This Paper Boat by Gregory Kan.
Auckland: AUP (2015).
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
This Paper Boat by Gregory Kan is a debut collection of poems that connects East and West with family histories and ghosts of the past. The poet writes:
‘The Hungry Ghost Festival occurs/ on the fifteenth night/ of the seventh lunar month.// During the Festival, rituals are performed/ to appease the sufferings/ of the dead. I make dinner and set the table// for an additional person./ I leave the seat/ empty’ (p 76).
We learn that this empty seat is for the poet Iris Wilkinson (aka Robin Hyde, 1906-39), referred to as ‘I.’. She appears in many of the poems – alongside and between the poet’s grandparents, parents, and his contemporary friends – and merges with past and present, seamlessly.
The poet continues:
‘the realm of the living lies open/to the realms of heaven and hell.// I find myself also reaching/ for the places that empty/ out beneath me.// Paper representations of material items/ such as money, clothes and/ houses are burnt as offerings//… Other rituals include releasing paper/ boats and lanterns on water,/ to ensure// that the ghosts find their way/ back. I place five paper boats/ in the stream. You gather them// downstream and somehow/ send them/back to me’ (p 77).
Poems appear sometimes in stanza form, sometimes as narrative prose. There are no titles to any of the collected pieces, each of which could stand alone as a vignette. The eye reads on without obstacle. Pieces flow and, like a braided river, merge and weave brief but intimate pictures of different cultures and differing eras revealing remarkable similarities with regard to human suffering and forbearance. Chinese ghosts appear, they link us with Iris:
‘Yuan Gui – a ghost who has died a wrongful death./ He roams the world of the living, waiting/ for his grievances to be redressed. He hasn’t left// anywhere he’s been’ (p 26).
Kan wants us to realize Iris hasn’t either.
This Paper Boat indeed voyages fluidly back and forth from the past to the future, between cultures, voices and families, relationships and separation, between Kan and Wilkinson. Ghosts and memories are gathered and examined, the writing is clever, uncluttered and evocative. Vocabulary reflects Kan’s core aqueous-connective theme in so many works: streams, rippling, fluid, trickle, washing, drains, filling, leaked, levels, water, wetness, waterfalls and seas abound. Of the Maori tangi, Kan says: ‘In this expression of mourning, the wetness of living bodies/ is invoked. Wet touch is closer and faster than dry touch. Sound travels/more quickly in water. So does electricity’ (p 25).
Indeed, Kan ensures we flow from one piece to another on swift currents with pleasant space and light around our vessel, creating places for the ghosts to come along too. Combining so many elements sounds hazardous, but this reader found it worked superbly.
Kan acknowledges that quotations and biographical facts, images and phrases have been ‘lifted’ from various works of and about Robin Hyde and from other essays, poems and personal correspondence. Thus, his collection contains much academic depth for the student of poetry. However, it is neither weighty nor inaccessible – it is fascinating. Unsurprisingly, an earlier manuscript of This Paper Boat was shortlisted for the Kathleen Grattan Poetry Prize in 2013.
Questions ripple. I wonder did Kan’s ancestors met, or knew, Iris Wilkinson, who travelled to China in 1938? I wonder will Kan’s deep fascination with Iris’ life and work continue beyond this particular ‘voyage’.
This Paper Boat is an engaging, well-presented book which I can thoroughly recommend.
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.
First published takahe 87