Every now and then I have another child by Diane Brown (Otago University Press, 2020), 164pp, $29.95; Unmooring by Bridget Auchmuty (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2020), 88pp, $24.99; I Am a Human Being by Jackson Nieuwland (Compound Press, 2020), 76pp, $20
If you’re familiar with Diane Brown’s previous book of poetic memoir, Taking My Mother to the Opera, well, imagine that knack for life-writing but applied to a psychological thriller in verse and you’ve got Every now and then I have another child. Over the course of 110 lyrics the protagonist, the writer and teacher Joanna Lodge, adopts a couple of phantom children, is haunted by the spectre of (possibly) a long-lost sister, is caught up in a murder investigation, and discovers what really happened to her mother, who walked out on the family when Joanna was ten. Reality and fantasy wind up thoroughly intermixed, bubbling away together like the lager and fizzy drink in a shandy.
Joanna teaches creative writing privately, just as Brown does, and there are a number of ‘creative writing’ poems, especially early on, that serve to establish character. Writers who read this book may nod in recognition at Joanna teaching a ‘small class of tree-huggers’ and at her well-rehearsed exhortation to ‘take a blank sheet of paper, / and a pen—purple, preferably—look without flinching, / write what you see’. In truth the metaliterary poems are a little predictable. The most interesting thing that happens with her students is that one of them, Lesley, who lives across a valley from Joanna, dies—possibly killed in a fit of pique by Joanna’s ‘doppelgänger’, the long-lost sister I previously alluded to. As you may be twigging, the plot of the poem gets a bit convoluted at this point, but it is never confusing. Brown is a good architect.
This is the only book of poetry I have ever read that relies heavily on police interviews as catalysts for the book’s development. Because a note with Joanna’s address on it was found at Lesley’s house, Joanna becomes a person of interest in police enquiries. Joanna does nearly everything wrong in her discussions with officers Tom and Dave, including alluding to her plainly non-existent baby and her unlocatable doppelgänger, Anna, whom she suggests may be a suspect. She seems crazy, to the cops. The sixty pages during which it looks like Joanna might be taken into custody are the most exciting parts of the poem. Fancies, hallucinations and dreams all work their destabilising magic, and we float through a plane of uncertainty in which it’s hard to tell if Joanna the subject or Joanna the writer (or Diane Brown the writer, for that matter) is the narrator of the story we’re reading. Shades of Italo Calvino. Two dream poems in particular, ‘Turned Drug Runner’ and ‘Metafiction’, deserve praise. In the first, Joanna is asked to put bags of contraband cannelloni in her luggage as she crosses an international border. In the second, four women are locked in a sauna as the manager of the spa walks away, leaving the women perhaps to steam to death. In both dreams, the dreamer wakes ‘before the resolution’.
The main narrative strands of Every now and then I have another child don’t go entirely unresolved, but there is abundant inconclusiveness, especially when the doppelgänger departs but says, ‘I’m coming back. / There’s more to say.’ There is a ‘Rod Serling delivering the closing monologue of a Twilight Zone episode’ quality to the end of the book, as Brown sums up the supernatural occurrences we have been reading about:
So this is the narrative of the missing ones, who may
have been you or your children in another life. They who
inhabit us all, whether we walk from the room, slamming
the door on their dreamtime story, or whether we choose
to listen to their tale.
In this case, it seems clear that the tale has been listened to, and that close study of the chaotic events of Joanna’s life has been a generative act:
you work with them, taking away some of their words, adding
your own, until you have enough to make up a story that will
speak for itself.
If an underlying concern in Brown’s book is uncertainty and loss, Bridget Auchmuty takes the theme further in a focused set of metaphors, particularly around water. Universalising personal grief is one of the hardest things to do well in poetry, because there is a huge gulf between what the loss means to the poet and what it means (or usually does not mean) to the reader. The core of Auchmuty’s Unmooring is a scattered sequence of poems that address losses—notably of a partner and a father—with the melancholy Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer mined for epigraphs for each of the book’s three sections, firming up the connection between water and elegy.
The poem ‘Marginalia’ provides an example of Auchmuty’s sometimes subtle handling of her material:
For a while we lived by the ocean
instead of by the clock. Tides came and went
lapped yards from our pillow or roared
way out reefing on Farewell Spit.
We chose, he and I, to live on the edge
of things: world, breadline, legality,
But the seam unsettles … and what I’m looking at
is marginalia, how those hand-jottings draw the eye
like flotsam: all that floats onto the margins
of the shore—plastic bags, polystyrene
kickboards fishing floats gill nets
pastimes become perilous—
washed up entangles
There is menace in these lines; the seaside lifestyle is unexpectedly hostile to the domestic idyll, like a poisoned prawn cocktail or a sandcastle with a landmine in it. A more head-on approach can be found in ‘Lifelines’, which opens with ‘We grasp at lifelines, congratulate / each other on getting through the year’, and proceeds to compare the lives of a circle of recently widowed friends to sailors washed overboard in a storm, much as William Cowper, in ‘The Castaway’, used the figure of a ‘destin’d wretch’ ‘wash’d headlong from on board’ to write about depression. The end of Auchmuty’s poem, though it mixes its metaphors a bit (being lost in the sea of grief is like having ill-fitting clothing now)—or perhaps because it mixes its metaphors a bit—conveys the rawness of loss:
doesn’t yet look how we imagine.
Nothing does. We’re lost at sea, adrift.
Our lives have been pulled out
of shape and don’t fit us any more.
