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

 

Book Review: Headlands – New Stories of Anxiety, ed. by Naomi Arnold

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_headlands‘Anxiety sucks,’ says author Kirsten McDougall in her Headlands essay. Although this neatly sums up what it’s like to live with anxiety – and is echoed by other contributors – Kirsten and many others also write about hope and acceptance, gratitude and understanding. This excellent book makes it clear that many people with anxiety learn to live well.

Headlands is a powerful and comprehensive contribution to the New Zealand literature on mental health and wellbeing. Contributors write bravely and brilliantly about what it’s like to live with anxiety. Perhaps they are your friend or colleague, your parent or partner, your doctor, bus friend or the person you nod at on your morning dog-walk.

There may or may not be any outward sign that they experience anxiety. As the stories in Headlands show, there are many different ways that people learn to cope or cover it up.
Editor Naomi Arnold reveals that last year one in five New Zealanders sought help for a diagnosed mood or anxiety disorder. If you are one of the estimated thousands who have ‘stayed silent’, Headlands may encourage you to talk things over with someone who can help. Arnold has succeeded in her mission to draw together voices that offer ‘reassurance and validation’ to individuals and whānau affected by anxiety.

‘Bringing this collection together was a delicate task,’ Arnold explains, because ‘there’s still a stigma in talking about mental health.’ In total 31 contributors from a diverse range of backgrounds share their experiences. Most are living with anxiety themselves, although Headlands also includes chapters by a physiotherapist, a suicide prevention officer, and a couple of clinical psychologists who are exploring the use of micronutrients to alleviate anxiety.

Although the contributors use many of the same words to describe how anxiety feels – often referring to an overwhelming sense of panic, dread, or fear – there are lots of different ways that their anxiety is manifested. Some write about eating disorders, insomnia and nail-biting, others mention anger, self-harm, indecision and paralysis. Singer, songwriter and poet Hinemoana Baker has what she describes as ‘somatised anxiety’ where anxiety is expressed though physical symptoms that cause pain.
Donna McLeod (Taranaki born and now living in Motueka) offers her community’s voice in a strong and poignant poetic narrative describing the anxiety shared among wāhine Māori.

Some contributors can trace the probable cause of their anxiety, with several referring to childhood abuse. Others see a genetic link, recognising symptoms of anxiety across generations of relatives. Arnold observes that some people may not be aware that they have anxiety and consequently will not seek help. Yet a diagnosis is not the be-all and end-all. As Bonnie Etherington notes ‘…there are days when a diagnosis offers me room to understand myself and other days it does not’. Eamonn Marra explains that when he learned to use mindfulness to acknowledge anxious feelings as they surfaced rather than ignoring them, this was ‘the biggest step towards being able to manage [the anxiety]’.
Several contributors mention experiencing anxiety when they were children, although at the time they did not have the word to identify the feeling, nor yet the self-awareness to recognise what it was. Over time there may be a gradual realisation and awareness of what helps and what hinders. Holly Walker writes of an ongoing cycle of learning about what she calls her ‘limitations’: ‘It’s a strange thing, having to revise your ideas about yourself’.

What helps varies from person to person. Contributors have tried a range of methods – including self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Some have been admitted for psychiatric care. Others describe the benefits of meditation, yoga, running and other forms of exercise. For writer and actor Michelle Langstone, caring for sick and injured birds was central to her own journey towards wellbeing. Medication works well for some, although several contributors write about their reluctance to consider it.

I attended a panel discussion during Wellington’s recent LitCrawl event where four of the people who contributed to Headlands talked about their experiences. Editor Naomi Arnold chaired the sold-out session. Reiterating themes from the book several speakers mentioned the benefits of meditation and exercise, and one recommended having a conversation with a doctor about what’s right for you. ‘Medication’ said one panelist, ‘complements good life decisions’. Headlands makes it clear that there may be some trial and error involved to work out what will suit someone requiring support to manage their anxiety – and that what works best may change over time.

