Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Recent New Zealand Poetry reviewed by Siobhan Harvey

night swimming
Kiri Piahana-Wong
Anahera Press -$24.99

 As its title suggests, night swimming, the first collection by Auckland poet, Kiri Piahana-Wong is a work connected to water/ moana/ the ocean. The titular poem is a case in point:

I saw lights in the water

while I was swimming in the sea

one night.

They stuck onto my arms and legs.

Light streamed from the ends of my fingers and toes.

I flicked my feet like a fish

I drew circles with my hands

I shimmered like a star falling


in the deep dark water.

Deep, dark, light: these words encapsulate the collection on expressive as much as symbolic levels, augmented as the latter are by aquatic ciphers. In the poem ‘Mataraki’ such language and its rhythms are evident “In the darkness my words sink/ like stones/ Spiral into the deep”; while in ‘After the sun’ “Night/ sinks into the/ bones” and “The/ ocean curls around/ its secrets”. A richly imagined collection ensues, especially when the beauty of idiom and icon subtly, cleverly explores the oceanic connection to existence and survival. ‘Continental drift’, ‘Tepid baths’, ‘At low tide. ‘Tidelines’: here and elsewhere the water which surrounds and dominates writer and reader also invigorates and inspires. In the poem ‘The singing’ it even augments passion and commitment:

He brought me a cup

of water

and said “it’s on me”

with a cheeky smile

that would have charmed

the birds out of the


The standout in the collection remains ‘This is it’ where depth, dusk, luminosity and aqua fuse into a meditation upon being, as the poem’s finale illustrates:


And now the starlight

pours down on your

face, millions of

light-years too late.

They’re already dead.

But look. Look

how brightly they


night swimming is a collection abundant with striking imagery and imagination. It marks a promising debut by an author carving out her own distinctive themes and ideas.   


Tear Water Tea
Saradha Koirala
Steele Roberts - $19.99
The same careful attention to detail is also evident in the second collection by Wellington poet, Saradha Koirala. Koirala has been widely published in New Zealand, including in high profile poetry outlets like the Listener, Sport and Turbine. On the strength of Tear Water Tea it’s easy to see why. Take the poem ‘Portrait’ as an example of the poet’s panache:

Remember when you took my photo

in the window seat at my house?

There was green, white, sunlight

the neighbour’s brick exterior.


I smiled awkwardly so you took my hand

and made love to me

surrounded by duvet and cushions

on my sheetless bed.


Later, you would say

drive safe, come home to me

and I would try not to linger

on the colour and crash of waves.


But after the photo you took a day off

brightening the shadow on my face

cast by the open window

and air-brushing the hair from my eyes.

That “green, white, sunlight”, that “colour and crash of waves”, and all that illumination and shade make for a deeply cadent as well as visual poem. If the title of the work ‘Portrait’ is apt in terms, not just of theme but also presentation, it’s a heading which perfectly summarizes the wider body of work in Tear Water Tea. The titular poem, ‘Fish Tail Mountain’, ‘I dream of houses’, ‘The gift shop at Pollock’s Toy Museum’, ‘Gravity’: these verses and others are connected by Koirala’s eye. Often her vision is informed with and seeks to revivify the innocence of the child’s point of view. In the latter poem, the opening lines represent this authorial viewpoint perfectly:

You come on like a box of spilt Lego

all half-built rockets

and multicoloured towers.

It’s there too at the conclusion of a poem such as ‘Butterflies from moths’:

I think of the child’s view

that all creatures have an opposite

frogs have toads

mice have rats

and there are tricks to telling them apart.

In Tear Water Tea, Koirala makes it her job to tell things apart. Descriptive, child-focused but never childish, this is a sumptuous book.


Close to the Bone
Charlotte Trevella
Steele Roberts - $19.99

 To another second collection by a young, widely published poet whose work is intrigued by and seeks to embrace the unconstrained observations of the child. In her younger days, Charlotte Trevella was selected as one of the top fifteen youth poets in the world and has won the New Zealand Post National Schools Poetry Competition. Since then her work has been published in the likes of Landfall, Snorkel and North & South. No mean achievement, ditto Close to the bone.

            The collection begins with a rewriting of Lewis Carroll’s fairytale:


Alice’s adventures

1 Drink me

Stand on a twilit shore and watch your shadow

stretch out to sea.

Its lips move.

It whispers, you are small indeed.

2. Eat me

Dim the headlamps, step out on your own

among the tussocks of a mountain pass

where snow creeks slice through stone.

Smile, you are colossal.

Look up at the stars;

Orion Cassiopeia Pegasus.

Your are Alice, but what are they?

Fragments of photon and fairy dust

from the sky’s diamante dungeons

and cryptic carbon caves.

What follows is an engagement, or rather re-engagement with other myths like Cinderella, Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin, the famed such as Hippocrates and Shelley and elements of popular culture as diverse as Miss Universe and Sergeant Pepper. If this sounds like a heady, unwieldy mix, Trevella more than capably keeps it together through her evocative language, astute framing and that unfettered point of view, I spoke of earlier. It’s all there, for instance, in a poem like ‘Ephemera’ which begins:

Summer is when the

garden is glass,

the poplar’s leaves,

spangled with sunlight,

are windows of a

pagan church, while cicadas

oscillate the crystal

bell of air.

Tell me again

how the body is an orchid,

an evanescent anatomy

of nectar and bone.

Other poems that leave the reader marveling at their dexterity include the title work, ‘Lunesta’, ‘Swimming in Waitata Bay’ and the concluding ‘The kiss’.

            Close to the Bone is stunning and buoyed by the finely tuned pulse of a songstress.  



No comments: