Lyrical Flights, Journeys, Surprises & Originality: Raewyn Alexander Reviews ‘The Burnt Hotel’ by Olivia Macassey

The Burnt Hotel by Olivia Macassey. Titus Books 2015

burnthotelLong ago amongst the more daring edges of Poetry Live Auckland, where words appear reinvented, I heard Olivia Macassey read her eloquent, mysterious, often amusing poetry and felt so impressed. Her poetry’s been published in Poetry New Zealand, Brief, Magazine, Tongue in Your Ear, Blackmail Press, in student publications, and on the CD Aural Ink. Her first poetry collection, Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, was published by Titus, 2005. The Burnt Hotel is her second collection. A lovely cover reminiscent of 1930s fading splendour, murder or mystery novels, fairy tale illustrations, and also, a warmth that comes with considering ordinary things while loving the world, however wryly.

The many scenarios and characters in this poetry could represent artful cosmopolitan Tamaki Makaurau Auckland. Individuals with flair, secret identities, keeping talismans and love affair souvenirs hidden away, some with bad sides like the cafe Bogey Man in ‘Dead Skin’ (page 42), or the mother not quite a monster in ‘My beautiful cinderella.’ (Page 31). I wasn’t sure why that title warranted a full-stop, at first, but the emphasis makes a statement of something in fact, rather than hinting at something ideal or unreal. Macassey takes extra care with details.

Some characters are simply developed from fairy stories. A wolf, the big bad wolf no less, somewhat startling as soon as he’s mentioned, just as he’s supposed to be. Macassey uses the beast to make us listen. She presents then Cinderella, the wish-she-was princess so many littlies dress up as to accompany their parent these days to the supermarket, trailing tulle and glitter. Only in this poem the magical costume snaps, rips, falls away, and Cinderella steps out of happily ever after into whatever-she-may-imagine. Macassey frees this legendary beauty from the constraints of fantasy, leading her to where she could hold something like control of her own story.

The beauty of this poetry appears in carefully chosen language appearing quite artless, seeming natural, in lyrical flights and journeys, surprises, and originality. Poetry does take us beyond the ordinary, often quickly. But also, an extraordinary depth of meaning’s possible with only a few adeptly chosen words. Poetry like Macassey’s offers alternatives too, and therefore strengthens ideas re our freedom to find individual new meanings in old stories, or any notion.

Other works in this fine collection regard more everyday wonders, such as in ‘The fish/ the bird’, a walk simply along a street in the city, one of the most fascinating, (still), K Rd, or Karangahape Road. Here Macassey soon turns the pedestrian into a memory of some souvenir, again a transformation, while the day grows more magical simply with shifts of light, varying intensities of colour. Invented characters live here as well, the fish and the bird, while double meanings appear in focus changes, line shifts and broken sentences, playful, floaty, and also hinting at some kind of human confusion we must learn to live with, or struggle with, at least. The voice of the character in the poem experiencing all this is so clear, a little child-like, and refreshingly imaginative, even regarding sombre ideas.

………..there has to be somewhere…………. grey enough to live in without breathing
…………………… ……………………………………………………… but we’ve never
found it.

Much quick, idiosyncratic humour occasionally in these verses often serves to make the more profoundly disturbing, or touching elements all the more intriguing. When Macassey mentions Fresh Crabs on a sign outside one shop “(much too close to the strip clubs for comfort)” I had to smile. Then that leads on to how older people could be wise after all, and soon to what dangers lurk. Contrast striking, so every word evidences every shift in tone necessary. This poet makes hope, the five senses, memory, and a clever imagination all step along together in a thoroughly human shape. Quite the most pleasing and generous experience.

I’d like to see the work boosted to include more extremes in contrast perhaps in future, and at times a very few lines seemed rather too easy, but all in all I kept reading avidly.

‘Annunciata’ (page 46) stands out as the most sly, puzzling, and funny piece, with its fashion critique involving shoe labels, modern manners, and cafe food, name-dropping Lucifer/Jimmy Dean/Winston Peters/ Satan, too. Ending on such a sober note that all the rest kind of collides with itself. Gob smacking watching it careen along so flat out, like with this killer line for instance –

Virginity is still better than power: it’s doves versus battery hens.

All in all Macassey uses language to shift readers into unreal and believable places, a reader moved there may dream upon what’s discovered. She also makes vast or important things disappear in only a few words, reminding us language is also a toy, and play’s serious stuff.

It is like a burnt hotel, this collection, as if exploring lovely places we recognise, but only partially, with some ruination, and we cannot linger, must keep on going, carry on and take ourselves with us. Take along also this fine book and read it many times.

 – Raewyn Alexander


Raewyn Alexander, novelist, poet, non-fiction writer and lately working on graphic poetry about her love for fiancé Chris Knox – Nowhere and Nothing (but Love). Hamiltron: City of the Future published her growing-up-in-the-Tron comic, 2015, and she has work in the Three Words comic anthology. Residing in Tamaki Makaurau Auckland, Aotearoa NZ and descended from French, Irish, Scots, and English, she has published seventeen books including the Five star review third novel, Glam Rock Boyfriends, which is available on Amazon. Raewyn can be found at and more information is available at –

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