Kay McKenzie Cooke
New Sea Land by Tim Jones (Mākaro Press, 2016), 73pp, $25; I Am Minerva by Karen Zelas (Mākaro Press, 2016), 89pp, $25
Tim Jones’s new collection New Sea Land, published by Mākaro Press, has for its cover illustration a work by Claire Beynon titled ‘Balancing On Air Is No Easy Task’, in which a human figure teeters on an almost indiscernable tightrope strung between sea and sky. I Am Minerva by Karen Zelas, also published by Mākaro Press, features on its cover artist Seraphine Pick’s, ‘Girl (With Offered Eyes)’, which features a young woman whose body language and expression possibly indicate a surrender to some dawning realisation. The two poetry collections deal with realisations that have been reached through a form of knowledge. Whether this knowledge pertains to the communal or to the personal, the poets conclude that there is nothing to be gained by giving up – and both come out fighting.
In New Sea Land, the realisation that Jones grapples with is (literally) a sinking one. Every poem relates in some way to the disaster that the human race presently faces – that of the encroachment of our oceans upon the land. The unapologetic pun embedded into the title of this collection gives some indication of what to expect from the poetry contained within. This is a passionate, sincere collection of poems on a concerning subject, but nonetheless peppered with playful aspects, twists and turns. Jones has lightened the load of concern and care that the subject of ecological disaster engenders, with welcomed measures of humour and well-constructed, imagined worlds, both past and future. Poetry with an obvious agenda can erode originality and freshness, but not in this case: master strokes by a poet who knows what he is doing has removed this work many degrees away from the soap-box:
This was prime property when they saw it first,
the retirees’ dream of a quiet cottage, snug,
between tarmac’s end and the start of the dunes.
They saw the waves and wondered, paced
the reassuring distance from high tide to gate.
The LIM report should have warned them –
but lawyers hired by those with most value to lose
had overturned the Council’s plans
and the LIM report said nothing.
(‘The last days of the coastal property boom’)
The collection begins with poems written from a personal point of view. These poems set a tone of human helplessness at what life on this planet can mean:
Let’s pitch our tent
beneath the pines
where mountain bikes don’t go
(‘Let’s not die’)
Were you at home when it struck? Were you
trapped on a fatal cross-town bus, or
walking a hill track bombarded by boulders? Were you
unlucky under verandahs? I strategise
with relatives I barely know, plead on Twitter
for tiny clues, ask Google for your name.
I lift, and set down, and lift the phone.
This is a poet who knows how to strive with and work language in order to create believable worlds which, despite any flights of fancy, successfully manage to maintain their premise of plausibility. In this way, Jones nimbly side-steps any temptation to moralise on the subject of global warming:
Long after sunset the waters still rise.
The point break curls
from Fleet Street to Whitehall,
Harlem to Hell’s Kitchen,
down Lambton Quay and all along the Bund.
He paddles out through wreaths of seaweed
anchored in a recent sediment of bones.
An affinity with the sea, and with the land that the sea continues to bump up against, is evident. There are poems that describe a tramper’s yen for space and a sense of one-ness with the land:
colluding with the river’s ceaseless voice
to make a space where time does not hold sway.
(‘Afternoon, late summer’)
And poems penned by a writer with the eye of someone who notices and regards highly this relationship between land and sea:
restored to a distant horizon, a line of light
that rises up to claim dominion from the sky.
(‘Lyall Bay farewell’)
Yet despite this successful conjuring of land and sea scapes familiar to him, Jones never allows a poem to simply bask in its appreciation of nature. In all of the poems in this collection, there is a sting in the tail. The devastating impacts of future loss, the grief of farewelling familiar landscapes and the accountability of present generations to future generations, are what the poems finally describe:
and woke to find your children’s path
blocked by rocks you long ago set falling.
(‘Afternoons, late summer’)
The reverence, quiet reflection and subtle sense of hopelessness indicated in the beginning poems of this collection swiftly lead on to poems that are more hard-hitting. These are now poems that barge up against bureaucracy in its many forms. But any concentration of heat caused by raging against the machine has been wisely contained and channelled by Jones to fire the emotion and imagination that fuels his poetry. This imagination is especially evident in the speculative fiction poems, such as, ‘Kraken’, ‘City of air’ and ‘The cockroach for its beauty’:
On sunny days the wavetops fizz with penguins.
In rain, great blind worms nudge to the surface
to nourish waiting beaks. Wind animates the the grasslands.
