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: New Sea Land, by Tim Jones

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

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: Lucky Punch, by Simone Kaho

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

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: 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

Book Review: An echo where you lie, by Polina Kouzminova

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cv_an_echo_where_you_liePolina Kouzminova captures a longing that tugs at the heart in her poetry collection, An echo where you lie. Amongst the tumultuous images of nature—snow, rushing water, glaciers—Kouzminova finds her emotions reflected in all aspects of the world around her.

Kouzminova was born in Siberia and from the age of ten, she was raised in New Zealand. The influence of these two cultures combined shows in her own poetry, where she reflects on all that she has left behind. Distance in both space and time is what defines the collection. Often, Kouzminova finds herself pausing in anticipation for this distance to close, for kilometres to be travelled, for hours to be finished. In the poem Chemistry, she waits silently, for “he will come, bringing / a thousand years’ absence home”. A quiet and unsettling atmosphere blankets the poem, a feeling of hushed and nervous expectation.

The poem Franz Josef Glacier is a soft and delicate piece about departure, and it’s my favourite poem in the collection. There are the familiar motifs come with this kind of scene: the act of letting go, a plane, a distance that only grows and grows. Kouzminova brings something special to these conventional images. She describes continents that “would lay themselves out / on the palm of my hand” and the dazed feeling of waking up and then having to again remember what’s been left behind. Especially heart-wrenching are these simple lines: “Now your softness will be touched / by somebody else; I do not exclude this.” The poem not only captures longing, but also a sense of bittersweet resignation, of having to let go of a warmth that could never quite be all hers.

However, leaving is not all bad. In the poem At the airport, Kouzminova describes the promise that comes with reaching her destination. She affectionately paints an image of her mother cooking in the evening, and thinks of the rest and warmth that she can finally have. Kouzminova captures the scene in one clear and crisp sentence: “These are the reasons to leave late nights / and fly back home”.

The poem If we aren’t careful is like a minimalist love poem, a poem that doesn’t demand much of its lover. Instead, it asks for the simple things: “Promise me / you will always be someone / from afar”. Distance seems to define Kouzminova’s life, and she is left to find echoes of other people in her memories. Even if she can’t see them in the flesh, her memories continue to reflect and bring them to life.

An echo where you lie is simply a stunning collection of work, and I love the way Kouzminova threads images together into crisp scenes. This is only Kouzminova’s debut collection, and I definitely want to read more of her poetry. She perfectly captures the strangeness that comes with moving, of having pieces of home scattered in different places and never quite feeling full. The stories she pulls together aren’t fantastical but everyday. The magic is in how she renders these familiar actions: leaving, arriving, forgetting, remembering. This is what holds up her words and what makes her work so bittersweet yet beautiful.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

An echo where you lie
by Polina Kouzminova
Published by Submarine (Makaro Press)
ISBN 9780994129949

Book Review: Songs of the City, by MaryJane Thomson

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_songs_of_the_citySongs of the City is a collection that explores the contemporary world through a voice that seeks to look beyond the surface. Thomson splits the book into four different sections; each section focuses on a specific aspect of life with a slightly different voice.

In the first section, Finding Your Light, Thomson brings in a sharp voice that clearly expresses what it thinks of the world. Evolution is a poem that wonderfully describes life as “falling with the minutes / Building up hours”. The poem effectively highlights the preoccupation with time that defines modern life. Another piece, titled Just Surfing, criticises the modern day and age that’s caught up in digital screens. Although the voice in this poem is much severe, and borders on preaching, it clearly pinpoints the dangers of the digital world.

The tone slows down in the next section, Watch, where Thomson moves to reflections on faith. Prophet Nina Love is a piece that sees the world through the lens of the spiritual; Thomson sees “lines of David in the songs, / prophets in the poems”. Here, a prophet is not a grand person who only lives in heaven. Thomson states that these prophets are also “on earth through and through”.

