Book Review: Under Glass, by Gregory Kan

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_under_glassIt helps to approach Gregory Kan’s new work Under Glass expecting a creative encounter rather than a series of poems which will tell you something. If you anticipate rightly you’ll have a great experience, because poetry will not always offer what you’d expect.  I don’t think Kan is using language to create meaning or to communicate; instead as Malcolm Budd says, ‘it is the imaginative experience you undergo in reading the poem’ which is on offer.  That’s a way of saying that Kan’s poetry is art and (like many other art forms) the experience of it is paramount.

Under Glass is a dialogue between interlacing prose and verse poems. The prose poems focus on a strange physical landscape which is void of others. These poems are active – the speaker is moving through and within a science-fiction like environment which may seem strangely familiar – because it is. Kan singles out the influence and sampling of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation novel which shares some similar scenery with the prose poems in Under Glass – a lighthouse, the finding of an old photograph, a huge pile of written text. In many ways the speaker is trying to discover the nature of ‘the second sun’ (Kan singles out The Crystal Text by Clark Coolidge as inspiration for the figure of the second sun).

This referencing and borrowing is part of how Kan writes. ‘For me, creative labour is essentially driven by organisation and reorganisation, combination and recombination.’ Kan told Carolyn DeCarlo in an interview for ‘It is not about creation ex nihilo, creating something from nothing. This is not a coherent concept to me. Everything new in the universe is assembled from something or some things that preceded it. Sampling in music is now something that is widely accepted, and I’d like to see the same happen in writing.’

In contrast to the prose, the verse poems focus on an internal landscape where the speaker talks regularly to the “you”, the “we”, the “they”. The verse poems are more observant, the speaker seems unwillingly stuck –’Here is the place where they will keep me’ he recites on page 35. There are intersections between the two landscapes, but where? That is the place for the reader to discover.

Kan is a master of creating atmosphere on the page, and it’s this atmosphere that provides an engaging  experience through its 65 pages. But if you want to stay you could stay a long time – Kan acknowledges a sampling for 22 other texts, can you find them? What is it like to read the sequences separately – all prose then all verse? How is the experience changed if you take a deep breath at each double spaced line, or if you say the lines out loud? You won’t find a firm narrative line in Under Glass, or even poems which resolve; but Kan offers you so much else.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod

Under Glass
by Gregory Kan
Published by AUP

Book Review: This Paper Boat, by Gregory Kan

cv_this_paper_boatAvailable on 22 February from bookshops nationwide.

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
ISBN 9781869408459

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