Book Reviews


Michael Aiken Reviews Monty Reid

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

Composed of nine distinct sections, Canadian poet Monty Reid’s Meditatio Placentae is more like a collection of chapbooks than individual poems. Most of those nine sections have previously appeared as separate publications, and each certainly works as a discrete sequence. The whole is loosely held together by a combination of mundane subjects and a nightmare-like, alien perceptiveness; rather than building a continuous collection, the sections create a context of transition from one mode to another.

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Owen Bullock Reviews Murray Edmond

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

Shaggy Magpie Songs by Murray Edmond
Auckland University Press, 2015

Murray Edmond is a New Zealand poet of long-standing achievement. He published the first of twelve previous collections, Entering the Eye, way back in 1973 with Caveman Press; the most recent was Three Travels (Holloway Press, 2012). He is a dramaturge, with a career ranging from the experimental Red Mole Theatre Company to the present Indian Ink Theatre Company. He was co-editor of the 2000 anthology Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-1975, which restored marginalised voices from the 1960s and 1970s, especially women poets such as Anne Donovan, Kathinka Nordal Stene and Christina Beer. He is now editor of Ka Mate Ka Ora: A New Zealand Journal of Poetry and Poetics.

The front cover image of his most recent collection, Shaggy Magpie Songs fits its tone beautifully. A busker with an acoustic guitar and capo sits on two cushions balanced on a milk crate. Money is collected in an old paint tub. Behind him, an umbrella is attached to a microphone stand. The busker’s head is that of a magpie, looking upwards, purposively. He’s perched on the waterfront below Ponsonby near the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Insofar as the title acts as a premise for the collection, it’s a convincing one, as its thirty-four poems testify.

You can’t mention magpies in the context of New Zealand poetry without thinking of Denis Glover’s famous ballad ‘The Magpies’. In Edmond’s latest collection, the cadences of Glover are evident in ‘Mister Wat’ and in ‘Conversation with My Uncle’, even before the reference to Glover, or before encountering the back cover’s nod to this literary heritage. Edmond is not just making a reference but embracing elements of Glover’s style, rough-edged and profound.

Placing the concept of song lyric firmly in the centre of the collection sets up certain expectations but also aids the broader exploration of what might constitute a lyric, since the poems which have a less formal structure are read for their similar or different qualities to the others. In the rhyming poems, a firm pattern to the rhyme is not always detectable, but, importantly, the rhythms are compelling On the whole, the rhyme does not control the poem to the expense of all else. There are funny and original rhymes, such as ‘rode the railroad tracks of his undos’ with ‘choose’ and ‘shoes’ (‘Clown on Skates’); and there are elegant stanzas:

cook was scraping bones
(thin soups are the best)
for every Greek that groans
there’s one who groans in jest

(‘Swing Your Tiger’)

One is conscious of the rhyming sounds as simply another set of playful possibilities, rather than the rhyme becoming irritating because it is obvious or controlling, which is an all too common fault even in much published rhyming poetry.

Much of the book celebrates the ordinary. Ordinary moments, real or imagined, are shaggy ones, for example, graffiti described as being in ‘a young and scrawny scrawl’ in the poem ‘So-So Street (A Soliloquy)’. They recall Edmond’s quoting of Guy Debord in Then It Was Now Again – Selected Critical Writings (Atuanui Press, 2014), in which Edmond suggests that the poems in the Big Smoke anthology ‘constitute “fleeting moments resolutely arranged”’. They are fleeting here, too, and might go unnoticed but for the poet’s noting the situation. The understated ending to ‘With Jean-Paul Sartre on the Banks of the Waikato’ celebrates the ordinary even in the midst of a surreal scenario, as well as introducing ‘characters’ in a manner that reflects an understanding of dramatic potential. The poem ‘Painter Looking at Painting’ describes in the most pragmatic terms the way painter and painting form a relationship, and is beguiling in its mysterious ability to evoke an essential connection. ‘National Standards’ takes a satirical view of what I assume to be the proposal in New Zealand for single, unified courses for each subject at tertiary level, a kind of one-world curriculum; there’s something ominous and chilling about the poem which reflects one’s anticipation of such an homogenised educational strategy.

By contrast, the collection is not averse to something like the mystical, as these lines suggest:

your cousin tells you he knows a hole
you can slip through to take a short cut
it’s a portal to the thing you cannot imagine but know is there
and the very idea of ‘short cut’
causes you to burst into relief for the relief it promises

Is this merely childhood play, or something more serious? Is mystical too strong a word? The text accepts each situation without judgment and suggests that the human spirit has ‘a certain flounce that never was seen before / in this universe’ (‘In the Purple Mists of Last Evening’); if anything is mystical or transcendent it’s us.

