Obscurity v the life principle, Kim Worthington

Envoy
Alan Loney and Mark Wills
Puriri Press, $28.00, ISBN 0 908943 13 x

On Virgin Skin
Gay Linden
Sandpiper Press, $19.95, ISBN 0 473 04187 1

Before the Divorce We Go to Disneyland
Diane Brown
Tandem Press, $24.95, ISBN 0 908884 96 6

Dedications
J C Sturm
Steele Roberts, $19.95, ISBN 0 473 04253 3

Catching the Rainbow: Poems from the New Zealand Poetry Society’s 1996 International Competition
ed Elizabeth Crayford
Graphic Press, $16.00, ISBN 0 959 8009 4 8

Postmodern” and “inaccessible” are two adjectives frequently used to describe the work of Alan Loney. Or, perhaps more correctly, these are adjectives Loney encourages reviewers and readers to associate with his typically diffuse and fragmented poetry — poetry that is ostentatiously self-reflexive and often more than a little smug in its refusal of certainty.

With respect to the first adjective, readers are forewarned in numerous comments made by the poet: clarity is precisely what one should not expect from Loney’s poems. The most recent such statement comes in “On Clarity”, the editorial essay that prefaces the first number of A Brief Description of the Whole World (December 1995), a journal in the vein of the iconoclastic Freed and (short-lived) Parallax, with which Loney was associated in the early 1970s and early 1980s. While Loney’s significant contribution to the introduction of postmodern poetics here in the 1970s and 19890s cannot be underestimated, there is nothing here that hasn’t been seen before — more interestingly and originally — in poetry produced several decades earlier.

Loney’s editorial commentary is an odd mix of avante garde intellectual posturing (he briefly drops the names of Heidegger, Paul de Man and Edward Said, among others, without adequate contextualisation) and defensiveness against reviewer criticism. In “On Clarity” he argues that clarity is precisely what writers should not strive for and readers should not expect — and certainly not in his work. The demand for clarity in literature is a kind of censorship, a death-knell — literally: “[i]f this demand [for clarity] is then taken up by the state … writers are exiled, imprisoned, tortured, killed”. Indeed, at the end of the essay Loney makes the assertion that clarity in literature is “a consent to violence, stasis, mutilation, untimely death”. More positively, in the writer’s deliberate refusal to provide “clarity” lies “the surprise, the delight, the depth and the terror of speaking/writing”.

Reader participation in the construction of the text’s “meaning” is a staple of Loney’s poetry. This can be difficult, given that Loney’s work often shies away from offering even minimal points of connection around which a reader might string his or her own lines of interpretive coherence.

In the editorial to No 2 (March 1996) he writes: “The path of the text is … the life of the work in the activity of its readers.” But authorial “death” is not wholly countenanced in this apparent gesture towards the free play of reader interpretation. Deftly, Loney asserts that the writer is also a reader — and one, it is implied, who is perhaps privileged as an interpreter of the work. He reserves his harshest censure for critics who attempt to impose meaning on (his) texts. There is no “representative reader” and the critic who claims to be one is fraudulent; “[i]nterpretation is, finally, multiple”.

So warned, I turn to Loney’s latest sequence of poems, Envoy. The elegant layout and typography, with tasteful pageworks by Mark Wills, result in a beautiful artefact (only 200 copies were printed, sewn and bound by hand). An author’s note tells us the poems were completed while Loney was literary fellow at Auckland University in 1992. Originally intended to be part of The Erasure Tapes, they developed into a distinct sequence of 25 13-line poems, each running freely into the next. Disconnected in terms of syntax, an impression of continuity is nonetheless achieved by the lack of punctuation at the end of each poem and the lack of capitalisation at the beginning of the next.

Familiar concerns are evident. Most notable, perhaps, is the poet’s recurrent expression of the problematic nature of communicative endeavour, “the hermeneutic lip split where we speak”, the “ordered chaos, this desolation that is infinitely paraphrasable” in the gathering of words.

