Anne Kennedy's Sing-song (2004 winner of the highly prestigious Montana New Zealand Book Award for Poetry) is an account of a Mäori/Päkehä family's experiences with a baby girl's eczema. Through eighty-two riveting poems, divided into three sections, Sing-song realizes the overdetermined ways that "The skin is the first port of call for a reaction to the world" (23). In one of the first poems, the poet (who throughout represents the perspective of the "eczema-mother" in third person) describes how the mother (here, not yet a mother) and her lover (not yet a father) use words to construct for themselves "a map, useful, intricate, to the point / showing the long forgotten arterial routes / instructions for the beating heart, leaping breath / and where to sleep, sleep in Grey Lynn" (5). This grounding metaphor for the relationships forged within and through language beautifully describes the work that Sing-song does for its readers. Set in Aotearoa New Zealand, Sing-song invites us into an intimate terrain as Kennedy maps with a poet's precision and arresting imagery the particular places and domestic spaces that this family inhabits. The book's power is in the layered ways that it attempts to make sense of an experience of illness; as the poet explains, "when all is not well with a child . . . you ravel the knitted / sleeve of how it all began" (51). Rather than arrive at singular answers for the causes of the daughter's eczema, Kennedy seeks to understand how the abstractions of history, myth, race and racism, culture, karma, heredity, genealogy, colonialism, capitalism, gender roles, and medical institutions concretely converge and sometimes compete as explanations for why the daughter's "itchy patch the size of two twenty-cent pieces" (34) transforms into an agonizing and"endless burning bush" (36).
Kennedy grounds the abstractions Sing-song explores through beautifully wrought domestic details that double as metaphors that are no less profound for the humor that often characterizes them. In "Newborn baby," the older brother (at the time, age three) jokes about putting a stereo up his nose. Meeting with laughter from the adults, he ups the ante, inserting ever-larger objects up his nostrils, "until he got to the universe [End Page 469] of course" (24). The poem's details disclose both the boy's exuberant imagination and Kennedy's strengths as a poet: as Sing-song traces the causes of the baby girl's eczema, through its details, it conveys, with compassion and often humor, a universe of meanings. The "poetryless 'performance art'" (13) of loveless, always-screaming neighbors; the move from Grey Lynn due to soaring property prices to a too-dark house with a too-big mortgage; proximity to a house that held a murder and a fatal fire; errant dust balls; the pregnant mother's protective decision not to take fever medication; the inability tobury the girl's "jelly whenua," orplacenta, Up North; the chance decision to see a disastrously incompetent homeopath; false faith in an almost-universally prescribed aqueous cream and other rites (oatmeal baths, Dragon Spleen, cortisone cream); the falling into and near splitting of a 1950s nuclear family formation—all of these become not only possible explanations for the baby girl's eczema, but also comprise the family's dreams and daily life as a weave of history and myth.
Kennedy brings out the mythic dimensions and the cultural complexity of bicultural family life in Aotearoa New Zealand in large part by drawing metaphors from a range ofmyths and reference points. She describes the medical interventions the mother undergoes during her second pregnancy by explaining that the process was "deliberate, postmodern, exposed like / coloured pipes on the Pompidou Centre / Madonna's braworn over her clothes" (7). The brilliant inventiveness and finely tuned intelligence of this image is characteristic of the book; it indicates as well how Kennedy interweaves classical, contemporary "high," and popular Western cultural references with Mäori ones. The book moves effortlessly from the Greek poet Homer, the...