Category Archives: nz poetry review

Trevor Hayes’s excellent Two Lagoons – a wee review and a poem

 

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Two Lagoons, Trevor Hayes, Seraph Press, 2017

 

‘I have invented

myself this morning.

 

These lines

I have not imagined.’

 

from ‘Ash Song’

 

Trevor Haye’s Two Lagoons offers various resonant pools to sink into—forgive the pun, I rather like the idea of a poem as lagoon—and then establishes myriad links between. There is a here to there shimmer; from the South Island’s West Coast to South America; from a lived world, physically detailed and sensually lifted, to abstract movements, imaginings, sidesteps. The poems – there are 12 – are like surprise pockets: luminous with fizzing alchemy, grace, agility and rich layerings.  The placement of this next to that, of the 19 letters in the mailbox alongside the milkman’s history, of the ‘trickery of phrasal verbs’ next to ‘the benefits of good manners’ is akin to sparks on the line. It’s a delight to read and I look forward to the next book.

 

Going Nowhere

 

I pack my suitcase lightly.

I have a toothbrush and floss,

as even nowhere is better

 

with healthy gums. I have some

reading material: a guide

to the extinct flora and fauna

 

and a book that translates silence.

I intend to visit the empty museums

and the vacant parking lots.

 

I’ll be able to take photos of nothing

but the wind. It seems unlikely

I will meet anybody there, as recent

 

political developments and negative

coverage by news media have discouraged

the travelling public.

 

©Trevor Hayes from Two Lagoons

 

Picture

Photo by Richard Arlidge
​Trevor Hayes has an MA in creative writing and a BA in Spanish and English Literature from Victoria University of Wellington. In his adventures around the world he has taught English in Spain, been a gardener in Ireland, a store-man in Australia and a grill chef in the USA. He now lives near Punakaiki on the West Coast.

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf reviews Nina Powles’s Luminescent – Every poem is a jewel of a thing

 

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Luminescent, Nina Powles, Seraph Press, 2017

 

Nina Powles’s debut poetry collection, Luminescent, is a set of five slender chapbooks in a night-sky sleeve. Each book is like a constellation, with a particular woman, its luminosity. (Auto)biography of Ghost catches a ghost who was said to haunted Queen Margaret College’s bell tower where she fell to her death; Sunflowers becomes a conversation and an homage to Katherine Mansfield; Whale Fall imagines the world of Betty Guard, perhaps the first Pākehā woman to have lived in the South Island; Her and the Flames draws upon Phyllis Porter who died at 19 when her costume caught alight in a theatrical performance; The Glowing Space Between the Stars turns to Beatrice Tinsley, a New Zealand cosmologist. There are notes in the back of each booklet that background each woman.

 

I love the way the poems talk to each other within each booklet and between booklets.

 

The poetry extends itself in imaginings, yet grounds itself in the light of an autobiographical presence and research. Motifs such as dust, moths, ghosts and dreams are like connecting lacework that render a sense of ethereal wholeness to the set. The poems accumulate exquisitely textured voice; confident and idiosyncratic, searching and still, melodic and spare, intricate and warm. Every poem is a jewel of a thing.

 

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Sunflowers takes several Mansfield experiences as starting points for poems: she burnt all her letters and journals when she was in her early turbulent twenties; she wrote about a writing epiphany after seeing a Van Gogh painting for the first time; she recorded a dream after her brother’s death. In an early chapbook, Girls of the Drift, Nina put New Zealand poets, Jessie Mackay and Blanch Baughan together in poetry. The poems offered surprising pathways into our first women poets in print alongside a young contemporary poet forging her own poetic trails. With the Mansfield poems, I feel like I am sitting in a room in the South of France, and each poem resembles an aperture in the wall that pulls me into a Mansfield dreaming.

‘Fever dream’ is without punctuation, a slim short-lined poem that sizzles with ‘s’ alliterations that cut into the feverish night. In the midst of the hissing heat (stinging scorching nerves skin simmers inside struck bones sky she rising), two words cut into the fevered skin (teeth cracking). The poem is visually alert with its storm inflected sky. What stamps the poem indelibly is the final image:

 

bones cracking under

a New Zealand sky

and she is the wave

rising to meet it

 

‘She’ is Mansfield, and in that wave of fevered self, I am hooked into Mansfield musings.

The poems tap nostalgia, calling upon the senses to electrify the page. ‘Silver dream’ is set in a London garden in 1915, where Katherine bites into the pear her brother hands her:

It tastes like jam sandwiches

and sunshine on her mother’s hair.