‘Forty-two Boxes’ focusses more purely, and adventurously, on language. Its diction is tight from the start, Curnowesque in its compression, but more playful:

dragon silk corn powder
jade Buddhas with a gift
for laughter green black
and red phials of infused herbs

The poem is full of unusual words and connections, a microcosm of the whole, a time capsule. It’s not a poem to understand necessarily, but one with which to savour the aesthetics of language.

It is not only about language, of course; there is too much variety here, too much lyric and examination of the lyric that remembers song as close cousin and rhapsodises it, albeit in a suavely detached manner. In fact, one imagines the voice of many of the poems as shaggy, but in a nice jacket (‘a certain flounce’, above, suggests this thought most clearly). The poems embrace repetition, its use varying through a range of refrains, including one that could easily have come from the pen of A A Milne: ‘she points her little pinky oh she points her pinky / and points that pinky at the likes of you and me’ (‘Matataki, 1822’).

The extended sequence ‘Tongatapu Dream Choruses’ is a group of nine poems whose structures – from a loose prose poetry to short, haiku-like stanzas – showcase the diversity of musicality that well-arranged words can bring. Edmond has a penchant for hyphenated composite terms, for example, ‘reflected apocalyptic dreaming / from the One-and-Only-Will’ and the ‘Only-Lonely-Lonely-Only Ones’ (‘A Train Wreck in the Universe’). The compounding of the nouns has the effect of forming descriptions as well as musical jinglings which are refreshing, and show some daring in their arrangement of language in less familiar forms. The grammar of the poems often strays from correctness in useful ways, helping evoke the demotic, an element counterpointed with the prosaic, and sometimes with an unexpected sophistication. For example, in ‘Road Song’, the lines ‘now tell us who you are / now justify impetuosity’ contrast sharply with the everyday diction of the preceding stanzas.

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Review Short: Marietta Elliot-Kleerkoper’s A Perfect Distortion

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

A Perfect Distortion by Marietta Elliot-Kleerkoper
Translated by Joris Lenstra
Hybrid Books, 2016

The poems in this collection are provided in the original Dutch with an English translation; two languages and cultures that are intertwined in the poet and in the poetry. The mirroring effect of the parallel texts moves the reader beyond English language egocentricity, providing a continual reminder that language is constructed and understood in a variety of ways.
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Review Short: David Gilbey’s Pachinko Sunset

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

Pachinko Sunset by David Gilbey
Island Books, 2015

David Gilbey’s long-standing connections with Japan take centre stage in Pachinko Sunset, a collection that embraces simple, direct form to explore a layered series of issues linked with this relationship. The titular ‘pachinko’ refers to a popular Japanese game akin to pinball, in which a cascade of small metal balls are released to strike pins and be channelled off into different locations, with different prize implications for each. This image is a fair comparison for the text as a whole, as Pachinko Sunset delivers a sequence of poems in constant activity, heading in numerous directions at once, yet intrinsically caught up in the anxieties and ironies of travelling, translating, and relating Australia to Japan.

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Review Short: Lorne Johnson’s Morton

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

Morton by Lorne Johnson
Pitt Street Poetry, 2016

Morton is Lorne Johnson’s first published collection. However, Johnson’s work should be familiar to avid readers of Australian poetry, since it has been published and commended in prizes for over a decade now. Johnson’s poetry has been published in many of Australia’s leading journals, including Mascara, Wet Ink, Island, Meanjin, Rabbit and Regime.
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Review Short: Poems of Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata & Takako Arai

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

Poems of Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata & Takako Arai
Translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles
Vagabond Press, 2016

In the winter of Pokémon Go, I read quite a few new books of poetry. The collection Poems of Hiromi Itō, Toshiko Hirata & Takako Arai was the most cogent. These three Japanese poets are taboo-breaking women who write without reservation about ‘female experience’ in the political context of contemporary transnational capitalism.

