Kirsten Warner, Mitochondrial Eve, Compound Press, 2018
Kirsten’s Warner is a writer, poet, journalist and musician and former chair of the Auckland Society of Authors. She graduated with an MA in Creative Writing with Distinction from AUT and won the Landfall essay competition in 2008. She performs as a musician with partner Bernie Griffen in the folk-blues band Bernie Griffen and The Thin Men. Makāro Press published her debut novel The Sound of Breaking Glass in 2018. Her poetry has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies. Her debut chapbook Mitochondrial Eve also came out in 2018. This slender collection is the kind of book you can spend ages with. I read it on the plane to Wellington and once I got to the end of the book I returned to the beginning and read it again. Goodness knows what the passengers either side of me thought. They wouldn’t have known I was poetry rich with a stack of books waiting to be read in my bag.
The six poem titles resemble a narrative framing device: beginning with heartbreak, then moving through dailiness and despair, to a degree of release:
The Location of Heartbreak
Plant a Red Hibiscus
S. O. S.
In a Nutshell
Off the Leash
Each poem is exquisitely layered as things are held at arm’s length, obstacles loom, the real world intrudes bright and harmonic, words are lithe on the line. Here is the first stanza of the first poem that pulls you into threat and challenge through the rhythm of walking with its pauses and asides:
I surface dismantled
heart-sore here in the area of the left breast,
certain the most meaningful part of life
is lived while dreaming
and that to awake is to fail to fall
into an abyss of light.
from ‘The Location of Heartbreak’
The heart-threatened core (of the poem, of self), unsettling and hard to reach, is like an insistent pulse that keeps me reading:
I step over cracks so I won’t marry a Jack
resist walking out into traffic
we don’t have a bath and I’d have to find blades
and it’s an end I want not intensification
someone to find me before I drift away.
The second poem, ‘Plant a Red Hibiscus’, returns to the rhythm of ‘feet on the pavement’, but changes pace as the speaker takes charge of a bulldozer. Always the incandescent core, like a burning wound, enigmatic, exposing; the poet never still. Here is the musing speaker at the bulldozer’s helm; I am holding my breath as I read:
Things that also might be worth living for are
small dark orphan babies who need arms to hold them
I would sit for hours.
Gathering fallen leaves,
we are all compost exchanging molecules and air.
Plant a red hibiscus.
Spread good dark soil, pick up dry leaves, hold a baby.
I don’t make assumptions about the speaker in the six poems. She might be the ‘Egyptian Goddess stalking the town!’ She might be part poet, part invention, part delight in different voices. The poem ‘In a Nutshell’ samples role hopping from Eve with mitochondrial disorder (misbehaving cells that can’t burn food and convert oxygen to energy) to Katherine Mansfield in her German pension, Suzie Wong getting STDs, Carmen Miranda breaking into song, Mata Hari watching time flying over rooftops, until the final glorious, puzzling stanza that hooks the stitches of everyday into the whip and pain of existence:
When I eat nuts
I am Nut
the whole shebang
born of ululation
moisture and fire crackers.
I have no consort
hocking my starry dress
trying to get back up me.
I bear down
swallow the night
to make school lunches
and hold up the sky.
This hallucinogenic, rollercoaster, gut punch of book runs through me like fire. I love it.
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