The Blue Outboard: New and Selected Poems by Nicholas Williamson.
Port Chalmers: Black Doris Press (2016).
RRP: $15. +pp.
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie.
Christchurch poet, Nick Williamson, has been widely published. His debut collection, The Whole Forest, was published in 2001. The Blue Outboard is his second.
The first thing to delight me was the collection’s structure. We begin with a prose poem, “After the film”, in which two people climb the Cathedral spire:
We made up stories about all the people scurrying below: where they were going and whether they had someone to love when they got there.
This sentence becomes the context for the poems that follow, its clauses becoming headings for the four sections. It’s simple, clever, and creates a coherence and completeness that I found deeply satisfying.
A deceptive simplicity characterises these poems. Williamson is an accomplished writer of haiku, several are sprinkled through these pages,
dying snapper –
and the longer poems also demonstrate the poet’s gift of selecting just the detail that holds the ache of the moment, allows it to bloom slowly in the reader’s mind. From “Apples”:
Each man before lay in this iron bath
and marvelling beyond language
observed his nakedness.
Williamson also has a gift for dialogue and character. In the first sections we meet the poet as a child. In one of my favourites, “The olive house”, family members sit in the sunroom, sharing sherry with a neighbour, Mrs Rose:
Mrs Rose from across the road understands. She moves the muscles in her face just enough to let us know.
Uncle Frank has gone over to Pall Mall. There are little squiggles of tobacco on his upper lip. You can see the red packet scrunched up in the pocket of his white shirt. He taps the smoke on the back of his hand. Then he hides behind the other hand and screws up his mouth and raises one eyebrow. It’s quite an act.
I loved the down-to-earth detail. Physical work matters. These poems reek of the smells of cigarette smoke, fish being landed, filleted, earth being turned ready for the broad beans. From “Blue enamel colander”:
She never spoke
just kept on peeling the dirty skin
from the white flesh
her fingers raw
from cold water.
Here are pain, undercurrents. In “My father was a hare” the poet plays with the fact that he was born with a harelip. This and its impact on a life are mentioned in a few of the poems. Williamson confronts this full-on, with humour, a kind of bemusement. It’s a clear-eyed view, without pretences, that for me is a strength of the whole collection. The same honesty is part of what makes the depictions of people so compelling.
The poems of the later sections deal with adult experience. Some are quietly philosophical, some take a wry, oblique view of the tangles of adult relationships. Here too, there are brilliant character studies. From “Repairing the head”:
He said he was on the Sickness.
But when my Bantam broke down
he cut a head
gasket out of the back
of a Weetbix pack.
Colin McCahon features, ‘his corduroys black with sump oil’; as does a painting of Betty Curnow.
The whole collection is enriched by the poet’s own art work. We meet Dad and Uncle Frank face-to-face, and on the cover Dad controls the blue outboard of a dinghy as he and the poet as small boy, power over dark ocean. The direct, unsmiling, gaze between them is striking. It’s a strong image that beautifully complements the poems inside. The two are dwarfed by the enormity of the sea, but sit, confident in each other, and in their direction towards a destination.
Nicholas Williamson can be proud of this work. So can Black Doris Press. Care for quality, integrity, craft, are evident in every aspect of the book. It’s a gem.
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 (Makaro Press, 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.
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