Otherwise, John Dennison, Auckland University Press, 2015
John Dennison was born in Sydney, raised in Tawa, studied in Wellington and St Andrews, Scotland, and is currently a university chaplain at Victoria University. His debut poetry collection, Otherwise, carries glowing endorsements from Vincent O’Sullivan and Gregory O’Brien on the back. It is a co-publication with Carcanet Press in the UK. He has also authored Seamus Heaney and the Adequacy of Poetry (forthcoming from Oxford University Press in 2015).
This debut collection is a collection to slip in a pocket and savour on a daily basis.
Otherwise is imbued in love. Take ‘Touch and Go’ for example. You see ‘love’ in a moment caught within the poem’s frame; a blackbird, the game played, relations, life, dusk. And then the game becomes other. Like a tantalising elsewhere, so that just as things hide and seek, the world slips and slides and settles, in view out of view, a world hiding and a world revealed, open closed. Throughout the collection, there is a consistent sway between a need to be literal, to celebrate this thing and that moment, and a need to lay the trope of elsewhere. A literal evocation and a metaphorical ripeness. And that sway gives the poems a delicious, almost metaphysical shimmer. A shiver almost. Like the sight is steam rising after rain upon the summer path.
There is also a love of language that is contagious. You want to keep reading and you want to start writing. Delicious phrasing abounds: ‘hot glob of dust’ ‘My lighthouse, my love, the rocks are night all around.’ Musicality is scored deftly upon each line: ‘small branches fret the roofing iron.’ Individual word choices refresh and surprise, particularly in the case of verbs and nouns: ‘this acupuncture of light’ ‘You wake as you home across London’s/ threshold.’ There are the repetitions, a word or phrase that slips to reappear a few lines later because ‘some things bear repeating.’ Comfort for the ear and then a shift in meaning.
Many poems stand out. For example, John’s reprisal of Allen Curnow’s ‘Lone Kauri Road.’ This carries the gold of Allen’s poem in its veins and then it moves elsewhere. One of the best reprisal’s I have read in ages. Here is how it ends:
(…) Forgive my making light of
the glass half-empty and you weighing up the dregs;
but I will get up like a love-cast father
awakening to children’s voices, the night-
time true underfoot, who hears their laughter
and finds, at the unclosed door, the seam of light.
You will fall upon spiritual traces, stepping stones if you like, along an underlay-stream: ‘a congregation welling up’ (geese), ‘this sometime church’ (a swimming pool), ‘the joining of hands,’ ‘when by grace we vowed to enter marriage.’
The title of the collection signals ‘otherwise’ and it is there in the title poem: ‘We are so otherwise, and elsewhere lies our hope.’ This is the joy of the collection: the way the poem grounds you in the marvellous detail of the here and now so you feel earthed, and then uplifts you to the transcendental possibilities of elsewhere. To a state of philosophical musing. Not all the poems held my attention, but unlike similar experiences with other books, I know it is a matter of returning at a different time to find that captivating entry point. This is a tremendous debut.
Auckland University Press page