 

After physical details that light the scene, the poem shifts to dream again, to the ghost-like vein that runs through all the poems, and it’s a surprising nudge. The pear leads us to ‘where everything is silver/ and he is alive again’, and the idyllic setting shifts. We are also lead to the collection’s title, as the whole poem glows with ache and loss in subtle overlaps:

 

Later she plants a pear tree

in one of her stories,

 

makes it glow in the window,

makes it touch the moon.

 

Several booklets feature erasure poems, where blocks of ghostly grey enable certain words to shine out as a poem. That we can see the journal entry in ‘Lucid dream’, through the grey veil, adds to the dream-like state of shiver and float. I pictured the whole journal translated into grey-veil poems. The lines that lift up feel so apt: ‘Time/ was shaken/ out of me.’ The final word, ‘violet’, pulls back to sweet-scented earth, to that nostalgic hunt for elsewhere places and elsewhere memories.

 

I love this set of poetry booklets, because we still need light shining on the shadows to recover the women who did extraordinary things, or everyday things, so they form a constellation, a suite of coordinates that might shift our contemporary means of navigation.

 

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The Glowing Space Between Stars again links to the collection’s title, and underlines the idea that poetry can light up things, experiences, relations, ideas, feelings, memory. Beatrice, the cosmologist, shows how the space between things is the domain of curiosity. And for me, that feeds back into the way poetry is also curious about the gaps between. When you enter the poem gap, you enter a luminous field that so often surprises or delights or upturns.

Nina lists things in Beatrice’s childhood room; out of these things grew the adult curiosity (did anyone do this for Einstein or Newton?). She imagines the girl at 16:

 

then rushing home immediately

to write down what she’s seen,

noting especially

the glowing space between stars,

how it seems to have changed

since the night before.

 

Nina is making poems and she is making biographies, the one coming out of the other, and it is as though she is not tied to the rules of one or the rules of the other but can imagine and detour and intrude. In ‘Minutes’, the poet moves behind the galaxy facts, and the ongoing discoveries, to reveal the hiding narratives, the domestic underlay:

 

The light emitted by distant galaxies

takes billions of years to reach us.

It comes from a far younger universe,

somewhere where no one ever worried

about ironing their husband’s shirts

or arranging after-school childcare

because there were no ironing boards

and no children and no husbands

 

Five glowing booklets of poems that shine beyond the individual poems to gather a necessary and inventive, a lyrical and seismic, view of five very different women. I love this collection with its feminist energy, its poetic agility and its warm heart.

 

This, too, was the perfect time

to measure things in infinities.

 

from ‘Red (ii)’

 

Nina Powles, half Malasian-Chinese and half Pākehā, is from Wellington where she graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University. There, she won the 2015 Biggs Family Prize for Poetry for Luminescent’s first draft. She writes poetry, non-fiction and makes poetry zines. Her chapbook, Girls of the Drift, was published by Seraph Press in 2014.

 

Seraph Press page

Nina Powles web page

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Louise Wallace’s Bad Things – There is a freshness and a daring at work here

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Bad Things, Louise Wallace, Victoria University Press, 2017

Some poetry collections depend upon a thread of similarity; connective subject matter, recurring motifs, a cohesion of form, tone and voice. Other collections resemble mosaics made of infinitely varied pieces that come together in surprising and satisfying ways. Louise Wallace’s new book, Bad Taste, exemplifies the latter. Turn the page and you have no idea what to expect – yet everything fits in the same animated package. There is a freshness and a daring at work here, because the poetry seems beholden only to its own choreography. I love that. I can’t think of another book quite like it. The cover, with the little patch of flame in the dark, and the boat waiting with its strange mix of birds, is the perfect entry into the poems.

Sometimes the poems relate little stories; condensed in prose paragraphs or strung with slashes to read in a single outbreath. Certain poems stop you in your tracks when you get to the last line and then tip you off the tracks of reading. ‘The hunt’ begins with a woman needing silence, yet it’s impossible to find when her voice rings out ‘like bells in the library’. She needs ‘to go church to pray’, but the poem does the twist and tilt and the ending becomes uneasy:

 

and without the silence she can’t pray / and if she doesn’t pray she will starve

 

Images also keep you on your reading toes: they might be strange, brightly-lit, smudged. There is, for example, a depiction of terrible things, ‘bad things’, that might fill a head:

 

They grow there—

a forest of tiny umbrellas.

