Memorandum of Understanding by Bill Nelson (Victoria University Press, 2016), 64 pp., $25; The Blue Outboard by Nicholas Williamson (Black Doris Press, 2016), 94 pp., $15; This Paper Boat by Gregory Kan (Auckland University Press, 2016), 80 pp., $25
The day the parcel of three books arrived and was opened, I, the reviewer, felt suddenly caught up in a gathering: reading them one after another, and then around again, it was as if I had entered into conversation with three very different yet equally word-minded poets. But the conversation was not only with the authors; it was also with the editors, publishers, designers and printers who brought these books to fruition. The production teams involved are to be congratulated, as these books are resonant on many levels: all finely made, good-quality – albeit slim – volumes of poetry.
In a sense, the conversation turned out to be also with the families, supporters, friends and colleagues of the poets. In each book there is a dedication to these people – lists of names, many of whom are familiar members of the literary fraternity. And the books also sometimes invoked people who we will never meet again. Here I speak in particular of a friend of Nicholas Williamson, referred to in his moving elegy ‘The lemon tree’, who committed suicide.
In Bill Nelson’s Memorandum of Understanding, the poet begins by occupying the body of John Coltrane in homage to his music. There are references to the death of others here, too: to Chalky George – perhaps the poet’s grandfather – and to pigeons, shot for a feed.
Gregory Kan’s This Paper Boat is the most sharply graphic of the three, yet also very subtle. Here we are continually in the presence of the ghost of Iris Wilkinson, better known as Robyn Hyde. Hyde (19 January 1906 – 23 August 1939) is regarded as one of New Zealand’s major poets, and was herself an immigrant, having been born in South Africa. But there are more ghosts present besides Robyn Hyde: members of Kan’s family who have passed away; and others, such as the Chinese publisher whose spirit lives on for his wife as a mask of wicker and clay.
This is not to say that all three books are much preoccupied with death: far from it. Instead, they exuberantly celebrate life. They all contain forms of the living energy of language that makes poetry so much fun: articulate expressions of the illusions, realities, unrealities and mutable natures of being. As well, they draw upon the works of other poets and artists: sampling, recreating, recycling, developing and reimaging, as does the stuff of life, the phases of life, the evolving relationships with others.
Bill Nelson’s debut book of poetry contains elements that draw significantly upon other texts. These are acknowledged. The book flows through several subsections and sequences of poems, each with a theme. The strong opening piece, ‘Giant steps’, which takes us into the persona of jazz musician John Coltrane, sets up reader expectations, the realisation of which is at times uneven, but mostly cleverly done. In ‘Battersea Bridge’ the poet sees a woman jump to her death from the bridge, and then, in an almost voyeur-like state, meets his future partner in a hostel. ‘Angel wing’ is a wryly or grimly amusing poem, especially for anyone who has had animals, named them and then watched them be slaughtered.
In the second group of poems, ‘All the love poems’, ‘In geological time’ and ‘Pattern #176’, he plays with formats in an attempt to highlight a different tone, a more intimate stream of consciousness, in particular to and with his future partner. It is light and subtle, like snowflakes.
‘Charlie’s shed’ is about the shed of an old man gone blind. The poem moves through his bundles of photographs, sacks of sacks, magazines, the slow click of time passing through the mechanical clock, then exits. I liked this concept: a man’s shed, the remnants of his life, a scene repeated throughout the country and celebrated by the Men’s Shed movement.
Wildlife is a recurring motif in the collection. ‘Settlement’ is about turtles and the way people view them then depart in their people-movers, missing the interesting bits of the turtles’ lives. ‘Consolidation’, on the theme of war, concludes with a history lesson: ‘Overall this period was prosperous and the majority went about their business, or at least undertook transactions quietly.’ ‘Vocal’ narrates the experience of a singing lesson where, in a cathartic release, the voice joins with the body then lets go ecstatically – the value and joy of which anyone who has sung freely, either alone or in a choir, will know.
Memoranda of understanding are mechanisms for negotiating with parties to establish the basis of a relationship. Usually not legally binding, they nevertheless indicate a direction forward for groups who wish to achieve commonly agreed goals. Nelson’s title poem, ‘Memorandum of understanding’, is a play on the jargon of attempts to establish connections and relationships, and concludes by expanding to include the earth, the mother: ‘the curve of her thought-bearing hips / as she takes our concerns, / one by one, without complaint’.
‘How to do just about anything’ is a comical series alphabetically based on a Reader’s Digest manual. It opens with ‘Arrest’, which stars Edward Scissorfeet who appears with grandfathers, chickens, snow and lubricating oil, along with other characters, in a funny dislocation from the usual turn of events.
Nick Williamson’s The Blue Outboard features a full-colour cover, and paintings by the author of his father and uncle. The collection, in four parts, is framed by a climb to the top of the Christchurch cathedral, which introduces the sequence of stories – some real, others imaginary – as if in homage to the spire and the history it has seen.
