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July 13, 2014 | by  | in Arts Books |
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Autobiography of a Marguerite [Reveiw]

by Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle
4/5 stars

New from Auckland publishers Hue & Cry Press is this gorgeous, haunting book of prose poems. It’s an autobiography in verse – or a series of biographies threaded together.

Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle completed her MA in Creative Writing at Victoria’s IIML in 2012. This book is the finished version of her thesis. It just goes to show how well poetry is flourishing in New Zealand, especially for young new poets, all thanks to indie publishers and literary journals.

This book can’t just be called poetry. Two biographies – the author’s and her mother’s – are laid out and threaded together, shifting between the two just as the text shifts between poetry and prose, past and present, imagination and fact, actors and audience.

The first part traces the beginning of an unnamed illness. The prose poems are written with precision and clarity like a doctor’s notebook. Undercurrents of fear and displacement are packaged neatly inside each paragraph.

The book’s unexpectedness and empathy emerge fully in the second section where footnotes muscle their way into the text. They’re really like little anti-footnotes tacked on to the end of unfinished lines. For instance, the word “my” is furnished with “30: the smell of imprisoned flowers.” They’re confusing and brilliant, just like the lines of the poems, which are conversational yet intricate. In this detail, you start to see that everything is knitted together.

All these currents converge on the third section where photographs accompany the poems. They remind me of that glossy section in the middle of a real biography – the part you always flick to in the bookshop. The pictures turn all that introspection and detail into something tangible, but when you look at them, you realise they were hardly necessary; your imagining of the author’s (and her mother’s) childhood is already full of colour.

If you don’t normally read poetry (and if you do), you might be pleasantly surprised by the way the form shifts and bends. It feels new, wonderfully readable, and original.

One of my favourite lines: “The doctor said, The immune system fails to recognise itself and starts attacking its own cells and tissues.” Autobiography of a Marguerite is a beautifully crafted exercise in recognising the self, teasing apart your cells and tissues, and quietly resisting attack.


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