Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy, To the Occupant by Emma Neale, Conventional Weapons by Tracey Slaughter

Moth Hour. Anne Kennedy (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2019). ISBN 9781869408947. RRP $25. 101pp.

To the Occupant. Emma Neale (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2019). ISBN 9781988531687. RRP $27.95. 100pp.

Conventional Weapons. Tracey Slaughter (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2019) ISBN 9781776562206. RRP $25. 95pp.

Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

Three interesting poetry collections by three New Zealand women poets, all who have English as their first language. Three different Aotearoa New Zealand university presses. Not a lot more in common after these initial similarities.

Anne Kennedy’s collection is more specifically focused, regarding its genesis and gestation. So, it is perhaps of less ‘general coverage’ regarding topoi. It is the poet’s lifelong coming to terms with the tragic death of her brother Philip in 1973: whānau demise being something no one ever overcomes, as I well know. As such, coming to terms with such an unexpected loss is intensely personal and the poet ceaselessly searches for some sort of explication. Kennedy notes, ‘When Philip died, we didn’t know what to do. I think that’s why I have written these poems.’

Based on a series of 33 transformations and variations à la Beethoven via Anton Diabelli, the collection wends through grief, anger, and confusion, nonsequentially scrivening the semiotics of loss and social injustice. There are some marvellous images here:

         a plastic letterbox
like a Venus flytrap
eats a letter from the courts

At the polytech the deceitful executives feed books…
In Santa hats they chortle at the teachers
their fat salaries spilled down their shirtfronts

In the foyer I see my classmates unexpectedly
like running into them in a lesbian bar,
fancy meeting you here.

The materialists with no materials have been trained like bears to dance
in their unbearable bedrooms,

A thought is a Trojan horse in the head
(“TheThe” – a nine page exegesis.)

Yet, for this reviewer, the final prose section Pattern/Chaos: An Afterword, is the most cogent, and ironically is not poetry, given that this does not matter.

Philip’s own poem, here titled “The Theme” from around 1970, highlights jars — a word repeated throughout, along with moth and airholes in the lid — and is the fount of the collection. I reproduce it in full.

Come catch me little child
and put me in a jar.

Place inside:
some leaves (for me to eat)
The Book of Tea (for me to read)
some paper,
any paper
and a pen (for me to write)

Screw on the top,
little child,
and put six airholes in the lid,
then leave me on your windowsill.

Just one more thing,
little child,
look through your sunset hair
into my world
before I die
and collect your imaginary mind
(“The Theme”)

Finally, there is a distinct counterculture musical ambience interpolating this collection. Bob Dylan is lauded in #21, while one poem, #24, riffs on Wild Thing. The several references to this ‘imaginary mind’ — the state that the sibling Kennedys believe, across 50 years, ‘suggests we will find some solution if only we keep searching in the places we can’t see’ — is reminiscent of Jim Morrison’s raging, ‘Break on through to the other side.’

Yet, sadly it seems, ‘To make the silk, the moth must die’ (“TheThe”).

Emma Neale often likes lots and lots of words. Loves hyphenated words too, not always so smoothly, as for example the platoon reporting for duty during “Still”. Namely, ‘ember-gleam, city-crammed, fierce-frantic, greed-eats-need’. Perhaps also, there are just too many words and loooooong lines in some places, like this line from “Minor Goddess”:

she kindles song-crop and wing-flicker: waxeyes, darting daubs of green and pewter;

There is a prolix density at times and certainly a propensity of diverse themes, from the voices of children through to acute observations of social iniquities.

However, the poet does write far briefer pieces, detours into taut fontology excursions via typographical tutū (pp. 47-50), as well as promotes prose poetry. She is the most experimental of the three writers under review and is unafraid to delve into discursive formats, such as in “Tone Poem” and “Blindsided”.

Neale gifts us some excellent imagery, of course, because she is a gifted writer. Some examples.

