Poetry by John Dennison

This week Auckland University Press publishes Otherwise, a first book of poems from John Dennison, which is also to be launched in the UK by Carcanet Press. For me, Dennison has been among the most challenging figures in our poetry for quite some time. He frankly takes on what most of us shy clear of, as he brings rare attention to what the formal demands of poetry still offer. His work lays claim to the Curnow tradition of ‘ordinary events’ doubling as philosophical occasions, to language experienced as adventure and aesthetic expanse. I’m grateful to AUP for allowing the blog to offer this selection.

– Vincent O’Sullivan

Hear John read "There’s one straight out of the box" at Turbine

Later this year Oxford University Press is bringing out John’s Seamus Heaney and the Adequacy of Poetry.

Hear Seamus Heaney read 11 of his poems

John Dennison. Photo by Robert Cross.

To keep warm inside

Under the bitter yoke
of these red untempered mornings,

steer the car like a life raft
down Cumberland to this

crystal palace, this sometime church.
Tiles, and the wall of light

steaming across the variegated
blues of February.

The liquid aisles, lightly ushering,
rope the depth beneath,

declining order: fast,
medium, slow; aquajoggers

descend and return
shallow from deep. Receive

the goggled epiphany: limbs
flaying out the imagined ellipse, torsos

strapped just buoyant below the surface
striving for peace or perfection;

in Dunedin—steamed open like a cockle
this morning in mid-July.


Friends decide to separate. After,
we enter the clearing, retrace our steps. A fine
rain settles, and everything is un-
accountably beautiful, unaccountable,
being not promised. Promise—it hung
in the air over the improvised picnic table,
between the opened faces; we nearly sang.
Depressions in the grass, the shape of laughter.
All that time the lines lay, unconverging,
fiercely gauged off each other, overgrown in the dirt—
now ripped out like spade-struck fencing wire,
turf turned and agape the length of the clearing.
We look down. Gutted for you, mate.
And there, unrotted, their pitch glinting, the sleepers.


Thinly yellow, and fibrous in the heat,
fennel is legion, rank beside the lines,
which shimmer, robing the air in a ferrous stink.
Flowchart rampant! The stalk, and then the branchings,
mnemonic of throughput and outcome, of progress
and its needling filiform leaf, the scent so hard
to shake. Do not consider the flowers, the seed
falling across the sleepers. There, sudden
between the tracks, a penetrative, metro-
nomic knocking from a torso-like box,
locked and knocking in the valley of your childhood.
O dark kernel, o burr of ambition,
remember the boy in his switch-flicking trance
in love not with the light, but with the switching.

House concert in the shadowlands

For Will and Alison

All around, his guitar, like a windfall pear
dark-centred and the sweetness giving over,
dark as the bourbon which rises in the jar
the colour of pollo en mole poblano,
dark loamy as the eyes of Eden
your astonishing daughter, friends.
And won’t this come again, won’t
we again pause and lift our heads
to the note rising, and us with it?
O Mary Ursula Bethell, you—
gardening—made poetry on your knees!
How truly found are the lilies
you held out for, how sharp-scented,
how blooming good are they?

Lone Kauri (reprise)

So take for starters the surge-black fissure,
the waves which register the lunatic sense
it is all well beyond us. Our flooded nature

rages at the dying light, measures
its measures down some lone goat-track,
works up some incorrigible reprise

on grace, etc., a tuning fork
striking itself out of true on the table
of the elements. But blow, burn, break

and be done with it: baptism will
look like this, the flailing, the flensing of waves
and the breath knocked into you, the haul

that finds you first-footing land, brings
the morning. 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.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

By Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

In Memoriam: VII

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Dark house, by which once more I stand
      Here in the long unlovely street,
      Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp'd no more—
      Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
      And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
      The noise of life begins again,
      And ghastly thro' the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.


By Mary Ursula Bethell

Solitary, after all, were the gardener,
But for the accompaniment of words.

In this my matutinal seclusion
Sights, sounds, and scents, all, all agree to please.
Comely the smile of all well-natured subjects,
Goodly the smell of wholesome, up-turned soil.
Lovely above all is this silence –
But the silence is vibrant with words.

            They murmur in the distance like bees,
            They whisper in the rustle of the trees,
            Then springs one, instant to be heard,
            Sings on my shoulder like a bird.

Poetry by Dunstan Ward

Anyone interested in writing from the First World War, or the towering figure of Robert Graves in twentieth century poetry, is likely to know Dunstan Ward as the editor, with Beryl Graves, of the splendid three volume Carcanet edition of Robert Graves: Complete Poems. He was also the editor of Gravesiana, and the president of the Graves Society.

Dunstan Ward. Photo by Véronique Ward-Viarnes.

Dunstan Ward grew up near Palmerston in Otago, took his degree at Canterbury, taught at Waikato University, and for the last forty years has lived in Paris, where he recently retired as Professor of English at the University of London Institute in Paris. I’ve admired him for decades as a scholar, critic and editor; I can now add as a poet, as a voice that brings fresh inflections to poems that are both commemorative and immediate, ruminative and acerbically direct. Steele Roberts will publish his Beyond Puketapu in May this year, and his work is soon to appear in the PN Review. In the meantime, here are some of his poems.

