Mitochondrial Eve by Kirsten Warner

Mitochondrial Eve. Kirsten Warner (Auckland: Compound Press, 2018). ISBN 9780994112347. RRP $15. 20pp.

Reviewed by Gayle Brownlee


There is something strangely satisfying about the simplicity of a chapbook. Perhaps it is nostalgia for our primary school exercise books, those thin cardboard doorways to secrets of the past. Kirsten Warner’s chapbook Mitochondrial Eve is just that, as it follows memory back into a shared but very personal history.

‘tide pillows the mangroves / like blossoms dark on light on dark’ (“The Location of Heartache”). This soft imagery of swamp bound mangroves is accentuated by a harsh jump cut, mid-line. Warner moves from the long smooth open vowels of pill-ows, man-groves, bloss-ohms into the hard repetition of ‘dark on light on dark’. As if the fogged mangrove scene is a view snatched piecemeal from the glancing headlights of passing cars.

One criticism I have is the occasional use of obscure words, which don’t fit with the relaxed and conversational language that forms the basis of these poems. I found the contrast too stark. Some examples include: ‘Sharks marvelous ampullae’ (“Channel Surfing”), ‘vesicles like eyes’ (“Channel Surfing”), and ‘caesurae where cats bed privately’ (“The Location of Heartache”). However, in the instance of caesurae, the indulgence turns out to be hiding such a delightfully sweet pun that I not only forgave her cat’s pause, but also applauded it.

Warner’s “In a Nutshell” is reminiscent of Charles Bukowski’s “this dirty, valiant game”. Both poets define their characters through lists, which describe the exploits of their peers:

When I eat hazelnuts
I am Katherine Mansfield
in a German pension
Hoping for someone to talk to.
With a jewellers balance
I weigh
Strings of uncut amber
Twelve-egg kuchen
Flax and paddocks
European travel.
Nervous bladder
(“In a Nutshell”)

I see Richard
the age he high-
lighted past,
his books no
longer selling
his love affairs
rotting, I can
see him blowing
himself away in
that mountain
(“this dirty, valiant game”)

The first time I read “Channel Surfing”, I found that my mouth had unexpectedly formed the exact rosebud contour Warner was describing. As if it had preread the poem without my knowledge: ‘the ricochet of remembering / her rosebud mouth newborn’. In surprise, my mouth held that rosebud contour. Drawing out that last syllable much longer than normal, as if it expected to be kissed.

Mitochondrial Eve is a slight collection of just six poems. Some of these poems held me tight, and others not so much. But each poem contains a sharp clear vision that feels familiar, as if cut from a collective memory. We all share these stories, this dirt and strength and fear, the razors, the unplucked eyebrows, the stumbling from city block to farm paddocks home, in Warner’s tight and warm womb of words.

Gayle Brownlee is small and dark. She likes cats, bicycles, and whisky.

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