Siobhan Harvey’s collection of poems Lost Relatives (2011) reveals her navigating shifting geographies in order to locate the sensorium of the self. Her compass is a pragmatic feminism that derives from personal experience, and from her formal education at Manchester University in the 1990s. Born in the United Kingdom in 1973, Harvey migrated to New Zealand in 2001, to discover ‘landscapes darker and emptier than the moon’. Her poetry is that of a quester – a voyager — meditating on separation and discovery, on time lost and time regained, on the tug of distant familial connections, and the new global connectivity which means never being out-of-touch.
In performance, her poems are delivered with cool, measured emphasis, while their dynamic quality derives from a kind of mirroring – or perhaps from a tension of opposites that are held in conjunction. She writes of doubles (a woman seen in a window), of reflections (a sister who writes poetry), of antagonists (a relationship with someone who plays with her emotions as if she was a yo-yo, so that she retreats into ‘hard-shelled silence’). The arrival and the departure, the farewell and the embrace, the near and the far: Harvey’s poems offer enactments of these polarities as her-stories, psychodramas and fierce fairytales. Anguish, sorrow, loss, moony depression, then self-recovery and moments of joy, even anti-heroic irony: the poems stitch together a female sensibility, a feminist allegory – from child abuse within the family, to the contempt expressed by a male partner in a poem which offers a succinct demonstration of an unsatisfactory, unhappy marriage (‘The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator’s Wife’).
The new migrant is an exile, a shadow self, an arrival anxious to interpret signposts, but at the same time this feeling of otherness allows for perceptive recognitions about this new place called ‘home’. Harvey’s poem ‘Found at Parson’s Bookshop’, for example, evokes a subtle yet vivid impression of New Zealand’s almost frenetic assertion of national identity.
And she is attuned to power relations – gender politics, class associations of language, post-colonial history – and how these might be witnessed, transformed, even redeemed, through poetic retelling. The ‘bad choices, bad marriages, bad men’ can be cancelled, or at least rightfully consigned, while other rites of passage, such as a child losing a milk tooth, can be celebrated as symbols of an onward journeying: ‘(w)hite and hull-shaped/ tooth’s a boat’.
2008 Inaugural Bernard Gadd Memorial Poetry Prize (runner-up)
2009 Annual Bernard Gadd Memorial Prize (runner-up)
2009 Writer in Residence, Auckland Regional Council
2011 Kathleen Grattan Award for a Sequence of Poems (runner-up)
2012 Kevin Ireland Poetry Competition (runner-up)
2012 Dorothy Porter Poetry Prize (runner-up)