Poetry Shelf review: Holly Painter’s Excerpts from a Natural History – This book is a tonic for me as a reader

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Excerpts from a Natural History Holly Painter  Titus Books  2015

 

This book is a tonic for me as a reader and a boost in the blood for poetry. I adore it.

John Newton’s endorsement on the back is perfect: ‘Holly Painter is a trickster poet, you never know where she is going next. Sometimes she wants to lick your ear. Over the page she might chew your ear off.’

The launch pad for the collection: ‘When the British natural philosophers of the 17th century founded modern natural history, they proposed finding a poet to compile a poetic account of everything that existed in nature, very broadly defined. Four hundred years later, the work is ongoing, made modern and rigorous with rules and style-guides, managers and research-poets.’

The notion of a research-poet sidetracked me into other poet roles that have existed or might exist: speculative-poet, domestic-poet, Sunday-poet, global-village-poet, experience-poet, travel-poet, theory-poet, heart-poet.

The collection is made up of the submissions of a researcher-poet but made infinitely more interesting by the tracked comments of her supervisor and the myriad ideas and relations that proliferate.

The poet-researcher is set assignments that demand inventories and lists of things that include the natural world (regenerating starfish, the kakapo) but veer wildly into a material world (buttons for sale, ‘Tubular Bells’) and curious things between (flower motifs for teenage courtship).

The supervisor demands the voice of reason, clarity, facts, comprehensive lists, specificity, neutrality and rebuffs anecdotes, adverbs, poetic licence, personal confession.

Sometimes the submissions are laugh out loud as in the light of the recovery work of ‘Tubular Bells’ or the counting of buttons (how long did it take?).

The tracking comments form editorial advice but also trace the relationship between supervisor and researcher-poet(this label keeps slipping in my hands!). The reaction of the supervisor to relations beyond editorial choices is explicit in the tracked comments; the reaction of the latter is buried in the poetry submissions. Love hijacks the cool calculation of inventories. The very guts of ‘natural history’ and what that might embody is reinvented.

Holly employs a range of styles, tones, rhymes, layouts, silences, musicalities as though the heart cannot be penned (excuse the pun!) within a style-guide. The collection is dexterous on its tip toes as it gets you thinking about categories and categorisations, hierarchies and dichotomies, and the way love cannot resist (avoid) anecdote, confession, adverbs.

The book is beautiful. The paper gorgeous to the hand, while the cover’s marigolds almost fill the room with a nostalgic scent.

I highly recommend this book.

Holly is an MFA graduate from the University of Canterbury. Her poetry has been included in Sport, Landfall, the NZ Listener and JAAM. She lives in Singapore with her wife and son.

Titus Books here

Holly Painter’s web site

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