Tag Archives: Poetry Shelf review

Poetry Shelf review: Hinemoana Baker’s funkhaus

Hinemoana Baker funkhaus Victoria University Press, 2020

A woman carries in her arms

a heavy rectangle of sky –

roofs and treetops.

She places it in the back seat

of her car to calm down.

You and I sit

like separate circles

of a Venn diagram

unaware of the fabled

tasting zones of the tongue.

from ‘flomarkt’

Hinemoana Baker’s new poetry collection is peppery, salty, sweet. The poems form a bridge between two homes, Aotearoa and Berlin, and the overall effect is a book you want to keep reading. Again and again and again. I have been reading funkhaus since it arrived in my postbox May last year. Some books are like this. The German word ‘funken’, we learn in the blurb, is ‘to send a radio signal’. I love the idea that poetry becomes a form of broadcast. I love being an antenna, picking up the static, the silences, the connections across eight months.

funkhaus is on the Poetry category longlist of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. The shortlist will be announced on March 3rd.

Hinemoana has always achieved a stop-you-in-your-tracks fluency, maybe because she is a musician and her ear is attentive to the sound of the line, regardless of the subject matter, the personal admissions, the political acumen, the light along with the biting dark. I am listening to funkhaus and admiring the pared back melodies, both the acoustic and the electric.

Pepper blacks the pan so never

Shake it near me, wait

For the flagrant animation

In my bed base

In mountain situations

Sleep swaddled, wake ecstatic

from ‘Narcissist advice column’

What has gripped me more than anything – and maybe this particularly matters in these Covid times – is the way most poems are peopled. Yes there is a mesmerising view out the window where the birds are flying in formation. Yes there is a new vacuum cleaner. Yes there is the question of whether extinct species might be revived. But touch the beating pulse of this collection and you will feel people. Unlike the camera that gravitates towards the people-emptied landscape, Hinemoana draws people in close. Think loved ones, friends, family, passersby. Sometimes a poem is infused in the surreal and you imbibe a scene that tilts and sticks. This is is the start of ‘friday night’, a little beauty of a poem:

Way down south

in the south

of the  south island of himself

over greyscale trees.

Eagles and meteorites are not.

On other occasions the poem is grounded in the personal. There is always the gap, the quavery silence, the unnamed pronouns (I, we, you, he, she, they), the spiky detail that fascinates, the heart of experiencing, of imagining, of replaying. I especially love ‘aunties’, a poem Hinemoana read for Poetry Shelf (2019). This glorious tour de force of a poem makes people (aunties) utterly, movingly, wittily, wincingly, gorgeously present.

We had a marching auntie and an eyelash-curler aunty, a

headscarves one, a lavender talcum powder aunty and a satin

running shorts one. We had an aunty who was laid out on the

sheepskin rug by that uncle when she was six, and seven and

eight. These might be the same aunties. We had an aunty who

died on the same day as her own sister and turned into that

white horse on the green hill. A drawn-on-eyebrows aunty who

said I don’t care how good they are at yodelling they’re giving

country music a bad name those girls.

Ah but I also love ‘mother’, ‘waitangi day’, ‘if i had to sing’, waiata tangi’. Find the book. Find your own clearings.

Hinemoana crafts poetry as flourishing movement. In part as melodic flow but also in the way poems come into being in surprising ways. The unexpected paths and sideturns. The underlays and overlays. The semantic chords and the visual alerts. In ‘fox’, an animal is spotted outside in the snow (‘The most powerful things / are the ones we simply come across’). The poem entrances as you move from this sweet epiphany to loss of appetite, your own child dying, to the skin as kidney to:

Climbing into the air outside your door

a tufty plant grows from a cobblestone.

And there –

there is the sandwich board with pictures of fruit

and words you don’t understand

which make nothing happen.

Another sublime example is ‘flohmarkt’, the poem I quoted from at the start of the review. Here we move from the striking opening image of woman and sky to tongue myths to dog and bike owners, and then to chairs. This is how poetry can move. It is gap and it is breathtakingly resonant. Here is the end of the poem:

I live with a surplus

of chairs, mostly empty.

