Keyboard practice, C K Stead

C K Stead takes a new look at Janet Frame’s The Pocket Mirror.

Janet Frame’s The Pocket Mirror (published by Braziller in New York in 1967 and here by Pegasus in 1968) has the appearance, not of a nervous first slim volume carefully selected, but of samples from a pile, each written hastily (inspiration welcome, aspiration declined) and quickly forgotten; then later picked out and sent to the publisher without a backward glance. It reads like keyboard practice – but not anybody’s keyboard. Janet Frame’s in fact. Frame is inventive, she can be fluent, her best effects are sparks and flares of her genius in prose. But seeming uncertain where her own poetic strengths lie, she displays the limitations as well as the licence of the uncommitted. No one could respect poetry more than Frame does; she respects it so much she doesn’t quite believe she should be writing it.

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One of her safest modes is when she sticks to things, places, scenes:

I have settled now in my flat.
I have arranged my favourite books on the bookshelf.
I have moved the table for working in privacy and light.

There’s a ripe-grape-coloured cherry tree,
a bed of geraniums,
a woman walking in white shoes, white gloves, white
hat.

 

Inner and outer accounted for – and good thus far. But now, as she steps in and begins to manage things, her anxiety – that her lines should be more than a record, that they should “say something” – undermines simplicity and directness:

A sea-gull circles the clock tower. His funereal white
wings recall
pieces of old tombstone flying
when the wind strikes at the grave of a sea city.

 

“Funereal”, “tombstone”, “the grave of a sea city”: the touch is not light and the truly poetic prosiness of those opening stanzas is undone.

Frame’s natural mode of expressing thought is in images. Thought seems to precede image, or to supersede it, so the images, required to serve as vehicles, often take on a ghostly, see-through look. As one suggests a second, and the second a third, they can sometimes seem to lose their prior grip on reality; yet they don’t cease to engage mind and imagination:

It is Matthew dressed in sea wave, scarcely walking
for weeds about his ankles, his life willingly
set in the stocks of ocean, pelted with light,
with ripe leaves from inland trees,
grievance of sharp deserted shells.
Open the door to him and the Dog Night.

He will stand there pleading the innocence of salt and
cockle tooth
though his life has savoured many tears from the biting
tide.
Over his thin unwashed body, congealed sunlight,
the black and white defiances of grave and shell
mistrel [sic – minstrel?] his passionate reason to be …

Clairvoyant for what lives and is not human
the black Dog Night at his heels he walks night and day
by his dead sea where, Arabs of summer, children
holidaymaking bring new ancient scrolls to light.

O bandit gull, nomad wave,
from babbling cave of dungeon to articulate man
man weeping,
man walking upright!

Scene, location, objects, all are required to march to the drum of an idea; but they retain enough life to protest at, and even resist, their conscription. Matthew is one of Frame’s innocent weeping victim figures, pelted in the stocks or required to keep moving, “the black Dog Night” at his heels. What is unusual is that it appears to be the natural rather than the human world which punishes him. The “stocks of ocean” bind him, the light “pelts” him, the biting tide, the sharp shells, the cockle tooth, torment him. His sad condition seems more metaphysical than social. He represents humanity, unhappy  because our abilities to articulate, to weep, and to walk upright, separate us from the planet we were once unequivocally part of, and which now punishes us in the degree to which there has been a severance.

Something of the sort makes sense of the poem. If, however, another reader should insist that nothing so rough-hewn and approximate could be called a success, my response would be no more than the classic (Leavisite) “Yes, but …”: Yes, but it engages the intelligence, it holds one’s interest. Having Frame’s stamp on it – a quality of linguistic density, action, alertness, originality – is a value in itself.  Poems such as this seem to entice us into her workshop; invite us, even, to take a hand.

When there is a single natural object given full attention in a Frame poem, the issue is much simpler in that it can be, first, itself, and then made over to representation without loss of face:

I saw a bittern ten yards away.  I did not hear him boom.
He was so close you’d have thought he would cry out,
tolling
a solitary bell for more Room, Room, Room.

Silence.  Neither of us moved.  After years of time I knew
he was unafraid.  The fear was mine.  Unspeaking,
menacing
this bogged world, always ten yards away, stands Doom,
Doom, Doom.

Anger can also bind her poems into a rhetorical unity, especially when she has in the forefront of her mind the victim of wrong rather than the wrong-doers:

Flo’s dead.
Go down, God.
Magnificent with curses
with judgement
the Moving Finger points
and having pointed
not all your delicate death announcements in the
newspaper
your hiding of the fact
that she died you know where
in a back ward mad
can alter her white-haired splendour as I knew her
spokeswoman for God (who else ever dared?)
commanding with her mountain frown
the cruellest world ever made to Go Down, Go Down …

 

– lines paralleled in a number of passages in the fiction.

Satire seldom works well for Frame, because it tends to kill the fictional reality of its object and so self-destruct. But when the anger burns deep enough, the result can be biting and forceful, as in “The Graduate”:

She lives in letters. She knows
the quote, the plot that suits,
the words that fit the moment
as fox gloves fit the fleeing fox
with golden brush and speckled poison
described by him and him and her.

 

If one knew this graduate – “Squalid borrower / who dreams another’s life” – one might well want to protest at an unfairness, but the poem’s particular object and occasion are mercifully concealed, and what’s registered is the animation of language, the force which indignation has engendered.

Another secure ground occurs when something discovered in reading lays out for her a style, like a map to be followed. Some of her best poems are set in motion by other poets’ work – as in her “Reply” to a verse letter from James K Baxter, which reads like a perfect echo of the voice she is answering:

Yes, I remember that afternoon in winter, how
before we climbed the hill to the cattle shed
we thought to look for shelter in an empty house
but were told, No admittance. Trespassers
Will Be Prosecuted. Keep Out.

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Frame is a worker in language. She likes to experiment. I was puzzled by “Our Town” until a familiar line leaping out here and there reminded me that once or twice at Frank Sargeson’s house we played a game, competing to put together a meaningful poem using first lines from a published collection. In “Our Town”, I identify “the tiger and the tiger pit” (Eliot), “Damn it all! This our south stinks peace!” (Pound, slightly misquoted), “I cut a parsley stalk” (Hardy), “never presume that in this marble stable”, (Drummond Allison), “At Dirty Dick’s and Sloppy Joe’s” (Auden), “Downhill I came, hungry and yet not starved” (Edward Thomas), and a line that may be from Graves.

It can be assumed, therefore, that the poem is entirely composed of first lines from the work of other poets, and that she has taken them from what would have been, at a date prior to 1967, a modern anthology. (This may even be one of those poems composed at Sargeson’s.) The lines are managed, nudged, manoeuvred towards a recognisable Janet Frame statement about “our town”, where people “live in rows”, where the rebellious, the irrational and the overtly sexual are crucified, and “pretty poetry” is preferred.

In the title poem, the pocket mirror catches the darkness we are blind to. We see only the yellow light of the street lamps:

                         Steady the mirror. So.
See those black stripes alternating with yellow?
They are bars of actual darkness not perceived by the
naked eye.

 

Poetry, like the pocket mirror, tells us dark truths which we fail otherwise to see. It has a serious duty, and it’s obvious that Frame often doubts whether her own poetry performs it. Michael King’s biography Wrestling with the Angel quotes a letter she wrote sending The Pocket Mirror to a friend, saying it “lacks dignity and beauty … I tend to leave the dark places where the poems are best made and loiter around in the stereotypes and trivialities.” In an earlier letter, sending the collection to her New York publisher, Frame suggested it failed the Modernist test that would make it poetry of its time. The poems, she said, were “pusillanimously pastoral, gently Georgian”. But The Pocket Mirror is much more inventive and free-range than that description recognises, and “Georgian” seems wholly inappropriate.

