Ghosts by Siobhan Harvey (Otago University Press, 2021), 112pp., $27.50; Five O’Clock Shadows by Richard Langston (Cuba Press, 2020), 48pp., $25; Fancy Dancing: New and selected poems 2004–2020 by Bernadette Hall (Victoria University Press, 2020), 128pp., $30
The one we’re forced to repeat: here is the story
They create and rewrite
into poems such as this
The prologue ‘Night, a Place of Regeneration’ builds the architecture for Siobhan Harvey’s latest collection, Ghosts. The writing and rewriting of the same story, the story of movement, of migration, of memory, of home, of the individual and communal, all of which become ghosts that constantly regenerate through the book.
So much of this collection unpacks what it means to haunt and be haunted, what experiences and trauma we give voice and a soul to, what our history owes us, and how that history sits within a life that is not just ours.
… The air stirs
with silence my mother will not break.
Nor I, who walk past her and out …
into the lonely world. Without affection,
I know I must never look back
into this memory: mirror; dark place.
‘Building Memories (a sequence) vi: My Last Memory is Home’
The shared relationships or collective memories evoked throughout the book are cloaked in silence, giving space for the powers of loss and absence to bloom onto the page and become a thing unto themselves, a thing with a body and influence.
I’m left to the emptiness
of another, to embalm and burden
myself, her silence and haunting
judgement born by me as eternal cut
‘My Mother is a Ghost Living in My Mind’
Through Harvey’s examinations of family in the form of mother, father, grandmother and child, we see that so much of what ties these relationships or memories or moments to the past is a sense of obligation: an obligation to remember, to allow them to haunt the present and mould it, to somehow let them live in the mind or on the page while leaving them settled, undisturbed. Harvey does so well to communicate the burden that arises from this conflict in a way that doesn’t impose a point of view on the reader.
I’m an accident and the only one to blame.
They’re torture and the bodies I must bury.
I’m the flight that keeps them grounded.
They’re the memory that keeps me misplaced.
‘The Parents Considered as Invisible Remains’
But even if Harvey is so adept at unpicking and reassembling the speaker’s own experiences, it’s ultimately a collection that is far from pure introspection. So much of the book is political and far-reaching. In the first section, ‘All the Buildings that Never Were’, it quickly becomes clear that any examination of the concept of ‘home’ cannot occur in a vacuum. Harvey raises issues of displacement and erasure on a local and global scale.
Belonging here is seized
from TV flickers, the home electric with
transmitted crisis, the world-views of
politicians, people-traffickers, wall-builders,
warmongers and fake-news profiteers, ghosts
in the haunted house of the news.
We see that haunting can mean many things to many people—it’s often destructive, often inescapable. Whether it’s John Key selling 8000 state homes in ‘Erasure’, the exhumation of graves in ‘The Ghosts of Singapore’, or the dehumanisation and ongoing displacement of refugees in ‘The Ghosts of Manus Regional Processing Centre’, Harvey makes a point of telling the reader that, when it comes to home, personal and political are one and the same.
The collection ends with an epilogue that mirrors the prologue (and an essay that operates as an afterword): ‘Poem, a Place Where Regeneration is Complete’. Here, we are pulled back into the stories that we must write and rewrite, and we come to realise that ghosts ultimately aren’t constrained by a temporal arc: they move between past, present and future. And while we may be bound by them, they aren’t bound by us.
Richard Langston’s Five O’Clock Shadows is his sixth collection of poetry and the first in eight years. While I’ve never read any of Richard’s poetry before, I grew up watching Country Calendar of which Langston is the director, and I see in his poetry the same enthusiasm for telling stories of the earth and the people of New Zealand who work with it.
While not the most ambitious of collections in terms of quantity, clocking in at only 45 pages, this collection still gives the reader a lot to grab onto as Langston’s restrained, earnest style suits the discrete and distinct moments and experiences he sets out to capture. There’s a clear reverence for the old-school of NZ poetry—men navigating and negotiating their relationships with family. Here, for example:
Each day we sing
our fathers into being,
Recall & remember the things
they did for us.
