Tag Archives: NZ Book Review

Poetry Shelf Review: Roger Horrocks and Song of the Ghost in the Machine – as you readwalk you feel invigorated, refreshed, and ready to write

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Song of the Ghost in the Machine

Roger Horrocks

Victoria University Press



I confessed the day the Ockham NZ Book Award short lists came out I had not read this book as it felt too close to something I had in my head. Truth is I have finished a draft that I am leaving for a decent period of time before lifting it into something that works. The link with my starting point is tenuous. But it loomed large at the time.

Roger’s new collection comes out of walking. Walking in the physical world, walking through books, ideas, memory. Each section is prefaced by the biggest stack of quotations I have seen in ages in a poetry book. If ever! –  when I think further. It means there are two different reading approaches at work here. You can go shopping within the quotes and find the ones that stick.

Like a little reading map for the reader pedestrian. The sources are eclectic. Surprising.

Then there is the poetry, and this is infused with the way age changes things. For some poets, it prompts a new alertness to the world, to what matters. Roger is absorbing the world as he walks and leaving shiny traces of it in the poems.

‘This is the world I saw.’

For some poets, age is the body changing, under threat, slower. Death seems closer. Death seems to push and nudge the poems and make itself felt. For Roger, it is there in a health scare, in the passing of loved ones.

‘The body supplies the beat’

Mostly the poems are made of long lines in thick stanzas and generate the fluency of walking. One poem, ‘One Hundred Descriptions,’ amasses aphorisms, miniature thoughts, like miniature steps.

‘a square peg in the round hole of the world’

Throughout the book, as you meander and read, sidetrack and read, loiter and read, certain things leap out at you. Just like when you walk in the physical world and see the cat asleep in the flowerpot.

‘Like shoehorn, a mind is meant to ease you/ into the world, but his makes a poor fit.’

‘My cargo is close to bursting – years of sights/ and smells, ideas and anxieties, mistakes and regrets -/ but for the moment I’m still mobile, still fossicking.’


What changes the poetry when death seems that little bit closer? With this collection it invigorates it. The ideas about self and writing and how we fit in the world. How we belong. How we make attachments. How we can use words to make shadows on the page like Plato’s cave.

In his note at the back of the book, Roger talks about poetry. In my view, when I scan the decades of NZ poetry I have read, I believe poetry does anything and everything. It busts out of compartments. Not all poetry is preoccupied with self (Roger proposes much is), yet find me a poem where traces of the poet don’t flourish like tiny signatures (ah begone Barthes!). Tiny alluring signatures that reflect bias. Bias that snags on ideas, physical views, opinions, musicality, experience, poetic choices, subject preferences.

This terrific poetry collection is like walking in the world because as you readwalk you feel invigorated, refreshed, and ready to write.

Congratulations on a well deserved spot on the short list, Roger.


VUP page


Tina Makereti’s Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings never loses sight of the ability of stories to sustain us


Tina Makereti is appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival in ‘Pieces of History’ along with Kerry Donovan Brown, Lawrence Hill and Fiona Kidman (chaired by Carole Beu). Sunday May 18th, 4 to 4.50 pm, Limelight Room, Aotea Centre. This is a free  event.

I don’t usually write about novels on Poetry Shelf, but I have just finished one that I am so full of, I want to share that fullness. And I am full in a good way. Tina Makereti’s novel, Where the Rēkohu Bone Sings (Random House, 2014), is a novel that emerges from diligent research and thought, yet also draws upon the panoramic experience as a mother, daughter, partner, lover. More than anything, the novel shows how fiction can represent the molecular dance of being human—the strengths, the weakness, the biases—in a way that refreshes your view of things.

The narrative structure resembles three entwined ropes: There is the love story of Mere and Iraia that stretches back to the legacy of their ancestors (he the descendant of slave, she the descendant of Moriori). There is the story of twins, Lula and Bigs who against all odds are different colours (one brown and one white) despite a shared mother and father. They discover a secret that explodes the identity story upon which they were raised. Finally there is the speaking but disembodied voice that seeps into the nooks and crannies of both narratives, and that speaks with a gamut of emotional investment and a growing revelation of belonging. At the heart of all this, are the Moriori people—the novel leads you from Queen Charlotte Sounds to the Chatham Islands/Rēkohu with various other side trips.

Tina’s extraordinary book embraces all manner of loves and strengths but as it faces the challenging and complex effects and behaviours of racism (amongst other issues), it shows too the power of story to delve deep. To take risks. To refract and reflect. We are raised on stories—from the ones our parents and forbears pass down to those that circulate at a wider cultural or societal level. Yet there is the agony of the gap, such as was the case with the Moriori, where the vital stories were mute, smudged, missing.

For me, the pleasure of the reading experience is multi-layered. Every now and then you find a book that satisfies on so many levels. It begins with the sentence—the way each is crafted with such finesse it is like the invisible stitching of fiction (at times though sentences are ambidextrous and are there to promote a visible and audible delight in language as well as to steer the narrative). Then there is the structure the holds the work together beautifully (in this case the entwined rope) along with the characters that gain such flesh and blood you become part of their world and it is a wrench to leave them. Finally there is the way a fictional work can strike you so profoundly, it enters and shakes both heart and intellect. Tina’s book has done all of this.

Yet the questions raised were the crucial gift for me. How to represent history (fictional or otherwise) in the face of all its clashing and volatile versions? How to live when your identity is ‘braided ropes’? How to move forward when these rope strands all bear the strain of unspeakable episodes (crimes against humanity, racism, intolerance, ignorance)? How to look back in order to move forward? How to forge and reforge personal and cultural identities? How to love and how to grieve? How to forgive? How to remember and how to forget?

These are some of the questions that Tina has embedded in her narrative. Not in a didactic or pedantic way but in the bone marrow of her characters. This is what lifts the novel beyond the joy of fiction (and it most definitely provides this) to a renewed engagement with what it means to love and live in the place where you have laid your roots—Aotearoa/New Zealand. Tina has written with such warmth, compassion, daring, empathy, insight and intellectual keenness on issues that matter so very much without ever losing sight of the ability of stories to sustain us, I urge you to read the novel.


The academic side of Tina’s PhD in Creative writing is available through Victoria University.

Random House author page

New Zealand Book Council author page

Tina Makereti interviewed by Craig Cliff

Elizabeth Smither’s Ruby Duby Du deserves to be under the pillow of every new mother and father


Elizabeth Smither, Ruby Duby Du, Cold Hub Press, 2013

Elizabeth Smither is an award-wining poet and novelist. She was named New Zealand Poet Laureate in 2002 and was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2008. On the back of her new book, Ruby Duby Du, Elizabeth says, ‘None of these compares to being a grandmother.’

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This delightful book signals the burgeoning output of small presses –- handcrafted books with smallish print runs, scope for new poets to emerge, and established poets to publish miniature gems or take sidestepping risks. Elizabeth’s book, published by Dunedin’s Cold Hub Press, is a gold nugget of a book and deserves to be under the pillow of every new mother and father, and in the gift box of every newborn child. It is an utter delight from curling fingertip to wriggling toe.

The new collection, with delicate illustrations by artist Kathryn Madill, is a book of poems dedicated to Ruby (born 2011) from her grandmother, Elizabeth. It begins with the announcement of a pregnancy, and ends with Ruby in her father’s arms and the counting of stars. Love is both the movement and the anchor that holds Elizabeth’s poetry in warm embrace. These poems are intimate, personal and captivatingly real.

I was taken back, convincingly, mesmerisingly to the birth of my daughters — to a time when the world moves into acute and breathtaking focus (as though you have a new pair of glasses). To a time when certain things matter so much less and fade into pale.

Each poem resonates with a particular moment — measuring Ruby in the womb (‘the height of a tall vase/ a blue iris’); cleaning windows for Ruby’s visit (‘Your grandmother/ had clean windows for her first granddaughter/ and everything glowed from then’).

There is tenderness and charm, but there is also wit running through the veins of these poems — the cheekiness of the grandmother along with the deep love. In ‘The grandparents intervene’ (a terrific poem!) the grandparents await news of the birth in their separate houses (‘In two separate houses broken sleep/ and then you broke into the world, Ruby’). The poem ends on the two clocks (his ‘from a ship’ and hers ‘from a shop that sold antiques’). The clock is resonant of time to come and time past but is also enriched by these divergent origins.

Elizabeth’s wit is sparkling in ‘Ruby and the mock-rivalry.’ The baby (that can’t yet speak) tells the grandfather she wants to captain an ocean liner. The grandmother knows the only reason Ruby might want to go to sea is ‘to write a book in which case/ the breath of the sea might come in handy.’

More than anything, these poems are songs to Ruby. Elizabeth has drawn upon her craft as a poet, found the music in a line, the detail that you want to hold onto and share (let’s take a photograph and preserve this moment), the way the movement in a new life can generate delicious movement in a poem (what poem can survive without this). There is thought (the way some occurrences can be slipped through a philosophical filter) and there is heart (the way some things are steered by gut and intuition, along with love).