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Review Short: Joel Deane’s Year of the Wasp

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

Year of the Wasp by Joel Dean
Hunter Publishers, 2016

As a literary work, Year of the Wasp reads as a volume of rare, terrifying beauty; beguiling as it guides the reader through an ordinary series of events in an ordinary series of settings. Reading Joel Deane’s third volume of poetry with the biographical insight that the author recently suffered a stroke provides additional complexity, and a kind of lucidity.
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Lucy Van Reviews Little Windows 1 with Jill Jones, Andy Jackson, Alison Flett and John Glenday

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

the leaves are my sisters by Jill Jones
Little Windows, 2016

that knocking by Andy Jackson
Little Windows, 2016

semiosphere by Alison Flett
Little Windows, 2016

empire of lights by John Glenday
Little Windows, 2016

Reading Jill Jones’s poetry I am struck by its skilful take on classicism: Greek for its entangled beauty, immortality and power; Roman for its urbane wit, its insouciant dealings with discourse and desire. For example, her poem, ‘they are about love’ recalls rapid Sapphic shifts: ‘Today begins colder, amid magpie scurf, bird mind’. In ‘the end of may’, the speaker’s colloquial quip echoes Ovidian word play:

                  Then the bloke in the truck
gets down and has words with another bloke.
I have words too, checking them on pages
as if getting past each line or sentence is something
achieved, or, that’s right, important.

These poems appear in Jones’ 2016 chapbook, the leaves are my sisters, one of four that form Little Windows 1 (LW1), an impeccably presented first series from Adelaide-based Little Windows Press. The rationale for Little Windows is to provide the reader ‘a “little window” into the oeuvre of each poet,’ pairing two Australians with two international poets. The line-up of this inaugural series features Andy Jackson (Victoria), John Glenday (Scotland), and Alison Flett (South Australia, via Scotland), alongside Jones.

The full set of LW1 arrives in the post like a present, a gift-wrapped bundle of square, slate-coloured books. It came to me looking so perfect, that a couple of days passed before I had the heart to a prise a chapbook from under the clear binding ribbon. This situation gave shape to a thought about the necessity of obstruction in order for words to seduce. Some form of this theory of desire continued to occur to me as I read the books’ divergent visions. ‘Little window’ is a deceptively modest turn of phrase. The idea of a window is flashy, slippery, multiple. It lets light in; it frames a view; yet it also obstructs. To compose this view, it selects and rejects by contingency, including and excluding what may be shown. It might be thought of as a technology of presencing – a way of making a present moment visible. At the same time, there is a wishfulness about windows, which frame an ‘out there’ inexorably out of reach to the viewer: once entered, the view of the window disappears.

Poetry shares these frustrations of representation: in the poem, discourse and the object of desire can only nearly coincide. That the representations made by the poem cannot but mediate and obstruct reality is the basis of the perversion necessary to the production of poetry itself. Jones’s ‘having’ of words, ‘as if getting past each line or sentence is something / achieved,’ alerts us to a fundamental fetish of poetry. Her seeking of the productive stimulus for the writing of poetry echoes Ovid’s Amores, whose speaker demands the existence of obstacles in order that the lover-poet may be always thwarted, and thus be given the opportunity to deceive, outwit, seduce (in other words, to use words). These three terms are translated from Ovid’s original verba darem, which literally means ‘I give words.’

In the final stanza of Jones’ ‘the end of may’, the speaker catalogues:

That the leaves are also shining today.
That there’s still a golden sense in greying stonework
of the early twentieth century building
in one corner of the courtyard.
That there’s still dust on the plate glass windows opposite
and they never seem to change in any light.
That birds in all this time will sing longer than
the courtyard and the desk, the buildings and the squares.
That this doesn’t matter, that it does.

The coy equivocation in the final line highlights that the more the speaker talks (‘I have words too’), the less is achieved. Jones’ giving of words eroticises a world at once close and remote, caught in present-tense nostalgia: greying stonework is ‘golden’, the light on the dust unchanging. Nothing happens, and there is everything to say about it – the profusion of beautiful lines affirms logophilia as a brilliant perversion through which to try, and fail to touch the world.

With an authorial intensity to match Jones, Andy Jackson’s that knocking delivers the most knockout opening of a poem I’ve read this year:

you are disabled
                 whether you admit it or not
                                     did you know that? (‘unfinished’)

The muscular use of the second person is arresting, stunning. Staccato lines crack, cajole and wound the textual body back into the physical: ‘can’t speak / your mind without your body // being twisted into some other / locked-in meaning.’. Poetry of such a brutal order might nearly be up to facing the ‘truth’:

but don’t get carried

            away – your failure is not
                        at all the same as mine
each map of scars
            leads back to the world

            no words can hold
what has been done to us

Like Jones, Jackson boldly addresses the failure of words to signify, work, make happen, or ‘hold/ what has been done.’ But only by means of the ironic proliferation of words against failure – broken, breathless, twisted lines – could such a point be expressed. The relationship between the speaker and the addressed anatomised body brings to mind the disturbed, yet unpredictably empathic vision of Patrick White’s artist in The Vivisector. By comparison, Jackson’s that knocking’s abstract renderings of Australian spaces might also be seen to chime with White’s oeuvre. In ‘blue mountains line’, body and machine collide at high velocity: ‘the carriage is the colour / of tendon and bone.’ Familiar landscapes glide by in a green menace, drawing violence and tenderness by equal measure into the poem. The poem wobbles and knocks – and openly fails to signify – with the motion of the train. As the speaker of ‘circling home’ says, ‘the ways me miss our lives / are life’: cynicism is discarded at the outset, giving way to bittersweet fragments of life-debris.

Alison Flett’s semiosphere follows a similar principal to yield, in this case to a post- (or para-) anthropocentric world populated by foxes. Flett’s book is structured around a series of deft, elegant perspectival shifts, charting a sequence of experiences that oscillate between encounter and symbiosis. Language is playfully de-civilised, perhaps with the intention for rehabilitation to the wild. The opening ‘votives’ is a graceful prose poem of long, solemn lines, with a final stanza that invites the reader to:

Look deeper into the forest’s dark heart and you’ll see the tapetum lucidem
of many creatures looking back, amongst them one who has been waiting there
for you.

The following poem, ‘fox 1: umvelt’, immediately surprises with its short stanzas stepping across the turned page. The lines have diffused and spread out, like a pack of wild animals on the run, their wildness hiding in the city’s plain sight:

I have seen a fox move
in silence through the city
and this I know

                                                                                                              the trees breathe the fox
                                                                                                              and the wet black pavements
                                                                                                              shine for him

‘fox 2: corporeal’ shadows this stylistic direction, the stanzas’ typographical separation emphasised by their thematic organisation according to synecdoche (eyes, tail, heart, feet). But another wild shift arrives in ‘fox 3: liminoid’, thick with hectic prose. The run-on lines perform the panting, unpunctuated swagger of partying twenty-somethings loose on a wild city night of their own:

with the music of the club still beating in our blood and the thought of the
party pumping in our veins and the freedom of walking along the middle of the
road because it was early morning and there wasn’t any traffic yet and it was one
of the streets that if it had been daylight

The speaker is the only member of the group to see a fox crossing the road, and a hitherto quotidian memory gives way to another order of experience, belonging to an ungraspable, deep ecological memory. Can such a deep memory survive its retrieval by words? Through its insistent animal presences, semiosphere speaks of a world haunted by speechless living. Flett’s tightly structured, experimental text is impressive beyond her facility for stylistic variety. Woven through her tropes of encounter is the question: how can humans remember they are animals? And subsequently: can language be made to speak this fact? Can language be wild?

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Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews Lưu Diệu Vân

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

M of December by Lưu Diệu Vân
Vagabond Press, 2016

Reading M of December is rather like going to a spectacular exhibition at a gallery where images of all kind swirl, proclaim, collide and re-form – the viewer takes the opportunity of a brief leave to attempt to come up with a coherent response. Having gone into this gallery, and exited on a number of occasions, what I have come up with is a response to the formed fragmentation of its individual poems, travelling through discordancy via the robust vigour of forceful lines and sharp elisions.

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Alice Allan Reviews Lisa Brockwell and Tamryn Bennett

Tuesday, September 13th, 2016

Earth Girls by Lisa Brockwell
Pitt Street Poetry, 2016

phosphene by Tamryn Bennett
Rabbit Poets, 2016

Lisa Brockwell’s Earth Girls and Tamryn Bennett’s phosphene are both compelling first collections in their own right. Reading them side-by-side, however, an equally compelling contrast emerges. Where Brockwell looks for clarity and direct engagement with her audience, Bennett invites interpretation, offering many clues and few concrete answers. This contrast reveals something else: the strengths of one approach do not threaten, or cancel out, those of the other.

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Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews John Mateer

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

The Quiet Slave: A History in Eight Episodes by John Mateer
spaced 2, 2015

A defining scene in Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s historical novel, Arus Balik (Cross-currents), portrays the moment in 1511 when colonial power came to the Southeast Asian archipelago. In the following passage about the fall of Malacca, Pramoedya presents a society unaware (or ‘becalmed’ as Pramoedya puts it) of what is about to confront it:
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Alexis Lateef Reviews Paul Hetherington

Monday, September 5th, 2016

Burnt Umber by Paul Hetherington
UWA Press, 2016

Artistically, burnt umber is an earthy shade intensified by heat. It is a colour synonymous with this country – familiar to anyone who has trekked through Western Australia, from where Paul Hetherington originally hails. In this collection, it is also a metaphor for memory, which, through the heat of feelings in the present, attains an intensity that overwhelms the original events.
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