Those of us poetry readers and writers around Christchurch over the past twenty years will have come across Nick Williamson’s work in a variety of venues: readings, haiku competitions, anthologies and his previous lone entry into the single volume lists, The Whole Forest (Sudden Valley Press, 2001). That lovely and lonely work – published by the late godfather of the Canterbury poetry culture, John O’Connor who died last year – has now been joined by a second small press collection, The Blue Outboard (Black Doris Press), the imprint of another Southern poetry man, David Howard. I learned of its existence through a Facebook post and made sure of a copy soon after by visiting Nick and his partner, the poet and fiction writer, Frankie McMillan.
The cover – one of Nick’s magical childlike artworks – bespeaks what is contained within. He has always been good on the shadows and lights of childhood, captured earlier in the poetry of The Whole Forest, growing up in 1950s Auckland, looking out to Rangitoto. His ability to encapsulate a moment or a mood – his haiku training – as the child viewer (typically) ponders the tall, distant world of adults, gardeners and fishers, gives these poems a lasting presence and resonance. We have been somewhere like this and he takes us back there, with him.
My father’s eyes drift towards the window.
He stares at the buffalo hill and the macrocarpa
hedge, the shimmering line of bamboo.
Time to put in the silverbeet, he observes,
and the broad beans.
(Father comes home).
This is of course a 1950s’ baby-boom childhood world that Nick Williamson evokes, turning its edges over and over in poem after poem to see what the light reveals; yet it is also outside of a specific time in its truth to universal experience. Children are ethnographers in their own right as they make their own kind of sense of themselves in their parents’ world.
He isn’t limited to any one life stage, chronicling as well his adult journeys, relationships and obsessions. He knows that less is more and has a deft touch with voice and character: “He said he was on the Sickness./Nerves”. (Repairing the head). The head in view is that of a BSA Bantam motorbike, but as his friend does a running repair in curtained lounge, cutting head gaskets from Weetbix packs, we see without being told that the subject is really the friend’s condition and not the bike, his glasses held together with sellotape, his fingers “engraved in oil”. In the background a TV blares, there is talk of a ghost and how this guy “knew Norm Kirk”. You’re back in the drug-raddled 1970s with one of its wounded.
These are poems of deep humanity and often great beauty. Nick deserves a wider audience and as a friend and a reader, I wish it for him. We both know there’s no money in poetry but we are working now as superannuitants on a wider project, what I think Osip Mandelstam called “the eyesight of wasps”.
Nick Williamson brings to life what he sees, what touches him and gives it back in his poetry in a form others can see and feel. It’s a book you should seek out, if you care for poetry and especially poetry made in the South, in cities and towns where poetry took root in this country.
Tonight Chagall is coming
to sing a Russian hymn
& charm the blackbird in our pear
tree with his yellow violin.
(Tonight Marc Chagall)