Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Tuesday Poem: Justice by John Adams

It will always be difficult to get to
the heart of justice because it is girded
so that every approach meets a moat
of jus, a sticky reduction wherein
the stain of a thousand righted wrongs, long past,
reside; and the whole edifice of justice
is severe: its modes hint more of the stick than
of the carrot, more of reptilian scales than of
warm yielding flesh; yet justice, at its heart,
and you won't find this by staring at
the word, is love in action, or should be,
at its best: behind its stony wall lurks
understanding, even mercy, to enfold us.
If the heart of justice is unhinged,
it devolves to the mere markings of a ruler,
a frigid adherence or, as the broken word
thinly gasps, 'just ice', a fraudulent
liquid of no lasting substance; but when
justice is rendered potent by love, even a blind-
folded woman, struggling with ancient
instruments, should be able to get it right.


Judge John Adams' first collection of poetry Briefcase has just won the NZ Society of Authors Best First Book of Poetry award. Five years ago, I was John's tutor for Massey University's extramural creative writing paper, and amongst other things said in the heat of feedback, I called him a poet. Which he clearly was, from the very first poem I read.

It was called 'Yellow' and I can remember it on the page - a tumble of language that shouted and sang and jived and bananaed and earned itself an A. I also remember marking 'Justice' - a delicious word play that appears in Briefcase; a poem that takes the word apart literally in a way that seems playful but has serious intent and an unexpected heart. 

After doing the Massey course, John Adams studied for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Auckland, and Briefcase (AUP) is the result. I am so proud! I have to say John is also a very nice person with a wide-ranging intellect, a remarkable curiosity, and a passion for both law and poetry. He is a judge of both the District and Family courts.

It's hard to do 'justice' to this book called on the back a 'disorderly novella'.  There is a story here about a couple called the Buttons who get into a fight, a stapler is thrown and hits Verity, the wife. Did her solicitor husband throw it at Verity (meaning Truth) deliberately? That's for the courts to decide. The idea is that Briefcase contains the legal documents, court reports, police reports etc, of the case, as well as some other stray documents: a sudoku puzzle, a menu, a dictionary entry... and a number of more conventional poems like 'Justice'.

Playful, yes, but at heart, like 'Justice', the collection is a serious exploration of both the ideals and limits of language and justice - and it's a provocative and fascinating read. As the judges of the NZSA award said, John Adams'  'experimentation with form depends upon the heart as much as it does the intellect.'

I plan to post another poem from the collection at the Tuesday Poem hub later this month. Meanwhile, I recommend you go there to read a poem by a UK poet about birth from the father's perspective posted by Kathleen Jones - and then get into the sidebar for more marvellous poems from the TP team.


Penelope said...

Books that cross boundaries are always very special, whether it be between poetry and prose, or fiction and non-fiction, and this one seems to engage in a lot of that slippage.

Speaking of which, can I just say that your word bananaed is a first for me, Mary. Is that your invention?

Alexandra Lutyens said...

Love this poem - so intelligent. Good to know too that as a lawyer he still has such faith in justice!

Mary McCallum said...

Thank Penelope and Alexandra. John Adams is one out of the box for sure. And yes, he does seem to have faith in justice with a heart....

Bananaed - indeed, Penelope, now I come to think of it, I might have invented it... ! Isn't it great? I am happy for you to use it any time.

Catherine said...

I have to confess I was given this book for Christmas and haven't read it yet - due to my habit of buying more books, and borrowing great piles from the library. You have reminded me to move it closer to the top of the pile.