Tag Archives: Rachel O’Neill

Friday Poem: Rachel O’Neill’s ‘Almost exactly the love of my life’ Its knots and overlay render me curious



Almost exactly the love of my life

On slow days at the office I wrote love letters to myself from the woman who was almost exactly the love of my life. In these letters I, or she – well, ‘we’ – wrote of our desire for me as a passionate explorer might. ‘Once you bring back footage of the moon’s farside,’ she said, ‘there’s no telling what miracles it will perform on the diseased parts of our relationship.’ In these letters she promised not to leave me and was happy to put our life on hold for a year or two of probing research. ‘Why jump into the next phase with reckless abandon?’ she wrote one week. ‘Just because we broke into seventy six terrible pieces last time doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try again.’ I came to love the heart and mind that wrote me these messages, overwhelmed at times by their quiet and unobtrusive undercurrent of encouragement. Even now I feel bound to this correspondent as if to a great abiding mystery, such as the inexplicable shifts in our planet’s poles that can push ships onto rocks or that can draw whales as if by leashes onto shore.


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Author’s note: This poem is from a series I’m beginning about a character living in an Aotearoa very like ours except that there is considerable Unmanned Moon Exploration activity. The character is engaged in secret work and struggles with not being able to disclose details about the day job to their girlfriend. The character would like nothing more than to debrief, especially about the pressure the team is under to navigate ice fields and bring back soil samples. Over the arc of the sequence the Unmanned Moon Exploration corporation in question goes under and this leads to some disgruntled worker-type protests and raiding of the ‘stationery’ cupboard, which houses pens and pulsating spheres. Oh, and someone frees the Lunar Clones! This poem was recently published in Minarets journal with a host of fantastic poetry by the likes of Hinemoana Baker, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle and Alex Mitcalfe Wilson. Check it out here. There is so much exciting New Zealand writing coming out at the moment and it’s a pretty inspiring time to be a poet.

Author bio: Rachel O’Neill is a writer, artist and filmmaker who lives in Paekākāriki on the Kapiti Coast. Her debut collection of poetry One Human in Height was published by Hue & Cry Press in 2013. You can find out more about what she’s up to on her blog.

Paula’s note: I am reading this piece in isolation—splintered from the series in which it plays a part, but that makes scant difference. It hums and resonates with a fullness of belly, surrealness, questions (is this human?) and a lightness of touch, along with knots and overlay that render me curious. I see this piece as a stack of tracing-paper figures laid one upon each other until they gain surprising life. They merge and separate; they merge and separate (she she she she she). There is a surety of touch in each line. There is an undercurrent of ideas (the power of greater invisible forces, the impact of the big upon the miniscule, the multiplication of ‘me’ through an inked pen, the love of self and the self of love, the recognition and misrecognition of self, the nurturing, fragmentation). Is this flash poetry? Sharp, sudden, luminous? It’s a delight to read so I am hungry for the sequence. I had no idea about Lunar Clones as I read this!

Lovely to hear Zarah and Rachel read in Auckland last night

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Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle and Rachel O’Neill read from their debut collections in Auckland last night. What a stellar job Hue & Cry Press is doing (Publisher Chloe Lane and editors Amy Brown and Lawrence Pratchett). These collections offer much for the reader both on the page and in the air—I will post a review of Zarah’s Autobiography of a Marguerite early next week. My review of Rachel’s One Human in Height is  here.

The Marguerites: Rachel O’Neill interviews poet Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle for Poetry Shelf


Photo of Zarah courtesy of Hue & Cry Press

Rachel O’Neill has interviewed Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle for Poetry Shelf to mark the arrival of their two debut poetry collections (Hue & Cry Press). I will be launching both books on

Thursday  6pm 12 June 2014
RM GALLERY, 1st Floor, 307 K Road, Auckland, Entrance on Samoa House Lane

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The Marguerites: an interview with poet Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

A book-length poem is no easy feat, and Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle has achieved this coup magnificently in Autobiography of a Marguerite, creating a visceral and emotionally sparky long poem haunted and stalked and befriended by a host of Marguerites as well as other identities shaped by illness, crumbling and strikingly intimate family relationships, and language in which the adults’ voices break like teenagers, while the ‘young people’ make a note to have more snacks in their bedrooms to survive the strange new flow of time.


Rachel O’Neill [RO]: Who was the first Marguerite? Did any of the Marguerites beget a Marguerite?

Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle [Z B-M]: The first Marguerite was a thirteen year old who sat in front of my grandmother at school. My grandmother admired the girl’s blue eyes and black hair, and she said to herself that when she was older she was going to have a daughter with blue eyes and black hair and she would name her Marguerite. And, as my grandmother has told me various times, that is exactly what happened – her first child was a daughter with blue eyes and black hair, and she named her Marguerite. Coincidentally, there is a Marguerite Duras novel called Blue Eyes, Black Hair, and I used this as one of my source texts for my book. My mother is actually embarrassed about the fact that her name appears in the title of my book. When someone, like a colleague, asks her what the title of my book is, my mother says she can’t remember.

[RO]: Can you describe three things that interested you about the process of putting this collection together?

[Z B-M]: When I first read this question, I wrote: pain, identity, burden. Then I wrote: texture, experience, subversion, non-linearity. I was interested in working on a book-length poem or project rather than writing individual poems that I’d put together at the end in a collection. So I guess I don’t really see the book as a ‘collection’ as such. I wanted the book to be more of an experience. I was interested in autobiographical writing, but I also wanted to write poems that were more ‘language-centred’. In the early stages, my supervisor said there was too much situation, and not enough story – that I needed more structure, more narrative, and more from the outside word. So I tried to adjust the balance. I wanted the pieces to speak to each other and cumulate meaning as the book progressed, but I also had to think about ways to counter the risk of repeating or pushing too hard at certain ideas [when exploring things in long sequences].

[RO] What happens when you start to make objects and subjects out of memory?

[Z B-M]: “It’s the beginning of forgetting.” “The room is empty. The only furniture is two chairs and a table.” “She switches on the lights. And lies herself down in the middle of the light, where she has dragged the sheets.”

You miss out details or you put too many details in. You miss out details because you know the back story and forget that the reader doesn’t, or you put in unnecessary details because you get distracted by the memory and try to recreate or represent a particular situation, rather than focusing on a feeling.

You can get lost inside the memory and become exhausted, trying to navigate it from the inside. You can decide to alter a memory and write something that isn’t ‘true,’ but then later that something can turn out to be ‘true,’ or more accurate to ‘real life’ than you thought.

[RO]:Can you tell us a little about your use of footnotes in the book? Are they apertures to things outside of the main text or do they point to the holes already blistering the so-called main story?

[Z B-M]: The footnotes function both as openings to things outside of the main text as well as pointing to holes in the main story. The footnotes interrupt the ‘absorptive’ flow of the confessional narrative, but their tone is more lyrical than academic or explanatory. They add another layer of time and identity. All of the footnotes come from novels by Marguerite Duras and Marguerite Yourcenar, so a Marguerite comments on the life of another Marguerite. The footnotes act as a kind of fragmented (auto)biography of the books they come from, while adding details to another redacted autobiography… and the autobiography is a story within a story. The footnotes exist in a different time space than the main text… and the narrator who is writing the autobiography put the footnotes there as part of a way of reinterpreting the past in the present, sometimes adding metaphorical details, sometimes adding self-aware notes like, ‘Cheap melodrama’. I also see the footnotes as another voice, another monologue, in the play of Marguerite’s life. Or maybe like experimental stage directions. The reader experiences both being a witness and an actor (like the narrator) because they have to participate in piecing together the main narrative text as well as welding the footnotes to the text.  The form (the half-finished sentences + the footnotes) is a kind of performance of the process of remembering, and reinterpreting the past.

[RO]: What draws you to reflect on moments of miscommunication and the scary moments of real understanding?

[Z B-M]: Because something has to be at stake – for me as the writer, and for the reader. “‘Pain is not interesting,’ but it is.” And your whole life script can be based on a few moments of miscommunication.

[RO] Does illness mean you locate yourself in time differently? And what was your motivation for giving visibility to illness in the book?

[Z B-M]: I think so, yes. Because illness is a way of measuring time… (Oh, I used to swim every week back then, before I got sick… We moved here a year after I got so sick, so that must be seven years ago, now… That was the summer your father got so ill he almost died…). I’m talking about chronic illness in particular. And in my experience, you can feel both as if you’ve lost time and as though you’re stuck in time. You remain [the age you were when you were diagnosed]… you didn’t have the chance to live in a way like other people did [at that age] to have the experiences other people did, because of your illness. If you have to spend months at home resting, you can feel as if you are wasting time or losing time. And the trauma that illness may bring can also lead to not being able to remember a period of time very well, as a defence mechanism… so you look back [on your life] and you say, ok, I remember going to the hospital and I remember sitting in the lounge for a while, but I don’t know what else happened during those five months. Illness also means you locate yourself in time differently because the way you use your time and the way you view the future will most likely change. Maybe the future seems much more uncertain and frightening now that you are ill. The symptoms you have are not just concerning because they are happening right now, but because of what they mean for how your life will be from this point on. Time passes, and you are still sick, so you have to get used to it, or you have to get used to not getting used to it.

Thinking and talking and writing about illness seems interesting and important to me. In particular, how illness shapes the way someone sees themselves, and how others see them. How does a person deal with their illness? How do other people react, and how does the reaction of others alter the way someone deals with their illness? Does illness become part of a performance? Is illness (socially) rewarded or punished? What value do we give illness x or y? How does it affect relationship dynamics? I guess I want people to think about these things… as well as perhaps gain more understanding and empathy for people they know with a chronic illness. It seems also important to give visibility to chronic illnesses because they are often ‘invisible’… in that there may be no physical signs apparent to friends or people on the street, and so when people do find out, they often say things like, ‘Oh, but you don’t look like someone who would have [x, y, z]…you look too young to have it!’ or ‘But you look fine! You don’t look sick… ’.

Early on though, I realised I didn’t want to write about a journey of a particular illness, with all the medical details and experiences. I wanted to explore the social aspect of illness in relation to identity and family, and I wanted to use illness as a concept, to illustrate the struggle for autonomy and a sense of self, tying it in with a relationship where the daughter struggles to separate herself from her mother. And although I don’t name an illness, I do mention that it is an autoimmune illness – another detail which symbolises/highlights the struggle for a sense of self. The immune system is a boundary between you and the outside world, and the first task of the immune system is distinguishing self from non-self. Autoimmunity occurs when the immune cannot recognise what is self and non-self, and begins to attack its own tissues. In the book, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the mother and the daughter, particularly in the second section with the footnotes. The footnotes could also be seen as a kind of autoimmune illness, attacking the main body of the text, the other Marguerites.

[RO]: What was the last boring thing you did that also gave you a lot of satisfaction?

[Z B-M]: Probably… responding to a couple of emails that had been in my ‘flagged’ pile for ages. Going through my inbox and flagging emails is also kind of satisfying.



Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Hue & Cry, the publisher behind this book. You can get a taste for her work by checking out Best New Zealand Poems 2011 and 2012 and the latest issue of Hue & Cry. She was awarded the Biggs Poetry Prize from the International Institute of Modern letters for her manuscript, the first rendition of Autobiography of a Marguerite. You can find out more about the book here or pick up a copy at the Auckland launch.

Rachel O’Neill’s first book of poems One Human in Height was published by Hue & Cry Press in 2013. See Hue & Cry author page here. Paula’s review of Rachel’s debut collection here.






Auckland launch of Autobiography of a Marguerite by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

Hue & Cry Press invites you to the Auckland launch of
Autobiography of a Marguerite by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle

and One Human in Height by Rachel O’Neill

RM GALLERY, 1st Floor, 307 K Road, Auckland, Entrance on Samoa House Lane

Rachel O’Neill’s One Human in Height: Sent me searching for a new word to signal the kind of writing that takes flight


Rachel O’Neill, One Human in Height, Hue & Cry Press, 2013

Rachel O’Neill‘s debut poetry collection sent me searching for a new word to signal the kind of writing that takes flight within its pages. Yes, this is poetry that finds life in sentences, so you fall upon little prose poems (like embroidered pocket handkerchiefs on the page), but that seems barely adequate. Yes, these exquisite sentences have toes in the surreal, but again that falls short of the way each piece pivots upon an axis of the real. I think I have opted for poetry prisms.

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I was reminded of an extraordinary mix of things as I read: Anne Kennedy’s debut novel, 101 Traditional Smiles, Lyn Hejinian’s sentences, Fanny Howe’s sentences, Richard Brautigan, Gertrude Stein, Gregory O’Brien’s early poetic slants with magical drops, Gianni Celati’s Narratori delle pianure (for a start).

These poems are poetry prisms because they are shape-shifters (not on the page as they maintain the uniformity of squares and rectangles). They are kaleidescopic, anecdotal, twisty, askew, stream-of-consciousness-like, uncanny, colourful, incantatory, shiny. Each poem shifted in the light as I read, so the anecdotal world became less settled, more surprising, yet never loosing its anchorage in the real.

One of the first poems, ‘Waking early in the marigolds,’ is the perfect entry into the book. The poet takes an idea and then playfully jams with it in slightly off-beat ways (the poem is about waking up in surprising places — ‘I came into the world with nothing bar a capacity for waking in unexpected places.’). It is almost (oh, at a stretch!) a metaphor for how these poems work; as perhaps these poems awake in surprising places, a little to the left of right of expectation. I loved the ending, where the poet yearns to be lying in bed ‘with some authority despite being out of my depth.’

The collection’s subject matter seems to be driven by both real life and the imagination, by a poet who is mindful of the world about her, but who is willingly to filter that world through imaginative excursions. Thus, you get transported from behind the eyelids of a man to what you tell and don’t people to someone arriving at a family reunion by parachute to a compass that is dropped and multiplied 200 million times.

Rachel’s sentences have a pitch perfect economy (‘The sea’s pale back’) that generate musical tones. The quirkiness, the off-beatness, the flashes of the surreal, however, are not embedded in skewed syntax or word choices but in the anecdotal revelations (fictional or otherwise). For me, Rachel’s graceful language heightens the narrative twists and turns.

Endings can be the ruination of a poem, but Rachel has a light touch, a surprising touch. She concludes ‘My father’s memories’ with this: ‘He shunted past me muttering, “My father’s memories,” as if every year he bore them on that stretcher down to the water.’ Rachel’s beginnings are equally nimble and fresh: ‘She sits down at the kitchen table to wait out the remainder of April.’

This is a glorious debut. These poems show the way you can hold any occasion, object, person or place in your mind and, like a prism, watch it shimmer and shine with little stories that hook tufts of truth and fabrication, self and knowing, illusions and strange kinks, and everyday bric-a-brac. I am in love with this book.

Thanks to Hue & Cry I have a copy of this book to give to someone who likes or comments on this post.

Hue & Cry need our support

Hue & Cry have turned to crowd funding again to publish their next collection of poetry. With Sarah Jane Barnett’s appearance as a poetry finalist in the New Zealand Post Book Awards (also funded via Pledge Me), the small press have got off to a terrific start. This is a great initiative and well worth our support.

The project:

One Human in Height is the debut poetry collection by Rachel O’Neill.

It will be published by Hue & Cry Press.

One Human in Height is a collection of dramatic, exuberant and at times irreverent prose poems that explore how we might describe the bewitching strangeness of ordinary experience. These poems aim to lend freshness to our habits of looking and thinking …

To pledge funds and read the rest of the piece use this link.