Mister Hamilton by John Dickson.
Auckland: AUP (2016).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Mister Hamilton is John Dickson’s first collection of poems for eighteen years. Some of the poems were published in New Zealand Books, Broadsheet, takahē and The Press.
Dickson is a poet of keen attention and humour, and many of the poems in this collection combine these impulses in a way that is tender and heart-warming. “The reader of hands” captures Madame Cusack (a fortune teller from Memphis) confidently taking cash from a customer:
Her confident hands take my cash and
then my right hand gently turning it this way and
that before she finds her line.
While in “Spinster” we have this slice-of-life:
The woman stands by the window
and gazes at the setting sun.
The red clouds to the west are pain.
Three days before
her mother left her body behind
and went somewhere else.
Dickson seems to have no less affection for the woman than he does for the predicament – his attention to her is uncritical. He reserves some of that affection on a drive with friends in “A short history of rock and roll in Southland”. This is a 13-part poem about driving a pink Cadillac ‘on the long unbending straight to Mataura’.
The length of the book allows Dickson the freedom to include poems on a wide variety of topics and in a broad range of styles. In a way, the conceit is a sly workaround of the expectation of a cleverly constructed book of poems … it is clever, but it also lets the book have a wider and looser scope. Perhaps the most affecting and effective poem in the collection is the five-page poem, “The persistence of football results on Bealey Ave”, in which he reveals people who don’t frequently appear in poems: the deputy chairman, gamblers – ‘two upright Southland gents’, the driver of a Land Cruiser and more. His poem about these people is funny, but he isn’t making fun of them. Dickson celebrates these individuals and our shared humanity:
As in the freezing, in the falling snow, up there,
on the all grinning, all scheming balcony,
deputy chairman Clements removes his hat
and as if coronating a king, places it
on our chairman’s bare faced head,
as we, the crowd (collectively embracing
our death bound selves for once),
as we begin to sing –
Anyone who has read Dickson’s poems will understand his central challenge – that of keeping open and accessible to the reader an emotional space his reference material threatens to overturn. He manages it by keeping the verse forms simple, as in “Pensioner”, where he writes about the simple life lived by an older person:
I eat cheap, pork bones, puha,
And I have a garden still
greens, kumara, corn
and those herbs by crikey
I learned of them from my wife
she was from Naples
and the greatest person in my life.
Another longer poem, “Piano time with Monk”, focuses on ‘walking home from the Monk concert’ and a man who maybe ‘knows everything anyone could know / about playing tenor sax’. In this poem, the speaker recalls his afternoons spent listening to music:
I’d spend Saturday afternoons
listening to Lee Morgan
or Clifford Brown
or the Adderley brothers
Cannonball and Nat
and drinking quart bottles
of Waikato Four Star.
In “This is Zepf’ poem almost word for word”, he writes about Zepf teaching his students the basics of playing football: ‘There’s the basics, the stances, the breathing / there’s the forms, the patterns, the moves’. The lengthy prose poem, “Something else”, is divided into four parts. In the poem, Dickson reflects on a man recalling his life, watching television, looking through a living room window, reading about Bruegel and a daughter and her tragic death:
. . . the snow enfolds her within itself, the coder body as usual unable to warm up without work a more warm one, so that on the fifth day of this normalised suburban scene during snow, in the city’s oldest cemetery, her body was found exhibiting is own stable rate of decay, or something like that …
“Gravity”, another prose poem, tells the moving story of the poet going to the morgue to view his father:
In the morgue, the orderly uncovers my father’s face, and steps back as if to say, Hey, look, all my own work, and though my father hadn’t been a boxer who’s lost too many fights, the lower part of his nose has flattened back to his cheeks.
and then the orderly reacts badly to the presentation of the body, which isn’t quite right in his eyes. “Postcards from Dunedin” contains five poems. The third one, “On Lower Rattnay Street”, focuses on a scene outside the Social Welfare Office:
By the Social Welfare office
she offers work for a fee.
Overcome by the plight of her breasts
a hypocrite falls to his knees.
The eleven-part poem, “Sixties relic surveys his lawn”, combines the recollections of experiences mowing the lawn. It is a celebration of nature, infused with a humorous way of seeing things, and highlights the gift of perception – a theme that illuminates the whole collection. These lines are from part 1:
Every week, I mow the lawn, otherwise,
it wouldn’t be my lawn, but something else,
a paddock of stars, a swamp of stone.
This awareness of natural things is also suggested in “Wasp”, where the poet recalls that ‘I used to hate Calvin’, but ‘These days, I’m mellow, and far less moral’. In the final poem, “A note concerning names”, the poet recalls walking his dog on an early spring evening and later listening to his granddaughter talking ‘of moon pyjamas, / of bird holes in trees / and much else besides.’ The poem ends with what he means about his evening:
I’ll tell you what I meant
the moon, the grass, the trees,
my grand-daughter on the phone,
my skin close and warm,
and Thelma the Rottweiler
by a blazing fire.
These poems are a moving celebration of what endures in the small individual life and in the human and natural world at large. Dickson’s poetry turns to the heart-work that art does, and relishes what is to be found in a lived life. This is a poet who knows passion, loss, love and the simplicity to be found in the natural world.
 Dickson was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Waikato in 2000.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).
Published takahē 90