform it (which sadly was the case) then he must needs do it himself. 40 characters, one actor.

Thank heaven, is all I can say to that.

There’s a reported conversation between Mason and a theatre-goer ( a reluctant one!) who enjoyed the show despite himself, and mentions a red light. Mason says there was no red light. I empathise with the theatregoer, as when I saw the Goons movie, I could swear Harry Secombe was wearing a ‘flowered cretonne frock’ in his bit about the queen. Of course he wasn’t; it was radio, after all, translated to the stage. But that’s the power of theatre, and of the actor.

So, reading the whole ‘voyage into childhood’ that makes up this work is an absolute delight. I am over and over again in awe of Mason’s creative and linguistic abilities.

The end of the golden weather, the end of childhood innocence and the kicking-in of the harsh realities of life are timeless.

If you never have seen or read this ( and there will be many readers who have not) do yourself a favour. Buy, borrow, beg or steal it and immerse yourself in a true and magnificent New Zealand classic.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

End of the Golden Weather  

by Bruce Mason
Published by VUP
ISBN 9780864732729

Book review: Short Poems of New Zealand, edited by Jenny Bornholdt

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_short_poems_of_new_zealandI’ll be the first to admit I didn’t expect to like this book. I loved the concept – the idea of a collection of short poems by New Zealand writers – but I saw the list of authors and felt a little disappointed

Experienced, known writers are usually the ones people gravitate towards. We figure if they got to where they are, they must be good. We feel safe in their hands.

I’m the opposite. I prefer to read new writers with different voices. I don’t often pick up Janet Frame or Sam Hunt, which probably makes me a philistine and a traitor to New Zealand literature.

Bornholdt’s vision was a collection of poems that ‘relate stories, describe memorable scenes, set off emotional grenades, sense death, declare love, make jokes.’ She had to decide what defined “short” – ten lines felt too long, six too restrictive. She settled on nine.

‘Ive begun to think of short poems as being the literary equivalent of the small house movement. Small houses contain the same essential spaces as large houses do. Both have places in which to eat, sleep, bathe and sit; the difference being that small houses are, well, smaller. … You might have to go outside to swing the cat, but you can still have the thought indoors.’

I liked the concept. I’ve always been a strict editor, I appreciate the talent involved in brevity. And though I opened the book with the belief that I’d find little to grab me, I was happy to be proved wrong.

I use cardboard gift tags to mark pages when I’m reviewing. This small book is now plump with card, so there’s no way of doing everything justice here. However, some beg noting, like this by Keri Hulme –

I asked for riches
you gave me
scavenging rights on a far beach

James K Baxter’s High Country Weather –

Alone we are born
And die alone;
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
Over snow-mountain shine.

Upon the upland road
Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
Your heart of anger.

Elizabeth Nannestad’s You gave me a shoulder –

smelling of the sun
I can bite on, or weep.

What can I give you
so it’s fair?

Take
my rough, unsteady
compassion while you sleep.

I also reacted strongly to Fleur Adcock’s Things, Stephanie de Montalk’s The Hour, and Ashleigh Young’s Rooms, and ten others besides.

There really is something special about this length of poem, the life it condenses, the feeling it squeezes out of you.

In an interesting editorial choice, the book finishes with James Brown’s ‘The opening’ –

There is too much
poetry in the world

and yet

here you are.

Reviewed by Sarah Lin Wilson

Short Poems of New Zealand
edited by Jenny Bornholdt
Published by VUP
ISBN  9781776562022