Beside Herself by Chris Price

Beside Herself. Chris Price (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2016). ISBN 9781869408466. RRP $24.99. 120pp.

Reviewed by Nithya Narayanan

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Chris Price’s newest collection opens with a trio of quotations. The middle quotation comes from German dramatist Georg Büchner: ‘Oh, to be someone else for once!’. One gets the sense that, in Beside Herself, Price is tapping into that desire. This sprawling work spans 120 pages, and invokes everyone from Plato to Richard Nunns.

If the collection initially feels difficult to place, that is merely testament to its diverse — and often deceptive — textures. Many of the poems in this book feel hybrid somehow, as if Price is deliberately leading the reader down one path before switching course. “Tango with Mute Button” seems stylistically evocative of Hera Lindsay Bird, but swiftly builds into a meditation on the birth of a poem:

            the poem sits    engaged only
            from the neck up    going nowhere from
            the hips down    as I wonder how
            to mitigate its   seemingly inexorable
            descent into sentimental    pentameter

Price’s work is also richly referential, often in quite funny ways:

            Lying in bed last night
            you asked me what the word
            trope meant. I, reading
            Cormac McCarthy, said shorthand
            for tripwire and rope, turned
            the light out, turned over
            (“My Friend Flicka”)

The reference to McCarthy’s dystopian work collides rather hilariously with the speaker’s exasperated response, injecting an anodyne image with subversive humour. It’s the kind of humour that Price executes well in general, although it sometimes risks making the work inaccessible. In Part VIII of “The Book of Churl”, a multi-part poem on ‘a medieval everyman’, the poetry dissolves rather abruptly into strange, rap-like anaphora:

            Black pudding
            Black pot
            Black cherry
            Black rot

The book covers an impressive amount of ground, flitting effortlessly between different times, places, and voices. In “A Natural History of Richard”, Price presents an often disgusting — yet beautifully wrought — poem about Richard III (‘a crookback on swayback’). A brief poem on Hamlet features some of the book’s most profound lines: ‘I / am every character — every, every character’ (“Abandoned Hamlet”). The book’s preoccupation with historical identities, and with masks, is what continually drives it forward — yet Price also addresses the mundane, the everyday, the contemporary. “Trick or Treat” returns us momentarily — and with deft humour — to a landscape that we recognise:

            my air-guitar
            your whammy-bar
            my shell-less crab
            your snatch and grab

In “Wrecker’s Song”, Price writes: ‘All of my best lines are accidents’. One can only speculate whether this is a reference, however oblique, to Price’s own work. If so, there are a lot of accidents in this book! There were many lines that I returned to repeatedly; lines that I wanted to write down, revisit, dissect, and steal (‘My nature adores a vacuum’; ‘if it’s book or man, then / give me book’; ‘the high-wire song / of the split-voiced bird’). Beside Herself is one of those collections I see myself returning to in order to glean something slightly different — slightly new — on each visit.

Nithya Narayanan is currently pursuing a BA/LLB(Hons) at the University of Auckland. Her poetry has featured in Starling, Mayhem, Salty, Hainamana, and Best New Zealand Poems.

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