They flourish—

a crown of terrible heads.

 

from ‘Bad things’

 

Or the sight and sound of a woman in a dump shop; ‘I’m amazed, she says’ over and over (‘Trash Palace’).

Or the sight and sound of a woman packing her husband and various assorted characters, including ‘the owner of the local chip shop’, into a row boat:

 

though it was extremely cramped

and they rowed

out to the open ocean

and sat quiet

and waited.

 

from ‘The body began to balance itself’

 

One poem may be densely packed and prose-like, while the next might offer short snappy lines that extend a poetic spine down the page:

 

resting shoulder

touching elbow

 

fingers to forehead

hand to cheek

 

from ‘Arrivals’

 

Strange poems, that may be hyper-real or surreal, hook with the element of surprise crouching somewhere:

 

7. You cannot take off the backpack.

8. You cannot just take off either.

9. You try to escape your own skin.

 

from ‘Right of return’

 

Sometimes it is a matter of taking three or four things (a man in a bus, the downhill, the light and the safety) and seeing what happens:

 

the light bounces

off the hill blindingly

bright and he’s saying

to himself

safety first

safety first

and he’s right, and all

through the bus

there is light.

 

from ‘Safety first’

 

Politics hue the mosaic pieces and slip in different directions, whether gender or ecological. Famous people glint the surface because their very presence is out-of-the-ordinary in the day-to-day ordinariness of what goes on. I especially like Meryl Streep, (but you also get Robert Redford and Reese Witherspoon): ‘Meryl Streep went nuts at me in the breakfast room, because I’d taken her table by mistake.’ I also like the arrival of Reeese, in ‘There are lots of ladies who have survived the desert’. The protagonist is walking in the desert, parched and desperate, when she hears wailing: ‘Reese Witherspoon emerges from behind a shrub, holding a plastic bowl full of oats and water.’ She cannot get her primus to work. Again Louise delivers the twist and tilt at the end of the poem, as though a shadow voice whispers to us to find perspective when we read of her neighbour: ‘Janet’s husband came home drunk one night and smashed a chair across her back.’

 

To understand the ability of the collection to travel and arc and shuffle, you need to juxtapose the offbeat with the achingly real. ‘Helping my father remember’ is the white hot searing heart of the collection. Communication is impaired: ‘Except something’s/ gone wrong with the wiring/ and he didn’t teach me/ how to fix it.’ The poem delivers such an emotional hit because of the way it lays little details alongside each other; the fact that the daughter is most like her father and his mother, and that sound might reactivate memory or that she is following him ‘through/ tall grasses, as high/ as my head.’  This time the ending is not a strange tilt but a poignant dive deeper below the poem’s surface:

 

We’re heading

to the river.

You find Nana,

and I’ll find you.

We won’t be lost

if we’re together.

 

If Louise’s new collection pulls you into a mosaic of dream, confession, anecdote or troublesome issues, it does so with a deft and darting accumulation of line. The overall effect works upon your ear, eye, heart and mind. There is stillness and movement, gaps and prickling images. I couldn’t ask for more – it’s a terrific read.

 

Louise Wallace is a poet and the founder and editor of The Starling, a literary journal for young NZ writers. She has published two previous collections: Since June (2009) and Enough(2013) . She was the 2015 Robert Burns Literary Fellow at Otago University.

 

Victoria University page

‘Reminders for December’ plus author note posted on Poetry Shelf

Louise in conversation with Pip Adam on Bad Things at Better Off Read

The Starling an online literary journal for young NZ writers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry Shelf reviews Liz Breslin’s Alzheimer’s and a Spoon – this collection cuts into your skin as reader

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Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, Liz Breslin, Otago University Press, 2017

 

‘You have measured out your life in online quizzes. You are

a meerkat, Hufflepuff, Janet Frame.’

 

from ‘Click HERE to start’

 

Reading Liz Breslin’s debut collection, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, is a timely reminder that poetry is a scoop for missing things. I am thinking spoon-scoop not breaking news. Even the cup on the table as I write is as hollow as it is present. I cannot remember the details of each morning at breakfast when I sip green tea. I cannot remember the thoughts I had, the articles I read, or the things I said. The cup is my breakfast hollow that contains any number of fading secrets. When I write poetry I might be scooping physical details of the present in order to chart a drifting mind and feeling heart but life is a mis-en-abyme of hard-to-decipher hollows.

For Liz the hollow is so much more resonant and sharp when the hollow is her grandmother, her babcia. A devout Catholic and a soldier in Warsaw’s uprising, the grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease in the last years of her life. It meant for Liz, the past was missing in a missing present.

 

the glass with the frame in

with holes in for looking

the white thing that holds

the white liquid for tea

 

from ‘riddle me these’

 

The collection draws you into the hollow of remembering and borrowing and excavating a woman, a beloved grandmother, and in that gathering all manner of things assemble: spam mail, passport rules, spoons, more spoons:

 

(..) I spoon feed stories

of my own uprisings, lost

 

in the hurry to move on, away.

Surprised at how little I

remember of me.

 

from ‘Spoon theory’

 

The words twitch on the line and I want to hear them in the air to soak up the aural agility.

 

Hold it for hours

in the sink of the kitchen

in a day drowned

dark without wondering.

 

from ‘How to make a cup of tea’

 

Visually the book is also on the move with cut-out words on some pages reforming to make poetry on the page. The movement underlines the memory fracture, akin to radio static, so we won’t forget that this life is a life hard to pin down. In a poem that calls upon a physical thing, a set of amber beads, the hunger to make chains is striking.

 

I am threading amber beads

from your old unbroken chain.

Some I will string for Lauren Marie.

She has of you her gymlegs,

fat plaits, doilies, feist.

 

from ‘Eulogy at the Oxford Oratory’

 

The final stanza cuts through to why this collection cuts into your skin as reader:

 

Warm with memory, some will

spill. Some I’ll keep in corners,

hidden glimmers. Much has been lost.

 

Liz’s debut offers a poetry thicket that snares and scratches your skin. I have read it at least five times because I am still finding my way through the dark and the light patches. Wonderful!

 

I hear the whispers of your stalwart war

but never from your tongue, never for real

it’s just stories, right? black and grey, blurry

 

from ‘dichotomy’

 

Otago University Press page

Liz Breslin website

ODT feature

Listen to Liz read

 

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Tim Upperton critiques Manifesto Aotearoa at Pantograph Punch

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Full review here. This is terrific writing that raises issues on poetry and the whole business of political poetry.  I realise that statement is ambiguous – so take it to mean both the review and the anthology!

 

Two cheers for democracy: A review of Manifesto Aotearoa

 

‘One hundred and one political poems, by nearly one hundred and one poets – who knew we had so many? Yet it’s odd, in an anthology as generous and inclusive as this, how you notice who’s missing. It’s a shame that outstanding political poetry from the past is outside the ambit of this book – the broadsides of Whim-Wham, Glover, Baxter, Fairburn and Frame would have provided a rich historical context for this contemporary offering.

Co-editor Philip Temple rightly points out that there’s another anthology-in-waiting here. I particularly missed Bill Manhire’s ‘Hotel Emergencies,’ and among other practising poets, I also missed Helen Lehndorf, Jenny Bornholdt, Ashleigh Young, Hinemoana Baker, Stefanie Lash, Bob Orr, Tim Jones, Sarah Jane Barnett, Sam Hunt, Helen Heath, and Apirana Taylor (there’s an excerpt from Taylor’s ‘Sad joke on a marae’ in Temple’s introduction). But this is an invitation-to-submit volume rather than a survey of what’s already out there in books, magazines and online, so maybe some poets simply missed the memo. (I missed the memo.) And maybe some poets just don’t have a political poem in them. But maybe every poem is political. And if that’s too woolly and undefined, then what is a political poem, exactly?

 


 

‘Poetry on the page, in New Zealand at least, seldom raises its voice, so when it does, you prick up your ears and listen.

But the strident, raised voice of many of the poems here also bothered me.’

from Landfall Online: Helen Lehndorf reviews Hannah Mettner and Kate Camp

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Fully Clothed and So Forgetful by Hannah Mettner (Victoria University Press, 2017), 91 pp., $25; The Internet of Things by Kate Camp (Victoria University Press, 2017), 61 pp., $25

One quality I love about first volumes of poetry is that they often contain an element of the poet’s origin story. Hannah Mettner’s Fully Clothed and So Forgetful certainly does: there are poems referencing childhood, relationships with siblings and wider family, elements of cultural confusion after an across-the-world move, parenthood – all described with deftness, wit and originality. How about that title? It’s a delight … inviting, and very human.

full review here

Some highlights in the 70th anniversary edition of Landfall

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Landfall 233 edited by David Eggleton

 

Last Sunday I was feeling travel worn, flat, depleted, sick and I could not settle on anything. The kind of day where you pick this up and put it down. You pick that and then this and then that and then this. And then find yourself back at the start again. It was only when I opened the new Landfall I found my self settling back and reading.

