Liane Strauss: All the Ways You Still Remind Me of the Moon
Paekakariki Press, 2015
Poetry Review by Bethany W.Pope
Published in The Ofi Press issue 39
Liane Strauss' All the Ways You Still Remind Me of the Moon is a sequence of poems exploring the mythic nature of the moon. The book is bound in black, with a slate-shaded illustration of the sickle moon on the cover. The poems are divided into sections which illustrate its phases. These sections are prefaced with a silver-on-black image of the moon in the appropriate state of fullness or dwindling starvation. The New Moon is the one, striking, exception. It's printed black on black, so that the shape of the satellite is only visible when the book is tilted away from the reader. The poems are clean, carefully structured — the lines are sound and occasionally lovely — but they don't risk much. They don't ask much, if anything, from the reader. These are very safe poems.
One of the poems from the New Moon sequence nicely illustrates this safety. In ‘What Is the Moon?’ the poet asks a series of questions and presents a few flowery answers:
The moon is not a box, or a terracotta pot,
though it spins like clay at the heart of a wheel
and I’ve packed it full of our most precious possessions
This is ground which has been tread many times before and Strauss isn't adding anything new to it, though the images she creates are pleasing. By the end of the poem the lines have lost their lustre and devolved to an unplanned, atonal jangling:
Looking up at what we call the moon as I do
from the vantage of days that fill to full
and spill to new, I only know that there are nights
I don't even stop to wonder what it is.
In theory, a villanelle about the moon (in this case, the clumsily-titled 'Villanelle of the Moon’) is an excellent idea. The moon shows its face to us in cycles, seeming to change but remaining ever-constant. A villanelle is a cyclical form whose lines seem to remain the same through their repetitions, but which flux and change their meanings depending on the shifts in their context. In practice, this villanelle seems arbitrary and forced. There is no thematic thread, beyond the naked, unexplored face of the moon, tying the poem together. It seems like the poet wanted simply to write a villanelle, but never considered that formal structures are an aspect of language. They are meant to provide the skeleton of the poem, defining its shape and nature. Formal poems are not sudoku: one shouldn't plug words into the frame and call it good. They are a living structure.
In this poem, the first stanza seems to be about a person longing for their lover:
The moon reminds me what I have to do
when I’m at a loss, or on a train,
because it's always leading me to you.
There is the sense of unuttered story, intimations of romantic conflict which are mentioned but never named. But then, in the third stanza the rough-sketched story abruptly shifts, becoming about the moon itself:
the moon’s a lot like Cinderella's shoe:
it promises to slip on without pain,
reminding me that all I have to do
is wait and see a month, or maybe two,
The line 'promises to slip on without pain’ is very good, but in the context of the poem the stanza in which it appears seems to serve no purpose — save filling enough space to complete the requirements of the form. I have noticed that, when poets begin experimenting with form, they often treat them like puzzles. They learn the structure, like an infant learning words by mimicking the base sounds of their mother’s tongue, before they grasp the meanings or the grammar. That's a fine and natural thing to do; that's how we learn. But a person two years into their German lessons should probably not try to be an orator in that tongue, and practice poems should not appear in published books.
'Krakatoa Moon’ is a significantly more successful formal poem — a sonnet with a theme of broken, avidly destructive love. In it, a speaker agrees to 'toe the lover’s line’ so that they’ll 'live like islands on a fault’ until s/he gains the courage to make the break forever. The lines in this poem flow neatly together; the rhymes are (mostly) necessary; they have music, and do not exist only to preserve the pattern. They do not jangle. The poem builds a theme, then turns in the final couplet, revealing a climax that is constant, even if we’ve all heard this song before:
For I’m the tide the moon the sub
And you will be destroyed by what I’ve done.
This book is clean, and easy to read. It's beautifully-printed. There is no threat, or hard edge in it. It will, undoubtedly, appeal to a certain kind of audience. It will be read, and enjoyed.