Poetry Reviews: Fossicking in the past

By Paula Green

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Cassino: City Of Martyrs/Citta Martire by Robert Sullivan
Huia Press $29.95

Koiwi Koiwi by Hinemoana Naker
Victoria University Press $25)

Lives Of The Poets by John Newton
Victoria University Press $25

Robert Sullivan has produced a sumptuous collection in remembrance of the soldiers of Monte Cassino. Photo / Supplied
Robert Sullivan has produced a sumptuous collection in remembrance of the soldiers of Monte Cassino. Photo / Supplied

Robert Sullivan has two poetry collections out within a whisker of each other. Salt has published Shout Ha! To The Sky in Britain and Huia has published Cassino: City Of Martyrs/Città Martire in New Zealand.

The former is a stunning symphony of love, politics, tenderness, confession, sharpness and insight. It should be in every school library and accompany the journey of any reader drawn to the history and politics of where we come from and who we are.

The second collection, Cassino, again highlights Sullivan's wide-ranging voice and is also compulsive reading. The book feels sumptuous in content yet simple in execution - not as easy as it sounds.

Cassino pays homage to those who died and fought at Monte Cassino during World War II. In part it is a song for Sullivan's grandfather who fought in Italy, but it is a song for so much more.

The book has whiffs of Dante's Divine Comedy with its various descents, ascents, spirals and authorial intrusions. At Sullivan's shoulder are the poets that shadow his writing pathways: Dante, Hone Tuwhare and Allen Curnow.

Like Dante, Sullivan is bringing together life on many levels - from the personal to the cultural, from the political to the emotional. Like the Italian poet, he favours a cheeky vernacular as well as an elegant phrasing.

Sullivan draws upon his own loves and losses in a way that refreshes our engagement with all things human. I loved it.

Hinemoana Baker's second collection, Koiwi Koiwi, is a terrific advance on the music and mysteries of her first collection, Matuhi/needle.

The new book is divided into three parts: head bone, tail bone and bone bone. While Baker explores a wide range of starting points and themes, the poetry is held together by an effective spine which gives the poems individual and collective strength.

I see this poetic spine as made of musical notes, silence, a generous revelation of the personal and a creative use of found material. Each poem is not an exercise in what words can do but is a carefully crafted lyric that sings small parts of the world into shimmering life.

Baker is inspired by poets as diverse as Teresia Teaiwa (Fiji), Elizabeth Smither (New Zealand) and Simon Armitage (Britain). She watches a documentary on soldiers at Gallipoli and borrows lines from their letters. She uses her partner's exam paper on Electronic Music Theory and Analysis to represent a homebirth.

Her poems are graceful, thoughtful and melodic. They are also twisty, stretching and unexpected. I loved this collection.

Lives Of The Poets is John Newton's first published collection since his début in 1985. Newton introduces his new book by saying, "The romantic inheritance may be poison, but it is all we have."

Like Sullivan and Baker, Newton is "fossicking" amongst the past, the present, the invented and the found in order to make poems matter. Regardless of his anxieties as a poet to get words to rise out of or above the language deadlocks of the past, his poems are like honey. Sweet, mysterious, sustaining, full of light and dark, and attached to life.

The longish narrative poem Lives Of The Poets is a triumph. It is strong on atmosphere with whiffs of movie tones, country and western sounds, road talk. It foregrounds character and sets the scene wonderfully - of Sydney in the 60s and 70s - with the seedier side exposed.

I am on the edge of my seat waiting for something to happen, and it does. Life goes on beyond the cigarettes, the chilled vodka, Elvis and the drugs.

What sets this book alive for me, however, is the use of language where adorable phrases shine out from the cool plainness. There are phrases to dream of: "in the velvety, buggy, moth-winged dark."

So I loved this book too. It's a trifecta.

Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.

- NZ Herald

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