Emma Neale, To the Occupant, Otago University Press, 2019
Emma Neale has published five novels and five poetry collections, edited several anthologies and is the current editor of Landfall. She has won numerous awards including The Kathleen Grattan Award for her collection Truth Garden (2011). Her novel Billy Bird was shortlisted for the NZ Book Awards (2017). Emma’s new poetry collection To the Occupant is a textured reading experience; it is both visually and aurally ornate while never losing touch with its humane core.
The complex melodies, an Emma Neale trademark, employ diverse harmonies and counterpoints, and are always the first glorious reading effect. Take ‘Morning Song’ for example. The poem resembles an ode to a grandfather, the familial figure shining bright with life in memories that stand out: drying dishes, hearing his whistle, spotting hidden cigarettes. Cat Steven’s song ‘Morning Has Broken’ is like the poem’s axle as grandfather details spin off the fragments of song.
Better warble down the past’s wind
mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning.
We grinned, raised eyebrows at its no-fail return;
praise with elation, praise every morning
the tune all whiskered trill, all rheumy-eyed wink
as he’d pop a dishcloth over his shoulder,
a clown’s epaulette; praise for the sweetness …
The melody favours compound words (sun-speckled kitchen), chords built upon assonance, alliteration, repetition, clipped words next to those drawn out (‘it meant Gramps and damp tea towels; thin coffee cups and saucers / glazed with flowers that could be owls’). But there is more to the grandfather than the daily occurrences and to his happy song whistled; behind the gladness is past trauma, a lucky escape. Herein lies the second joy of a Neale poem – moving through both the aural and the visual to the humane core.
The subject matter is always on the move: poems carry you from a season of teenagers, to politics of the homeless to mother anxiety. You shift from a fable to everyday vignettes, from old diaries to tightly held secrets. The younger son enters the kitchen with a secret in ‘Small Wonder’; he barely holds it in he is so desperate to tell his mother.
He pushes in hard at the sides of his mouth
as the blue-green fire of his irises
brims and flickers, swells and burns.
Such tension, such mother promises, as she bends in close and listens, and by not telling us, by sharing the intensity of the moment rather than the revelation, it makes the promise even sweeter. She will:
protect the pale-pink nimbus
of his secret
as it buds, opens.
Again a single poem transports me through music that works on my body, the sharp visuals move to the human core that makes a poem matter.
Emma’s collection is the sort that demands a summer sojourn; you can sunbathe at leisure within the light and dark of each poem. At times I am reminded of Elizabeth Smither’s ability to achieve both movement and stillness within the same poetic terrain, with the physical world exposing byways to an internal state of being, to the subconscious even. In ‘Doorway’, we stop to absorb a scene:
On the pavement outside the famous patisserie
a slender, chignon-haired woman sits inside her fortress
of backpack, tote bags, suitcases
which she arranges and rearranges
with the worn sobriety of a new mother
or a nurse in a recovery-ward hover.
Increasingly open-cast politics is finding its way into our poetry – poets might adopt strident voices or weave in opinions and grievances at more of a whisper, and I welcome all of this, whatever the tone or poetic form. In ‘Withdrawn’, Emma describes a scene where the poem’s speaker gives a ‘thin young man / in a sleeping bag’ a pack of bread rolls:
with our conscience burning holes
in the sleek, fat satin of our well-fed hearts
I read of the ‘big old drunk’ who knocks his paper cup of coins over and I am sent skating back to the first verse and the way the unfolding scene makes me ache and ponder at the ‘glaring discrepancies’. This is what a poem can do.
It is not within the scope of this poem
to discuss the failure of successive governments
to address the glaring discrepancies
between all the different weights and shades
of human pain —
Emma’s breathtaking new collection is wide in scope and reading impact. She is one of my favourite New Zealand poets because she never fails to fill me with joy, awe and musings at what poetry can do. This book is a sumptuous word treat.
Otago University Press author page