Poetry Shelf review: Leah Dodd’s Past Lives

Past Lives, Leah Dodd, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023

last night I locked eyes               with a possum
its gaze moon-dark      and gleaming
              through the bedroom window

it trying to get in
               me trying to get out

from “soulmates”   

I am writing this review with Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma on repeat. The last time I had the album on repeat was in the 1970s. Having an album on repeat is a habit I have never discarded and it is a habit I apply to poetry collections. I highly recommend it. Leah Dodd’s Past Lives is a collection to put on repeat, and yes, it is there in a poem, the impetus for me to play Pink Floyd: “one night seventeen / got high listened to Ummagumma on repeat / then fell in a pool and floated away” (from “masterclass”).

Reading Past Lives is exhilarating, the poetry moving between the supercharged and the intimate. I have made a music playlist, a first while reading a poetry book, because the music references are so enticing: Miles Davis, Leonard Cohen, Big Thief, Joni Mitchell, Schumann, Jim Morrison, Fleetwood Mac, Nick Shoulder covering Blondie’s “Heart of Glass”, Cristina Aguilera, Shocking Blue. Throw in a youth group singing gospel songs, piano lessons, and you are in the heart of a collection steeped in music, that lifts you out of the thickness of daily routine and sets you afloat on a pool of reading bliss. Kind of like a version of high.

As I read, I am pulled between the domestic (a new baby, staying in, doing the washing, “kitchen scissor haircuts”) and the beyond: a history of reading, viewing, listening, going out, falling in love. The physicality of writing is mouthwatering, whether food or baby, whether “stale curry” or “too-bright billboards”.

in poems, babies are like snacks –
doughy loaves, apple-cheeked,
sweet as pie, sausage-toed

victim to the metaphor,
I call my peach-fuzzed baby yummy
because he is so tasty
I could just toss him in olive oil
and roll him into a kebab

from “clucky”

Here I go setting controls for the heart of the sun and I am back in the weave of the book. I am laughing out loud and I am holding back the tears. I would love to hear Leah read “the things I would do for a Pizza Hut Classic Cheese right now” because it is fast paced, a rollercoaster pitch of pang and laugh: “I would strip down to my knickers & slither around / on a backyard Warehouse waterslide coated / with cheap detergent on the coldest day of the year”. OR: “I would forgive the person / who hurt me when I was thirteen”. Ah, what you would do for a Pizza Hut classic cheese pizza!

Turn the page and fall into the sweet humour of conversing with the snails who insist on eating letters left in the letterbox before “shitting [them] out in long ribbons” (from “snails”). The poet and the snails get to talk TV, to talk Twin Peaks and Special Agent Dale Cooper, and what creamed corn stands for, and to ask if Josie is ok.

Put the collection on replay and you can hear music simmering in the bones of its making. This from “tether”:

I am a moonscape of blood and kitchen grit
ultraviolet bone & blotted sleep     one day
we will be separate creatures
I will give kitchen scissor haircuts
tether balloons on a string to a wrist
wrap birthday presents in the witching hour
and become a different animal altogether

Sometimes I feel like I’m holding on with fingertips, legs outstretched, hair streaming behind, as the poem and I move along a blistering stream-of-consciousness trail and it is so darn thrilling. Take “this night’s a write-off” for example, a poem that riffs on the notion of ideas, on writing on the passion lip of inspiration where ideas get away on you. All I know is I yearn to hear Leah read this poem out loud too!

my ideas are full bunches of marigolds
they are like a flock of Polish-Jew ghosts all set to haunt
the local supermarket, spitting OY VEY
              on single-use plastic and individually wrapped
                          organic energy bars
they are like                   if canned meat was a person
they get all dressed up in Brokeback Mountain cosplay
just to sit around the house smoking and
               thinking about Linda Cardellini
they are strong teas
and dancing to Miles Davis in the kitchen

Fresh! So very fresh! That is what Past Lives is. Every poem and every line refreshes the page of what poetry can do – of how we move between what was and what is and what might be. It is bold and eclectic and full of verve. It is a single moment on the first page that sticks with you while it is your turn to hang the washing out or put an album on replay, say Lucinda Williams or Anoushka Shankar or Bach. Because there in the first poem is the way a particular moment can flip you up and over, and become poetry, and be physical and confessional and full of heart-yearn and self-awareness. The speaker in the opening poem, “soulmates”, is eyeballing a possum at the window and it as though she’s eyeballing herself. The poem is unexpected, visceral, with the unsaid as potent as the said.

Ah, gloriously happy poetry head zone! Set your sights on this book and let go. Let yourself go into the joy of reading poetry.

Leah Dodd lives in Pōneke. Her poetry has appeared in Starling, Stasis, Mayhem, Sweet Mammalian and The Spinoff. In 2021 she won the Biggs Family Poetry Prize from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

Te Herenga waka University Press page

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