If the cover of this book was audible it would perhaps be a buzzing static or a low off-key bass hum. In particular, the cover art is a striking expression of Holly Walker’s ‘jangling world’ and its ‘cacophony of sound’.

If you are living with anxiety – or questioning whether you are – or if someone you know or care about has an anxiety-related disorder and you want to know how you might support and help them, Headlands offers ideas, insights and hope.

‘I wonder how many people live without anxiety? It can’t be that many!’ says musician Riki Gooch. Even if you are one of these people, this book is for you too. As Arnold reminds us, all New Zealanders – including whānau, communities, colleagues, and health workers – have a shared responsibility to learn, to listen and to accept, and to make it easier for people affected by anxiety to access appropriate help and support.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Headlands: New Stories of Anxiety
Edited by Naomi Arnold
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561896

Book Review: louder, by Kerrin P. Sharpe

Available in selected bookshops nationwide. 

cv_louder.jpgThe modern world is a catastrophic uproar of voices, all speaking with the hope that someone is listening. Even the act of listening can feel like a painful way to navigate the world. There is so much to hear, to try and understand, and the breadth of variety in human life is incomprehensible. The act of saying anything at all can feel helpless amongst the noise. But in this collection of poetry, Kerrin P. Sharpe seems to say, go louder, still.

The title poem of louder starts off with an imagined scene:

elephants paint their faces
to restore themselves

adding tusks where poachers
took their ivory

The idea of imagined elephants taking back what has been taken from them is a bittersweet image. Sharpe continues:

even as guns are raised
and calves stumble
into scopes even as

trunks and heads are mutilated
their painting continues
louder than bullets

The imagined elephants are like peaceful protestors, claiming the small semblance of autonomy that they can through the art of self-creation. And although it is an inspiring image, it is a helpless image too. Painting in 2D can only bring back so much, even if it is through self-expression. The original is still lost, something has been lost, something has been taken by force. And the bullets are still ongoing.

The elephants, like the elephant on the cover, are the beginning march and voice of this collection. Sharpe portrays another powerful voice in her piece they are found in the sea. In this poem, Sharpe explores the viewpoint of a refugee at sea. She explores how strange it is to be amongst the ocean for so long and to be travelling so far away.

my world is the sea
my eyes the sky

All that is seen is sky, vision is turned into sky, eyes become sky. Sharpe continues to explore this fantastical world of sea and sky, with humans stuck in between. She explains how:

my brothers are birds
they wear beaks

But the most moving image comes at the end of the poem. The world of sea and sky may be fantastical and alluring, but there is still one greater wish for home and the comfort of land.

bury me
in the pelt of trees

The final section of Sharpe’s collection, where will the fish sleep?, was also incredibly moving. In this section, Sharpe provides answers to this title question. Maybe the fish will sleep still in the sea after a tsunami, after some great disaster. The zoo will crumble with the fish too. After all,

men climbed the great domes and towers to bring back to Earth spires bells crosses
to melt into money to build a zoo
when the flood came priests told us the zoo was never an ark

I did find the collection overwhelming, but I expected it to, as these issues can be just as overwhelming in real life. The amount of empathy required to understand every voice is a true endeavour. By cataloguing voices and views into concrete words that bring images together, Sharpe is clearing the uproar a little. Being able to identify all these issues, with great evocative images, is a way to work towards them.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

louder
by Kerrin P. Sharpe
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561964

Book Review: We Can Make a Life, by Chessie Henry

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_we_can_make_a_lifeChessie Henry’s We Can Make a Life is a powerful, affecting memoir. Spanning a family history of adventure, love, bravery and loss, Henry writes tenderly about her family’s journey through multiple traumatic experiences – including the Christchurch and Kaikōura earthquakes – and their unbending courage in the face of them.

We Can Make a Life leaves a lingering imprint. It demands to be felt; emotionally impactful, it invites the reader to empathise with and reflect on the shared experience of trauma. A freelance writer based in Wellington, author Chessie Henry is a Master of Creative Writing graduate of the IIML. A book ‘that’s been swimming around my head for the last couple of years’, We Can Make a Life is her debut work.

