The Artist by Ruby Solly (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023), 144pp, $30; Foxstruck and Other Collisions by Shari Kocher (Puncher & Wattman, 2020), 144pp, AUS$30; Iris and Me by Philippa Werry (The Cuba Press, 2023), 175pp, $25
Te Korekore is the void, the space of emptiness and potential, the portal of creation. These three poetry books—two verse novels, one intricately structured collection—swerve away from and toward the void, emerging from it and dissolving into it in iterative remakings of the self through story. As they grapple with themes of identity, family, disability, artistry and the ecospiritual connection to land and water, poetry itself is shown as crucial to the generations-long work of weaving and reweaving personal identity and attempting a collective sense of home.
In the creation myth unique to Kāi Tahu, mana whenua of Te Wai Pounamu, the world is sung into being. And song is the generative force, the rhythmic guide and largely the driver of plot in the verse novel, The Artist by Ruby Solly (Kāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe):
And so from the black
the world is sung
not for us
but for itself
Riding on waves of song, The Artist follows one family across generations of community-shaping, myth-dissolution and creation. A pair of twins are the central characters; both have relationships with interdimensional beings, forcing rifts and reweavings in the family and village as the invisibles are made visible and the mythic interacts with the human in strange dream and water spaces. Te Heikiki, the silent one, cannot speak, and her brother, Reremai, for the look of the water in your eyes, is blind. But he hears the silent expressiveness of his sister, the watery whispers of the pounamu woman in whose arms he tangles and the song of the stone as he carves it:
I hear you, I hear you, Rere whispers
with the mind, with the body
and its histories.
Reremai’s way of listening incorporates the mind, the body and its histories as a vast sensory organ. Hearing the ostensibly silent song becomes a multidimensional transgenerational process, one that connects separated planes of experience. The ancestors are present and active; the earth is alive:
I hear you, I hear you, Reremai screams within as they thrash through the water, breath circling in their lungs as they become their own ecosystem … Rere reaches down into the water and when their hand touches the stone of her hair, it moves gently away from her face as if it isn’t stone at all.
And we are drawn in, or, more correctly, reminded of our place in this earth-human-tipuna-atua ecosystem. The plot is intensely compelling, but it is the language that submerges you as a reader in a liminal, half-lucid state of shifting subjectivities and realities, driven by the song that surges across each section:
Pounding, pounding like white water on stone
Ta, ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta …
You touch her and feel electric
a song in your bones
Ta, ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta …
Ta, ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta …
Ta, ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-ta ta-ta
Love, dominance, ownership (who is in control, after all: The Artist, the force of art itself, or the mother who births the child of The Artist?) are interlaced in the twins’ relationships with these otherworldly, god-like creatures. Echoing the wild settings and their ambivalent yet heart-shattering interactions, the poetry is often lyrical and lilting, short lines washing over and over a shore, repeating a phrase, a turn, a perspective across several poems until it softly cracks open.
Here, Te Heikiki sees the marks of the artist and realises she is pregnant. The lines of the artist are rivers on her body, flowing to the ocean that is also the ocean of te korekore, the mythic beginning. This journey across dimensions and thought spaces, from body to water to atua occurs in one breath and it is breath-taking, merely one adjective:
the paintings of the Artist
thread lines of fresh-cut rivers
kokowai and oil
over her abdomen,
down and out
and through to the ocean
we were fished from.
The awa atua running free,
te pae o Tiki,
Song, the tap tapped song-lines on the body, is the foundation of cultural identity: a bridge of energy between the dead, the unborn, and the living. The Artist is full of such secret meetings, private moments and group gatherings where the unsaid becomes song, lifting the human out of their mess, anchoring them in the acknowledgement of it, the song seeming to outlive them all:
Underneath that white noise
there is a singing
so faint it could only be within the mind
so faint it could only be an echo of a song long dead
There is a lilting
a sad weight to each beat.
The song pulses on, above and beneath every interaction. The Artist is founded on relationships and their possibilities for adjusting the course of the collective if each party can only sing and hear, be heard. Framed by the poet’s illustrated tarot cards that she made in order to help guide the unfolding plot, we see the layout of the relationship as it changes section by section. And we are confronted by that wily element of chance, some mighty hand of capricious control that colours all our relations: the sneaky atua. The gods. Who, after all, is singing the song?
Gut-wrenching yet crystalline, spare yet fleshed and beating, The Artist is one to swallow whole and then return to. The repeated motif of ta ta-ta lodges itself rhythmically in your mind, creating stand-out moments of poignant connection: such as when the family gather around Kiki’s birthing bed and Reremai’s father acknowledges his son as the greatest weaver he has ever witnessed. But there are painful misunderstandings too, such as the pounamu woman’s distress at the stone houses Reremai makes her, that will thread their way through your dreams. This is a poetry book to make you weep, hold your breath, then breathe more deeply, more aware of those invisibles, those unseen other-than-human forces with whom you shape the world.
Foxstruck and Other Collisions, too, makes visible the invisible and presents poetry as a space of human-mystic connection. Shari Kocher is an Australian poet, and this, her most recent collection, emerges in part from her time, in her words, ‘on country’ in Aotearoa and from her time spent with New Zealand women who form an ecosystem of connection within the poems.
Delving into the material and the ecological realms in order to source the transcendental, the collection is structured around a kind of alchemical process that leads from lead to mercury. The poet travels across Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Morocco and New Mexico, and across generations, to attempt reconciliations with family members. She also seeks to dream into being a harmony between her hopes and the reality of her life. These two dimensions sometimes leave her a tender—and occasionally torn-apart—witness to the collision of seemingly opposing forces:
My heart is a boy on a fountain wall
in a violin square playing under his chin
yesterday’s donkey in a valley of roses
tethered to a stake in the burning wind.
These are poems of paradox, emphasising both motion and intense stillness. They are shapeshifting poems about sacrifice, longing and what is withheld. They are poems telling of cuts on knees, of swollen feet, of desert journeys, of star ancestors, of the complicated love of a parent on the brink of death, of goat’s cheese and honey, of rivers and highways, of the body’s openings and departures.
In ‘Ode to Green,’ the poet observes her mother relentlessly pursuing a relationship and then pushing it away. Kocher becomes the witness, bringing water and food. As she listens, the words seem to flow through her, subtly and inescapably. They resonate with the push-pull rhythm of revelation and safeguarding that hums through the book, like a flower opening and closing to the sun. The drops that ‘glisten on the outside / of the water glass as I hand the end / of last summer to my mother’ and the sun that ‘invade(s) my skin cells’ symbolise words said and not said. This, like much of her work, is multifaceted. Poems within poems refract and splinter, in the way the world does when seen through water. And yet the setting is also mundane, suggesting the dreary, the spiky, the entrapped.
Her openness to the world and an awareness of life’s aching beauty and inconsistency continue as the writer wonders how she is not what she observes: the dog killed on the road in Egypt, for example. What chance collisions of bodies, intersection of lives and proliferation of cells made her who she is? For all that she acknowledges her circumstances as the luck of the draw, she also fiercely revels in the autonomy and the power that poetry has. Poetry has a potential for shamanic shapeshifting that is accessed through language attending minutely and doggedly to the luminosity of the glimpsed natural world:
I want to be
branches that catch
gold on the road
As much as this is a personal exploration of healing and transformative journeying, it is also a love letter to the ecological that places the writer as an ‘intra-actor’, to use feminist physicist Karen Barad’s term, with the agency of the plants, mountains, waters; one who is in constant communion.
There is an abrupt, charged quality to Foxstruck, whereby each section feels like a record of loss: sometimes they are losses in the poet’s personal life and sometimes the other-than-human losses of the wider world. Plants and places are named and placed in the text so as to make us notice them, apprehend them, momentarily before they vanish from perception: bristlegrass, nasturtium, saffron, beech blossom. Explorations of concepts like ‘departure’ unfold with a stop-start rhythm, as if to mimic the backwards and forwards propulsion of journeying: ‘the road through the desert is also a causeway is also the ocean charged with’ runs one passage. Then there’s the urgency of: ‘the wind galloping on the way to Gayle’s’, before suddenly things stop stock-still: ‘better just sit and let’.
The language in Foxstruck ranges from lyrical to staccato, dreamlike to the accurately anatomical, oratorical to the quietly intimate and vulnerable. It’s also often lush, as if the poet is savouring the resonance of words on the tongue. I found myself pausing and reading aloud lines, not just to hear the beauty of the poetry but to feel what the words did to my body. For these are songs with actions and movement as much as they are the written word pinned to the page. It is the oscillation between the concreteness of words and their meaning and their dissolution through poetic journeying that gives Foxstruck its sense of yearning and its sense of otherworldliness. All this is brought about through a commitment to sensations witnessed through language:
I want nothing less than to be
blessed by poems such as these
that breathe with the soul’s hands
and feet …
As when her trapezius flutters like a manta ray
coming to stillness in the dozing depths,
and I feel the breath she lets roll through her,
the full winged scapular
softenings that open her rhomboids
The poems ask eternal poetic questions: Who am I? Why do I speak? For and with whom? And who, from the vast collision chamber of the cosmos and from the risky work of loving and being loved, speaks back? Foxstruck answers the questions by example. This is a book that teaches us to listen for the harmony between that which at first seems to be insurmountably incongruous. There is a suggestion that you ought to listen more, to listen harder, in order to hear the threads of song whirring in softness out of that which might at first appear as harsh or dissonant. Above all, to hear, to feel the:
Careful cosmic caves inside the heart
grown mutinous, resistance swarming
into life with the pin pulled out
already bursting into flower.
