A Continuous Stream of Moons

A review of Lucky Punch by Simone Kaho (Anahera Press, 2016) and This Explains Everything by Richard von Sturmer (Atanui Press, 2016), published in Landfall 233

With the New Zealand Transport Agency’s Waterview Connection due to open early this year, Simone Kaho’s poetry collection Lucky Punch appears at an optimal time to reclaim the suburb from the motorway hype. Tracing a semi-autobiographical narrator from childhood to young adulthood, Lucky Punch situates the excitements and disillusionments of growing up within Waterview’s geographical and social fabric. The Waterview of the 80s is a place of discovery for the young Kaho, and the vegetable patches, wild blackberry bushes, paddock of bulls, chickens, ducks, treehouses with pirate-rigging, birds nests, trampolines, abandoned cars, and old glass houses become the subjects of her poetry. With the mudflats and mangroves of Motu Manawa (Pollen Island) to the West and the impressive urban waterfall of Te Auaunga (Oakley Creek) to the east, Kaho reinstates Waterview as the setting of a suburban pastoral.

Confident, frank, and intimate, Lucky Punch is an impressive first book of poetry. Part memoir and part fiction, the collection explores two children’s sense of cultural dislocation and the encroaching corruption of an adult world. The prose poem forms the backbone of the collection, with most of the 83 short poems having a one word title: “Marry,” “Overstayer,” “Home,” “Standards,” “Comfort,” “Waiting”… The majority of the poems might well be described as vignettes or flash-fiction, being only about half a page in length. A contents page signals that the book imagines itself as a collection of discrete pieces rather than one long serial form, even though many of the individual poems seem less important than the resonances they generate through accumulation.

Billed as a love story, such a categorization nearly undersells the book. While the pieces which belong to the best-friends-potential-romance situation are some of the most moving, two equally important threads run through the collection: suburban pastoral “songs” of innocence and experience; and charismatic, defiant pieces which deal with afakasi identity.

The pieces in which Kaho tackles her dual identity are some of the most cutting and powerful. One of my favourite poems, “Half,” recounts the public disclosure of an Air New Zealand training manual in which back-office stereotypes of Tongan patrons surface. Kaho explains that she is never recognized as Tongan and makes a hilarious comparison of her afakasi identity to a jar of peanut butter and jam. Her mix of Tongan and Pālangi, she claims, is not like the clean swirls in which the peanut butter and jam first appear, but like the “pink brown mush” that eventually comes to fill the jar. “No gold teeth though,” she adds. Elsewhere in the collection, another sharp poem gets the better of presumptuous onlookers:

Some people say

 You’re too pretty to be Tongan
   which is funny because
it’s usually Tongans who say it.

It is a short-cut to make a big distance between us
and casually call me Pālangi at the same time.
I can hardly see if they are still waving
from that
long shore
far away
where they are having an umu with family.

With these poems, Kaho secures her place in a family of poets from Karlo Mila (Kaho’s actual cousin) to Grace Taylor to Tusiata Avia who speak of Pasifika identity with command and charisma. Credits here go to Kiri Pihana-Wong of Anahera Press whose efforts continue to ensure the visibility of poets like Kaho.

The best aspect of Kaho’s humour is that it is always in earnest. Irony is, for her, always a genuine irony, not a targetless hipster irony. Near the end of the collection, when the subject matter of the poems starts to darken and episodes of domestic violence and self-harm appear, Kaho still manages to shed light on her predicament. In “Pills,” anger mixes with flippancy in a move of self-reclamation:

"So, I want to let you know that I took your pills motherfuckers. Even after I googled them and found the homicide cases taken against your pharmaceutical company...yes, even after watching the ‘Animals Go Bad’ show where a pet chimpanzee was fed some of your pills then ate the face off a friend of its owner…"

“Drinks” is one in a series of poems which mock the conventions and language of therapy sessions:

"My inner child souped-up on powder she doesn’t know the name of…my inner child guzzling, her mouth wrapped around the glass…my inner child waiting for him to text…my inner child wants to do it again, but it’s already Sunday…"

Perhaps it is this aspect to the collection that the title “Lucky Punch” represents: to come out with a fluke blow of resistance to reclaim the self from the disorientations of young adulthood.

