Book Review: Mister Hamilton, by John Dickson

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cv_mister_hamiltonMister Hamilton
is John Dickson’s first poetry collection in eighteen years, and it is clear he has honed his poetry well. The precision of Dickson’s writing is intense. It’s like being placed in a whole new country with so much to see, and there is an amazing rush in his writing as he shows us his world and more.

The story, like many stories, begins at home in New Zealand. ‘Plainsong’ is one of the first poems in Mister Hamilton. Often, images of home can become cliché after reading them over and over again. However, Dickson brings clarity to this poem with unique images that call your attention and make you stop for a moment. He describes ‘Southland’s slow intestinal rivers / laden with manuka dust / And my detachment from anything plain.’ Dickson perfectly captures the feeling of being homesick: a background noise that is always present, pervasive. Something that ‘smoulders still’despite all the time that has passed.

My favourite in the collection is the poem Something Else. While reading it, I wanted to speed up in anticipation of the words to come, as well as slow down in order to take everything in. I think what makes this poem so effective and enjoyable is how it brings you into its rush of words and images. Although it may seem fragmented at first, there is story underlying it all, with a selection of images that recur and words that repeat. At its heart, the poem tells of a lost girl and her father, who carries an ‘anguished stare’in his eyes. It is how Dickson uses this story to open up a certain world that makes it so interesting. There is a lost girl but she is also so much more than the girl others see on the six o’clock news. She is also the girl falling, the girl full of rage, the girl who finally stays silent and lets the snow enfold her.

Mister Hamilton is also a collection that’s very conscious of the rhythms of poetry. In Dickson’s own notes at the back of the book, he explicitly states: ‘I attempted to compose verses that would not only use the speech rhythms of other people as well as my own, but also match the rhythms with various metrical patterns’. ‘Sixties relic surveys his lawn’ is a satisfying poem that seems to sway with a steady rhythm, and captures the methodical nature of the exercise. The final verse in the poem mimics the motion of someone working back and forth while mowing the lawn: ‘you mow your fescue that way / way this fescue your mow you / you mow your fescue that way’.

As the dust settled from the rush of being brought into all of Dickson’s various worlds, I quietly finished Mister Hamilton. And I was left with an urge to go back and read some of my favourites in the collection again, and an additional urge to write my own. The words in some of these poems seem to crest like waves as you read them, and they rush with a mix of images that seek to both inspire and question.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Mister Hamilton
by John Dickson
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408558

 

Book Review: Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma

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cv_truth_and_beauty.jpgThere has been a surge in recent culture, and across disciplines, of what we could term as biographical impulse. Objects, diseases and cities, through to created historical figures in art works, have all been examined through this lens, which involves interpreting a range of material to construct a narrative. This surge has also led to increasing awareness of the tension in biographical enterprise: there is a constant process of resurrection and modification.

Both impulse and tension are reflected, and even cultivated, in the emergence of a new genre, which is subject to critical discussion in Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma. ‘Verse biography’ melds biography and poetry to produce works where ‘the competing and complementary claims of truth and beauty’ find home in historical figures, whose lives are rendered in poetry.

Biography often favours chronology as the driving narrative force or main thread of work, which is then fleshed out with anecdotes and facts, reliable accounts, and investigations of identity. But verse presents another way of looking at things – ‘a freedom from the concerns of conventional biography’. It emphasises moments, highlights omissions, plays with chronology and is free from the burden of establishing authority or authenticity. We see this tendency in Anne Carson’s lyrical treatment of Sappho’s fragments, where she plays with square brackets to indicate omission: ‘Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it.’

There is an inevitable jousting between the autobiographical and biographical in any act of interpretation or reconstruction, but verse biography stands apart in its approach – it is deliberate and self-aware, conscious of its subjectivity. Not only does verse biography provide another framing for the story of a historical person – for example a look at Billy the Kid in Michael Ondjaate’s work focuses on Billy’s later years, his intimates, what drives him to violence – his ‘trials and tribulations in New Mexico’. But there is also a framing of the relationship between subject and writer, which propels us to consider whose voice is speaking through these works? In Margaret Atwood’s rendering of Susanna Moodie we are unsure whether it is writer or subject: ‘The mouth produces words/I said I created/ myself, and these/frames, comma, calendars/ that enclose me’.

Through various poets’ treatments of figures such as Emile Bronte, Captain Cook and Akhenaten, the cycle of destruction and renewal – of resurrection and modification – ‘reminds us that historical figures are but characters marked beneath our current selves.’ With contributions from academics and poets (sometimes both), the essays survey the concerns of voice, palimpsests, masks, mythologising, characters as vehicles for contemporary messages – and bring this ‘construction of life’ to the reader’s attention – revealing the awareness of these verse biographers carry in their works.

Although this academic text is by no means light reading, Truth and Beauty holds a certain unruly appeal in that it captures a moment in time in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the emerging cultural practice of verse biography sits on the cusp of becoming something in particular. The collection of ten essays, which form this satisfying tome from Victoria University Press, critically analyses important verse biographers and captures this lively diversity, where ‘individual works are so variously influenced, so eclectic in approach to the idea of verse biography, and so various in form’. The range of possibilities before the institution of a canon or genre settles, and the freedom this entails, is exciting to consider. Indeed ‘verse biography expands the possibilities for both biography and lyric’.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Truth and Beauty: Verse Biography in Canada, Australia and New Zealand
edited by Anna Jackson, Helen Rickerby and Angelina Sbroma
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560974

 

Book Review: New Sea Land, by Tim Jones

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cv_new_sea_landYou can lick the salt off this poetry, half expect sand to spill from the centrefold. Tim Jones’ latest collection, New Sea Land, is part history, part rattling fortune-telling. It is a slap on the face by a wet fish, a digging up of heads-in-the-sand. Jones has spied a calamity from the shoreline, an oncoming deluge. History is repeating on us, and this time the tide is coming in full.

New Sea Land is salty, but it is not your run-of-the-mill nostalgic beach jaunt. The sea and land are dispassionate players in a human-instigated ecological meltdown. Jones’ sea ‘does not mean any harm’ and his ‘sea does not apologise’. The sea is a desultory child, nibbling at the edges of things, erasing ‘Beachfront property / … with the stroke of a pen’.

Jones’ work is didactic, but not earnest at the expense of a playful image or a great one-liner. He pokes tongue at the itch for beachfront investments, and the securing of LIM reports. In a great little anachronism, Jones has Noah’s (of the Ark) carpenter crew curse ‘zero hours contracts’ and swim away from the job. Then there’s an alternative history played out, wherein Captain Cook and Dracula take ‘tea and blood together’ in Kealakekua Bay. It is all fun-and-games, but the broader picture is sober and confronting.

The world is falling apart at its seams. This is a New Zealand where climate change is playing out. The sea floods Lambton Quay, rolls over childhood homes, and meets householders at their doorsteps. People are left with new geographies of which to make sense. Jones gives us a periscope to a time where myopic vision has crystallised into something tangible. It is only once the impact is ostensible that we realise we ‘backed the wrong horse’.

There’s a passing of the torch, from one generation to the next, but one gets the sense that the flame has gone out. Jones’ people are asleep or in denial. They leave a legacy of rash decisions, a lack of investment in a future beyond their own:

‘You slept until you lost the path,

and woke to find your children’s path
blocked by rocks you long ago set falling’

New Sea Land glances backward, as much as it forecasts. It reflects on history, memory that ‘renders everything askew’. Jones stresses the importance of cognition of times-gone-by, in the navigation of a future. His people, though, are ‘so eager to obliterate the past’ that they ‘wash away the stepping stones’. Condemned to repeat past error, through disavowal of history, we find ‘all our futures / are hostage to our actions’.

Jones’ poetry is a caution and a premonition. ‘Nature doesn’t stuff around’. The sea and the land couldn’t care less about where we’re heading. Jones writes so well, you might lose sight of the fact you’re getting cold water thrown at you. You can lick the salt off this poetry, by all means. But Tim Jones doesn’t give you halcyon coastlines or ice-lollies on the beach. This is poetry that knows what’s coming, and insists you ‘keep your life raft close at hand’.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

New Sea Land
by Tim Jones
Submarine (an imprint of Mākaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129963

Book Review: Aboriginal to Nowhere, by Brentley Frazer

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cv_aboriginal_to_nowhere.jpgAboriginal to Nowhere is a love-letter to a world that ultimately rejects its people. It is a celebration of grunge, and a roll call of those things that are lame, cast-off, defunct and unlovable. It is about people divorced from the places they inhabit, and people who are disorientated in their own homes. Like those Talking Heads lyrics, ‘And you may tell yourself / this is not my beautiful house’, its people are bewildered. It also speaks to the profound loneliness ‘of the post-modern dispossessed’, the sort of grubby solitude that finds itself in a throng queuing for the Portaloos.

Frazer’s poems find beauty in the brokenness of things. Like Kintsugi, the Japanese practice of repairing fractured pottery with gold, Frazer conjures rich images from the ‘buckets of colonial rubbish’. While much of his poetry is sprawling and untethered, there are hushed moments:

‘The sky bruised over
slate roofs, the wind
moaning through louvres
leaves brown as coffee
rings.’

