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Fully formed

Sarah Quigley reviews collections from four New Zealand poets.

John Dennison: finely wrought, yet accessible. Photo/Robert Cross

A friend who works in the frenetic world of internet fashion told me recently that reading poetry is the best way she knows of “slowing the pulse”. I thought of this as I read John Dennison’s Otherwise. For in examining the passing of time, these meditative poems also make sense of it. With their measured tone and precision of language, they steady the “squirrelling, querulous heart”.

It’s rare to come across a poetic debut as assured as this, and a pleasure to surrender to the poet’s skill. These are finely wrought, formal poems that are nonetheless accessible. Often Dennison begins colloquially – “Late, you don’t know the half” – and segues into a philosophical context where the brief flares of individual existence are both celebrated and subsumed.

Settings range from Scotland to Calcutta, literary references from TS Eliot to our own “Jim Baxter”. The depth of vision and the rich language are reminiscent of Seamus Heaney – so I was hardly surprised, halfway through the collection, to come across an impressive triptych dedicated to the Irish poet.

The collection’s final poem, The Extra Mile, is the most personal, with its endearing image of the narrator born with feet curling like “ponga fronds”. It’s a remarkable achievement: each image plays off and extends what has come before, and the last lines read like a personal credo: “what is done has entered me,/left me longing for the extra mile”. What’s so impressive here is that the poetic quest, and the monumental task of creating, appear effortless.

Geoff Cochrane’s new collection – his 15th – is like a polar opposite to Dennison’s. Wonky Optics is characterised by a fizzing, crackling energy, an irreverent humour and a casual delight in words: “I’m under the influence of influenza.” Cochrane also leaps exuberantly between forms. Some prose poems run to several pages, whereas other poems are just a couple of lines long – such as the short, lilting, gorgeously nonsensical Spring: “Scented gusts that bring us sweet elsewheres./With up so floating many bells down, somehow.”

Anna Jackson is well-established on the New Zealand literary landscape, and a new book from her is always a treat. I, Clodia, and Other Portraits is vintage Jackson, blending classical source material with a witty, colloquial and utterly contemporary style.

The “Clodia” of the title is Clodia Metelli, widely accepted to be the “Lesbia” of Catullus’s famous love poems. Under Jackson’s deft touch, she springs into life; her poetic voice, like Catullus’s own, is variously passionate, tender, sharp and defiant: “Do you think I have nothing to do but wait lonely/for you to return with your limping iambics …?” In this striking sequence, she’s revealed as a classical heroine for a modern age, pronouncing on gossip, infidelity and love.

The collection’s second half, The Pretty Photographer, consists of a series of poetic portraits. Sylvia in the Supermarket talks of her “winning son”; The Politician’s Wife has a room she likes to call her study – “though I do not study”; The Proof-reader After Hours worries about a missing comma. These poems are sharply objective, emotionally engaging and often profoundly moving. In a world of talented copy-artists, Jackson is that rare thing – a true original. Her poetry never fails to surprise and inform.

Tom Weston’s Only One Question displays a similar ingenuity regarding the use of literary sources. Everything is Pointless echoes a letter written by Flaubert to the much younger Maupassant, his “literary nephew”. In this deliciously funny poem, Weston adopts and subverts Flaubert’s admonitory voice. “Do not/yield to reality”, says “Uncle to Nephew Guy”; “give up melancholy, a useless delusion … And welcome to Art, you Numbskull”.

Weston’s literary-historical references range from the early 19th-century French writer Chateaubriand to the American modernist Hart Crane and Kafka – whose novel The Castle is the starting point for the satirical An Excellent Arrangement. Here, in a perfect parody of official complaint-filing, Weston captures the infuriating illogic of bureaucracy – adding wryly in an afternote that Kafka would find post-earthquake Christchurch “congenial”.

In spite of his frequent use of humour, Weston – as he usually does – tackles serious topics. The central preoccupation of this collection is the passage of time, “the short space/we each inherit”, and the impossibility of finding answers to the “one question”. You get the feeling that the formal structure of the poems is one way of managing the unmanageable; reassurance lies in the absolute mastery of language and form. And even as the poet asserts that “with each small wave we lose another chance”, he offers redemption, celebrating the very humanness that is ultimately our downfall.


by John Dennison

after Eileen Duggan, New Zealand Poems, 1st edn, 1940

For their death read your death;
for I had always read I always;
for nothing that read nothing can;
for moon read mourn;
for limb read lamb;
for cuckoo read cockerel;
for thundered read thundering;
for quiet read quake;
for the hills’ river read the hill’s riven;
for Oh read Or;
for and if atonement read and is atonement;
for there read here;
for as read so;
for no read yes.

These, and other errors, are due to war conditions.

OTHERWISE, by John Dennison (Auckland University Press, $29.99); WONKY OPTICS, by Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press, $25); I, CLODIA, AND OTHER PORTRAITS, by Anna Jackson (Auckland University Press, $24.99); ONLY ONE QUESTION, by Tom Weston (Steele Roberts, $24.99).

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