BITER by Claudia Jardine (Auckland University Press, 2023), 64pp, $24.99; The Pressure of All That Light by Holly Painter (Rebel Satori Press, 2022), 84pp, $38.25; HEAL! by Simone Kaho (Saufo’i Press 2022), 89pp, $30
after watching Titanic, Lily turned to me and said:
‘I wonder how many pianos there are in the ocean’
(‘Taking the Auspices After a Miscommunication’)
BITER is Claudia Jardine’s first full-length book, following her chapbook, The Temple of Your Girl, which was published in AUP New Poets 7, and it gives readers much to get their teeth into.
A first reading may result in a long list of things to look up or wonder about. How many pianos are there in the sea? Who the heck was Macedonius the Consul and what did he have against horses at weddings? What are the best conditions for refrigerating cheeses?
Jardine juxtaposes poems from her own life experience with translations of epigrams (short, concise poems) from the Palatine Anthology (all in Greek, probably compiled in the tenth century). If you think this sounds like a lot, you are right. But it works, wonderfully.
Her translations are fresh, leaping off the page in direct and creative language:
Chloe his hostess is getting excited
And her emissaries try with a thousand subtleties
‘oh!’ they say ‘Chloe is sighing burned!’
unripe , you refused me
fresh and ready, you passed me by
grant me a little of your raisinhood
Jardine’s present-day poems also smack of the classical, employing a confident voice to navigate free or more formal verse. You have to admire the audacity that half-rhymes ‘auspices’ with ‘sausages’ in a laugh-out-loud poem after Ogden Nash that starts:
My father has several university degrees,
but none of them prepared him
for opening a block of cheese.
(‘Thoughts Thought After Surveying the Contents of the Fridge’)
In the Afterword, Jardine explains that ‘Taking the Auspices After a Miscommunication’ is a poem made of auguries. ‘An auger,’ Jardine writes, ‘would observe and interpret the behaviour of birds … I have extended the practice to include observations beyond whatever important thing birds might be doing.’
She excavates her own life with the same auspicious attention she gives to the translations. Poems for Jardine’s family and for her boyfriend (and now fiancé) are explicit, endearing and incorporative of handy facts, such as:
my feelings for you are like discovering
in the time it takes to charge the battery
of a Nissan Leaf to seven percent
you can get to second base on its back seat
this way I feel about you
is nothing like the percentage of utes
observed in an Auckland University city traffic survey
that were actually using their tray to carry something:
(‘Some Auxiliary Findings of Falling in Love with a Member of the Green Party’)
And though we all know the danger of judging a book by its cover, Philip Kelly’s sweaty pinked rendering of Laocoön and His Sons with BITER doubled over it, is just right for the look and look-again quality of the poems within. BITER, then, is a contemporary collection of auguries, examining our present moment, and it’s one that readers will keep returning to for the worlds it contains.
Holly Painter’s third book of poems, after Excerpts from a Natural History and My Pet Sounds Off: Translating the Beach Boys, is The Pressure of All That Light. In a collection that emphasises leave-takings and arrivals, Painter writes:
I am teaching myself to leave the people I love.
I breathe in her conditioner that smells like crayons.
I unfold a map in my head, uncreasing it on the table.
Where will I go in this world with all its wetnesses in blue?
(‘They tell me I am wicked and I believe them’)
Where Painter goes, geographically, in this collection is from a childhood in Michigan, to freedom in California, to New Zealand. The manuscript has also travelled between New Zealand and the United States, seeded from an MFA thesis at the University of Canterbury and revised in the company of writers in Vermont. Poems like ‘Canterbury Plains’ and ‘Otago’ are dense with alliteration and imagery, while ‘Picton’s Morning Crust’ is a good example of Painter’s powers of observation:
The globe-trotting hippie with his mountain man sack
and Medusa head of dusty coiled dreads.
Campervan patriarchs mutter and stare as he shrinks
in the rearview mirror, but the next load of stoners will stop
to see if he’s got something to share.
The blonde in her pink parka heading south
to meet her man, an engineer digging out bodies
at the Pike River mine. But the truckies don’t know that.
They’ll pick her up for someone to talk to and she’ll talk
nonstop about dead miners and her heroic boyfriend.
(‘Picton’s Morning Crust’)
Where Painter goes, personally, in this collection has an observational bite, but it’s very different from Jardine’s. She writes with steely disdain about exes and friends who sleep with men:
His bookstore sells chapbooks
Mine’s about a woman who tried me for a year, left me for a man.
It happens a lot: straight woman, bi women, lesbians.
It’s always a man that comes next.