Most of his verse has a sort of musical harangue feel to it. The first poetic set, Aboriginal to Nowhere – Song Cycle of the Post Modern Dispossessed, pairs the technological and the ecological, through anxious reflections about man-made worlds and the alienation they can create. Frazer’s characters are watched by CCTVs and crows. They chart a course through a shifting Australia, one where ‘The indigenous goddess exits / stage left’ and people ‘bulldoze dream time for a freeway’. It is a rousing, rambling, and often irreverent, address to the nation. ‘Are you my mother, Australia?’ his speaker asks. The Australia that we find in the poems is more insouciant parent than maternal presence. And yet there are images, beyond the ‘broken hopes’, ‘generational displacement’ and ‘collapsed footpaths’, a sort of nostalgia for an Australia that may never have existed.

Aboriginal to Nowhere explores existential themes. Freewill and determinism wrangle in the cityscape. ‘Man, I didn’t get a choice where my consciousness / landed’. Cultural appropriation is prised open, xenophobia explored. There are questions of meaning in a world where the ‘Eternal Being’ is ‘an angry cynic’. ‘I don’t know what I am doing here’, the speaker exclaims. People depersonalise, aliens in their own skin. ‘Most days I feel like an actor ‘. And in a nod to Plato:

‘You are a piece of nothing,
shadows on the factory wall’

Frazer invites life’s dissonances to the table. Sometimes ‘the music and the lyrics / don’t match the visuals’. He entertains a ‘happy drowning feeling’. In all of this he steps lightly, capering around concepts, toying with the reader’s ability to hold two contrary ideas in mind.

Mostly, though, Aboriginal to Nowhere is about people – all sorts of folk. We meet hipsters and junkies, the mentally ill, beer guzzlers, strippers, rednecks, millennials, academics, immigrants, city slickers and farmers. Frazer’s is a world populated and full of noise, but ultimately nobody’s.

This is a thoughtful and fierce collection. Frazer is a visionary at a time when humanity risks losing touch with its core animality, and the real-world places in which it finds itself.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Aboriginal to Nowhere
by Brentley Frazer
Published by HeadworX
ISBN 9780473365677

Book Review: Lucky Punch, by Simone Kaho

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cv_lucky_punchFollowers of Simone Kaho’s poetry and spoken word performances on various stages will be delighted and surprised by her debut collection. As a performer, she is vivacious and alluring. Her captivating readings lure you in, captivating you with her tales of extended family foibles, childhood fascinations and modern city romance and heartbreak. At times Simone’s work has a dark undercurrent in the form of vignettes capturing various acts of violence and casual misogyny. Lucky Punch is in fact a string of inter-related vignettes, verging on prose poetry, with some more formal poems interspersed. Each one is short and succinct, requiring the reader to pause before moving to the next one. Set mainly in Waterview, Auckland in the 1980s, it is as much a coming-of-age story, as it is a poetic reflection of a domestic and urban life, through the eyes of a curious child.

The illustrations that grace the monochrome cover are courtesy of a young relative of Simone’s. They depict a child bobbing above the waves; the title submerged and a wide-eyed character navigating this subterranean world in big heels. On the back, we have a man and possibly a woman in freefall. The childish drawings are fitting for the experiences described within the covers, where hidden dangers lurk in the background of fantastical and mundane childhood experiences. The politics of growing up with Tongan culture is touched upon lightly in several poems, such as, Standards, where vegetarian Simone examines the cultural ideas and hypocrisy around meat eating.

…I gave up meat eating at sixteen.
They thought I was crazy in Tonga.

Or there’s, the poem, Here, that touches on the racial attitudes that are present toward the Tongan culture in New Zealand:

An Air New Zealand training manual gets leaked.
It says Tongans are softly spoken but drink the bar dry.
Maybe it’s Tongan thing, like gold teeth.

Some of the poems are peppered with cultural references: Tongan time, the umu, and catching crayfish.

Simone’s fascination with the rhythms and quirks of nature is evident in the collection; something that may surprise fans of her stage work, which has a more urban and edgy mood. Firmly rooted in place, many of the images will be familiar to Aucklanders, such as hanging out at the local creek, running from bulls, pillaging blackberry bushes and taking trips to the local dairy for cheap bags of lollies. We all know the delight of finding a bird’s nest and pulling a disgusted face on discovering a weta for the first time. It’s relatable in a way that brings a smile to the face of the reader.

Expressed at times as a stream of consciousness, we look through the child’s eyes as events unfold and circumstances shift into uneasy young adulthood and all its rude awakenings. Simone holds our hand for the journey and we are right there with her, swinging from branches and experiencing our first kiss, our first sip of peach schnapps and our first gasp of recognition that the reality of growing up can hit you like a badly-thrown punch. When we walk away relatively unscathed, we feel lucky; we might even laugh about it later, or in Simone’s case, metabolise the experience into a poem.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Lucky Punch
by Simone Kaho
Published by Anahera Press
ISBN 9780473367510

Book Review: Snark, by David Elliot after Lewis Carroll

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cv_snarkThe creativity of authors and illustrators has always been a marvel to me, but Snark is a masterpiece that outdoes them all. How does a writer come up with such an amazing idea – to complete the backstory of Lewis Carroll’s best known Jabberwock and Hunting of the Snark poems?

David Elliott is based in Port Chalmers and has written and illustrated many award-winning books. He has also illustrated for others including Joy Cowley, Brian Jacques, Margaret Mahy and Australian John Flanaghan. This experience is evident in Snark which shows both his artistic, creative and linguistic skills.

David Elliot took as his starting point those mysterious poems which use ideas and language in ways new and exciting to the original readers, but still enticing to us today. I grew up reciting, “Twas brillig and the slithy toves..” Here we have the story of the individuals who set out to hunt the Snark. David Elliot has given a wonderful portrait in paint and in words of each of the participants in this ill-fated journey. He takes the information from Carroll’s work and builds it into a fuller portrait. The art work in this book is a joy on every page. By using pencil and wash with a limited palette, he creates images of energy and excitement. The expression on faces, the details of plants and maps, the towering cliffs and the valiant ship are all drawn superbly.

Within the story we are also given the two poems around which the story is based. This allows us to remember the details so important to understanding the tale. The Boots reveals the true story for the first time. What actually happened in the tulgey Wood, who got into trouble with the Jabberwock and what was the Snark? All these will be revealed when you delve between the pages.

Not only do we have the original poems beautifully illustrated anew, the tale of the actual voyage and its conclusion, we also get wonderful explanatory notes at the end. Here we are given the detail that those of a more scientific bent will be seeking. There are actual photos and diagrams, original items and historical facts to support the story. This lends a more serious gravitas to the book which some may be misguided enough to describe as fanciful.

I loved it. It is such a surprise to discover I was not the only reader who was dissatisfied with the abrupt ending to Carroll’s original poems. I am so grateful that the very creative and determined Mr Elliott has provided me with this beautiful book. I will not be sharing it with anyone else over the holiday season. Everyone ought to buy their own copy.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Snark
by David Elliot after Lewis Carroll
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781877578946

Book Review: Back With The Human Condition, by Nick Ascroft

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cv_back_with_the_human_conditionMuch like the author photo proudly displayed on the back cover, Back With The Human Condition presents itself as a serious collection, but one that is filled with slightly more relaxed and satirical moments. At face value the book feels like a philosophical exploration. Love. Money. Death. Complaints. And while the gravity of the first three subjects can weigh heavily, it is the fourth and final, the slight twist, that delights and carries itself throughout the collection.

These four sections act as a guide, a reference point by which we can look into the poems. Through them Ascroft focuses the readers attention in a very effective manner, the subjects are after all relatable to us as readers in some way. And by keeping his overarching subjects so broad, we can read our own experiences into his writing. It is a rare thing for an author to pull this off successfully, but Ascroft has managed it, seemingly with ease.

Reading through the collection, one can see the fine crafting that has gone into each and every poem. In ‘The Tide’ we find a powerful description of a lover’s touch.

Your touch if it was made of notes wouldn’t be in the woodwind from
the bulrushes at your voice’s base, curling up and down your throat
and flowering into tight seedheads of words, but in the syncopation
of high black ticking piano keys, offbeat and ticklish like long grass.

The images conjured by Ascroft’s elegant poetry can instil powerful and relatable emotions in the reader. And while this poem grabbed my attention, each person who picks up this book could find a poem or passage that truly speaks to them, that connects with their own human condition.

On the other side there are poems that border on the satirical, and clever poems whose enjoyment comes from a more simple part of human nature. The poem Subject-Verb Agreement plays around with language on multiple levels, titles like Whereby I Compare You to a Cow and Try to Dig My Way Out, and Jonathan Relieves Himself out a Bus Window in India are enough to illicit a chuckle, and poems like This Poem Is Guaranteed to Awaken a Coma Victim play around with modern conventions. Back With the Human Condition recognises and explores all parts of human nature, providing a varied and enjoyable experience.

But this collection is not just about a connection on a human level. Ascroft ventures beyond this to some degree with poems like The Bearded Blog, an experimental piece that visually emulates a page of web code. This collection about us is not just drawing on our experiences and using those to present itself, but also providing new angles of thought, new avenues to tread down as humans. So in the end, perhaps Ascroft is more philosophical then I thought, though the bathrobe still reminds me of the lighter side of his writing.

Reviewed by Matthias Metzler

Back With The Human Condition
by Nick Ascroft
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560844