Moments of transcendence, Elizabeth Crayford

John Dennison
Auckland University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781869408282

The Art of Excavation
Leilani Tamu
Anahera Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780473290047

Whale Years 
Gregory O’Brien
Auckland University Press, $28.00,
ISBN 9781869408329

The cover of John Dennison’s Otherwise features a photograph of what at first looks like a hand-blown light bulb and which bears a striking resemblance to a human head. It is, in fact, a photograph of that scientific curiosity: a light mill. Never heard of it? Neither had I, but the second poem in this, Dennison’s first collection, “Crooke’s Radiometer”, is clearly a description of this object: “the bright form / of the skull …. a partial vacuum …. a spike, / obsessive pivot around which the vanes hum”. Invented in 1873, a light mill consists of a set of vanes in a partial vacuum which rotate when exposed to light. To the lay person, a seeming anomaly, an impossibility: a perpetual motion engine; for scientific explanations, see Dr Google.

Dennison presses the light mill into service as a rich, mysterious and ultimately unknowable source of metaphor. That it is light that creates the “hymn” of “the vanes hum” is a notion that invests this whole collection with the possibility of transcendence. This sonnet, carefully and apparently effortlessly constructed, moves from physics to redemption in 14 lines, ending with the assertion that (like the lark arising): “after the dark, the morning and its mercy.” John Dennison is the Anglican chaplain at Victoria University of Wellington. He is also the author of Seamus Heaney and the Adequacy of Poetry and, like the great Irish poet, he has a remarkable ability to set the darkness echoing. He wears his academia lightly; the next poem in this collection, “Lone Kauri (reprise)” echoes Allen Curnow, Dylan Thomas and King Lear (and possibly the difficult “zip” paintings of abstract expressionist Barnett Newman) as well as Heaney’s rhythms, at once muscular and lilting. However, for all that weight of allusion, it ends, as does the previous poem, with the promise of joy, of epiphany even: “I will get up like a love-cast father …[who] finds, at the unclosed door, the seam of light.”

The poems move from the railway tracks of childhood in high summer in Tawa, to a swimming pool in Dunedin in mid-winter: “this / crystal palace, this sometime church”, to St Andrews in Scotland, to the cremation ghats on the banks of the Ganges in Calcutta. Here are villanelles, sonnets, ekphrastic poems (one based on a painting by James Nairn), knowing winks or brash high-fives to Ursula Bethell, James K Baxter, Eileen Duggan, Janet Frame, and a beautiful reworking of an Italian poem by Giovanni Pascoli, “Fallen Oak”. Birds fly through these pages – fulmars, larks, blackbirds, in particular – love (of children, of spouse, of parents, of friends) is here in abundance, as in “the house of light that is your face”. Dennison ends where he began, with a poem called “The Extra Mile”, dedicated to his parents: “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan”, his father sang with the Bach chorale at the time of John’s birth (and a fitting epithet for this book): “What God does is well done” Bravo!

In 2005, Leilani Tamu completed a Masters in Pacific History at the University of Auckland; her thesis, Re-defining “the beach”: the Municipality of Apia 1879-1900, involved extensive archival research in Samoa, New Zealand and Australia. A career as a writer and diplomat followed and, in 2013, she was the Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer in Residence at the University of Hawai’i in Manoa. At the end of her academic journey, Tamu “felt a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the way in which academic history framed the Pacific past.” The Art of Excavation, her first collection, is a poetic response to that dissatisfaction.

In these poems, Tamu traces her ancestry back through her American Samoan nana (a paramount chief in the 1950s), her store-owning great-grand-father in Apia, her Tongan great-grandmother and a hard-living Auckland father she hardly knew. There are poems about her blue-eyed Niuen husband and poems for their children. Here is Tamu at her best, writing a love poem for her daughter, while the ola shell references her great-great-grandmother too:

Kahlei: my beloved

Deep within the Tonga Trench

I hear you whisper

to me

for blood ties us back

to Tungua

that place

where our ola shells


in the black lacquered


of your eyes


While these are not narrative poems, Tamu is intent on telling (and rescuing) stories: those of her own ancestry, Pacific legends, especially those linking Samoa and Fiji, contemporary stories of betrayal and disaster – the sinking of the Princess Ashika, the devastating tsunami that followed the 2009 earthquake in Samoa – and corruption, both from the colonial past and what might be called the colonial present, with China replacing Germany as an alien presence.

