Book Review: Coming to it, by Sam Hunt

Reviewed for Booksellers NZ, first published 18 September 2018

Coming To It is a collection of selected poems from throughout Sam Hunt’s career (though it also includes many new poems). To review a poet who’s been working for over 50 years, who’s so well known, who’s been recognised by the Prime Minister and the Queen is a funny thing. So much is already established. Most reviews of it so far have been as much reviews of the man − his touring, his drinking, his remote eccentric lifestyle. They become reviews of Hunt’s contribution to New Zealand literature and identity.

But I’m not able to write a review like that. So let’s put it all − the man, the history, the career − to one side and look only at the poems which are in turns clever, lovely, funny, questioning and, the smallest of handfuls, out of step with the times.

Hunt is thought of as a poet whose lines aim to reflect natural speech yet they are full of rhyme and craft; it is not everyone who can overhear a conversation in a pub and turn it into a poem.

Most of the poems in the collection are grounded in Aotearoa − in the natural and manmade paths in Rangitikei; in the choppy waters of Cook Strait; in the salt of tidal rivers in Oterei and Kaipara. They are proudly focused on our communities, our place and the travels of the poet throughout it. The poem Notes from a journey is an example where the towns, the waters and the people all embody Hunt’s pride in this country.

He returns throughout the poems to those he loves − his mother, father and brothers; his sons. These are in turn touching and enchanting. In ‘No bells’ for example, the loss of his mother on the same night as the bamboo windbells on his verandah break are tied together to portray an irreparable sudden silencing. In the last poem, Brothers (which is perfectly placed) we find Hunt in the gaps, the white space around his brothers.

His poems about his lovers, and his descriptions of women generally, generate less delight for me. Women who love him in the poems are expected to accept that he will never be completely available to them; to be with him is to accept a level of loneliness. I find this especially difficult, this ‘arm’s reach’ attitude, from a poet and performer who treasures a deep connection with his audiences. While he is charming spectators, those who most deserve his attention are, like the partner in the poem My white ship, expected to accept:

The ethic of my love
For you remains that I
Am a lone sailor of
The night; captain of my
White ship: and though you be
A good day’s mate, your fight’s
Too weak to rise with me…

In another poem a desirable woman is compared to an unbroken horse; in another a woman’s domestic violence scars are mused over but hey, despite that black eye she is still a ‘sort of mystic hooker’. I wish these poem, and the rest of the poems in the collection, were labelled with a first publication date. Rightly or wrongly, it matters to me whether this was a view from decades ago or from today.

Oh dear, I haven’t managed to review just the poetry have I? I have, like most other reviewers of Coming To It, come back to Hunt himself. And perhaps that was inevitable, because Hunt has always said his subject is his experience and this opening up of a New Zealand life for decade after decade is the ultimate gift his poetry has given us.

Coming to it
by Sam Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503802