Other Animals, by Therese Lloyd (Victoria University Press, 2013) 62 pp., $25; After, by Elizabeth Cunnane (Steele Roberts, 2013) 70 pp., $24.99
Therese Lloyd’s collection Other Animals isn’t poetry that easily lends itself to categorisation or tagging with themes. Much of her writing is allusive or associative, exploring the tentative place of an individual in an uneasy and, at times, pain-filled world.
The collection opens with ‘Forecast’, a poem describing the relationship between a spectacular pod of around three hundred dolphins and the people who emerge ‘like moles’ to watch them. One of the pleasures of Lloyd’s writing is her observation of the little twists of the human conscience. Initially her characters take turns standing on a crate to watch them ‘making little gasping noises/ when one jumped or dived’. But ‘Eventually, guiltily’, the humans grow tired of the spectacle and go back inside to the warmth. The work ends on a note of disillusionment – when the narrator remembers them again, the dolphins are still there ‘moving back and forwards/ not really going anywhere’.
Several other poems that follow explore unease or a compromised self in specific settings, such as where waiata-type songs need to be sung: in a low-grade motor camp, or in a relationship. One lovely work is ‘Gorecki’s Third [Symphony of Sorrowful Songs]’ where Lloyd shows her skill in placing fragments of information within a larger framework, leaving the reader to discover the clues and the resonance of the poem. This work begins with an upbeat image, ‘It was the day I put my hair in plaits/ jaunty little ropes’, but as the narrator applies makeup and perfume, her thoughts turn to someone who has presumably tried to commit suicide. In the second stanza, a flatmate sets fire to a stove, and, as ‘toxic black smoke’ fills the house, the scared flatmate quietly calls the narrator’s name, ‘saying/ fire, fire, fire’. The third stanza closes with the narrator trying to remember ‘a line from a poem, ‘something like / everything here is so still / and so quiet, like the inside of a ruby’– a line that flashes back up to connect with the rest of the poem.
A larger example of mixed narratives is provided by ‘Compost’, where Lloyd places a commentary about a new marriage within a vivid and funny description of a failed attempt to make compost in a green wheelie bin, and the guilt involved in disposing of it. The scale of the poem allows time for sequences, such as the reflections of a piece of paper falling from a building in a mirrored city, and the cosmic significance of this. Coming after the clever stanza ‘I am this summer’s new wife … My skirt sticks to the backs of my legs/ I am shyly trying/ not to be a new – as I am’, that previous sequence sets up a kind of underground echo about fragility and tentativeness.
The poetry in Other Animals moves between works that start in recognisable scenes or interactions and other works that remain enigmas, and, occasionally, miss the intensity that’s needed to make an unsolvable poem magical. But as a whole, Other Animals is a layered and nuanced collection that repays reading and re-reading.
By contrast, After, the collection of short stories by Elizabeth Cunnane, wears its heart on its sleeve, anxious that the reader should not miss the messages of the work. The theme of the collection is the grief that follows loss, usually the death of someone close. While the first stories focus on the intense emotions of grief, the work opens out towards the efforts needed to keep investing in life.
In the initial piece, a girl cradles her dying dog after it has been hit by a car; in the next, a girl takes comfort in a late reconciliation with a father who has died unexpectedly, this followed by the story of a retired photographer who has lost an adult son, who battles to overcome his terror of a stand of pine trees. These stories, like much of the book, dwell in the present, with a heavy emphasis on the immediate actions and feelings of the characters. There’s also a focus on the exact moments of pain, or the backwash of grief, where the narrative functions as an almost blow-by-blow tracking of emotions and actions. One of the most extreme examples of this is in the short piece ‘Grief by Another Name’. The story begins:
It’s all through her body, oozing into her veins, already in her bones and now seeping out into her organs. The heaviness. The weight. It presses. With persistence she’s been fighting for a long time now. Every minute seems longer than its sixty seconds because of this pressure. By another name, this would be called grief …
Combined with a strong emphasis on single narrator viewpoints throughout the book, this literal storytelling leaves the reader with a feeling of being talked at, rather than lured away to a fictional world.
The skill in the collection lies in the placement of multi-faceted stories dealing with a single subject. After the intensity of the first stories we meet a young woman who has lost her partner, watching the power of a waterfall and coming to the understanding that ‘she is both rock and the water’, and that there is a ‘a steel rod through the centre of her body that – like a Frida Kahlo self-portrait after the accident – holds her stiff and straight’. The next piece deals with a narrator who is donating a kidney and through this action finds a way to balance a memory of an intense feeling of wanting to do ‘anything’ to prevent her father dying. The book ends with celebratory story – for once involving a set of characters – about a small boy who finds a way to build a fiery balloon of glass and send it into the night sky.
Unfortunately, the obvious care that has gone into identifying the aftermath of grief and polishing intense descriptions is undermined by a basic approach to storytelling. The combination of an eagerness to spell out messages, single-person narrators with few different perspectives or voices and almost no dialogue, means the fictional world is rather thin and uninviting. But it is a first book – perhaps craft will develop in future works by Elizabeth Cunnane.
MARY MACPHERSON is a Wellington poet and photographer.
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