How to Live with Mammals, Ash Davida Jane, Victoria University Press, 2021
Every poem in Ash Davida Jane’s new collection How to Live with Mammals is an explosion in the mouth; the intricacies and nuances last all day, and beyond. I keep saying to myself well this is my favourite, this is the one I want to dally over and dive in deep. But then I turn the page and encounter another favourite. Therein lies the joy of poetry: the way a poem can you hold you.
I am scared I am going to pin the collection down to a single idiosyncratic reading when the poetry is full of movement and surprise, revelation and comedy. I am thinking the collection faces knowing and not knowing, paying close attention both to self and to the complicated world. There is the way things slip from grasp and the way a poem marks a place – a way of being – in the world. It is rich in multiple notes like I’m holding a refracting prism that keeps hooking me with glint and gleam. Subject matter and motifs repeat like connecting bridges: mammals, food, asparagus, the body, naming, birds, trees.
The poet – the speaking voice – looks back and looks forward, and the poem becomes present participle, a glorious bearer of movement that touches the past and the present, with longing and with forgetting. Perhaps I am saying this is a book of verbs where living feels personal, enriched by imaginings and replay, punctuated by white space, the poet’s breath.
I love considering these poems within the fertility of verbs. Take looking for example. Observing. Seeing what we have lost the ability to see. Being looked at. Not being looked at. Looking back with longing. Paying attention. Looking forward. This is just one verb-al thread that offers glorious sustenance to the collection’s arc. This from a poem that mourns a world affected by climate change:
I pay daily attentions to colour
7am waiting at the bus stop under
a sulphur-red sky
burnt at the edges where it
sticks to the horizon
fading to a midday dull white sheen
the ocean a room of
mirrors reflecting itself
the edges of waves tinged pink
like we’re on another planet
but we’re exactly
where we’ve always been
except there’s a PE teacher
pushing us to go faster than we want to
jogging into an apocalyptic future
in polyester shorts
You could track the naming of things, the vanished names, the recalled names, the way names matter. You could trace the talking thread, self talk, alone talk, intimate talk, talking in a crowded room. You could take the bridge from assumed point of view to the poet’s place to other shoes. The poet steps into another character after her partner jokes that she’s his ‘farm wife / in my long brown skirt / and beige sweater / sleeves rolled up’. She steps into the walking shoes of Dorothy Wordsworth, borrowing lines, overlaying English lake with flittery fantail and a shared moon.
the bees emerging
from their wooden house
mistake me for
a flower and for
a moment I am one
hopelessly lacking in pollen
swaying in the breeze
and taking up space
standing still in the mud
unmaking myself amid
leaves I’ve seen a thousand times
and never wondered the names of
some trees putting out red shoots
query: what trees are they?
from ‘walking with Dorothy’
The reading rewards of Ash’s poetry are numerous. A single poem might make you laugh, recoil, identity, empathise, leap unexpectedly, gather facts, process feelings. ‘marine snow’ provoked such movement. Crikey I love this poem that moves from underwater swimming to a hatred of swimming, especially when the instructor tells the three year old a crab lives on the bottom of the pool, to the grief of last things to the grief of last things flowing into other things ( ‘the pot of coffee / is in mourning / now / the laundry / drips wet tears’) to the fact it snows underwater. Glorious. Sad. Challenging.
I don’t want to limit this book to narrow pathways and dead ends. I want you to find your own bridges and sidetracks, to leap and dive deep. Expect to be embraced in the scene. Expect heat shimmer steam. Expect the lucid and the poignant. I’m in love with these poems, every single one of them.
Ash Davida Jane’s poetry has appeared in Mimicry, Sweet Mammalian, Starling, The Spinoff and elsewhere. Her first book, Every Dark Waning, was published in 2016 by UK indie publisher Platypus Press. She lives in Wellington, where she works as a bookseller.
Pip Adam’s launch speech via Victoria University Press page
Victoria University Press page
Poetry Shelf: Ash reads from the book
Tara Comics launch page
Starling online journal: ‘Love poems when all the flowers are dead’