Karen Zelas – Feathers Unfettered

Feathers Unfettered

Feathers Unfettered by Karen Zelas.
Illustrations by Jan Fitzgerald.
Christchurch: Pukeko Publications (2015).
RRP: $18.
Pb, 63pp.
ISBN: 9780473287979.
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.


on the brink
fairy tern

kiwi icon
chatham robin

conserve and
(“Warning: Species Alert”).

This collaboration between poet and artist is a celebration of 25 New Zealand bird species, all of them under threat. It is based on a previous exhibition of the same name in 2008, and reissued in this edition with Jan FitzGerald’s pictures.

Be warned – this is NOT your ordinary bird book. You will have to wait a long time to see any of these individuals in your back yard or your nearby nature reserve. The pictures are a wonderfully stylised set of impressions. Some are near to like-life; most are as formal as the birds depicted on Egyptian tombs. There is little or no background. The birds preen and pose, decorated – not ‘covered’ as with feathers – with Māori-inspired patterns, finely inked and detailed. They are occasionally paired, but this is entirely for design reasons. In the current craze for adult colouring books, they make us think of pencils and inks rather than swamps and mountain fastnesses. (Wish the book were larger!)

The poems also are stylised. Words scatter down the pages like bird song: sometimes in clusters, sometimes each by each separate in space, sometimes on a falling note:

prying beak digs deep

& leaves

And, as in the poem on the kereru, we learn details about each species, its history with humans here in New Zealand, its habits, and its distinct voice.

lays one white egg
chick fed ‘pigeon milk’
berry pulp

flesh coveted
till the gun
prohibited 1921

(“Keruru” [sic]).

The 25 birds give a good range of species, sea birds and forest birds, well-known and less well-known. Pictures and poems are on facing pages, occasionally a second page and a second picture, which is a nice bonus. They are arranged alphabetically by their Māori names, presumably the most widely known version (as in the wood pigeon, who has another name in Northland).

The text also gives English and scientific names for the birds, but I think this was handled unfortunately: the English name is tucked away in a footnote, and a third of the scientific names either have typos or are no longer in use. Ornithologists (among other species of scientist) have a habit of changing their nomenclature more assiduously than they change their hair styles (or in extreme cases, their socks). Printed authorities go out of date fast these days, and the safest bet is an online check via a professional society, in this case, the Ornithological Society of New Zealand.

And this leads us to a nice bit of publishing serendipity: the ornithologists’ long-revered scientific publication took the name Notornis fifty-odd years ago. Although that is no longer the generic name for the takahē, it’s still the journal’s name, and it’s nice to think of Notornis and takahē as two long-term survivors on the shaky ground of New Zealand journal publishing, even though there have been a few scary moments along the way.

reclusive Coaster
thought extinct till ‘48

in snow descends
to forest
lends its name
to a literary magazine

Mary CresswellMary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015.

T86 cover small

First published
takahē 86
April 2016