Sarah Jane Barnett
Taking My Mother to the Opera, by Diane Brown (Otago University Press, 2015), 116 pp., $29.95; Excerpts from a Natural History, by Holly Painter (Titus Books, 2016), 68 pp., $28; The Burnt Hotel, by Olivia Macassey (Titus Books, 2015), 74 pp., $28
Taking My Mother to the Opera by Diane Brown hooked me from its opening pages. This straightforward and clear-eyed poetic memoir explores the relationship between Brown’s parents, Joyce and Sydney Brown, and Brown’s relationship to them both. The book consists of a series of long poems written solely in three-line stanzas, each poem acting like a chapter in the narrative. The collection is so accessible, funny and tender, that I read all 115 pages in a single sitting.
Brown has already published extensively and in a variety of forms. Her debut collection of poetry Before the Divorce We Go to Disneyland (Tandem) won the NZSA Best First Book of Poetry at the Montana Book Awards in 1997. She published her second collection Learning to Lie Together (Godwit) in 2004. She has also published two novels, a travel memoir and a prose/poetic work. She won the Janet Frame Memorial Award in 2012, the Beatson Fellowship in 2014, and was named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2013 New Year’s Honours List.
With such accolades, I was unsurprised by the polish and craft of Taking My Mother to the Opera. The poems capture the simultaneous intimacy and distance that exists between parents and their children, and how the relationships change over time. As a child Brown wanted to believe in the simple and romantic story of her parents’ relationship, but as an adult she needs more. She looks through boxes of photographs taken of her parents before she was born, and revisits her memories of childhood in order to discover the people they were. Through her poetic vignettes, Brown pieces together a more complex story of her parents.
One of the strengths of these poems is the way Brown creates a sense of time and place, while also resisting sentimentality. While Brown’s ‘Granddad / hands out aniseed balls’ and the family drives around in a ‘Vee-dub’, there are many moments of hardship and violence. Brown’s brothers push her down a bank so her legs are ‘scratched and bleeding’; her father, a returned soldier, wakes up each night crying ‘Where’s his head?’; when her brothers misbehave ‘Dad gives them both the strap’. In an unsettling section Brown describes her near sexual abuse by a teacher at school, before her mother intervenes.
From the distance of adulthood Brown can see the way her parents’ experiences influenced how they could care for her. She portrays her mother as guarded about her emotions – ‘she allows no smile, no twist’ – and later we find out that her mother was harnessed to a yoke as a child and made to plough fields. Brown also explores the way women such as her mother responded to their husbands coming home from war. They wouldn’t ‘push their heroes / returned from battle too far,’ which meant that women often lacked agency in their lives. Of her father, Brown admits that ‘imagination / is insufficient’ to write about his experiences in the Second World War. Both parents, therefore, feel inaccessible to Brown, but she still feels their love:
That’s terrible, my friends say
when I tell them Mum has never
said I love you to me. Strangely,
I can’t get worked up about it,
paint myself as victim. Maybe
it’s not so strange; she’s a natural
at show don’t tell, and I’ve no doubt
love is simply too dangerous
a word for her to speak.
The collection follows Brown’s life from childhood, her young marriage to ‘Fred’, their subsequent divorce, and through to her parents’ old age. The poems show Brown’s deep sense of gratitude towards her parents, especially as she sees them, in turn, sicken and become hospitalised. As an adult she deals with the sad reality of a father in a resthome and a mother with dementia. Just as she values and accepts the imperfections in her parents, Brown also accepts herself. The writing shows an incredible amount of self-awareness on Brown’s part. In a conversation with her father she reflects on her choices:
But you’ve had an interesting life, Dad says.
I consider the poems that wrote themselves
after Fred’s affair; of my life since:
lovers, husbands, sons, and my heart
still beating, though at the time
I thought it would surely stop.
While the collection is about secrets and the stories that are hidden to us, it is also about how a person can look back and appreciate those that have loved them. The passing of childhood often means a revision of the simple and childlike view of your parents. At her father’s funeral Brown states, ‘After all, I do not possess the only truth.’ The truth Brown has reached for is one of compassion and acceptance. Taking My Mother to the Opera is a truly remarkable collection.
Excerpts from a Natural History is the debut collection of Holly Painter. Painter originally comes from Detroit, but has lived in Auckland and now resides in Singapore. The premise of the collection is that when the British natural philosophers of the 17th century founded modern natural history, they proposed that a poet should compile a poetic account of the world’s natural history. The conceit is that, ‘four hundred years later, the work is ongoing, made modern and rigorous with rules and style-guides, managers and research-poets’. Excerpts from a Natural History follows a year of submissions between one researcher-poet, which are the poems in the collection, and responses from their supervisor ‘back at corporate offices’, which are appended to the poems in comment bubbles like those used by track changes in MS Word.
Painter’s collection draws on interesting ecopoetic and pataphysical themes. The poems explore the tension between poetry, which can be considered the investigation of subjective experience, and science, which is meant to be objective and exhaustive. The supervisor’s revisions to the researcher-poet’s poems suggests the fallibility of natural history reporting, poetic or otherwise, and the supervisor often states that ‘opinions’ should not come into a poet’s work. The message is clear: natural history is an objective field.
