Reviewed for Booksellers NZ, first published on June 24, 2019
Since 2018 Emma Neale has been the editor of Landfall, someone who judges and selects, curates and discards creative work on a daily basis. But she is also still a writer, producing her own work, defining her own voice and in her latest poetry collection, To the Occupant, she proves she isn’t caged in an ivory tower but is herself awake and aware in our world.
What Neale does so well is to ask us to look at an ordinary scene – waiting in a checkout queue, walking with a child, or eating a muesli bar – and then turns us around until we are facing something more extramundane. A great example of this is the poem ‘The Tasti™ Taste Guarantee’ which begins with the confession that a muesli bar meant for a child’s lunchbox has been eaten by the mother. Yet after that admission the poem floats away into an examination of our mortality, our human failures and the fact that sometimes,
when I catch a glimpse
of time’s webbed, oil-black wings…I’m so stunned and dread-run that even eating
a candy bar in Supergrain disguise
seems to be the opposite of inaction.
It is because she does this so well that the odd occasion when it doesn’t happen, when the poem keeps you stuck in the stasis of the moment, it feels like a let down. You want her to always spin you from the ordinary, to point at our cosmic reality and whisper, ‘Look! Look! Can’t you see?’
Of course this isn’t all Neale does in her poetry. Notably in this collection, she plays with creating meaning without words. In ‘Tone Poem’ she lays words out between musical bars and mixes musical notations with poetry. In ‘Two Birds Billing’ and ‘It Goes Without Saying’ Neale uses only non-alphabetical characters. These are fun and clever poems but underlying them they ask us to question how meaning is transmitted across black marks on a white page.
Neale also captures objects and nature in surprising yet totally suitable ways. A radio is ‘hunched in the kitchen corner’; chickens are ‘laughing as if they’d woken to tell each other outrageous dreams’; unseasonal weather patterns are ‘the chills of a planet running high fevers’. Of course they are! And yet – would we ever have thought to describe them that way?
Emma Neale’s last book was a novel, Billy Bird, and To the Occupant certainly has its share of boys and of birds, a sort of literary Neale signature. But it is her strong, compassionate wide-open writer’s eye which most defines her, whatever the genre.