Garments of the Dead: Old and new work by Koenraad Kuiper (Quentin Wilson Publishing, 2023), 192pp, $37.50; Saga by Hannah Mettner (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023), 88pp, $25; Liveability by Claire Orchard (Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2023), 80pp, $25
Garments of the Dead: Old and new work by Koenraad Kuiper, a collation of poem sequences, reveals him to be a poet possessed of a playful, precise wit. A former professor of linguistics at the University of Canterbury, Kuiper is someone who pays close attention to the way information is presented by language registers and tonal shifts. His poems convey a strong sense of his wide background knowledge of the worlds of arts and literature, as well as his viewpoint as a post-war migrant, coming out with his family from Europe to New Zealand. With my own Dutch ancestry, I could see my deceased father and uncle really enjoying these poems, which portray experiences similar to theirs and their families during World War II and later as immigrants. They will also appeal to later generations of those with Dutch ancestry, curious about their elders’ formative origins.
These poems display a typical Dutch characteristic of seemingly carefully crafted and accurate expression that leaves little room for doubt as to the intended meaning. As Kuiper states in his introductory Credo: ‘I write few poems. I am pleased when a poem appears and am not concerned when one does not appear. They are a privilege, not a right.’
The cover photo is arresting, an alignment of decaying old wharf piles. Where are they? Are they relics of departure points in the homeland? Or do they signify an arrival place in a new country? The low hills in the background suggest the latter. Kuiper locates himself here and implies a long-ago journey, looking back and remembering.
Some of these poems are translated, but which came first, the Dutch, German or English versions? Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to matter too much. The way they appear in English contains a wry, appealing humour. It is also refreshing to see poetry published in multiple languages, mirroring our diverse communities.
The first sequence, simply titled ‘Home’, recalls Kuiper’s grandparents and their idiosyncratic ways, as well as other domestic events involving neighbours and other children. I was immediately drawn to the poem ‘When they come in from the line’, with its detailed description of changing cloth nappies on a baby. With its precise instructions, this poem could be a humorous part of a parenting manual.
The short set of poems titled ‘erfdeel’ describes the ongoing impact that the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had on Kuiper’s life. For people of his generation and background, the trauma of that heritage is inescapably painful, as in the poem, ‘Why should I …’:
Everywhere I go
I take you with me
The sequence titled ‘Pictures’ offers descriptions and responses to viewing paintings and prints by well-known artists. Often, they tell some of the story of the image. For example, ‘iii. (after Hendrick Goltzius)’—the leading Dutch engraver of the early Baroque period—begins with an account of a beached whale rotting on the shore, around which the local townspeople are parading in their best black clothes. The size of its teeth, eyes, limbs and organ of generation are described. But in the end:
They drank tea and did not mention what they had seen
For fear the mention of leviathan
Might breach their fearful dykes.
More contemporary is ‘American Suite’ with its reflections on consumerism, tax to pay/refunds, Disneyland and Grand Central Station, and Grand Union at Kingston Plaza—the whole roller-coaster of American life is implied, with ironic twists:
And at the end
you reach a broad avenue where there is food
food faster than you can eat …
There is much more to this collection than I have sketched here: a tale of a blind fiddler player on the Bounty, a version of the Benedictine Sonnets, and entertaining accounts of many interesting people. Each of these sequences is amusing and complete on its own, but together, they build to something greater. I really enjoyed the ride.
The book concludes with several pages of notes. Unfortunately, the page numbering is muddled, which detracts from the reader’s ability to follow the full list of references easily.
The collection of poems, Saga, by Hannah Mettner, both challenges and entrances. Out of the permafrost, a vague ancestry, a Viking saga of sorts, emerges, using the language of this country—to both laugh at and celebrate the image of bi women. The poetry here is full, the lines long, not pared back to a minimal bleakness but more maximal and exuberant, like a river in flood, gushing and tumbling along freely, going in multiple directions effortlessly.
These poems span questions of love, sexuality, family, friendships and politics. In a way, they are inspirational. They make me want to look at my past in a different light; they make me want to turn over some old—and maybe rusted-on—ideas about the processes of writing to explore in my own poetry issues and questions I have not previously raised.
There is some striking and sensuous imagery in Saga that almost tingles with suggestive anticipation. For example, Mettner writes in the poem ‘Turned on by storms’:
We are walking pulled into the evening by the itch of something
happening. The wind rising to swallow the civet odour
of an overripe summer. The moon snuffed and steaming
under a pile of damp clouds.
Everywhere, a playful enthusiasm and a sense of engagement with life invigorate the work. At the same time, a critical mirror is held up to religious belief, to the way unquestioning faith can both shape and distort reality. The poet enjoys the rituals of church and the comforting predictability despite the imbalance of its power structures. In the end, though, its traditional edicts no longer make sense, as in ‘Praying the gay away’:
The central paradox of my existence—God didn’t
make mistakes, but he made me. My anger grew legs—
ran away, dipped a toe into a lake of flame and found it
actually quite nice.
