Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Greg O'Brien's launch speech for Ocean and Stone by Dinah Hawken


The title of Dinah Hawken’s new book leads us simultaneously into a deep aquatic zone and a cultivated pebble garden. Once inside, a striking but almost nondescript motif recurs – call it a form of punctuation or a basic decorative device – the black dot which appears, centre-page, five times as you make your way through Ocean and Stone.
An emblem for the book, this recurrent dot is anything but a full-stop. In fact, it is the exact opposite. It suggests we are at the beginning or in the middle of something. It could be a molecule or a dark planet adrift on the Milky Way of the page; maybe it is a mid-Pacific island and the page is the sea. A presence in the midst of absence. We’ve been here before in Dinah’s poetry. Ocean and stone. The stone in the ocean. The dot is also a speck on the horizon, a vanishing or unvanishing point. Things reduce down to this one black spot, reminding us how poetry is, in essence, a concentration of thought and matter. 
Dinah’s poetry traces a movement towards the centre, the heart, the soul. ‘Keep your eye and mind on the lake,’ she writes, demanding a very particular kind of attentiveness of her readers. So the black dot is the centre of an eyeball, looking very closely. It is both open lens and focal point.
There are certain qualities, virtues, in Dinah’s poetry which have been highlighted many times before. Her writing is reflective, responsive, elemental, searching, moral, illuminating, incantatory, sensuous, spiritual, numinous, environmental, environmentalist, edifying, supple, delicate, attentive, radiant… For Dinah, poetry has always been a process of getting things in proportion, in perspective. The poem, like life itself, is a balancing act. I’m reminded again of Claude Levi Strauss’s assertion that art is located halfway between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought.
Beyond the unitary form of the dot, the point in time and space, life and poetry tend to be made up of interactions, relationships, juxtapositions and conjunctions. And therein lies one of the most gracious gestures of Dinah’s poetry: her bringing together of ocean and stone, yin and yang, movement and stillness, fluidity and form, agitation and calming. The poetry is at once an awakening and, that rare thing in the modern world, a lullaby. 
In the central part of the new book, ‘page . stone . leaf’, two black dots punctuate the three nouns of the section title.The dots link the nouns together, each a fulcrum,  bringing the disparate objects – page, stone, leaf – into a state of mutual, respectful dependence, an equilibrium.
Dinah’s poems are the subtlest of breathing exercises, their sounds and meanings are drawn in, then exhaled. They could well be a form of poetic Tai chi. However, her poetry is no cloister. Alongside revisited mythologies and oceanic reveries, her new poems are inhabited by a vocal and uncompromising brood of children. We are reminded that grandchildren are as much a part of Nature as is the silhouette of Kapiti Island. Life is not only a leaf-ride, it’s also the train or car trip in from Paekakariki, the trajectory of a plastic bike across a kitchen floor, or quality time spent with a playdough snake. In Ocean and Stone, the happenstance and ordinariness of daily life become a crystalline structure.
As Derek Walcott once observed of the watercolours of Winslow Homer, Dinah has created an ‘elegaic Eden, not a paradise of escape but one of healing’.  She visits a friend hospitalised with dementia and, along the way, enlarges the catchment of her poetic meditation on being, well being and the end of being.
Dinah Hawken’s manner of writing and thinking has become an essential and influential ingredient in recent New Zealand poetry. The work of many younger poets acknowledges Dinah’s legacy of things planted and nurtured, the clearing she has made in the superficial undergrowth of this materialistic era. And I’d like to think her writing has contributed to a broader pattern of thinking and feeling in this country. 
Returning to the dot upon which so much depends – this mark on a map which denotes where we are as well as where Dinah is. The centre point of the mandala. Maybe this dot is also the singular entity, the individual self, surrounded by a world yet to find form or meaning. Thinking further into Dinah’s revisionist grammar, we might conclude that, in her poetry, the First Person Singular is no longer an ‘I’ – it has become a dot, a point in space, a particle or seed, the beginning of life itself.
It is only a week since James K. Baxter’s Collected Prose was launched on a hilltop near here – a five kilogram Holy Tablet hoisted down from the Holy Mountain. I’ll conclude by acknowledging a purposefulness I find in the writing of both Dinah Hawken and James K. Baxter. These two new books demand more than a simple reading. They ask that we consider our actions, and the direction in which we are heading, collectively and as individuals. In their different ways, they are principled, instructive and challenging publications. Beyond that, of course, comparing the books of Dinah Hawken and James K. Baxter is like comparing a kite with an internal combustion engine.
Congratulations to Dinah and to all concerned for this fine, exquisite production, in which the subtle calibrations of John Edgar’s drawings are integral and edifying. 
With no added preservatives, artificial ingredients or genetically modified materials, Ocean and Stone is as real as it is vivid. No animals were harmed during the making of this exemplary production. Dinah Hawken’s poems are not a dairy herd and Victoria University Press, thank goodness, is not Fonterra. This is a supple, organic, holistic, balanced and sustainable production, a creation of self-renewing wonder.

Gregory O’Brien

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