Blog Archives

A swarm of poets, Airini Beautrais 

Manifesto Aotearoa: 101 Political Poems
Philip Temple and Emma Neale (eds)
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780947522469

 

New Zealand poetry in English has a long and complex tradition of politically-charged work: from colonial balladeers, through 20th-century heavyweights like Allen Curnow (as himself and as Whim Wham) and James K Baxter, to more recent poets including Bill Sewell, Robert Sullivan, Dinah Hawken and Hinemoana Baker. Despite this tradition, and perhaps in line with a neo-liberal mood-shift towards individualism and consumerism, an attitude has existed in recent years that there isn’t much political content in our poetry, or that it doesn’t belong there. Sullivan, in his 2010 sequence Cassino: City of Martyrs, bluntly calls such an attitude out in the lines “New Zealand / and its official status quo disdain / for political verse as if it was anything but.” Appearing against this historical and contemporary backdrop, Philip Temple’s and Emma Neale’s Manifesto anthology is a timely and welcome project.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review

Beyond the pale, Kathryn Walls

Heloise
Mandy Hager
Penguin Random House, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143770992

Heloise is Mandy Hager’s reconstruction in novelistic terms of the lives of the 12th-century lovers Heloise and Abelard, told from Heloise’s point of view. While both Abelard and Heloise read a great deal, neither of them had ever read a novel. They had, no doubt, read Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiography as distant in time from the 12th century as the 12th century is from our own. But Augustine saw no point in the concrete realisation of experience that characterises most novels. Unlike Hager, he does not mention things like the off-putting “flatulence, coughs and wheezing snores” of the convent dormitory, or the impression made on him by “streams of fish gut and animal entrails that [ran] down to meet the river”, or where the privy was. His subject was his psyche as a model for the reader’s. Being an African, he might have been black, but his skin colour remains a mystery. And yet, Hager, whose novel is rich in evocations of earthy reality, is not genuinely concerned with “the medieval body” (although the subject is currently being done to death by academics). Indeed, she has followed in the steps of Augustine (in this respect, at least, as so many great novelists have done) by focusing on the trajectory of her subject’s inner life. Paradoxically, while she has sought to establish authenticity by appealing to our senses, the effect here is decorative. What is truly authentic about her novel is quite different. Hager has, impressively, studied a wealth of primary and secondary texts in order to reconstruct Heloise’s mental and emotional development.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review

The wisdom of things, Anna Smaill

The Yield
Sue Wootton
Otago University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780947522483

The Internet of Things
Kate Camp
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781776561063

There is beauty to be had in yielding, Sue Wootton’s collection suggests, both to the natural world and to language. The collection’s title comes from its final poem, a quiet ode to an apple tree. Resurrected from its first life as a “dehydrated sapling”, the tree has thrived against the odds. Evidence of its battle remains in its posture; the sapling has developed

a lean, the whole tree on an angle,
as if surrendering in deference
to persistent pressure, as if leaned
upon,
giving in or giving up to what
prevails

 

The poem ultimately suggests that, rather than resignation, the tree’s lean is a mode of enabling sacrifice: it “let[s] go” in order to “put out arms, become a fruitful crux”. In conserving its energy the tree enables a different kind of yield – the crop of “yellow apples, blushed, /…Tart and crisp, delicious.”

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review

Jewels and binoculars, Murray Bramwell

Blood Ties: New and Selected Poems 1963–2016
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Canterbury University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781927145883

Dylan Junkie
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Mākaro Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780994137807

It is a harsh fact that we live in a world where there is far more published poetry than people willing or able to read it. Over the past 50 years, poetry has ceased to be a common currency. It is less often a core component of literary studies in either high-school or university curricula. For most people, poetry has become esoteric and increasingly formidable. Few nowadays have ever read more than a handful of poems, let alone committed lines to memory. There are many reasons for this. A significant one is that since the 1960s some of the best poetry has gone to live in Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”; the canon is now plugged into the body electric. Of course, lyrics still matter for people, but only when encased in melody and beats.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry and Review

Getting the news out, James Norcliffe

Surviving 7.8: New Zealanders Respond to the Earthquakes of November 2016
Phil Pennington and Radio New Zealand
HarperCollins, $35.00,
ISBN 9781775541103

 

New Zealanders, Cantabrians in particular, have, over the last half-dozen years, become reluctant experts in earthquakes. We have experienced the wobbly ones, the shuddery ones, the bumpy ones, the noisy ones that just go whack – a whole hitherto unknown taxonomy of geomorphological effects. The Richter scale has become as familiar as the bathroom scales and referred to as often. One of our favourite websites is Geonet, and glib, hackneyed epithets like earth-shattering and world-shaking have taken on a whole new oh-so literal meaning.

