Tūnui | Comet by Robert Sullivan (Auckland University Press, 2022), 72pp, $20; Another Beautiful Day Indoors by Erik Kennedy (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022), 96pp, $25
It would be easy to review two recent collections by authors Robert Sullivan and Erik Kennedy exclusively through the lens of their political content. Environmentalism, colonialism and decolonisation are important issues explored. But politics is never a simple art, and art exploring politics is never a simple read. The take-home from reading Tūnui | Comet and Another Beautiful Day Indoors is that the definition and influence of politics extends far beyond a single issues-based narrative into memory, love, loss and the interior, emotional space.
It’s a decade since Robert Sullivan’s last collection Cassino, City of Martyrs was published. Time hasn’t diminished the force and skill of the poet or his poems, as the author’s tenth collection, Tūnui | Comet, reminds us.
It’s the shortest of the two books reviewed here. But numerical extent is proven an arbitrary yardstick in a collection where more meaningful significances lie in its emotiveness and in the expansiveness of its literary terrain. Poetry, of course, is a craft forged through concision. What it brings to the page in meaning and music is made weightier by what it extends to the mind and heart. As an aptitude, Sullivan’s brevity of topic and crispness of cadence is evident everywhere within the pages of Tūnui | Comet. The poetic sequence, ‘Te Whitianga a Kupe’, illustrates this well. Here, through fourteen lithe and limber verses that individually and collectively examine colonisation and its lasting impacts, the kind of political scrutiny that has long been synonymous with a Sullivan poem is on display once more. Its finale, ‘Cookies’, resonates with the contemporary, digital impacts of the subject matter:
A cup of tea
a picture of the Endeavour
replica on my phone
from the beach
on my way back
and the upload
to our Five Eyes
I was there
Here, and in poems such as ‘Decolonising the Coastline’ and ‘The Declaration of Independence’, the author builds upon a deconstruction of the enduring effects of empire building witnessed in his early collections, such as Pike Ake! (1993) and the poem, therein, ‘Maori are Children of God’.
In Tūnui | Comet, we are reminded of Sullivan’s historic body of work while simultaneously being offered new poems that widen the remit of politics. For instance, the poem ‘A little’ astutely analyses the overinflated housing market by balancing a repudiation of consumerist excesses with a call to the restorative power of Nature and culture:
When the prices stop rising
as high as apartments
riding the K’Rd ridge
all the way to Ponsonby
and Grey Lynn
When the dark side of the moon
features the lunar goddess
and these pen strokes
turn vertical and across
to indicate the importance of people …
As elsewhere in Tūnui | Comet, the lyricism is ripe and the imagery rich in this poem, lifting the narrative off the page, into the reader’s mind and onto their tongue. Meanwhile, in the poem ‘Homage to Alistair’ the personal and political act of one Māori author writing to and about another is also enshrined:
My soul will take
as if it’s a frigate bird
or the twin engine
that touches down
on blue moons like
a dark lord seeking
his authentic indigenous voice
among the faraway hills
of Kāpiti and Troy.
All in all, Tūnui | Comet is a navigation through diverse ways of storytelling, the kind that makes welcome space for karakia and waiata as much as for traditional western poetic forms. It’s a book that gives voice and import to multifarious political examinations while evidencing that much of what constitutes a poetry collection exists in the ethereal spaces additional to the page, such as the lingering impression of the work in the heart and mind.
Having recently co-edited the climate change anthology, No Other Place to Stand (AUP, 2022), Ōtautahi author Erik Kennedy is well versed in the thematic landscape he traverses in his second collection, Another Beautiful Day Indoors. The opening poems, ‘Out on the Pleasure Pier’, ‘Studying the Myth of the Flood’ and ‘Microplastics in Antarctica’ speak candidly about the dire state of our planet and, in that, humanity’s masochistic role in exacerbating its own extinction:
Scratch the scalp of civilisation
and bits of it go all over the place.
Concerned about those embarrassing flakes?
You should be.
We are everywhere. We’re even where
we don’t want to be.
It’s like being a celebrity
for being stupid …
Can we be worse than we already are?
Somewhere in the miles-deep ice
an answer is frozen,
and I hope, hope, hope we quit
before we get to it.
This serious tone balances the conversational with the confrontational. It carries throughout the collection, resulting in a book that is marked with stridency and intimacy in equal measure. Consequent poem titles such as ‘The Please Stop Killing Us and Destroying Everything That Sustains Us Society’ and ‘Picking up Pieces of Paper Other People Have Dropped’ say it all. The tête-à-tête that develops between author and reader enables the former to challenge the latter, not just with the harsh realities of the climate emergency but with its systemic promulgation through hardcore capitalism. The intro to ‘Focus Group Survivor’ illustrates the point:
Was I most bored or mostly poor?
Or maybe I was just lonely.
Hell is ten people trying to name a car.
Poetically cited and examined in Another Beautiful Day Indoors, the absolute absurdity of how we—through selfishness—have engendered an environmental crisis that proffers our own demise endures. ‘Phosphate from Western Sahara’ lambasts the destructiveness of the global economy, particularly in its closing lines:
You can see the phosphate dust from space,
like a tantrum in a sandbox.
You don’t have to look hard for motives
when someone guards their shame with barrenness and explosives.
Frequently and astutely, irony turns into surrealism. The poems in the third section of the collection, such as ‘The Autonomous Vehicle Research Centre’ and the finale ‘Shin-Deep in the Floodwaters, Already Afraid’, pull no punches in this regard.
at four miles per hour
would hit me
with the same force
per unit area
as a pillowcase full of doorknobs
dropped from a six-storey building
I’m just in my wellies
gawping at the spillover
out of curiosity
like a traveller here …
In Another Beautiful Day Indoors, Kennedy fuses his intricately woven tone and voice to a subtle lyricism and clever wordplay. The result, politically and personally, is a collection with much to say and an ability to say it with compelling persuasion.
SIOBHAN HARVEY is an émigré author of unknown whakapapa. Her most recent book Ghosts was longlisted for the 2022 Ockham Book Awards.