Bad Things by Louise Wallace

Bad Things. Louise Wallace (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2017). ISBN 9781776561612. RRP $25. 79pp.

Reviewed by Molly Crighton

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Bad Things exists in a strange, storybook world — characters crop up like the big bad wolf from a pop-up book. Some poems give us glimpses into a moment, as though Wallace is showing a life or a day through a fast-spinning zoetrope:

burnt light
trees dripping
over fragile fences…
(“Santa Fe | New Mexico”)

Others give us glimpses of the dark thread of nameless threats that binds the book together: ‘You can hear your mother yelling dinnertime!…but it’s too late to turn back and you don’t recognise any of these trees’ (“Lunch Poem”). Some poems spike through the darkness with unabashed weirdness and humour, such as “Suggestion box at the museum” or “Trash Palace”: ‘I’m amazed! she says to the lampshades.’

The poem “Bad Things”, that the collection is named for, particularly stands out — it, like many of the poems, is pared down like a winter shrub, so that what remains is only what is wholly necessary: ‘They flourish— / a crown of terrible heads.’

Reading through the collection a second time is a journey that is even more richly textured than the first. The notes at the back of the book add an extra layer of the real world, and this brings more dimension to the collection. In “The way time should pass,” sumptuous and pastoral imagery becomes even more enjoyable with the knowledge it was inspired by a Nordic cookbook:

cream, sugar
and crowberries…when you hear a crack
it will either be dinner
or the glacier has finally
calved, and won.

Wallace has a particular gift for interspersing short poems that pack a gut punch among longer, more prose-style poems. “Mirage | Arizona”, for example:

Yes, it’s water…Or it’s a field
of black panels harvesting
the sun.

“Vigil”, “Soundtrack”, and “Empires” also stood out for the same reason:

There’s only
so many
gold coins
we can stack
upon your eyelids
when you leave

Longer poems also feature the same careful attention to craft, and devastate as much as they delight. In “Miniature Village,” for example, we experience second-hand the feeling of being out of time or out of place: ‘I am a foreign object stuck in her eye. I am the literal definition of grit.’ These moments of raw, aching feeling are the branches from which the more brightly coloured poems in the collection sprout. “Gathering Light” strikes particularly close to the heart: ‘When you think of either the future or the past, it’s always two people walking away. Sometimes you are the one leaving, other times you are the one left behind.’

Bad Things is easy to dip in and out of at random, while finding new pleasure each time. But there is always an overarching sense that Wallace is taking the reader somewhere, pointing out landmarks on the dark water, keeping your destination a secret.

Originally from Wiltshire, Molly Crighton has lived in Dunedin for over a decade. She currently studies English at the University of Otago.

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