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'Casually solving the meaning of life in a text message': Chris Tse launches new books by Louise Wallace and Jane Arthur

On Thursday 11 May we launched two brilliant new poetry collections – Louise Wallace's fourth book, This is a story about your mother, and Jane Arthur's second, Calamities! We were very pleased to have NZ Poet Laureate Chris Tse at the launch, at Good Books, to celebrate their publication.

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Ngā mihi nui kia koutou katoa. 大家好.

Being asked to write a launch speech for two books is a bit like a MasterChef mystery box challenge – you’re given two or more ingredients that might not naturally go together, but through the process of pairing them you find harmony, resulting in a delicious dish that still showcases the individual ingredients. Sardines and coffee, jackfruit and blue cheese, or – to borrow foodstuffs from the two books we are celebrating tonight – cloves and strawberries.

And isn’t that what the best poetry does? Smashing two disparate ideas or words together to create a new image or an unexpected turn of phrase. When these happy accidents happen, they can be eureka! moments for the poet. As readers, these might be when our view of the world is shifted or reshaped. What we once thought to be a universal truth might be challenged, or perhaps we see ourselves reflected back in a way we never thought possible.

Louise Wallace’s This is a story about your mother opens with a bold gambit: ‘i am breaking up with difficult poetry’. What is 'difficult poetry'? Is it where meaning is vague and elusive, or is it bolshie poetry that refuses to be tamed? And is the speaker referring to their own poetry or the work of others? I’ll ask Lou to spill the tea in the group chat later. As I made my way through the collection, I realised that perhaps the ‘difficult poetry’ in question has more to do with subject-matter – what we find difficult to write or talk openly about – because this book tackles some pretty difficult things.

A quick digression into pop music, because that’s what I do: in 1998, Madonna released Ray of Light, her first album after giving birth to her first child, an album noted for its introspection, Eastern influences, lush ambient soundscapes and earth mother vibes – a far cry from her previous studio album, on which she sung, “I’m not your bitch don’t hang your shit on me.” Someone could write an entire thesis on the sentimentality and earnestness in pop songs about firstborn children, from Britney’s ‘My Baby’ (“tiny hands / yes that’s you”) to Beyoncé’s ‘Blue’ (“When I'm holding you tight / I'm so alive”).

Louise’s book, on the other hand, keeps the sentimentality to a minimum and tells a very different story – one that does not shy away from the clinical or the complex, or messiness. While there is beauty in its language and imagery, and in the way it can make your heart leap from your chest, This is a story about your mother is also frank about traumatic childbirth, and the self-doubt that can set in during pregnancy and those first days of motherhood. Perhaps the decision to break up with difficult poetry is a way forward, to move on from painful memories.

One of the book’s strengths is how it challenges assumptions and biases about the language used to discuss pregnancy, motherhood and grief, and women’s lives. Louise does this in an innovative way by starting with an unlikely source material for poetry: Huggies’ week-by-week pregnancy guide. The poems in the collection’s central sequence, ‘like a heart’, were constructed by feeding text from the guide into Gregory Kan’s 'glass leaves' app to be manipulated, then edited multiple times. Through this subversive process, Louise challenges expectations about how one ‘should’ be or feel as a mother or a woman. The source material is rendered unrecognisable. In its place are poems filled with questions, concerns, unsettling images and silences as the poet recalibrates how they use language to describe the intimacies of a very personal event, charting the small and seismic shifts in domestic bliss. These fantastic poems are at turns blunt, explosive, and self-deprecating:

at twenty-five / you were special / born / for a social calendar / but now / you’ve got a face made / for furniture / and your right knee / is up against / the greatest challenge / of its life

Pregnant friends have told me how overwhelming it is, especially during a first pregnancy, being bombarded by advice, not knowing who to trust or what to do if their experience doesn’t quite match up with what’s depicted in books and websites. Even those closest to them – family members, friends – can be the source of unwanted advice despite their best intentions. Pregnancy and motherhood are not universal – the best writing on these topics is clear about that and reassures new parents that it’s OK to not know what you’re doing or to be having an experience that deviates from the beige, curated Instagram posts of ‘perfect’ parents. This is a story about your mother is brutally honest about a lot of things – about letting go of past lives and embracing the approaching wave of change that is exciting and terrifying in equal measure.

And so there are points throughout this collection where the language feels like the speaker is faltering, their words unable to keep up as they try to outrun something that is bigger than them, something that they have been trying to avoid or ignore:

we are beginning / our descent angling / closer to earth and the plane’s / hum shifts / to an overwhelming drone flying / into nothingness / a numbness / there / I shelter from the things that scare / me most

I want to assure you all that there is also plenty of light and wonder in this book. What keeps the reader from being swallowed by the book's shadows is that Louise, as she has ably demonstrated since her debut collection, is able to see the ridiculousness and humour in all of life’s big moments, even when you might be at your most defeated. Her poems are the friends we all need – they tell us what we don’t want to hear and make admissions and revelations that we can relate to:

‘sometimes i forget what a proper noun is’

‘let’s say you’re curious / what’s the ideal age to try stripping?’

‘fuck your early education about bras, you’ve done your difficulties’

As much as Louise’s book is about pregnancy and those first unsure steps into motherhood, it is also a book about losing a parent – or, more specifically, letting go of a version of a parent, a shifting of constants at a time when one is only just beginning to learn how to be a parent themself. Our own stories – as new parents, children or partners – don’t exist in isolation. We become vessels for the stories of others and each one continues to resonate long after our own story has been written. In the book’s closing sequence, Louise writes: 'I sit on the driveway, my baby nestled in my arms. I draw squares on the concrete with coloured chalk. One inside the other, inside the other.'



