Entangled Islands by Serie Barford (Anahera Press, 2015), 86 pp., $24.99; Tender Machines by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, 2015), 108 pp., $25; Girls of the Drift by Nina Powles (Seraph Press, 2015), 20 pp., $20
For over three decades Serie Barford has been writing books concerned with identity and belonging. From Plea to the Spanish Lady (Hard Echo Press, 1985) to Tapa Talk (Huia, 2007), her multi-layered examinations of these issues have been especially connected to Pacific Islanders and women. Long overdue, Barford’s new collection, Entangled Islands, published by exciting boutique publisher Anahera Press, carries on discussion of what, given her long literary career, might rightly be called her leitmotifs.
A medley of poetry and short fiction, Entangled Islands opens with the titular poem, which perfectly sets out the author’s thematic stall:
I want to make a fala su`i for my bed
to brighten the cold side of the house
I’ll embroider stories from my time on the islands
with colorful wool and the big-eyed needle
And embroider narratives, both fictional and poetic, Barford does. Weaving her core concerns into Entangled Islands, Barford’s first section, ‘Tasi’, centres upon the relationship between mother and child. It opens with the myth-like ‘Into the world of light’, in which colonial past and infant future clash:
I was born beneath the colonial shadow
of Maungakiekie’s solitary pine
within cooee of a sacred Rongo stone
in a military hospital built for casualties
of America’s bloody Pacific Campaign …
a squall of amniotic fluid and fright
my mother called my name
my crinkled fingers sought her voice …
and that’s how I was welcomed
into the merciless world of light
The remaining poems in this segment – ‘Kissed by an angel’, ‘The promised land’ and ‘Say my name without the “sh”’ – act as astute leads into the next two sections, ‘Lua’ and ‘Tolu’, the infant’s formative experiences in ‘Tasi’ a link to other determining influences like fono, heritage and the past. But, as the likes of ‘Poem for a 1960s factory outworker’ and ‘Nagel’s lingerie factory’ illustrate, ‘Lua’ and Tolu’ refuse to offer a saccharine-coated depiction of bygone days. Instead, Barford’s sparse poetry underscores that history is created by hard work, hard times and hard luck.
If subjects like childhood and Island mores continue to dominate the remainder of Entangled Islands, Barford cleverly widens and deepens the discourse. So, for instance, the child of ‘Tasi’ turns into a mother, buoyed in verse such as ‘How time walks’ and ‘The flying fox and Che Guevara’ by the joys of a parenthood framed by links back to her ancestors:
I cared for my children like a flying fox
kept them safe under my wings
when they were small and hesitant …
we’ve laughed at dinosaurs and cartoons
at nana crooning ‘Buffalo Soldier’
at pa’s jokes …
Still, though, as in the short story ‘After the tsunami’ and the poem, ‘Love for sale’, wonderful life experiences are counterbalanced by hardship, prejudice and difficulty.
All in all, the navigation of multiple dichotomies in Entangled Islands, including assimilation and extrication, contemporary and heritage, home and abroad, child and parent, speaks of the broader concern for a world precariously balanced between order and disorder, free will and fate. This is a wonderful book, one that should bring Barford recognition as one of our finest established Pacific Island poets.
Emma Neale’s fifth collection of verse, Tender Machines (Otago University Press, 2015), was long-listed for the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, and it’s easy to see why. Like Serie Barford, Neale has identifiable literary concerns. Through two decades of publishing, including novels such as Little Moon (Vintage, 2001) and the poetry collection Spark (Steele Roberts, 2008), her primary narrative principles remain family, children, the domestic and psychology.
The curiosities, imagination, tenderness and complexities of childhood frame the opening section of Tender Machines, ‘Bad Housekeeping’. Here, poems such as ‘Hunter’, ‘Alchemy’, ‘Towards a theory of aggression in early childhood development’ and ‘Zac and the beanstalk’ sing a symphony of youth that’s as dissonant as it is harmonious, in which:
The bear comes in, and some nights it truly is a bear, but others it is also his kind, tousle-headed, gap-toothed, finger-clicking, app-testing brother: a bear who shambles into his room … lugging dark on his shoulders like lumpen sacks, or large, muffled drums …
while elsewhere, the rollercoaster of childhood becomes:
Hit, push, lash, scratch
these cheeks, this jaw, this shoulder,
are these in truth our edges, outlines, will we cry
as he does, daily, nightly, sky-wrenching as sunrise
yet still hold him in our arms …
Rather than as disparities, however, Neale composes the child’s social and familial engagements as part of a broad, eclectic concerto in which the actions, thoughts and insights of the young reflect deeper human psychological truths about the darker and creative sides of our personalities, as the poem, ‘Domestic’ illustrates:
You fling a cup of tea at the cat,
plump up her spine like a goose-down pillow,
jab your thumbs at your father’s face
as if to pull out its two blue plums
but ah, little fisty-kins, honeyghoul, thorny-pie,
grapple hook of your daddy’s flooded eye,
stitch by stitch hope’s small black sutures
sew love’s shadow behind you.