My one, with its smooth

wooden arms and your one

if you were here.

The kind of chair you never want

to get up out of

the kind of chair for which

prepositions were invented.

Maybe this sounds old-fashioned but for me Hinemoana’s poetry gets down to the essence of things. There is an addictive economy that opens out into lush and surprising fields of reading. Like a yin and yang effect. Like poetry as a basket of essential oils that you flick on your wrist and carry all day. That work for each of us differently. That sustain and delight, that get you moving and thinking. That change as you wear them over the course of eight months. Poetry as essential. Poetry as skin tingling essential. It feels essential to Hinemona – to be writing poems, to be travelling across the poetry bridge, that arc of static and connection between Berlin home and Aotearoa home, to be grounded in her friends and whānau, her writing support crew. She acknowledges the vital support of those who have offered aroha and wisdom, publication and recording opportunities, reviews, translations, festival invitations in her endnotes. I offer a small thank you to Hinemoana – each book is a gift and we are all the better for residing within your latest one.

HINEMOANA BAKER is a poet, musician and creative writing teacher. She traces her ancestry from Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa Rangatira, Te Āti Awa and Ngāi Tahu, as well as from England and Germany (Oberammergau in Bayern). She is the author of the poetry collections Funkhaus (VUP, 2020), waha | mouth (VUP, 2014), kōiwi kōiwi (VUP, 2010), and mātuhi | needle (co-published in 2004 by Victoria University Press and Perceval Press).

Hinemoana has edited several online and print anthologies and released several albums of original music and more experimental sound art. She works in English, Māori and more recently German, the latter in collaboration with German poet and sound performer Ulrike Almut Sandig. She is currently living in Berlin, where she was 2016 Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer in Residence, and completing a PhD at Potsdam University.

Victoria University Press page

The Spin Off review (Elizabeth Heritage)

Pantograph Punch review (Arihia Latham)

NZLA review (Kiri Piahana-Wong)

Poetry Shelf review: Jackson Nieuwland’s I am a human being

I am a human being, Jackson Nieuwland, Compound Press, 2020

Sometimes you pick up a poetry book and you know within a page or two, it is a perfect fit, a slow-speed read to savour with joy. That’s how I felt when I started reading Jackson Nieuwland’s I am a human being. I love the premise embedded in the title, that in turn generates a sequence of poems that form a secret title list poem (I am an egg, I am a tree, I am tree, I am a beaver, I am a bear, I am a dog, I am a bottomless pit, and so on).

The opening poem offers an image that, in its exquisite and heart-moving detail, underlines the range of the book: physical, metaphorical, fable-like, metaphysical, autobiographical. In one poem the speaker suggests they are not quite sure who they are yet, that there is no single word that adequately defines them (‘agender, genderfluid, trans …’). This book, so long in the making, lovingly crafted with the loving support of friends, with both doubt and with grace (think poise, fluency, adroitness), this book, in its lists and its expansions, moves beyond the need for a single self-defining word.

Instead we are offered the image of the egg – and the way we hold a universe of things inside us, and that sometimes we might break.

This is intimate poetry. This is slowing down to observe the quotidian, the daily comings and goings, the things you see and feel when you stop and reflect and imagine, that then tilts to surprise. There is uplift and there is slipstream.

This is contoured poetry because it ignites so many parts of you as you read. You will laugh out loud as you read. You will feel the poignant witty wise delightful magical joy. The shifting melodies. There are keyholes to light and keyholes to dark. The speaker speaks of outsiderness, of what it is to fit, and what it is to not fit.

Sometime you will turn the page to a glorious pun.

Sometimes the vulnerability is a sharp ache above the surface of the line. This from ‘I am version of you from the future’:

Your past self looks at you with sympathy.

They pull you into a tight hug.

You begin to sob

releasing years of tears

that had been held inside

due to the conditioning you received

from a patriarchal society

and the overload of testosterone

pumping through you body.

