Book Review

Tails by Kona MacPhee

Tails by Kona MacPhee

Kona Machphee's Tails strikes me as a better first collection that most because technically this is a better first collection than most. The formal stylings that Macphee imposes on her mostly gentle lyricism - lyrics that only occassionally miss their mark either by stretching too far or remaining blankly mundane - keep the personal meditation of IVF or the moving sonnet On our hands corralled, increasing their power.

Macphee is a computer programmer and, whilst the shock and awe provoked by a scientist who can read books and write poems can - and has been - overplayed, it does allow Macphee to draw from a wider image palette than her non-scientist, non-technical peers. Astrological and cosmological metaphors and similes abound but Macphee is already an accomplished enough writer to know not to overdo it. Sometimes the writing is a little too fussy, occassionally she overwrites, but, overall, this is a very good collection indeed. Last night at the conference is a case in point. It starts beautifully:

           Midnight. His expertise absently orbits the mole on her left breast.

And the idiom maintains itself effortlessly, the next stanza beginning:

           Only this morning, the mole was a region uncharted in know space.

The Overall Theory - a neat reference both the male hubris at the heart of the poem and Strings Theory - is both domestically situated ("Nana unravelled her knitting") and prosaic ("Poppa found threads that connected things") and yet simultaneously moving, funny and rhythmically very tight:

           Poppa was making an Overall Theory
           from the bottom up, from a billion things,
           he was building a house by filing a cliff,
           to wear it to sand to make the bricks.

Such overt lyricism is always a tricky thing to handle. The thudding pentameters of Yode do nothing but underscore the banality of the poem's "do or do not: there is not try." We can get that from a cracker. What we can't get is profundity and plaintive, lightly worn wisdom:

           Here, in a private chapel of the dark.
           I curve around your curling back - as though
           my flesh could build a denser insulation
           over the dance of bones within ...

What we can't get is the personal melded quite perfectly to the public celebration, in The night before the last day of January:

           ... I'll recall it as the unslept night
           before that morning-after when you lay
           against my heart on the white of ward-square sheets ...

The title poem Tails combines the personal, the anecdotal and the rhythmic as well as any of the best of the rest in this fine collection:

           Through the passengers' gate, gripping your coin
           like a cool change to the flame of my palm,
           Tails, I thought, and I'll see you again
           but didn't toss, no, couldn't toss, that coin.

Macphee says that it'll be a good while before the next collection. I am flipping a coin and hoping it won't be.


-- Reviewed by Mark Thwaite on 30/08/2004

Further Information
ISBN-10: 185224660X
ISBN-13: 97818522466010
Publisher: Bloodaxe Books
Publication Date: 25/03/2004
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 63

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