Mister Hamilton by John Dickson (Auckland University Press, 2016), 84 pp., $24.99; Getting It Right by Alan Roddick (Otago University Press, 2016), 90 pp., $25
In any activity it seems reasonable to assume that decades of absence indicate some kind of ending. Take, for instance, the publication of poetry collections. An 18-year hiatus is a long pause at the end of a line, and 49 years is sometimes the length of whole schools of poetry beginning and ending.
Fortunately, assumptions are dubious conclusions to draw. In 2016, after 49 years, Alan Roddick’s second poetry collection has arrived, and John Dickson’s Mister Hamilton has been published 18 years after his previous collection.
If any assumption can be made about time lapses between collections, perhaps it concerns the impossibility for Dickson and Roddick to stop being poets. Intense scrutiny and internal poetic conversations have continued regardless, and particular people and places have infused their senses. The two of them have always been tied to literature without the need to prove themselves with a rush of books. It has been a matter of waiting for the right time and circumstances for further publication.
Mister Hamilton is John Dickson’s third collection of poems. His first, On the Way to Oamaru was published in 1986, followed by Sleeper in 1998.
In Mister Hamilton the whole notion of time and timing is introduced by Madame Cusack in the first poem. She is a teller of fortunes, a reader of life lines, all the way from Memphis. Madame Cusack (or is that John Dickson) sounds a warning; ‘Don’t you ever steal my gestures, otherwise, you lose.’ She takes the cash, and ‘then my right hand gently turning it this way and / that before she finds her line’.
To steal the poetic gestures of John Dickson would be difficult. His is the voice of intellect, of conversation, of observation. He plays with personas, he plays with place and he plays his rhythms right down the line. Dissonant seconds and flatted fifths pour from the pages of Mister Hamilton in his own intervals, his own variations on the chord of PLINK.
‘Plink’ is a sound, a simple tonal idea played on the keyboard by ‘Mister Monk’ to help out saxophonist Charlie Rouse, who’s been doing an extensive break while Monk has shambled offstage in the poem ‘Piano time with Monk’. Rouse was known for his sonorous tone and fluid but spare phrasing. This way of being, creatively, is echoed in Dickson’s poems.
The phrasing of overheard speech within various metrical patterns can be heard in ‘Pensioner’, ‘Dee Street, Invercargill, 1960’, and in the definite sounds of the two ‘Doubtful Sound’ poems. Dickson lists a number of poets who have influenced his work, but in the end, stamps his own authority on each page.
Not surprisingly, the south dominates Mister Hamilton’s/Dickson’s landscape. ‘Plainsong’ demonstrates the permanent impact of early places in life and is something of a smouldering love poem for Southland. ‘Postcards from Dunedin’ highlights the lowlights of that city’s Presbyterian origins, and Christchurch features in a lengthy communist-infiltrated trip down a post-capitalist Bealey Avenue. Communist Party paranoia vies for attention with soft-path fascism. ‘The persistence of football results on Bealey Avenue’ can provoke thought at a political-sociological level. At the least it offers a disturbing outcome of the loss of collective solidarity.
In the prose-like pages of ‘Something else’, something else emerges. The usual human interest story on TV news, squeezed in between commercials, concerns a father whose daughter is missing in deep snow. The father asks for sightings, but
nobody would’ve been
fooled, because like those of a Kurd hearing the soft green
crack of a canister of gas, the anguished stare of his eyes disturbed
The ‘something else’ is partly a hallucination of a painting by Brueghel where, among other depictions, a child is falling through thin green ice. Dickson guesses that Brueghel’s perspective
was that of someone who knew that foxes and pigs can
always unexpectedly find themselves singing inside some other
‘Something else’ is a delicately painted quadriptych of words where death sings an underlying ‘mute song of unnameable blackness’. It also sings something else; something ‘clear and perfect … like holding someone in your arms’.
