Big Love Songs by Vaughan Gunson (Vaughan Gunson, 2015), 64 pp., $30 (available from email@example.com); Frida Kahlo’s Cry and Other Poems by Laura Solomon (Proverse, 2016), 48 pp., $38.59; Tail of the Taniwha: A collection of short stories by Courtney Sina Meredith (Beatnik Publishing, 2016), 152 pp., $30; Twin Threads by Dorothy Howie (Frayed Frisket Press, 2015), 34 pp., n.p.
Vaughan Gunson’s Big Love Songs is a lilting, sentimental, love-story in verse. This is a journey in the personal pronoun. It has all the trimmings of something orthodox-romantic. There are musings about stars, rose-vines and angels. But behind the lushness of Gunson’s imagery is something pared-back and necessarily to the point. This is Love as though Japanese decor consultant Marie Kondo had paid a visit: it is tidy, and has tossed out any gratuitous bits and pieces.
Big Love Songs is a degustation of fifty poems and poemetti (very short poems). There’s a sense of a love that is ambiguous and sometimes slipping away. Overall, they suggest the floor of an abandoned building where loneliness and loveliness are clinging like distressed homeless squatters. This stark loneliness is not, however, the ilk of Celine Dion and Bonnie Tyler melodramatic sing-alongs. Gunson is a careful lyricist who down-pedals the drama. His loneliness belies a predictive force, and is the stuff of quiet resignation, not karaoke numbers:
Montreal in summer
and the hurt has turned
into a gift:
I understand now
everything you wrote
these last few thousand years
keep forwarding ahead
to the rooms I’ll move through
and the tables I’ll sit at alone.
Gunson works his effects with gentle twists. Punch lines are often too tender to be tagged as mere throwaway witticisms. There are poems that bump up against the limitations of language; poems where ‘nothing we write / is heavy enough’; and poems in which ‘The writer always fails.’ Gunson’s narrator seems to experience words as foe and friend and yet the author knows how to make a few skinny words punch big.
The loneliest, most melancholy of the verses tend to be the most engaging. There are moments when Gunson comes within a whisker-squeak of a cliché or a tautology, but he manages to deflect looming bathos with a brute confession or a startling image. Moreover, he has a way of allowing the reader to believe afresh in an exhausted metaphor by pairing it with poetry that is at times endearingly frank.
This is poetry that purveys an impressive yet consistent breadth of influences: from English folk ballads to Arthur Rimbaud to Bob Dylan. With its raw honesty and starvation-rations of irony, Big Love Songs is entirely different to anything I’ve read lately. It is in-yer-face poetry, but it is also poetry that aches and is vulnerable. It is poetry that, like Northland citrus fruit, manages to be both bitterly pithy and sweetly personal:
I’m at the end
of writing it down
I’ll see you tomorrow
at a table in the sun.
Laura Solomon is a poet, novelist, playwright – and a ventriloquist for the dead. In her collection, Frida Kahlo’s Cry and Other Poems, she allows ghosts to speak, gloat and regret. Solomon pegs a variety of real-life historical figures to some kind of literary purgatory, where they are able to confess and lament their pasts, or alternatively admonish the present in which they find themselves. There is the titular Frida Kahlo, whose ghost attends her own exhibition at the Tate Modern:
The sickening part was the merchandise.
Coffee mugs, calendars, prints, clocks
Solomon’s poems impress immediately with their conversational freshness. And there are some humdingers of first lines. Joan of Arc’s postcard home starts: ‘Dearest, they burned me’; while American (suspected) murderess, Lizzie Borden, launches into her confession: ‘The devil made me do it.’ These speculative monologues are playful and caper around the usually grave subject matter. There is a sameness of tone in the case of each character, but nevertheless the particular voice rings out clear and charismatic.
There is also a dissociated melancholy to some of the poems, creating a kind of distancing effect. Howard Hughes ‘Gets the blues’ and Byron is bitten by ‘The black dog’, but the underlying melody is still chipper, or light-hearted. This is disconcerting, in an exciting, curious way. The effect is a kind of buzz: akin to listening to R.E.M.’s song ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)’ – there’s a disjunction occurring between the poem’s content and the resultant sentiment.
Solomon’s ghosts are candid and chatty, as though they’re all somewhat inebriated at a big noters’ shindig. They’ll spill the beans on their personal trespasses, hoping you’ll forget in the haze of tomorrow’s hangover.
It’s not exclusively dead people at the party, though. Other guests include ‘literature’s untouchables’: certain words made sentient and ‘shunted off the Z-list’. These are given voice in Solomon’s ‘Apocryphal’: ‘We are the clichéd words, the words that didn’t fit, didn’t click.’
Frida Kahlo’s Cry is elocution for the mute. It is a sanctuary for the dead, the lost and the cold-shouldered. It is ‘the howling of the tortured, the crippled / and the damned.’ Solomon is the mouthpiece for people constrained by circumstance to the periphery. The voices conjured are more deadpan than nuanced, but this feels intentional. Solomon puts on a good show; one whose razzamatazz might interrupt more than a few folk’s complacent slumberings.
Tail of the Taniwha is satirical and familiar, deferential and full of protest. It is a deeply clever inventory of character and place. Courtney Sina Meredith takes us inside the minds of those ordinary folk of everyday urban/suburban existence. We explore issues of social justice and alienation; question the intentions of Art and the relationship between consensual reality and the divine.
The book itself is a treat of design. With gold hardcover, multiple coloured pages inset and shifts in form, this is a textured work and one which encourages its reader to engage with the pages in unique ways: drawn into the text one moment, expelled the next.