Interior worlds – of infant and home – become microcosms of how the personal is always political, the seemingly juvenile and insignificant always complex and significant.
The remaining sections, ‘Auto Correct’ and ‘These Poems Want’, deepen Neale’s investigation of these literary propositions into environs as complex as they are illusory – such as the internet – and as inventive as they are chimerical – such as poetry and politics. In ‘These Poems Want’ for example, works like ‘Properly protecting the most pure marine ecosystem left on earth was not consistent with the government’s economic growth objective’ and ‘Global’ meditate upon environmental concerns. These are interspersed by reflections upon the writing process, like the collection’s final poem, ‘Polemic’:
This poem wants to radicalise itself,
rip itself up and start again …
This poem wants to regenerate fragmented communities.
This poem wants to make the streets safe for a woman to walk
with her eyes on her feet and her head full of inchoate song after dark …
This poem agitates.
This poem wants to be all things to all people.
This poem is inherently impossible.
What does this poem want?
When does it want it?
What does this poem want?
When does it want it?
The effects of writing and reading poetry, of a child’s mindset and behaviour, of fighting for the environment in flippant, populist political times: Tender Machines offers us multifarious evaluations of how humanity operates for good and bad, in tenderness and abrasiveness, in unemotional contrivance and heartfelt care.
First-time author Nina Powles offers a startlingly impressive Girls of the Drift published by another superb local boutique publisher, Seraph Press.
Girls of the Drift is a chapbook and, in less than twenty pages, the author offers a suite of poems about real and imagined, famous and infamous women that truly showcases a poetic proficiency which has already seen her scoop the 2015 Biggs Prize for Poetry.
The historical women given voice include Katherine Mansfield, Blanche Baughan and Jessie Mackay, as well as a school ghost and protagonists borrowed from stories the author once wrote. The titular poem about Baughan gives a flavour of the wider work:
I pressed a sprig of manuka into the envelope, here,
from a bush by the gate of the school where I taught –
just there at the top of the gorge, where the children
plucked blackberries and pocketed them
thirty-two years ago. Can you smell it? The wild, dry
dust-honey smell of summer in the gorge. In the
evenings I follow the call of morepork along
the track and almost forget to write down on paper
the way the sound curves over the top of the dusk
and settles neatly into the dark, so that by nightfall
you can’t tell which notes are the echoes …
Echoes – of sound, word and meaning – reverberate through work as diverse as the concrete poem ‘Volcanology’, ‘Burn back’, and ‘Ghosting’, in which the author’s school spectre appears:
The schoolgirls’ glass laugh
sounds just like the brass bell above the blue door
he said he would ring …
I crack my spine on the bottom step
again. I am stuck behind a shut door,
paralysed from the neck down
until the next night’s moon glances
into my window, when I and my nerves
This is evocative, emotional stuff.
Driven by sound, colour and heightened sensory insight, Powles creates – recreates – distinctly intimate worlds for her female characters, making Girls of the Drift an insight into its author’s future literary capabilities.
From New Caledonia to the interiority of a New Zealand child existence, from ghosts – real and imagined – of Powles’ poems, to the haunted ancestry of Barford’s work, the reader is led by these authors through worlds intimate and public, magical and authentic. The personal is often examined in each collection, but there’s also a real sense that they are connected and underpinned by women’s voices, those of the authors and, particularly in the case of Powles, historical women’s voices. If there’s no such thing as a homogenous women’s voice, these collections offer three facets of the joyous, multi-textured, multi-nuanced, multi-voiced multitude that is contemporary New Zealand poetry by women.
SIOBHAN HARVEY is the author of the poetry collection Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014) and co-editor of Essential New Zealand Poems (Penguin Random House NZ, 2014). She is a lecturer at the Centre for Creative Writing, Auckland University of Technology.