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A single light bulb fills the cover of John Dennison’s Otherwise, and this simple act of illumination is an idea central to the collection. There is a care to Dennison’s language that results in poems written with precision; they are poems that light the many ways in which objects appear and emotions manifest.
There were many poignant and beautiful lines that I had to stop and read again; objects and places were brought out from the background to appear front and centre. In ‘Northwards’, Dennison describes the constellation Orion with a brilliant touch of imagery, describing it as “blue diamonds worn long over cool indigo”. It is a description that is gentle yet striking – Dennison excels in these pieces of soft, light portrayal.
The characters in Otherwise are also presented in interesting ways, with Dennison highlighting their own unique curiosities. ‘To A Cousin’ is a poem written in the form of a letter that reveals things not only about the receiver of the message, but also the writer. In Tawa, Dennison describes a boy and a light switch, the boy being not in love not with the light, but the switching.
With many Wellington references such as one to the suburb of Tawa, the collection is very much based in New Zealand. In ‘House Concert in the Shadowlands’, Dennison invokes the poet Mary Ursula Bethell, shouting, you… made poetry on your knees! These snippets are little easter eggs for readers of New Zealand poetry.
Since Dennison mixes biblical imagery with the modern, the grand tone of his striking invocations took a while to get used to. The poems I most enjoyed were the ones that found subtler ways of exploring the same ideas. ‘Psalm’ portrays a reassuring voice speaking to a much younger and innocent figure, a conversation from adult to child. It speaks volumes about the way our voices soften for different people and situations. The voice of the narrator in this poem is reassuring, and it is also a reassurance found in psalms themselves, and how these comforting words are learned, remembered, and shared.
I also enjoyed Dennison’s experimentation with rhythm. ‘The Garden’ ties together and repeats a set of phrases with small changes each time – a full stop instead of a comma there, a slight change in meaning here – to create a complete story. These clever shifts create a purposeful poem that steadily strides along a pattern from beginning to end.
The variation in verse also made Otherwise unique. One poem, ‘Triptych’, slowly put together a story by setting up a person, a place, and a conflict with each of the three sections. Shorter poems like ‘Blackbird’ were snippets of colour and description that were brief but sweet.
Otherwise portrays a series of different angles on many aspects of life, from the sky in ‘Northwards’ and the characters walking through ‘The Garden’. This is the otherwise—the many way things can be seen. Dennison doesn’t just look to the modern world for guidance but also the biblical. And there is something very human about the way Dennison searches through this otherwise to try and find the truth.
Reviewed by Emma Shi
by John Dennison
Published by Auckland University Press