BAD THINGS BY Louise Wallace.
Wellington: VUP (2017).
RRP: $25. Pb, 79pp.
Reviewed by Siobhan Harvey.
Bad Things, the third collection by poet, 2015 Robert Burns Fellow and editor of Starling magazine, Louise Wallace begins with poems which offer a series of sharp, succinct images. Take the second poem in the book, “Arrivals”, for instance, which kicks off with:
snake beard braids
round neck … (p 12).
Here, as in other early poems like “Once” and “We look more like the criminals”, the mind is made alive with the concision and precision of the word-pictures. Like a series of short films unfurling in the head which, it seems to me, is what the best poetry always is.
But these verses – symbolic of Bad Things as a whole – are more than just fleeting impressions. Wallace is accomplished at employing tight form while simultaneously being playful with it. It’s clear from the above poems, as well as latter poems like “The way time should pass” and “Soundtrack” that the author favours the list-poem structure. “Right of return” is a classic example:
1: You were born in a church.
2: You are carrying an oversized bag.
3: You have to send proof of purchase.
4: You did not keep the receipts.
5: It did not seem a big deal at the time.
6: You cannot take back being born.
7: You cannot take off the backpack.
8: You cannot just take off either.
9: You try to escape your own skin. (p 15).
There is something simple, yet comforting about the list poem. Like its consumerist companion, the shopping list, it provides structure and direction. It also permits connection, which Wallace builds on with her creative acts of associative word and meaning. But if I like this a lot about Wallace, her approach to and style of poetry, what I enjoy more is her ability to mix it up, form- and innovation-wise.
So, yes Bad Things offers a series of list poems, but it also these are synthesizes them with prose-poems, nouveau-haiku and visual forms too. Of the prose poems, the standouts are the self-deprecating letter-verse, “Dear Louise Wallace”, the elegy to poet Rachel Bush, “Darling–” and “All is lost”. While best of the nouveau-haiku include “Poem about poem about Okinawa” and “Vigil”.
Theme-wise, Bad Things explores loss, womanhood, cinema, family and location, always sprightly in its word selection and dark in its tone.
The titular poem, it seems to me, is the perfect window into the poetic world of Wallace:
No one can imagine
how bad things must be.
in the dark, damp folds of my mind.
They grow there –
a forest of tiny umbrellas.
They flourish –
a crown of terrible heads. (p 18).
Bad Things: what a good thing.
Siobhan Harvey is the author of the poetry collection, Lost Relatives (Steele Roberts Aotearoa Ltd, 2011) and the book of literary interviews, Words Chosen Carefully: New Zealand Writers in Discussion (Cape Catley, 2010). She’s also the editor of Our Own Kind: 100 New Zealand Poems about Animals (Random House NZ, 2009). Her poems has been published at home and internationally.