Tag Archives: Otago Univrsity Press

Poetry Shelf review: Emma Neale’s To the Occupant

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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

 

 

 

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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Double launch details plus listen to Liz Breslin read ‘Dichotomy’ from her debut collection

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Wanaka poet, Liz Breslin, reads her poem ‘Dichotomy,’ from her first published collection of poems, Alzheimer’s and a Spoon, published by Otago University Press, and to be launched in Wanaka on July 13th.

 

From Liz:

What’s better than a book launch? A double book launch. A double book launch with beer. A double book launch in Wanaka with beer brewed in Wanaka. Words by Liz Breslin and Dominic ‘Tourettes’ Hoey. Books – a novel and some poems. Beer.

Come and listen to Dom and Liz launch their new books. Dom’s novel has been called ‘an unflinching début’ and Liz’s poems have got ‘sheer brio and linguistic flair.’ Since Liz has got the rhymes covered, is Dom bringing reason? Maybe. Probably. Possibly.

He describes his novel, Iceland, as “a tragic love story set in the neighbourhood. It’s about what happens when people are forced to live in a memory of their home. There’s also lots of funny stuff too.”

You’d think funny stuff would be short on the ground in a book about Alzheimer’s, but there’s also humour in Liz’s book. Her back cover blurb says –

“Alzheimer’s and a Spoon takes its readers on a tangled trip. Public stories – a conversation at the Castle of the Insane, online quizzes to determine if you’re mostly meercat or Hufflepuff. #stainlessteelkudos. Personal tales, of Liz’s babcia, a devout Catholic and a soldier in the Warsaw Uprising, who spent her last years with Alzheimer’s disease. There is much to remember that she so badly wanted to forget.”

Dom’s coming to the launch thanks to the Outspoken Festival – and he’s definitely an outspoken entertainer himself. Luc Bohyn, Outspoken’s originator, is excited to bring Dom down as it creates the synergies he enjoyed about Outspoken. Different voices in the same space always make for an interesting evening.

 

Liz and Dom’s books are as diverse and entertaining as their creative careers are to date. Dom has two poem collections and four studio albums to his name – this is his first novel. He also performs spoken word, is working on a one-man play  and spends his time teaching rangatahi excluded from mainstream education.

Liz is known to some people locally for her fortnightly column in the Otago Daily Times, or for her plays, and though she’s had individual poems published, this is her first collection.

“I’m totally completely massively delighted to be published by Otago University Press,’ says Liz. “They’ve been brilliant to work with, and I love having the professional standards and support.”

Liz and Dom are both “pretty good performers” and looking forward to entertaining people when sharing their words at Rhyme and Reason.

 

And what a great place for a celebration! Apart from the name being an obvious fit, Rhyme and Reason have got their own beers on tap, a selection of other local brews, a tonne of enthusiasm and their own font. And what word nerd doesn’t want to have a ook launch in a brewery that has its own font?
Launch details:

Thursday July 13th, Rhyme and Reason brewery bar, 17 Gordon Road, 6pm.

No entry charge. You can pay cash or EFTPOS for books and drinks.

Paper Plus will be selling books and donating 20% of all launch sales of Liz’s book to Alzheimer’s Otago.

 

rsvp: booklaunchwanaka@gmail.com