As you sink into your own embrace,

the two versions of you merge into one,

and you begin again

given a chance to do it all over

but differently this time,

with an open heart

like quadruple bypass surgery.

The risk of death is high

but what other choice do you have?

I am a version of you from the future.

This is just the beginning—

I am a human being is my favourite poetry book of 2020 so far. I like the addition of Steph Maree’s line drawings. I like the way the poetry stretches in its imaginings to draw closer to an interior real that is never fixed. I like the way the poetry is both anchor and liberating kite. I like the acknowledgement that, in order to know who you are, you need to embrace many things. I love this book so very much from first page to last. In the endnotes, the page where the poet gives thanks, I read the best acknowledgement ever:

And thank you for reading

this book. I’ve gone back and

forth with myself for years

about whether these words are

worth anyone’s time. It means

the universe to me that you’ve

read all the way to the end. I

hope you found something that

meant something to you.

Jackson Nieuwland is a genderqueer writer from Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Their poetry has appeared in a number of journals, in print and online.

Compound Press page

Poetry Shelf review: Michele Leggott’s Mezzaluna: Selected Poems

 

 

Leggott_Mezzaluna__32399.1575593220.jpg

 

Mezzaluna: Selected Poems Michele leggott, Auckland University Press, 2020

 

 

 

people still go to cottages in moody seaside weather

to read for a week           how will we do it now?

 

when I go for walks words stalk along too

I’ll be travelling mid-February and can’t guarantee a lucid mind

 

what about a big table in a room with windows

looking over the wild and wavy event?

 

from ‘Colloquy’ Swimmers and Dancers

 

 

Michele Leggott is continuing to make extraordinary contributions to poetry in Aotearoa. I rank her with Bill Manhire: two poets who have not only published astonishing poetry, but who have also been significant mentors and teachers in university programmes and introduced poetry initiatives, and edited vital anthologies. We are in debt to Bill for his vision for the IIML and offshoot projects, and the Poet Laureateship (now administered by The National Library but established with the efforts of Bill and Te Mata Estate). Michele was the first Poet Laureate under the National Library administration. She established the NZ Electronic Poetry Centre, set up the Lounge readings in Auckland, and has organised various gatherings of poets, including symposiums in Bluff, Christchurch and Auckland. Not forgetting her diverse contributions as Professor of English at the University of Auckland.

More than anything, we are in Michele’s debt for the light she has placed upon women poets from the past, especially Robin Hyde and Lola Ridge.

 

words come so slowly

it has been lonely

a phoenix palm

and behind it

crystalline glitter

another story, waving

 

plaintain paradisiaca a bird

musey with waves

Helicon a harbour cone

here

bright

Greek

over Narrowneck

 

from ‘Withywind’ from Like This? (1998)

 

 

I have been reading Michele’s poetry since her debut collection, Like This? (1988) and have followed the thematic and lyrical contours ever since. The first word that springs to mind is heart. Michele has written within the academy, with her prodigious intellect flaring, but she is a heart poet beholden to neither theoretical trend nor poetic fad. Her poetry has always linked hands with the writing of other women, and over time has become increasingly personal and more accessible for readers.

Michele’s Mezzaluna: Selected Poems appeared mid March, just before we moved into lockdown. Its visibility suffered as our reading, writing, publishing and reviewing lives moved into upheaval.  There is an excellent interview with Lynn Freeman on Standing Room Only and a short conversation with Paula Morris as part of The Auckland Writer’s Festival online series. The highlight of the latter is hearing Michele read an extract from her poem ‘The Fascicles’ from Vanishing Points (2017) (she is the last writer in the zoom session).