In ‘Ruby and the vegetable rockery,’ Elizabeth aligns silver beet and Ruby (‘Though they are unacquainted at present/ each is pulling itself up by the roots’). I have never read a poem where a baby and silver beet are poetic companions, but Elizabeth’s collection is full of surprises. The poem, like the book as a whole, is layered like the vegetable rockery – the poet has planted herself and Ruby in every nook and cranny, and you will brush against the sheer joy of new life. Elizabeth shows that poetry can put the world (in this case, Ruby) in loving focus. It is a gift to read. It is a gift to share!


New Zealand Book Council author page

University of Auckland author file

Auckland University Press author page

Hamesh Wyatt review of The Blue Coat

Caitlin Sinclair review of The Blue Coat

A poetry of reading: Pip Adam’s I’m Working on a Building

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Poetry Shelf is not adverse to looking sideways and finding poetry in unexpected things: a building, an experience, a novel. Thus, I want to talk about reading Pip Adam’s new novel, I’m Working on a Building (Victoria University Press, 2013.

Within the first few sentences I was transported momentarily to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. This is a book where Marco Polo diverts Kublai Khan by describing the numerous wondrous cities to him (as though they are the cities of his exotic travels). What makes these extraordinary cities even more so is the fact that they are versions of the same place. Each story is a story of Venice, reinforcing the notion that place is in the eye of a beholder, and even then, place is on the move.

Pip has not recast Italo’s fictional flower bud (each city an overlapping petal) within her own context and structure, but her novel has absorbed a ‘Calvino’ sensibility. Pip’s novel is a novel of flux, not just in the shifting, fracturing, and at times smashed cityscapes, but also in the shifting, fracturing and smashed relations. As Italo did on so many occasions, Pip has shifted and cracked the very act of reading.

The novel commences at the story’s end and then makes its way in episodic leaps to the story’s beginning. In Pip’s narrative structure, I fell upon a poetry of reading. The rhythm of story shifted in its inversion so that it became unsettling, dizzying. It was a bit like following water down a plug hole from full bath to empty bath. Yet while such an analogy might describe the initial reading experience (I always find the movement of water a little disconcerting), it does not fit the whole. The rhythm of the reading altered the revelation of character and thus the emotional, psychological and narrative effects.

Usually (and we do seem so literary-model dependent), a narrative produces an accumulation of detail and revelation that develops character, setting, themes and cultural contexts across a narrative arc. So if we proceed in the opposite direction, will that also produce character development (along with all else)? Or is it a denuding; a striping back to an early version of protagonist? Is it flower-bud fiction, where we get to see various versions of a protagonist and his or her sidekicks reflecting and refracting ( a bit like life, really)?

What I loved about this Calvinoesque reading experience was the way it imitated the way we get to know people (even our parents, especially our parents); the way we move back in time as they reveal different versions of themselves (our parents slowly reveal the versions that existed before us). Each revelation smudges and shifts the one before and then the one after.

I have used the word ‘poetry’ to signal the delight I took in this reading experience, but I could also have used the word ‘architecture’ or even ‘engineering’. Buildings, as the title suggests, play a big role in the book. Evocative buildings such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris or Dubai’s Burj or a building about to collapse in an earthquake in Wellington. Both architecture and engineering resonate in the light of the building of self; self as edifice with foundations, fortifications and points of vulnerability. Yet the building and the act of building are also to be enjoyed outside the enriching life of the trope. Pip’s novel explores how a life is built, but also how buildings come into being and are part of the lifeblood of cities. Thus the architecture of this novel (and therefore the reading of this novel) is one of complexity.

At one point a character declares, ‘It’s an empty city anyway.’ Nasif responds, ‘It’s what you think.’

This novel is not an empty city, but like the overlapping versions of Italo’s Venice, it both confounds you and astounds you. There is poetry in its reading.


Victoria University Press page

NZ Booksellers review

National Radio interview

NZ Society of Authors page

NZ Arts Foundation page


The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider

  janis launch - mary macpherson

Janis Freegard was like a magpie in her debut collection with ‘her eye out for the shining anecdote and the gleaming fact.’ Kingdom Animalia: The Escapades of Linnaeus (Auckland University Press, 2011) was a dazzling arrival that was both inventive and assured. She borrowed six animal classes to explore contemporary life. See my NZ Herald review here. She initially appeared in AUP New Poets 3 (2008) with a shorter extract from the adventures of Alice.