The book opens with an email from Christopher Henry, Chessie’s father, describing his burnout following years of non-stop work as a rural GP. Written one week before he received a Bravery Medal for his role in the Christchurch 2011 earthquake, the placing of this desperate email is deliberate. Not only a call for help from Chris, the letter is a warning against the overwork of our New Zealand medical (particularly rural) personnel.

Jumping back to the ‘beginning’, Henry details her parent’s childhoods and schooling in England; Chris and Esther’s escapades as young adults; their serendipitous meeting through Esther’s brother Andrew – Chris’s best friend – and their adventurous (and, on occasion, terrifying) one-year honeymoon trekking across Africa. Henry describes her parent’s early life and marriage with a gentle warmth which dips but never delves into sentimentality. We get the sense that Chris and Esther are wanderers: people content to embrace every possible opportunity no matter where it may lead. When Esther was seven months pregnant with Chessie, the couple emigrated to Sumner, Christchurch.

Four younger brothers – Finn, Matt, Rufus, and Rocky – soon followed, and Henry depicts the fun (and challenges) of growing up within such a large family. When Chessie was nine, the family (with five children under ten) moved to Tokelau, where Chris worked as GP to the tiny island community. Facing multiple stressful – and dangerous – trials, the year in Tokelau was the first massive upheaval in the Henrys’ lives.

Following moves back to Sumner, then Kaikōura, and then the beautiful rural area of Clarence where Esther worked to create the perfect family home, the reader is completely emotionally invested in every member of this close-knit, warm and hilarious family. This makes the chapters on the 2011 Christchurch earthquake even more hard-hitting. The unedited interviews with Chris and Esther are both poignant and harrowing, depicting first-person accounts of the devastation the February 22 Christchurch earthquake, and the 14 November 2016 Kaikōura earthquake, caused. Chris’s honest account of the rescue mission at the collapsed CTV building is particularly difficult to read, but so important.

Henry’s personal story is the glue that connects the disparate chapters together. The memoir is partly a story of Henry writing the memoir; of conversations and interviews with family members and friends – be they in the car, over dinner, at the bar, or in a leaky Wellington flat. The memoir recalls important talismans in Henry’s life that hold significant personal importance – such as a broken seagull ornament – that are catalysts and anchors for unravelling memories. We Can Make a Life is the story of Henry working as a curator of her family history: sifting through the pieces that make the cut, choosing those which do not – and being open about this process and its difficulties. The result is a neatly ordered memoir: each chapter tells a segment of the family story.

A starkly current book, it opens the floor for multiple discussions. It highlights the issues facing the New Zealand medical scene: not only the inadequate funding of rural centres and personnel, but also the problems facing overworked staff in an understaffed system. The memoir highlights the present mental health crisis, particularly the insidious ‘black dog’ that haunts not only the Henry family, but people across New Zealand.

We Can Make a Life is a timely, evocative, empathetic and finely crafted memoir. Written in beautifully detailed prose (‘Even the hills seemed colourless, wet rocks that had slid out of the ocean like tired swimmers, their spines curling back towards the sea’), this memoir will provoke multiple conversations. My recommendation: go read it, and then send it on – mine is winging its way towards my parents as I write.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

We Can Make a Life
by Chessie Henry
Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561940

Book Review: Memory Pieces, by Maurice Gee

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Memory Pieces cover.jpgMemory Pieces is made up of three separate pieces of memoir – the first, Double Unit, is the story of Maurice Gee’s parents, the second, Blind Road, is about Maurice’s own life until he became a writer at the age of 18, and the third part, Running on the Stairs, is the story of Margareta Garden, prior to meeting her future husband Maurice Gee.

On the face of it, this is just another memoir. However in the hands of a writer as talented as Maurice Gee, (and also of his mother Lyndahl Chapple), you become completely involved in the life and times of these people, in a way that simply draws you in to continue reading.

