This Paper Boat flows forwards beautifully like an undisturbed river. Each poem flows continuously, and feels like a narrative carrying itself forward on many different timelines, a range of pasts merging together. We are given a small history of Gregory Kan and his family, as he moves back into his own and his parents’ past, travelling great distances between Singapore and New Zealand. The poems also concern themselves with the early 20th century New Zealand writer, Iris Wilkinson, also known as Robin Hyde, and delve into her life at times. These sections do not break the flow of Kan’s poetry, but are integrated seamlessly into his writing.
And this is one of the factors that makes This Paper Boat such a pleasant read, that it flows from one page to the next, it moves forward ceaselessly while drawing on the past. The collection opens up with this merging of past and present, ‘Outside the square of land you last appeared on / seventy-five years ago, I pretend to busy / my phone. I am / taking in the way Wellington had to force itself / upwards to meet you.’ Kan not only recalls the past but places himself within it, and then draws on this feeling to talk about the present, an act of self-reflection through the lives of others. He repeats this even with his own past as he draws on his time of service, ‘Walking / through Wilton’s Bush a few days ago I was / disoriented when I cut my hand on a thorny, / overhanging branch. I realised I had no gloves. / No camouflage paint on my face, no equipment / vest, no rifle around my neck, no ammunition, / no water, no signal set, no platoon, no rank.’ These different pasts all reflect on the present for Kan, and even with his own past self there seems to be a certain amount of separation that is used to examine the present.
As you move through This Paper Boat you begin to notice the ghosts that haunt the poetry. With a subject that focuses mostly on the past it is not surprising to find ghosts coming back to haunt the writer, but Kan does this in a very interesting way. He evokes different ghosts as he moves through the past, ‘Gui Po – A ghost in the form of a kindly old woman, / who returns to help / around the house, and who was sometimes too close / to covet, and Yuan Gui – a ghost who has died a wrongful death. / He roams the world of the living, waiting / for his grievances to be redressed. He hasn’t left / anywhere he’s been’, and so on. These ghosts reflect on the subject of the past that Kan brings back into his poetry, and they add an interesting dimension, giving a lot of power to the ghosts that haunt This Paper Boat.
Gregory Kan has brought forth a very engaging and brilliant collection, and after reading This Paper Boat, I cannot wait for more work from this emerging poet.
Reviewed by Matthias Metzler
This Paper Boat
by Gregory Kan
Published by AUP
The Auckland launch of This Paper Boat will happen at Time Out Bookshop in Mt Eden, on Thursday, 25 February at 6pm. RSVP not essential but helpful for catering, email email@example.com.