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March 30, 2009 | by  | in Books |
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Vivid Familiar

Stephanie de Montalk, a Wellingtonian and at one stage a writer-in-residence here at Vic, has a small but varied corpus: a biography, a novel I own but haven’t read yet (The Fountain of Tears), and now with Vivid Familiar, four collections of poems.

Vivid Familiar is a collection of 24 poems divided into four manageable sections.

The first section concerns the Pakeha story of arrival and unpacking in New Zealand. The great distance from Europe is imagined through Darwin’s eyes gazing at butterflies (‘Lepidoptera’), the voyage undertaken (‘Before Grounding’), and settlement with all its hardships considered (‘By The Hour’, ‘Brave Days’). Each poem tells a little story, and the little stories build into a bigger story: the formation of a New Zealand cultural identity through the nineteenth century. This culminates in ‘Skin and Gristle’, a delightful collection of cultural cringe with just a hint of ennui.

The longest—and maybe the best—poem in the collection is ‘Feathers and Wax’, which comprises the second section. A poet is somehow convinced to board an airship outside her kitchen window and embarks on a journey of detached, quizzical delirium. The pace picks up here, and the poem’s a great deal of fun.

The second half largely leaves narrative behind, and is a series of impressions of elsewhere. The necessities of existence are taken care of in the first section on colonial New Zealand, so the figures in the poetical universe now look for something to do, things to experience. They look to the whole world: Everest, Paris, trains, the Balkans. I felt some of this made for less exciting poetry, but I have a terrible bias for storytelling, so my opinion is to be treated with suspicion. I still enjoyed these poems for their taste and light touch.

There are some real highlights in this collection: ‘Eruption’, a carefully-understated account of the Tarawera disaster; a disconcerting ‘Consultation’; and the slyly humorous ‘Secondhand Vallum’, were all poems I enjoyed particularly. I’ve already been caught intoning lines from ‘Consultation’ not quietly enough.

De Montalk’s verse is readily accessible but never simplistic. This collection is very pretty, and plenty of fun. It’s perfect reading for those days when you’re in a good mood and have an hour or so with nothing in particular to do. I award Vivid Familiar my special seal of recommendation. Now, I truly must get around to reading The Fountain of Tears.

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About the Author ()

BK Drinkwater's actual origins are shrouded in mystery, but it is said that he sprang from the summit of Taranaki fully formed, four days after the birth of Aristotle. He resents having been overshadowed in this way.

Comments (3)

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  1. Jan Farr says:

    Just a small addition to your review. This is Stephanie’s fourth collection of poetry. Her previous collections are Animals Indoors, The Scientific Evidence of Dr Wang and Cover Story. All are worth owning.

  2. Jan Farr says:

    Just a small addition to your review. As you say, this is Stephanie’s fourth collection of poetry. Her previous collections are Animals Indoors, The Scientific Evidence of Dr Wang and Cover Story. All are worth owning.

  3. Good point. My bad for not saying it—I mentioned this is the fourth, but neglected to give specifics.

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