The 70th Birthday issue is terrific. It includes testimonies from Chris Price and Iain Sharp (both candid on the difficulties of editing a key literary journal), Philip Temple (on the controversial dismissal of Robin Dudding and efforts to revive the flagging enterprise) and Peter Simpson on Charles Brasch and Landfall. Simpson quotes Brasch musing on when to quit editing. He decided he must stop at 15 years – although it stretched to 20. He concluded:

‘I shall have nothing to live for, nothing I badly want to do, nothing I am forced to do in order to live …’

 

Sometimes I like to read a journal from first page to last page in order to follow the contours and harmonies of editing. This time it was pick n’ mix poetry. As I read I jotted down:

vibrant fresh vital diverse essential reading unfamiliar voices much-loved voices direct indirect

 

Adore the Art Portfolios by Chris Corson-Scott and Heather Straka.

 

Two prose pieces caught me eye first. Both surprising and stick like biddibids.

‘Last-ditch Daisies’ Aimee-Jane Anderson-O’Connor

‘It’s All I Had’ Joanna Cho

 

Then the poetry:

 

‘Four Transformations on a theme of Philip’ by Anne Kennedy is like a return to her brother (1951 – 1973). Every time I pick the book up it falls open here and I read it again. The short lines shift patterns on the pages like little twitches of contemplation, memory, bright retrieved detail with indents, parentheses, fluency.

 

Catch me in the garden

and put me in a jar

 

the air where I was

in the palm of your hand

 

 

‘Morning Song’ by Emma Neale builds a loving grandfather portrait that weds sharp detail with war undertones spiky within a family’s daily life. It is sumptuous writing with things hiding off the edges.

 

Gramps stole eggs, green seeds of song, from their nests

to show us wonder; hairline cracks ran

our sooks’ hearts as we watched the robbed mothers fly home.

 

 

‘Mr Anderson, You Heartbreaker’ by Helen Rickerby teases and bites into Hans Christian Anderson and his depiction or wooing of women and harnesses Helen’s adult eyes on the Little Mermaid.

 

And really, if she’d just held onto her tongue

she could have sung him to her

reeled him in, drunk him down

one prince, on the rocks, coming up

 

 

‘Storm’ by Amanda Hunt is a glorious lyrical snapshot that slows down the pace of contemplation to the point each detail is under an enviable spotlight. ( I am reminded of how Janet Frame wanted to slow down the pace of her poems)

 

a butterfly flutter

of moth-soft feathers

glancing across my shoulder

 

‘Fear of Feathers’ by Michael Gould delivers a surprising passage through the lines to the final enticement ‘life is good.’

 

Some sounds of birds (unseen but heard)

may confound those with no sense of the absurd

 

‘Personal Space’ by Johanna Emeney refreshes the domestic poem beautifully and needs to be read in its completeness to catch the humour, the pathos, the politics, the poetry, the feeling. I am including the last stanza.

 

She should clear a space

beneath the sudden worry of crowded floors,

the scatter of feet; the shock of doors,

run downstairs and shut herself in

the last room at the bottom,

then spin, arms open,

to see just how wide

she has forgotten.

 

 

‘Inflammable’ by Anna Jackson is a poem that catches the dark and light of life and living beneath the flicker of candle light. It reminds me of the way a particular moment, against all the millions lost and faded, that is luminous on return.

 

The world was flammable we knew it was.

 

‘Art Is Weak’ by Nick Ascroft is smart and sharp and hooks you from the first line.

 

Conceptual art is not so empty sleeved

and brained.

 

‘The Bee Elle’ by Lynley Edmeades curls and coils deliciously around a physical view and subterranean ideas.

 

Everyone is hooked up

to various elsewheres

as if our bodies don’t matter.

 

‘How a New Zealand Sunrise is Different from Other Sunrises’ by Erik Kennedy is like a landscape poem standing on its head and is thus invigorating to read (I am a landscape poem fan for all kinds of reasons).

 

Pinks and yellows collude to orange the hillside,

but they trick you into thinking the hills are proper orange

on their own, like an oyster catcher’s lurid bill