Carbon Shapes and Dark Matter by Stephanie Christie.
Pokeno: Titus Books (2015).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
The range, risk and innovation of Stephanie Christie’s Carbon Shapes and Dark Matter begins with her striking use of page space. The short lines and multiple margins create a twisting sinewy figure. The main presentational unit is the phrase, poised and juxtaposed in space and given extra energy by the frequency of statement versus imaginative phrasing. This begins to suggest some of the way in which this work can be read. If these poems can be read as sets of language, then it seems important to Christie that they unfold in a way that is improvised rather than laden with narrative, syntax and meaningful certainties that might impair the poem’s movement and energy. We see this in the opening poem “Hung r” where the sixth stanza reads:
This is how it feels to be in language
feeling. Sight comes out of our eyes
and falls over things.
let it out run
you are going to have
to be or not do
You really get to choose
The long poem “Nix” is a good paradigm of the poet’s technique. It is nine stanzas in length that form an elaborately-textured colocation of word-play which clarifies too. An example might be found in the last stanza:
Humans often lie
and set one choice to one side
and say they had no choice.
I wish to build my ability to be brave.
Let us be the intelligent life
that we’re looking for.
This time is the heaven
we crack open with each step.
Christie goes for the illuminating closure, what may be described as a clarifying epiphany. However many images, phrases describing concrete things may occur in the poem, the tendency, at the end, is the sort of statement flourish like the ending of Cleave”:
Houses built back into hills
wish for earthquakes to complete
their potential, the same way your heart
breaks today and you pick up
the phone, the bottle,
the needle, the argument.
I take the volume to have an element of the actually personal about it. The volume is not devoid of humour, as we see in the case of “Pauanui (Paradise)”, where
My whiteness makes me make sense
in Pauanui, where nothing has ever happened
we can believe, guilt-free, and rest.
What we have here is a model community.
The old are cared for, the young entertained.
There’s no reason to be anxious
except the terror
emanates from the ground
of a ghost town, with jewelled appendages
on dull houses with too many rooms.
There is an engaging simplicity about Christie’s work (“Wordlessness lies in wait / at abandoned edges of our garden”). And I do like the way that Christie uses simplicity in her focus on a friend’s cancer in the poem “Post-protest/ant”. Here are the first three verses of 2. Cancer strikes:
You impress yourself upon me.
You get better every day
yet things stay the same
like the spin of a drill’s spiral.
There’s bad blood on the grounds
and on the paddocks, in gorse stretched
over ample ridges, all bulges and bones
and in the gold light, faded, soft,
set against a pale blue sea.
If you were inside me
I’d see much more
than I can stand for.
Our mouths are changing shape to fit.
There is a strong point in favour of the poet’s indirect treatment of illness that is effective and transforming.
Christie’s poetry repays close reading. It is best to read particular texts and work through them. There is a bracing demanding quality about the poems. They need to be looked at carefully and thought about, and there are rewards for readers prepared to do that: satisfaction, insights, and memorable lines. As she writes in “Wingettes” – “There’s nothing we can do / except continue.” Certainly, it is an interesting experience to read this book, pretty much from cover to cover. One is aware of a distinctive voice with distinctive concerns. The placement of words and phrases on the pages, spaces, lack of obvious cohesion in texts, informal language and the ability of language to capture experience – all these run through Christie’s poetry.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako, reviews editor of Stylus, assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose.