Scoop Review of Books

‘death on every page’

Salt River Songs
by Sam Hunt (Potton & Burton, $24.99)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

Salt-River-Songs_cvrColin Hogg, a longtime comrade of Sam, writes in his Introduction that, ‘There is a lot of death in this collection of new poems by my friend Sam Hunt. It’s easier to count the poems here that don’t deal with the great destroyer than it is to point to the ones that do.’ Tika tau kōrero Colin: I fully concur. I do not think that I have ever encountered such a poetic fixation with so much Death previously, except perhaps in the work of Emily Dickinson.

It is when Hogg, later in his rollicking intro’ states, ‘There might be a lot to do with death in this collection, but there is also something even bigger – a sense of timeless wonder … There is so much love of life in these words,’ I am by no means anywhere near as certain. I don’t glean this pastoral romance.

The older Sam does not celebrate or illuminate or – concomitantly – seem to enjoy anything much in life, anywhere near as much as the younger more ebullient-in-verse Sam. Now, never get me wrong here: Sam Hunt is and always will be one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s greatest poets/poet-minstrels. But in this book, there is just too much – for me, anyway – obsession with dead acquaintances, his own deceased parents, much more than anything else the prospect of his own demise – in/about/through and into DEATH pallbearer-ing itself across the pages. Jesus Christ on a camel, Hunt writes as much himself here –

Talking of my new book
a friend remarks
there’s death on every page…

death lurking and leering
each turn of the page…

Death is there – sure

As is life – what little
I can recall right now.
The poems say so too.
[from Both Boots (p. 69.)]

Yes, he is 70 now, but that is still young, means naught anyway. So 32 x mentions of the word death or its derivatives, is 30 too many, especially when we also consider copious other references to the state of no-return via terms such as –

this is how it ends, this is how it ends
[from Running out of time (p. 73.)]

But not until
the guests came in and started talking
of me, the man in the box,
[from It was a good night (p. 57)]

What’s that country through the Pass –
The Big Beyond – what’s it like?
[from The Big Beyond (p. 52)]

why worry when
all there is to do
is die?
[from Then again (p. 49)]

As for me, it’s the last lap –
a good gallop,
few worries, no regrets
[from We had a horse (p. 47)]

And as for ‘the other side’ –
I’ll spot you there, brother.
[from Lines for Lyn (p. 45)]

We stand around at graveyards
Workers waiting for the bus.

It’s okay, we’re going the
Same way…
[from Like, what was it like (p. 41)]

Death called by the other day –

…would ask, What about you?’
[from Death called by (p. 28.)]

And so on in several other brief encounters with the deceased. You get the shrift drift, eh.

And when Sam details kōrero rāua ko reta with and to his late Mum and Dad as in Tomorrow, or today (4), Tell me something new and Nurse Hayes musings, things are becoming pretty macabre. As the ending to the latter poem, whereby the poet has telephoned his thirty-year dead father –

…but before Hayes
cut my father off,

I did get to ask him
What’s it like dead?
(pp. 50-51.)

Now, in my own culture, yes, conversations with the departed and sightings of them are a sure sign of one’s own fairly imminent demise, but I don’t see this happening with Sam for some time yet. He is not running out of time.

Cast aside the morbidness man. I know full well Cancerians (think also Jim Baxter) are prone to melancholy and an unhealthy fixation with Heaven and Hell – but only sometimes, eh! Another of the water sign, Colin Wilson, the outsider par excellence, always stressed the positive and was convinced he would live forever… Give us – and yourself – some sweetness, lilt and light, Sam. We don’t need a New Zealand Dickinson, eh.

Of course, he shows he can still write very well and figuratively, when he chooses to, as here –

A skyful of cloud breaks up,
scatters out to sea,

gives the sun fair go.
My shadow

Resumes itself.
I can do with the company.
[from Six sestets (p.38.)]

Then there are also flashes of sardonic Sam as in the poem entitled, Song for a post-modernist, as well as recollected snippets from his massive poetry bank as in the words ‘gibbous moonlight’ in his poem After drought (p. 54) – a direct hit on Robert William Service. While Milton is also recalled to life on page 46 and Hunt shows a flash of clever humour, when alliteratively delineating Voznesensky and his girlfriend, ‘rooting like rattlesnakes’ on page 32.

But, again, I’ll be buggered if I can locate too much of a love of life, as Hogg alludes to in this volume; if anything only more wistfulness concerning the past also concatenates throughout, as here –

Somewhere, someone:
bring back, bring back,
please, bring back that
young son to me.
[from A minute after (p. 61.)]

That said, ironically the best poem in this volume is about a dead mate of Sam’s, one of several in memoriam services he commits to lines. Best, because, despite its subject matter – the late Graham Brazier – it is so human, less self-obsessed, and more of a song than any other piece, which befits the recipient of its requiem. When Hunt writes elsewhere,

I went outside
thinking there could be a poem
buried in the long grass
or down the bank to the river.
[from No poem (p. 67.)]

in I was waiting, he has here trapped the beast as well as he has ever caught any other poem.

So, here it is in all its refulgent glory –

I was waiting
i.m. Graham Brazier

I was waiting for the phone to ring.
You were busy dying.
Connections never happened,
door left unopened.

You were waiting for the angels to sing
but could only hear crying.
Do we see each other again?
I guess, by now, you know

answers to the questions
we spent lives looking for
Do we see each other again?
I guess you’ll know by now.
The wind’s a sou’wester –
It’s pummeling the totara,
prize-fighter it is.
Totara don’t stand a chance!

And you’re busy dying.
And I don’t know if it’s
the wind in my eyes, or rain,
but I can’t stop crying.
(p. 64.)

With great poems like this, we can push well aside thoughts conjured up by dirge-titles such as Death called by, and know what we always knew: that the rhythmic words of Sam Hunt will live well on beyond any bodily demise. Āke ake ake.

I’ve been saying this for years anyway – as here, from only a few months ago, now, written after I last spoke to him and also around the time of Brazier’s passing –

Salt River Songs – and the titular piece is also a fine song-poem, by the way – is a further vivid exemplar of this truth, even given the generally deathly topoi within.