The sexuality promoted by the advertising industry and how this makes her feel gets frequent treatment throughout the book. The expectations created by images of women used in advertising, walking the gauntlet of Lambton Quay with its high-end stores offering sublime seduction by a stick of lipstick, are ever-present. These demands and expectations are established by the title poem ‘Saga’ with:
A place where I could look like the woman
from the Timotei ad, shaking my long hair out
under a waterfall …
In the poem ‘Anita’, this is brought to a humorous pitch. The sequential imagery of a French nude, a ballet teacher, a set designer, a woman married to a Norwegian whaler, and a wild river is followed by the question:
Could you have imagined
that 150 years later the Coca-Cola Company would be
bottling this river for sale? Anita—
But while these poems are female-centred, written with a woman’s gaze, that is not their only intended audience by any means. References to men range from lovers, as in ‘Bad man kink’, where:
A bad man but my smell
is on you now like ash on the exhale
of the world burning
to ‘Like Us’, with its account of a failed relationship bringing in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, to the more hard-core and politically direct ‘Butch Era’, with its:
Fighting the final boss of the imperialist
White supremacist heteropatriarchy.
The passage of time and getting older is another concern that preoccupies Mettner. The illusions of youth give way to realistic self-knowledge in ‘Thought experiment in the future’ where:
There is no undergrowth; no lizards
Twitch from my shadow. Just brown grass
And there are poems about the quest for happiness, such as ‘Who doesn’t love miniature horses’, where we are spurred on by illusions and aspirations and opportunities and given miniature horses and improved gut health and promises of material needs met, but in the end:
Broken on the inside.
These are poems that are easy to relate to, even for me as an older Pākehā male. They are a pleasure to read: playful, funny, and interesting in their kaleidoscopic expression of aspects of Mettner’s life, such as love, sexuality, politics and family experiences. Being busy raising children is not just for women; it is also for men. I particularly enjoyed these lines in ‘Love poem as women’s work’:
analogue then, the evenings ticking neatly to their closure. Just getting
the children to bed seemed to take all night.
I found Liveability by Claire Orchard to be a lively, likeable book; both engaging and fun. It is intriguing in its premise, establishing the essential simplicity of the many characters and the curious yet familiar circumstances in which they find themselves. The many day-to-day situations around youth, families, relationships, school and religion are presented with a slight twist, an askance look. What seems ordinary, everyday, is often revealed to be more than that.
In one of the first poems in this volume, ‘Ambition’, Orchard deftly describes the collection technique of Wilson Alwyn Bentley, a cloud physicist and the first person to devise an effective way to photograph snowflakes. The contrast between the enveloping amorphous blanket of snow and the intricate individuality of each flake caught on his glass negative is implicitly poetic. Living a life filled with such sublime and fragile beauty is a wonderful aspiration. Could we not all do something similar, if not with snowflakes, then something unique to ourselves, perhaps even poems that capture the transitory nature of the world around us?
Another poem that made me pause was ‘Shooting rats’, with its uncluttered, seemingly straightforward account of driving out in the hilly countryside concluding with a haunting, suggestive image of something more than rats:
reaching the top felt like flying
and when we looked we saw
through limbs of thinned macrocarpa
the sky too, was planning something big.
Poems about youthful experiences with friends, at school, or on holiday provide rich territory for illustrations of differing perceptions. For example, in ‘Xanadu summer album’, there’s a conversation with the poet’s brother about a tree house and an account of injuries, blood, digging in sand, drying skivvies by a fire with the dog, and exploring an old schoolhouse building. The brother has his own particular memories of events that are not always identical to the poet’s, particularly his final recollection:
Hmmm, you say. What about the way
the last of the daylight would turn
the iron roof of the long drop into silver?
And I wonder how you would even remember things like that.
Orchard enjoys playing around with shifts in meanings and questioning what is authentic. In ‘The Thing Is’, what is it: a trunk or a boot, a signaling mast or an aerial, a chair, or an armchair? She is concerned enough to visit the doctor and because we never normally think hard about these perceptual distinctions:
This is often
Where the Trouble starts, from
not recalling Details such as This.
There is something strangely beguiling, too, about the poem entitled ‘Discuss’. It draws you in like an English exam question with its demand for conversation or debate and then takes you onto several apparently unrelated subjects and issues before leaving you with ‘a smart horse’. It doesn’t seem to make sense, yet it flows with a mysterious connection between its elements. Yes, I’d love to discuss it sometime with you, Claire.
The poem ‘A measure of rain’ begins with a few engaging lines:
In the tradition of mermaids selling
bags of wind to becalmed sailors,
the city installs a precipitation room …
Then the poem continues with ‘a visit’, the consequence of which is:
of her being
In the middle of not getting wet …
There is an appealing absurdity to this poem in the way it creates a porous boundary between the real and the unreal, between wet and not wet.
Similarly, there are other fun poems, including ‘Denial’, with its play on commonly used negative remarks or phrases, and ‘You could sell your lyrics’, with its sequence of frequently used statements about relationships. These leave me with a smile and in a happy place. On the surface, Liveability may seem merely light and entertaining, but I found it offers much more than that. ‘When I bring up advance care planning’ would be a good introduction to the subject for any family wanting to speak about this issue with an elder. And one can only speculate on the outcome in Claire Orchard’s penultimate poem ‘The condition of knowing’.
Life is fragile and transitory; enjoy it while you can.
PIET NIEUWLAND is a poet, flash fiction writer and visual artist who lives on the edge of the Kaipara catchment. His latest books, As Light into Water and We Enter The, are published by Cyberwit, and his writing appears in many anthologies and journals and can be found online.