Laughter in the dark, Terry Locke

No Joke 
Mark Pirie
Sudden Valley Press, $22.95,
ISBN 0958209103

Excuse me, would you mind putting me on to Mark Pirie… if that’s his real name. Oh, it is? Yes, thank you.

Look, Mark, I thought you might like some feedback on No Joke. Static? No, in truth, I found myself having a range of responses. No joke, mate! And since you took the literary scene by teacup with The NeXt Wave, I figured it behoved me to take this production seriously. I mean, 160 pages including notes … mind you, the Contents took up a few pages.

“Behoved”? Well, in fact I have been reading Wedde’s Commonplace Odes but we’re not related, believe me.

Well, I suppose you could say that he has a showy vocabulary and that you’re much more in touch with the commonplace that he is. I’m really glad you mentioned that because it is something I want to discuss with you. This whole notion of the inconsequential. I mean, there’s no sense of the apostrophe in your verse.

No grandstanding? Mmmm. I’m not sure I go along with you there. I mean there are those three men descending “the curve of a building / by rope” in your “Prologue to Another Book”. And I know there’s a suggestion that “this scene is meant for / another book”…

Right! You’re drawing attention to the gesture as a way of undercutting it. Signifiers divorced from signifieds. Yep, I kinda understand that (I think), but what I want to come back to is not so much apostrophes as inverted commas. (Your whimsical little poem “The Common Mistake” about pronoun agreement suggests that you think about grammar.) You use a lot of inverted commas in your poems.

The first intelligent comment I’ve made? Well, thank you. It got me thinking about it. I mean, you often use them to suggest the extent to which we are colonised by discourse, you know, trapped into ways of thinking. As in “The Accident” where the writer visiting his sister finds her “safe and sound” despite the accident. I mean, I guess it’s not an accident that we resort to these phrases in moments of stress, is it? And how these discursive chunks can even serve as props when you’re having a bad day, as in “Someone told me there’d be days like this” – the paradoxical comfort in being discovered by the phrase “naked and alone”.

So the very form of this collection and the sense of inclusiveness is actually thematic? You know, I’m glad you said that, because there was a poem that really offended me. It’s the one entitled “Something New, Perhaps?”, where the speaker recalls meeting a nun who “had abstained / from sex” but “was still fucked / either way.” Now this could be my hang-up, ex-Catholic and all that, but it does seem to me that if this is satire you’ve managed to collect yourself with your own left hook.

OK … I think I see. It’s a way of wearing a discourse on your sleeve, putting it out there. Well, yes, I acknowledge it’s risky.

Yes, there is a connection between gesture and posture. I mean, I’m tempted to say that you’re posturing a bit in some of your satirical poems, such as “A Writing Course Poem”. You see, when you use stereotyping in that way, there’s a danger it will snap back at you and bite your bum. To put it crudely. But mostly, I rather liked the satirical stuff. You’ve got a keen eye for targets and the language does good service in poems like “The Trup” and “Competition”.

That’s OK. Look, let me make it clear I’ve found the whole book a stimulating read. Mark, we’re busy people. I’m aware you dedicated this book to your mother who died early. (I might say, my own dad died early, also of cancer.) I think you do live dangerously and, I think, generously. There are a fair few writers mentioned in this book and I think as an editor you’ve been generous in giving many writers room to grow. Yep, I know I’m in danger of getting sentimental here, but I think that’s one of the points I’m making.

Here you are, writing a poem about your mother’s discovery that she has cancer and calling it “’The Big C’”. You know, and I know, that the inverted comma signals the language of avoidance. While your “Prologue” might mention scenes from another book, this poem brings you face to face with scenes that “will not be gone”. I guess I don’t believe in Generation X. I guess I believe that embracing the sentimental is a way of marrying the gesture to bedrock. That’s why I want to say to you that in a book where you’re tending to undercut the gesture in so many poems, it was such a risky “Move” to write “A Postscript” with lines such as: “you still watch me / and below you / your memory / touches us all.”

Before I go, I’d like to say a quick word about your lyrics. You yourself keep alluding to Frank O’Hara in your celebrations of inconsequence, but in many of your lyrics, you remind me of Creeley … you know, that sense of words being drawn out somewhat painfully like teeth. I’m thinking of poems like “The Language” and the lovely piece “The Importance of Being Placed”: “there are many / possibilities … To know your // place / /well enough // to know / how easily / it gestures / you to leave …” Lovely bedrock.

 

Terry Locke is Senior Lecturer in English Language Education at the University of Waikato, and editor of two recent anthologies of New Zealand poetry for schools, Doors and Jewels in the Water.

 

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