Book Review: Ocean and Stone, by Dinah Hawken

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_Ocean_and_Stone‘Our world floats like a pebble in the universe. / Have we become, as predicted,
unconceivably lonely?’

Dinah Hawken is one of New Zealand’s most critically acclaimed and well-known poets, and Ocean and Stone is her seventh collection of poetry. She’s often cited as a nature poet, although Hawken took some time to see herself as such. In one interview, she states: ‘I’m amused when I look back to the launch of my third book, where Greg O’Brien described me as a “nature poet.” I was amazed – I hadn’t thought of it, but realised it was true. I should have known since the book was called Water, Leaves, Stones!

Hawken’s last collection The Leaf Ride (VUP, 2011) was one of the most affecting collections published that year, so I was glad to return to her sharp observational and meditative style in Ocean and Stone. Hawken shines most brightly when writing sequence poems as they allow her simple language to build in force. And forceful they are – few writers have the skill to return to the land and the sea with such originality and genuine knowing as Hawken: ‘The land is like a knife, out / of it’s sheath and glinting in the sun.’

Structurally, the collection falls into three parts. The book opens with the speaker as a grandmother, and the poems beautifully explore our differing perceptions of the world. In ‘The lake, the bloke and the bike’ the speaker talks to a group of men about the unwelcome noise they’re making on the lake. The poem states, ‘We all have our own interests, / he said. I agreed.’ The sequence of poems ‘The small boy’ recounts activities between the speaker and her grandson, Nate. Together they make the world through play, Nate with his dough and trains, and the poet with her language. Eventually play and language combine: ‘“Push,” he said and the word and action / clicked together.’ Both Nate and the reader see how to place language, and how language in turn places us.

These poems are followed by two sequences: ‘The young woman, Inanna’ and ‘The uprising.’ The first retells the story of the female Mesopotamian deity Inanna (Hawken used information from clay tablets to write this poem). Inanna’s story of female power – ‘She leaned back against the apple tree / and her vulva was wondrous to behold’ – sits strangely and evocatively beside the poems about the kindly grandparent. The two women are both creating their world, and when read with ‘The uprising,’ a masterful and unapologetic political poem about rising sea levels and human carelessness, the idea that our actions and voices are important comes forth.

The central part of the collection is the thirty page sequence, ‘page : stone : leaf.’ The sequence was created in collaboration with stone sculptor John Edgar, and his drawings work well with Hawken’s poems. Edgar’s drawings use words from an old Irish alphabet, and they remind me of cave drawings or stone rubbings. There’s something essential about their roughness, and the way the sit alongside Hawken’s poetic investigation of the materials. Together, the poems and drawings create a dream-like sequence that’s hard to define: it evokes some deeper, subconscious connection between humans and the earth.

The last third of the book feels more haphazard in it’s themes, and I wonder if it needed to be a few poems shorter. It encompasses the retelling of the Sumerian flood myth, poems about connection, and a sequence of poems about a friend with dementia. It also contains the most beautiful poem of the collection, ‘Tidal,’ which is a six part sequence about aging and acceptance:

They cannot always stay.
You cannot predict the clot, or bleed,
in the branching circle

of your circulation, the accretion
that blocks the way. Yet something
carries on in the ocean:

a memory, a carry, a swell
encircling the ones you leave and love,
rotation after rotation.

The experience of reading Hawken is to be lulled and then shocked awake, to see the land and the sea with such freshness you taste salt, and to feel her poems rise in your body. Even though she’s a ‘nature writer’ and these poems often have environmental themes, they are never overwritten or polemic; the politics arise naturally from the speaker’s concerns, and her concerns are many.

Reviewed by Sarah Jane Barnett

Ocean and Stone
by Dinah Hawken
Published by Victoria University Press, 2015
ISBN 9781776560448

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