Shooting Gallery by Wes Lee.
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa (2016).
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie.
Shooting Gallery is award-winning Wellington writer Wes Lee’s debut poetry collection. It is stunning. The poems are assured, brave, and many have already been published in a wide array of NZ and international journals.
After a first reading, I thought: these poems don’t flinch. Then I looked again, and yes, there is flinching, but Wes Lee stays with the pain and despair with eyes open and nerve-endings unprotected. Her poems are uncompromising.
Many are from childhood, in a household where the father is alcoholic and violent.
… I thought dads were all that way,
rolling unfeeling over stones – no gravel
or hot coals could burn enough, immune,
I know now you drank to be a firewalker,
a circus performer, to dull all nerves, to fly … (p 9).
As the thoughtful adult, she sees him as a person struggling with his brokenness, but the poems imply a similar sensitivity in the child who longed to reach out and connect.
This collection concerns itself with the broken and disconnected and while occasionally the voice is one of distant observer, more often there is deep empathy, and even admiration. From “Cat man”:
… and they came for miles
answering the salty, briny call
of cans, his gnarled hands and piss-stained
trousers held with string. And now he seems above,
better than most lives lived …
.. there in the dark with his eyes
seeing like cats, alert to every sound. (p 29).
There are many people here, from the streets. Some are glimpses: “Running Naked on the Motorway”, “A man dies drunk one night fishing for his keys”, and in “Karangahape Road sonnet”:
… and I wanted to be him, comforted:
the slow stroking of the policewoman’s hand
as they waited for an ambulance. (p 59).
Different sorts of exclusions are taken from news headlines or film. (It was in reading these particular poems that my only grizzle arose. I had the book in one hand, and Google in the other. Some explanatory notes would have been helpful.)
“Sunflowers” is a poem for Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger-stricker: The body is urine poured through a door … (p 42).
“Spectre” addresses a young woman who was murdered and dismembered:
The body is where you begin, all you have to give, to protest … (p 43).
The body is prime. And although throughout the collection pain and indignity are often a given, there is also a glorying in the physical, the sensual; there is verve, and poems that punch the air celebrating survival. I love the laughter, dance, and sheer physical pleasure of “Folding the Sheets” (p 14).
In “Conch” a mother’s body is remembered as marked by violence, but the child also remembers her autonomy, that she inhabited her own inviolable space. With reverence and tenderness, she shows them a shell. The female body again. Here is a beautiful image of origins and mystery, even within the context of the child’s disquiet:
The old mother had lips
that drew in tight
and a punch-bag kind of crumple
around her eyes.
She would pick up a shell and tell about
the conch’s warm centre,
the ribs that mark the opening,
leading you in,
the smooth dark at its core. (p 57).
It is striking that in these poems, no one is judged. The first thing that Wes Lee concerns herself with in Shooting Gallery is the humanity of each person. Here, the last shall be first, and she ensures that, in this marvellous collection, we know why this should be the case.
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.