How to Take Off Your Clothes by Hadassah Grace (Dead Bird Books, 2019), 52 pp., $25; Night As Day by Nikki-Lee Birdsey (Victoria University Press, 2019), 122 pp., $30; The Black and the White by Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press, 2019), 62 pp., $25
How to Take Off Your Clothes announces a striking new voice, one moulded by a life as an immigrant and sex worker, the daughter of ‘Christian celebrities’. This unapologetic, honest and often bracing debut lays bare the scars of Hadassah Grace’s past. It’s also the first book off the block from new publishing house Dead Bird Books, a venture set up by arts facilitator Samuel Walsh and writer Dominic Hoey. They’ve launched the book in suitably momentous fashion, with a nationwide poster campaign, artfully produced videos and a multi-city tour. It’s a sign of their commitment to, and belief in, Grace and her book, and one that will hopefully pay off in the long run for both parties.
It’s clear from the very first pages that How to Take Off Your Clothes is not a gentle book – there is pain and anger within these pages. Some of that pain is self-inflicted, but most of it is the result of being a young woman in a world that is systematically being turned against her. From an early betrayal by her brother (who convinced her to eat a tube of Superglue ‘to make [her] muscles grow’) to the men who have paid for her time, Grace picks over the roles men have played in her life and the effect on her mental health and her relationship to her own body. Despite this, Grace doesn’t position herself as a victim. The poems don’t necessarily ask the reader for empathetic understanding, nor do they read as an explanation or justification for the paths she’s taken. Instead, the book is centred around the desire to have nuanced conversations about sex work, misogyny and mental health, among other things. Grace has been the subject of many instances of the male gaze, but in How to Take Off Your Clothes she reclaims and dismantles that gaze to expose the workings of the world.
The book’s title might be a twee reference to her past as a stripper, but it also serves to tackle the undressing of the constructed world that has been built around her as a woman, a poet and a performer – a world where reality is often packaged and sold as artifice, and vice versa. In ‘All Access Pass’ she unpicks the curiosity of men who ask ‘what goes on in there?’ behind the closed doors of a strip club dressing room, hoping for a salacious, sexualised answer to meet their expectations. The truth is so much more ordinary: ‘… we eat / complain about blisters / does anyone have a tampon?’ On stage – ‘the killing floor’ – the girls are ‘drunker dumber hotter wetter’, putting on a show that distracts all involved from the machinery of daily life.
In the afterword Grace writes, ‘Sometimes my life feels like one big contradiction … I don’t really like most poetry, but here I am writing a book of it.’ This contradiction and unease is a lingering presence throughout the book, with poems moving from confession to confrontation in a single breath. There is little room for respite, and when there is the odd moment of stillness, Grace introduces details and barbs from her many past lives to remind us that she herself hasn’t always been given such privileges. In ‘women>pain’ she declares that ‘this is not a poem / it’s a scalpel’. The same poem is also – among other things – a diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a rape joke, a catcall, a witch hunt. In this poem, and throughout the book, Grace reminds us that survival isn’t just living through the experiences that life throws at us; more often than not it’s how we deal with the aftermath that truly tests us:
are you getting the picture?
these are not words
they’re part of a paycheck
or rather the choices you made
that lead to the thing being cut in the first place
if you’d only been lesser or greater
There were moments while reading Grace’s debut collection where I felt defeated once more by how terrible the world is – specifically, the world as seen and experienced by young women. Even with the #MeToo movement shining a brighter light on the widespread sexism and misogyny women face, there is so much more to do. This book affirms that every story shared can make a difference. This is poetry that will move you.
Nikki-Lee Birdsey, who was born in Piha, has studied at New York University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is currently a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington where she is researching ‘the intersections of memoir, place, exile and hybrid genres in the work of W.G. Sebald and others’. The creative component of her PhD thesis has now been published as Night As Day, which delves deeply into her own memory and experience in navigating time spent in New Zealand and America, and the way those lives morph and work against each other. These two geographic centres form the axis on which these poems turn – when it’s day in one, it’s night in the other, and so the poems echo the dichotomies at play throughout: childhood and adulthood, memory and forgetfulness, pastoral and urban, lost and found.
