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Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy

I know Anne Kennedy for her two novels, The Last Days of the National Costume and last year’s wonderfully quirky Ockham longlisted The Ice Shelf. This is the first of her poetry that I have read, although previous volumes have been shortlisted in the New Zealand Book Awards.

There are many things to like in this slim volume. It is a very personal story which gradually reveals itself to the reader. The one page Forward tells us all we need to know to launch us on the journey. Anne’s older brother Philip died on Guy Fawkes night 1973, when he accidentally fell to his death. She describes him thus: “He was twenty-two. He had been a reader, a talker, an epileptic, a history buff, an alcoholic, a political apologist with a short fuse, and a poet.”

Anne’s reaction to this tragedy of loss was to listen to Beethoven’s Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli over and over again. This became the inspiration for the main section of this book ‘Thirty-Three Transformations on a Theme of Philip’. The Forward also talks about Philip’s books, the ones that came home and the ones that didn’t; James K Baxter and Herman Hesse, a Kafka story and The Book of Tea.

The Thirty-Three Transformations begin with Philip’s own poem. It starts:

‘Come catch me little child

And put me in a jar.’

A list of the things to be placed in a jar; leaves, The Book of Tea, paper and pen. This is the theme on which the variations turn and revolve, picking up ideas and throwing them around. You are taken straight back to childhood when the things that children catch and place in jar are often found dead the next morning. There is a lot of clever word play among the thirty-three pieces. This is the start of number 19:

‘Catch me little child and put me in a jar.

Ajar is small and a view of everything.

Hopefully we will always want and want for nothing.

Shall I seize you? Yes, I mean no. Please seizure.

We will live in a jar.

I will live in a jar. And the jar is a house.

Place inside a place inside.

That is how we will look out. Look out.

I am being very straight with you.’

The thirty-three come in all shapes and sizes, from a brief three lines to a tightly packed five pages. The five page number 30 is all about ‘materialists who have no materials’ and contain such gems as this:

‘Although sometimes the materialists watch a documentary

on the screen in the middle of the night

about how in the future air may not be so cheap and accessible

it might be hard to come by

especially if the methane in the oceans heats to a certain point and explodes.

Then air will be like tulips

in Holland in the eighteenth century or like Ikea in New Zealand, or worse,

and they worry like hell about that.’

I love the way that these variations keep picking up on themes and ideas and throwing them around, mixing and changing them. Just like the piece of music that inspired them, being both fun and serious with the original tune.

Next comes a poem called The Thé. A long collection of single sentences which slip back and forth across the page and flit around your head like the moth around the lamp. Reminding us that Philip was nicknamed Moth by his brother. The Book of Tea is in here, The Book of Changes too. Sometimes these single lines feel like random phrases, and at other times you can feel the links and see the patterns. That is their beauty; random and somehow not.

The book ends with Pattern/Chaos: An Afterword. A thirteen page piece of prose which talks more about Philip and the Beethoven work, together with the effects on Anne and her family. Pieces of family history come to light, such as the story of the red rug, helping you unpick the many layers. As you read, little pieces fall into place, things make a little more sense and you get to know Philip’s story better. The book forms itself into a complex whole, not just individual pieces, but parts that fit together to present a complete portrait of a person and the emotions that swirl around the memory of him.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Auckland University Press. RRP $24.99


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