Born to a Red-Headed Woman by Kay McKenzie Cooke

(OUP, 2014)

Review by Vaughan Rapatahana

I confess to not knowing of Kay McKenzie Cooke prior to reading for this review, which is a pity as I have enjoyed this collection and feel that Cooke is an excellent poet.

I also apologise for reviewing a book published in 2014, four years later: ‘them’s the breaks’ when one is a reviewer. Still, to wax inexorably clichéd, better late than never, eh. The poems here are standalone fine, regardless of vintage.

Cooke traces her own life, from grandchild to grandparent, primarily in the rural and small-town South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand: a white middle-class upbringing and focus permeating the work. A work divided along an autobiographical time continuum, across five clear-cut life stages and measured accordingly into five separate sections titled, born to a red-headed woman; empty-handed dances; by the time the train reached Knapdale; white car days; life’s work.

‘You could say that this book is all about time; its capricious brutalities and its saving graces,’ states Cooke, in the accompanying publisher media release. Indeed.

Cooke’s tone throughout remains resiliently real, humble without hubris, unpretentious, unassuming, catholic and above all honest.

Our garden is scruffy,
our tastes low-key. We prefer to spend nights in
rent a dvd, light the fire,
eat chocolate.
(from “can’t you see”, p.69)

Candour caresses each and every page. Take for example,

Because I came from a town school,
my new friend with the red ribbon in her hair thought I’d know things she didn’t,
like the meaning of the word ‘Fuck’.
(from “I’m in pieces”, p.22)

Cooke also escapes mundanity, because she populates her verse with occasional philosophical nuances, with metaphysical musings and meanderings. Such as,

and not knowing then
how amazed the future already was;
how intricate,
how impossible to undo.
(from “welcome to the human race”, p.49)


…We are all viewing
new ways of seeing; through blue –
tinted goggles, through dull portholes,
into a world held together by its own weight.
(from “subterranean homesick alien”, p.62)

Above all else, however, it is her whānau that is of prime importance to this poet — birth, death and loss and proximal familial reciprocities are intrinsic ingredients everywhere. We read of her father’s death at a young age; her adopted-out daughter reconciling later in their disparate lives; her own children flung far, foreign and often asunder, the mokopuna who ‘looks at me ‘with composure’’ (from “sweet bird of time”, p.70). The key quote for me is this:

Except it’s not a story, it’s our life
still unwinding…

(from “I’ll be your mirror”, p.57)

The book is a stream headed toward the sea.

More, Cooke has framed her life passages and significant events via musical titles ranging from 1953 to 2010. ‘To name each poem I have used the title of a song or a line from a song. In most cases the song chosen is from the year or era in which the poem is set, although sometimes it has been chosen for its relevance to the theme or other content of the poem,’ she notes in a rather comprehensive listing of the over 60 song titles at the rear of the collection. A novel approach to poetry.

At times also, there is a potent spill-over from a designated song title, into the actual chanson embedded into the body of a poem itself. So we scan,

Released the year and month my father died,
‘Wichita Lineman’ can still bring me the valley
where we lived,
still bring me grief, the sound

of wind through wire, the loneliness
of country verges; but does not bring
my father back. You can ask
too much of a song.
(from “singing in the wire”, p.32)

I note a further interesting technique at play here. Several times within a section, there is an abrupt change in narrative — sundered from what the poet delineated and depicted immediately before — it sometimes takes a moment or two for the reader to reconnect to the flow. For example, we take in the innocent student-poet encountering experienced men and then we intake sharply when the very next stanza smites,

My mother made me tell Nan too
And there we were, all three of us,
four if you count the baby,
(from “rock me on the water”, p.42)

Cooke can write well and has incorporated several striking images throughout. A few examples of her poetic craft follow.

my fingers are a cowled row

of Virgin Marys.
(from “when the moon is on the run”, p.15)


…as they dived deep into the murk
of metaphor for loss and fear
shut tight in pink, clam-minds.
(from “sweet dreams are made of this”, p.50)


in its usual bike rack.
a donkey in a stable
of mountain-bike thoroughbreds,
a tin fork in a silver cutlery canteen
(from “you see me”, p.53)

Then, there are a couple of characters that recur over and over again — namely the rain, which often sprinkles and showers the poems, yet never dampens their overall élan and which reminds me of just how damp and penetratingly wet the bottom of Te Waipounamu (the South Island) can be. The other is the gaunt monkey-puzzle tree, which Cooke paints as, ‘geometrical and black’ (from “in a young girl’s heart”, p.23) and which lurches and lingers intermittently through her life, her loved ones’ lives, the panoramic generational photodrama that is Born to a Red-Headed Woman.

As a final flourish, the first set-alone poem, “a country girl again”, is living below. It is a firm marker of just how concise, clear and competent a craftswoman Cooke is.

The black-and-white photo goes back
to ’67. Taken around Christmas. Perhaps a Sunday
drive out from Gore. A bit of breeze parts Nana’s perm,
her own steady caution holding down hands
that shine below the folded-back cuffs
of her bri-nylon cardigan.

Grandad’s road-worker hands lie relaxed
over the roof of the car, taking ownership
of its dim-blue. Both of them
caught by me at fourteen, when I press
the slow shutter of my Brownie box camera
with a pronounced click. Just a moment ago.

A fine book. Recommended.