Monday, November 05, 2012

A batch of new poetry titles - reviewed by Siobhan Harvey

These Rough Notes
Bill Manhire, Anne Noble, Norman Meehan & Hannah Griffin
Victoria University Press

A book and a mixed-media exhibition, These Rough Notes is an art-collaboration between poet Manhire, photographer Noble, composer Meehan and singer Griffin. Taking its title from one of the last journal entries Robert Scott made during his failed 1910-1912 Terra Nova expedition of Antarctica, the subject matter concentrates on this ill-fated journey and the equally tragic 1979 Air NZ flight NZ901. Manhire’s illustrious Erebus Voices poems and some new work are set besides some stunning photographs by Noble. The latter really brings home the barren monochrome nature of the landscape. With an accompanying CD upon which Manhire’s verses are set to music by Meehan and sung by Griffin, These Rough Notes is best enjoyed by complete immersion - put the CD on and turn the pages in time to the music. Good to see that sales of this book propelled it into the top 10 New Zealand fiction book sales charts.   

Selected Poems
Bill Manhire
Victoria University Press

It’s over a decade since Manhire’s Collected Poems was released. This fact and his recent retirement from the directorship of the Institute of Modern Letters make a new offering of work by him timely indeed. The luscious Hotere portrait of the author on a cream cover which envelops this book denotes the stellar work within. From early pieces like ‘Love Poem’ and ‘The Spell’ in The Elaboration to the playful new poem, ‘Old Man Puzzled by His New Pyjamas’, Selected Poems is a rich starting point for anyone who mightn’t be as familiar with Manhire’s oeuvre as they’d like to be and an essential addition to the bookshelves of the author’s many aficionados. Indispensable.

Magnificent Moon
Ashleigh Young
Victoria University Press

From someone who long ago hit his poetic stride to someone with a first poetry collection just published. Graduate of the prestigious MA programme led (until recently) by Manhire, Ashleigh Young has had poems published irregularly in magazine for the past decade and took out the Landfall Essay Competition in 2009. Like her prize-winning essay, Wolf Man, Young’s first collection, Magnificent Moon offers a clever, sometimes surreal examination of family dynamics, in poems such as ‘Giving my father frights’ and ‘A swim with Mum’. Elsewhere poems about friends and work colleagues abound and, as in the verse ‘All the single ladies’, sharp, feminist-minded subject-matter also ensues. Women, particularly women of Young’s generation, are drawn by the author with a vibrant self-sufficiency which simultaneously validates the strengths of camaraderie and whanau. A bold first collection which suggests that here is an artist who’s carving out a clear, intriguing set of thematic principles for future work.  

Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick
Courtney Sina Meredith
Beatnik Publishing

Pacific Island performance poet, Courtney Sina Meredith’s first collection Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick might be a diminutive offering, but the poems written within its small red cover provide a big punch. This work glows with its inner-city characters who relate their edgy, subterranean complications in streetwise dialogue. ‘Don’t trust a Samoan girl’, ‘Space Dance’, ‘Back Home’, the titular poem: here and elsewhere are verses which speak of the difficulties faced by a diverse cast who belong to their author’s generation. If the emotional landscape is raw, the physical landscape is portrayed with a vividness which brings fresh life to places like Wakefield Street, Avondale Road, K’Road, Khartoum Square and Tamaki Drive. Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick is a bright work indeed, and in its publication Meredith proves herself worthy of being included in the ranks of the new breed of Pacific Island poets, like Karlo Mila, Tusiata Avia and Selina Tusitala Marsh, New Zealand rightly cherishes. Buy this book, read it, then go and see Meredith perform her poems live.

Poems to a Glass Woman – James K. Baxter
John Weir (editor)
Victoria University Press

This volume of previously unpublished verses is released to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the death of James K. Baxter. It features 21 poems which come accompanied by perhaps the finest attribute of this book, a lengthy and worthy essay, The Winter of Beginning composed by editor Weir. With regard to the poems, they were written when Baxter was in his late teens (mid-1940s); not that this work is in any way adolescent or naïve, as the first four lines of poem 11 illustrate:

Five swans flew over. Night fell from their wings
Flashing a dusky white. The cool night fell
To underwater calm. Sea rose in spray.
The few stars came in quiet.

The rich imagery and complex word-play here are evident elsewhere, antecedents of the hallmarks of the author’s later work. They are also significant because they fill in some of the gaps in Baxter’s literary career mentioned in passing in previous volumes - like Cold Spring – James K. Baxter, edited by Paul Millar (Oxford, 1996) - which published samples of the subject’s 300 poems written in the personally fraught but creatively productive period, 1944-1945. An obligatory work for Baxter’s legions of fans to buy; and one not to be overlooked by anyone who wishes to discover more about the early work of our best known poet. Victoria University Press promises four volumes Baxter’s Complete Prose, edited by Weir, soon. Poems to a Glass Woman – James K. Baxter more than wets our appetite for this. 

Siobhan Harvey is the author of the poetry collection, Lost Relatives (Steele Roberts NZ, 2011), the book of literary interviews Words Chosen Carefully: New Zealand Writers in Discussion (Cape Catley, 2010) and the poetry anthology Our Own Kind: 100 New Zealand Poems about Animals (Random House, 2009). Recently, her poetry has been published in Evergreen Review (Grove Press, US), Meanjin (Aus), Snorkel (Aus) and Structo (UK). She’s Poetry Editor of Takahe and coordinates New Zealand's National Poetry Day. She was runner up in 2012 Kevin Ireland Poetry Prize, 2011 Landfall Essay Prize and 2011 Kathleen Grattan Award for a Sequence of Poems. A Poet’s Page containing a selection of her recorded work and texts can be found on The Poetry Archive (U.K.), directed by Sir Andrew Motion.  

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