The poet is without “fit words” to speak/write of love; able only to gesture towards the desire and despair conjured up by memory in present moments that are always fraught with insufficiency and loss. The poems are addressed to shifting “you”s, envoys from Loney’s past: “These poems, as the term “envoy” proposes, are dedications; signs of debt, allegiance, argument, and confession.”

As in The Erasure Tapes, Loney again considers the “Memory, the true repository of shame”. Remembrance reopens the wounds of the past and yet paradoxically offers the possibility of a self-continuance that transcends the painful endurance of the present moment:

How will we endure
this damned endurance, the loss & the longing,
and will someone, in another time, remember us

Some sections of the sequence are intensely personal, particularly those which contemplate on the death of loved ones (notably his father). If this adds another level of difficulty for the reader, the flipside, it could be argued, is that the poems remain open to the infinity of our own personal interpretations. Nonetheless there is something alienatingly private (if at times evocative and moving) about lines such as these: “there are no fit words to speak of / being, as they say, in love with you / all my life”; and

You’ll no doubt still
see a shrivelled man with promise of renewal,
and that what change might or not propose
the interregnum’s been just that, a pause between
the terms of a failed, unskilled, unworthy friend

Loney returns to the failures of language and expression at the end of the sequence:

Most of the time
I hardly know, putting one word after another
what on earth I am doing. The issue
is, rather, that, having spoken, or having written,
can I bear it to stand, or even
do I understand what it is that so
speaks us, like it or not.
And what of the reader? Can we “bear it to stand” or even understand?

Washing his hands of authorial responsibility, Loney would remind us that, as readers, the onus is on us. Or would he? At moments in the sequence he seems to go some way towards recovering originary authorship (“I am now the father I wanted my father to be”). Interestingly, meaning is never wholly abandoned. Rather, it is relocated beneath or beyond the level of language or conscious thought; throughout, the emotional is awarded an integrity denied to the linguistic or conceptual. If this seems to renege on the author’s declared postmodernism, it is what makes reading the poems “bearable”. As he asserts at one point there is in the verse “[t]he paradox that, on becoming, exceeds its definition”. This seems an apt description of the way in which the sequence works, cumulatively making a kind of emotional, if not literal sense.

2

Jay Linden’s On Virgin Skin couldn’t be more different. If anything, this slight collection of 29 short poems is too accessible — a trite sequence in four parts ruminating on aspects of love. The poems in the first sections (“A Time for Lovers”) celebrate the passion and (self)-discovery of new love. These lines are typical:

Faces upturned to catch
the drops of rain, our
ghostly limbs wrapped
around each other, we float
beneath a stormy sky.
(L’Oiseau):

Things don’t improve in the second section (possession), which traces the onset of disillusionment: “For you my lovely idol / were no marble god”.

Linden’s tendency to use to cliched images is most evident in the third section (notes in blue), which focuses on loss and loneliness following the failure of love: “a chill wind blows”, “rain trickles down”, “the air is dead”, the speakers’ mindscape is littered with “jagged spikes that / snag unwary flesh” and “stark-white” bones. Unsurprisingly, the fourth section, titled “The Song of Spring Grass”, signals recovery and regrowth. “My mind, clear and free / has set course for a new horizon”; the speaker “mould[s] a / new heart of bronze and steel, / this one unbreakable” and, in the final poem in the collection, promises to retrieve his/her discarded and camouflaged heart “and paint it red, again”.

3

In sharp contrast is Diane Brown’s refreshing treatment of seemingly well-trodden ground in After the Divorce We Go to Disneyland. On the strength of this, her first book, the Auckland writer was (co)-awarded the 1997 Buddle Findlay Sargeson Writer’s Fellowship. The book’s main subject matter is abundantly familiar: the empowering, if painful, realisation of the “fiction” of fairy tales of femininity, the myths of the demure bliss of domesticity, maternity, wifehood imbibed from infancy (“And even little girls with short hair are made up of sugar and spice, all things nice”).

