Ocean and Stone by Dinah Hawken.
Wellington: VUP (2015).
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
Ocean and Stone is Dinah Hawken’s seventh poetry collection which contains the elements of her previous works in the areas of human experience and the natural and peaceful world. This is not to say that Ocean and Stone is just more of the same; it is a beautiful book full of thoughtful and often serene work which shines on the page. The cover is uncluttered as is the poetry – both basic in their essence – evoking calm simplicity. The untitled fragments that appear through the book stem from the epigraph, a found poem from The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry, and which states:
‘We will have to live within/ our limits: the knowledge/ of our limits and how to live within them is/ the most graceful and comely knowledge// that we have’.
Here we have a book which illustrates to the reader this grace and comeliness.
Poems are immediately recognisable to New Zealanders. The environment gives little doubt; we are gently but strongly placed. In the opening poem, “The lake, the bloke and the bike”, our environment is at odds with ‘The bloke who cannot live/ without noise’. We move subtly from peaceful to raucous and to peaceful again. We rock between ‘The old boat shed still stands, long/ and picturesque under the hanging trees.’ ‘His boat is the loudest I’ve ever heard./ It is tested in and out of the water./ It is tested for hours.’ ‘…light doing what light does.’
We rock gently with the ocean as well, as in “The uprising” and “Tidal”; each has been written in Paekakariki, and has several sections. These poems are meditative, almost psalm-like; their rhythms are comfortable and calming; they are not sentimental; verses are in triplets, well-spaced and well-placed. Their content is essence of New Zealand. “The uprising” begins:
‘Here we are a skinny country/ in the largest ocean on earth/ spellbound, windswept, lashed…’
‘…here, in Paekakariki, outside my window/ the Tasman Sea, moon-bound, rises and falls./ It breaks up on the sea wall and falls.’
Towards the end of the poem’s seven sections, we read:
‘Under my grip is helplessness/ and under that grip is an earthbound love/ for this particular place in the ocean.’
“Tidal” is the last poem in the book. It starts with a seven-day sequence, giving an overall feeling of the act of Creation:
‘One day I had the fleeting thought/ I could give myself over/ to rising and falling.’
It is chanting, meditative, unrushed and psalm-like, it could be set to music. And in its final sequence, describing ‘the broken wave’, it ends:
it surges forward like a crowd
beside itself with appreciation
for nothing other than a kind of breathing.
nothing other than an easy kind of singing,
that has been in each single heart
and on the single earth since day one.
There is humour in several of the poems, from the observant recording of small children’s quirkiness (“The small boy”), to things of nightmares (“In my mother’s shorty nighty”) and the wilfulness of technology:
I like the way the printer spits my poems out
onto the floor as if
they are despicable, as if they don’t bear
thinking about, as if they lack
sun, wit, virility…’
Senile dementia is observed by Hawken with no frills of sentimentality, at the same time the poems on this subject convey extreme poignancy. It reminds us of what, in the end, we can lose – a deep appreciation of nature, the planets and the universe:
I could almost
swear we shared a moment of love.
And then a moment of sadness
when we both knew who she had been,
where she lived now and who she had
(“Now the door is locked”).
Hawken includes in this collection two poems created from stories written on clay tablets and in cuneiform script, about 4,000 years ago. (“The young woman Inanna”). These also are a study of human awareness. Perhaps things never change.
“page . stone . leaf”, is the grounding section of this book – several poems have each one of these words as title. Illustrations here are simply yet strikingly depicted by John Edgar. Once again, there is a distinct meditational quality to the consideration of the natural subject matter. There appears no hurry:
stone is the firmness
in the world. It offers landfall,
a hand-hold, reception …
… See that line of coast …
See the ranges ranging …
they seem to be saying
after you, after you,
Yet, indeed there is some urgency to understand our responsibilities to the planet and this is conveyed by the depth of material, in a thoughtful, manageable way, in a book which is a credit to a fine NZ poet.
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.