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Town by Madeleine Slavick

Town is a pocket rocket. Pocket-sized, it punches well above its weight with a collection of fifty photographs and fifty poems. For those for whom poetry is not their ‘thing’ or who were put off it at school, this really is a new recommended experience. An essence. A feeling of and for small-town New Zealand. In all its quirky glory. The combination of words and images leaves the reader with strong but strangely familiar sensations. There are no people in the photos except the author's photo on the last page. The images are all places: buildings, houses, factories, bus shelters, churches, village halls. Cloudy skies for mood, blank walls for contrast. Words and signs.

Factory walls that say ‘Meat’ or ‘Society’. A bizarre sign on a solid park fence that says ‘Walking Opportunity’, as though walking up to the sign would never be enough.

Madeleine Slavick was born and educated in the USA, but then spent twenty-five years in Hong Kong. To move from that crowded metropolis to the rural Wairarapa is perhaps a strange choice, but one that now allows us to see ourselves through different eyes. She seems to embrace all that the community can give and takes part on kapa haka and learns te reo.

She captures the transition from Hong Kong to New Zealand beautifully in a poem of just two lines called Dark Sky.

Sometimes I am afraid to look at the stars

More in one night than in my twenty-five years in Hong Kong.

I enjoy the sentiment, even if I cannot agree with it. After more than twenty years looking into New Zealand skies, I still marvel at the beauty of the night sky and the enormity of the Milky Way as it stretches over the top of my house.

There are three poems which encapsulate the collections for me. The first is a lot to do with what we bring here. It is called Advice for a Small Country:

Plant some grass, a friend says before I come to this country.

Plant four different kinds in a small plot.

If you watch them grow, you are lonely.

Drink tea, writes a poet a thousand years ago.

The first cup moistens the body.

The second shatters loneliness.

The second is called Four Towns:

In a valley along a highway, four consecutive towns,

as if someone had skipped a stone.

Each town takes its English name after a British man

of the 1800s and offers free Wi-Fi.

Sunned dry mountains to the east, clouds clinging to

damp ones in the west. Are we safe in the middle? Are

we bored?

Only one café in town. Alone, not lonely, I take my

cup outside The red spot on the spoon where the

Jaffa had been.

Lots of things to love in this verse – the way we expect a little more about the four British men, but are left only with the knowledge that there is free Wi-Fi. Challenging us to look up the names ourselves if we are really interested. The image of the skipped stone along a country road is beautiful and the tiny red dot left by the melting Jaffa are perfectly observed moments. From the vast landscape between the mountains to the small dot on the spoon, we zoom in and out in order to observe everything.

The third of my selected poems is too long to quote in full, and is in fact one of the longest in the collection. Only two poems stretch to three pages. Most take just one to say all they need to, while a handful spill onto a second page. For me Eel is a beautiful combination of natural history , observation, native lore and the poet’s imagination to fill the gaps. It is a circular story of life, revealing the many cycles, back and forth across the sea to spawn and be born before travelling back to a home that was never yours to know as home. Here is a taste:

you swim

rivers and lakes, you swim

streams and maybe a dam

and you swim land

rolling yourself into a ball, rolling

and you can swim walls, and waterfalls

braiding with other eels, climbing

climbing, until you reach the body

of water where you may live one hundred years


The photographs punctuate the words, just as the words punctuate the spaces between the images. I love the contrasts. One moment a fruit tree in blossom and over the page a container left in an empty rain-soaked car park. Because so many of the pictures are of man-made things, their representation without people or figures makes them lonely and moody. A small book that is not a long read, but very worthwhile.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

The Cuba Press 


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