I am Minerva by Karen Zelas

(Submarine, 2016)

Review by Vaughan Rapatahana

Introductory note: Minerva was a Roman goddess, the custodian of creativity, words and wisdom.

There is no doubt whatsoever that Karen Zelas is a very good poet, well capable of penning fine poetry. Indeed, this new collection serves and swerves to show us this in spades.

But I will briefly — and only here — also add that, at times, there is a tendency for her to overwrite and that some of her images and word choices don’t quite come off, where a more oblique word usurps a simpler one. This poet — like so many of us — is actually more convincing when more concise, such as sampled in the first two entries in the slim volume entitled “In camera” (p.13) and “Bride song” (p.15)

As a couple of examples of poetic overbite and also an occasional weary cliché, cast your eyes on these few snippets —

& as your ship breaks on my shore
I shall draw you to me through
dangerous waters & calm
(“Waypoint”, p.15)

                                      you
breached the testosterone citadel
(“La gondoliera”, p.32)

             while the grotesque cohort
of my own iniquities materialise
cavort in the foreground
(“Keeping us in line”, p.35)

                  I am tears falling
from the eye of the world
(“Slow”, p.52)

my bitch vacuums the berm
(“Losing the way”, p.69)

Enough. Now, let’s get back to positivity. The collection is divided into two sections (The act of breathing and There’s no circus without clowns, augmented by a tidy Notes section), both rather focused on the poet’s past.

It is the second section, however, that finds Zelas at her best, methinks. For here, she zooms right into the meta-personal: her whānau rāua ko mātua rawatia (family and especially parents); her long-suffering tipuna Hūrai (Jewish ancestors); the sprightly and spirited recollections of being reared in Wellington. She is never afraid of calling a spade a spade, of using four letter words; of demarking illness and rampant bodily decay — Zelas is an upfront, unpretentious and honest poet with rather a serious agenda. Graphic depictions of the Holocaust and orchitis are not hors d’ouevres, but full-on verse repast.

At her frequent best, she also dresses her themes in a distinctive broken-spaced appurtenance and wordplay that reveals her fascination with both abstruse vocabulary, extended metaphorical excursions and alliterative chains (especially in her final poem “Born of the head of my father”, pp.84-85!). This is exemplified in the following poem, which to me is one of the best beasts in the Zelas zoo, here reproduced in its clever entirety.

Foreplay

I know what gets you going:        let’s whip
over to Freedom                         all that spanking
black leather

sublime lounge suite! you choke       tweak
a thong                               stroke curve of back & seat
& table!             trace a shapely leg       more you sigh
flushed     skin     slick     you    slip     row    to     row
from La-Z-boy to sofa bed             with passion
move deep in the belly                   hold out
your Amex gold                         gasp I want that one!
(p.51)

The sexual sensuality apparent here is also a presence in several other poems throughout, even in the first slightly more distanced section and its concentration on travel to and through more exotic and erotic locales. “The reading” (p.22) is one such d r a w n out double-entendre paean to oral poetry. As evident here —

& she yields
in your mouth
tumbles
with alliterative consonants

…while “Moon slips in” (pg.53) unleashes similar connubial couplings:

don’t wake my husband
you stroke the length of me
play me
like a harp or fool
don’t think I’m easy

Indeed.

Zelas is quirky in both form and content and births some quaint notions across both parameters. In “To a stranger god” (p.36), we are left to reflect on her final ruminations about a good shepherd sheepdog —

what if dyslexia
plagued the chroniclers of old
& the name was Dog?

In the end, a poet’s mettle is settled by their ability to delight the reader with something cleverly salacious — an image out of left-field; some words strungtogether into a nitid necklace that takes our breath away; a complete poem that is bigger than its variegate devices and descriptions. That Karen Zelas is – generally – in fine fettle here is obvious, as we scan some powerful suchlike—

                                                              tarnished
pegs of teeth
(“Hanging in the old hood”, p.64)

& (Zelas likes to use the ampersand too, by the way!)

I found her hearing aid
singing in a drawer

I plumbed her eyes
deep pools
& surfaced empty-handed
(“Wanted”, p.70)

and

I catch him in an unguarded moment
notice his clothes are growing
hang from his shoulders like a memory
(“Rich humours”, p.83)

Then there is an entire poem, “This is how it feels” (p.47), which is a rampant parade of convincing images of what the earthquake meant to the people of Christchurch, such as “It is a thump from young thugs after your wallet is stolen”, and “it is finding your daughter is on the streets”.

Karen Zelas casts herself as a poetic slattern, yes (see “I, the slattern”, p.82), but Minerva also slinks deep in to share her four-poster bed, so that when she is ready to rise and ‘birth a poem’, she is well accomplished in producing poetic fruits ready for us to palpate and plunder. As in this, her third collection. I believe the fourth will provide an even more bountiful harvest.

Kia ora e hoa.

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