– Vincent O’Sullivan

Snow in Paris

It is snowing minutely,
too light to last
on the muted streets;

it lifts and spins
from grey slopes of roofs
above silent courtyards,

like spray from breakers
or sand that gusts
across windy beaches;

but enough remains
to whiten the narrow
lines of slates,

tracks in frost
on early morning hillsides,
not yet effaced.


His father is shouting.
He can hear him from the back yard
where he has been sent out
to the hard sunlight.

There’s another drought.
It’s worse than the last.

‘A curse on this place.’
‘I’m no more than a rouseabout.’
‘I wish I had never married you.’
‘A man could cut his throat.’

What does his mother reply?
He starts to feel afraid for her,
creeps into the kitchen again.
His father turns, stares. He tries to say
‘I’m sorry, please stop quarrelling.’

Carefully, his father explains
he is too young to understand.
‘Your mother and I are just talking.
Now you stay outside.’
His face is shaking.

The shouting gets louder.
He climbs over the Calf Paddock gate,
runs down the hill to the flat
and lies on his back in the dry grass.

All round him there’s nothing else.
He looks up into the endless blue.
Who can he tell?
No one is here but himself, alone
with the dying grass, the empty sky.

He lies and listens to the silence:
only, at times, faintly, the wind,
a sheep calling, a seagull crying...

Far away in the house
his father, he knows, is still shouting.

At the Poet's Grave


Carved on Don Roberto’s grave
by a villager with a simple stick
before the plain cement had set
is no verse, just his name, two dates,
one word to define the endless quest
that led to this height above the sea,
his fate ‘to die and die’ on the way.

Need for entrancement drew him here,
bemused by the shifting shapes of love,
girlish boy, boyish girl, goddess, witch;
nearing mid-point in his writing life
he wrote, ‘My health as a poet lies
in my mistrust of the comfortable
point-of-rest.’ Does he lie there at last?

Three last letters on his grave
wish him (in Spanish, not in Latin)
to rest in peace, but at its head
the cypress that stirs in the sea wind
seems to inscribe unrest, like
those green woods in lines he placed
on the final page of his last book.

Killed in battle at twenty-one,
drowned in nightmare of love’s dissolution,
did the poet then die as he’d foreseen –
muse-maddened, rabbiting on, until
lost in no-man’s-language between
unstoppable volubility
and silence he feared beyond the line?

Did he lose his gift, or give it away?
Between his name and his life’s dates
just one word (Spanish, Latin)
to tell his story (one story only?) –
doomed pursuit of a high calling,
poetic life for love of the mythic
Muse-woman moon-Goddess: ‘Poeta’.


A day that alights
     Like a bird on your table,
A bright ladybird
     On the back of your hand:
Stay still
                   but remember
     ‘Nothing stays’ –
Take wing with the day.


‘No, it’s not my country,’
admits the expat
with the panama hat
and disgruntled air
as he knocks back his pastis,
‘but that’s neither here nor there.’

What Henry Knew

Henry James knew
every turn of the screw.
Lesser lights might dread to be extinguished:
the Master greeted death as ‘distinguished’.

Lower Case

Ezra Pound who shouted ‘MAKE IT NEW’
renewed the same old hatred for ‘the jew’.


(creative writing class)

This is the first line of the poem.
It has four stresses, which is less stressful
than five, ‘inviting unfortunate comparisons’
as noted by a friend who’s a famous poet.
That feminine ending might prove problematic
(quite apart from the ‘gender question’),
setting a pattern that has to be broken (or kept).
As for what the poem’s about,
it’s best if the poet discovers this
only when the poem is finished (or stops);
knowing the ending can spoil the story
for the storyteller as well (teleology),
and anyway there should be no story to tell –
stories are written about something, whereas
a poem, ideally, is not about anything,
it unparaphrasably is (or so that story runs).
The poem’s supposed to ‘write itself’; however,
the poet’s more likely to write him/herself instead –
fine for a Byron or Heaney, but few of us are,
and while there may not be many reliable rules
when it comes to writing (or ‘composing’) poems,
this one, I find, almost always applies:
if your poem has the word ‘poem’ or ‘poet’ in it,
bin it.

An Academic's Prayer

‘Lord, you are just. For my intellectual pride,
you kept me for decades under the puffy thumb
of a psychopathic mediocrity,
weasel-minded, aesthetically tone deaf,
abusing petty power to lie to committees
and block the lives of those whose talents he lacked.
Now we have both retired I only meet him,
still in the same clothes, still smelling the same,
at colleagues’ funerals, where I have to endure
hearing him praise lost friends that he despised.
In the night I see him stand above my coffin.
Let me not die, dear God, till after his death.
I will light a candle for him at your altar,
and one last time I’ll try to hold my breath.’