Irony and automata, Bill Sewell

Husk
Chris Price
Auckland University Press, $21.95,
ISBN 1869402669

I suppose it’s as true to say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its title as by its cover. Certainly, when it comes to some otherwise admirable collections of New Zealand poetry, you wonder whether the author was properly advised by their publisher. I’ve always been concerned at the wisdom of calling James Brown’s second collection Lemon – and, further, to leave both title and author off the front cover – but I put that decision down largely to Brown’s huge sense of fun and his self-deprecatory nature. I’ve also never been entirely comfortable with multiple-word titles like Bill Manhire’s How to Take Off Your Clothes at the Picnic or Dinah Hawken’s It has No Sound and is Blue. I even have my doubts about Curnow’s You Will Know When You Get There.

Sometimes, though, it seems that poet and publisher have a sort of death-wish in choosing their title. How, for instance, did Kendrick Smithyman’s clunky Stories of Wooden Keyboards ever pass muster? Or Kevin Ireland’s Fourteen Reasons for Writing? (One would hope that the contents provide reason enough in themselves.) And now we have Chris Price with her debut collection Husk. The title at least has the virtue, like Lemon, of being snappy, but what does it tell the (prospective) reader about the book as a whole?

A husk is an outer covering, usually of a fruit or a nut, and we often think of it as something empty and discarded. Indeed, the Shorter Oxford gives as one of its definitions, “The outside part of something, esp. when worthless”. This surely provides a bad start, for the title suggests both that the book has no contents and that what we do get is worthless. Now I wouldn’t myself want to suggest the latter, for Price is a poet of some accomplishment, but I do fear that the title correctly predicts that, like many writers of her generation, she doesn’t have a lot to say.

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In seeking the motivation for choosing such a risky title, the conscientious reader looks to see if it reflects a notion that is pursued in the collection as a whole. There is of course the title poem, a record of a relationship cleverly worked out in terms of husks and their cognates: the shells of oysters and cicadas; the “paper lantern” of a cape gooseberry; “Little / hollow / pod // nut with/ the sweet / meat/ gone”; “hairy wooden cheek // coconut”; “the hull of a small craft, a coracle”; “She lies back – / scooped out” etc. But beyond that you have to work very hard for a connection.

If you extrapolate from husks to surfaces and veneers, however, it is possible to draw in other poems. The very promising opening piece, “The mirror vendor”, for instance, is a rather lovely conceit on the idea of mirrors in motion giving glimpses of whatever flashes across their surface:

The mirror man carries the day
beneath his arm, bringing hills and horses with him
and on his head at night a moving tray
of stars to be served at the party.

 

“Archaic torsos” (a title surely alluding to Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, where surfaces and reflections are all-important) concerns “a library of second- / hand trousers” in an Istanbul market, with “phantom limbs” that “walk / former lives away”. “Serbitsky Institution for Psychiatric Expertise” describes the process of peeling away a poster to reveal green paintwork, and then chipping away at the plaster beneath. “Polygraphy” describes how “Misdeeds transcribe themselves on skin” when taking a lie detector test, while “A brief history of automata”, a sequence of eight pieces, hints at the essential emptiness of contrivances such as Jacques de Vaucanson’s duck, which is a “mirror” for people’s “cleverness”, and “JACKTM”, the robot, who “looks like a talk-show host”.

But really the tenuous connections in these poems do not supply enough substance to vindicate the risk in the choice of title. The rest of the collection flits from topic to topic: an illuminated window, a much loved dog, ballet, typography, sound engineering, to the inevitable poems about poets and poetry, to an interest in scientific research and discovery that recalls (though with less gusto, one feels) Cilla McQueen’s delight in physics in her collection anti-gravity.  It’s a miscellany, showing a lively and keen mind, but at the same time disconcertingly uncentred.

There’s no doubt that Price knows the tricks of her trade. These poems are very skilfully put together. “Six Thinkers”, for instance, compresses what is in effect a short story into the even shorter confines of a poem, which ingeniously and economically weaves a multiplicity of relationships together. She can fashion a superb isolated image, such as “Dawn flushes the birds / from their silence” (“Rose and fell”). But she is particularly good at elaborating a metaphor – taking an idea and running with it. “The mirror vendor”, “Archaic torso” and “Husk” itself all do this, but they are not alone. In “Font” there is a very witty coalescence of two meanings of the word – ecclesiastical and typographical – while in “Mix” Price uses the jargon of sound engineering to delineate a love affair that ultimately fails:

We were on the rebound
from perfection, piling on the dirt —

a mellotron, the wheezy breath
of old vinyl, character

sounds. We argued over psycho-acoustic
noise optimisation, where

to put the vocals …

Another poem, “Ghastlily”, resurrects an adverb frowned on by Fowler into an entirely new word: “ghast-lily (n.), the pale / malodorous bloom // much favoured by vampires / for their beloved.”  Finally, “On the road” is a fantasia on Vermilion, Ohio (a place that actually exists), “poetry capital / of the United States”, where “You can buy any / kind of poem … a teatowel poem, a lighthouse / poem, a candle poem”.

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Price’s first collection has been a long time coming. Such reticence is not necessarily a bad thing. I first became aware of her work in 1983, when I reviewed The Gramophone Room, a selection of poetry and fiction from Auckland University’s first course in creative writing, in which she was represented. Since that time, she has taken on the roles of editor (of Landfall) and literary functionary (as co-ordinator of Writers and Readers Week), and these, I suspect, have had an inhibiting effect. They have lumbered her with many hard acts to follow, and perhaps the apprehension that her first collection would always attract a particularly close scrutiny. The result is a set of poems that one can only characterise as excessively careful: precise, expertly wrought, with nothing out of place, certainly, but also somewhat directionless and bloodless, without that sense of engagement you look for in truly memorable poems.

This is a harsh judgment to make, and needs substantiation. I find it very largely in the cool, ironic tone that Price prefers to adopt. In our editorial of March this year, my co-editor and I complained about certain characteristics of much contemporary New Zealand poetry. One was “an overdependence on a kind of ersatz, butt-covering irony” that merely “tease[s] the reader’s desire for seriousness and meaning, whilst implying that neither actually exists.” This is a characteristic shared by Price’s writing. Occasionally, she can escape the tendency altogether, as in “Trapezing”, which is a genuine evocation of the exhilaration of artistic creation. At other times, it is so heavy that it becomes cheap, as in “Serbitsky Institution for Psychiatric Expertise”, where the final reference to “fruit cake” is frankly tasteless. But mostly the habit expresses itself in an off-hand attitude towards her subject-matter.

That is very much the impression I gain from “A brief history of automata”. Here it is clear that Price has done her homework, from the Ancient Egyptians through Frankenstein to the early 1990s; and in the sequence she provides us with what amounts to an inventory of more or less interesting facts. But what are we to make of them? That creating automata is a foolhardy, futile venture, in which human beings are seen to overreach themselves? More importantly, though, does it really matter to the poet? All we get from her is the ironic statement that concludes the sequence: namely, ”Jack [the robot] is here to save us from ourselves.”  The implication, of course, is that he won’t, but who cares? Not the poet, it would appear; and if we the readers do, then how naive and deluded we are. But such a conclusion only makes her venture seem as empty as attempting to fashion automata. If that is so, then perhaps Husk is an appropriate title for the volume after all.

 

Bill Sewell is co-editor of New Zealand Books.

 

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