Emma Neale – Tender Machines


Tender Machines by Emma Neale.
Dunedin: OUP (2015).
RRP:  $25.
Pb, 80pp.
ISBN: 9781927322345
Reviewed by Janet Newman.


Emma Neale is an accomplished author, editor and award-winning poet. Tender Machines, her most recent and fifth book of poetry (of 108 pages), is a substantial volume. The cover art is a stylish and intriguing graphic by 13-year-old Abe Baille, drawn in response to the title which, in turn, is referenced in two quotations in the epigraph, denoting poems as “machines”: ‘small (or large)’ and ‘little.’ They are in fact almost all large, fleshy structures underscoring Neale’s thesis: we may become mechanised to cope with stress: ‘We say / we have steeled ourselves’; we work robotically, ‘housework, bike ride, / grocery run, talk about  / child poverty, peak oil’. We are both bullied by computers – ‘Can you verify you are a human being, not a robot?’ – and use machines to tend us, ‘The electronic monitors tremor and hum, / rush to staunch myth’s flood and swoon.’ These poems, intricate and intriguing apparatuses, sift through human emotions and anxieties caught up in the ‘mechanical’ and emphatically reassert potential human energies.

The collection is split into three sections and while it is tempting to divide these into separate packets ­– poems about raising young children, about technology, about the environment (sometimes ecopolemic) – the truth is they decline such neat distribution. Like life itself, subject matters overlap and interweave.

The poems are packed full of imagery and metaphor. It seems churlish, therefore, to suggest that sometimes the images are too multifariousness, constantly scattering mental pictures. This is, after all, Neale’s thesis – the ‘flood and swoon’ of growth – building the deck of self ‘against the hard, tall wall of the world’.

For me the most powerful poems are those in which the metaphors build towards ingeniously worded, perceptive endings. Two of the shortest are my favourites for their powerful and succinct imagery:

Hard Task Master

Over the hills
under a sky that billows blue
rises the thin power-tool cry
of a child
as he tries
to build and build
the deck of himself
against the hard, tall wall
of the world.



Soft as the powders
that pattern a moth’s wing

a lick of hot chocolate
dots the fine black wisps

of the boy’s one-day-soon moustache

as if even the milk
from the family fridge

is nowhere ready
to see the man fledge.

Although these examples continue the theme of child-growth present in earlier collections, Tender Machines moves seamlessly between concerns of parents to wider apprehensions for the environment and technology. This interweave compels consideration of what it is to be human in our time. Neale confronts the tension between perceptual and polemic poetry head-on in “Polemic”, which ‘agitates’ self-consciously:

What does this poem want?
When does it want it?

In the prose poem, “How to Install a Glass Ceiling”, the personal is political. Here, Neale rebuffs critiques which found her poetry to be overly focused on parenthood. “Glass Ceiling” demonstrates that ‘domestic’ is anything but narrow in its focus and wider view and contains the faultless multi-metaphor: ‘the warm clam of bed where the pearl is sleep around the grit of self.’

There is a trove of pearls in Tender Machines. The essence of Neale’s quest to comprehend the world in which we live is encapsulated in “Breach”, where the speaker, travelling on a London bus, remembers seeing a man perched on a high-rise window and a police officer talking him down. Looking back on this incident, older and more world-wise, the speaker asks:

but understanding a little more now,
of how many succumb,
how many ways they’re driven there
what I find this poem listens
and listens for over time
is what words came
as if the years were trees,
low, amber sounds in his mouth
welling like sepals or serum,
what did he know, what did he know
to say, that lone officer
beside the agonised man,
his own legs dangling alongside his
into the breach, the cannoning cataracts of air?

What did ‘that lone officer’ know to say is indeed the question. A poet’s job is to pose the right questions and, in a variety of poetic forms with delicious metaphorical and aural language, Neale does so, again and again.


Janet NewmanJanet Newman has completed a Master of Creative Writing at Massey University. Her short stories, poems and essays have been published in New Zealand journals. Her poem, “Biking to the Manawatu River”, won the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. “beach . river . always” was runner-up in the 2014 International Writers’ Workshop Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems.

T86 cover small

First published
takahē 86
April 2016