At the outset of this volume, editor Anna Jackson offers a brief introduction to this Auckland University Press series, renewed in 2019. ‘[These] poems,’ she says, ‘take you places including the darkest reaches of emotional geographies lit up in startling new ways.’ It’s hard to disagree with Jackson – the three poets presented here are equal parts startling and transportive. But the real power of this collection, to my mind, lies in bringing these three together. One cannot help but read Feeney, Masae and Jardine as a little family of sorts – they are like three very different siblings borne of the same kin. They are navigating the same contemporary world, alive with confusions and contradictions and incongruities, but each of the three are tackling this madness from their own imaginative gardens, so to speak. The result is an incredibly rewarding collection that delivers on much that it promises.
The importance of community, emphasized by bringing these three voices together, is also a theme that is echoed in various ways by each poet. Rhys Feeney’s poetry is, invariably, about the state of the world and his – often awkward – place in it. There’s a hint of existentialism to these poems, the poet asking some sticky questions about a middle-class, neoliberal existence – ‘how can i reduce my environmental footprint / but increase the impact of my handshake’. A poem that threatens to regurgitate a fairly well-trodden perspective, titled ‘the president of the united states of america is crazy’ takes a refreshing turn by using Trump as a kind of scapegoat to analyse the self. It narrowly avoids being confessional by coming at the self sideways: ‘any deviation from the mean / a mutated gene / in a society that says it believes you / okay / of course we believe you / tell me about your mother / is there a history of mental illness in your family / how long has this been going on.’ Feeney’s poems are about the individual who is, more often than not, subject to difficulty (there is mention of suicide attempts, deliberate self-harm, and ‘single-use coping strategies’). But rather than being self-indulgent, they are poems that interrogate the climate in which anxiety and depression seems to be the only logical outcome: ‘waking up from a dream abt owning a house/for a moment i think i’m in utopia/or maybe australia/but then i see the little patches of mould on the ceiling.’
While some of Feeney’s poems can have, at times, a rather heavy hand in dealing with the ‘big ideas,’ the craftsmanship exhibited here puts the reader at ease. But Feeney doesn’t shy away from experimentation – no two poems in this short collection are the same, and the form and structure of each is something of an exposé of his level of control. There is also a lovely symbiosis between the form and content in many of these poems, a trait all too often ignored in the contemporary lyric. None of the poems have any capital letters – in a bid to decolonize the very structure of the text, perhaps – and in a piece called ‘roy g. biv’ (the spectrum of the rainbow), a large block of prose exemplifies something of the troubled contemporary psyche. It ambles and cascades down the page, promising to ‘explain what happened through colour,’ only to fizzle out in a way that mirrors a feeling of futility that might be best described as millennial: ‘the screaming is always there just sometimes it takes on a different form, / sometimes it wants to dance & sometimes it wants to creep slightly closer to / the edge & sometimes, sometimes, you’ll want to do something, you’ll want / to do something very bad indeed & you’ll think about it always & one day & / one day & one day.’ The poet has certainly had some struggles, it seems, but his attention to craft has not suffered.
Ria Masae’s work carries the theme of the collective in a slightly different direction. In order to cast a light on society at large – the same troubled place that Feeney so aptly curates – her lens narrows in on the individual. As Jackson points out, Masae is concerned with ‘the rhythms and accents of everyday conversation,’ and from the point of view, more often than not, of fringe dwellers. Her characters are colourful and varied, ranging from the ‘Men dressed by their wives in their Sunday best / kneel[ing] on planks of uncross,’ to a homeless man on the streets of Auckland, for whom ‘The setting sun colours the road ahead/a deep shade of sorrow.’
There is much in Masae’s poetry to enjoy, but what really stood out to me was the sonic quality of her work. These are poems that demand to be read aloud, and it’s no surprise to read that in 2018 she was the Going West Poetry Slam champion. There are voices aplenty through the inhabiting of a number of personas, as well as a good dose of Samoan and a playful use of phonetics that invite the reader into particular worlds. There were times, for example, when I felt the need to put down the book and run to Google Translate to try and unlock something, to rely on my English tongue to fix my meaning to these words. But Masae gives just enough that the reader neither needs to depend upon translation nor is encouraged to seek it. Instead, we are enticed into the sonic world of Samoan, where translation is just another form of colonization. From ‘Apia, Upolo, Samoa’:
Behind me Amelika and rasta jams blast from nightclub speakers
ie faitaga-wearing policemen stroll up and down
taking occasional puffs of mea lele / make-you-fly smoke
from the snaky trail of cheeehooo! drunks.
A woman hoarses laughter that makes
the fetu tattoos on her breasts jiggle.
A man breathes Valima proposals
to a girl who is not his wife.
My eyes are bleary from eight-tala jugs […]
Masae is both voyeur and sympathizer. She watches over, as the title to her collection – What She Sees from Atop the Mauga – denotes. But the poet also gazes with great empathy, noticing the delicacies and precariousness of those whose lives may not be as sure-footed as others. She sees the way that the world swallows some people up, like the character in a poem called ‘Black Days,’ who ‘peeks through the window’ to watch a children’s birthday party get underway, and where ‘the birthday balloons tied to the letterbox next door / bob like buoys in a quiet ocean – / waver like breaths in a dark house.’ Or, she observes the sensitivities of those who have become hardened to the world, such as Brian the ‘street bully,’ whose ‘thick fingers / […] had dragged her by the hair / across the school field // nimbly raised a china cup / to the porcelain doll’s / love-heart lips.’ These poems are portals to other worlds, but through a pair of nurturing glasses.
The final of the three poets represented here is one whose community and conversation reaches back to Catallus and Sulpicia (the ‘only woman writer of classical Latin poetry whose work survives,’ the end notes tell us), while eating biscuits and dropping tabs of acid. Claudia Jardine’s The Temple of Your Girl is the quirkiest of the three collections but is no less interrogating and impressive than her bedfellows’. Jardine is, as her bio tells us, currently completing her Masters in Classics, hence the chats with her Roman forefathers. But Jardine is also of Maltese origin, which lends a level of authenticity and alacrity to her opening gambit, three excerpts from ‘A Gift to Their Daughters: A Poetic Essay on Loom Weights in Ancient Greece.’ These excerpts are concerned with connections, relationships, and oikos – which ‘means something like family’ – so Jackson’s well edited theme continues here. The first of these ‘poetic essays’ opens with the beautiful, lyrical lines, ‘‘Textile manufacture’ is the sound my mother makes when she tries to speak / with a needle held between her lips,’ and meanders through a haberdashery and ‘rooms filled with women working,’ arriving in the final lines with the mother teaching the narrator ‘how to cross-stitch’: ‘It takes all five seasons of Breaking / Bad to complete the paternal family crest. A belt and a spur, cave adsum. / I don’t think to ask about hers.’ My only regret in reading these three fragmentary pieces is that there was not more of them included here, but the mention of ‘excerpt’ here is promising.
Like Feeney, Jardine isn’t afraid of playing with form, and there is much exploration into ways of saying. The poem ‘Things That Spooked the Ancient Romans’ is made up of found texts from records of ‘prodigies’ or odd events that occurred in Ancient Rome – ‘a child born with the head of an elephant while it rains milk,’ that slowly evolves into a clever comment on how obsessed with children of ‘indeterminate sex’ the Romans were. The poem ‘For the Rose Garden’ is a very odd but very well controlled free verse poem with a riff on ‘and’ / ‘hand’/ ‘understand,’ and which does a fine job of inhabiting the child’s mind: ‘when we went to a big shed in the country I did not understand / why the man who came to meet us was holding several stumpy feather mops // which were actually six young hens being held upside down by their feet.’ And the final poem is a very witty retelling of the fate of that most famous forlorn nymph, titled ‘Eurydice & the No, or How Eurydice Died of Negligence and a Phonetic Misunderstanding.’ Most of the humour is given away in the title, but it still delivers some laugh out loud moments: ‘Eurydice, frustrated, wonders who invited the satyrs. / Didn’t she say to the planners, ‘No rapists’?’ There is much to enjoy in Jardine’s collection, wittiness aside.
It is great to see this New Poets series resurrected, and this third volume of the new era in print. It is hard not to draw these three poets into a conversation together, and readers will be enriched by the book’s kaleidoscopic outlook. At a time when the collective is something we certainly need more of, this series is a welcome addition to the poetry landscape.