(‘The Man She Wants’)
But if ‘Peaches’, ‘Please Don’t Hurt Me’ and ‘Field Trip’ speak directly to a reader about Painter’s own queerness, her poem ‘When You Transition Without Me’ is an unkind poke at ‘Your new friends / men who were never boys / … Gender studies majors / turned teenage stereotypes / of try-hard masculinity.’ Painter sets herself up against these ‘stereotypes’, stating: ‘We’re not like this. / We wear blowaway cowlicks. / We read folktales at bedtime. / We pad over kelp to the sea. / We watch Māori television with subtitles / We wear suits with buttonhole sprigs.’
Painter’s poetical map, uncreased, takes a reader to many places, including beaches and ditches, the city of San Francisco, the Northland coast at Uretiti. ‘The day will be beautiful and it will be my duty to notice,’ she writes. Notions of ‘pressure’ as in the sense of obligation and of ‘light’ as something to be guided by are constants in these poems making for a thematically cohesive collection.
HEAL! is Simone Kaho’s second poetry collection after Lucky Punch. The Content Guidance note on the back of HEAL! reads: ‘This book talks about sexual violence, assault, PTSD, self-harm and suicide.’ So that’s something this review will be discussing, too, in the context of the extraordinary, and extraordinarily powerful, poems that HEAL! provides.
Let’s pause here and anchor ourselves
Trigger warning, or is it too late for that?
Kaho writes in her acknowledgements that: ‘If you’re a survivor, this book was written with you in mind and at heart. The thought of it reaching you gave me the courage to write it.’ I was initially scared to read HEAL! because I have PTSD from sexual and other violence. I was warned against reading it by friends who weren’t sure how I would cope. It is a lot. But not as much as living it. I want to convey how important it is that Kaho has so powerfully articulated what it is like to be inside trauma and abuse and how grateful I am for her strength and her words.
The contents pages, placing poem titles in three sections, tell a story. The titles are not repeated throughout the book at the head of pages, so readers could read through almost as prose if they choose, though each word of each line is as weighted as poetry. This is a smart move, creating a subtle sense of disorientation in the structuring.
Kaho’s writing in this book offers a balance of raw trauma against tight and lucid edits, so readers can feel what it’s like to experience the dissociation, the shame, the anger, the rage. At the centre of the book, the story of a rape is narrated, slantly told in sharp shards of memory. ‘Too many things …’ on page 62 is a devastatingly simple and accurate dissociation-during-sex poem. Twisted list poems include: ‘I don’t cut, but’ on page 19, ‘… the blood from collateral damage’ on page 24, ‘stop provoking him’ on page 40, ‘She joins him on tour’ on page 44, and ‘… like a ninja’ on page 58. Each of these poems is relentless and disorienting, yet also reads as true and traumatic. Each line’s a breath; each breath’s a truth. To keep power within this vulnerability is extremely difficult, but Kaho’s poetry does so: ‘My cervix is like the end of a dick so the deeper you fuck me the more I fuck you back.’
Predators are everywhere. A boss at work. The male at the poetry reading. A stalker. David Bowie.
When men *would smash* eye me
Hands on my shoulder / hip / waist
My body trembles / it still wants / to / deal / swift / clean / kill
Seize a glass / bottle / wine / table / and / smash-it-in-his-face
… somewhere in my body
movement starts …
And I have to freeze.
(‘… *deflowered* by Bowie’)
Predators are everywhere: formed/enabled by the deliberate damage that colonisation has done.
I don’t speak the language but sometimes I want to kill people with my bare hands (does it count?). My other ancestors were colonisers. No, those are relatives.
Pākehā girlfriends come back from Tonga complaining about the men …
Predators are everywhere. Except, achingly, tenderly, in the writing about her father, and later, about a dream crop of not-his-kumara that she tends (in the poem ‘Dark matter gathers in her throat’). The whole collection is finely wrought, with a careful noticing of incidental beauty. A perfect rotting apple, browning on a bedroom dresser. A finger, lit by a bathroom light. The violets on page 65:
… deep purple with striped yellow throats. Tigerish like face-painting. I thought they might be a different flower, a small pansy variant? It rattled me, as if I should rewrite my childhood memory of violets, which only have collapsed faces drooping at the ground among their heart-shaped greenery. I’ve thought that’s just the way violets are, but they must’ve all been beaten down by weather. The truth is violet petals are strong enough to act as a landing pad for pollinating insects.
And the truth is also that this collection is wholly extraordinary. Please, if you feel you can read it, then do.
LIZ BRESLIN is a writer, editor and performer of Polish and Irish descent, living in Ōtepoti Dunedin. Liz’s poetry collections are In Bed with the Feminists (published by Dead Bird Books) and Alzheimer’s and a Spoon (published by Otago University Press).