The Tip Shop, James Brown, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 2022
Alex Grace writes on the back of The Tip Shop: “Funny, dark, insightful and nothing close to a chore to read. Poetry, but it doesn’t suck.” Ha! Some poetry must suck, even be a chore to read, like a school assignment! James Brown’s poetry is cool – ok a lazy-tag adjective children are often forbidden to use as what does it actually mean? It means James’s poetry is hip, electric, agile on its poem toes, lithe on its heart beat, and is immensely readable.
The opening poem, ‘A Calm Day with Undulations’, places visual waves on the page and sets you up for all manner of undulations as you read the collection: wit, heart, life. In the poem, James uses an ocean metaphor to write about cycling which is a way of writing about living. Think surf / swell / naval surface / roll up and down / wave length / lull / pool.
It’s a calm day with undulations.
My tyres flow freely
across the naval surface.
The Tip Shop appraises and pays attention to scenes, moments, events, potential memory, language. The detail ranges from measured to madcap. Questions percolate. Poetry rules are invented. Words are played with. Dialogue is found. Poems stretch and poems repeat. Herein lies the pleasure of poetry in general, and a James Brown collection in particular: there is no single restrictive model when it comes to writing a poem. Within the collection as a whole, and within the frame of an individual poem, James resists stasis.
A poem that epitomises intricate delights is ‘Schrödinger’s Wife’. It delivers a miniature story laced with wit and puzzle. Here is the first stanza:
Mary didn’t walk with us Sundays. She ran.
With earbuds, she could keep reading. Her shop,
Schrödinger’s Books, was a tough mistress.
‘Are you working today?’ we’d ask. ‘Yes and no,’
she’d reply. She just needed to ‘finish the books’.
Can the books ever be finished? They wink at us
as though there are uncertain things
they think we ought to know.
I am drawn to repetition, to a concatenation of detail, especially in list poems, overtly so or nuanced. Three examples in The Tip Shop, establish A to Z lists. Another poem juxtaposes ‘I must not’ and ‘I must’. A found poem, like a form of canine play, lists dog owner dialogue. And then the delight in repetition dissolves, and time concentrates on the washing and peeling of fruit. In ‘Lesson’, a single elongated moment becomes luminous when caught in the poem’s frame. We are implicated, and are returned to an (our) apple: “When was the last time you / washed a green apple”.
Three longer poems stretch into telling a yarn, spinning a story, as the repeated indents mark the intake of a storyteller’s breath. Glorious.
‘Waiheke’ pares back to an ocean moment, and I am imagining the scene imbued with love. So much going on beneath, on and above the surface of the poem, whether in the breaststroking, in the prolonged looking.
You yearn so much
you could be a yacht.
Your mind has already
set sail. It takes a few days
at island pace,
but soon you are barefoot
on the sand,
the slim waves testing
The Tip Shop is piquant in its fleet of arrivals and departures. It is poetry as one-hundred-percent pleasure – it makes you laugh and it makes you feel. It encourages sidetracks and lets you rollercoast on language. What a poetry treat.
James Brown’s poems have been widely published in New Zealand and overseas. His Selected Poems were published in 2020. Previous books include The Year of the Bicycle (2006), which was a finalist in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2007, and Go Round Power Please (1996), which won the Best First Book Award for Poetry. His poems are widely anthologised and frequently appear in the annual online anthology Best New Zealand Poems. James has been the recipient of several writing fellowships and residencies, including the 1994 Louis Johnson New Writers Bursary, a share of the 2000 Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship, the Canterbury University Writer in Residence, the Victoria University of Wellington Writer in Residence. James works as an editor and teaches the Poetry Workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University of Wellington.
Te Herenga Waka University Press page
I’ll make sure our paper plus gets this in. The new owners are lovely but need to be trained in the poetry area. ( although I may have to eat my words when I go in tomorrow! ) hope you read this James.
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