Cinema by Helen Rickerby, (Mākaro Press, 2014), 80 pp., $25.00; Bird Murder by Stefanie Lash, (Mākaro Press, 2014), 70 pp., $25.00; Feathers Unfettered: 25 New Zealand birds by Karen Zelas, illustrated by Jan FitzGerald (Pukeko Publications, 2014), 63 pp., $18.00
I’m always cautious about covering more than one book in a review. In this situation, the reviewer is faced with the temptation to try to find a central theme for the review and hang the individual reviews on that theme, like ill-matched ribbons hanging from a maypole. What’s gained in coherence is lost in consideration of each book as an individual entity with its own character, its own strengths, its own weaknesses.
And yet here I am, with three poetry collections to review. What’s more, pairs of them have notable things in common. Cinema and Bird Murder were two of the three books published in Mākaro Press’s initial release of its handsomely designed Hoopla series; both Bird Murder and Feathers Unfettered prominently feature birds.
For the most part, I’m going to resist the temptation to flit back and forth between the three books: but comparisons, although odious, can’t be entirely avoided.
To Cinema, then. It’s only fair to say before I start that Helen Rickerby is one of my favourite New Zealand poets. I own each of her previous collections – all are good, none more so than her previous collection, My Iron Spine. And I had enjoyed reading a number of the poems included in this collection as they were published individually.
So I was pleased, but not at all surprised, that I enjoyed Cinema very much indeed. The question is: will you enjoy it too?
I think you will, whether you have been reading poetry for a long time or whether you are relatively new to it, whether you’ve been steeped in the language of cinema or whether you’ve scarcely been dipped. And cinema is central: every poem here relates to it in some way, whether directly (the closing poem, ‘Nine Movies’) or obliquely.
Cinema includes poems about the art-form itself, poems about the effect cinema has had on the poet’s life, and a series of poems about the lives of Helen’s friends as if directed by various famous directors. The latter are among my favourite poems in the book – affectionate, tongue-in-cheek, and equally entertaining whether they are about people I have met or people I have not.
The poems in Cinema don’t all roll out the red carpet for the reader. Some require us to work, to negotiate knotty throngs of syntax-toting paparazzi, insisting that we stick our fingers in the mani-cam and remember the name of the fashion icon who designed the outfit we’re wearing today. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis dance their Totentanz through ‘Symbols that Make Up the Breaking Girl’ (p. 53), the white swan and the black whirled onwards by words that rush and trip and will not slow down:
there’s blood everywhere, it’s always
her own, she’s tearing and scratching, cracking and
splitting, fingers and toes, these unravelling girls
with their Snow White mouths
can’t they keep themselves together?
‘A Bell, a Summons, a Forest’ (p. 60), with its long, restless, comma-clogged lines, evokes even more strongly a sense of dread. ‘This is the Way the World Ends’ (p. 58), by contrast, confronts Richard Kelly’s sprawling Southland Tales with laconic economy:
The girl in pink, skating towards you
has an automatic weapon
behind her back
and this drug will take you to Jesus
if Jesus is a chorus-
line of short-skirt nurses
Cinema dims the lights and sweeps the reader away, no 3D required, no HFR, no surround-sound. Do not be afraid: a stealthy hand will find yours in the dark.
On the yellow-on-red cover of Cinema, there is a little red-on-yellow circle announcing that the – genre? – is ‘film’. On the cover of Bird Murder, the equivalent circle says ‘crime’, and the book, blurbed as ‘a gothic murder mystery telling of the demise of a ruined banker’, can be viewed as a crime procedural in poetic form – one that you need to fully engage the little grey cells to solve. This is no cosy mystery: it’s one that requires a Scandinavian detective with limited interpersonal skills and a wardrobe of unusual jumpers, for the light is dim and the suspects are many.
