By Amy Brown
VUP, NZ$25 | Reviewed by Tom Fitzsimons

FULL DISCLOSURE: Amy Brown took Victoria University’s MA in Creative Writing the same year that I did. She is also a past Lumičre books editor and the website’s current creative writing editor.

Regardless of all of that, here she comes with an altogether impressive and distinctive debut collection of poems. Always supremely polished whenever I’ve heard them aloud, Brown’s poems seem even more measured and certain now they’re gathered together on the page.

“Ever since the self-defence lessons / when I was twelve, when we were told / always to appear as big as possible”, the book’s opening poem begins, so assuredly you think she might continue, “I’ve known how to break a line”.

But the poem’s about being unsure. It ends with a shadow, at the end of an alley, walking “so slowly I couldn’t say / if it was coming towards me or going away”. I think that’s how these poems work: clean, clear forms expressing big gaps and doubts.

Brown is an introspective poet, drawing lots of her material from a close, even domestic orbit – childhood memories, uneven family experiences, the contours of an intimate relationship, the saturating, sometimes lonely experience of travel. But I think the writer Damien Wilkins has it right when he says on the back cover that she successfully loads her feelings off herself and into “images and scenes” that “carry the burden of disclosure”.

So, during a family fishing trip, we get the stark picture of her father accidentally hooking a seagull, which suddenly comes up against the line: “Dad looks so much older.” Then the poem fades out by saying that “We are a quiet family / so we listen to the crackle / of the Coastguard radio.” Somehow it’s all on the seagull flying off with the hook through its wing, the radio static. It all depends on them.

Other times, domestic goes to frightening. I lost count of how many poems have strangers following, or seemingly following, Brown, while dreams start to infiltrate the collection towards the end. In one sequence, we get couscous in a suitcase, a voice like “a duck learning to fly”, guns in an elevator, a classroom becoming a hallway and a swarthy Greek killer. It’s all very bizarre and intriguing, which is nice after lots of calm.

Not everything here is for me. Occasionally I get lost, while some poems feel almost too true to life, like a diary, with details that were probably real but come up short in the retelling. This is ‘The Yacht’, where cricket and sandcastles don’t add up to much, or ‘Taking the Picture’ which peters out while the family repositions itself for another portrait. It’s details like my “Pre-Intermediate General English adults” in ‘Apollo’ or even the text-slang spelling of “NO PWR” chalked on a street in (the otherwise great) ‘Onepu Road’. They demand attention, but don’t seem worth the effort. The book also feels young: lots of Mum and Dad, some relationship angst, the big impact of a key travel experience. But I think I only cringed here sometimes because it reminded me of myself.

Overall, undoubtedly strong stuff. And it’s not just tricky forms (I haven’t mentioned the sestinas) and polished lines. There’s a girl “bursting behind her hands”, a weird New Zealand and a vivid Vietnam, there’s everything suddenly reduced to a “shivering powder” of atoms. The poems aren’t just nice containers. There’s stuff inside.