Alongside commentary on natural history, the poems slowly expose the relationship between the researcher-poet and the supervisor. Pointed lines often appear in the poems, to which the supervisor responds. For instance, in one poem the word ‘drama’ is highlighted and the supervisor comments, ‘By the way, it was lovely meeting you in person the other day!’ In another, the researcher-poet states that the supervisor’s body is ‘surely one of the most / outstanding areas of natural beauty Wales has ever produced’. The personal starts to invade the professional, and emotion skews objectivity. It’s a clever commentary on the way personality often influences scientific endeavour and publishing.
While Excerpts from a Natural History has a fascinating and ambitious premise, Painter doesn’t quite pull it off. Of the collection one reviewer said, ‘There are two writers of this book: a lyricist and a scientist’, but the voices are often too similar. For the collection to work the characters needed to be individual and well-rounded. The supervisor’s chatty and personal comments such as ‘Nice’ or ‘Hehe’ undercut the character’s authority and demands for objectivity. Likewise, some of the researcher-poet’s poems do not stand by themselves. For example, the description of counting buttons in a hospice shop suggests cataloguing, but goes no further: ‘10 purple (7 plastic, 3 cloth) / 9 orange (5 plastic, 4 cloth)’. Each character’s adoption of the other’s way of speaking was no doubt intentional by Painter, but the result is a lack of differentiation between the two voices, and a loss of the conflict needed to evoke the tension between science and poetry.
The best moments in this collection are when Painter employs her skill with sound and imagery, and I often thought the poems begged to be spoken out loud. Painter’s prose poems, such as ‘Concerning January Precipitation in Winnipeg’, are also ones to revisit:
The coldest rain does not fall. It shatters, spitting wet shards across the asphalt where the children play four square, bouncing their inflated rubber ball on the ice. They thought the ice was the coldest rain, poured gradually from the sky and frozen overnight as the temperature dropped and their mothers draped extra quilts over their tiny bodies clothed in pajamas with attached feet …
While this collection may not have hit the mark, there is a curious and quick brain at work here, and Painter is one to watch in the future.
The Burnt Hotel by Olivia Macassey also comes from Titus Books. Macassey, who has a PhD in film and media studies, has had work featured in Poetry NZ and was shortlisted for the Kathleen Grattan Award. Many of the poems in The Burnt Hotel are about wanting and human frailty. The first section of the collection describes the loneliness and dislocation of parts of Auckland society. The poems observe alcoholics and the homeless, or ‘the “don’t talk to” variety’ who are ‘all / slack mouth and soiled trousers’, as well as teenagers that ‘vomit behind walls’, and people having ‘dim sex in sad rooms’. Although Macassey suggests each of these people holds ‘a story’, which saves the poems from being vehicles for judgment, often the descriptions don’t go beyond generalities. Still, there are beautiful moments that suggest the way we grasp at happiness: ‘he lay there lay there lay there naked as he watched her getting dressed / lawnmowers rising from their Sunday / graves, and whining’.
The sweet brutality of The Burnt Hotel grew stronger as the collection progressed. Macassey’s work reminds me of the quick and sharp poems of Charlotte Simmonds, and some of the poems are simply captivating. Poet and academic Jack Ross called the book ‘dreamy, lyric, intensely introspective’; the way Macassey plays with fragmented conversations and repetition traps her characters in these dreamy worlds. The exceptional middle section of the collection retells fairy tales such as The Little Mermaid, Little Red Cap, and Cinderella, and the collection is worth it for the moment in ‘My beautiful cinderalla’ when Macassey calls the prince ‘the fetishist’. These are unapologetic, feminist poems, and the cutting imagery explores the way women are controlled. ‘Virginity is still better than power: it’s doves versus battery hens’, Macassey states in one poem, and in another about society’s expectations for women, ‘I’m trying to untie that beautiful knot we had all agreed upon.’ There is, of course, ‘The cunt poem’:
It won’t be caught dead in a couple of dead end lines
in the core of an elegy to a lover
it’s gotta have the title track it’s got to have the starring role
The final section touches on themes of grief, and Macassey refuses romantic imagery in these tender and sad love poems. From the last stanza of ‘Your eyes are like the stars’:
when the stars are out
I bite your back to feel the spine, imagining the nerves,
run my tongue between your eyelids
taste the salt against your moving eye,
looking for something.
While some of the poems bordered on obscure, others such as ‘Annunciata’ and ‘Drowned oubliette’ can only be called kick-ass. Whether or not you like this collection will be a matter of taste, as they all are, but I was gripped by Macassey’s boldness and dark humour.
SARAH JANE BARNETT is a poet, creative writing teacher and reviewer. Her debut collection HYPERLINK “https://theredroom.org/a-man-runs-into-a-woman/” \t “_blank” A Man Runs into a Woman (Hue & Cry Press, 2012) was a finalist in the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Her second collection, WORK (Hue & Cry Press), came out in October 2015.