Book Reviews: A view of life through a quirky lens

By Paula Green

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Western Line by Airini Beautrais
Victoria University Press $28

The Leaf Ride by Dinah Hawken
Victoria University Press $30

Kingdom Animalia by Janis Freegard
Auckland University Press $24.99

Book cover of Western Line. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Western Line. Photo / Supplied

Reading Airini Beautrais' new collection, Western Line, fills me with joy - through what words can do and through the avenues poetry makes available.

Beautrais begins with a sequence of love poems that capture fleeting moments, strangers, places, things, little anecdotes. She achieves lift and lightness with each gorgeous line. Even the titles are like miniature poems.

The love poems are followed by a series of charm poems, followed by a series of curse poems. Each imaginative leap takes you out of the humdrum of daily existence. Humour and insight go hand in hand. These sequences are unlike anything else I have read in New Zealand poetry, and reveal a poet who views life through a quirky lens without losing sight of the mud and the mundane.

Beautrais reminds me, too, that every rule in poetry is a rule to be broken. She is not afraid to pile up adjectives to add to the poetry picture and to the sweet rhythms: "In between/ the red bean lasagne, waterlogged quiche/ salad of cold curried pasta/ and salad of bitter greens/ a darkness settles."

I would like to bestow a crown of honours on this new collection because these poems seem utterly perfect.

Dinah Hawken's sixth collection, The Leaf Ride, features a striking painting by Michael Hight on its cover. Inside you will find poems that hum on the page with a similar mix of strangeness and vitality, light and dark.

Hawken has not abandoned her interest in the natural world, but these pieces move and stretch to new territories. She writes with music in her blood and nothing is overstated. You get the delicious vein of mystery that poetry does best.

The first one is a cracker. It explores the business of writing in a way that is fresh: "to write is to live on a balcony" where "the air is unpredictable".

I also admired an under-fabric (a bit like a petticoat) of questions that the poems react to (where exactly are we? what is it? how far? and so on).

In Where are the girls, Hawken responds to war and outrageous deeds in a way that is a musical and poetic treat, yet there is another layer. Hawken approaches the wider issues that threaten us with a wisdom that stalls you.

Janis Freegard has degrees in botany and plant ecology and her debut collection highlights her science background.

In Kingdom Animalia, subtitled 'The Escapades Of Linnaeus" she borrows six animal classes from Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) to provide a structure for her collection. Where Linnaeus set out to catalogue the animals, plants and minerals of the planet, Freegard brings together the animal kingdom in a contemporary setting.

The poems view the world through these classifications as well as viewing the world of classifications - birds, amphibians, mammals and so on. Like a musician she shifts playfully through tone and key and as a science-poet fact is always tempered by imagination and wit: "we try on lives like hermit crabs/ crawling inside/ twisting them on to our backs".

The classifications take us in all directions. We get to see a woman walking down the street who looks like a gazelle and a man who looks like a fish with "his cold thick/ hapuka lips".

The poet, herself, is like the magpie with her eye out for the shining anecdote and the gleaming fact.

Freegard has glued the breach between poetry and science with lyricism, inventiveness, research, playfulness and miniature bursts of storytelling. Fascinating.

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

- NZ Herald

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