National Anthem by Mohamed Hassan (Dead Bird Books, 2020), 68pp., $35; Childwood by Denis Welch (Steele Roberts, 2019), 64pp., $20; The Sets by Victor Billot (Otago University Press, 2021), 118pp., $27.50
The ‘national anthem’ of Mohamed Hassan’s second book of poems, National Anthem, is built on a clever contradiction: it is not actually meant to be a national anthem at all, as it is sceptical of the very idea of nation states. As the title poem puts it:
I pledge myself to
no house of trees
no fairy tale past
no charismatic king
no industry of false profits
burying their dead in the sand
In Hassan’s poetry, the only nation really worth belonging to is the fellowship of all people:
I pledge allegiance
to love and good coffee
a sleepy heart
two sets of feet burning
a clatter of brilliant voices
raised as one
This does not mean the pollyannaish erasure of all difference or the side-lining of traditions. Hassan is too attuned to the myriad beauties of the world to wish for that. But it does mean that every community has a responsibility to welcome and care for all its members, both native and new, if the community is to thrive. As he formulates it in ‘Life at a Distance’:
by any other name
is a quarantine
you have chosen
is a field of dandelions
learning to grow
It’s important to note that the title poem of this book was the first poem published as The Spinoff’s Friday Poem after the Christchurch mosque attacks in March 2019. Hassan’s poems have been consistent public interventions in the politics of diaspora, displacement, Islamophobia and multiculturalism, in Aotearoa and beyond. This was also the case with the work in his first book, A Felling of Things (2016), but the current volume brings it to another level. Since that first book, Hassan has done stints abroad as a journalist, as his career has taken him from RNZ to Turkish broadcaster TRT to Middle East Eye. There are poems set in Auckland, Cairo, London, Istanbul and the liminal spaces of airports. The settings can drift across time and space, as in ‘Bury Me’, which switches between ‘recurring dreams’ that ‘take place in my grandfather’s flat’ decades ago and the home of his widowed grandmother, who is listening to the Arabic folk singer Fayza Ahmed on YouTube.
Hassan is cosmopolitan without being elitist, international without losing sight of his own roots or the highly personal importance of place. He understands that ‘the self is affected by the often quite inhumane and surreal circumstances that come with displacement and exile’, as the Afghan-German-American poet Aria Aber puts it in a recent interview. The poems in National Anthem explore the tensions between old and new worlds in a way that is not unusual for diasporic writing but is relatively rare in New Zealand writing:
my uncle tells me I’ve romanticised Egypt
he can’t understand why I’m not content
with Western opportunities kids my age
fling themselves into the open sea just to taste
a smugglers boat at 2AM is not the same
as an economy class ticket but we are running
from the same beast
to the same beast
when my country my country plays we both feel
the same pang of longing
the same pang of disgust
And the poems don’t tell only Hassan’s story. ‘And Before That We Were Stars’ is the account of a Yemeni refugee couple separated by wide seas (in Aotearoa and the US) and the efforts of the man in the relationship to write a love poem. (A second-hand love poem, a meta love poem, is an under-attempted genre.) ‘White Supremacy is a Song We All Know the Words to but Never Sing Out Loud’ is a bruising poem that ventriloquises the bland discourse of New Zealand’s centrist commentariat in the wake of 15 March: ‘this isn’t about race / this is a time for mourning’, ‘we feel so awful that this would happen / in our beautiful little country’, ‘this isn’t the New Zealand / we know and love’.
At his best—and he is often at his best—Hassan brings out the charm and laser-focused critique that characterise his spellbinding live performances. He conjures up zinging one-liners out of nowhere, as when he archly refers to himself as ‘a noble savage with a student loan’, or when he laments how tired he is ‘after / a long day of diaspora’. ‘Customs: A Love Story’—about an airport customs officer (who has obviously racially profiled Hassan) who is ‘staring from across the terminal / that dark look in your eyes / a hunger you don’t quite understand’—is simply brilliant. ‘(un)Learning my Name’ was a viral hit on social media in 2018, partly thanks to the video of Hassan performing it. If you look at the replies on Twitter or the comments on YouTube, you’ll see that a lot of viewers encountered the poem in school, and this is fitting, because Hassan is a poet with something to teach us, a writer who knows how to make the hard lessons memorable.
