Michael Bartholomew-Biggs enjoys exploring and sometimes unravelling the tightly wrought poems in a first collection by New Zealand poet John Dennison

otherwiseOtherwise
John Dennison
Carcanet
ISBN 978-1-84777-499-6
64 pp    £9.99

 

It seems appropriate that this review will be posted round about Easter time because the poems in John Dennison’s Otherwise are strongly, yet subtly, flavoured with Christian themes. Dennison is a university chaplain in Wellington, New Zealand, and his poems are typically dense and tightly constructed, with their own particular interior logic. While they may start from observations of down-to-earth objects and situations they often proceed, via rather oblique modes of description, into quite complex and abstract reflections. But their surprising and rich language means that they do repay the attention that they seem to demand; and every so often they offer a conversational comment on themselves as if to counteract any fears that things may be getting too difficult.

The opening poem ‘Errata’ with its short structured lines is not particularly representative of what follows, except insofar as it uses few words to convey large and ominous ideas:

For their death read your death;
For I had always read I always;
...
For no read yes.

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

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The second poem however (which explains the book’s cover image) is more illustrative of the way that many of the poems in the book work. ‘Crookes radiometer’ is a descriptive meditation on a device for measuring the sun’s electromagnetic radiation. It resembles a light bulb containing a ring of small black flags; and Dennison’s lively description of the physical object suddenly changes direction in the last few lines:

 ...                           the sun’s bobbin
threading on – it winds me up no end,
amen, the utter answerability
of the least scintilla leaves me chastened,
my small sphere humming the silicate hymn:
after the dark, the morning and its mercy.

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Dennison often interrupts himself by such wry colloquial asides as it winds me up no end; and similarly often moves without warning into more spiritual discourse like that abrupt amen. In this case the poet seems moved to consider himself as a device designed to be sensitive to divine rather than solar radiation. Such rapidly twisting and free-associative trains of thought occur quite frequently – for instance a tuning fork / striking itself out of true on the table / of the elements.

And, speaking of trains, a reader of Dennison’s poems may sometimes be helped by a chance piece of general knowledge. The poem ‘Northward’ opens

In the way I stall
under the oncoming headlight
of each ancient train

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and the picture conjured here will be more vivid for those who know that many single track bridges in New Zealand were constructed to be shared by road and rail traffic. The railway lines are now mostly obsolete; but there would have been a time when late-night motorists could expect to be dazzled into giving priority to an oncoming locomotive. As well as trains, railway tracks and sleepers also appear in the poems, fiercely gauged off each other but usually overgrown as if to signify an underlying purpose and sense of direction that has been abandoned or lost.

The poems seldom stay in one place. ‘Nocturne’ starts with the poet waiting for a homecoming traveller but then moves him into a journey of his own: Standing on the porch, I drive these backroads. ‘Scotland’ begins with the wry humour of Scotland was a westerly and a had-it Aga, miles away from the nearest and then proceeds through an accounting of the anguish of family tension (the pre-teen’s rile) before summoning the unseen guest to the potluck table (whom I take to be Jesus).

In speaking of Dennison’s poems it is rarely helpful to quote a few lines – it must be whole poem or nothing, except perhaps for a telling phrase which bears repetition on its own. ‘Crossing’ is another piece that illustrates Dennison’s way of working with interwoven resonances. This is a poem of reflection and regret which begins and ends with what seem to be references to the Biblical story of a lame man lowered by his friends through a roof to be healed by Jesus; but it also rehearses half-remembered incidents from the poet’s own childhood. These are not fully explained but are just enough to trigger memories of our own experiences (how did he know about that bullied fat boy I defended for a day or two and then abandoned?) But the grappling with an element of mystery is worth it – not least for for the sake of images as engaging as lies gleaned in the verge / of others’ well-cut mind.

Elsewhere, more straightforwardly, Dennison’s reflective, musing tone proves well-suited to the construction of tender pantoums dedicated to friends. There are also several poems with a clear narrative line. ‘Psalm’ is, on the surface at least, a conversation with a lost child.

 ...                     we’re in good hands.
But I know right now you can’t see this.

So I reckon we’ll just sit tight.  That’s a plan.

 

In a similar vein, ‘Ecce’ is a five poem sequence about an encounter with a dying beggar on the streets of Calcutta. Some limited help is given by the poet and his companions and yet the poem still ends bleakly: And nothing earned / … these small tally sticks amount / to so much kindling.

Two particular tours de force, both Biblically related, are ‘Climate change’ and ‘After Geering’. The former relates the intransigence of climate change deniers to that of Balaam who persisted in a path of disobedience until thwarted by his own donkey who saw the whetted danger ahead / standing in the wilful path / of the sold-out say-so. ‘After Geering’ (presumably a reference to the New Zealand theologian of that name) ingeniously plays with language and proceeds from the colloquial use of ‘like’ as a kind of substitute for ‘said’ as in

And we’re like
oh my god like

it’s so true like,
he was saying

 

and then, via a small but startling distortion of the words of Jesus on the cross – my God why have you like / forsaken me – arrives at words of the prophet Isaiah

 he grew up before the Lord like

a young plant and like
a root out of dry ground.

 

This direct use of Biblical language is one kind of plain speaking. Another kind which is (for me) more disturbing occurs in a couple of poems where the poet appears to be composing his verses on the lavatory. In ‘Pitched’ you’re relegated to the loo and The intimate dark / pitches and sheets as the motions go through / (let the reader understand: our opaque art). The short sequence ‘There’s One Straight Out of the Box’ speaks of inhabiting a squared-off address of flashings and vitreous bowl and being loosely shackled in our downed pants. In such a state

  ...                                we jump
at the latch-fumble, I’m in here!
i.e. piss off!

 

Otherwise as a well-crafted collection which demands some enjoyable effort (chewing) but leaves the reader with something substantial to think about (digest). It is perhaps a testimony to its effectiveness that it has made me confront my personal distaste for discussion or description of the bodily functions which are the culmination of the digestive process. Maybe I need to question this squeamishness in the light of a strong incarnational sub-text to Dennison’s work, which suggests there is an unavoidable interpenetration of the physical and the spiritual.