Petone Beach & other poems by John Davidson
Wellington: Steele Roberts Aotearoa Publishers (2018)
RRP: $22.50. Pb, 80pp
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie
Petone Beach & other poems is the sixth collection of poetry by Wellington poet John Davidson. It’s a gathering up of work uncollected since the 1970s, mixed with recent writing. So the range of concerns is wide. Throughout, there are soft finger-marks from the poet’s scholarly interests as retired Professor of Classics at Victoria University, with a long publishing history on ancient Greek literature and mythology. These are lightly done with helpful notes at the end of the book for those unfamiliar with the references. The tone of these poems is inclusive, thoughtful, with a concern for our common humanity.
The poems are organised into two sections: Encounters, Reflections. As the poet mentions in the introduction, these divisions are not clear-cut. However, they are a part of the shaping of what must have originally looked like a pretty disconnected folder-full of experiences and thoughts from relative youth, to relative age. The poems are not chronologically placed, and yet a coherence weaves among them, creating a whole that I found intensely satisfying.
The first encounter is with silverfish. In ‘The death of twelve silverfish’, they’ve been feasting on a dictionary of antiquities.
… Took a hard line,
crushed them coolly with my
right hushpuppy …
… moving into the mass
killing business. But just think
for a moment about Alexander
sleeping with Bucephalus …
… me holding history
by the title, looking at this
instant paste all over the car-
pet while time itself dissolves. (p 10)
Self-deprecating humour, and a pattern of reflection upon time and mortality are a feature of this collection.
Other encounters are with art works, books, music and the places of childhood memory, like Caroline Bay. We briefly meet James K Baxter in ‘Teacher along the corridor’ (p 30). In an exchange with a fellow bus patron in ‘At a bus shelter’, the self-deprecation is not so gentle. Class barriers prove unbreachable. The woman invades
… the neutrality
of your gently cultivated silence.
In just a few words this woman is presented to us as a vivid, uncompromising character who’ll have no truck with polite reserve. The poem ends:
Then her bus comes
and she stumbles out,
with my pretensions left
cold as graffiti. (p 17)
Occasionally, there’s a clunk, where the poetry stumbles on a too-easy phrase, or clumsy word choice, as in ‘Child on the sand’, which finishes:
Soon enough adulthood
will enhance your constriction. (p 27)
But at other times the words hit hard with just the right images, and emotion powerful in its understatement.
Here is the opening of ‘The funeral’:
We are standing heads at half-mast.
Pallbearers like pirates with treasure
stroke grimly through our cold sea
of thought. Now we shamble outside. (p 41)
And in ‘Musical Words’, describing listening to a tenor sax:
The unobtrusive backing
of piano, bass and drum
was like the pulse
behind controlled flights
of fancy. Breathing beings
lurked there but were blind. (p 32)
In the second section, Reflections, Davidson considers, among other matters, mortality, sometimes in pieces about war, and sometimes in more personal poems, where he looks closely and honestly at illness, fear, regret, loss. Throughout the collection, but especially in this part, he plays with paradox. He does this to great effect in the last poem ‘Enigma variations’. It’s the perfect choice as finale, suggesting as it does, the unknowable, the unsayable of life, death and poetry.
This is the imprint of a smile
on drying sand,
the sweet taste of the untasted,
the scent of a colour …
… belongs not to me
yet is totally mine … (p 75)
This took me round again to the cover photo of Petone Beach, with its shell-strewn sand, white-capped water, and a seagull hunched against the wind. In Petone Beach & other poems John Davidson and Steele Roberts Aotearoa Publishers have constructed a fine and satisfying whole.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of fiction and poetry. She has had published: The Unquiet, a children’s novel, (Longacre Press, 2006); Albatross, a short story collection (e-publisher Rosa Mira Books, 2014), and Bones in the Octagon, a poetry collection (Makāro Press: 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.