Tuesday, April 02, 2013

More NZ Poetry reviewed by Siobhan Harvey

Three Days in a Wishing Well   
Kerrin P Sharpe
Victoria University Press

Most top graduates of creative writing programs are fortunate enough to find a publisher for their work-in-progress within a year or two of completing their studies. Not so, Christchurch poet and student of the forerunner of Wellington’s famous Institute of Modern Letters Creative Writing course, Kerrin P. Sharpe. Sharpe finished her studies top of class back in 1976. Recently she saw the release of her first collection, Three Days in a Wishing Well by foremost New Zealand poetry publisher, Victoria University Press, the completion of a publication journey which took her over 3 and a half decades.
Sometimes, as for the finest viticulturist, time is a poet’s best friend. In Sharpe’s case, those thirty-six years of poetic genesis, development and negotiation have created a stunning first release. Structurally perfect, the collection journeys through three section, each emblematic of the Three Days…  poet and reader spend in the book’s fountain of poetic ideas and imagery, as the titular poem evocatively confirms:

at the bottom
of the well
lined with porteous
yellow blue art tiles

ceramic hands hold
moon drop coins
arranged as feather
on a hunter’s shirt

and a city care
man with hose and
bucket is separating
wishes with water

the research is called
three days in a wishing
well now the council knows
the thoughts of the boy

rowing nowhere the
woman carrying shortbread
as live environments.com
even the washing

instructions for this poem

The language use is stellar throughout, each poem a heady mix of finely fermented linguistics and rich symbolism. Collectively the poems take one from New Zealand’s first woman lighthouse-keeper and a mother’s passion for sewing to patron saints, monasteries and Captain Scott’s 1910 Antarctic expedition. It is at its most tender, most powerful when resurrecting the poet’s relationship with her parents, as in perhaps the best poem in the work, ‘my father always…’ which concludes:

to hug my father was
to know the sky: the
voices of soldiers the
families that squeezed
him inside the hot breath
of thatch the hooks of
his wings even now i
hear the surprise of
small birds
As in the best poetry collections, every offering provides something different – a change of subject, a slight alteration in word-play, a fresh, delightful image - to comprehend and consider.
Reading this book, it’s hardly surprising to consider that Sharpe has used the time between
graduation and publication to build up an incredible list of magazine and anthology publications for these poems, the kind which rarely grace the Acknowledgements page of a first publication. Three times published in Best New Zealand Poems, an entry in Best of the Best New Zealand Poems,  the New Zealand Listener, Turbine, Snorkel….  And shortly, her work will find a place in the prestigious Oxford Poets series published by leading UK poetry publisher, Carcanet. On the strength of Three Days in the Wishing Well, we’ll be hearing about Sharpe and reading a second collection well before another 36 years has passed.

Image 1Other Animals
Therese Lloyd
Victoria University Press

Sometimes reading poetry can stir unintended personal responses. Opening another first collection from a University of Victoria, IIML MA in Creative Writing graduate, Other Animals by Therese Lloyd and seeing an introductory snatch of verse from the wondrously concise work of American poet, W. S. Merwin:

            the stone city in
            the river has changed and of course
the river

returned me to the privilege I felt last year finding his Poet’s Page on The Poetry Archive UK was launched aside my own. Delving further into Other Animals, a recent Number 1 Bestseller on the New Zealand Book sales charts, Merwin’s quote served another purpose – a linguistic barometer by which to read Lloyd’s own sparse, but expansive poetry. An early poem like ‘Farmyards of the Mind’ is indicative of how this poet manages to compress succulent imagery and meaning into a few lines of verse:

Coming through fields
wiping dirt from hands from feet from tracks
the bitterness still full in my mouth
bits of forgiveness I seem unable to swallow
I’m bawling for my lack of difference
and other awkward characteristics
stacked like felled timber
in an aching forest

Awkward, felled, aching: it’s Lloyd’s clever meshing of adjectives that creates layered meanings; a statement true of many other poems in the book. This sense of a series of vignettes, beautifully, tightly composed, plentifully seamed with strong word choice and strong pictures is present throughout the first section of Other Animals, particularly in poems such as ‘Scenes from the Motor-camp’, ‘The Eternals’, ‘In Levin’ and ‘Takaka’. But it’s the 2nd section, during which the previously understated theme of creaturely behaviour tumults, that best showcases the full range of Lloyd’s poetic talents. In this part, even the opening poem, the haunting ‘The Hinge Seasons’ begins with lines that seem to perfectly review the author’s poetic operation:

The talk these days is of all things known
and the arrangements we’ve made of them

What follows, in poems such as the titular work, ‘Eel’, ‘The Black Angel’, the epic ‘Compost’, ‘For Sheep’ and ‘Tapu te Ranga Motu’, is an ongoing, cohesively set down existential questioning, much of it connected to and dressed by landscape, the animal and the unsettling:

Other Animals

Something uncanny
about all this – like the word striation
with its middle vowel
to vowel roll
You and I
my global partner in tiny times
trace letters in the sky
cup our hands to catch rain
And that wooden one-eared rhino
knows something of it all –
his hoof prints deep drawn
on the underside of our days –
I gave up cigarettes to prepare
my body for whatever
Cars too are over and done with
as are the flesh and skin of other animals
It’s funny how similar a presence
and an absence can be
We die out of course, like all the best animals
but us you see, we choose
to leave nothing behind
By turns, crisp, clever and wry, Other Animals is a powerful beast of a book.

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