by John Dickson (Auckland U Press, $24.99)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana
I’ve published two slim volumes, and spent all
My time working on the next.
(from Wasp p.67)
Bit of a curate’s egg this one, but that would be an unfair overall assessment, as the less tasty pieces are actually few and far between; mainly sporadically encountered when the poet waxes meta-proletariat and/or pops in name-drops and/or overwrites into lengthy banalities such as in Sixties relic surveys his lawn (pp. 57-63), which for me doesn’t work, even given the furrowed rows of fescue, fescue, fescue shaped poem at the end of the saga, eh. Nor does the equally-as-lengthy The persistence of football results on Bealey Ave (pp. 14- 20); despite many clever-dick wordplays like our now goebeelised world and the usual one size fits all prop agenda. Too bloody loooong, mate. Something else (pp. 41-45) is also a bit awry – a sort drug and doom stream-of-consciousness prosody that belies and – worse – defies the poet’s defined aim on page 75, ‘…an opportunity to turn…speech into verse.’
Because Dickson writes much better than those selected examples much of his way through this book; when he hits his straps as a hard-bitten Southern man and feeds us clear, cogent and concise granite chunks of whimsy, irony, drollness. Such as in the winning economy of Veteran of a war one side won (p. 21), which is an excellent poem, here reproduced in full.
Veteran of a war one side won
My luck. Just my luck.
Twenty vacant seats
and he sits by me.
All the way in.
he mumbles to himself
his high-pitched toneless voice
wavering through his lips
like short wave static.
When the bus stops
silenced by the sounds
only he can hear
the silent artillery shells
that still phase him out.
My luck. His fate.
This man can write and write well, then, when he chucks away references to the esoteric and to obscure nomenclatures, and nails down pithy, succinct scenes; often from his earlier zooming and hooning down the Invercargill straight years. For Dickson, like all us older poets, is romantically festooned with his past and so tends to gravitate back to episodes from about 1960! There’s a good number of excellent such poems, such as The reader of hands (p.1); Plainsong (pp. 2-3); Dee Street, Invercargill, 1960 (p. 13); Two ways of being impatient (p. 22); Pensioner (p. 23); The smile (p.25); Poem for my father (p. 47.) Any of these would sit well in any realistic “Best New Zealand Poems” selection i.e. as founded in personal experience and unencumbered by the wanky proto-postmodernism that seems to be part of much of the poetic DNA of the nation’s capital. For there is something about the deep south that is different; an out-of-kilter cadence off the mainstream of the rest of the Mainland, let alone the North Island. They speak in different tongues and climb different rungs down there.
More, he can write longer, less silly prose or found poems that are also excellent; precisely because they are founded in the fount of his own existential awakenings from last century in provincial Aotearoa. So Piano time with Monk (pp. 26-30) works and works well too. No pretence. No bullshit. Fine poem. Barry Crump would be proud of it, mate.
A point I want to stress in this deliberately wavy review – as a sort of corollary of the unevenness of Mr. Hamilton – is that someone at Auckland University Press has not been doing his work. Takahē is not spelled Takehe (p. 76.) and pakeha (p. 13) and Pakeha (p. 58) have macrons, as in pākehā. Maybe also, a more incisive editing process would have eliminated a couple of other poems, which seem more filler than thriller – such as the pig-islandish Postcards from Dunedin (pp. 50-53.) Tangentially, I wonder if the John Kerr, to whom this particular poem is dedicated, is the same southern-man John Kerr I used to know from Kerikeri, back in the late 1970s; who went off on his own publishing tangent to Australia soon afterwards? Just like Duke in this next quoted-in-full piece, which is another winning highlight pick from the Dickson pack,
Two ways of being impatient
At Ocean Beach at smoko time,
one of the slaughtermen would sit in a chair
and for ten minutes exact would twirl his knife
round and round and round and round
one of his index fingers.
He didn’t drink tea
he didn’t eat sandwiches
he spoke once of land,
he never sliced his finger.
His name was Duke.
He was Tainui.
He went to Australia.
Another wonderful poem, evocative and aphoristic; Dickson as an Aotearoa Spingsteen making music for our eyes. All the offal trimmed away by a master knifehand, leaving us with a prime roast of a poem.
So, in the end, who the hell is Mr. Hamilton anyway? Why none other than that lion of poetic legerdemain, that polyglot-in-denial, John Dickson. I’ll zoom in again for a couple more examples of his clever way of,
the plasma of broken words
(from The persistence of football results on Bealey Ave)
his eyes wide open
like those of a child
seeing the circus for the first time.
(from Poem for my father)
Kia ora Hone.
[Vaughan Rapatahana used to live and work and drink in Winton. His brother has lived in Makarewa for decades.]
Editor’s Note: Vaughan Rapatahana was recently named the winner of The Proverse Poetry Prize for single poems previously unpublished in English for his poem ‘tin yan don’. Click here for more information.