Philippa Werry’s Iris and Me is a verse novel aimed at young adults. But it offers a rich, tender, powerful exploration of the life of Robin Hyde, to be treasured by readers of all ages. Shamefully, I was not very familiar with Hyde’s life story, and so I received this novel, with its central mystery of who the narrator is, in its purest form, trying to piece together my understanding of Hyde’s constant companion from the clues. Even if it is obvious to you already who narrates the story, the build-up to the reveal provides a fascinating way to observe Hyde, who herself, as a journalist, novelist and poet, spent her life perpetually observing others, piecing together fragments of story. She was always mining, questioning, recording her own heart’s fluctuations and, often tragically, finding herself caught up in stories—particularly love stories—that didn’t fit a woman of her time and so didn’t end well or were brutally cut short.
The choice of narrator allows for a simplicity of expression, which is always fond, attentive, sometimes prosaic. The narrator is able to share facts with a level of neutrality that makes the descriptions of the most tragic experiences of Hyde’s life almost unbearable in their sparseness and brevity:
When it was all over
I heard the nurse.
‘No, it’s not all right, Mrs …
the poor little chap.’
His small face.
His tiny feet.
We first meet Hyde and the mystery narrator on a journey to England, and the novel continues to voyage across continents and timelines, with a flow back and forth between Hyde’s childhood and younger days to the twisting, turning, exceptionally arduous journey they go on, spurred by Hyde’s need to—what? To find stories? Experience other lives? Push herself to the limits, emotionally and physically? Stick it to those who thought she couldn’t do it all, or shouldn’t, as a woman?
Says the narrator, reflecting on a trip to Queenstown:
It was ridiculous
for someone with a stiff leg
to attempt to climb Ben Lomond.
It was brave and adventurous
and slightly mad,
but that was Iris.
It would be interesting to try to psychoanalyse what motivated Hyde, but reading her poetry (which this novel led me to do, so perfectly completing the task of introducing newish readers to Hyde), it is evident, as in it shivers off the page, that this was a woman for whom language lived. Perhaps that is why she journeyed in the intensely purposeful way in which she did: because she had a need to be as alive as she could, and, alongside that intensely committed living, to write about it:
This is how I like to think of her:
Iris at her most Iris,
words clattering out of her,
pages spilling out of the Hermes
onto the grass.
I love this image that encapsulates Hyde’s intense dedication to producing works of literature, to letting her ‘magic gift’ go to work. Writing for Hyde was an innate impulse, unstoppable, organic almost. The pages she produced are like fallen leaves, or new seeds burrowing into soil to sprout: ‘She is sick / Poor / Homesick / Heartsick / But she just keeps on / Writing / Writing / Writing.’
One clear motivation for Robin Hyde was the desire to be with her son, to provide for him and live with him, in a way that turned out, devastatingly, to be impossible for her. Her constant travel, her search for understanding the homes and lives of others, reveals itself to actually be a search for her son and her own place as mother and writer. To be both, the dual roles we now might take for granted required such sacrifice in Hyde’s time that it led to her death. The parallel seeking-for-home undertaken by the narrator of Iris and Me declares that a sense of belonging is not bestowed by a place but by a person. Being with the beloved is what homecoming truly is, despite the desire to journey:
What happened next?
Did we see English bluebells
under English woods
in an English spring,
owls and foxgloves,
on English hills?
Things haven’t worked out quite as we planned.
The words tumbled onto the grass, replace the hoped-for bluebells and foxgloves. The poetry, the song, becomes that which lives and grows. Neither the narrator nor Hyde finds the physical home they seek, but the rebuilding of Hyde’s body of work, of her reputation, vastly helped by the efforts of Michelle Leggott, means that her dazzlingly beautiful poetry has created a legacy that can be seen, now, so much later, as a kind of lasting literary home.
Reading my children The Uppish Hen, the book Hyde wrote for her son and published this year, feels like a confirmation of what poetry can be. Poetry itself becomes a house, a home, a place outside of normal time and space, in which you can draw your experience into a conversation with collective experiences of love, grief, searching and belonging. Poetry offers a place where a community of voices, ‘the mind, the body, its histories’ as Ruby Solly puts it, remains and can be spoken with. Come inside, listen, bring your own stories.
LOVEDAY WHY has had poetry and essays published in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom. Her chapbook with Mirrorcity Letter Press came out in 2012, and her collection, Concordance, in 2019. She lives on the banks of Ōtokia Creek in coastal Otago with her family.