Sometimes I tried never to think about the past. Sometimes I tried always to think about the past: A Review of THIS PAPER BOAT by Gregory Kan

We are often told that every first book is an autobiography. With This Paper Boat, Gregory Kan subverts this expectation. This book-length sequence of poems intertwines Kan’s autobiographical writing with the work of Iris Wilkinson (a New Zealand writer who published under the name Robin Hyde in the 1930s), as well as other found language. Wilkinson is referred to throughout the book by her first initial (I.), blurring the line between Kan’s first person narration and his third person descriptions of Wilkinson to create a work that, while deeply personal, is looking outward just as much as it looks in.

In the opening poem, Kan writes, “I have to keep you here to keep coming back.” Although he spends some time in This Paper Boat addressing Wilkinson directly, for the majority of the book he channels himself through her to arrive somewhere he couldn’t reach by other means. “The handle on the driver’s door of my car is broken, / so I have to climb over / from the passenger seat” works as a metaphor for the construction of the collection. Kan struggles to discuss his experiences through his own language so he uses hers to open a portal to the past. In an interview with The Wireless, he describes the book as an “extended séance”.

The book is written in a combination of prose blocks and lineated poems. The language in both styles of poem is very controlled and pared down, relating traumatic and emotional memories in a calm, matter-of-fact manner. While the poems themselves aren’t heavy handed you can tell they have been edited with a heavy hand. This is not language that has been allowed to flow freely onto the page. Every placement has been carefully considered. In one poem we jump from Wilkinson in hospital recovering from a stillbirth, to Kan at an airport with his unit of reconnaissance troops, to “An accumulation of fluid that produces swelling, and that sometimes eventuates in rupture.” These scenes and ideas aren’t collaged together at random. This is Kan consciously creating meaning, attempting to take control of the events of the past. He uses sentences as building blocks, not concerned by who wrote what, more focused on the end result, what effect they have when placed together.

This structure expands fractally as we zoom out to look at the book as a whole. We have poems entirely about Kan, followed by poems entirely about Wilkinson, followed by poems where the two are jigsawed together. The majority of the first half of the book is dedicated to a sequence of poems concerning Kan’s family. The structure of this section reminds me of Maus by Art Spiegelman, in that we see both scenes of Kan interviewing his parents and also the scenes from their lives in Singapore that they recount to him. He weighs up what he is doing here, writing “I ask these questions, not so that I can // write, but I write so that I can ask these questions. I worry / that my parents’ answers are just another thing that I will be / taking from them.” These are people that have been through a lot. In one poem we see Kan’s father at seven years old “enjoying soft drinks, peanuts and cookies” at his own father’s funeral. This casts a new light on a poem earlier in the collection which mentions Kan’s father fishing in flooded drains as a child. Perhaps he was not a young child playing in the backyard but someone with responsibility thrust on him early, trying to support his family.

The second half of the book focuses more on Wilkinson’s life, her traumas. Kan touches on her first pregnancy, resulting in a stillborn child; her second child, who she was unable to financially support and so gave up; periods of hospitalisation; her time in Japanese-occupied China; and her eventual suicide at the age of thirty-three. There are connections here with Kan and his family, but the comparison would not be useful if there were no differences whatsoever. While a scene recalling his grandmother experiencing a stillbirth could be seen to strengthen the connection between Kan’s family and Iris Wilkinson, the two women’s reactions to the experience are so contradictory that there is no way to confuse them. Kan is not merely finding connections, he is exploring cultural differences in the experience of traumatic events.

Another pairing close enough for comparison but not conflation are Kan’s two main characters: himself and Wilkinson. The labels used to refer to them reflect this. Although the “I” of the first person narration and the “I.” of the first initial appear almost identical, the period which differentiates them is so effective that I never once mistook one for the other.

I’ve characterised the two halves of this book as focusing on Kan and Wilkinson respectively, and while this is mathematically accurate This Paper Boat is full of interruptions. Scattered throughout the book are poems concerning Kan’s time as a conscript in the Singaporean army. These vivid memories appear unexpectedly, uncontrollable flashbacks, much as we would expect Kan to experience them himself. “Walking / through Wilton’s Bush a few days ago I was / disoriented when I cut my hand on a thorny, / overhanging branch. I realised I had no gloves. / No camouflage paint on my face, no equipment / vest, no rifle around my neck, no ammunition, / no water, no signal set, no platoon, no rank.”

Wilkinson’s narrative is interrupted by a series of poems about a friend of Kan’s who disappeared. The tone and mode shift slightly here. The prose blocks are now Facebook messages, quoted seemingly verbatim, the only editing the blacking out of the sender’s name. This language is less carefully crafted than what we have read thus far in the book, but still strangely formal. We are given no closure as to whether the friend reappears, which suggests that Kan never got any either. This interlude holds a strong sense of loss. It is not something that happened long in the past like most of the other events mentioned in the book. It is still raw. It will take time for the edges to heal and its form to settle into that of the rest of the poems.

Since this book is so focused on people who are now gone, it makes sense that ghosts begin to appear in it. This is not a metaphor. Kan introduces us to “Yuan Gui — a ghost who has died a wrongful death. / He roams the world of the living, waiting / for his grievances to be redressed. He hasn’t left // anywhere he’s been” and other Chinese ghosts. In fact, in a brief introductory note at the beginning of the collection, Kan writes, “I like to think that she [Wilkinson], and the other ghosts, can be found in all the white spaces of these poems.” This book is very much haunted.

Then, at the end of the book, we arrive at two long verse poems, the broken lines and stanzas allowing more room for ghosts to permeate. These two poems are much more free and lyrical than the rest of the collection. Kan is finally letting the words flow, less concerned with creating meaning than allowing his emotion to be expressed on the level of language, creating a dreamlike mood where images morph from one end of a sentence to another. These poems show just how inventive and creative Kan can be. They provide an emotional release from the tight control of the rest of the collection. Voices unbuckle, invisible trees grow in bedrooms, there are men with beaks. Although these two poems are more fantastical than the rest of the collection, we are still met by the same motifs that populate This Paper Boat: trees, mothers, houses, water. It is these motifs which keep these poems connected to the emotions of the book.

One theme that emerges through the lives of all the ghosts in This Paper Boat is that of belonging, the lack thereof, and the search for it. As someone who knows Greg personally, this makes sense to me. I remember him telling me once that he felt an affinity with people who were between worlds. He had a name for them. I wish I could remember what it was. Memory is of course another key theme in the book. Kan gives a possible explanation of why I don’t remember the word he used in that conversation with the lines “Intensity / plays a fundamental role in the formation / of memory.”

Wilkinson is not the only writer I am reminded of when reading this book. In the introduction to her recent interview with Kan, Sarah Jane Barnett compared This Paper Boat to Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s book Autobiography of a Marguerite. Both books are written primarily in prose blocks and reappropriate the language of past writers in new and exciting ways. It seems no coincidence that the two of them wrote these books during the same year, while studying at the International Institute of Modern Letters together. These two seem to be part of a growing movement in New Zealand literature, with recent books by Lynn Jenner (who along with Butcher-McGunnigle is mentioned in the acknowledgements of Kan’s book), Tim Corballis, and Sarah Laing fitting into a similar space between biography and autobiography. While Kan is exploring some of the same forms as these writers, This Paper Boat stands alone as an extremely personal work of art that no one else could have written and which deserves a wide readership. I urge you to search it out.

This Paper Boat, by Gregory Kan. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press, February 2016. 84 pages. $24.99, paper.

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