New Sea Land by Tim Jones

(Submarine, 2016)

Review by Bonnie Etherington

Originally from England, and now living in Wellington, Tim Jones wrote three books of poetry before New Sea Land, and has also published fiction and edited collections.

I had the idea of flooding on my mind when I started reading New Sea Land, after seeing images on the news of Cyclone Gita’s destruction in Nelson and Takaka. One particular image has stayed with me: the sea coming in through the floorboards of a restaurant on the coast, bursting through its door and washing over the coastal road. Jones’s book reminds me of this.

At its heart, New Sea Land is a book about reckoning with the rising seas brought about by climate change. At another, subtler, level it is about settlers reckoning with their own history in New Zealand.

These threads converge with anxieties about changing maps, changing landscapes, and different ways of confronting the past and facing the future that run throughout the book. In the opening poem, ‘The map’, written in memoriam for the historian Harry Evison, who wrote extensively about Ngāi Tahu land rights, the speaker learns:

how the map told the story
of exclusion and decimation
as thoroughly as it told the miles.

This is a speaker learning that the maps he once relied on, including the place names and landscapes he once read as objective and stable, are no longer so – indeed, have never been so. He has come to see how the maps have been records and facilitators of settler colonialism, and also, over the course of the book, the rising seas and changing climate make the land around him fragile and fallible as well. In ‘History doesn’t pick winners’, the speaker states, “the colonial project was all about preservation”. But this preservation was not innocent or without consequences for people or the land.

The book begs the question of what happens, then, when the sea also challenges how we have mapped and archived in the past? How, in our current historical context, do we represent “the ragged upper margin/ of the sea’s new claim on the land” (‘Blue Lines’)? If “the sea does not negotiate”, how do we navigate our lives with it (‘The sea’)? Jones’s poems explore what this can mean for New Zealand today and into the future, including sobering musings on what happens when insurance fails those affected by climate change. “There is no mercy/ in insurance”, laments a speaker in ‘Written off’, one of the most explicit of the poems on such matters. Yet, “the numbers speak”.

Though topics such as insurance and property plans may seem dry, Jones’s poems are not, and also include frequent moments of humour and even hope. “Take my rubber ring, my hand,” says the speaker in the final, eponymous poem (‘New Sea Land’). With this line, Jones leaves us not with a sense of resolution, because the seas are still rising and we still need to confront our roles in this, but ends with a sense of coming together despite it all. Where insurance fails, perhaps poetry succeeds.