Loss underpins a number of Dickson’s poems. There’s nothing cloying or clichéd about this. Loss and life are inseparable, and when you’re as good at poetry as John Dickson, the combination can be inspirational. ‘The fingers of Django Rheinhardt’ play an inspired, narrow line on the page. Dickson fuses a careful selection of sound, fact and image. Equally memorable, and a total contrast in length and form, is ‘Sixties relic surveys his lawn’. Eleven sections engage in a tense battle with fescue grass. Blades are drawn between thistle and slime, millions of rhino horns, and suburban expectations.
In his first collection of poems, The Eye Corrects, Alan Roddick admitted on the back cover that ‘I rarely find writing a poem an enjoyable experience, and I write only when I have to. Not when I have something to write about, but rather when I have to write something.’
If the title is any indication, Getting It Right could be a move away from the burden of writing poems to the triumph of successfully liberating language into poetry.
The Eye Corrects continues to do so, with a small number making their slightly re-edited return in the first of three sections in Getting It Right. They are poems that, as Roddick explains, still stand firmly on their own feet. ‘Naming a child’ scores well in the test of time:
How often through those weeks we’d lie, wakeful,
sleep withheld, rehearsing names for the child –
rehearsing its very self.
Roddick is a more restrained, temperate poet than Dickson but both have written on similar concerns. Identity is one, and in the very next poem after ‘Naming a child’ Roddick battles the suburban lawn. As Roddick urges the surly mower onwards in ‘Festival race day’, his attention is diverted by the sound of a regular Dunedin festival event; ‘the huge hoarse clamour of racing-engines’. Imagination steals him away until ‘a dead nestling catches in my blades, and I stop’.
Section Two, ‘Poems written from 1968–80’, shows an ability to economically capture deep emotion. This is especially evident in ‘Of Helen, in hospital’:
Dreaming, I touch
her cheek, and her mouth
sketches a cry
Today I did
so; and her parted
lips froze in a
catlike snarl, in
on pain, now I
can’t turn away
Nor can the reader. To capture anguish without mawkishly falling into its deep swamp, is no mean feat. Dry humour, whimsicality and attention to sound become well established. Each page is a turn of a colourful kaleidoscope.
Section Three, ‘Poems 2007–15’, holds Roddick’s most ambitious and proficient poems. Place, identity and memory dominate. The impact of Fiordland, also felt by Dickson, returns. ‘Six Fiordland poems’ lift anchor to voyage in 2007 on The Breaksea Girl and in 1773 on Cook’s HMS Resolution. Assured in technique, they signal a willingness for Roddick to courageously voyage beyond the safe seas of his earlier writing, to explore new territory.
Roddick’s previous interest in identity now extends to adopting the persona of Dr Anders Sparrman, assistant naturalist on Cook’s second voyage to determine the existence of Terra Australis. In a mostly smooth blend of research and poetry, Roddick (as Sparrman) conveys the unbelievable discoveries of the south, so believably. In this No-Where, the world is turning upside down:
where flightless birds fly underwater,
fish are shot as they swim by,
fresh water’s hauled from the sea in creels.
From a child’s-eye view Roddick recalls ‘The coal man’, with his dribbling black dust and tricks of balance, and the general manager’s wife who can put her toe in her mouth (and her foot) in ‘The slip’. In the title poem Roddick ponders his childhood birthplace in Ireland, about 20 miles away from that of Seamus Heaney. While Heaney embraced his Irish identity, Roddick, due to his father’s background, lived in Ulster as a Scottish Protestant boy. He tells Heaney it was not until years later, transplanted
to this far side of the world,
when I first found your words
I knew my childhood’s landscape
in your people, your place names
and learned for the first time
how we’d failed to make it our home.
Roddick and Dickson demonstrate just how ‘at home’ they are in the upper echelon of New Zealand poets. Mister Hamilton is most definitely getting it right. Mister Roddick is no sleeper. His alert attention continues and the eye and ear correct and create. Both poets usefully remind us of the dangers involved in making assumptions.
Jenny Powell’s most recent poetry collection is Trouble (Cold Hub Press 2014). Her book The Case of the Missing Body (Otago University Press, 2016) documents the experience of ‘Lily’ and her search for the physical presence of her own body. Alive in Berlin, written by Powell, is a fusion of performance, reading, film-installation and contemporary music composition, which will make its international debut at Dunedin’s 2017 Fringe Festival.