Thought Horses by Rachel Bush (Victoria University Press, 2016), 70 pp., $25; Rabbit Rabbit by Kerrin P. Sharpe (Victoria University Press, 2016), 71 pp., $25; As the Verb Tenses by Lynley Edmeades (Otago University Press, 2016), 64 pp., $25
Nelson poet Rachel Bush died just as Thought Horses was published, so naturally this gives any reading of these poems an added poignancy and resonance. As the title implies, the poems tend towards the cerebral, contemplative, the products of a mind chasing observation this way and that, treasuring moments of detail and shaping memory.
The title poem, ‘Thought horses’, which opens the collection, establishes itself as a catalogue of the thoughts that come unbidden between 4.30 and 6.30, and is wonderful in its leaps between the prosaic and the profound, between the vast and the minute:
There is a chance to think of death.
You think about baking gingernuts.
You think about baking ginger crunch.
You think about the woman who returned a painted African plate on which
you had given her some ginger crunch. She left this plate with four
persimmons in your letterbox.
And later still:
You think you should just think about your breathing. You do this for several
breaths until the thought horses ride over and look at you and you turn to
them with their big protruding eyes and you forget about the movement of
The poems in Thought Horses showcase Rachel Bush’s exemplary craft. There are few of the leaps into the fantastical that I have enjoyed in her previous collections, although there are moments: the introduction of the Thought Horses in the poem above, in ‘The life of bread’ (prompted by a line from Waiting for Godot), in ‘A song from Lapland’ and in the Miss Gotto poems – although in these last, charming as they are, her foot is on the brake as the fantasy is more the shared imaginative play with a granddaughter.
In many poems she is gathering memories about her, brightly detailed and highly evocative. Others are meditations, often set at night or in the early morning, written before sleep or after waking. Usually, in these poems, her language is not flashy but appropriately simple, at times avoiding tropes altogether, as in the spare economy of the description of Lindsay’s garden in ‘Narrow beds’. Evocative details add sharpness: the sugary smells of Dunedin streets, the plot of ‘Mrs Tomnoddy’ (a children’s story) and a bookshelf full of Arthur Mee’s children’s encyclopedia.
An influence is the Canadian poet, Anne Carson. Occasionally, lines from this poet serve as starting points for a Rachel Bush poem, as in ‘Someone has put cries of birds on the air like jewels’, and ‘Anne Carson, until I fall asleep’, but in ‘Five answers for Anne Carson’ she engages more directly with the poet about the nature of desire and language.
There are sombre poems here, and intimations of mortality abound; courage too, of course, but ever and often unexpectedly flashes of wit and playfulness. I am reminded of Cézanne, whose dark palette was often leavened by a splash of red.
Moving from Thought Horses to Kerrin P. Sharpe’s new collection, Rabbit Rabbit, is a little like turning from Cézanne to Miro or Klee. The slow-paced meditative and long loping lines of Bush exchanged for the short, darting lines of Sharpe veering off in unexpected and at times astonishing directions.
Surrealism is difficult to pull off. You look for the mad logic of the dream to hold the piece together, otherwise the leaps seem arbitrary, gratuitous. Sharpe is a dab hand, however, having perfected her craft in two previous collections from Victoria University Press: Three Days in a Wishing Well (2012) and There’s a Medical Name for This (2014). Like Klee, she takes her line for a walk, but while it takes strange byways it is always on a (not sometimes obvious) leash. This current book gathers together another entertaining selection of rabbits pulled out of hats, although in the title poem the rabbit is put in the hat (along with the writer’s mother):
mother tamed a rabbit
in a hat she could hide in
Because this is a Kerrin Sharpe poem we can safely assume the rabbit is not a rabbit and the hat is not a hat, although the mother is almost certainly a particular mother. The poem’s modus operandi, as in so many of Sharpe’s pieces, is to establish a compressed surreal narrative that is kept this side of whimsy by deeper, darker implications. When the reader interrogates the poem, resonances begin to abound with her choice of words and images: tamed, razor, restrained, blood, hunter and boss … so that despite the bunny-hopped this story is rather less Mabel Lucie Attwell and rather more Grimm.
