01 November 2014

Some Rather Good New Zealand Poems the Three of Us Rather Like

Michael Morrissey
Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the Empty Page, selected by Siobhan Harvey, James Norcliffe and Harry Ricketts, (Godwit, 2014), 318 pp., $45

This new collection has a splendid format: a lovely, tiered landscape cover subtly suggesting geological depth and solidity; plus interior, etiolated, black-and-white ‘wash’-type landscape photo-images that are at the same time attractively old fashioned and aggressively up to date – like a cousin of a tinted photo in Granta. The general production of the book makes for a handsome tome that sits well in the hand. The compilation is presented as a sequel to the earlier Essential New Zealand Poems selected by Lauris Edmond and Bill Sewell published in 2001. It is surprising to reflect that, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first generalised selection since that millennial tome. 

Igniting in Small Puffs

edwins egg cover
Lynley Edmeades
Edwin’s Egg and other Poetic Novellas, by Cilla McQueen (Otago University Press, 2014), 264 pp., $39.95

Reviewing Cilla McQueen’s recent collection of poetic novellas is a bit like trying to explain a rainbow to your colour-blind brother-in-law – it is difficult to find language capacious enough. At its most simple, Edwin’s Egg is a small collection of prose poems, of ‘poetic novellas’, compiled alongside archival images from the Alexander Turnbull Library. At its most complex, it is a Dada meditation on physics as a metaphor for poetry, an inquisitive probe into the relationship between text and image, an exploration of Russian iconography and the importance of eggs in our construction of a collective national identity. Which is to say, it is all of these things. And more. 

Unfamiliar Territory

Harvey Molloy
The Limits, by Alice Miller, (Auckland University Press, 2014), 64 pp., $24.99

Alice Miller’s book The Limits is a brave, uncompromising poetry debut that demands multiple readings. Her poetry is sharp, perceptive and intelligent; language is pared to the bone and nothing is wasted. There is no immediate narrative or simple thematic arc; no stable personae observing and reflecting on the world. I was, on first reading, a little baffled by some of her mysterious poems and by the dislocations in place and time, especially the abrupt jump from the siege of Troy to Antarctica’s white spaces. But I wanted to go back. Miller’s poetry is a splash of cold water to the face. 

Overseas Experience

flying kiwis cover
Nicholas Reid
Flying Kiwis: A history of the OE, by Jude Wilson (Otago University Press, 2014), 295 pp., $45 

I have a confession to make. It must colour my review of Jude Wilson’s Flying Kiwis, a generously illustrated history, in part based on oral interviews, of young New Zealanders going off on their ‘Overseas Experience’ from the 1950s to the present. 
Unusually for a middle-class, university-bound New Zealander of my generation, I never took the OE. As an adult I have made five separate trips to Europe, but they were all after marrying and settling down to a job, so none of them really counts as an OE. But the OE was so pervasive in New Zealand that in reading through this book, I was startled to find photos of younger versions of people I know, boozing at the Oktoberfest or lounging about scruffily at London tourist spots. I read Flying Kiwis as somebody who heard all about the OE at second hand, from friends. And there’s another element of personal memory in my reading. When I was a child in the early 1960s, I travelled to Europe with my parents and a selection of siblings. I recognised much of the early1960s milieu that parts of this book evoke: sea-travel, the Overseas Visitors Club, Earl’s Court. But it was because I experienced these things as a child, not as an OE-er. 

Father’s Final Friend

carnival sky cover
Patricia McLean 
Carnival Sky, by Owen Marshall (Random House: Vintage, 2014), 296 pp., $37.99

Two recent novels I’ve read – Owen Marshall’s Carnival Sky and Javier Marias’s The Infatuations – each explore middle-class neuroses, New Zealand- and Spanish-style respectively. Is this a coincidence, or are more novelists nowadays writing about themselves and their milieu – that is, self-absorbed neurotics – as Marias’s narrator suggests? These two novels uncover two different kinds of neuroses: Marias’s against a backdrop of bourgeois Madrid, and Marshall’s against the suburbs of Alexandra. The warm climates in which the novels are set imbue a kind of sunny bleakness in which the predicament of the main character is at odds with the bright weather. 

Nasty, Vindictive People

Elspeth Sandys
Landscape with Solitary Figure, by Shonagh Koea (Random House: Vintage, 2014), 264 pp., $29.99

Reading Landscape with Solitary Figure, Shonagh Koea’s latest novel, the question ‘does the author mean us to take this story seriously?’ began as a whisper but became, by the end, an insistent shout in my head. All the familiar Koea tropes are there: the solitary, misunderstood, middle-aged woman; the precise descriptions of material things (interiors of houses, clothes, gardens); the skillful plot manipulations keeping the reader’s attention even after sympathy with the main character (secondary characters in Koea’s fiction are almost all one-dimensional) has been lost; the finely honed sentences, with their deliberated repetitions and self-conscious vocabulary; the wicked (in every sense of the word) humour. So why was I asking myself if this story, as opposed to others by Koea, was intended as a deliberate joke, a foray into the world of Grand Guignol?

Lurid Flapdoodle

glam rock cover
Philippa Jamieson
Glam Rock Boyfriends: An imaginary memoir, by Raewyn Alexander (Brightspark Books, 2014), 426 pp., $65

The title of this novel and the yellow, red and black cover are arresting, and provoked comment from several friends and family members as I was reading it. The front cover image is part of the torso of a supine or side-on bloke in a colourful jumpsuit; flip it over and the back cover reveals the top part of the same jumpsuited person with a stylised, almost clown-like androgynous face. 
The subtitle is ‘An Imaginary Memoir’, which then made me query the genre: it turns out to be a novel written like a memoir. The story follows the life of Patricia, written from her point of view. It’s more or less chronological, proceeding through her childhood, adolescence, youth and early adulthood. Three quarters of the way through – Part Two – it jumps to a later point, when Patricia is now Athena: older, wiser and reflecting on her life.

01 October 2014

Paradise Pasifika

David Eggleton
Waha: Mouth, by Hinemoana Baker (Victoria University Press, 2014), 64 pp., $25; Dark Sparring, by Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press, 2013), 98 pp. (with CD), $28; The Art of Excavation, by Leilani Tamu (Anahera Press, 2014), 80 pp., $25; The Bond of Time: An Epic Love Poem, by John Puhiatau Pule (Canterbury University Press, 2014), 88 pp., $25

The South Pacific is not one thing; it’s pluralistic, multi-layered, a site where ideologies intersect and cultures clash. For those who inhabit its archipelagoes, it’s a matrix of specific memories, genealogies and responsibilities. Four New Zealand poets of Polynesian heritage in their most recent poetry books write about the South Pacific as central to their identity; and though they write in individual styles and convey personal insights and perceptions, they share many motifs, drawn from mythology, history, the beach, island flora and fauna, voyaging and ocean currents. And all refer either directly or obliquely to ‘Oceania’ – the concept proposed in the mid-1990s by the Tongan writer and teacher Epeli Hau‘ofa, advocating an ‘oceanic identity’ for Pasifika peoples, who have always been joined by rather than separated by the sea. Belonging to ‘a sea of islands’ creates a contemporary regional identity that begins as an ancient myth of origin and generates a world of metaphor.