Thuds Underneath by Brent Kininmont.
Wellington: VUP (2015).
Reviewed by Janet Newman.
Brent Kininmont is a New Zealander living in Japan and Thuds Underneath is his first collection. His poems have been published in a variety of New Zealand journals and two poems which appear in this debut were in Best New Zealand Poems 2009 and 2011.
Thematically, Thuds Underneath reveals a preoccupation with travel, especially planes, with views and perspectives shifting between sky and tarmac, passenger, baggage handler, engineer and pilot. The collection’s colourful but geographically obscure cover is a painting by Maurice Askew called ‘Colonial Williamsburg’. Its bird’s eye view of long, bare roads suggests a plane coming in to land at an airport runway. The poems are divided into three sections according to locale: the first group is set in a variety of countries and classical lands, the second in the South Island, and the third in Japan.
These are succinct poems packed with wordplay. In interview with Paula Green, Kininmont describes them as: “short lines and compact stanzas … trimmed of excess.” He reports being initially inspired by the “sharp, shorter poems” of Andrew Johnson – a New Zealand poet and former journalist living in Paris, who gave regular advice when in New Zealand during Kininmont’s creative writing Masters at Victoria University and whose poems still offer “occasional counsel.” Other named influences are David Beach and Bill Manhire.
Carefully crafted poems play with words and meanings creating deliberate ambiguity through line endings and enjambment. Metonymy may send keen readers to google for explanation. “Samsonite” (3) and “Pratt & Whitneys” (12) in “Paying for Tertiary” reference a New Zealand brand of luggage and aerospace turbine engines. Most readers will recognise airport luggage labels “CHC and DUD” (9) which mimic the poet’s expressive shorthand. Crafted to produce dual meanings from phrases such as “two hard cases” (7) and “fumble/ for a handle” (17-18), this poem delivers thematic duality. Ostensibly about working as an airport baggage handler it is really about getting a handle on life. Here it is in full:
Holiday strata in the full
belly of a Boeing
are founded on Samsonite,
plugged with backpacks.
Knees tenderised by grit
I dismantle a face
for two hard cases
on the tarmac stacking trailers
for CHC and DUD.
You’re on the right track
one hollers above
the Pratt & Whitneys unwound
The new Coast to Coast
my father cracks
while I genuflect
between terms, fumble
for a handle.
Many poetic images are crafted as though viewed through the lens of a camera, creating mental pictures resembling carefully constructed frames of photographs or cinematography. Bound into this visuality is the knowledge that something greater than a fine image is at stake. Considered language delivers the reader slowly and thoughtfully towards the perceptive impulse. Often, enigmatic titles are explained in the final lines. These factors contrive to make rereading the poems a joy as their intricacies of wordplay and meaning are revealed. For example, “The Empty Round” begins “My place was uncertain” and considers the poet speaker’s place in the world from the vantage point of the hills above Christchurch on “the clearest/ evening” (1-2). This short poem soon makes it apparent that nothing is clear. The final line “I was no closer to finding a flat” lends pragmatic meaning to the first but the inclusion of God, a comet and a drunken college chaplain “asking about/ life around other stars. (You chaps must know)” (10-11) suggests life’s uncertainties. This lends to the phrase “Orientation had begun” (12) the dual meaning of entry into university and an unsure world.
The title of “Finishing Touch” provides a clue to meaning, but its significance only crystalizes after the poem is read and reread. This witty and humorous poem about a dead taxidermist asks what the artisan’s live pet makes of the stuffed animals – “such faithful companions?” (11). The devise of reversing the norm– it’s usually the pet which is faithful – is also employed in “Tinnitus” where the title is a metaphor for the sound of a punctured tyre in a hangar which gives an aircraft handler nightmares. Similarly, in a thematic about face, Kininmont tells Green he “was quite alert to reversing the familiar narrative of leaving New Zealand then coming back” – in 2007 he left Japan to return to New Zealand for his year of study at Victoria – and “Thuds Underneath could be read as a coming home then departure again.”
What Kininmont calls ‘intentional echoes” unites disparate poems. For example, the second poem, “The Crop Duster’s Daughter”, ends:
From below the window
she could not grasp
clouds his pastures drank,
the hard stuff
that grounded him. (17–21)
The phrase “that grounded him” is echoed midway through the collection in “Superphosphate” which is about the island of Nauru: “Ground down, the islanders/ scattering” (11). This poem begins by describing the view of the island from a plane as “A spot in my eyes,” a phrase echoed in the title of the collection’s first poem, “Spotter” (here it refers to the engineer whose job it is to check that all of a plane’s rivets are in place). Another poem titled “The Spot” is a single, unpunctuated, 10-line sentence describing the sudden view of a plane’s shadow. And near the end of the collection, “Spotter” appears as part of a sequence about a daughter’s Japanese upbringing. This strategy successfully connects poems by lending significance to repeated words and phrases. It may also help to explain the collection’s esoteric title, which appears in “Spotter:”
I am grateful for thuds
where someone is stacking
all those theories about ourselves
and what we need to rise. (10–14)
Here, underlying echoes suggest meaning beyond the noise of luggage being loaded in the hold of a plane, as the underlying echoes of this collection give rise to rewarding insights for the steadfast reader.
Janet Newman has completed a Master of Creative Writing at Massey University. Her short stories, poems and essays have been published in New Zealand journals. Her poem, “Biking to the Manawatu River”, won the 2015 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. “beach . river . always” was runner-up in the 2014 International Writers’ Workshop Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems.