By Johanna Aitchison
VUP, $25 | Reviewed by Joan Fleming

THE FIRST poem in Johanna Aitchison’s new collection, A Long Girl Ago, is, aptly enough, a homecoming. The poet lands us in her world with sweetly baffled wordplay and an eye for the unexpected. The book’s first and third sections are kiwi bread-and-butter, sandwiching a heart of ‘Japanese poems in English’, inspired by three years spent living in a remote Japanese fishing village.

Tempering her lyric impulses with a beguiling talkiness, Aitchison uses strangeness to her advantage. She employs startling verbs to explore human connection: “Your sister joins her face/ to her boyfriend’s face./ You drop a heart// on a plate, try to stick/ a fork in it.” Poems like ‘the six different kinds of friend’ and ‘sex: a user’s guide’ try to make sense of a world that, in the end, will always turn strange on you. People at picnics grow shells instead of toenails; the sound of seagulls’ beaks participates in lovemaking.

There’s a number of nearly-narrative poems where the language is dismantled and rearranged into a second poem. The straightforward slice of Kiwiana in ‘bread shed’ – choc-a-block with lamingtons, New Zealand Post ladies and characters called Doreen – pokes fun, but with a sense of celebration – a happy-to-be-home-ness. Its paired poem, ‘the smell calls out hot’, is a cut-up version of the ‘original’ but retains the same energy and lightness. They read like a pair of hot summer smiles, upbeat as a pop song, and with about the same emotional resonance. I prefer the darker, more achieved pieces in the collection.

Some of the ‘japanese poems in english’ risk a route that’s almost too easy: transcribing the bad grammar of Japanese students. It’s a joke we’ve all seen before. But this risk is softened by emotionally connected poems like ‘english lesson’, with its killer line-breaks and its heartbroken ending. ‘letters from japanese kids’ fully inhabits the pantoum form. In presenting (apparently word for word) lines from her students’ letters, the poet’s only presence is in the arrangement. And that’s enough to pull, at just the right tension, on the heart strings.

Speaking of which, the heart keeps making repeat appearances throughout the book. It’s .
pushed deep into roadside snow; it’s soft-boiled in an egg-hearted sandwich. Little hearts separate sectioned poems on the page. This could be dangerous, but Aitchison manages to keep the images authentic enough to signal real emotional experiences, not used-up symbols of them.

Some of the poems in the third section read like ghazals – the sense of the poem leaping from couplet to couplet, guided only by intuition. Sometimes these intuitive leaps convince the reader through the force of stunning imagery alone, like in ‘knocking without knocking’:

       I spied a pair of jeans walking off the painting.
       They swizzled in a phone box, legged it down an empty road.

       Seal-shaped driftwood’s the second saddest thing.
       Did I mention the surf? So white it’s almost white.

The progression from strange to sad retains the ghazal’s traditional sense of longing. There’s movement here, paired with a lonely watchfulness. It’s involving. At other times, it feels like we’re being left outside the frame, to stand and watch as the poet leapfrogs along without us.

And then there’s a poem like ‘mr grasshopper says’, a seeming miscellany, but knit together with streamings of dark and light. The poem has a quiet sort of violence to it. Even “the sound of a cop car/ coming along in jelly bean light” and “the german shepherd’s/ darking darking/ at the gap in the moon’s teeth” seem distant, their alarm-sounds hushed by the “sssshhhhhh” of the “can of hope”. The confusions are more satisfying, and Aitchison’s mixture of talky snippets with fluid and arresting images insists that diction like “na man there’s nothing/ on the telly eh” belongs with a line like “her insides spill white/ all over the carpet”. And I believe her.

The deliberate disorientations in this collection are reined in by its emotional earnestness. Aitchison’s lively experimentations step outside the parameters set up by much contemporary, lyric New Zealand poetry – and that’s a breath of sea air.