Tracey Slaughter, Conventional Weapons, Victoria University Press, 2019
Tracey Slaughter came to my attention as a fiction writer; I adored deleted scenes for lovers VUP, 2016) and lauded it in my SST review:
Tracey Slaughter’s daring short fiction deposits you on a rollercoaster, hoists you in the air, puts you in a dank, dark cupboard to eavesdrop, spins you round and round, makes you feel things to the nth degree.
Conventional Weapons is Tracey’s first full poetry collection but she has been publishing poetry for over two decades. She was the featured poet in Poetry NZ 25 (2002) and has published Her body rises: stories & poems (2005). She has received multiple awards including the international Bridport Prize in 2014, a 2007 New Zealand Book Month Award, and Katherine Mansfield Awards in 2004 and 2001. She also won the 2015 Landfall Essay Competition, and was the recipient of the 2010 Louis Johnson New Writers Bursary.
Like her fiction Tracey’s poetry is unafraid of dark subject matter: violence lament teenage eating teenage not eating abortion trauma. You will also find sex need desire love. The subject matter is important but it is the poetic effects that first strike me. There is an intensity of rhythm, an insistent beat that holds a poem together like a subterranean heartdrum, a breath metronome. It is no surprise that Tracey was (and is?) a drummer.
We deepdish kiss in the purple of your parents’ lounge,
a bunker plump with buttoned vinyl, fringed
with cocktail lamps. Your little brother doctors himself
a tower of afterschool toast and shovels into the corduroy
beanbag, watching claptrap TV—we’ll lip-sync those jingles
with their punchline chords the rest of our lives;
The beat in this two-and-a-bit page poem catches the intensity of after-school kissing, the heightened breath as the poem ‘sucks’ in detail of tongues and pashing, with an eye looking sideways to make the citrine kitchen and the purple lounge pulsatingly real. I am bowled over by the syntax, by the surprising juxtapositions of words, the lithe rhyme. I need to let the sonic impact sink in deep and savour the exquisite word play. Yes the young kissers are ‘archaeological’ but so too is the poet as she digs deep for flakes of the past and reposits them in the present tense.
The poem ‘the bridge’ also employs lithe syntax and rhythms to replay the urgency of kiss and touch:
Let feet slip on
sills of shell, a spiral
perimeter of crush.
the light into
muscled canals we need
to oar & plough, tough-thighed
in the bridge’s underworld.
Often the poems are made electric by the present tense. The opening poem ‘she is currently living’ is a startling portrait, written like a mantra, all lower case, even after the full stops, so you are compelled to keep listening to ‘where’ she is currently living:
in a dead-end off jellicoe. in the waiting room of blue vinyl fear. she is currently
living in supermarket flowers that whisper buy me in their middle-class plastic.
she is currently living in a red metal playpen riding her stepsister’s rocking horse.
If Tracey’s aural dexterity keeps you on your reading toes so do her shifting forms. There are long form poems, bite-size pieces, block prose, fractured lines, lists, multiple choice. The poem ‘how to solve and 18-year sadness’ sits on the page like heart break – the heart hinted at, the break holding apart past and present, the sadness hiding in the crevice. Another poem ‘horoscope (the cougar speaks)’ sets word clusters against left and right hand margins. The poem with its film-noir lighting centres desire, attraction, loneliness, suicide drifting song lyrics that are cut off short as the speaker finds her way:
there are girls to pick
the wings off
but I’m not one of them
And now the subject matter. For me Conventional Weapons foregrounds character, women characters, which makes this book dig even deeper under my skin. The experience is often attached to trauma, the settings lit up in neon detail, the emotional core razor sharp. I posted a piece on Poetry Shelf from ‘it was the 70s when me & Karen Carpenter hung out’ and even in that brief extract the effects were incandescent. This is a poem of youth, song lyrics and singing, macramé, neon lights, freezer food, the backseats of cars, orange lounges, soap operas, instant things but it is also a poem of vomit and of bodies eating and starving, of the traumatic smash of eating disorders.
me & Karen carpenter
to the hangout
wall & lay down
under our own gatefold
smiles. The ridges of our mouths
tasted like corduroy & the hangout
door was a polygon of unhinged
ultra-violet. We stole lines from stones
& rolled them like acid
checkers on each
other’s tongues, testing
the discs of our tucked spines as we
When I return to the poem ‘horoscope (the cougar speaks)’, I return to the spike in the poem’s flow, the suicide that cuts into you as you trace the portrait of a woman:
& that last verse
back with your bad
translations of love
one writs italicised
‘the mine wife’ is another imagined portrait; a long poem that features the wife of a miner lost in the Pike River disaster and the wife’s ‘grief is opencast’. In Wild Honey I write about the way poets might step into the shoes of another’s trauma, tragedy, loss, grievance, dislocation, wrongs, grief in order to make public horrific things both as a distant and/or close witness. Is this trespass? Is this keeping trauma and human wrongs in public view? For centuries writers have imagined beyond their own experience. In this poem I am heart struck by the way a woman continues to live alongside death, in the fist of life once lived, in the daily routines of food and laundry, in the coming up for air from the dark.
to stand at the mouth
takes a long journey. It’s like
a cathedral to all
we’ve done wrong. I thought
seeing it would cave me in. But it’s the peace
of the place that doubles me over.
The birds go on dialling
God. Even without you, the trees
don’t come to a standstill. Healing is
not clearcut. Air makes the sound of where
you were last seen. I listen
for scraps in the hush.
Grief is opencast.
Tracey’s poetry reaches me just as her short fiction has: her daring poems deposit you on a rollercoaster, hoist you in the air, put you in a dank, dark cupboard to eavesdrop, spin you round and round, make you feel things to the nth degree. I can think of no other local poet who has this effect on me. The collection will slip under my clothes and travel with me for months. It is a book I feel and it is a book I think and I adore it.
Victoria University page
Rae McGregor review at RNZ National
Jack Ross launch speech (with images)