Any poet as language-conscious as Frame will be in danger of appearing at times trivially or whimsically obsessed with that aspect of her craft. But in the matter of comprehending human consciousness and its relation to the world, “in the beginning was” (and is, and must always be) “the word”. Given her year of birth, 1924, in conjunction with her intellectual bent, Frame belongs with the Modernist movement. It was inevitable that she would want, not just to avoid what were seen as the pastoral banalities of Georgianism, but to make literary language do a great deal more than “mean” and “refer” and “describe”; and that she would see the route to the “real” (and therefore the serious), not as direct, but as a necessary detour through the forest of language, which has a distracting and powerful reality of its own.

Frame’s sophistication in this might have given us a more challenging kind of poetry than is to be found in the work of her exact contemporary, Lauris Edmond, who had a somewhat pedestrian notion of how language relates to the world, and made something of a crusade in her advocacy of poetry which dealt with “people’s daily experience” as opposed to what she called “playing a clever game”. But clearly Frame has lacked the faith to pursue poetry full tilt, and has stuck to what she feels she can do best, prose fiction, while opening it out sufficiently to permit her poet-self flights and freedoms.

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Nor am I convinced that Frame is right in thinking that her best work, either in poetry or prose, comes from dwelling upon those unseen darknesses which the “pocket mirror” makes manifest. I don’t mean she should have suppressed them, or turned her back on them; but I suspect that she sometimes plays them up in order to prove – to herself – her own seriousness. It is even possible to take the view that she is at her best when least responsible; when seriousness is set aside and she does what Edmond deplored and “plays clever games”; in other words when she is most the Modernist. There are, of course, serious notes and they are very important; but there is also, and not seldom, a surprising insouciance in her poems, an inventive, fabling life-energy which is its own kind of affirmation, quite as truthful as her more sombre utterances.

In poems that belong to this mode we will discover, for example, what the elderberry says to the sky, learn what kind of dreams gods dream, be informed that aunt winter is a childless widow who can’t knit, that the garnet is “a night sky of stars without sky / or stars”, that Christmas and Death are times for “saying / Bravo Bravo to the Invisible”; we can watch “the land [lie] down with her hair in the water”, see the motormower as “a giant wasp on the lawn”, meet Mr Universe whose speech balloon reads “Help, Ouch, Br-r-r”, the telephonist who “can laugh with any farmer” and “slaps daylight on the back”, and the L-Driver poet who “swerved to avoid a homily / and struck a metaphor”. Such tropes may walk a fine line, but they are more than whimsies. They are animating fantasies which have been allowed out because their author has not, at the moment of composition, been too scrupulous or too fastidious about their vehicle.

Between the poles of playful invention and painful self-reminding there is another region of clear-eyed observing, often based on recollections from childhood. Baxter used to say that there was a place in childhood that mattered more than any other, and if the poet returned to it, in fact or in imagination, the stream of poetry would flow again. In Frame’s case one such place is Wyndham:

The place where the floured hens
sat laying their breakfast eggs,
frying their bacon-coloured combs in the sun
is gone.

You know the place –
in the hawthorn hedge
by the wattle tree
by the railway line.

I do not remember these things
– they remember me …

Or again:

Within the purple graph of the Hokonuis, the dark
peak of Milford, my memory of Wyndham is drawn to
scale.
I see the weathered grey sheep pens, their gates askew,
still standing not used now, scattered with old sheep dirt
like shrivelled berries of a deadly nightshade
that lead me to suppose a spreading sheep tree grew here.
I cannot remember. The wildest tree was the sky. Also
deadly nightshade is poisonous, and sheep are not, are
they?

 

The poem falters (how nearly perfect that opening would have been if it had stopped a line sooner – at “sky”!), then recovers in its final lines:

but my childhood Wyndham has stayed
secure in its mutinous dream, unchanged since I knew
the railway house by the railway line and was five,
starting school, walking through the long grass where
the foxes lived.

 

Frame has published only this one collection of poems, yet is known to be a habitual scribbler of verse, and it seems unlikely there is not a regular trove of manuscripts among her papers. In recent years, since the publication of her autobiography, she has published only one novel, and I like to think that she might be writing poems which will add another room to the house of herself she has been building for a lifetime.

 

C K Stead’s most recent collection of poems, The Right Thing, was reviewed in our October 2000 issue.

 

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