By Eion Stevens; introduction by David Eggleton
Longacre Press, NZ$35 | Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

EION STEVENS’ paintings are like visual summaries of an emotion or an event, where the guts of the matter is left for the viewer to create. His tragic and comedic figures depict a staged inner-life, his visual choices symbolise anti-heroes, and parody famous people or himself. The viewer is given a tantalising snapshot that is as likely to be ironic as it is tender. Enough about his work though, let’s talk about this book that combines poetry with painting – published to coincide with an exhibition at Dunedin Art Gallery – and why you might like it.

The paintings let you walk in the artist’s shoes. Eion learnt the art of contrast by working with kauri woodblocks for two years. You can tell – his work has an edge, a depth and atmosphere that can only be created by focus and self-awareness developed through hours hunched over a bench for his art. The emotion in his work is accessible and real; it feels like the process and passage of ‘creating’. His paintings evoke sadness, the viewer feeling lonely, small, on-display, meaningless, frustrated, joyous and hopeful.

The book has many faces. On the first read the poems appear to be in response to the paintings. On the second read you notice the poems have been selected by Stevens and that the painting stage set (for a poem by Ian Wedde) is obviously in response to Wedde’s poem (which is included). Then you notice a poem by Mansfield which, as we don’t have the ability to time travel, couldn’t be in response to Stevens’ painting. Flicking back and forth you start to become confused – what came first, the painting or the poem? Each poem and painting combination presents a small mystery within their combination.

The poems (from poets as diverse as Jenny Bornholdt, Katherine Mansfield, Emma Neale and Cilla McQueen) resonate with the paintings but are complete within themselves. They do not describe the paintings but instead make sense of Dunedin, loss, guns, love, DNA and middle age. They make leaps, skate skillfully across the emotion of the paintings, fill in the white space by becoming the moment after, or just before. To give you a taste the last stanza from Peter Olds’, Small Pictures of Dunedin,

        ‘and I will not be able to find
        what it is that I am looking for:

        one specific pine tree,
        a melting snow-flake,
        a funny window,
        the yellow eye of a possum,
        coalsmoke drifting from dark-wedged
        North East Valley,

        singing power-lines.’

For me Olds’ statement reads as a question to the reader, or the painter: what are you looking for? I cannot answer that one. What I do know is that this book successfully navigates the pitfalls of combining poetry and art. With beautiful reproductions, humour and social commentary, it would be suited to those interested in either medium, or how they speak to each other.