Thus, when, just after midnight on November 14, 2016, we were woken by a long rolling shake that seemed to go on and on forever, my wife and I knew at once that we were experiencing another Big One, but we knew, too, that it wasn’t Christchurch this time; it was farther away. Our first thought was the Main Divide, our second thought was Wellington, and we were immediately concerned for friends and family in the capital.

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Posted in History, Media, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology

Loosening stiff upper lips, Charlotte Graham

Leap of Faith 
Jenny Pattrick
Black Swan, $38.00,
ISBN 9780143770916

Good Sons
Greg Hall
Mary Egan Publishing, $32.00,
ISBN 9780473383787

It seems there are two major challenges for any author wanting to write about New Zealand in some of its formative historical periods. One is the research. The other is conveying the spirit of tough people who lived tough lives, when often these were men and women of few words. The tendency of our forebears not to respond to even the most brutal of conditions, or to utterly cavernous moments of grief and loss, with anything other than stoicism, has bred an odd national reluctance to talk about our problems that persists, in some forms, to the present day. It presents an even bigger challenge to writers of historical fiction, who need to convey moments of hope and anguish among the austere, taciturn Pākehā of 1907 or 1917 without breaking character or boring us to tears. On screen, it can be done with sideways looks: the raise of an eyebrow, or a mumbled syllable. But Jenny Pattrick, author of Leap of Faith, and Greg Hall, in his book Good Sons, have set themselves a difficult task to convey it through text.

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Posted in Fiction, Literature and Review

Streets, waters, winds, Kirsty Gunn

A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888 – 1903
Redmer Yska
Otago University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780947522544

“There is a handful of writers” begins Vincent O’Sullivan’s introduction to a rare and illuminating account of the city in which Katherine Mansfield was born and grew up,

who at times seem to hold their admirers almost as much by the enigma of personality, or the curious weave of their lives, as they do by their first and sustained impact as writers … Each time we go back to a favourite story … there is that teasing urge to know what came before

In a few elegant sentences we have outlined for us a literary study of riveting depth and focus that, in drawing together history, biography, lyrical essay and reportage gives us back, in deeper colours, the life and work of one of those whose story we continue to be drawn towards, who takes her place amongst the world’s key modernists, a leading practitioner of the short story form, and here, too, a young New Zealand girl.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction and Review

Larrikins past, Nick Bollinger

Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand
Chris Brickell
Auckland University Press, $50.00,
ISBN 9781869408688

 

In 1971, I became a teenager. It was the start of a complicated, confusing, exciting time. Over the next few years, I would immerse myself in music, experiment with sex and drugs, form lifelong friendships and explore various kinds of rebellion, as I tried to figure out what this adult world was that I was growing towards, and what my place in it might be.

If there’s a personal message I can take from Chris Brickell’s Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand, it is that my experience was far from unique. The adolescent’s quest to define him- or herself as they navigate the path from childhood to adulthood has been taking place in various forms since the earliest days of New Zealand society. Yet the teenage experience has had little written about it, at least by historians. When teenagers are acknowledged, Brickell notes, it is usually in terms of adults’ condemnation.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Sociology

Gloomy agreement, Tom Brooking

The New Zealand Project
Max Harris
Bridget Williams Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780947492588

New Zealand: Paradise Squandered? Reflections on What We’ve Lost and Where We’re Heading
John Hawkes
John Hawkes, $40.00,
ISBN 9780473375553

Two New Zealanders at either end of their writing lives have set down their diagnosis on what is currently wrong with New Zealand and suggest some possible solutions that might be implemented to rid us of their rather lengthy list of ills.

Twenty-seven-year-old Max Harris is a law student and holder of a prestigious Examination Scholarship from All Souls College Oxford; John Hawkes is a retired rheumatologist who worked in the United Kingdom and France for several years and is now in his 80s. Despite the generational gap, they are pretty much agreed on what is wrong with New Zealand. 

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Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review and Sociology

“Loneliness was his condition”, Owen Marshall

Notes From the Margins: The West Coast’s Peter Hooper
Pat White
Frontiers Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780473380663

A journey is a kind of endless forgetting. The boys lived only in the present, seeking a river crossing, probing a thorny thicket for the easiest passage, cooking a meal, hearing the night bird in the silence of the hills.

A Song in the Forest

The South Island’s West Coast features prominently in New Zealand literature, its swashbuckling history and impressive natural environment providing many advantages of setting. Charlotte Randall, Eleanor Catton, Jenny Pattrick and Amy Head are among those who have produced quality fiction associated with the region. Its perceived society and culture, however, are not those that would seem to foster a literary disposition among people who live there, yet Keri Hulme, Mervyn Thompson, Bill Pearson, Toss Woollaston and Philip May represent those with such ties. None has been more closely associated with the Coast than Peter Hooper (1919–1991), the subject of this biography.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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