Janis has a science background with degrees in Botany and Plant Ecology, so it is not surprising her new collection has ‘spider’ in the title: The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider. It is a gorgeous little book, like a pocket edition that you can pop in your pocket and pull out at amoment’s notice. The poems were selected from a longer version of The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider and the book is published by Anomalous Press in The States. The Press is devoted to ‘the diffusion of writing in the forms it can take.’ In a mini manifesto it states that ‘We’re searching for imaginary solutions in this exceptional universe. We’re thinking about you and that thing you wrote one time and how you showed it to us and we blushed.’

Alice Spider is ‘a spinner. A spinster.’ The book is like a handbook to Alice. The sequence of prose poems (or poetic prose) hold Alice to the light as though she is a prism that refracts and reflects in all her shifting, colourful glory.  She is an Alice of many sides as the titles suggest: ‘Alice the Camel,’ ‘Alice the Mermaid,’ ‘Alice the Dinosaur.’ That is one charm of the sequence; you have no idea what or who Alice will be next (there is a poem entitled, ‘Who is Alice?’).

The second charm of the collection is the way Janis tends Alice. It strikes me that the author (almost like a poetic narrator) is delighting in the protagonist’s multiplicity, her failings, her quirkiness and her audacity. There is an infectious tenderness at work in the pore of every poem as Alice becomes both self-absorbed and self-transformative.

The third charm is the way the world of Alice is a cousin (perhaps once removed) of the world of the surreal (there is a poem ‘Alice and the Surreal’). We enter a reality that relishes offbeat twinges, tics and spasms. In ‘Alice and the Babies,’ ‘Alice had never wanted children but now here she is, producing all these babies, suddenly, every week a new one, filling her house.’ Having had countless babies in the blink of an eye, Alice feeds them on pancakes and then, once they hit adulthood, makes them cereal-box hats and farewells them a year later. There is the inexplicable and the unfathomable but it is subsumed into the fabric of the everyday (along with cheekiness and change). Thus the cow is in the Post Office trying to register its car. Alice (or course!) buys stamps. This is a collection infused with humour, and that humour is the flint for the surreal.

Finally, the writing itself. The book is a treasure box of sentences; economical, wry, agile. You could easily employ spider-like tropes to talk about the writing: the way it deftly weaves detail to unsettle the everyday. The way the poems spin a fine web that shimmer and shine with the glaze of a storyteller. The way the book as a whole embraces the simplicity and the beauty of a spider’s web. There is repetition. There is a love of language: ‘It’s like. It’s a lot like. It’s like being in love. It’s that mirror you see yourself reflected in. This is me. It’s like. It’s a lot like. It’s like being. It’s like being in love.’

Most of all, though, there is Alice, and reading Alice is a rare treat.

‘It’s not an angel. It’s a woman with wings. Oh alright then, says Alice. You’d better come in.’

Janis Freegard Weblog

The book is selling for $20 in NZ and is available from Matchbox Studios in Wellington (http://matchboxstudios.co.nz/). Unity has also agreed to stock it. It is also available from Anomalous Press for $US10 + postage & packaging.  They also have e-book and audio versions and a fancy handmade letterpress version (the latter with a smaller selection of poems). http://anomalouspress.org/books/alice.php.

From the media release:

Alice made her way to the US via the Tuesday Poem online network run by New Zealand writer Mary McCallum.

Janis says, “I was paired with wonderful US poet Melissa Green for an end-of-year “Secret Santa” Tuesday poem swap – I posted one of Melissa’s poems on my blog and she kindly hosted Alice Spider.  Cat Parnell of Anomalous Press spotted Alice there and asked if I’d like to contribute to a new online journal she was involved with.  Alice appeared in an edition of Anomalous, after which the editors contacted me to say they were interested in publishing an Alice Spider chapbook”.

Of Alice, Janis says “In some respects she’s a kind of alter ego, a more reckless version of myself. I do let her borrow a few of my own experiences from time to time. Perhaps she’s also a spirit of wildness and freedom.  I know some people think of her as a spider, but to me, she’s human (well, as human as any fictitious character).

“There has always been a mix of realism and surrealism, humour and menace.  The earlier pieces contain more knives, blood and cigarettes; the later pieces tend to be a bit lighter, with zebras and hot air balloons.

“It feels very much as though Alice has gone off travelling without me.  It’s been a really exciting process and a great example of how the worldwide web (a very appropriate vehicle for someone called Alice Spider) can connect people across the planet and make things happen,” she says.