Denis Welch is another journalist-poet. His first collection, the excellently named Childwood, brings together work written sporadically across several decades. At least two of the poems were first published in the late 1990s. He has used the time spent honing his craft to become a competent technician. The poems in Childwood rhyme and scan to varying degrees, and this symmetry often contributes to the orderliness of the verse. (In this respect he reminds me of the formally gifted Irish poet John Kelly, of a similar age, who works in broadcasting and published his first collection, Notions, in 2018.) The effect achieved tends towards the clear and austere. This is the entirety of ‘Prayer of the Leaves’:
Trees, each a church,
rimu, manuka, birch,
and the congregations of leaves
murmuring at their prayer
The prayer of the leaves:
Though I be small,
and the tree be tall,
let the tree be all
and, when I fall,
let me fall.
A more adventurous poem is ‘The Hunt for the Self’, in which the self is pursued ‘across vast plains / of featureless white terrain / by men with teams of dogs / moving swiftly over the powdery snow’. It’s a wintry chase scene worthy of the Arctic portion of Frankenstein or the opening of The Spy Who Loved Me, but because it’s about ‘the self’, it is all metaphysical. The conclusion is about as un-confusing a depiction of confusion as you are likely to encounter:
The dogs themselves turned away,
picking up other scents instead,
as if the self were already dead,
and each hunter, uncomprehending,
shuffled his feet or shook his head.
All selves look the same in this
damned snow, one of them said.
It’s a poem about individuality, about feeling harried or out of place or unappreciated or not special, and the fact that it’s told through the conceit of a polar manhunt makes it captivating. The fact that it is in a regular form, that there is some rigour, invests it with the gravitas of a philosophical exposition. It’s an unshowy regularity—no hundred-dollar Byronic rhymes here—but it is effective.
Welch is most convincing when he writes poems dealing with fragility and entropy. ‘The Missing Man’, like ‘The Hunt for the Self’, also involves a search for a person, but this time the searchers are a rescue party. ‘The cave in which / he’d apparently spent / the night was found empty’, so a search is launched, but it turns up nothing. However, ‘a couple of the men still swore / he’d taken part in the search / himself’, which would be a pretty monumental bamboozle. The poem doesn’t tell us what really happened; truth and identity both seem to have been lost in the night. Even the speaker remains in a state of unknowing: ‘But every day, just to be sure, // I go to the cave on my own / and roll away the stone.’ With that final line, and its allusion to the stone being rolled away from Christ’s tomb (Mark 16:1–4, John 20:1), the poem echoes out into spiritual territory, which one would not have foreseen at the start.
‘My Old Quizmaster’ is a funnier, but still rueful, representation of frailty and ageing.
My old quizmaster came to me last night,
wanting to know, again, the capital
of Bolivia, how many ounces in a stone
and in what part of the body you’d find
the occipital bone.
But, infuriatingly, ‘the answers that once would have come / so readily to my tongue / now failed to materialize’. Only when the questions are changed from pub trivia to probing moral enquiries are answers forthcoming.
Tell me, why did you cheat?
Why did you lie?
Why did you make the people
who loved you cry?
The mind may not be as sharp as it was in one sphere, but where there is an emotional stake, the details of life may be indelible. The twist—the joke—in this poem is that when the inconvenient moral questions are raised, then the brain decides to recall the pub trivia, as a defence mechanism, a way of avoiding having to give an uncomfortable reckoning. So the answers that Welch’s speaker gives to the questions about cheating and lying are: ‘La Paz. Two hundred and twenty-four. / The head.’
Other strong poems include ‘Against Anthologies’, ‘The Old Address’, and ‘The Future’. There is some good poem-making here, of a sort not commonly practised anymore. I wouldn’t want Welch to keep us waiting several more decades for his second book of verse.
Dunedin poet Victor Billot’s The Sets emerges from the lyrical ferment of the deep south’s recent literary history. Full of madcap invention. Knows its onions when it comes to form but can cook off-recipe in a heartbeat. Think David Eggleton and Richard Reeve, especially. It wouldn’t be strictly accurate to call this a ‘debut’, but the fact that The Sets scavenges the best bits from Billot’s earlier collections (Mad Skillz for the Demon Operators, Machine Language and Ambient Terror) suggests that he considers this to be the big opening salvo of his career. A major label debut, perhaps.
This is a book loosely organised around the sea. ‘Sets’ are groups of swells, ranging in number from three to perhaps a dozen, that reach the shore in a short space of time. They propagate from elsewhere, and they’re usually bigger than wind waves. This is a potent metaphor for all sorts of chaos. The title poem, which opens the book, concludes: ‘Distant raging darkness beyond the line of the horizon / makes the ocean tremble, and so the sets come on.’ Reading this, one feels queasy with foreboding, primed to get hit with poetry about modern terror and evil, and The Sets delivers some strong pieces in this vein.
