I am Minerva by Karen Zelas.
Wellington: Submarine Poetry, an imprint of Mākaro Press (2016).
RRP: $25. Pb, 89pp.
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie.
I am Minerva is the third poetry collection from Christchurch writer Karen Zelas. The Roman goddess Minerva was goddess of poetry, wisdom, and strategic warfare, but the well-chosen image on this cover places her on shifting sands. In Seraphine Pick’s Girl (With Offered Eyes) a young woman of goddess proportions wears jewellery, underwear and a hapless expression. She has lost one shoe. Here is the Minerva of the poems.
The collection is divided into two sections, the first called ‘The act of breathing’. The beautifully crafted opening poem “In camera” sets up the intent:
before selfies a struggle
to find the two of us
in the same frame
always the invisible other
completing the picture (p 13).
The poems seek to make visible the ‘other’. No ‘self’ develops in isolation.
The self and the other are linked by the act of breathing, and this simple rhythm recurs, a gentle bringing together, whether the breath is fragile, or an act of desperation as in “The act of breathing”, (p 19).
Yet, breathing has power, in poetry (p 22) and in song in the very beautiful “Way point”:
… at that point will I find you
plied with night & I will sing
in strains so high only gods
may hear but with each breath
notes will enter pervade your flesh
set up a vibration … (p 15).
For the second part of the collection, ‘There’s no circus without clowns’, Zelas returns to the self, and explores her own story.
In “A room of her own”, we meet the poet’s mother as she bends over her treadle sewing machine, absorbed, energetic. There’s a wonderful physicality about this sewing, that suggests the mother’s passion for the work, and also for the family she sews for:
… the shuttle shot back & forth propelled by
synchrony of feet powerful calves fingers
turning tiny hems push pull guiding straight … (p 62).
These poems are alive with character, not only of the people, but also of the bygone streets themselves. In “Hanging out in the old hood: for Vivian Street”, we step into the poet’s father’s shop with the customers:
… exchanged a yarn or two
while Dad drew on his ciggie
perched the smoking butt
among charred grooves on
the edge of the counter … (p 64).
In this wonderful accumulation of detail, we are given the light and dark of the processes that shape a person.
Then Zelas takes us deeper into her family history. In “Pilgrimage”, we stand with her at the grave of a grandmother:
… London Hospital Whitechapel
dying behind which window
her final illness blurred Edmonton
Federation cemetery Jewish Quarter … (p 77).
In “Odyssey”, the pain of the search is clear, as the poet crosses ‘the old Pale of Settlement’ where Jews were confined during the times of the pogroms.
… & I understand why here this strip of land
good for nothing … (p 78).
To grasp some of these final poems, the reader may need to refer to the notes at the back of the book, which are clear, concise, and helpful. The title of the poem, “Stolperstein” is translated in the notes as ‘stumbling stone.’ Such an eloquent name. The notes explain that it describes the engraved cobblestones set in the pavements of Berlin and elsewhere in memory of Jews murdered by the Nazis. In the last lines of this poem, the understatement is equally eloquent:
… a trip-stone in cobbles:
life taken name inset. (p 79).
I found the way that Karen Zelas honours this part of her history intensely moving, not only because of the poems that attempt to look directly at the hard facts, but because of the way she manages the shift away from that. She goes first to present-day family and the future. In the poem, “The album”, she addresses her son, and shares the family story with him:
… within the old reveal the new
in you … (p 80).
Then she turns to myth, what is ancient, what is traditional. In “Elijah at my table”, she says:
.. tonight again we’ve told
the freedom story: (p 81).
Unshackled then, she gives us more myth, from startling family origins, exploding into rambunctious celebration. The final poem, “Born of the head of my father” begins:
I am Minerva: molecule muscle &
mystery monument cumulus
cycles of moon….
…I’m map I’m migrant…
After all that has gone before, this feels like a place of stillness, of arrival.
Karen Zelas and Mākaro Press’s Submarine Poetry are to be congratulated on the lively, well-structured collection that is I am Minerva. I loved these poems.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of fiction and poetry. She has had published: The Unquiet, a children’s novel, (Dunedin: Longacre Press: 2006); Albatross, a short story collection (e-publisher Rosa Mira Books: 2014), and Bones in the Octagon, a poetry collection (Makāro Press: 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.