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Formica by Maggie Rainey-Smith

Milkshakes and matinees: a debut poetry collection is an unsentimental exploration of the lives –and memories – of women of a certain age.

By December 9, 2022April 9th, 2024No Comments

Maggie Rainey-Smith may be best known for her 2015 novel Daughters of Messene, a story set in contemporary New Zealand and decades earlier during the Greek Civil War. Her debut poetry collection, Formica, explores concerns closer to home, from growing up in 1950s and 1960s New Zealand, without television or a car, to life as a woman in her 70s travelling the world or surrounded by ‘tight bright bums’ at a gym class. In ‘That summer’, the poet addresses a long-time friend, remembering their youthful ‘hair rinsed/in beer and ocean/sprayed, teased/thick with possibility’. Now, she reflects, at the end of the poem, ‘we’re grandmothers/with river stones and/gravel in our hearts/our foreheads etched//with the unforeseen’.

It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that twilight and autumnliminal times, with their shadows and waning lightare referenced more than once in Formica. In ‘Jogging’, the collection’s opening poem, Rainey-Smith frames the importance of time generally: era, generation, impending old age, realising and resisting the way all these things define her:

I already know I’m invisible typing

my life into the baby boomer abyss

privileged by association, a post-war

baby whose trajectory is history

that my grandfather was an Irish orphan

migrant here, my father a prisoner of war

my mother a child of the depression

Catholic minority left school aged 12

that I’m the first on both sides to

study tertiary, even if I had to wait

until I was 50 to do that… still

it seems, my voice is now irrelevant

Exasperation isn’t the abiding tone of this appealing collection, but ‘Jogging’ introduces subjects that Formica will explore in more detail. As the title suggests, a number of the poems navigate Rainey-Smith’s working-class childhood, blessed by sun and the sea, with fixed roles for men and women. Her family had few ‘appliances’, so her mother ‘used a lemonade bottle/to roll pastry’ and their ‘half-size/apple-green fridge/purred luxury but/ never fully replaced/the meat safe’. The title references a talisman of the era, recalling when ‘the wooden/table was moved/to the washhouse’ to make room for ‘oatmeal Formica/and new linoleum’.

This idyll is threatened by her father’s personal history in the Second World War, one of the ‘Kiwi lads with tins of bully beef’ (‘Seventy years on’) who fought in Crete and was a prisoner of war in Poland where the men could see ‘the smoke/rising from the factory/they called Auschwitz’. It’s inevitable that this experience would cast long shadows when young men like Rainey-Smith’s father, ‘a lad from Kaikōura’, returned home. In the poem ‘Autumn and Anzac’, she dissects the contrast between the ceremonies exalting the returned war veterans and the effects of war on the individual. The shock of the consequences of the ‘forward march’ experienced by her father infects the whole family, not only ‘the drunkenness/of all these old soldiers, their sorrow’ but of unsettling, perpetual ramifications:

Anzac Day has turned from shiny
shoes and camaraderie to a darkness

that neither our Dutch neighbour
nor any of us fully understand

The clear, unaffected language of Rainey-Smith’s poetry reveals the realities of domesticity and of being female in a language that is without ornamentation or sentimentality. In ‘Jogging’ she describes her first sexual experience and herself as a good Catholic girl who is ‘too afraid to say yes’it’s ‘technically/rape but consenting all the same’. A young woman in the days before disposable sanitary products, Rainey-Smith recalls ‘the bloody rags/soaking in salt/in the stone tub’, and describes the surreal scene of her own mother faced with ‘a packet of Tampax/that neither of us knew how to use’. Her mother lies on the bedroom floor ‘with her knees up’ trying ‘to instruct me on insertion’. Such topics are not discussed with the men of the family. Here the reader is invited into this intimate history, and the realities of domestic life, and female experience, for many girls of the poet’s generation.

The women in Rainey-Smith’s poetry do not dominate, nor are they traumatised by men. Yet they have to navigate the lonely spaces within the family dynamic.  She writes with maturity and awareness, managing to convey nostalgia for childhoodwith its milkshakes, matinees and visits to the ‘murder house’ to see the dental nursewith humour rather than excessive sentimentality. Much of Rainey-Smith’s poetry is distinctly physical and funny. In ‘After the war’, a new husband and wife learn to co-exist: ‘she could/climb through/a broom//he could stand/on his head by/the door’. In ‘And unto ashes’, a loved one’s remains are divided: the poem notes ‘how we split his ashes in half/sealed both boxes and now/he’s in two rooms at one time’.

In Formica, the past is woven together with the present, memories presented alongside strange meetings with unnamed characterslike the woman who catches the poet’s gaze when Rainey-Smith is looking out of a window, after the death of someone in the family. The look they share is framed as one of life’s ‘possibilities’ for connection, one that leaves an indelible mark. She is also unafraid of interrogating her own vulnerability. In two poems, ‘That summer’ and ‘The Coroner’s report’, the poet explores the trauma of her brother who ‘took his own life’. In the sestina ‘Ngawhatu’, an aunt is taken away, to a mysterious and shameful place: ‘half pie inside I laughed, my shame unspoken/the loony bin, we shouted’.

Rainey-Smith writes with such empathy about sexuality, motherhood, madness and suicide that it’s unsurprising she spent almost a decade running a readers’ and writers’ group at in a women’s prison where ‘we were locked in/the library, a small/reading group//mixed age, race and/crimes unknown’. (That poem, ‘How too weird,’ is subtitled ‘reading Mansfield in Arohata Women’s Prison’.) The poet’s keen eye, and the natural and unpretentious flow of her poetry, suggests she would be well-suited to working with other writers, exploring the darkness and light of the past, and considering the potential of every woman’s unknowable future.  In the collection’s final poem, ‘Who am I?’, Rainey-Smith charts her life from coal fires and Khrushchev through all her different jobs, roles and beliefs to a still-fluid present:

as the rafters soften
the walls seem closer
the floor keeps shifting
the light’s playing tricks
memories unblunting

This review was originally published on the Academy of NZ Literature site.


by Maggie Rainey-Smith

The Cuba Press

ISBN: 9781988595511

Published: March 2022

Format: Paperback, 86 pages

Katea Duff

Katea Duff is a poet, researcher and children’s book author. Katea has a PhD in English with Creative Practice from the University of Auckland.