There’s a sense of willing – if uncertain – wayfinding at work throughout the book as Birdsey attempts to anchor each memory to a particular place and time, even when such a process throws up more questions than answers. We rely on so much more than our own memories to make up a picture of the past, and even then we can only simulate a limited version of past events: ‘You can’t / zoom in on everything and still feel / salt-wind on your face’.
In the collection’s first section, Naturalisation, the speaker is at odds with her surroundings. What she remembers of a childhood spent in New Zealand keeps her suspended somewhere between here and there, attempting to conjure up ‘a good clean New Zealand memory’ in the cluttered dark of New York. Although time is keenly felt it does nothing to contain everything that demands to be felt: ‘I need the chronology, the sense of dead years’. These poems move forwards and backwards in time, and across seas, but the cumulative effect isn’t one of linear, narrative gain. Instead, the reader’s view of the world as seen through Birdsey’s eyes is something akin to a world falling away, despite all efforts to hold on to memory as an anchor of who you are. In examining her own memory and the narrative she wishes to plot, Birdsey comes to the realisation that everything ends where it begins:
The wind always working against us
and the scattered remainders, the past’s
shallow artefacts; somewhere whole cities
covered in ash, that legacy of fire and burning.
It just means someone’s home.
Your birthplace perhaps the only
kind of destiny. To know where you begin
and where you return.
Night As Day feels very much as if it is in a hybrid genre, sitting somewhere in the middle of a poetry–memoir spectrum. The collection is built on lived experience, and the hand of the author is clearly felt as you make your way through the poems. This is explicitly so in the substantive commentary section included at the end of the book, in which Birdsey provides a glimpse behind the authorial curtain. For the most part, the commentary notes read like an extension of each poem, providing additional context as well as explaining some of the allusions and references contained within. They also give Birdsey a springboard from which she can further explore the ideas and themes presented, allowing herself more breathing space. I found myself flicking back and forth between the poems and the commentary. I liked how it created a dialogue between the poet and the reader, as if I were privy to the secret blueprints of this book. (Similarly, Grace’s book begins with a note saying its margins have been deliberately set wide to encourage readers to make notes, to turn their thoughts into poetry.)
At times it feels like the weight of the world contained within each poem is going to crush you – the skies are big, the roads sprawl – and it’s all amplified by the minor details that bring everything into sharp relief. This is particularly so in the Objects section, a series of twelve loosely connected poems that charts a year living in New Zealand. It’s here that the ambition of the collection is pulled closer and made more accessible – these poems hum with intimacy as the speaker begins to embrace the ‘regular beauty’ around her. It is never clear exactly which objects are the focus of each poem (‘You can decide what the objects are if you want,’ Birdsey says in the commentary), and it doesn’t matter because they transcend materialism, becoming symbols of who and what we are: ‘Is it the language of recovery / I’m interested in?’.
Night As Day is an experimental and intellectual collection with a fiercely human heart at its core. Birdsey’s control of form and direction recalls the sublime favoured by the great Romantics, but there’s also something very contemporary about this collection. Its worldview is both appealing and engaging, inviting readers to share in its geographic and philosophical wanderings. ‘I think life is just starting,’ Birdsey concludes in one poem. After reading this collection, you’ll have a greater appreciation for just how many lives could possibly start in a single lifetime.
The first Geoff Cochrane collection I read was Acetylene (2001), which was published during my first year at university. The collection became one of my formative reading experiences as a young poet desperate to unlock the secrets to writing poetry, and attempting to find a bridge from the prescribed canon to the now-ness of contemporary New Zealand poetry. In that collection’s ‘Medley’, Cochrane wrote of Leonard Cohen: ‘He’s content to be a minor poet. / The minor scribes have given him delight.’ Cochrane himself is hardly minor – he’s arguably one of our most prolific poets and has received his fair share of acclaim. Acetylene’s blurb notes that ‘there is no one else quite like him’, and on the back of his seventeenth collection, The Black and the White, he’s described as ‘one of the most memorable voices in New Zealand poetry’. Like Cohen, he has a grasp and understanding of what it means to observe the world through the cracked, ugly lens of disconnection while nevertheless remaining firmly alert to all its beauty and disappointments, ‘Never quite achieving / escape velocity’. Reading Cochrane’s work can be exhilarating, yet it can also be wearying on the soul. Maybe that’s the point. If the regular beauty Birdsey captures in her book is a reminder to slow down, in Cochrane’s poems, perhaps now more than ever, there’s a reminder that slowing down eventually leads to stopping.
