The Difficult Business of Being Human: A Review of Lucky Punch
Tim Upperton reviews Simone Kaho's collection Lucky Punch and finds an affirming joy in Kaho's poems.
Lyric poetry is various – it comes in pentameters and free verse, in sonnets and ghazals and villanelles, and, as in Simone Kaho’s debut collection, prose poems. It deals with all kinds of ostensible subjects. But one thing all lyric poems have in common is interiority. They may not all say so, but they are concerned with the inner life, with memories and emotions, with love and pain and loss, and with quotidian moments that, represented in the poem, glow with personal significance. It’s an obvious observation, but in 2017, when every day we are seeing a brutal assault by the world’s leading democracy on human values, human decency, the marginalised and the dispossessed, on the truth itself – it is an affirming joy to read poems that testify to this inner life, that assert its reality and importance.
E.M. Forster wrote of the relief he felt, in 1917, on reading Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: ‘Here was a protest, and a feeble one, and the more congenial for being feeble. For what, in that world of gigantic horror, was tolerable except the slighter gestures of dissent?’ The slighter gestures of dissent – in the face of our own looming gigantic horror, in the face of tyranny, manipulation, bigotry and fear, of swaggering might masquerading as strength, poetry says, quietly but insistently, No, this is not who we are, this is not what represents us, we are better than this.
These are poems about growing up female and Tongan in West Auckland, the umu in the backyard – nothing could be further from my own growing up, yet so much of this book is also about the difficult business of being human, a business we are all engaged in.
I first read Lucky Punch in early November, before the unimaginable happened, and Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. It’s still the same book, of course, but rereading it now, something has changed. These are poems about growing up female and Tongan in West Auckland, the umu in the backyard – nothing could be further from my own growing up, yet so much of this book is also about the difficult business of being human, a business we are all engaged in. Fragments of memory are offered up: the parent pulling splinters from the soles of feet with tweezers; the child climbing trees and rocking in the high branches in the wind; the handyman dad; the cobwebby garden shed; the everyday embarrassments of adolescence; the friendships that change and endure. Vividly recalled details, vignettes of story, collectively reconstruct a life that is unique and distinctive, and at the same time provoke nods of recognition – and all this feels precious, somehow:
Perhaps any book of good poems would have this effect, now. I don’t know. But this one works on you like a novel, or maybe a memoir, and its tale is engrossing and moving and real. Wandering in and out of its episodes, from early childhood until an abrupt and shocking end, is ‘Henry,’ charmingly seductive, elusive, self-destructive. ‘Henry proposed to me when we were four on the double swing that looked like a horse,’ says the speaker in the first poem.
The relationship that develops between the two – never quite sexual, never quite not-sexual – is the thread on which the beads of narrative are strung. Henry drinks, he has scars, he’s both kind and careless, constant and unsteady. We’ve all known a Henry. The speaker’s complicated attitude towards him informs the book with an emotional pressure, and, as in a novel, we want to know how things turn out. But there are other pressures, too, and other pleasures, contained in the dexterity and economy of the language, the swerves of tone, mood, the power of the unsaid. Kaho gets straight into a poem with no mucking around, and is out again just as swiftly, the job done:
I love this poem for its bluntness and its delicacy, for its drama, for the speaker’s willingness to appear in an unflattering light, for the quiet, ethical voice of Dean at the end. I know poetry isn’t going to stop the bellicosity and jingoism of the Trump administration. But poems like this one offer possibilities, ways of being, ways of thinking and feeling, that Trump, Bannon, Conway and the rest pretend don’t exist. Reading such poems is thus a small act of defiance, a leaning towards what is tolerable and away from what is not.
Lucky Punch by Simone Kaho
is available from Anahera Press.