These poems feel very personal, even autobiographical. There are anecdotes and images of the family fishing off Rangitoto, the father’s heavy smoking and his funeral and burial. It reads like an evocation of an era passed: a bygone age of snapper, beer, cigarettes, and the father as a man of few words and intent on gardening.
The second part of the collection contains a sequence of poems about the poet’s ancestral family coming from London and settling in Bluff. ‘Uncle Frank’, who survived for years in a concentration camp, is held in high regard and is honoured with a picture of him standing beside his trusty, solid Humber Hawke motor car. ‘Pink tie’ concludes with ‘and declared yourself a blond – your white hair stained with nicotine’.
‘In a dark cupboard’ and ‘Grandfather’ present memories released by slowly fading photographs, a testament to the mutability of things. Here: ‘I find my grandmother hidden in a cardboard box. She’s waving a thin arm as if there is something still to say’, is an image of remembrance, summoning up a whole character, talkative, nervy, slightly comical.
In each section of the book there are a few short lines floating on the page, a kind of a wink to the present, a sort of check in parallel with where we are heading in terms of the nostalgia of recall. The poems are straightforward, direct, celebrating these people, this family, salt-of-the-earth types with whom a connection is being established.
Part Three covers travel with a loved one through Europe and India, still inflected with a nostalgia for ‘home’. My favourite here is ‘Tonight Marc Chagall’, where, with subtle use of rhyme Williamson neatly concludes: ‘Tonight Chagall is coming to sing a Russian hymn & charm the blackbird in our pear tree with his yellow violin.’
These poems do not aim to be clever, nor do they feel forced; rather, the images seem quite natural, evoking relationships and the happy prospect of adventures, such as that of the poem ‘In this suburban backwater’ with its declaration: ‘how we must wash our arms under a waterfall of stars before taking off’.
Part Four concludes the introductory framing sequence with a speculation of love on arrival. I especially like the line in ‘Repairing the head’: ‘he cut a head gasket out of the back of a Weetbix packet’. Meanwhile, ‘My dark ink’ draws together various hints and glances about making poems, established earlier in the book, with three-line shots of haiku-like irony, that starts: ‘9 a.m. the spontaneity workshop begins …’
All in all, Williamson’s images are quite clear, mostly unambiguous, and often contain a delicate twist – so an enjoyable read.
I found Gregory Kan’s This Paper Boat a diverting, adventurous, somewhat provocative book of poems. There is no table of contents, nor are there poem titles. We are straight into it on page one: a reference to Iris Wilkinson and alluding to the need to ‘renew one’s openness to the outside’.
Each page provides something like a memory, a recollection, an image: an implication or an evocation of the writer Wilkinson/Hyde – who appears in the spaces, between the lines, and as ‘I’ in the text. The text invokes ‘the Hyde persona’: at times it does seem more like a narrative, then it shifts, with a new angle, or at least a refreshed view on the subject. It is easy to read, anecdotal, bringing back past memories to the present, to the city, from the jungle, from Singapore, to scenes with his parents.
Lines jumped out at me. I liked, for example, on page 2: ‘Most methods of destroying adult gorse plants have been found to create the ideal conditions for gorse seeds to germinate’; and on page 3: ‘The handle in the driver’s door of my car is broken, so I have to climb over from the passenger seat.’ On page 13: ‘Eventually the underlying sediment becomes so dense it is essentially rock’; and on the same page: ‘It was a kind of permission to have imperfect and beautiful plans.’
The relationship with Kan’s father becomes particularly poignant with the slow healing of the former distance between them. On page 25, after describing the vulnerability of his father following a fall, and attitudes to wetness around the eyes, he concludes with: ‘The air between me and my father is hung with tiny water droplets.’
This book brings to light the consequences of migration and immigration, how the experience of each generation is perceived. On page 73: ‘It is strange to consider the difference between our differences.’ The double shift of returning to Auckland, the place his parents have migrated to, involves new adjustments; each session is a re-setting of memory and place, and an acknowledgement: ‘I worry that my parents’ answers are just another thing that I will be taking from them.’ Indeed, the dependence of the present on the past, how we are all dependent on each other, reverberates throughout This Paper Boat. On page 3: ‘I don’t know anything about the past except for what the past has left me’; and on page 17: ‘I know nothing of death except for what the dead have left me.’
This is a particularly rich volume of poetry, with its stories, anecdotes and sub-plots, and warrants reading and re-reading. The insight to the life of Iris Wilkinson adds a peculiar or particular depth, reinforcing the multiple reflections and the shared histories. As well, Kan shines a light on issues such as contraception and attitudes to extra-marital pregnancy and birth, and how these have changed with the generations and evolving cultures.
PIET NIEUWLAND is a poet, writer and visual artist who previously worked on conservation strategies for Te Papa Atawhai. He lives near Whangarei.