The opening poem sets the pattern and the tone for much of what follows. Small narratives are charged with surreal moments, disquieting transitions and odd non sequiturs:
… after the ice swallowed
her favourite horse my mother’s
Astrakhan coat became smarter
and made decisions
like what she should wear …
(‘When a crayfish could feed six men’)
… though Raymond gave us a fridge
an unknown illness
still swallowed his wife …
(‘Photos of Raymond’)
… through an alphabet of rabbits
she gave him
the lungs to ride
the hips of waves …
(‘The train kept my son breathing’)
The poems feature many of Kerrin Sharpe’s familiar leitmotifs: deer, anatomy and matters medical, rabbits and hares, childhood memories. However, in addition, poems do reference more current events: the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine (‘in any language we think of him’; ‘the cathedral of sunflowers’); the tragic fire at a Bangladeshi sweatshop factory (‘no sweat’). Her geographical range is wider, too. Ireland features in a number of poems, and other parts of Europe are addressed: Venice (via Turner), Stockholm, Elsinore and Treblinka in Poland.
Kerrin P. Sharpe has one of the most original and idiosyncratic voices currently writing in New Zealand poetry. Rabbit Rabbit returns us to her highly imaginative world.
As the Verb Tenses is Lynley Edmeade’s first collection, yet the poems are written with the art and assurance of a seasoned writer. These are the poems of an expatriate returned to New Zealand after several years spent abroad – in Ireland and in particular at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, Belfast.
Appropriately, the opening poem ‘Imperial’ is a poem of departure: London seen from the air at night ‘with its scattered lights. / Like a bag of marbles spilt’. The book then shifts to poems of childhood and poems of more recent memory. The first of these, ‘The Order of Things’, assuredly nails Edmeade’s standard to the metrical mast. It is a tour de force in five tercets and a concluding quatrain employing only two rhymes in its entirety. The effect, because of the poem’s enjambement throughout, is delightfully musical and never seems forced or contrived in any way.
The poems that follow are equally assured, and often striking in their subtle insights and observations. Memories are recaptured with the clarity of photographs, gentle often, but never with the soft focus of nostalgia or sentiment. The locale moves from New Zealand, to Ireland and back and to places unspecified. The prompt is often a visit to or a visit from. Themes are the nature of friendship, love (the book includes some fine love poems), death, time and time’s passing.
The delicacy of Edmeade’s touch and her perfect pitch can be found in ‘Love poem’, a short poem which concludes:
before the wine runs dry and the dusk completes
its sigh and the night brings on the threat of tomorrow:
to you with love I you who no yes no its you I love
I liked the unobtrusiveness of these poems. They are polished without being shiny. As the title suggests, there is an interest in language and the play of language, its grammar and structure. The deliberate mimetic breakdown in the succession of monosyllables in the penultimate line of ‘Love poem’ above is a good example. And in ‘Parlez vous’, for example, the poem begins:
to form the future, you must have
two parts: a small part of the verb to go
and another, the infinitive …
… And so right now, your being here
in still moving into the infinite,
regardless of your being singular.
There is much gentle humour, too, sometimes with a satirical edge, such as ‘Things to do with lists’ and ‘Deipnosophy’, which, we are told, is the art of being an adept dinner conversationalist. A good word to drop into your next dinner party conversation.
In As the Verb Tenses we welcome a new poet’s arrival seemingly fully-fledged, testing a number of forms from free verse to the sonnet, all with considerable ease. There is no showing off or posturing. Figurative language is used sparingly, but when it is, it is used to remarkable effect as in ‘Lake Baikal’, quoted on the back cover:
… And I wondered, what’s the use
being a tourist in a place like this?
It’s like bathing in clothes.
kissing a lover through a handkerchief …
It should be added, how good it is to see Otago University Press extending its poetry list and with such a beautifully presented book with such high production standards.
In summary, these three books are welcome additions to the poetry bookshelf. The first from a senior poet whose voice is now sadly stilled; the second from a poet in mid-career developing a style she has made uniquely her own; and the third from a gifted young poet I am sure we shall hear from for years to come.
JAMES NORCLIFFE is a poet and writer who lives on Banks Peninsula. In 2014 he co-edited, with Siobhan Harvey and Harry Ricketts, Essential New Zealand Poems: Facing the empty page, a collection of New Zealand poetry published by Random House. In 2016, with Joanna Preston, he co-edited Leaving the Redzone: Poems from the Canterbury earthquakes, published by Clerestory Press. His latest collection of poems, Dark Days at the Oxygen Cafe, will be published in August 2016 by Victoria University Press.