There are also relationships with love and loss and mortality:
I sent you home, such are
pleasures & mercies and age
And of course, relationships with landscape:
Travel as you can up there,
where the sky speaks to the sea
the way hands release a bird.
But Langston’s poems don’t just rest comfortably under the canon. Instead, they reach out to more contemporary cultural touchstones, allowing him to carve out his own voice in it all. Whether its Country Calendar itself (‘Longdrop: A Country Calendar poem’), one of our greatest sporting achievements in recent years (‘Brendon McCullum, 302’) or the end of a beloved institution that I used to frequent and now miss dearly (‘On the Closing of the Captain Cook Tavern’), Langston seems most comfortable when he’s speaking to the moments that are ingrained in our national identity, for better or worse.
When miners do not come home
there are 29 helmets & no one to wear them,
there are 29 black tables upon which a country
heaps its ferns
The personal value Langston places in his surroundings is deftly reflected in his work here. There are moments of joy, celebration and contemplation. These poems hold the things they treasure close, and with care—whether it’s a mother, a memory, an environment or an idea, as he knows they will shift and change like all of us.
Those people back down the hallway snoring
twenty years ago were your parents.
Now they are you.
Fancy Dancing: New and selected poems 2004–2020 represents a focused but varied snapshot of one of our most treasured poets, Bernadette Hall. The collection snakes its way through a plethora of previous collections—The Ponies (2007), The Lustre Jug (2009), Life & Customs (2013) and Maukatere: Floating mountain (2016)—before arriving at the final section of new poetry and some addenda.
The selections from Hall’s previous collections represent the pinnacle of her repertoire and the wide array of techniques and styles she has at her disposal. The sections change gears with ease, showcasing her ability to shift from playfulness to sincerity to intensity and back.
Hall’s trademark examination, distortion and reimagining of the natural stands out in the earlier sections:
That the women became feral there and lost their language.
That their sex grew big and glistening in their dark fur,
The placenta red on the ice like a massacre.
A galaxy of stars on dark water,
the breaking of the pack.
Or more like fat congealing on boiled mutton.
Hall has said this collection is the closest she’ll get to writing an autobiography, and her personality shines throughout. I learned more about the poet than I could from a memoir, in poems like ‘Really and Truly’ (I took my anger / running on the beach. / She said, ‘You’ve got to / put me on a longer leash, bitch.’); and ‘Lost’, a poem for Geoff Cochrane (‘Sometimes I just get like that / all flustered, crazy Jane, / “can’t tell my arse from my elbow”’).
Every section of Fancy Dancing is accompanied by a beautiful piece of longtime collaborator Robyn Webster’s artwork. Like the poems, the art sprawls and tangles, distorts and reforms—without ever distracting from Hall’s words.
The collection ends with a series of new poems, dominated by the sequence of sonnets that gives the collection its name. These sonnets, through the gaze of both the poet and Phaedra, introduced in the first sonnet, pull us through a dizzying journey that’s both surreal (‘The dream was of my mouth full of crushed / glass, quite different from that other one / of stealing envelopes and being pursued by a monkey’) and grounded (‘She was hitch-hiking to Roxburgh or maybe it was Clyde. / She was going to spend the summer picking fruit, / Moorpark apricots and black Dawson cherries.’). They weave through settings, exchanges and moments with a level of control and energy that suggest Hall is still committed to developing and taking risks in her writing and that her words will continue dancing for a long time to come.
JORDAN HAMEL is a Pōneke-based writer, poet and performer. He was the 2018 New Zealand Poetry Slam champion and represented New Zealand at the World Poetry Slam Champs in the US in 2019. He is the co-editor of Stasis journal and co-editor of a forthcoming NZ Climate Change Poetry Anthology from Auckland University Press. He is a 2021 Michael King Writer-in-Residence and has words in The Spinoff, Landfall, Newsroom, Poetry New Zealand, Sport and elsewhere. https://twitter.com/JordanHamel_