If Louise’s book is about wading through a sea of advice and good intentions, sifting gold from the bullshit, the speakers in Jane Arthur’s Calamities! are setting all of that advice on fire and walking away from it as it burns behind them. They have, through hard-earned experience, learned that certain rules don’t apply any more, and that the only way to make it out alive is to learn how to embrace the mess we’re in, even if it underwhelms us. 'This apocalypse is more boring / than Hollywood had prepared me for,' Jane writes in the book’s opening poem. 'Yes, I’m scared, but constant worry / gets tiresome in its own way… Let me die normally or not at all.'

That, I’m sure you’ll all agree, is a vibe to get on board with after three years of doom and gloom, moving from the ‘before times’ to what now feels like a never-ending onslaught of uncertainty and tension. And yet it’s a cruel plot twist that we now live in a world where not only does it feel like we’re surviving multiple ends and disasters, we’re so used to them that there’s no thrill anymore. Seriously though – why can't we have nice things?

When I reviewed Jane’s brilliant first book, Craven, on RNZ in 2019, I talked about the ‘realness’ in her poetry, how her poems often say the things we don’t want to admit or confess out of fear of revealing our own anxieties or neuroses. Jane’s poems push against so-called ‘brave’ writing – just how brave is it to have perfectly reasonable and considered responses to the state of the world? Or to be kept up at night thinking about the future that we are leaving for our young people? How do we keep going when comfort is an endangered animal that we’ve forgotten how to protect?

Calamities! picks up where Craven left off, only now Jane’s poems are set in a world scarred by Covid-19, where things we once took for granted are now a source of dread: 'When I think of parties I think of disease. / That is what these times have done to me.' The stakes are higher, and the desire to hide from it all is greater. The speaker of Jane’s poems sometimes yearns for those brighter, carefree days, when 'summer was one continuous experience / slightly interrupted by life'. Nostalgia can be a powerful drug, sweeping us away from present-day angst, but it can also be a potent reminder that we can never go back, that what once brought us comfort may turn against us: 'And now / at the end / of the season / I discover everything / just as I had left it / knocking the wind out of me'.

Although some will refer to the period in which we are living as ‘post pandemic’ or ‘post Covid-19’, case numbers and deaths are still being reported in Aotearoa, and everyone knows someone who is struggling with the effects of long Covid. There’s a dissonance caused by supposedly returning to ‘normal’ yet still feeling like we’re stuck in some weird limbo. Does normal exist anymore? And why have we become so desensitised to the world’s ills that nothing surprises us? This feeling is wonderfully captured in the poem ‘Crisis':

The crisis says,

“Here’s Johnny!”

every single day.

Oh, it’s Johnny again.

We should have known.

It’s no wonder then that in another poem Jane exclaims “I want to get morbid I want to get morbid” because doing so might be the only way to claw back that feeling we had before the end times, to appreciate that there is a line between living carefree and living in a state of constant worry. Calamities! takes in as much of the world and the universe as possible in its attempt to find that feeling again – the poem ‘Meteorite’ contemplates the smallness of our lives but finds its speaker thoroughly unimpressed by the size of the universe: “I think there’s something wrong with me”. Other poems in the collection zero in on the home, and feature messy bedrooms, dead flies in cups, and a “stupid cat” that can possibly see into other planes of existence.

Something that strikes me every time I read a Jane Arthur poem is how authoritative her poems feel, even when they come from a place of self-doubt or surrender. And I mean authoritative in the sense that we can trust Jane the poet – there are no agendas or soapboxes. As a reader, I am enamored by her ability to articulate what is true and real about the world we live in, and that even when she gets morbid she doesn't lose that sense of why we need to keep our hope alive. As a poet, I marvel at how she manages to pull this off poem after poem.

Despite the tension that ripples throughout this book, there is plenty of room for Jane’s sardonic humour. You can see it in the cheeky exclamation mark in the book’s title which invites the reader to puzzle over just where the author is coming from. Without the exclamation mark, it would be dry and earnest, but with it, it captures the full spectrum of how we might experience the apocalypse: horror, excitement, relief. There are jokes and quips throughout that alleviate some of that heightened tension to bring the reader back down to Earth. The poem ‘Complaint’ in its entirety reads:

Haven’t all of us ruined something?

Isn’t everything terrible?

Isn't hope fleeting and utterly futile,

like trying to take

a photograph of the moon

with a cheap phone?

There was potential but you missed it.

There was connection but you blinked.

There was a lesson

but you spent it carving a dick into the desk.

This is what I love about Jane’s poems: that carefully crafted balance of addressing just how rubbish things can be with a little punchline as a treat for trying our very best.

And that, I think, is what binds these two fantastic collections together. They confront some scary things, but the resounding message is that our best is all we can give. Both books contain a desire to understand how and why our lives are shaped by pivotal moments, whether it’s impending motherhood or inevitabilities that we can’t escape. Louise and Jane write poems that are smart without being showy and they’re perceptive in the way that a friend might casually solve the meaning of life in a text message and think nothing of it.

It’s an honour to celebrate these two poets and their books. Congratulations Louise and Jane on making it to book #4 and book #2, respectively. This poetry malarkey is a strange and funny business – we put so much ourselves into our work and wonder why the bloody hell we do it. Well, I’m happy to say that the two of you are two of the very best at it.

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This is a story about your mother and Calamities! are now available from our online bookstore and all good bookshops.