 

Fine ground darkness pours into the vessel

beans and flowers adorn the fall—

ichor! ichor! drink to the eyes locked on yours

the mouth that smiles and will speak for itself

I have always done the talking and she

put the words in my mouth saying do melisma

like sunlight be melisma like no sunlight pressed

redness before dark print an iris on her

 

from ‘Blue Irises’ in DIA (1994)

 

Difficulty has never been an issue for me as a reader of poetry – I love venturing into poetry thickets where meaning might appear in whiffs, and where enigma, evasion and multiplicity are active ingredients. Michele’s mid-career poetry collections, perhaps from DIA through to Mirabile Dictu, delivered various shades of difficulty and I loved them for that. Her lexicon has drawn upon the arcane, the archaic, slang, borrowed words, foreign languages. There were highways and byways to other poems, a history of research and reading. Intimacy was as likely as distance. And even though her poetry has become increasingly personal, self confessional in parts, it has always been so. Family appears, sons, food, beloved places, a shaping of home along with a profound engagement with other writing, other stories, myths, conversations.

The poems underline the way poetry threads ideas, memory, motifs, experience, opinion, reading history. The how of writing is as crucial as the what of writing.

 

imagine     the world goes dark

a bowl of granite or a stone bird

incised by tools the nature of which

is unknown    just that they are metal

and therefore from otherwhere

just that the weight of the bowl

precludes light and lightness

of thought     my feet take a path

I can no longer see    my eyes

won’t bring me the bird   only now

has my hand found the stones

I could add to the smooth interior

of my despair     the world goes dark

I look into the eyes of my stone bird

hammers before memory

silence and the world that is not

 

from ‘mirabile dictu’ in Mirabile Dictu

 

 

Along Mezzaluna’s reading tracks you will find honeysuckle, daffodils, roses, melons, breath, the wind, stars, here, there, light, dark, heart. Always heart. Always the interplay between light and dark. Michele has dedicated Mezzaluna to those who travel light and lift darkness’. Yes reading is a fertile way of travelling, life equally so; light and dark stick to us like biddybids, but our relations with and navigation of both are unique. What do we carry with us? What do we keep placing in our personal baggage? What do we do with the dark? For Michele, with her slow movement into blindness decades back, and all the challenges that have affected every aspect of her life, blindness has understandably also seeped into her writing. She has always been attuned to the sound of words, the mobility of language, words as sound dance in the ear, in harmony and discord. But the possibilities of sound, under Michele’s deft guidance, have become a glorious anchor for everything that has mattered and will matter.

The lush terrain of the visual is also a sumptuous part of Michele’s poetry. The recurring motifs I have already mentioned range from piquant to honeyed, visual bouquets in their own physicality but players in so much more. Participants in ideas, the mythological references, the recuperation of memory, family history, personal challenges.

It is equally rewarding to listen for the other women, particularly the poets who have captured Michele’s attention and diligent rescue work: I am thinking of the way Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan and Ursula Bethell have become a visible part of the network. More recently Lola Ridge. Michele’s latest project is Emily Harris, a New Plymouth poet who died in 1925 and whose work has been located in Sappho-like traces. Michele response to the missing poet is to recreate versions in Vanishing Traces.

I have heard Michele perform poems from most of her collections and it has always affected me deeply.  To listen to poems from As Far As I Can See – the poems that expose her move into blindness – these have been audience-affecting occasions. I have sat in a line of poetry fans and we have been utterly still, barely able to take breath at the daring exposure, the heartbreaking experience, the exquisite and utterly memorable poetry.

Ah, no matter what I write, no matter what I signal, I feel like I am shortchanging this rich and elegantly constructed volume. Michele told Paula Morris she had originally sent in a longer version but had cut it back and, in doing so, focused on the DNA of each book, on what was important. As she read and replayed, she carried a key question across the books: ‘What does a poem look like?’

This is such a good question to carry with you as you read – yes Michele’s poems do change, the lines shorten, the lexicon is more familiar, but there is common ground. Perhaps it comes down to a love of a sound, and how that love of sound is amplified when you can’t see the physical world. It is a rejuvenating, heart-engaging, thought-provoking read and it feels like this Michele’s poetry deserves a whole book of response. Michele Leggott warrants a whole book that navigates what her poetry does: its connections, its liberations, its epiphanies, its testings.

Mezzaluna showcases the work of one of our most inquisitive and sensual poets who ventures into the unknown, into an inhabited world, with an open heart and free-flowing mind. Glorious.

 

Auckland University Press author page