This is a collection of short stories that is as much play-script and poetry. It has a youthful energy, and works by shifts between forms. There are pages of unadulterated dialogue; there are snappy vignettes, and prose that lurches into free verse. Sometimes stories bleed into one another. Sometimes white font twinkles on a midnight page, the words shifty as stars. Sometimes the sentences cover their mouths when they speak; other times they are loud and rambunctious and call it as it is: ‘My dad is a seaman; he fucks off for a living.’
The poet calls upon a posse of characters: some ordinary people, some people of myth. There is the ‘coconut king’, and Aotahi, the celestial body, and the taniwha. In the first section, ‘Great Works’, Akenese converses with the mythical female war god, Nafanua, while she visits an exhibition of Matisse at the Tate Modern. She examines the subdued sexism and racism of fellow gallery-goers, and of her academic peers, and explores feelings of estrangement:
Our tutor made us wear masks down the main road to see how it felt to be different. It didn’t feel any different to walking down the street with my own face.
It is not all the sober reflections of identity, however. There are moments of hilarity, such as ‘Manifesto’, where the mirror is turned inwards on the literary scene:
‘Why do we come to these wretched things?’
‘For the wine? To be seen to be “active”,
darling! You still writing?’
Courtney Sina Meredith has a way of bridging the everyday and the philosophical. In her poetic sequence, ‘Taniwha house’, she takes the Socratian statement, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, and tethers it to a routine kitchen scene:
She smiles like there’s a camera looking back at her, but the camera has no film in it, and there’s no photographer …
Her story, ‘Leaning Trees’, blends international headlines with domestic imagery. The content builds on itself, and the sequence functions like a flip-book, with words congesting the pages in increments. It conveys a contemporary fretfulness, the sort of digitally distracted dislocation that comes with consumerist and technology-driven habits:
You can motivate millennial employees by putting pictures of cute cats around the office.
The collection celebrates ordinary kinships: lovers, family and the collision of strangers. The imagery is panoptic, capturing the colloquial, the plastic, the earthly and the metaphysical in one continuous swoop. A page that starts with musing about an ‘Oral-B electric toothbrush’ catapults its reader through Israeli aircraft bombings of Gaza and oil corruption in Nigeria. Many of the stories play with scale of imagery. In ‘Aotahi’, we zoom in and out, moving from the intimate to the momentous, from ‘fingers and toes’, and ‘germs crawling all over small bodies’, to the Milky Way. This is the most tender story in the collection, and concerns the love between siblings:
You were very small, Aotahi. It’s like swimming back to yourself from a great distance.
All in all, this is a smart, engaging and audacious first collection of stories. It presents a dynamic merging of narrative and poetry, and plays at the boundaries between forms.
Dorothy Howie’s debut poetry collection, Twin Threads, threw me into a fit of trepidation. The old line ‘De mortuis nil nisi bonum’ (Of the dead, speak no ill) seems to extend itself to this collection. The poet has lost a twin sister to depression, and this is the focal subject of the work. I don’t wish to trespass on this book, or to misrepresent the author’s memories and grief. And so, it is with these caveats that I step lightly around Twin Threads.
Hesitations aside, this is a special and intimate collection. Hand-printed at Frayed Frisket Press and bound by the University Library Bindery, Dunedin, one figures that one has landed upon something one-of-a-kind, a sort of exquisite koha. There is a print number tagged to the colophon. There is a photograph of Howie’s sister at the collection’s fore. All these details lend to the feeling of the book as lovingly crafted artefact.
The poems kick off on Anzac Day 2012, painting the loneliness of depression’s ‘Black cloud’ and a terminal decision: ‘ending life’s mistakes’. Subsequent poems reminisce, mourn, and ponder madness and the profound symbiosis of twins:
‘This is a symbiotic relationship’
explained your insightful psychiatrist
at a discharge meeting.
A source of mutual support,
interpreted and supplying needs,
enhancing one’s being
Howie records Christmas, anniversaries and the fragility of her own grief process in the absence of her twin. The poems are tagged by the date of authorship, and footnotes are dutifully appended. There are references to T.S. Eliot and Janet Frame, to Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson and U2.
There is something clunky about some of the verse. The poems are busy relating a process, and don’t concern themselves with being poems. But there is a snugness and simplicity to the collection, which elicits a feeling that one is reading Howie’s personal journal, raw and unedited. Such an invitation of proximity allows the reader an ‘in’ to the experience of such momentous loss, the ‘losing part of myself’. But it is in moments where the inventory of feelings is tethered to place, to something outside of itself, that are Howie’s strongest and most evocative:
Months later I am standing on the limestone rock of Rottnest Island,
age-old accretion of the long-lost skeletons
of marine animals.
One such creature, in the process of change,
fossicked on the seashore, its delicate skeletal back
gleaming in the sunshine.
You were always a part of me, and now a new layering,
like limestone, is taking place; liminal, almost luminous,
your white light lingering
ELIZABETH MORTON has been published in Poetry NZ, Takahe, JAAM, Blackmail Press, Meniscus, PRISM: International, Cordite, Island Magazine and Landfall, among other places. Her prose fiction is included in the Best Small Fictions 2016 anthology, published by Queen’s Ferry Press. In 2013 she was winner of the New Voices: Emerging Poets competition. She was shortlisted for the 2015 Kathleen Grattan Award, and was awarded second place in the 2015 Sunday Star-Times Short Story Awards.