These are among the stronger poems in the book, along with the long poem ‘Bones’. There are other, slighter efforts, which together reinforce a mood of numbness, but which are less memorable individually. I understand when writers are working through pain, and I can feel for and with them, but even so, elegiac poetry can fall short when the emotional content of the poem is undersold by the poem’s aesthetic choices. Some of Unmooring is like this for me. ‘Slipping’, for example, is a poem of everyday life during the grieving process, but the stakes seem quite low and it has multiple focuses, none of which fully capture my attention:
Spiders cling to the corners
in the bathroom
carrots go to seed
a forest of parasols.
But I can’t recall the single word
shorthand we used for years
to greet the morning
his smile the timbre
of his voice lost
days before he died.
But I do like the figure of the out-of-control carrot seedheads as a ‘forest of parasols’! It’s well observed and demands our attention, artistically. Similarly, one of the most recent poems in the book shows skill and judgement in keeping tender sentiments feeling fresh. I know it’s recent because it is set during a Covid-19 lockdown in the UK. ‘From a Distance’ is about Auchmuty’s mother, in a care home and on the brink of turning 100:
We talk most days; you’re buoyant,
chirpy, and for a while thought
only your village was under lockdown
slowly recognised the scale
more world than the war
you deciphered in.
For your centenary you want to fly.
We’ve dissuaded you I think
from jumping from a plane
but a helicopter trip to the summit of Mount Arthur.
You say in due course you want your ashes
mixed with his and scattered there.
Give me more ninety-nine-year-old women trying to skydive in poems, I say! That’s the family dynamic that family poems need, and that’s the kind of detail Auchmuty provides when she’s on song.
Jackson Nieuwland’s I Am a Human Being is a hot commodity at the moment. The book’s publisher, the experimental house Compound Press, has a message on their website imploring would-be buyers to be patient, because ‘due to extreme popularity’ they have to hand-bind another run beyond the initial printing of 250 copies. And, indeed, there is much to like about this book which, as both a unified artwork and a collection of lyrical bangers, deserves attention.
I Am a Human Being is a collection of first-person testimonies about things that the speaker ‘is’: ‘I am a clock’, ‘I am a self-portrait’, ‘I am a goldfish’, ‘I am a sphere of unidentifiable orange gas’, etc. Some of these poems are very brief—discounting titles, the shortest is two words long. (‘I am a comedic genius. / Just kidding’.) These short poems are merry rapier thrusts, ridiculous jests that point to the poet’s comic self-awareness. Three more of them for flavour:
I am a tree.
My bark is worse than my bite
I am an acupuncturist.
I get on your nerves
I am a Russian doll.
I am full of myself
The longer poems that make up most of the book allow for more sophisticated treatment of metaphor. ‘I am a robot’ describes the existence of an automaton that was designed to love, was later upgraded to be able to express love, but tragically was not programmed to be able to feel love. In ‘I am a self-portrait’ the speaker both is and is creating a self-portrait, but also recounts an anecdote about drawing a likeness of a schoolmate that was so offensively true-to-life that it prompted the subject to ask plaintively, ‘Why did you do that?’ In ‘I am a god’ the millennia-long arguments the speaker-god has with their god-sister are described with similes that have clearly been forged by an advanced practitioner of simileology:
I still have thousands
of NOs and YESes rebounding
infinitely off the inside of my skull
like parkourists in prison.
I open my mouth
and let one of the
NOs or YESes
burst out like
a balloon animal
shot from a t-shirt gun
This is probably the funniest book of poetry published in Aotearoa this year, and this is the year that saw Freya Daly Sadgrove’s riotous Head Girl come out. Several poems purportedly about occupations showcase Nieuwland’s ludic aspect while also raising important ontological questions, questions about how we categorise and systematise our everyday milieux. The jobs of waiter, town crier and fireman—all of which Nieuwland’s speaker performs—involve, respectively, being paid to wait around, being paid to cry, and being paid to command a firing squad. A bit different from the usual dictionary definitions of those jobs, but entirely sensible—in some ways much more sensible and intuitive than the real definitions.
In I Am a Human Being, then, the simple act of declaring ‘I am a’ or ‘I am b’ doesn’t necessarily lead to the expected conclusion. This sits well alongside Nieuwland’s project of trying to find the right nomenclature to apply to the self. They are a genderqueer writer, and this labelling project is explicitly outlined in the book’s last poem, ‘I am a … well I’m not quite sure yet’:
These [labels] help you get to know yourself better
but you still yearn for a single word that defines you
so you try a few on: agender, genderfluid, trans …
None of them seem to fit.
Some sit more comfortably than others.
Genderqueer feels better than non-binary,
but in the end they’re all either too tight around the waist
or the wrong colour altogether.
Eventually, you figure out
that there isn’t a word for what you are
because you are the only one of you so far.
But I Am a Human Being is not necessarily about being a genderqueer writer, nor is it a sort of coded genderqueer allegory, in which various creatures or things (bear, bottomless pit, clown, needle in a haystack, etc.) stand in for possible ways of being. The imaginative scope of the book is wider than that. After all, according to Nieuwland, in a Whitmanian formulation for our time about the multitudinousness of humanity: ‘The human condition can be defined as etcetera.’
ERIK KENNEDY is the author of There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (Victoria University Press, 2018), and he is co-editing a book of climate change poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific, forthcoming from Auckland University Press in 2021. His poems and criticism have recently been published in places like FENCE, The Moth, Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, Sport and the TLS. Originally from New Jersey, he lives in Christchurch.