                    …her smile a tern’s quick tilt in the
sky’s vast room
(“A Room that Held the Sea”)

We’re behind a man whose skin is pale as lunch paper
and whose jersey droops from his shoulders
as if it’s still being knitted
from the needles of his bones.
(“Cut Price”)

near a gutter glum with rubbish
(“Blue Rubato”)

…an anxiety of rats, a fret of rats
(“Letter from Hamelin”)

Except in the lexically less elaborate as well as the more frankly forthright poems, such as the aforementioned “Cut Price”, “Warning”, “The Local Pool”, “My Aunt’s Story”, “Withdrawn”, the fine “Mere-Mare” and the excellent “Affidavit”, there is some distance between the poet and the page, unlike Kennedy, and most definitely unlike our next poet under review. Indeed, as Janet Hughes stresses in a recent critique, “Despite her technical inventiveness, Neale is hard to place; she absorbs but avoids being defined by trends, and seems to shoot for reach and variety rather than the cutting edge” (Pukapuka Aotearoa, August 2019). Koinā te kōrero (Yes, indeed.)

Ultimately, I wonder just how consciously ironic Neale is in her penultimate piece in this panoply of 64 poems, here reproduced in full:

Due to circumstances
we should have foreseen
the exquisite poems
we had hoped for
have not been composed.
We regret to say
until further notice
this space remains closed.
(“Economy of Style”)

Tracey Slaughter certainly lives up to her name: there is some killer verse here — dark, brutal, Plathian; the latter aspect perhaps best exemplified in the lengthy and ironically obese 18-page “it was the 70s when me and karen carpenter hung out”. ‘Only’ 19 poetic/prose pained paeans here, but WOW, they’ll get you well past Go, yet without a reader ever scoring a Get Out of Jail Free pass.

Like she is on a narcotic upper/downer half of the time, this poet is not afraid to draw viscerally on the backstreet, the gutter, the underside, the downside of her own sexual and sensual experiences. Exploring this book is like lying in the beer swill of a suburban public bar, long after the heavy metal covers band has packed up and left, and only rank skank and vomit traces remain. Tropes well beyond the kitchen sink and down through the waste disposal unit of a formica-and-vinyl motel kitchenette strewn with plastic flowers, proliferate. Abortion, adultery, anorexia nervosa, pervade these pages in a never arrhythmic arching and aching historical outreach back into school days and schoolgirl play, through to an array of modern day affrays. Hypnagogic at times (see “nursery”), and machine-gun page-block at others (see “she is currently living”), the ever-lowercase collection is as far from its title as it could ever be.

Some snapshots:

we slept
that summer on a mattress
somebody’s water
had broken on.
(“31 reasons not to hear a heartbeat”)

                          We even
glued bits of the ruined lino
(“31 reasons not to hear a heartbeat”)

I had to pull
her by the ponytail
out of her bib
of puke.
(“it was the 70s when me and karen carpenter hung out”)

& trespass my hair
with smoke
(“horoscope (the cougar speaks)”)

Instead the room smells like a public pool…
(“legend of 17 bad hotels”)

whoever hung
these fraudulent
net curtains
got me ready
for your fingertips’

don’t dream of these come-scented rooms.

The imagery is not always manic seedy either, but mostly is. Better left to more of her words, than mine, from the rather brilliant louche piece, “breather”:

The only thing left of God by then was the key to a hotel room. Is it worth saying the room was turquoise & smelt like us coming in an arthouse film, a space for everything bad about deconstruction & lamplit polyester fringed with irony. All I wanted was your fingers inside me like ten wet disciples.

Brick room with skin diptych. I could catalogue everything squalid. Chintzy pelt of the superking. The cheesy pallor of formica coffee tables. Diaspora of insects round the bulb like core samples. Drapes avocado as an old bruise…

Fuck me hard, then call your wife. 

Slaughter is a vital Kiwi poet and her trench warfare of ruptured verse and ravaged/ravaging women (see especially “the mine wife”) is important.

You just oughta
read Tracey Slaughter.

Finally, Victoria University Press is also to be congratulated in recently publishing their expanding tranche of women writers who call a spade a spade and then go about disinterring Aotearoa New Zealand toikupu or poetry. Wāhine toa ināianei. Ka nui te pai.

Vaughan Rapatahana commutes between Hong Kong, Philippines, and Aotearoa New Zealand. He is widely published across several genre in both te reo Māori and English, with work translated into Bahasa Malaysia, Italian, French, and Mandarin.

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