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.

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