Thursday, January 31, 2013

A selection of poetry reviews by Siobhan Harvey

Auē Rona
Reihana Robinson
Steele Roberts, $25

Inaugural recipient of the Te Atairangikaahu Award for Poetry, author, artist and organic farmer Reihana Robinson follows up her featured status in AUP New Poets 3 (Auckland University Press, 2008) with a vibrant and inventive first full collection, Auē Rona.  Part cosmological revivification of the Maori legend of Rona and the Moon, part feminist allegory, part edgy, cadent testimony, Auē Rona mixes the contemporary with the historical, the factual with the fabled as the resurrected titular heroine charts her way through modern life. As such, the core of the book is framed by verse with such evocative titles as ‘Rona does the hula’, ‘Rona’s descendants: Raro Taro’, ‘Rona mourns’ and ‘Rona wants’, the latter poem giving an insight into the texture, thematic focus and linguistic play of the broader work:

I want to
be that glow.

I want to
climb into her headdress
in broad daylight.

I want
a world lit and glowing.

I want to feel claws
on my scarecrow arms.

I want to jostle against,
a different kind of silence.

I want hollow drums, soft
patches, clumps of vegetation.

I want to feaze daylight.

The liberated, street-beat, street-smart subject matter is evident elsewhere in poems like ‘Indian sister’, ‘What the stars say’ and ‘Maori creation’. Reminiscent of Tusiata Avia’s collection, Bloodclot (Victoria University Press, 2009), Auē Rona examines modern womanhood through the re-forging of tales from the past. Along the way, cultural belonging and personal sensuality are microscoped. All this and a cover (plus additional images) by New Zealand (of Maori and German descent) artist Noa Noa von Bassewitz make for a superb first book.

Old Hat: A Book of Triolets
Mark Pirie
HeadworX Press, $20

Another reworking of tradition (this time of form rather than topic) finds poet, editor, anthologist, archivist and publisher, Mark Pirie updating the poetic mode, the triolet. Like the villanelle and rondeau, the triolet belongs to old French poetic forms which begun life as songs recited by peasant farmers to each other whilst sewing and tilling the fields. With an emphasis upon the oral (and thus upon the rhythmic) and the amusing, the triolet possesses a witty, vibrant succinctness well utilised in recent years by prominent poets like Wendy Cope. Pirie adapts the triolet to the New Zealand land, mores and language, as evident in the early poem, ‘In Thorndon’:

Birds call and cats fight;
   I sit and listen
In Thorndon at night.

   Birds call and cats fight;
It’s nearly moonlight
   Here where trees glisten.

Birds call and cats fight
   In Thorndon at night.

Old Hat is a collection of close to 40 triolets, with Pirie not only outlining his literary engagement with the form in an astute ‘Introduction’ but modernising the conventions of the triolet through verse devoted to both the famous (Margaret Mahy, Usain Bolt, Dorothy Parker..) and his interests (cricket, rock music…..).  May Old Hat revive an interest in the triolet amongst many more poets.

King Willow: Selected Poems by Robert J Pope
Mark Pirie (Editor)
HeadworX, $30

When not writing triolets, Mark Pirie’s been busy researching the life and rejuvenating the work of one of our ‘lost’ voices, Robert J, Pope. Pope was a popular New Zealand poet and songwriter from the early 1900s until the end of the Second World War, and apart from writing verse which actively engaged with the major cultural and international events of the day (the rise of Fascism in Europe, the 1924-5 Invincibles tour of England and France, the first Labour Government), he also penned a number of influential songs, particular those recited in schools like New Zealand, My Homeland. The importance of Pope to this era, as witness and recorder, can’t be underestimated, and in not only resurrecting this significance of the man but faithfully gathering his oeuvre, Pirie in King Willow: Selected Poems does a meritorious task, and edits an interesting and indispensable book for aficionados of New Zealand poetry, past and present. Another fine and thorough ‘Introduction’ by Pirie leads the reader through a heady throng of poems and songs. The title page to the anthology details this selection as ‘No. 1 in the HeadworX Classic Poetry Series’. On the strength of King Willow, I can’t wait to see which forgotten poet Pirie next restores to our literary consciousness. 

Marion Jones
Steele Roberts, $20

Dunedin poet, Marion Jones’ second collection, Reflections is a delicately woven and satisfying story about memory and dysfunction.  Over the course of three sections, she charts the journey of the early years, escapisms and returns of a bright narrator constrained by the guilt of the death of her mother in childbirth, her father’s distance and her stepmother’s brittleness. Through poems such as ‘Balloons’, ‘Dog at the door’, ‘Never told’, ‘Flood’ and others, Jones crafts a series of credible characters fractured by the strictures of the blended family and old-fashioned values. Throughout language and imagery provide spark and the possibility of catharsis, as in the latter poem, ‘A crack’:
Along her back wall,
a crack angles from
the ground in an arch.
Beneath, a geranium
twines a lattice attached
to the rough-cast. Lower
yet, a gash in the plaster
exposes a net of chicken
wire beneath. Until her
children no longer cling
and bloom and climb,
the fissure will remain
a feature of the house.

This collection maps landscape as much as whanau, with poems sited by topography near and far, including Mount Hood, Opoho Hill, Taiaroa Heads, Los Angeles, Kazakhstan and so forth.  Always what it means to have a home is considered and re-evaluated – a place of extrication? a place of safety? a place of soul? a place of itinerancy? A rewarding read.

My Family & Other Strangers
Laurice Gilbert
Academy Aotearoa Press, $12

From one examination of family to another with poet and New Zealand Poetry Society National Coordinator, Laurice Gilbert’s My Family & Other Strangers. Gilbert’s book is shorter than Jones’ but packs no less poetic punch. The whanau here isn’t the family tattered by dysfunction, but the family bonded by quirkiness. Through poems such as ‘Strangers’, ‘Life is a Grocery Store’, ‘Safe at Home’ and ‘Family Snapshot’, Gilbert builds a picture of an unconventional family. Along the way, paternity, sibling fraternity and rivalry, maturing and loss are explored. Often the inventiveness the author uses in her thematic approaches is paralleled by a skillful deployment of poetic form which includes a villanelle, prose-poem and pantoum. In ‘Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep A Gun In My Handbag’ Gilbert also displays an adept engagement with the work of other poets (here, American poet Billy Collins’ ‘Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House’):

I’m tempted to depict my mother-in-law as barking.
Whenever we meet she doggedly insists
on establishing her position as matriarch,
sharing family anecdotes she’s made up,
or misconstrued, or simply lost the gist.

Her son, heir to his late father’s sanity genes,
books a long overdue duty trip to Taupo.
After five chocolate-filled road trip hours
my buttons come alive:
sparking, sparring, scarring.

I wish I could turn her off as I arrive.
She asks my husband where I will sleep.
Scorning the spare double bed
as too wretchedly hot to share, has already
set up a stretcher for me in ‘his’ room…

Along the way, as in collection’s second section, ‘Vincent – an autobiography’, the eccentricity of the familial is distinguished by the intimacy of the isolate, the challenges of being daughter, sister and mother is contrasted with the trials of being an artist. At $12, this is a steal.

About the reviewer
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), Penduline Press – The New Zealand Issue (US), 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 Dorothy Porter Prize for Poetry (Aus), 2012 Kevin Ireland Poetry Prize, 2011 Landfall Essay Prize and 2011 Kathleen Grattan Award for a Sequence of Poems, and shortlisted for the 2012 Jane Frame Memorial Award for Literature. 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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