Book Review: Mister Hamilton, by John Dickson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

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


Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye, Live in Wellington


Photo of Sarah Kay, by Darlene Toclo

As an event organised by Wellington’s Poetry in Motion, the evening began with some of our very own New Zealand poets. A series of slam favourites warmed up the stage before our very own Ali Jacs, the founder of Poetry in Motion herself, took the stage. Paired with the beautiful venue—the wonderful arches and stained glass windows of Old St Paul’s—the whole evening was already beginning to feel magical.

Sarah Kay (right) and Phil Kaye were then brought up onto stage to the sound of applause. For Sarah, it’s her first time in New Zealand and her bright voice exclaims how “everyone in New Zealand is so chill” compared to her hometown of New York. For Phil, this is his second visit to New Zealand after four years. He explained how he met Ali Jacs; it becomes evident that this mutual love for poetry is what connects people together and allows poets like Sarah and Phil to travel all the way to Wellington. The two then work as a pair for the rest of the show, delivering duet pieces in between their own solo poems, and presenting spoken word that is both heartbreaking and humorous.

One of my favourite poems they performed together was An Origin Story, a piece that explains the strange coincidences and circumstances that brought Sarah and Phil together. The two have no blood relation despite the similarity of their last names and other parallels that they unfold throughout the poem. The synchronisation of their delivery made the performance a delight to watch live, even after hearing it so many times online.

Sarah was just as bright and brilliant as she is in these videos. After switching places with Phil, she implores the audience, “make some noise if you’ve ever been in love!” Laughing with the uproar, she explains that it’s her way of gauging the make-up of the audience, telling us how university students yell like “love is their favourite sports team”. One of the poems she launches into next is a new piece from her recently released book The Type, bringing some new material into the mix.

Phil’s delivery of his poem Repetition was especially heart wrenching, portraying a child stuck with a stutter. This is an irony recognised by Phil; he describes himself as an “injured handyman” who works with words. The pauses he takes in between stanzas are perfect, giving the audience just enough time to reflect on what has just been spoken before building up the story and moving onto another image, another piece of dialogue.

Their last duet poem is When Love Arrives. It is a beautiful piece where, in succession, the two offer up wonderful musings on love, describing both its perfection and imperfection. Love is something bittersweet but ultimately worth it; it is a beautiful end to an evening of local poets and two very special poets from afar, who have come all the way to New Zealand to share their words.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

For more spoken word in Wellington, Poetry In Motion holds events at 7:30pm on the first Wednesday of every month at Meow on Edward Street.

Sarah Kay’s website
Phil Kay’s website

Wild Dogs and Other Creatures: Tusiata Avia at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

Chaired by David Eggleton, pp_tusiata_aviaWild Dogs and Other Creatures was a chance to hear poet Tusiata Avia (right) in action. The event began with a lengthy appreciation by Eggleton of Avia’s work so far. He discussed her two previous collections, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt and Blood Clot, and also noted her tendency to portray Samoa as a kind of paradise, but with something festering below. Avia also noted that she is quite an intuitive writer, and Eggleton suggested that in fact her poetry almost reads like a diary, though there was a strong dramatic presence to her poetry which lent itself to the performance of her work.

cv_wild_dogs_under_my_skirtDespite this rather in depth introductory talk from Eggleton, it was clear that the audience was hungry to hear Avia perform her poetry. She first performed four pieces from Wild Dogs, and right from the beginning her experience on stage came through. Three of the four poems were in different voices − two from the voice of a child − and Avia changed her voice, stance and accent to match the different voices, really acting the poems out in a tremendously engaging way. She then read two poems from Blood Clot.

However, for me, the most engaging performances were those of her new poems, which she hoped to have included in a future collection. One of these poems described a woman’s conflicting emotions regarding being raped twenty-five years earlier, and the poem, and Avia’s performance of it, was truly moving. This poem, and one of the earlier poems she read which discussed child abuse, showed Avia’s total lack of fear about confronting difficult issues − in fact, she later said that she felt she had a (self-imposed) role as an artist to bring things to the surface.