The most immediately striking aspects of the book are formal. Each one of the 51 poems in Bird Murder takes the form of five three-line stanzas, all left-aligned but for some tricksy variations in ‘Convergence’. This reinforces the book’s sense of unity, and whereas I am happy to hop around many poetry collections in an order of my own devising, Bird Murder needs to be read from front to back, and ideally in one sitting – because there are a lot of elements to keep in mind while reading it.
One of the consequence of this unified, novelistic approach is that the effect of the poems is cumulative rather than individual. That said, just as novelists from Tolstoy (the mowing scene in Anna Karenina) to George R.R. Martin (the ‘Red Wedding’ in A Storm of Swords) create memorable set-piece scenes within their broad narrative flow, so there are some poems in Bird Murder which I would be happy to read shorn of the wider context of the book, such as ‘Deep Time’ (p. 13), which concludes:
Ladies and gentlemen
that was my ancestor
sleeping in the drowning valleys.
Watching the alpine fault form.
Meeting today’s dirt, then.
The desire to deduce the whole from the part has misled detectives and palaeoentologists alike since the Rue Morgue was first declared a crime scene, but nevertheless, this little excerpt exhibits some of the features of the work as a whole: the use of language is comparatively straightforward; the tone is somewhat detached, alert for clues about the world rather than fully engaged with it; and the material is often drawn from the sciences and from history. The four pages of detailed notes on references and sources at the end of the collection are by no means too many.
I’m aware that all this may be giving you the impression that Bird Murder is Hard Work. Well, I’m not going to lie: I didn’t find it the most immediately engaging of poetry collections, and it took me a good while to get into it. But I think my mistake lay in reading the poems as individual poems rather than as I would read chapters of a novel. Once I adopted the latter approach, I found that the book began to come alive for me, its architecture of overlapping strands a complex but solvable mystery.
The real victim of the dark deeds recounted in Bird Murder is the huia, that admirable and unlucky bird, and this is brought into focus by the final poem in the book, a lovely and simple piece which holds out not one but two hopes of redemption. Bird Murder does take some work, but the work is worthwhile.
Like Bird Murder, Feathers Unfettered is a book defined by self-imposed strictures: here the strictures are of content first and foremost. Feathers Unfettered consists of an introductory poem followed by poems about 25 present-day New Zealand birds, one poem per bird, from akiaki to whio, most of the poems a page or less in length, each page of poetry faced with beautifully detailed illustrations, by Jan Fitzgerald, of the bird concerned.
The huia does not get its own poem in Feathers Unfettered, presumably on the grounds of extinction. Indeed, it is one of the birds listed in the introductory poem ‘Warning: Species Alert’, which provides a stark reminder of the vanished and the almost vanished, and was for me the most successful poem in the book.
While the poems in Feathers Unfettered don’t possess the unity of form of those in Bird Murder, a number of formal features do recur, such as the one-word-per-line swoop across the page a number of them employ. Here’s an example from ‘Kea’ (p. 19), one of my favourite poems in the book:
prying beak digs deep
Short lines and clipped statements predominate, and there is a lot of straightforward taxonomic description. From ‘Takahē’ (p. 38):
largest rail stocky
purple sheen thick
red bill dominates
The ornithological information is useful in itself, but too often it reads like taxonomic prose plus line breaks, which prevented me from fully engaging with the poems as poems. Perhaps that is the intention: Feathers Unfettered would serve very well as an identification guide to the birds nesting in its pages, and that is not a standard that many books of poetry can meet. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who values, enjoys and wishes to know more about New Zealand birds.
But, viewed purely on its merits as poetry, I found Feathers Unfettered, despite showing Karen Zelas’ clear and previously established technical skill as a poet, the least interesting of the three volumes reviewed.
Are all three books worth reading? Yes. For sheer enjoyment of style, substance and subject matter, Cinema is my favourite; if it’s a knotty mystery you’re after, with violin, deerstalker hat and drug of choice close at hand, Bird Murder is the one for you; and if you combine a love of poetry with a love of native birds, you can satisfy them both with Feathers Unfettered.
TIM JONES is a Wellington-based fiction writer, poet, editor and anthologist. He is a graduate of the University of Otago.