The Chapple family were quite possibly a little unusual in that James (Our Father in Lyndahl’s story) shifted most of his large family to the United States for a time, as he was a pacifist who would likely have landed up in jail in New Zealand. That’s a pretty brave move for anyone, but seems particularly so for the time (just prior to World War 1). Lyndahl’s story is a delightful picture of a childhood in the early part of the 20th century, and I just wish she had not stopped so abruptly. The reasons for her not continuing a potential career as a writer become clear in Maurice’s part of the story.

Maurice’s story also captures time and place brilliantly. It made me think– as I frequently do – that we need to get our family stories told before those who can provide much-needed facts and anecdotes are unable to do so.

Told in Double Unit, Lyndahl and Len are an interesting couple with not a great deal in common: Len a practical and pragmatic builder, a hard worker, providing for his family, keen on racing, while Lyndahl’s interests were not quite on the same page. Len did build her a writing desk, though!

As with most families, all was not smooth sailing and as a parent, Lyndahl had some dark times, which took their toll on the family. Again, you realise that these things are far more common than we imagine, and there are few families untouched by trauma or difficulties of one kind or another.

Margareta’s story, told by Maurice in Running on the Stairs, brings a young Swedish girl to NZ with her mother to reunite with their husband and father, Oscar Garden, a renowned pilot. Again, trauma and difficulty are apparent, and the marriage does not last. Margareta comes across as a strong, determined young woman, adapting with apparent ease to constantly changing circumstances.

There’s a great deal in this book to reflect on, and in which to find similarities of upbringing, belief and experience. I found it a fascinating read – it’s sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes drily humorous and often extremely touching.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Memory Pieces
by Maurice Gee
VUP 2018
ISBN 9781776562077

Book Review: Searches For Tradition: Essays on New Zealand Music Past and Present, edited by Michael Brown and Samantha Owens

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_searches_for_tradition2015 marked the centenary celebrations of the birth of iconic Kiwi composer Douglas Lilburn. Lilburn’s influence on musical composition extends way beyond the notes on a page or the resonances of a concert chamber. Those lucky enough to gain a residency in his Kelburn house will have felt his presence when composing their own works. Amongst the many centenary events. a conference of noted scholars and musicologists was held by the New Zealand Musicological Society. The theme, also the title of this collection, was a poignant reminder of how far we’ve come. Once we believed, like Mulgan, that we were ‘men alone’, against the elements, against the drift from motherland England. The essays in this collection are base on the conference’s delivered papers but they reveal more than simple historical notations.

The title actually picks up the conversation from Lilburn’s own work ‘A search for tradition’, a talk given at the first Cambridge Summer School of Music in January 1946 in which he spelled out his hopes that a distinctive art music might yet emerge here.. The lecture is a plea for ‘the necessity of having a music of our own … A music that will satisfy those parts of our being that cannot be satisfied by the music of other nations.’

Sixty years on, we have this rather scholarly compilation of essays, divided in to categories of interest. The collection opens, appropriately on the topic of Colonial Traditions, featuring a piece from Elizabeth Nichol investigating our own rich tradition of composition. Back then, most writers were music teachers and men and women with day jobs (not much has changed, there) but the creative pool was deep and vast.

Musically, the music was not just whalers songs and sea shanties. This was a country settled by a swath of educated middle classes, she says, and they all brought with them pianos and brass. As early as 1857, composers were bringing European influences and mixing them with local aspects. Harriet Barlow for instance, created a New Zealand Polka whilst John Beale was smitten with particular ravines further south and wrote ‘angiruru Galop. And so it went, Nichol notes – this transplant of European dance traditions into local settings. The amount of publishing that occurred, especially from London and Sydney presses impressed me greatly. Remember, Aotearoa was in reputation only 10 years old on the world stage. Who even knew we were here?

