30 October 2008

Book Review: AUP New Poets 3

The books in the AUP New Poets series are an interesting hybrid of a collection and an anthology: they consist of selections of 20 pages or so by three different poets, brought together under one cover. AUP New Poets 3 brings together sets of poems by Janis Freegard, Reihana Robinson and Katherine Liddy.

So, rather than reviewing the book as a whole - except to say that I like it and think it's well worth reading, which is the first and most important thing to say - I will review each poet's selection in turn. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say here that I know Janis, and had the pleasure of hearing her read some of the poems in her selection at the book's Wellington launch; I've never (so far as I know) met Reihana or Katherine, although it's Reihana's painting that adorns the cover of JAAM 26.

Janis Freegard, "The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider and Other Tales"

Janis's selection consists of two sequences of prose poems, "Animal Tales" and "The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider: A Selection", and several other individual poems. Janis's style is mostly unrhetorical and ironic, with a surface lightness concealing varying depths. The things I like most about Janis's poetry are her precise, apt, and unusual word choices, and her humour. Her style striked me as being not dissimilar to Bill Manhire's - and Bill Manhire is one of my favourite New Zealand poets.

Out of all these fine poems, the final stanza of "The Liking" showcases what I like so much about Janis's poetry:

Today when I woke
I wrapped daybreak round my waist.
I expect she's awed by my
dawn brightness
my few clouds
a kingfisher on the power lines.

Reihana Robinson, "Waiting for the Palagi"

Reihana's selection contains a number of individual poems and then a sequence entitled "A Hum for Pitkern". The words "A Hum" always remind me of the Winnie the Pooh, but the tone here is very far away from A.A. Milne's whimsy, as the poems uncover the violence that underlies Pitcairn's origins, the hard labour of life on that isolated rock, and the shameful sexual violence that has had Pitcairn so much in the headlines in recent years. The sequence circles the island and its history, jabbing at it from unexpected angles. I think it's very good.

Of the individual poems, I especially enjoyed "Noa Noa Makes Breakfast for Caroline and Me" and "Waiting for the Palagi". Once or twice, Reihana uses words which I think are hard to make work in a poem - 'immortality', 'portentous' - abstract nouns which, for me, detract from the immediacy and vividness of the rest of the poems in which they are embedded, especially when they're used to conclude a poem. That's my only, small, complaint.

Katherine Liddy, "A History of Romance"

I found Katherine's selection the hardest to get into, but I also found it rewards a second and a third look. "A History of Romance" is much more formal in tone and content than the other selections: after a tremendous opening poem about the Crab Nebula, it's a series of poems about mythology and history, moving forward through time to the present: the last few poems are less distanced, more overtly personal.

Most of the poems are rhymed. I have to declare a personal prejudice here: in modern English-language poetry (serious poetry, at any rate), I usually find rhyme distracting. In languages such as Russian, word endings vary according to the use of words in the sentence, providing a wide range of potential rhymes to the poet. In English, on the other hand, word endings are largely invariant, apart from plurals: whether it's "the cat sat on the mat" or "the mat sat on the cat", the spelling of 'cat' and 'mat' doesn't vary. This means that poets writing in English work with a smaller range of potential rhymes, and often leads to English rhymes appearing forced, or syntax being distorted to make a rhyme - whereas, in Russian, the word order in a phrase or sentence is almost irrelevant, as the word endings make it clear what function each word is performing.

I've already mentioned the opening poem, "Crab Nebula". This is rhymed, but such is the strength of the imagery in the poem, and the subtlety of the rhymes, that I didn't notice this until I'd finish reading it. By contrast, at the end of the first section of the "Delphi" sequence, this couplet distracted from my enjoyment of the poem:

Bronze statues line the way and oversee,
through the air thick with sacrifice, Delphi.

Given her formal abilities and her interest in the Victoria era, I would love to see Katherine Liddy emulate my hero among the Victorian poets, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and write more poetry in blank verse.

But despite this caveat, largely a matter of my personal preference, I find myself wanting to return to these poems to tease out their subtleties.

Three poets, then, with quite different styles, themes and concerns. It makes for an intriguing and rewarding collection.

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