Emma Lee considers the wry observational skills displayed in Emma Neale’s new collection

tender machinesTender Machines 
Emma Neale
Otago University Press 
ISBN 9781927322345 
108pp      $NZ 25

The “Tender Machines” of the title poem are described by

The electronic monitors tremor and hum,
rush to staunch myth’s flood and swoon.
We are told to leave the room.

We open apertures
We move our hinges.

We wait. We say
we have steeled ourselves.

Emma Neale’s poems are wry observations on the pluses and minuses of family life – as a child and a parent – and the adaptation of family structures to technology. She uses familiar situations, as in “Cyberbullying”, where Siri fails to understand a Kiwi accent and the frustrations of having to fill out a captcha form to prove you’re a human and not a bot, to illustrate a point. Her poems are compassionate too. “Origins,” about parents, ends and even when love creeps close / over the slanting floorboards,/ sorrow drifts in with the smell of snow/ clustered on its skin.

In “A Very Bad Day” we learn that as one person Googled ‘how to stay in love’,

and one of us went to bed before sundown
while like high-pitched alarms
the birds still went off with alive
another day nearly gone! another day nearly gone!
so the rest of us stayed up longer and longer;
though silence cocked in our mouths
like trained and loaded guns.

This poem picks up the irony of combatants wanting to prolong the day rather than slipping off to bed and hoping tomorrow will be better. The irony is underlined as short “i” vowels give way to longer vowels, signalling a change in rhythm. In “Slipknot” bridal veils become

the bespoke masterworks
of a thousand tiny spiders
that seem to say
what great labours
the smallest of hearts may undertake.

The webs wed
earth to the sun,
self to place,
bliss to here and now

where we find 
as if they had their own minds
our hands loop a knot
that seeks to stop
all that has fought to come undone.

The focus here is on what links us to who we are and who we connect with, both voluntarily (lovers, friends) and involuntarily (blood relatives). In “Slice of Life” subtitled “Cast List: In Order of Appearance” the link isn’t silk but a Little Boy Dropping Homemade Cardboard Sword and Leaving It on the Sidewalk which ends

Shy Dancer Waiting for Internet Date, Staring Anxiously at Cardboard Sword
Harassed Father Striding Doggedly
Little Girl Really Struggling to Keep Up with Harassed Father Finding Cardboard Sword and Suddenly – Skippingly – Swashbuckling.

“Groyne” sends up the description of a piece of artwork:

This sand bore the imprint of a record of divorce, and the artist’s decision not to apply for the custody of her children. The traces of the written account for only part of the work. The artist describes the 
companion piece as a disjunctive, threnodic anti-poem: intense, layered, multivalent, open-ended; is it the very process of separation.

She asserts that this is the work’s most authentically avant-garde component, as it cannot be bought 
by an individual, gallery, business, or academic institution; photographed, reproduced, performed, 
nor recorded. Critics have called this aspect of her work a searing socio-political statement about the 
nature of sex, personal relationships, and the institution of marriage. Integral to its practice is the 
living embodiment of its victims—Martin, Rosa, Stella and Johnnie (known as Boy-boy)—within its 
ongoing evolution *

The footnote reveals, * In keeping with the artist’s intentions, the children’s names appear here without their consent.

The artwork is more probably a primal scream of narcissism rather than a lament for a lost marriage. That the artist doesn’t apply for custody of her children but is prepared to name them in total disregard for their privacy and without considering asking their consent, shows someone who fails to consider consequences or how unsympathetic a character she now appears. Emma Neale’s poems, for their part, are tender character studies.

Emma Lee’s Ghosts in the Desert is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing. She blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com and reviews for The Journal, London Grip and Sabotage Reviews.