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Review: Birds of Clay by Aleksandra Lane

Birds of Clay
By Aleksandra Lane Published (Victoria University Press, 2012)
Reviewed by Lindsay Pope

Aleksandra Lane’s first book of poetry in English, Birds of Clay, is captivating and startling, both in its production and content.

The cover painting by Andy Leleisi’uao, Oacarus Part I, portends a narrative that is fragmented, dynamic, complex and abundant with metaphor, human endeavour and symbolism. After a brief introductory sequence of five poems there are seven self-contained sections that echo ideas and themes that bind each to the authoritative spine of the book.

Lane fearlessly experiments with form. In the section “Another Legendary Sky” the words float on the page either allowing the white space to lift them or provide a passage for ordnance to fall randomly. A sequence of prose poems is the flesh of the eponymous “Birds of Clay” section. Amongst the more conventional forms a villanelle reinforces the virtuosity of her craft.

Lane is a Serbian who found her way to the antipodes as an exile from the Balkan wars. Displaced from her home and language she has bought a fresh, fierce voice to our literary shores.

The freshness is ripe in “Easter” when she writes:

The late uncle sneezes and we close all

the windows.

I tell you April has wide nostrils

and a touch of hay fever.

In “The Economist” Lane’s anger is expressed fully and it is clear that she is an advocate for the dispossessed and powerless. She delivers a political and compassionate voice in a world of bureaucratic one-liners and institutionalized greed.

Often Lane’s poems are located in New Zealand (where else are cabbage trees part of the landscape and vocabulary?) but informed by relationships, events and memories from her place of birth. The opening poem “Earthquake” and “Wherever gypsies gather around for a wedding” both have footholds in two diametrically opposed worlds, while each of the poems in the closing sequence “There are no ghosts in America” have Serbian proverbs for titles. In “Quo vadis” the poet acknowledges that she has

a symphony

of moles all over my flesh, yet just one song.

However her poems transcend borders and reach deep into terrain of the heart. The poems “Thirty”, “Strong City” and “A different rain” all explore personal topics with candour and intimacy. Rather than seek a passport to the suburbs she takes an inward journey and transports the reader to a central place.

Lane loves language. She is inventive and imaginative yet is always economical and clear. Many poems are windows written with hard-edged diamonds. Whether looking in from the outside or from the outside in there is a sparkle that illuminates the human world. Witness the short prose poem “The uncle #2”:

He takes the girl fishing. Nothing happens for hours. They buy fish

from the market on the way back and she learns a little about trust.

In an imagined conversation with Aleksandra I saw her words flying from her mouth like birds leaving the nest, all wings and energy. Some knew the purpose of wings and soared, others roosted nearby preening their wounded feathers. Certainly none fell heavy as clay.

For me this collection of poems needs to be heralded. This book is a dynamic companion. It insists the reader be attentive to the many forks in the path, cajoles the reader to enter real and surreal territory and encourages the reader to traverse the map of collective consciousness. Read this book. Then read it again.