Her magnetic performances were cheered and applauded by the audience, and I can only hope that she can return for a future DWRF. It’s also worth noting that she was one of only a very few non-Pakeha/European writers invited to the Festival, and certainly she was the only one to headline her own event. The very warm appreciation of the crowd at Wild Dogs showed, however, that work about Maori and Pasifika people would be welcomed, and quite rightly celebrated.

Event attended and reviewed by Feby Idrus, on behalf of Booksellers NZ 

  • Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (VUP) 9780864734747
  • Bloodclot (VUP) 9780864735935

Line Up, poetry at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

The poet Emma Neale (right) could make a emma_nealecareer out of emceeing poetry events.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, to a room full of attentive listeners in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Neale introduced five poets with a series of eloquent encomiums that might have had the line up blushing were it not composed of old pros. It was lovely to listen to.

Bernadette Hall, Owen Marshall, former poet laureate Cilla McQueen, current poet laureate Vincent O’Sullivan, and Brian Turner had a tough act to follow but were up to it as one-by-one they stepped up to the microphone, most in quite sensible shoes, to deliver a cupful of their ‘crisp’ or ‘pellucid,’ ‘pared back’ or ‘erudite’ poetry.

The oeuvres and achievements of these writers – writers who are arguably among this country’s finest and most prolific – are well known to a reading public. So rather than describe the content of their selections, it might be more illuminating if I focus on the cumulative effect.

For an hour or so, the most valued currency in Dunedin and thus the world was language: carefully chosen words detonating sensual shock and visual charge, delivered in the various tones of the sufferers of that condition called being a poet.

And after the poetry, the questions from the audience, provoking the small revelations of self which readers love to hear. We left with humming ears.

Event reviewed by Aaron Blaker, on behalf of Booksellers NZ

A poem for World Poetry Day, nominated by Sarah Jane Barnett

This poem was nominated by Sarah Jane Barnett
It is from Best New Zealand Poems 2009, please click through to find an audio version of the poem.

The starlings

Anger sang in that house until the scrim walls thrummed.
The clamour rang the window panes, dizzying up chimneys.
Get on, get on, the wide rooms cried, until it seemed our unease
as we passed on the stairs or chewed our meals in dimmed

light were all an attending to that voice. And so we got on,
and to muffle that sound we gibbed and plastered, built
shelves for all our good books. What we sometimes felt
is hard to say. We replaced what we thought was rotten.

I remember the starlings, the pair that returned to that gap
above the purple hydrangeas, between weatherboard and eaves.
The same birds, we thought, not knowing how long a starling lives.
For twenty years they came and went, flit and pause and up

into that hidden place. A dry rustle at night, fidgeting, calling,
a murmuration: bird business. The vastness and splendour
of their piecemeal activity, their lives’ long labour,
we discovered at last; blinking, in the murk of the ceiling,

at that whole cavernous space filled, stuffed like a haybarn.
It was like gold, except it was more like shit and straw,
jumbled with their own young, dead, desiccated, sinew
and bone, fledgling and newborn. Starlings only learn

a little thing, made big from not knowing when to leave off:
gone past all need except need, enough never enough.

by Tim Upperton

Tuesday poem: A Shout by Michael Harlow

That wakes the fine calligraphy
of trees; the dark-beaked birds
that have wintered over,
stitching up the air, waiting
for that shout of green; and here
this mariner’s star, rose of the
winds, bright flower of sun,
like a stunned bee, in the small
hours of your hand – waking
from its hive the gold the dark
has been keeping, the mind’s
tenderness to the heart, waiting
for that shout of green, we
are because love says as much.

From The Tram Conductor’s Blue Cap (page 1) by Michael Harlow
Published by Auckland University Press
Used with the permission of 
Auckland University Press

This poem has been posted as part of the Tuesday Poem scheme

Tuesday poem: LOVE POEM FOR A VOLCANO by Airini Beautrais

To love a volcano is to love
shapes at dusk.
To love largeness.
It is a love seldom spoken of
but I have known men
to write furtively of sulphur dioxide
and utter words like ‘phreatomagmatic;.
Hands on pack straps.
Eyes into the craters.

From The Western Line (page 20) by Airini Beautrais
Published by Victoria University Press
Used with the permission of Victoria University Press

This poem has been posted as part of the Tuesday Poem scheme