Book Review: Salt River Songs, by Sam Hunt

cv_salt river songsWith around 20 poetry books under his belt, well-loved poet Sam Hunt has once again captured readers with his latest collection, Salt River Songs. Although a thin volume, it is no less weighty or full of treasures than previous collections.

Long-time friend, biographer and occasional collaborator, Colin Hogg writes in his generous intro, that Sam doesn’t know what ‘typically New Zealand poetry is’. This topic has no doubt been debated often over the years, but not many people would argue that Sam’s poetry has contributed healthily to a semblance of a poetic vernacular in this nation. He has a reputation for his everyman, lyrical style grounded deeply in the New Zealand soil. His poems have always emerged from the fertile country of his birth. This collection is no different.

We see through Sam’s eyes from a spot on the verandah or the wharf. While both platforms bring to mind images of ageing, they are spots we all know; as familiar as the vantage of a pohutukawa branch or a deck chair under a tent awning; never far from salty waters. They are themselves etched with the salty wind of family, love and loss; as are these poems.

The title refers to the five salt rivers of the Kaipara Harbour, including Arapaoa, where Sam lives. The title poem is also divided into five sections, each including the leitmotif ‘on Kaipara time’. You can almost feel the salt air in this work, with its allusion to sea shanties and maritime folk songs. It touches on the settler history and nature of time and tide in love and grief. It’s a short cycle; not quite melancholic, but rather wistful. The line ‘it’s a muddy creek for me’ is repeated and closes the piece. It shows Sam’s love of uninhibited nature and a slower pace, far from the sanitised and often frantic urban life in a metropolis, such as Auckland.

Speaking of sanitisation, Hogg recalls Sam’s mum chastising him for using too many F words in his poetry, after accompanying him on tour. There’s a few F-Bombs in this collection for the reader to help us recognise the larrikan performance poet we all know and love. The loveable maverick with his collar up and buttons undone still wanders through these poems, from the bed hair profile pic, to the Hone Tuwhare-style sex poems. But Sam is never crude; cheeky perhaps, but always endearing.

Yes, as Hogg points out, this collection does hold a grief, this through-line of death and loss; the salt rivers themselves a perfect metaphor for tears shed, a poet well-seasoned by the weather of life. (We live close to death, old mate…without even knowing it.) But it never flounders into sentimental territory. It is simply a poet acknowledging the fragility of things: the world [is] held together by cobwebs. But Sam’s philosophy toward the whole thing is summed up in the poem Piping The Fife. Musing on the death of someone he didn’t feel that warmly towards, he writes:
We each get on with our life
as well as we can. For me
I lie low, piping the fife.

He’s committed to the music of life and what plays out, keeping out of trouble. So to quote Sam, ‘I hope he keeps singing that song’ for many years to come.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Salt River Songs
by Sam Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503031