Like Perfume in a Room: Raewyn Alexander Reviews ‘Excerpts from a Natural History’ by Holly Painter

Excerpts from a Natural History by Holly Painter Titus Books 2015

naturalhistoryThe entertaining idea that natural history could be endlessly presented to the public by poets the world over, a gorgeous premise for this particular collection. Such an attractive floral fresh cover, then innovative presentation around the poems features various editing side-notes, and a whole other linked story revealed. Some odd moments to chuckle over, and different realms of meaning.

Painter has in this one collection told us varied, (at times scandalous), details may exist in margins, details about poets and their editors having far too much to do with each other. Also hinting that a poet’s place in the world could prove far broader than anyone may usually imagine, and too, Painter introduces random facts about various places and occurrences. Readers could find themselves diverted and somewhat informed.

Concerning the Flower Motif in Adolescent  Courtship Rituals
The first time they went
to the city together
he gave her flowers everywhere;
exotic blooms yawning and
stretching in the open air,
and then dinner at the Hand & Flowers.

This start of one poem, above, from early on, a glimpse of the tone of the whole piece. It’s followed by quite a different offering.

Concerning the Murray Six-Shutter Visual Telegraph System
Inspired by the Chappe Brothers of France
whose semaphore telegraphs ran along nearly
5000 kilometres in that country and helped to
coordinate French military operations “

Excerpts from a Natural History did take some getting into, due to my own dislike of editing software and terse little boxes to the side of a manuscript. I favour hand-written editing notes. But after a short while the editor being rather less than professional in their behaviour seemed so unlikely but hilarious, I couldn’t help feeling drawn in, o and all those different layers of meaning. Not simply a collection about overlapping worlds, gathering knowledge, a love affair, or heart-break, and intrusion, it’s also about what happens when we see behind the scenes, how people attracted to each other may allow feelings to affect so much, and the extraordinary power of language to convey volumes in so few words.

Co-incidentally, the natural history of a love affair is revealed along with facts regarding more usual histories re such subjects as Grade I Listed Buildings, or the Regenerative Properties of Asteroidean Echinoderms, and Areas of Outstanding Beauty… along with many other quite different often curious topics. Gradually the two separate projects, if we may call love notes such, mingle and overlap. Professionalism and academic pursuits appear highlighted, the need for what we may call ‘being objective’, and ‘not talking about ourselves at work.’ This theme wafts and meanders, initially, through this fine collection like perfume in a room, or an indistinct entertaining music, with various surprises. Tone and mood gradually change however, so the mysterious scent or sense of it is quite something else, even alarming, but always darkly attractive.

Who dares carry on a clandestine affair with a poet? Anyone could ask just that after reading this startling collection. Editor’s notes outline a hidden story, revealed to the reader in what we could decide is a kind of literary revenge. If in fact this relationship did blossom to affect the work, then turn into something possibly scary, surely it would mean the ultimate ‘so there’ to publish all the material for anyone to see?

Amusing, with quite a few shocks and twists. You may laugh out loud like I did.

Painter’s a masterful writer, managing the gradual diverting changes in this collection extremely well. The sub-plot of an affair between the editor and poet appears reasonably realistic. Also, poetic interpretations of hugely varied natural histories, even without the side-notes stand as elegant, or distinctive poems. Eventually both themes become one, too, seamlessly. A great deal of satisfying content, well arranged, and truly an adventure to read. In fact you may like the idea of reading the poems alone, first, then the side-notes alone, then the two together. Some readers may be tempted to write their own commentary. Maybe the poet more obviously demands critique from us, by showing the kind of editorial commentary poets may usually, (and also almost never), see?

Excerpts from a Natural History certainly inspires thinking about ways we may present writing, with what formats, comments, foot-notes, disguises and language. This work is as much about the actual concrete subjects as about what poetry truly is, or may be, and how we can change or stretch the form, try innovative ideas, shape language as we please to gather a new or more excited readership. It’s a beautiful, clever illustration too, showing the natural history of the literary community has a wealth of narrative going on at any time. In this case readers get a glimpse of the kind of politics writers and their ilk may live with, every day, albeit exaggerated, or is it?

Painter’s language, as mentioned, pleases in itself. “ …peeled back like a Christmas bulb/ or Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage” or “Acres of anxious Angelinos/ whine their horns at the five o’clock symphony.” or “Guard tourism and history with vigilant defense.” The latter having an ironic if somewhat pompous humour about it, too.

This being the 392nd year of research, there’s ample reason for an extraordinary range of subjects, such as, the imaginary unit, buttons for sale in a hospice shop, flower varieties sold at an airport, an email spam folder’s contents (which appears to have not been ever assigned, but is included), a Detroit poetry reading, and departing flights noted from a classroom during a course about trucking…. This range of focus then too provides ready opportunities to introduce romantic red herrings, and outright cheek.

What a wide scope Painter covers within the confines of a poet’s reports and an editor’s commentary, also showing their growing mutual attraction, and what happened next to the work, and themselves. Do enjoy this.

 – 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 –

Excerpts from a Natural History is available from


Comments are closed.