Friday, December 10, 2004

The Man in the Panama Hat

Here's a sort of memoir I somehow persuaded the long-suffering Jack Ross to include in the new double issue of .brief, Aotearoa's finest literary journal. There's an interview with Hamish to go with it, but like much else in the latest issue(s) (Richard's Taylor's confessions of constipation, for instance) it's far too rude to go on this blog. Mail $20 to Jack at 6A Hastings Rd, Mairangi Bay, Auckland 1311 and he'll throw the full 220 pages your way in a brown paper bag.

Footnote: Jack prints five translations of a poem by Ahmed Zaoui, complete with various commentaries, and justifies it with an editorial called '.brief Goes Political', and a bare couple of weeks later
Ahmed Zaoui is at long last freed, by order of New Zild's new-fangled Supreme Court. Coincidence, or something more? Who says the sword is mightier than the pen?


The first time I met Hamish Dewe he was wearing an exceptionally broad-brimmed panama hat, a buttonless dinner jacket, tight absinthe-green trousers, and a pair of battered Spanish leather boots.

Hamish didn’t see me – he was inspecting a row of books on the fifth floor of the Auckland University general library. I read the spine of the improbably large book already in his hands – The Cantos, Ezra Pound. I had already tried and failed to read the Cantos: Pound’s lines had seemed to me like index entries in a fabulously profound but quite unfathomable textbook. I figured Pound was writing for MA students, if not PhD students. Mustering my courage, I offered some friendly advice to the man in the panama hat. ‘Don’t read that mate, it’s too hard’. Hamish turned his head slowly, looked me up and down, and evidently didn’t like what he saw. ‘I’ve already read it, twice’ he announced, in that poor man’s posh accent which is the curse of all Dilworth College graduates. ‘Sorry, I guess I’ve neglected Pound’. ‘Indeed. Pound is often neglected. Pound and Hamish Dewe are both very neglected poets.’ Like a fool I had to ask who Hamish Dewe was. Eyes rolled under the panama hat. ‘Exactly...’

I got to know more about Hamish Dewe when I became a member of a short-lived group of first-year ‘poetry enthusiasts’ organised by the long-suffering Professor Roger Horrocks. Horrocks would meet us during his lunch break, arrange us into a tidy circle, and ask us talk about our ‘poetics’, whatever that meant. I remember Hamish’s grunts of disgust when the leather-clad Goth announced that he didn’t read other poets, for fear of ‘contamination’, and boasted that he only ‘composed’ on nights when the full moon shone clearly. Hamish’s discomfort increased when the pale one recited one of his lycanthropic compositions. I can still remember the last stanza, which was immediately preceded by Hamish’s muttered ‘It really can’t get any worse’:

Brothers, we have been betrayed
by imaginary women in a world of pain.
Run through the night, flash the purple blade:
Gaia, gaia, gaia, slay!

‘Very interesting, very interesting indeed’ was Horrocks’ tremendously grave verdict, as the man in the panama hat headed for the door. Of course, Hamish himself was a first-year poser poet - he’s probably still apologising for that hat. Most young poets try to act as well as write their idea of poetry. As an 18 year-old I tried hard to be Dylan Thomas, though I could never get close to the bard’s legendary thirteen sherries in one session. (Looking back, I’m rather pleased I couldn’t.) But Hamish Dewe was exceptional, because he had real poetry to go with the pose. And when Hamish and I founded a little literary rag to publish our juvenilia the difference between pose and poetry became clear for all to see. Here are two stanzas from the first issue of Salt:

Imagine, this morning, a garbled sea
shoaling the hulks sunk in a hundred shanties;
the drowned decks, coral holds, and weedy keels
of that fleet sent sailing, green
oceans ago, over the bay’s blue lid.

The valley is near the sea.
The wind tears up our valley from the sea.
The wind gets under our house,shakes us like dice.
Our trees get wind-burnt leaves. The natives do best.
The others become twigs in the ground.

The first stanza comes from my hideously-titled ‘After the Storm: Three Shanties’. The second comes from Hamish’s sequence ‘Dot to Arbitrary Dot’. For me, the precision and unforced rhythms of ‘Dot to Arbitrary Dot’ were another humbling rebuke from the man in the panama hat. Perhaps I should have read the Cantos after all?