This is followed by Funny Sun Kissed Fantasy, a section of poems on love. This is clarity of reality is a simple poem that expresses the realisation and epiphany that comes with a breakup: the change from moping to moving. There were some moments when Thomson’s expressions of love involved cliché phrases. Nevertheless, this second remove away from the critical and further into the personal worked well.

Conversations and Songs is the final section, and these are poems about music and letters. Some of these are positive and light, while others portray harsh realities. Night clubs depicts the negative truth of nights out in town. Although there is a feeling of excitement that kicks in, Thomson also reminds herself of the people out there with “motives they will / Forget in the morning”. Meanwhile, in The great contralto mezzo soprano, Thomson writes of the delight and freedom that comes with music. The poem, in describing music, has its own music too. The title itself rolls off the tongue and the piece is a tightly written poem with short, effective lines that roll in one after the other like dancers.

Overall, Songs of the City is a collection of poetry that looks at modern life with a keen eye. Thomson is not afraid to criticise and this results in a sharp and strong voice in her pieces. However, she also brings a nice sense of subjectivity in exploring her own personal thoughts. Her spiritual poems and love poems are two sections that add this depth. Each section is a different lens against the contemporary world and Thomson reveals that there is good and bad in all of these lenses. She introduces them to the reader and lets them dwell on these issues against their own lives.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Songs of the City
by MaryJane Thomson
Published by Headworx
ISBN 9780473365660

Book Review: The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell

Available in bookshops nationwide.Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_collected_poems_of_alistair_te_ariki_campbellThe Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell wonderfully captures the breadth of Campbell’s literary career. The collection is based on a spiral-bound manuscript titled “Complete Poems 1947-2007” that was found after Campbell’s death. The volume is divided into six categories that track the development of Campbell’s writing.

Of Wild Places encapsulates the early poems of Campbell’s career. These pieces are connected to the rough exterior of the land. The first poem, The Return, is one that finds its power in the ferocity of the landscape. Humans are reduced to small figures on the beach as Campbell revels in the image of “fires going out on the thundering sand… the mist, the mist moving over the land”.

Tongareva to Aotearoa serves a nice contrast to the previous chapter, by expanding further into the interior of the land, and exploring Polynesian imagery as well as Campbell’s own Polynesian identity. Campbell moves from his own personal meaning in poems such as A Childhood in the Islands, to grander figures such as old chiefs “meaner even than Te Rauparaha”.

Love Poems is a special chapter full of beautiful and light poetry. Many of these pieces are dedicated to Campbell’s wife, Meg. My favourite poem in this section is Love Song for Meg. The piece describes the sun as “points of light” that come in through the branches. It feels like a summer dream where everything in nature feels fresh and a little magical.

War Poems explore the experience of Campbell’s father in Gallipoli as well as the story of the 28 (Maori) Battalion. The poems in this section detail the struggle of these wars through first person narration. The way Campbell moves through different points creates a flow from one action to another. Even though there are so many names, some forgotten, Campbell does his best to portray the steely exterior of these men whose minds are now filled with death and “darkness, the sound of roaring, / and emptiness”.

I enjoyed the section titled Poets in Our Youth the most, where Campbell writes autobiographical letters to his contemporaries in verse. I loved how this gave an outlook into Campbell during his years at university. In exploring his own life, Campbell also sheds light on figures like James K. Baxter, who is lauded as a sort of “Kiwi superstar”. However, in Campbell’s letter, it is evident that Baxter is someone who has his vices and adversaries like all of us.

The collection ends with Looking at Kapiti, a blissful and beautiful picture of the everyday. Against the tumultuous tone of some of the previous sections, this one takes its time describing the world of Pukerua Bay, a familiar and domestic world that Campbell is used to. In About the House, Campbell draws on aspects of his home like his dog and the nature around him through bad days as well as good days.

The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, by covering the many different topics that Campbell has written on throughout his life, portrays how his words and writing has changed with time. However, at the core of all these pieces is a writer with an authentic and strong voice. This extensive volume truly does a wonderful job of showing this and emphasising the inspiration that his poetry still brings.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

The Collected Poems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell
Published by VUP
ISBN  9781776560677