A poetry book review by Renata Pavrey

Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod is a New Zealand author whose poetry and writing have appeared in a range of New Zealand journals, online publications, and in the public art installation, In Our Words in downtown Auckland.

Elizabeth’s father took his own life in 2012. Unable to find words of her own to write about what had happened, she took them from Twelve Angry Men and the New Zealand government’s Fact Sheet 4 – Suicide and Self-Harm. Family Instructions Upon Release was her first poetry collection that released in 2019 from Cuba Press.

The blurb prepared me for what to expect in these verses. The collection is based on the poet’s grief when her father committed suicide and the cathartic effect of coming to terms with his death through poetry. I knew I was in for a heart-wrenching read, but Elizabeth’s writing is so beautiful, it truly reflects the catharsis as she looks for silver linings through her mourning.

Family Instructions Upon Release is set around the play Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose, which the poet had attended with her father, and forms part of her earliest and fondest memories with him. Elizabeth has also included the New Zealand government’s fact sheet for suicide and self-harm, to create a collection that’s both educative and sorrowful – merging personal experience with public information. The format and content are brilliant! Even the cover has its own story.

The book is written as a play, with exhibits, tickets, three acts, an explanation between acts, before, after, front stage, backstage, casting calls and critics’ reviews. The father and daughter are prominent characters in the play of life, and are moved around and guided and called forth or sent backstage by the Director. Through this literary enactment in verse, Elizabeth revisits her father’s battle with depression (that ultimately led to him taking his own life), and her own struggles with conception and miscarriages (which finally succeeded in the birth of a boy). The duality of wanting to end life and wanting to begin life, through the poet’s inner turmoil about her father and son, pierces through her verses.

Some of my favorite pieces are the titular poem, Miscarriage, Placing Blame, Antenatal Class, Birth, and Daughter Gets a Casting Call. This was a difficult book to read and review, and the poet’s anguish comes through in her writing. The subjects are sensitive and personal to even warrant a review, and I hope more readers pick up this book. It’s too beautifully written to miss reading.

Everyone’s response to grief and loss is different – the way we process deaths of those we’ve known all our lives and the unborn never met. Family Instructions Upon Release is a piece of art in itself – for the topics it addresses, the creativity in unfolding the collection, and the striking power of limited words. It’s a book to be treasured in the collection, and read many times over.

Some quotes:

-…one whose perfect love often seems imperfect, and the other whose imperfect love felt
so perfect.

-The parent, she’s born painfully, pushing out of her childish whims.

-Antenatal class. She’s pleased there are evenings set aside to keeping a child alive. Sad,
though, isn’t it, that there wasn’t a course on keeping a depressed person alive.

-He was my father. He killed my father.

-She’s locked in the brokenness he left behind.

-All stand on stage now Death has come.

-Why couldn’t Father be the same, at the end, as in the beginning?

-Life was undelivered. Did a postman mishandle it? Life went missing. Did it fall out a
hole in her pocket?

-Home is an assignment. Wellness is an accomplishment.

-She thinks about getting life, he thinks about getting rid of life.

-Lighting Manager dims the lights, as if he controls all darkness.

My rating: 5/5

About the author:

Renata Pavrey is a nutritionist and Pilates teacher. She reads across genres and languages, from writers around the world. Her short stories, essays, poetry and artwork have featured in magazines, journals, zines and books. She’s the founder of Tomes and Tales – a book blog dedicated to reviews, interviews, features, and all things book-related, including cooking and sketching inspired from literature. She can be reached at Tomes and Tales (tomesandtales365.wordpress.com) and @tomes_and_tales on Instagram.

By Angela Yuriko Smith

Angela Yuriko Smith is a third-generation Ryukyuan-American, award-winning poet, author, and publisher with 20+ years in newspapers. Publisher of Space & Time magazine (est. 1966), two-time Bram Stoker Awards® Winner, and HWA Mentor of the Year, she shares Authortunities, a free weekly calendar of author opportunities at authortunities.substack.com.

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