Hamish and I didn’t bother to distribute many copies of that first issue of Salt. We both knew that there were only two other people in New Zealand who knew anything about poetry, and that all we could possibly do was mail copies to Allen Curnow at Karekare and Kendrick Smithyman at Birkenhead. When Curnow wrote back, he was full of praise for Hamish. “I wonder whether anyone could explain why your ‘the inexact/ winds’ works quite so well”, gushed the great man.

Perhaps Curnow sensed a kindred spirit as well as a talented poet – Hamish had spent a lot of time at Karekare, and his poems were already staking an imaginative claim to the sea and foreshore. The second Salt featured a sequence of poems about Hamish’s grandfather, a Portugese sailor who jumped ship in the Hokianga:

That which is unseen
in the dreams
of sailors...

He reached overboard
to his reflection
always seen
on the surface,
seen as a shoal of fish,
turning and flashing,
nestled and distinct -
each surface decided
by the seascape

Hamish found his voice and his style early. A Hamish Dewe poem does not offer his readers enthralling narratives, or strange revelations about other minds, or rich characterisation, or metaphysics, or polemic. What it aims at is less ambitious, and harder to achieve. Like Larry Eigner, a poet he has celebrated, Hamish gives us lines that are at once exceptionally observant and fiercely idiosyncratic. The idiosyncrasy comes from the quality of attention the poet is able to give to the world, rather than the imposition of eccentric ideas upon the world. Hamish makes vision visionary:

One sees the moon
starting over
a red knot

and framing
the trees
picking them out
as examples

Like most poets, Hamish became interested in poetry because it gave him something he couldn’t get in the ‘real’ world. Why spend your time communing with the dead on the fifth floor of the library, when there are plenty of living people to hang out with? Why spend hours scratching out a couple of lines, when there is so much talk all around you every day? Where many young poets wallow in their alienation, Hamish turned it into cool and acute observation. The outcast from the feast of life sees everything, and is fooled by nothing.

For a while Salt’s aesthetic credo changed with every issue, as its editors’ reading list expanded. What didn’t change was the dogmatism with which each new change of line was promoted. By issue #5 postmodernism had taken hold, and for the rest of the magazine’s life its editors and most of its contributors thrashed about happily in Derrida’s swamp of unmeaning. Miriam Bellard’s design skills made us look a lot smarter than we were.

In retrospect, Salt and John Geraets’ .brief were the last gasps of the aesthetic of abstraction that had burst upon New Zealand in the late 60s with Alan Brunton’s Freed. Brunton and his merry but earnest comrades had freed the word so that it might be conscripted to fight in a political as well as literary war. By the 1980s, the freedom of the word was being codified and legalised by the theorists of And. By the 1990s, the freed word was an excuse to party, and the party drug of choice was ecstasy, not Brunton’s acid. Freakiness had become an end in itself. For all our fearless slogans and disjointed sentences, we were about as ‘adventurous’ and as ‘dangerous’ as a roller coaster ride at the Easter Show.

Hamish Dewe the editor may have offered up the sound bites of postmodernism, but Hamish Dewe the poet always kept a clever distance from the strictures of the freed word. In successive issues of Salt Hamish honed his style, crafting lines that showed a haiku-like combination of simplicity and suggestiveness:

Reality: the pine cone’s footfall.

But Hamish was never a miniaturist – like his hero, he understands that the fragment is an epic form. In the breakthrough poem ‘Under Under Under Under’ Hamish presented Salt readers with a Poundian onslaught of image and allusion, held together by a mood of near-hysteria and a thrillingly fragile music. With its allusions to a disordered relationship and its creepily complicit natural imagery, ‘Under Under Under Under’ sometimes seems to me like an odd echo of Curnow’s ‘A Spectacular Blossom’. Like Curnow’s classic, ‘Under Under Under Under’ is unmistakably an Auckland poem, full of the ominous humidity of an Auckland summer:

The touch of sand underfoot,
upon returning from
“strenuous exercise.”

Crashing on carpet in stupor:
dreaming of brandy all night.
The smallest of blood blisters
upon your left heel.

The high modernist organisation of ‘Under Under Under Under’ is underlined by Hamish’s variations on a riff from David Jones’ ‘A, a, a domine deus’:

a a a a


It’s the doors that sense my intent to approach.

I enquired up and down.

He said “take me to your leader.”
The doors did not reply.
He staked his life on the roll of a fuzzy dice,
which side the blood
might stain in the crash.

‘Under Under Under Under’ was written at the beginning of a difficult time in Hamish’s life, a time when university gave way to the drudgery of menial jobs and repayments on a huge debt. The amusement park aesthetics of Salt had little to offer in the way of consolation. Like me, Hamish became increasingly interested in politics as the 90s wore on. When he returned to university to write a master’s thesis, Hamish chose as his subject Bruce Andrews, the US poet who tries to mix Marxism with postmodern wordplay. I have a memory of Hamish at an anti-debt demonstration at the end of the 90s, wrestling with a cop who had tried to pick a female protester up by her hair. ‘Get your filthy fucking hands off her!’, the poet of passionate detachment screamed. How do you put a scream into poetry, without sounding like a moonstruck Goth? Like me, Hamish struggled to relate the class struggle to the world of books. Even ‘Under Under Under Under’ seemed too ‘literary’, too detached.

The contradiction between art and life was intensified after Hamish went to China to teach English, first in an obscure provincial university and later in one of the New Economic Zones on the country’s coast. Hamish had studied Marx before he travelled to China, but reading Capital with a cat on your lap in a Sandringham bungalow is no preparation for exposure to the white heat of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Today, the New Economic Zones are as close as we can get – and a lot closer than most of us would like to get – to the primitive, competitive capitalism which horrified and inspired Marx and Blake. Teaching fat children to speak in the pseudo-posh tones of Dilworth English, Hamish came to know not the dark satanic mills, but the satanic mill owners:

The children of the rich require
graded papers, guanxi, lies,
liaisons, hair colour, yes men, yes men, yes men,
Why such effort changing habit, food, language, lovers
when it’s all arbitrary?

I read the cache of poems Hamish mailed home from China at the same time as I was going through The Still Centre, Stephen Spender’s collection from his ‘red’ period in the mid-30s. Like many of the pieces in Spender’s book, Hamish’s China poems mix a half-digested Marxist vocabulary with very traditional natural imagery, and manage to communicate a romantic rebellion against an ugly yet powerful reality. The solemn categories of Marxist economics somehow become exclamations of moral outrage. Isolated in an alien and alienating society, Hamish turned imaginatively and emotionally to ‘the New Zealand scene’ he had left behind. In his earlier poems, Hamish had emphasised the otherness of the natural world; in China, he found a source of strength in this otherness:

In Karekare I could believe in an external world

Hamish's China poems are shot through with contradictions, and like all truly honest poems they say things their author doesn't mean to say. Marxist language is offered as a means of relating the contradiction between the sensibility of the poet and the nature of his subject matter, but this language is unable to handle the pressure of the poet's authentic emotional response to the subject matter. It is a bandage which does not fit over the wound. Hamish wants to pass moral judgement on China and on many of the people he meets, but to do this he looks ultimately not to Marxism but to a thoroughly romantic impulse deeply embedded in the history of New Zealand poetry. Nature becomes moral critique in a manner especially reminiscent of Baxter, a poet Hamish had always professed to despise.

The China poems confirm Hamish’s talent for observation. An image from ‘Bad Faith’ comes to me again and again:

the ferns
in the rain

Where other poets would generalise windily, Hamish effortlessly turns a simple image into a powerful symbol of exile and suffering. The moments of revelation in China have added another pole to Hamish’s poetry – from now on, the cool observer is locked into a dialectic with the romantic. When he returned to New Zealand last year, Hamish jumped into a series of old cars and drove up and down the North Island, greedily filling notebooks with the latest editions of the ‘local and special’. What will he make of this material, now that he has returned to China? What common language might the dialogue between Karekare and the New Economic Zones find? Hamish’s poetry will answer these questions in the years to come. For now we should pay homage to what the man in the panama hat has already achieved. Hamish Dewe has been neglected for too long!


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