(‘The cockroach for its beauty’)
New Sea Land is a collection written by an experienced poet. It is a work to be admired and respected for the manner in which it has worked with language, imagination, passion and heart. It is an unsettling read, which Jones would no doubt be pleased to hear for he has certainly gone all out to produce a collection that insists the reader not only be entertained, but also care. For the earth’s sake:
in the falling light, we feel the ocean
seep into our boots. Still we walk on,
knowing no other way, the sea
taking the weight we have carried for so long,
a lightness bearing up our limbs,
until our feet stop moving.
The blurb on the back of I Am Minerva describes this collection by Zelas as beginning ‘with a light-hearted selfie and [ending] with the writer’s realisation that – like the goddess Minerva – she is a custodian of words and creativity and even wisdom. A poet no less.’ Five poems into the collection, ‘Postnatal blues’ describes part of this process as a mournful acceptance of diminishing freedoms and choices. The poem (as explained in the Notes) employs a prescribed pattern of repetition and rhyming end-words to successfully depict the chill of regret:
The wind blows cold the washing’s on the line
nappies sheets & onesies flapping on the line
a new life’s begun & it feels the end of mine
Zelas has used space and minimal punctuation to bold effect, without any distruption to the flow or sense of the poems. The fact that the punctuation is missing in action invites an intuitive approach by the reader. In the first half of the beginning section titled ‘The act of breathing’, a sense of mystery meanders between the crazy-paved lines that make up these sensual, multi-faceted poems. In these the poet uses natural phenomenon, exotic settings, myths and metaphor to embroider the truth and kindle the fantastic:
beneath machete-slash of rain fronds
feather & fall red trumpets of hibiscus
shimmer shred dead butterflies on buffalo grass
the very act of breathing trapped
& drowning she smashes clear lifts her face
hears singing above the surf against the reef
this is what there is
(‘The act of breathing’)
Confirmation of this mysterious aspect is found in the second stanza of the final poem:
I’m mask I’m mystic weaving
of firmament maze imago
fragment & sum
(‘Born of the head of my father’)
But more about that later. I Am Minerva gathers momentum to hit its middle note towards the end of the first section. Here the point of view moves from the solo to one that allows company, offering observations on how others in the community cope with their own process of realisation. A sense of collective energy builds in these poems, with the poet employing the art of using verbatim snippets of conversations, along with vernacular, to add authenticity and humour:
no she slides into the pool don’t
get me wrong I’m grateful
I’d give my kids the clothes
off my back but I
need a life
(‘In the pool’)
Some of these poems describe those living lives on the edge – the edge being any arbitrary border between privilege and poverty, health and illness, life and death:
black hair straight as face
a calligrapher’s brush
to mark her loss on the white
block wall beside her where
are the prospects they promised?
(‘Dying of thirst’)
Again, the final poem’s disclosure corroborates how this shift to more settled ground is part of the whole person, and is perhaps (without getting too much into psycho-babble) a reflection of part of the path to self-actualisation by Zelas:
I’m smile I’m random amassing
of wisdom virginal venal mother
(‘Born of the head of my father’)
The second and final section, titled, ‘There’s no circus without clowns’, is a solid rendering of memory, family relationships, ancestry and ageing:
how you survived (or thrived upon)
my tales of unrequited love how we
swam at Easter in Taupo’s numbing water
hitched a ride to Saturday night
the lorry driver
who felt your thigh
Here is where the poems about the poet’s parents, family and close friends sit, forming the heart of the book. It is where the reader is invited into the kitchen, as Minerva the scribe records the idiosyncratic quirks of friendship, parental love and duty:
he walked we walked he & I
along the wharves the slap
of sea on crusted piles shadows
– gulls soaring at my feet
(‘There’s no circus without clowns’)
In the last poem the poet is back on her own to announce all she believes herself to be. As well as bringing the collection to a satisfying conclusion, it is a fitting, explosive flourish. It is the poet as mine-sweeper, kitted out with the protective gear of life experience, sweeping a minefield of fierce and graphic nouns in her quest to seek out the most fitting nomenclature possible to describe both herself and someone as mysterious, as real, as physical, as fearsome and as wise as Minerva, the daughter of a god:
I’m myth I’m rumour
(‘Born of the head of my father’)
KAY McKENZIE COOKE is a writer living in Dunedin and has published three collections of poetry to date. She has recently finished completed a manuscript for a novel titled Craggan Dhu.