Briefcase by John Adams

(AUP, 2011)

Review by Laurice Gilbert

Lots of poetry books pass through my hands. This one got stuck there. From the splendidly legal cover design by award-winning designer Spencer Levine, to the p. 73 (of 104) ‘Index’, this collection promises (and delivers) innovation and satisfaction.

I wasn’t previously familiar with Adams’ work, although he submitted (and I published) two poems for a fine line shortly after the review copy of the book arrived. There are some poems online that are well worth finding, and one from Briefcase appeared in Best NZ Poems 2011. A graduate of the University of Auckland’s Masters in Creative Writing programme (2010), Adams is better known as a District and Family Court Judge. In Briefcase, he subversively merges his creativity with his day job.

Based on a case brought about by a (possibly accidental) domestic dispute, the book is a loosely structured collection of poems, legal documents – affidavits, police reports, wills, a victim impact statement, etc – and such miscellaneous additions as partially-completed Sudoku (using the letters from “poetry” and “law”), draft notes for a speech to the Law Society Annual Dinner, a menu and instructions for erecting a tent. There’s lots of wordplay and a healthy sprinkling of concrete poems. The top left hand corner of each right page is marked ‘Staple’, reflecting both the legal context and the fact that the domestic dispute began with a thrown stapler.

It’s all great sport, or a dismal reminder of how mundane court work can be,  depending on your point of view. Probably both, actually.

Many of the poems would stand perfectly happily alone, while clearly supporting the leitmotif. ‘Dealing with fog’, for example, immediately precedes the first of the legal documents:

It has much to do with focus,
Socrates would have us question
the fog until its particulate
nature is objectively revealed

‘Mist off Bermuda’, an almost ghazal-like portrayal of the Bermuda Triangle, invokes the familiar concept of ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’, finishing with:

On a spring day, what a sight,
but in the mist of cross-examination
buoyant boats can founder.

Others, like a letter to the Plaintiff from her GP, add to our general view of the protagonists and their lives without being overtly poetic.

Nevertheless, every page rewards close reading, even the clearly legalese ones, as the case builds and develops. Did he, or didn’t he, mean harm? In the publicity blurb Adams wrote, “I have tried to downplay narrative”, and to a degree he has been successful, but the collection holds together as a sequence which carries its own narrative. While a commentary poem like ‘A short traverse about the panopticon’ might well have been placed elsewhere than where it is (after a couple of pages of cross-examination), it serves a useful purpose as a thoughtful pause in the proceedings (pun intended), with its, “my legal scholar has/ an appetite to cobble sense from unseen/ webs…”

There is much to love in this book, not least the unique format of the collection as fly-on-the-wall exposure to the judicial industry. I recommend it as I would a crime novel (my other favourite literary genre), and hope there will be more where that came from.

And the tent instructions? It uses staples for anchoring the guy ropes, and has a killer final line.

‘Briefcase’ won the 2012 NZSA Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry.