In Bed with the Feminists by Liz Breslin (Dead Bird Books, 2021), 69pp., $30; Felt by Johanna Emeney (Massey University Press, 2021), 80pp., $24.99; To the Occupant by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, 2019), 80pp., $27.95
Liz Breslin’s sophomore collection In Bed with the Feminists was one I was eagerly anticipating, and that anticipation was certainly warranted. Ever since bursting onto the Aotearoa literary scene a couple of years ago, Dead Bird Books has shown a particular knack for turning their releases into special occasions through comprehensive, nationwide launches and promoting books with strong concepts from distinct writers. Liz Breslin had the unenviable task of following one of the best collections of 2020, Mohamed Hassan’s Ockham-shortlisted National Anthem, and in the face of such expectation, In Bed with the Feminists did not disappoint.
The book is built around a sequence of poems that won the 2020 IWW Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems. Notable are the poems featuring the recurring concept of the speaker doing various things ‘with the feminists’: ‘at the museum with the feminists’, ‘marching with the feminists’ ‘at the drive-thru with the feminists’, etc. These poems form the spine (and arguably the heart) of this collection, providing little snapshots of relatable and poignant interactions, whether they’re interactions between feminist friends, lovers, companions—
rage at mapgirl / in the rain \ in Imperial
ignore her directions at the lights
the fastest way out of Christchurch
is / is not \ is just through / fuck it
\ mapgirl’s right /
(‘Road trip with the feminists’)
—or interactions between the speaker and the world around them, with all its little barriers and intricacies:
don’t lose it now you’ve got to negotiate
the baking bits and was it cardamom
you wanted and can you remember why
your list is superfluous like frills on
a pig but nobody’s eating pork
anymore, anyway, keep it together now
all the wheels trucking on straight
(‘In the resort supermarket with the feminists’)
It’s this specific sequence that reveals some of the book’s most interesting observations linked not only to the universal ‘what else is life but sex and death?’ but also the specific—the poems ‘Siri with the feminists’ and ‘Google Assistant with the feminists’ doing a particularly good job playing off one another to highlight innate patriarchal flaws and biases in the technologies that govern so much of our lives and hover just under a layer of perceived objectivity.
Siri are you a feminist?
I believe that all voices are created equal and worth equal respect.
Siri do you believe in the right to abortion?
I don’t have beliefs.
But I thought you said you believe all voices are created equal.
I don’t know what that means. If you like I can search the web for but I thought you said you believe all voices are created equal.
(‘Siri with the feminists’)
The playfulness of some of the poems both in form and content make the collection as a whole a pleasure to read. This poet has a real talent of tackling big issues in deft ways; she knows when to poke fun or subvert (see for example the hilarious found poem, ‘You’ve got male’), and she knows when pulled punches simply won’t do the trick: ‘Note: please note. This is not a fucking game.’ (‘Bingo with the transphobes). I presume Breslin has honed this particular skill over many years; it’s one of the reasons she’s so widely revered in the spoken word community. Ultimately, In Bed with the Feminists translates well Breslin’s strengths and personality from the stage, rather than stifle them, as it builds a coherent and multifaceted concept for the poet (and the feminists) to explore, poke and prod.
Johanna Emeney’s new collection Felt from Massey University Press stuck with me in ways I didn’t expect. After hearing a Chris Tse RNZ review of this collection, I knew I was in for poems soaked with tenderness and an empathy for the self and all others within the speaker’s orbit. That empathy is there, propping up the collection like scaffolding, particularly the second half where we get detailed insight into the speaker’s relationship with various animals, domestic and otherwise. It comes as no surprise to me to learn that Emeney lives on a lifestyle block with many of the beasts that inhabit these pages.
Some creatures are a pleasure to save.
A small rabbit delivered back to grass
after the cat’s unsubtle inquisition;
a finch, stunned by the trickery of glass,
recuperating in a punctured shoebox
lined with an old tea towel and some straw.
These dolls of nature soon reanimate
after easy human kindnesses.
These accounts of delicate and deliberate interactions with the animals we cohabit with brought to mind other recent collections from Aotearoa poets who delineate these relationships so well, like Ash Davida Jane’s How to Live with Mammals, one of my favourite books of 2021, or Janet Newman’s Unseasoned Campaigner.
While this particular focus of Felt was both engaging and comforting, it is Emeney’s storytelling and her ability to evoke almost existential despair that has stayed with me. Poems like ‘RSLV’, ‘Going bad ‘and ‘Favoured exception’ tell stories of heartbreak that pull you in and string you along to an often bittersweet, or sometimes just bitter, end. I couldn’t help but think of how the poet might sound reading them to a room of hushed people in a bookstore or a quiet bar.
Not a picture taken two months ago
in your living room by a tag-happy mate,
showing a wrecked cream carpet
strewn with pinched ends
of fuse-thin roll-ups, empty bottles
and this bent-back, burnt-out spoon.
One of this collection’s strengths is its ability to give Emeney’s stories room to breathe. The poet and publisher seem to understand where the real heft of the collection lies and how best to accentuate it with a structure the feels not so much like an arc but a parabola, scattering careful, effective bursts of tragedy throughout. Felt is a collection that has left a mark on me and hopefully on the NZ poetry landscape.
I still remember finding a copy of Emma Neale’s latest poetry collection To the Occupant in a second-hand bookstore not long after its release in 2019. I was in the midst of an immersion of sorts into the recent works of some of our best contemporary poets and tweeted my elation at finding a used copy of this collection, not realising at the time the implication that some misguided soul had had the audacity to give this away so swiftly. I haven’t let the collection go since, and it’s one I keep finding myself coming back to. It has a rhythmic humanity to it. Even the titles naturally punctuate patterns of daily living—‘The appointment’, ‘Morning song’ and ‘My aunt’s story’, for example— as well as stark, even paralysing thoughts of what’s to come, of the unknown: ‘Will our small joys be only their ancestors?’, ‘Letter from tomorrow’s tomorrow and tomorrow’ and ‘Dear Future, I’m afraid this is how I begin to lose you’.
It’s clear that this poet sees so much movement and activity where others might see stillness. Almost like a documentarian, she urges us to notice ‘Mint’s fresh breath on all its haka tongues’ and how ‘The days shiver with filaments / of ua kōwhai’. Everyday observations morph and shift in unusual ways that, when all is said and done at the end of a poem, somehow make perfect sense. This is a poet who understands the word ‘journey’ can take many forms. I think of poems like ‘Pivot’, with the unexpected wisdom of clouds, or ‘The Tasti™ taste guarantee’, where an existential crisis is just a lunchbox treat away, or the true implications of a the oft-comedic trope of a child running away from home.
when I catch a glimpse
of time’s webbed, oil-black wings …
I’m so stunned and dread-run that even eating
a candy bar in Supergrain disguise
seems to be the opposite of inaction.
(‘The Tasti™ taste guarantee’)
I could still come back—that is, if ever my ghost
Gets done with running away.
Goodbye and thanks for the days
when it was good to have forgotten
I was once upon a time your only son.
(‘Underneath the fridge magnet’)
I haven’t had the pleasure of reading as many of Neale’s previous collections as I would have liked but I’m slowly adding them to my collection. Every Emma Neale collection feels like an event, a necessary punctuation in the flow of so many things.
Due to circumstances
we should have foreseen
the exquisite poems
we had hoped for
have not been composed.
We regret to say
until further notice
this space remains closed.
(‘Economy of style’)
It’s clear to see how the wisdom and generosity she is renowned for as the previous editor of Landfall translate so cleanly into her own work. From now on, I intend to pay full price.
JORDAN HAMEL is a Pōneke-based writer, poet and performer. He was the 2018 New Zealand Poetry Slam champion and represented NZ at the World Poetry Slam Champs in the US in 2019. He is the co-editor of Stasis Journal and co-editor of a forthcoming NZ Climate Change Poetry Anthology from Auckland University Press. He is a 2021 Michael King Writer-in-Residence and has work in The Spinoff, Landfall, Newsroom, Poetry New Zealand, Sport and elsewhere. https://twitter.com/JordanHamel_