The ghosts of Gauguin, Captain Cook, William Bligh, the Tahitian prince Omai, and Robert Louis Stevenson haunt these poems along with missionaries crippled by dysentery. Fearlessly, Tamu fires off more than one broadside at the Tongan aristocracy, “stomachs stapled / to hide the rolls” while “children play in the tip” and “parents weep / as their tin shacks / sink into the swamp.” Less successful are poems such as “How to make a colonial cake”; the recipe formula implied by the title and developed in lines such as “Take one wily whaler …. Stir in seven meddling missionaries” are clunky and sit awkwardly next to the sparse and evocative tone of most of this work.

Extensive endnotes giving the provenance of many of these works and a nine-page glossary help the palagi reader navigate around the poems. This book speaks to Tamu’s extended family and thus becomes a part of and an extension to the legends she recounts. It will also sit comfortably on the international stage, reminder if it is needed that the best poetry can come from what used to be called the margins, as well as from the centre.

Gregory O’Brien’s Whale Years dovetails so nicely with Leilani Tamu’s book that I had the uncanny experience of searching for a key line in a poem in the latter volume, only to find it turn up in the former; in another state-of-the-Tongan-nation poem, O’Brien notes “the mudflats where immigrant families / competed with pigs / for mussels.” However, it’s not just the fact that we live with the Third World on our doorstep that drives these poems. Many of them are as much aligned with those half-glimpsed moments of transcendence that fire John Dennison’s work; this, from a poem located on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) speaks to the human condition and echoes that estwhile-libertine Dean of Saint Paul’s, writing 400 years ago:

we are all in this

together – on this seaward incline


the afterlife. But all we can see

from here

lights of incoming

fishing boats.

Linking the Kermadec Trench to Santiago in Chile via many ports-of-call in between, Whale Years traverses the Southern Pacific Gyre, part of the Earth’s system of rotating ocean currents that facilitate not only the voyages of the great explorers but also the more mundane migration of “one bucket, a left-footed jandal and two plastic containers” washed up on Easter Island.

O’Brien was one of nine artists who, in May 2011, sailed on HMNZS Otago from Devonport Naval Base, through the Kermadec region, toward the Kingdom of Tonga. The resulting exhibition, first shown at the Tauranga Art Gallery, has toured widely throughout the Pacific, and Whale Years is a tribute to that initial journey as well as to the places in which Kermadec – Nine Artists in the South Pacific has subsequently been shown.

From the politically engaged, as in the long final sequence about the grounding of the Rena on Astrolabe Reef, to the sublimely ineffable, there is always the sense of a firm hand in the tiller and a weather-eye on the horizon in all of O’Brien’s work. Sometimes literally so, as he crafts a metaphor out of the releasing of a weather balloon from Raoul Island:

set adrift …

he rejoins

the older gods – frigate bird,

reef shark and flying fish –

in the aloneness

of the crowded sea.

O’Brien is a visual artist as well; the reprinted intaglio etchings of birds, islands, instruments, maps and weather charts intersperse these poems, and the cover features a fine pair of seabirds, sharp of eye and beak and kitted out in a handsome ochre and black strip as though ready to take the field for Team Pacific.

This is a marvellous book, set literally in our own (admittedly expansive) backyard. It reminds us that we are all tangata pasifika, whether by birth or by migration, and that our own well-being is inextricably linked to the health of the ocean in which we live as well as to the lives of the creatures with whom we share it.

Elizabeth Crayford is a Wellington reviewer.

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