At the end of last year, another significant memoir was released: Richard von Sturmer’s This Explains Everything. Full of magic, but without any pretence of mysticism, von Sturmer’s This Explains Everything is playful, imaginative and humorous. The first two sections of the book focus on von Sturmer’s father and grandfather respectively, and are divided into numbered paragraphs (the numbers in the second section corresponding to the tiles on von Sturmer’s childhood snakes and ladders board). The final section concerns Richard von Sturmer, the last in the von Sturmer line, and is written in a more experimental vein.

Von Sturmer’s family have so many entertaining quirks that the material for this book has been collecting itself over decades: an uncle who filled his office in the New South Wales Department of Education with tropical plants; a grandfather who fruitlessly explored the Kimberley under the guidance of a bogus geologist; and a father who had vampire capes tailored for himself and his son to wear while they walked the family dog. Although This Explains Everything sets out only to detail the lives of Richard von Sturmer, his father, and grandfather, the reader can’t help but wonder about the women in von Sturmer’s family. His mother, grandmother and aunt only feature peripherally, brought into the text by relation to the book’s main subjects.

The challenge for von Sturmer is surely how to arrange the many fragments of his father’s and grandfather’s stories. In what could be a moment of meta-commentary, von Sturmer writes: “I piece together a man in a jigsaw puzzle. He stands in the foreground, on the right hand edge of the frame, dressed in a white polo neck sweater, dark gray pants and brown suede shoes…” Indeed, both the men’s tales have been through multiple versions over a long period of time. von Sturmer wrote the first copy of his father’s story shortly after his death in 1997, and his grandfather’s story has been brewing at least since the ’80s. In Suchness: Zen Poetry and Prose, published in 2005, passing mention is given to an unfinished “eulogy for my father.” “But the more I recall the past,” von Sturmer writes, “the more mysterious the present becomes.”

The mysterious present certainly manifests in the third section of This Explains Everything, also titled “This Explains Everything.” Events which oscillate between the ordinary and the extraordinary seem to find von Sturmer, such as when a sea sponge in the work elevator transforms the underground carpark into a wall of kelpy seawater, or a dozen moons are found reflected in rock pools on an overcast night (“they must be bubbling up from the seabed: a continuous stream of moons”). The surrealist bent in these pieces is reminiscent of von Sturmer’s first published book, We Xerox Your Zebras, which plays with paragraphs as theatrical monologues.

The choice to avoid a chronological or totalizing autobiography is refreshing. The short pieces which make up the section “This Explains Everything” form a mobile structure, suggesting that there is room for further memories in the present von Sturmer’s memoir. The section is far from a coherent narrative, and the title is a joke, playing on the promises of self-help books and the Freudian obsession with defining the self in terms of upbringing and parentage.

In fact, “This Explains Everything” comes across as more of a memoir on writing itself than a memoir of a person: lyric fragments and unfinished pieces from old notebooks form much of the text on the left-hand side of each page, and the right consists of corresponding pieces which supplement and contextualize the left. In this way, von Sturmer’s former artistic projects are resurrected, such as this moment of national glory from 1974:

Who Killed the Prime Minister?

Here’s a box of beehive matches
Strike one, you’ll go up in
Our life on this earth is so
But good products never

In the seventh form a friend
and I formed a company,
Pie-in-the-Eye International.
People would pay us to put
a pie in someone’s face. Our
first (and only) contract
was the then leader of the
opposition, Robert Muldoon…

(The pair carried out their plan triumphantly at Auckland Airport as Muldoon waited for his chauffeur, but were later tracked down, asked to apologise, and pay for Muldoon’s dry cleaning.)

Like Kaho’s Lucky Punch, von Sturmer’s This Explains Everything builds a story from a life rather than a story of a life. The two books avoid the emotionalism that nostalgia can bring, while still creating a sense of intimacy and compassion for their subjects. Both Kaho’s first collection of published writing and von Sturmer’s sixth make worthy contributions to anyone’s reading list for 2017.