Unbuttoning, Nadine France

Magnificent Moon
Ashleigh Young
Victoria University Press, $28.00,
ISBN 9780864737632

This Hill, All It’s about is Lifting it to a Higher Level
Vaughan Gunson
Steele Roberts, $20.00,
ISBN: 9781877577840

Three Days in a Wishing Well
Kerrin P Sharpe
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780864737656

Ashleigh Young’s eclectic first book of poetry, Magnificent Moon, touches on themes including childhood, memory, love and death. Young paints an evocative picture of time and place and individual poems reveal her gifts for observation and language, but overall the collection lacks cohesion and some themes suffer from a lack of development.

Magnificent Moon is divided into three sections. Part one is the most successful, and deals predominantly with memories from Young’s childhood in Te Kuiti. The crawling ennui of small town New Zealand is beautifully captured in “EBD”, as Young recalls the “Brown couches and stale/chicken chippies and other kids’ dads, men in short shorts who drink/from the emerald cans you find in those rivers”. Likewise, the horrifying moment of discovering that teachers are people (“till then I had managed to get around the fact that/teachers had skin”), and the discovery of one’s parents’ life before children (“These old people have such young faces/and long hair in these scenes”), are both witty and poignant. Young touches on the challenge of using memory and real characters as the basis for art in “Din of songs” (“I am aggrieved/that everyone else was able to read the story before me”), yet her most successful works describe her family with affection and humour.

Parts two and three of the book are less clearly linked although many of the individual poems are strong. Young includes a number of found poems, including “The rest is easy”, predominantly made up of advice from a Guardian article on writing fiction, while the bleak and moving “Buttons” is made up of an 18th-century suicide note: “All/this/buttoning/and/unbuttoning”. As a runner myself, I particularly enjoyed “Well-lit route”, composed of fragments from a Runner’s World forum on running at night. (Most alarming line: “But if you’re gonna carry, there are more appropriate pistols/than a Glock”.)  Danger and the fragility of life is a loosely recurring theme; “Steve” recalls the sudden and bizarre death of Crocodile Man Steve Irwin at the hands (or tail) of a stingray, and “Some difficulties” is one of several poems that refer to the danger of being a cyclist on aggressive New Zealand roads.

Young’s gift for observation and interaction with the modern world provides humour and pathos. I immediately started humming the Beyoncé hit after reading “All the single ladies”, and recognised her portrait of the local gym in the daytime: “At the gym today there’s a very old lady on a treadmill./She hangs on to the rails and peers down at her slip-ons”.  Sometimes meaning becomes more oblique; I appreciated the imagery of “Whale” and “The Washing Line for the Future” without understanding them.

If Magnificent Moon is filled with strong poems which don’t always form a cohesive argument, Vaughan Gunson’s first book of poetry, This Hill, All It’s about is Lifting it to a Higher Level, swings far in the opposite direction. This Hill repeatedly celebrates poetry’s place as an essential element of the everyday, and makes an argument for the value of the craft as part of mundane daily life; in Gunson’s case that of a father and writer in the far north of New Zealand. Poetry is more than an elite or solitary pursuit; it is a way of recording, celebrating and sharing the little acts of children, nature and love. It’s a powerful and pleasing argument, but Gunson occasionally runs the risk of repeating his point so often the individual poems become lost under the theme.

Gunson’s writing is clearly rooted in place. Te reo, New Zealand colloquialisms, references to native birds and trees and allusions to Northland’s gum digging past all feature. “The Gumdigger” celebrates the hardiness and self-sufficient spirit of early Northland workers, filtered down into modern New Zealand. Like gumdiggers, the poet can “dig all day & find only small nuggets”, but “then you’ll strike a big one”.  Gunson has a sense of humour too, wryly hinting at some of the differences between then and now when he invites the gumdigger in for an espresso.

Children and the detritus of family life make regular appearances, and provide a way of looking at the world afresh. In “The Explorers”, Gunson and his daughter find a new spot in the garden that allows him to see “the familiar totara” from a different perspective. Family mess, “crumbs of chips/that you tipped and ground/into the carpet” litter the pages as Gunson balances the demands of poetry with fatherhood. They are not mutually exclusive; in “portrait of the artist as a parent of young children” Gunson pokes gentle fun at poetic tropes: “I’ve got things to do:/1. Visit an angry poet who sells vitamins/ 2. See a psychiatrist who can teach me rhyme and metre … 5. Walk the streets with a harmonica in my pocket”, and juxtaposes them with reality; “run back to the kids/an ice block for each of them/a loaf of bread”.  Gunson celebrates being a “factory poet” and writing is his daily grind.

Gunson’s other life as a political and social activist is referred to only occasionally in the book. In “Just a Point Man in the Ocean” he is standing “with my fellow guardians/staunch against the waves/breaking cold on our backs”, while in “Waiting” he refers obliquely to the tumultuous history of Maori protest in Northland: “she remembers/the pushing, the sharp yells,/the clatter of battered skin and muscle”. While Gunson makes a strong, often wry and sympathetic argument for poetry’s role in the everyday, there are times when I wished the argument could have been extended to include poetry’s role as a vehicle for protest and dissent.

In comparison to the relative linearity of Gunson and Young, reading Kerrin P Sharpe’s debut, Three Days in a Wishing Well, is a wholly different poetic experience. Three Days is freewheeling, impressionistic, sometimes opaque, disorienting and dreamlike. Initially I found the poems difficult to grab hold of; image is piled on top of image, and different threads emerge and circle each other before moving into unexpected territory. Sharpe plays endlessly with language; double meanings, puns, stream of consciousness and metaphor, with little or no punctuation, mean that linearity or obvious meaning was hard to find. Then clarity came in the form of a stiff mojito and slight relaxing of the mind. The reader has to roll with these poems, and enjoy them for the relish Sharpe takes in language, for the beauty of the imagery and the painterly way in which she sketches a picture. They may not tell an obvious narrative, and they cannot be forced into a neat box, but it doesn’t mean that narrative, theme or that elusive meaning is missing.

Section one of Three Days explores land, war and history, and Sharpe touches on the cycles of family life. In “A Short History of Loss” she paints a picture of stoicism and the quiet, human ways that we deal with grief: “his boots tickle/the thighs of trout/his wide hands/their same sky/he reads rivers/the helpless weight/of his mother/her sobs in stone”. “Paramount” is likewise an evocative description of changes to the New Zealand urban landscape and the small and largely unknown histories hidden within it.

Sections two and three expand on her themes, and religion and political commentary creep into the text. “Joining the Circus” cleverly compares the poet’s wordplay with the colour, energy and surrealism of the circus: “the/lions tamed/submission and the acrobats threw balance/even the exhibits took part”. The joy Sharpe takes in language is infectious, but the poem ends with a sting in the tail: “the/elephant man/was surprised by freak  and treasured ivory/the African aborigine/found/death and/was left behind when the troupe moved to the/next town’.

Sharpe also experiments with oblique poetic allegories and the character of the deer, a symbol sometimes used to represent Christ, is used repeatedly. Monks, grace, Gregorian chants, wings and angels appear with greater frequency as she explores the nature of belief and the mystery of faith. The rituals, language and history of the church are explored in “The Monastery as a Workplace: A 15th-century Depiction”, where “the monks are taking/part in building and/repair work … their scaffolding is Gregorian/held together by the intervention of saints and martyrs”. In “Dissecting the Angel”, the wonder of guardian angels is placed alongside “a medical examination of flight”. However, most powerfully amongst this spiritual examination lies “In the Days of the Fathers”, a reminder of the brutal, profane reality of human history: “there are no words/for children stacked like bricks/the sigh of chimneys/there are no answers/in the great ovens of Europe”.

Three Days in a Wishing Well might be a challenging read but it is a worthwhile one; these are poems to return to for new layers, meanings and value, or simply to enjoy for the beauty and spirit of the language.


Nadine France is an Auckland reviewer.

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