The late, great Cohen pops up again in The Black and the White in the tribute ‘For Lenny’, which reads in its entirety:
You linger as a piquant after-image,
linger like a thumbprint on the mind,
but you’ve no more use for cabs or canticles,
no more use for salt or bread or ale,
no more use for suits or cigarettes.
Cochrane is often noted for his brevity and frugal use of language. This poem demonstrates how effective his most compact work can be, bite-sized musings and philosophies that act as antidotes to the excess that surrounds us. Some of his poems work best when they are after-images that are left like a ‘thumbprint on the mind’ – for example, ‘Bit Box #1’ and ‘Boxing On’ are made up of what appear to be stray lines and impressions. ‘Short and sweet, that’s me,’ he writes. ‘I like what’s short and sweet. And I write what’s short and sweet.’
For the most part The Black and the White is a snappy brisk collection, but it does tackle that most serious of poetic topics: death. Cochrane has never shied away from writing about mortality. In Acetylene he wrote of his father’s passing; in The Black and the White he muses on his own inevitable demise with a sobering matter-of-factness that conceals any anxiety he might have about dying: ‘One’s duty in the end / is to get oneself dead somehow’. There are recurring references to ill health and medication, the appearance of both a phlebotomist and a neurosurgeon, and blood where it shouldn’t be – even if it traces a line back to the causes of death of other family members. In Cochrane’s hands these poems are lent an anarchistic streak of humour and the realisation that, at the end of the day, perhaps nothing is actually worth saying. If his poems are to be a record of sorts of his life, then it is his prerogative to let them be composed from overheard dialogue that caught his ear, or ephemera filtered from the noise of modern life. In ‘Going Nowhere’, Cochrane incorporates text from a Lonely Planet guide to New York City, contrasting it with his own day-to-day snapshots of life in Wellington.
However, there is one poem where the use of found text raises some questions about the form and a poet’s responsibilities when borrowing from another source. ‘Coming Soon’ is, on the surface, a description of a film that Cochrane notes will appear in a film festival (Pop Aye, directed by Kirsten Tan). What follows is an extended description of the plot – except that decription has been lifted from the 2017 New Zealand International Film Festival programme pretty much word for word, save for two superficial changes which, in my view, do not elevate the found text in any way or add another layer of interest or complexity. For me, this minimal treatment of the found text added to my unease over the lack of clear acknowledgement of his source material. One could argue that there are clues, such as the use of quotation marks, the mention of the film festival in the opening line, or the fact that Cochrane has included the name of the the film and the director (although neither would be instantly recognisable to most readers). I don’t think this is enough, especially when almost 80 per cent of this poem is somebody else’s words. (I showed this poem to a friend who read it as a made-up film and plot.)
This poem raises many questions for me about the duty of care required with found text. To what extent do writers need to show their working when it comes to found poems? Is it up to the reader to find the source of quoted text? Does the provenance of the source material dictate whether or not it deserves full and proper acknowledgement? How would the original author react? In ‘Going Nowhere’ the source is clear and Cochrane’s justaposition of that found text with his own words creates a tension between the bright-eyed descriptions of NYC attractions and his more prosaic descriptions of Wellington. This is not the case in ‘Coming Soon’. At times I thought that maybe I wasn’t ‘getting’ it – is Cochrane having a bit of a laugh? Perhaps he wants to make a comment about how anything can be considered poetry if seen in the right light? Whatever the explanation, it’s a poem that has stuck with me for dubious reasons.
Writing and reading poetry isn’t a black and white affair. Grace, Birdsey and Cochrane’s collections show that the page can only contain so much – there are experiences, lives, references and worlds that exist between the words and lines. Some of them are clear, others are less visible and may require many readings (or at least a few minutes on Google) to unpick them from the text. The Black and the White is a collection that challenged me in more ways than one and prompted me to return to some of Cochrane’s earlier collections, which still sizzle with his trademark wit and humour. Cochrane is indeed one of the most distinctive voices of New Zealand poetry – it’s a shame when he leans on another’s voice to make his point.
CHRIS TSE is the author of two collections of poetry published by Auckland University Press: How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, which won the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, and He’s So MASC. He and Emma Barnes are currently editing an anthology of LGBTQIA+ writers from Aotearoa to be published by Auckland University Press in 2021.