Feeding the Gods, by Scott Hamilton (Titus Books, Auckland), 193 pp., $30.00.
Scott Hamilton, of course, was a good solid winger for the Canterbury Crusaders and ascended into the heaven of All Blacks – albeit briefly – for a handful of run-ons. Graham Henry, who is of course a younger sibling of O. Henry, the well-known American pithy short-storyman, described Hamilton’s strengths as: We like the way he anticipates, he’s got a good feel for the game in the back three. He reads the play well. He’s got a huge work rate and he’s deserved of selection.
And this is also the way that Hamilton writes — with acumen, pace, copious swerves all over the playing field, and with the incorporation of absurdly-meddled-with personages into a decidedly odd first fifteen. We have in this collection a true blue Kiwi fella hitting his straps and making a very strong claim for long-running selection in New Zealand poetry teams for some conceivable time to come.
Except of course much of what I wrote upstairs just now is bullshit. Obliquely, it is all true. Factually, it’s not. And it is this interestingly weird way in which the ‘real’ non All Black Scott Hamilton writes that sets him rather apart from many of the chasing pack of poetasters in Aotearoa nowadays, the majority of whom seem to be playing another code altogether. For the bona fide Hamilton is indubitably writing as if fuelled by drugs – and not just the Tramadol he admits to imbibing on. Something way more substantive.
Feeding the Gods is a big trip, where time has run away with itself and men ‘meant’ to be dead are very much alive, some doing odd things. Franz Kafka has clawed his way into the dressing room. P.B. Shelley has all too obviously lent Hamilton part of his stash. Plentiful alcohol has also crept into the genesis of these pages. In between the ears of this Scott Hamilton, who does not play rugby at all, but reads a hell of a lot, there is something divergent; a mythopoeic morass that seeps onto the page with a flurry of quick-shuffle images and juxtaposed heroes, and above all, a vibrant social conscience.
This is not the anemic, academic parlour-game swill that still passes for so much of New Zealand poetry these days, as published by anglophile university presses and ‘critiqued’ by their politely pajama-ed partners. This is tree-and-leaf earthy, Marxist-derived, Māori-influenced declamation, whereby the poet intrudes into his own verse and his own variegated prose pieces (these latter — despite what the author claims — are manifestly not poetry).
Scott Hamilton, the non-All Black who has never met Graham Henry, exists in a strange sociolinguistic ethos in comparison to most of his Pakeha poetic peers, in an extra-intelligent terrain unexplored by most of his fellow citizens. His is a distinctive and necessary voice in our straitjacketed culture.
For in every piece — whether it be poem or prose – Hamilton is inevitably pointing out some injustice — historical or contemporary — and not always within the sacred shores of Aotearoa. Maybe this stems from his open-ended South Auckland upbringing devoid of religious fixations; maybe it evolved from reading too many E.P. Thompson’s paeans to the proletariat; perhaps Hamish Dewe can here be castigated for bending Hamilton’s elbows far too much towards the brown god of ale, and Bill Direen for twisting his ears around the realities of religious apostasy – who can say? But here we have a New Zealand poet with a cogent conscience and the sheer poetic ability to set the flames alive and burning across the contours of Nature he carves out so well — and most of the time in a dream-ambient setting. A steady flux of plebian memories and university swot notes, provided by a lively intellect and an imagination that has escaped unbridled from the suburban corrals of the bourgoisie, form a staunch platoon in acclamatory defence of Moriori, ngā iwi Māori, youth suicide, Philip Clairmont, Max Jacob and boatloads of black-birded boys.
So let’s taste the flavour of Scott Hamilton’s diacritical imagery:
I am writing a hedge.
One word attaches itself
You lean over my shoulder,
grub my sentences
like hedges. You lay words
so walls can grow…
I snatch back the pen
and change wall to wald,
change corridor to hallway
to holloway. I walk alone
through the country.
(from ‘City Life’)
Leichardt went into the wilderness
the way Hegel went into his study.
Sturt entered the wilderness
the way a vicar enters his wife.
(from ‘The Inland Sea’)
A taua of middle-aged Poms
camped on an eroded
midden, between the bunker
and the beach – a taua armed
with chilly bins: with Tetley’s,
Boddingtons, Victoria Bitter.
Kendrick Smithyman did not get selected for the All Blacks and I suspect that in any case he was unavailable. Actually, he was one of my University of Auckland tutors way back, and he always wore the same light brown corduroy jacket with elbow pads of a different hue. He was a damned serious dude. Scott Hamilton – the one who would rather look for dendroglyphs and mull over Trevor Bentley books than jump in a lineout – lionizes Smithyman as a marginalised figure, and it is this trenchant outsiderism in his own pieces — inspired throughout by Smithyman’s bleakly obscure palimpsests — that works so well for me in this collection. (And why, I ponder, is my name also included in Feeding the Gods, unless this a mark to show that I too am trying to rewrite the maps of New Zealand history and not let our revelatory palimpsests decay away in a confetti of ignorance?)
For as Hamilton avows: The sort of complex interplay between cultures which Te Kooti and Smithyman in their different ways practiced, mocks attempts to put up NO ENTRY signs around one or another culture and history. Hamilton incorporates nga kupu Māori throughout with some nous: he does not try to purloin te reo Māori like a Dommet.
Feeding the Gods, in its less occluded passages, is an idiosyncratic attempt to rewrite this country from the roots up. For Scott Hamilton it’s time to furl what he describes as ‘New Zealand’s sadly derivative flag’ once and for all, and step into Aotearoa. Politically, poetically, polemically.
One doesn’t have to refer to the poet’s fine Reading the Maps blog to note this antipathy toward much in his country, and beyond. Because it’s all already here in this fine book.