1. The eye that does not blink: Graft
Helen Heath’s Graft brings together—and sometimes wrestles down—disparate elements of our universe into tight poems of considerable power. In one poem the techniques for making a pot of tea are applied to the vast forces of the big bang. Later poems open up families to explore the violence that can hide inside. The ‘Justine’ poems, exploring the predicament of a teenage victim of family violence, are particularly potent in this respect.
They give her a menstrual
pad the size of a surfboard
and tell her to put on her pants
then Michelle takes her arm
and they hobble to the recovery room,
beds curtained off from each other
each one holds a bleeding woman.
As with earlier poems about the death of a mother through cancer, these pieces display an unflinching determination to look closely at the ugly truths they discover, and to never blink. The tight control of form intensifies this effect. Here the mother figure is burned and ground down in the crematorium:
ignites easily, smoke rises.
a large tool to grind the bones.
But Graft is not grim. Among my favourite poems are those that show how, fundamentally, great scientific discoverers such as Marie Curie and Newton have shared the simple sense of wonder that we all experience at some point in our lives. Anyone doubting the capacity of poetry to explore difficult aspects of our reality with precision and force should read Graft soon.
2. The melody of gratitude in Everything We Hoped For
When I first read Pip Adam’s fiction I was struck by the willingness to challenge the reader with rapid, associative sentences, sudden shifts in direction, and forbidding paragraph blocks. The reader was thrown around and resisted. From a piece published in Hue & Cry 3, here is a description of rain falling and turning to ice:
'Douglas didn’t see it coming, couldn’t see it coming because it wasn’t coming, not in the same way as the falling down was coming but he sees it land, feels it land, senses it landing. Puddles form and evaporate and turn to ice in the air and explode BAM.'
This is a daring aspect of a distinctive voice in New Zealand fiction, one that’s always searching for a new and forceful fictional language. But this time, while rereading Everything We Hoped For, what I noticed was the quietly ameliorative note in stories like ‘A Bad Word’—a measure of gratitude and cautious celebration.
In ‘Shopping’ May is negotiating a fractious supermarket trip with her mother, who is an interferer from way back. But May is also remembering her graduation. Her mother was bossy and interfering then as well, fussing over May’s hood and collar, but she was there nevertheless, supporting May and recognising her achievement. And the story ends with a note of gratitude between them: ‘Jane tried to look down at the collar, then touched it. “Thanks,” she said.’
3. Adding a murmur of my own: Dear Sweet Harry
Dear Sweet Harry explores the unaccountable empathy between a 21st century consciousness and a jangly collection of people from the past—a shackled Houdini tunnelling inside a whale; Mata Hari standing before her firing squad, possibly naked beneath her coat. Why do I feel close to these people? What does that affinity say about me? These are some of the questions this intriguing book asks.
It captures in words and images a feeling I get when I'm exploring history—a feeling I can’t quite articulate myself. It’s a feeling I imagine biographers get. For example, I’m not a Christian, and I don’t think people should be ‘converted’, but I’m attracted to the story and words of the missionary Octavius Hadfield. For some reason I want to speak to his time here in Kāpiti, to endorse it somehow.
The poet of Dear Sweet Harry puts it more elegantly than I can:
'Late at night in my house on the hill, I would also listen
for heartbeats, sighs, and curling things [Houdini] might say softly to himself
for comfort. I might add a murmur of my own.'