With A.E Wilson’s New Zealand Waltz we start to really see a proper search for identity and nationhood in music. Remember, music was an expression of national identity. Thomas Bracken knew this when he wrote our own National Anthem, albeit as poetry.
The search for our own voice continues with editor Samantha Owens, who looks, at some depth, into the establishment of a New Zealand Conservatorium Of Music. The notion being that music was part of established and respectable culture. I was surprised how early this came about – 1906. Interestingly, the rationale to create such a school came from musicians who’d been taught in Dresden, the heart of culture at the time. The desire for elitism in the arts began early.

Melissa Cross looks at the practice of cultural appropriation in her piece about Alfred Hill. She asks – Maori Songs: Whose Tradition? In the early part of the century Hill joined the craze to collect and ‘Europeanise’ indigenous music and traditions. It happened all over the world as Westerners became smitten by ‘native’ relics and traditions, even music. And so he’d appropriate the Waiata of ‘Maoriland’ for commercial gain, to publish in script for piano and orchestra. This was a time when sheet music sold as well as records would eventually 20 years later.

There’s a section about the Lilburn legacy itself, where we learn in depth about the man himself. Composer, educator, innovationist Douglas Lilburn, originally from Wanganui, was one of our most revered experimental composers.. His career, as one of the essays in this book informs us had three distinct periods, beginning with his time at the Royal College of Music, London, where he was tutored in composition by revered composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

After returning to New Zealand he eventually took up residence as an academic at Victoria University in Wellington and in 1970 was appointed Professor with a personal chair in Music in 1970.

In the 1960’s, along with Jack Body, he started to experiment with electronic music, eventually founding the Electronic Music Studio at Wellington’s Victoria University in 1966 and becoming its Director until 1979. Fiona McAlpine gives us a short but heartfelt and irreverent account of those times in and around his and Jack’s experiments using rudimentary electronic equipment.

On another plane, Michael Brown considers Lilburn’s own search for identity, coming as he was from a Gaelic and British point of reference. This particular piece is a musicologist’s dream, as he dissects a number of Lilburn’s compositions looking for clues. Lilburn was highly praised. He won many prizes and scholarships including the Percy Grainger Competition, 1936, which he won for his tone poem ‘Forest’. McAlpine looks at how Lilburn worked and reworked his electronica into his poems for broadcast on the NZBC. I found it fascinating that such a staunch institution would embrace experimentation like this. Such was the progressive art world of the day. Sadly, there’s no chance you’d hear something like that, outside a youtube clip. Have we really progressed?

This book also looks at the influences on Māori Music in Valance Smith’s piece. There the influences are examined in an almost anthropological way. We are asked if there really can be a ‘tradition’ for Māori music, given it is always been a genre that’s borrowed – first from Pasifica, then the birds, the Missionaries, and later from Europeans.

Interesting was jazz academic Norman Meehan’s piece on the burgeoning Jazz scene in New Zealand, influenced by American and European players but also borrowing from artists like Len Lye, who mixed the arts with music as a sort of rebellious conversation. Aleisha Ward adds to Chris Bourke’s popular study of the development of a Jazz Community in the 1940’s, recognising the professional and artistic mix of players in an era when musicians could really earn a buck playing in nightclubs and dance halls. RNZ’s Nick Tipping has a few words on the traditions searched for in jazz compositions over the years.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. This book is a veritable treasure trove, bringing together an increasingly varied collection of perspectives on what `tradition’ means in the context of the music in this part of the world from colonial music to the contemporary revitalization of taonga puoro. Along the way it raises a few critical issues about the shifting sands of biculturalism and national pride, uncovers forgotten aspects of local history, performance practice and even composition itself.

Yes, it’s an academic book. A little dense at times, but if you like to dip in and out, as I have over the last month, you’ll be rewarded with some stimulating reading. This one should appeal to a wide range of enthusiasts of New Zealand music’s past and into future.

Michael Brown is Curator Music at the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington. Samantha Owens is Associate Professor of Musicology at Victoria University.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Searches For Tradition: Essays on New Zealand Music Past and Present
Edited by Michael Brown and Samantha Owens
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561773