A Sharp Intelligence: Raewyn Alexander Reviews ‘Carbon Shapes and Dark Matter’ by Stephanie Christie

Carbon Shapes and Dark Matter by Stephanie Christie Titus Books 2015

carbonshapesThe title comes from a line in one of Christie’s trickier poems, “Look inside the things we know/ to carbon shapes and dark matter/ maintaining the flash flood of her smile.” This verse appears on the back cover. Perhaps a reader understands this is not as straightforwardly complex as one may think, from simply reading the collection’s title. These poems do quite a few twisty turns.

Christie explains life lately without directly mentioning too many dire, broad world concerns, but instead takes those as an atmosphere. She then shows what contemporary life may not easily address day-to-day, (making visible her desires), or discusses what occupies her days, (watching others, discussions, feelings about infringements, shelves in a mall and cleaners there)…. We see too how she intensifies attention, wishes for better, maintains dialogue… and what springs to mind therefore.

Profound ideas surrounded or held with the most charming, simple, believable imagery. Statements strike a reader then with more clarity and resonance. In fields and areas of what Christie makes us see or smell or hear etc., abstract ideas appear as if we’ve thought of them ourselves in our daily life. How excellently the poem Clod, page 27 races about rather randomly through so many situations, as one person addresses the other about tasks and events. The mundane, (“we’ve grown up and can pay good rent”), the ridiculous, ( a moon shrieking), the difficult, ( growing unstuck and turning bad or attracting it), the contradictions, (“Do not follow any instructions./ Hold me”), the worthy, (“…keeping out/ of power’s way,”) then stating with delicate sureness something that may give anyone genuine strength, and hope.

Our precious business is to stand
each moment as it comes.

Contradictions and tensions appear well realised, in a context of care and thoughtfulness. This poetry explores genuine worry and even terror with something like kindness, or at least restraint. Considering the extraordinary ideas and events mentioned, at times, Christie’s ability to carefully present what many wish they could discuss, and find hopeless, is admirable. Bloom, page 39, a lovely title which leads however to lines about heat, rage, the lack of air conditioning for some people, water shortages, and –

I watch my back
……………..which really is impossible.
I don’t know what I’ll do
if I have to fight the neighbours for water
or for our beliefs.

A sense of trying to find language to explain away impossible awfulness and worries, with too surely a growing need to stay loving, aware, as the measure of what’s best, emerges. Christie debunks naysayers by saying a conspiracy is not necessary for this mess to exist, and explains our current crisis world-wide as if she’s watching ink fall into clean water and changing it, blooming.

So much stated with so few words, and massive shifts without seeming to have done much at all, rather like watching a dance by someone truly athletic and artful.

Also, the language enchants and amuses, apart from anything to do with broader meanings necessarily. A pleasure, phrases like – “…When people sleep together/ their dreams entangle.” and “Most of our minds are underwater.” Also, some lines sum up a character so well, so chillingly in this case that you read on in fear but also, engaged due to the dry humour. “You make war sound fun.”

In some ways this collection represents a manual for surviving our difficult present moments, like the title suggests, with a scientific clarity to much of it. In the poem, Crossing the Park, page 8, Christie clearly and somewhat happily at first, describes various young people someone could meet. The kids are classified according to how dangerous they seem to be, and the poem ends with a play on punctuation, which lightens its otherwise grim assertion.

…it’s wise to be scared of.

Christie brings a sharp intelligence to her writing, softened at times by a genuine playfulness with language, as if mere meaning is not as important as enjoying oneself. Then, also insights reveal valuable ideas, presented in myriad ways. Perhaps occasionally somewhat chaotic arrangements of introverted lines may not always serve the poem well, when the subject appears worried, but rarely does that happen. A certain grace and care is evident usually, along with admirable originality and clarity.

The fact that Christie has also bravely addressed many topics which a number of people could find impossible or extremely difficult to discuss, has to be seen as one of the main strengths of this collection. Poetry allows us to find our way indeed to the drives and mysteries behind such simple gestures as a smile, or why someone could find washing their car a time to pause for thought. Christie presents a fine collection here, and I trust many readers enjoy it.

 – Raewyn Alexander

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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 http://poeticjourneytoamerica.blogspot.co.nz/ and more information is available at – www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/alexanderraewyn.html

Carbon Shapes and Dark Matter is available from http://www.titus.co.nz/bookshop.html

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

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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 http://poeticjourneytoamerica.blogspot.co.nz/ and more information is available at – www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/alexanderraewyn.html

The Burnt Hotel is available from http://www.titus.co.nz/bookshop.html