Juxtaposing the sardonic and the lyrical, Brown traces the life of her protagonist/speaker from a fairy tale childhood through love, marriage, childbirth, divorce, remarriage and the final despatch of husband No 2. Deftly shifting between present tense prose (in the third person) and past tense poetry (in the first person), the novella-length book sits surprisingly comfortably on the borderline between autobiographical fiction and confessional autobiography. These juxtapositions are further underscored by Brown’s witty mixture of the prosaic and the imaginary, as suggested by the title. Together these various stylistic doublings underscore the “conflicting visions” through which the protagonist must work: the incompatibility of daddy’s “princess” and dreams of independence from male domination.

An adolescent fed on women’s magazines, she poses as Rapunzel, as “young men / came calling // polished apples / in their laps”. She marries young, to a man who “does not own a sports car but … is tall and going places”. Love soon falters amid suburban routine and her husband’s infidelity:

Sometimes she stands. Pressed against the windows. Mouth kissing the pane. “Mad,” the neighbours say.

but only a girl
not allowed

to swing upside down

The decline of the first marriage is wittily charted. Irony holds sentimentality in check as the sections of poetry become looser and more impressionistic and the sardonic tone of the prose is heightened: “He says she takes up too much space. On a guided tour points out offending objects… Even her clothes in the wardrobe are accused of indecent behaviour. Creeping up to his shirts uninvited.” A family trip to Disneyland fails to recapture the lost fantasy of happy families: “Our sons are disappointed / in us.”

A second marriage is no more successful. An accountant, her husband “has that look / in his eye // deals have gone / his way…. announcing / a mortgagee sale // he does not expect / to get much for me // (as long as he / covers his costs)”. It is in fact she who rejects him. “In the morning he finds himself sitting in the green recycling bin on the kerb… Despite the lack of room he stays put.”

After the Divorce is not only a story of a woman’s gradual realisation of the need to fashion a subjectivity independent of men. It also narrates her discovery of writing and the subversive possibilities of stylistic experimentation: “it’s only the telling / that makes the difference”; “sometimes form / is the main / ingredient”. Autobiographical or not, in this book Diane Brown practises what her protagonist/speaker finally allows herself to do. She has given her “crafty mind” permission and scope to shape new forms and fairytales to contain the all-too-familiar story of many women’s lives.

4

J C Sturm’s Dedications also records a woman’s attainment of her own creative voice. But in Sturm there is little of Brown’s sly wit or irony or persistent attempt to reconcile a variety of (inherited, imposed or self-created) fantasies with the prosaic world of everyday existence. Sturm’s poetry focuses resolutely on the experiential realities of personal and familial interaction; its autobiographical foundation is unequivocal. Sturm is, of course, better known to many as Jacquie Baxter, wife of the famous James K.

Despite her attempts to forge a literary identity independent of that of her husband, Sturm’s earlier work — short fiction and poetry — has tended to be read in the terms of that relationship. Judging from recent comments on and reviews of this collection, many readers still find it hard not to read the poems in this way.

This perpetuates an injustice. The best of the poems in Dedications suggest that Sturm is a good enough writer to warrant independent appraisal. Searching Sturm’s poems for evidence of Baxter’s influence, or even for deviation from his poetic, seems to miss the mark entirely. Sturm’s direct expressions of emotional engagement and interconnection could more profitably be compared with other female writers of her generation (Lauris Edmond springs to mind, although Sturm lacks Edmond’s capacity for subtle and resonant imagery).

As in Loney’s Envoy, Sturm’s poems are “dedications” to loved ones; but unlike Loney’s poems, in Sturm’s collection the dedicatees — family members and close friends — are clearly identified in an appendix. As a result the reader involvement required is that of empathetic recognition, rather than interpretative appropriation or creative imposition. This has benefits and disadvantages. One could hardly accuse Sturm of inaccessibility; the poems are forthright, readily understood articulations. But, given the intensely personal nature of the poems, at times one cannot help feeling like an eavesdropper on private conversations.

That said, Sturm’s poems are never (simply) conversational. Her outbursts, railings, chidings, pleadings are occasionally funny, often loving, rarely trite (“To an old flame” proves an exception). Sturm’s emotional range is striking. The six poems dedicated to “Jim”, written over the more than 20 years since Baxter’s death, move from the raw rage of “Grieving, 1972” (“You —  bugger / You —  arsehole / You — stinking shithouse”) to the modulated acceptance of “And again, 1989”:

It is all so different now.
I cannot swear
With such conviction
Nor do I thirst
So savagely for blood.

Intimate with death and loss, many of Sturm’s poems are addressed to the dead. Others anticipate — with longing, with fear — her own death and the deaths of those she loves: “Until our short day is over / And the long night begun”. In “Anniversary Day”, dedicated to Sturm’s mother, Mary Papuni, who died at 19, two weeks after her birth, Sturm refuses to accept the “lie” about her mother’s unavoidable death: “The truth is: / Fifteen interminable days / Of dirty surgery / Medical negligence / And unattended pain, / Killed you.” Angry accusation shifts to the “safer” pleasures of imagining: “Learning to walk / Holding your hand, / To talk like you / Calling you mummy”; and the tone changes again in the poet’s understated articulation of loss: had she known her mother, she would have yearly visited her grave, “Never having to make / An imaginary pilgrimage like this / And a paper offering”.

The significance to Sturm of her Maori heritage is everywhere apparent. Disdain is wedded with humour in one of the most successful in the collection, “Simon Says”, a wry exposition of the cultural ignorance of those who seek to “right” the “mistakes” of colonial disinheritance with glib words and monetary donations. “In loco parentis” is dedicated to Sturm’s adoptive pakeha parents, Ethel and Bert Sturm: “Twenty years they planted, nurtured / Trained, pruned, grafted me, / Only to find a native plant / Will always a native be.” In “Splitting the Stone”, addressed to her artist son, John (two of his drawings are included in Dedications) Sturm most clearly articulates her vision of the “wonder” of artistic creation, and the links she perceives between this and (her) “native” roots. She describes John in the act of sculpting:

Striking stone on stone
Carefully, patiently
While I kept away
As I knew I should
Waiting for the stone to split
As I knew it would
And let the Mauri through.

Readers looking for startling experimentation or stylistic originality will find these poems disappointing. But everywhere in these honest dedications, albeit focused as they are on death and loss, the life principle shines through.

5

It seems appropriate to conclude this survey of such a wide range of individual collections of recent poetry by taking a brief look at an anthology that contains an astonishing range within its covers: Catching the Rainbow: Poems from the New Zealand Poetry Society’s 1996 International Competition.

The anthology, the eighth by the society, comprises a selection of the winning and commended poems in three sections: open (judged by Bill Sewell), rhyming (judged by Anne French) and haiku (judged by Alan Wells). No clear stylistic preferences are evident, although there are disappointingly few poems that suggest Maori writers or concerns. (The exception is Sue Millar’s “Te Whakarite/The Blessing”).

Each section contains interesting and promising poetry, evidencing great diversity in the stylistic features utilised and content treated by the contestants. Kapka Kassabova deservedly won first prize in the open section with “Security (from the Immigrant Cycle)”. This, like the other poem from the cycle printed in the anthology, “razor salesman”, is an economically evocative expression of the cultural dislocation that results from immigration.

Wanda Barker’s “A poem about the deep sad of not being recognised” (winner of the third prize), similarly treats the problem of social dislocation, the difficulty of maintaining individuality behind the facade of an acceptable persona — but does so in a far more jaunty manner. While some readers might take issue with the rankings, there are very few inclusions that suggest the judges or editor Elizabeth Crayford have been too generous in their choice for commendation and publication. Exceptions are some of the later inclusions in the rhyming section which nonetheless also includes some excellent poems, not least Judy Parker’s zippy “Avocado”. Almost all in the haiku selection fulfil judge Wells’s criterion of “the succinct encapsulation of a moment of time” but not all manage to effectively suggest the intensity of that captured moment.

There is insufficient space to treat individual contributions to this anthology in any depth. But these new voices suggest exciting alternatives to Loney’s wilfully obscure “postmodern” poetry which in the 1990s is beginning to seem rather old hat.

Kim Worthington is a lecturer in English at Victoria University.

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