This Must Be the Place by Annabel Hawkins (Mākaro Press, 2015), 58 pp., $30; Miss Dust by Johanna Aitchison (Seraph Press, 2015), 76 pp., $25
A pleasing little handful of a book, Hawkins’ debut promises much. The cover carries echoes of kitsch interiors: pink geometrical shapes on a bright red background. The book was designed by Hawkins’ friend, Alice Clifford, and the text is shot through with some great images: heavily pixelated photographs that bring Super-8 film to mind. The collaborative aspect is a nice touch, and holds both the aesthetic and the literary process in sharp relief.
The title of the collection is a play on ‘place’: Wellington-centric and site-specific, and, in a recent interview on National Radio,* Hawkins also makes reference to the Talking Heads song of the same name. In this interview, Hawkins also says that she is a ‘big believer in specificity’. Indeed, anyone who has lived in Wellington will recognise the likes of Salamanca Road, Thorndon Pool, Lyall Bay, O’ Bay and other specifics that pepper the collection. Others that are wider ranging but still Kiwi-specific include Ōtaki, Briscoes, Memphis Meltdowns, Fanta.
Hawkins also says in this interview that she did not want the book to be ‘patronising’, and that she consciously employed accessible language. The use of concrete details helps her in this quest and is also a characteristic that harks back to the roots of the poems, which started life on her blog sparepencilsandscrappaper.blog.com.
Hawkins’ attraction to specificity and concrete details is a real strength, and gives some of the observations a certain musculature. Parts of her rumination on a New Zealand Christmas are really lovely:
Mum’s left sweating in the kitchen
Because everyone else in book club
Is cooking Jamie Oliver for the entrée
(from ‘The twenty-fifth’)
Unfortunately however, these moments are very often lost in the thick of big concepts, rhetorical questions and lofty abstractions. Poetic observations that begin with the voluptuousness of particulars too quickly fall prey to otherwise didactic and saccharine reflection. For example, while the poem ‘Valey Day’ cleverly captures the dynamics of two single flatmates spending Valentine’s Day together, ‘two loveless on a love day’, it fails to achieve what it sets out to do:
We look like we’re in love, we laugh.
We’re not but it’s funny, we agreed.
No flowers on Valey Day but steak
and chips. There’s something quite
poetic in that.
There is something poetic in that. But the moment I have to be told as much I fail to believe it. The sentiment is inherent in the details, and the explicitness of these last lines smacks of a lack of trust in the reader.
In the same National Radio interview Hawkins says, ‘the whole poetry thing is a funny thing to get around’. Indeed, the process that Hawkins went through to transform these blog posts into poems is also a funny thing to get around. It’s hard to see past the blog-post tone, and while I’m sure it works for some readers – it is the real stuff of a young woman in her early twenties – to others it might seem as if many of these poems have not been through some of the rigours of critique. I’m not saying that every poem has to be workshopped, nor that the workshop is the only place that quality poems are born. But I’m afraid that an older, more mature Hawkins might regret releasing such ripe and tender poems into the world.
There are some fun aspects to the work: that transitory time of youth, a thirst for and openness to the world. Unfortunately, it feels as if these observations have been pushed into a poetic form in which they are not yet quite at home – perhaps something the publisher or earlier readers should have intercepted – and that a lack of craft and fine-tuning has let these observations, and the collection as a whole, down. If Hawkins continues to write poetry – and I hope she does – it’ll be her later collections readers should keep an eye out for.
An altogether different beast, Aitchison’s second full-length collection illustrates a craftswoman at the height of her métier. Miss Dust is made up of two sections: the first explores the title character, Miss Dust – who may or may not be an alter-ego of the poet; the second section maintains a similar tone but explores a more personal lyric.
Aitchison handles her subject matter with a lightness of touch and a spareness that maintains a trust in the reader. Here’s ‘Miss Dust has a baby’ (in its entirety):
His fingers make her heart.
His skull is the most wonderful thing she’s ever.
Here, as with many of the works in the collection, the title is doing a lot of the work, leaving room for the poem itself to dance a little. The titles are so good they almost don’t need the poems to go with them: ‘The air was freaky with champagne’, ‘Will you be my umbrella?’, ‘The waves ate other waves with their white teeth’. And from the Miss Dust series: ‘Miss Dust tries online dating’, followed immediately with ‘Miss Dust makes it to the second date’, ‘Miss Dust has a nervous breakdown’ and ‘Miss Dust meets God’.
One of the strengths of this collection lies in its unpredictability. Just when you think the poems might be getting a little bit twee (all that talk of dating and babies), Aitchison slips in a couple of lines like ‘When she opens the door the instant noodles say, “I wish you wouldn’t always assume I like hot climates”’ (from ‘Miss Dust takes a teaching job’). Or, the poet flexes her strength of craft with moments of deeply affecting lyrics, like in ‘Jun’ (which won the New Zealand Poetry Society competition in 2010):
one of the saddest things i did in japan was teach to jun’s photo
on his empty desk i asked the students to count the students
in the class the students said do we count jun
There’s also something almost Steinian happening here, and elsewhere in the collection, with Aitchison’s emphasis on sound and repetition. And the reader certainly gets the feeling that the poet is familiar with such traditions.
In ‘Poems taken from new photos’, the connection with her forebears is even stronger: ‘She is waiting / He is clicking / She is thwacking / No she is he is she and / He and he and she and he he’. It might look simple, but most will know it’s bloody hard to pull something like that off.
But although there are some fine moments in this second section of the book, it failed to deliver in the same way that the first ‘Miss Dust’ sequence did. Perhaps it has something to do with an absence of thread that holds the first part together so well. Many of these later poems will stand up in their own right, but are slightly tainted by the strength of the first sequence.
The overall tone of the collection is playful, surreal, deft and, at times, heartbreaking. This collection raises the stakes of new New Zealand writing, with a highly original and polished voice. Seraph Press have produced yet another beautifully designed book here too: a great pairing for Aitchison’s witty and highly crafted lyrics.
* Radio New Zealand, Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 8 September 2015.
LYNLEY EDMEADES is a poet, writer, reviewer and scholar. Her debut poetry collection, As the Verb Tenses, was published by Otago University Press in March 2016. She lives in Dunedin.