An absolute standout among the field is ‘How Good Is This?’, a poem spoken by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison during the horrifying bushfires of early 2020. It begins ‘after I got back from Honolulu’, having been on an incredibly ill-advised holiday in the middle of a crisis. He’s in Sydney, and there is smoke everywhere, which Morrison chooses to credit with producing a lovely sunset. Flames appear, and he and his wife need to skedaddle from Kirribilli House. The rest of the poem is a gradual picaresque descent into the underworld. Billot perfectly channels Morrison’s bumbling, gormless cobber shtick:
Anyway we ended up down at Bondi. How good is that?
Everyone was down there. Gladys was waving a torch
and came up with a couple of special branch on either side.
Afternoon boys! I said. For God’s sake what are you doing here
she hissed at me. I don’t like the Lord’s name taken in vain
but she was upset and I didn’t take it personally.
I could see a few of the punters pointing to me,
they were waving and yelling G’day I think.
But I couldn’t see much with all the smoke.
The infernal journey continues across increasingly fire-featured landscapes until ‘it was quite hot so I started running / and when I stopped I was on my own.’ Then:
… Sure enough when I opened my eyes
this big crack in the ground had appeared before me.
I thought to myself, twice in one day! How good is this?
I clambered down into the black crevice
and it was warm and quiet so I kept on
and felt my way and finally came around a corner
and there spreading out in front of me
was an endless plain of fire.
It was the whole world burning.
I turned around because it would have been good
to talk to someone else or get a hug, or just even
shake someone’s hand, but there was no one there:
just the darkness and the fire.
Strangely enough, the ending of this poems tracks along with the ending of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Spring Offensive’, in which attacking soldiers run, are engulfed in flames, fall into something like Billot’s ‘big crack in the ground’, and are met with ‘the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge’. Owen writes:
So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Billot and Owen are not the only writers to depict a sudden descent into hell, but it says something about the Australian bushfires, and by extension many extreme climate-change events, that they can be written about using language usually reserved for descriptions of warfare or damnation.
‘How Good Is This?’ is a uniquely good poem and a significant achievement, both hilarious and hideous. The other poems I dog-eared in this book, the ones I will keep revisiting, are also mostly grim. ‘Rage Virus’, which takes as its epigraph a news item about a Gallup poll tracking how angry people are, has all the right sounds for all the right words:
Triggered vigilantes snap under stress,
ex-employees plot zero-sum vengeance,
flame wars smoulder in icy bedrooms.
Angst in their pants sick dicks throw dick fits
over contested pre-nups in courtroom dramas,
sour pusses get their tits in a tangle,
suck the lemon, get hissy, spit tacks
at the salty, the hangry, the permanently butt hurt.
In ‘The Prince of Darkness Attends a Work and Income Interview’, the beneficiary, a ‘Mr Lucifer’, is told: ‘You may have led a war in heaven, / but in the current market, employers are looking for soft skills.’ This may ring true for anyone who has looked at job listings lately. ‘48° 14.5′ S, 168° 18.76′ E’ is an elegy for a Vietnamese fisherman lost at sea south of Stewart Island/Rakiura. This elegy fulfils the dark promise of the title poem, in that the sea, death and distant, barely knowable forces are all brought together in one tragic and inevitable moment:
Vo Minh Que, whose last haul dragged
writhing fins and gasping gills from benthic gloom,
whose hands placed this white flesh on our table,
and whose long days profited someone far away
from this place of endless wind and salt.
It’s not a sea. It’s ocean.
At 118 pages, The Sets is on the long side. Every poet who has put together a book has had to wrestle with the two competing urges of ‘include everything!’ and ‘include only the very, very best things I’ve produced!’ And thus every book is a compromise. Some poems in The Sets, particularly in the second half, don’t live up to the promise of the examples I’ve quoted. But the heights Billot can hit are high indeed. When they come, his triumphs roll in majestically like surfable swells.
ERIK KENNEDY is the author of There’s No Place Like the Internet in Springtime (VUP, 2018), and he is co-editing a book of climate-change poetry from Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific, forthcoming from AUP later in 2021. His poems and criticism have recently been published in places like FENCE, The Moth, Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, Sport and the TLS. Originally from New Jersey, he lives in Christchurch.