Poetry collections are hard to name. The skill of finding one single word — even better, a single-syllable word — that has multiple resonances and registers is testament to the kind of linguistic craft that lies behind Johanna Emeney's third poetry collection. This one word, felt, can be tilted and viewed in so many ways and really gets to the heart of the book. These poems are, as the publisher suggests, "concerned with the things that make us feel".
But they're also more than that. There is the feeling of the lyric subject, the "I" that speaks and feels throughout these poems. But there is also the empathetic and compassionate observer, looking beyond the self to ask what kinds of feelings make people behave in certain ways. This is a landscape of feeling, of what is felt, but by diverging from the singular self — or framing this self in the second person, as Emeney regularly chooses to do — these poems are rarely self-indulgent.
Felt is populated with animals, fringe-dwellers and life-sufferers: a woman called Rose who posts her landline when she finds a stray cat (in "Comments Section"); a couple who have been given homework by their therapist "to stand/holding each other/for five minutes" (from "Couples Therapy"); an ex-student of the poet's speaker currently in Emergency Housing and who explains via text message the "difference between smack and crack" (from "Favoured Exception"). In all of these poems there is a deep empathy with the subjects, be they animal or human.
Emeney's poems are written with a deft hand, and she has a great handle of the line and form. Admittedly, there are a few occasions in this collection where I felt the pen wobble a little; there were some instances where the poet could have taken the foot off the accelerator a little, where she might have got the reader to that desired place without quite so much effort. But for the most part, the craft and structure is tight to the point of being largely invisible. Emeney writes a world where kindness and concern are the currency, where what is felt is the poet's first language.
Felt by Johanna Emeney (Massey University Press, $25)
- Reviewed by Lynley Edmeades
Lynley Edmeades is the author of As the Verb Tenses and Listening In, which were both longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Poetry Prize. She is the incoming editor of Landfall. A longer version of this review appears on anzliterature.com.