Emma Neale Tender Machines Otago University Press 2015
Emma Neale’s new poetry collection features a striking drawing by her son, Abe. Surprising, inventive, poetic even. The poetry is Emma’s best yet, dare I say it. To step off from the title, tenderness meets sharp edges meets exquisite moving parts, small yet perfectly formed. The collection holds you in the intimate embrace of home, yet takes you out into the wider allure of the wider world. Issues, ideas, preoccupations.
The first section, ‘Bad Housekeeping,’ is where poet tends hearth. Mostly, and movingly, Emma navigates her relations with her young son. She is up against the elbows of insistence, demands, resistance. The mind of the mother is anchoring, roving, admitting. She is in the heart of a toddler tantrum and in the palm of world issues. These poems affect you. You can savour the poetic craft that is honey for the ear. Such musical harmonies and schisms. That is one joy of reading. You can enter the toughness and rewards of motherhood. It is as though maternal experience is the stock pot that is simmered and concentrated to a syrup that is both sweet and tart on the tongue. The poems become the kind of poems you can hang stories upon; of this child and that child, of this moment of mothering and that. Poetry has the ability to bear story, experience, imaginings, ideas, music — all in its one tender machine (oxymoron and all). These remarkable poems do this. ‘Hard Task, Master’ is a miniature snapshot of the child — its ending breathtaking:
as he tries
to build and build
the deck of himself
against the hard, tall wall
of the world.
At times it is the concatenation of verb or noun on the line that catches you in a knot of maternal thought — son glued to mother, mother glued to son. As in ‘Towards a Theory of Aggression in Early Childhood Development’:
Hit, push, lash, scratch,
these cheeks, this jaw, this shoulder,
are these in truth our edges, outlines, will we cry
as he does, daily, nightly, sky-wrenching as sunrise
yet still hold him in our arms
There is poetic braveness here that doesn’t loiter in conventional maternal paradigms. This is a poet opening layers of skin to get to where it hurts, confuses, demands, yet never loses sight of the enduring bond. The love. This is from ‘Domestic’:
you’re our darling our treasure.
You fling a tea cup at the cat,
plump up her spine like a goose-down pillow,
jab your thumbs at your father’s face
as if to pull out its two blue plums
but ah, little fisty-kins, honeyghoul, thorny-pie,
grapple hook of your daddy’s flooded eye,
stitch by stitch hope’s small black sutures
sew love’s shadow behind you.
The rest of the collection represents a mind engaged with the world at large. There is a strong political vein that never relinquishes the notion that the personal is political and that, importantly, the political is personal. Big issues such as consumerism, the compromised state of the planet, greed, waste are there potency ingredient in the ink of the pen, yet Emma’s ideas find poetic life in a variety of ways. Always there is an attentiveness to sound, to the way the poems hit the ear before the eye/mind drifts elsewhere. Assonance is plentiful. Delicious. The musicality is a first port of admiration that sends you back to reread with ears on alert. One poem, overtly and self-reflexively, plays with musical effects, yet delivers a subterranean plea for the earth (‘”Properly Protecting the Most Pure Marine Ecosystem Left on Earth Was Not Consistent with the Government’s Economic Growth Objective”‘. Here is a sample:
The spring tries to write
its long lyric poem again:
grass blade rhymes wing tip;
leaf rim, gull keen;
salt foam, thought arc;
surf break, line break;
historical break, heart break;
riven river, toxic stream;
smoked ozone, glacial melt.
So many standout poems. I especially loved the way ‘Suburban Story’ moves. It begins with a ‘shopkeeper at my old corner store’ and then travels through a poignant catalogue of losses, minor and major. Again the exquisite ear at work, again the pulsating detail.
This is a collection of reflection, revelation, absorption. Emma wrote many of these poems during her tenure as The NZSA/Beaton Fellow, The Otago Robert Burns Fellow and The University of Otago/ Sir James Wallace Pah Homestead Writer in Residence. Such awards benefit the poet immeasurably with the gift of writing space and time. You can see it in the gold nuggets of this book. In another favourite poem, ‘Sleep-talking,’ the clogged channels of thought become poetry. Emma takes you into a deep private space in her writing; in ways that sing and challenge, that move and muster every poetic muscle and tendon as you read — in this poem and in the book as a whole.
Perhaps for the self to hold its own air
it must be played in the key of sleep:
the body an instrument that over time
we must keep pitched, soaked in night like a reed softened in water,
while dreams tune the mind’s strings with a touch that seems
as precise as if the musician’s ear cranes deep
Otago University Press page
Emma Neale on her title
From the book: ‘Origins‘ posted on Poetry Shelf