But is it a poem? Harvey McQueen

8 Stages of Grace
Diane Brown
Vintage, $26.95,
ISBN 1869415256

The blurb to Sarah Quigley’s latest volume of poems says:

people often ask her if there’s a connection between her prose and her poetry but she doesn’t think so. There is a prose Sarah and a poetry Sarah and they never get mixed up …. She thinks of fiction as a building process, “whereas a poem just arrives on your doorstep and you let it in, and sit for a while and see what happens.”

 

By contrast Diane Brown’s new book, 8 Stages of Grace, is a conscious attempt at a novel written in poetry, a building process rather than the “doorstep” one. But right from the beginning I read it as a novel rather than as a poem. What I mean is that I burnt through the book as a novel, caught by the narrative, the characters (especially the central figure, Ruth Barr), and a desire to learn what happened to them. It is often my practice to read a novel twice, a quick gallop through, then if it seems worthwhile an amble to appreciate it more.

Am I also saying that I didn’t see Brown’s work as a poem? By and large, I subscribe to the Quigley premise. In the 20th century, poetry turned inward, centralising around the confessional lyric, moving away from narrative and public life. Poets were seen as artists, creating fictions out of their own experiences in a world qualified by language. Over this fashion crashed the fresh wave of postmodernism. Both waves of fashion left the novelist as the literary artist dealing with modern moral dilemmas.

Vikram Seth revolted against this trend. His novel poem Golden Gate combines humour and tragedy in sonnet form. Blending formal poetry with dilemmas and characters (the building blocks of most contemporary novels), it reflected a revived interest in narrative. Seth used traditional poetics as a defence against what can be described as the self-destructive introspection of modernism.

At the time, I couldn’t understand the fuss. But Seth’s attempt, and now Brown’s, do represent a much older poetic tradition. Poems used to tell stories and point morals. Homer set that pattern. From that font the variations are legion; some comic like Byron’s vignettes built on the (mis)adventures of Don Juan; some serious like Milton explaining God to fallen beings.

2

So did my second reading change my mind? No, I was right first time. It doesn’t feel like poetry. It doesn’t sound like poetry. This is not the fault of the subject matter. The intimately personal can work in the hands of someone like Adrienne Rich as poetry. Here are some lines from Brown:

         I sleep as I so rarely do
these days and in the morning walk in Pukekura Park
where, supposedly, on a fine day
you can see the mountain  from The Poet’s Bridge.

According to the plaque
the bridge was built from the winnings
from a racehorse, The Poet,
and named after him. So much for romance.
Its red-painted wood
curves over the lake and I stand in the middle
looking east.
It’s cloudy, there’s nothing to be seen. Worse,
I’m not surprised.
When did I come to expect such a lack?

 

Interesting information. An expressed emotion, a problem with first person narrative. But it does not appear to me to approach that unique infusion of idea, image, tone, feeling and word that constitutes poetry. In contrast, Seth’s work meets this yardstick. It validates its own technical innovation:

He goes home, seeking consolation
Among old Beatles and Pink Floyd –
But “Girl” elicits mere frustration,
While “Money” leaves him more annoyed.
Alas, he hungers less for money
Than for a fleeting Taste of Honey.
Murmuring, “Money – it’s a gas! …
The lunatic is on the grass”,
He pours himself a beer. Desires
And reminiscences intrude
Upon his unpropitious mood
Until he feels that he requires
A one-way Ticket to Ride – and soon –
Across the Dark Side of the Moon.

 

I admit it’s a tough contrast. I also admit Brown has many pithy lines and I admire her attempt. But, unlike Seth’s, I do not read her lines as both novel and poetry. So let me review the book as a prose narrative set out in stanzas. As I enjoy Marge Piercy’s novels for their gusto and insights into existence from a women’s perspective, so I responded to 8 Stages of Grace. It has some flaws. Ruth tells us she is learning patience from her quiet Korean neighbour Grace. She tells us she is not good at reading nuance and glance any more. That could be presented as experience rather than information – show, not tell – which would have helped to shift the text towards the poetical.

But, again, the story hooked me. The narrative centres around Ruth’s search for an end to her grief and the domination of her life by her husband, Andrew – a famous TV frontman – killed on the way home when he drunkenly crashed his car. She is currently on a speaking tour about
her book on grief. (The lines quoted above are from her
visit to New Plymouth.)

Rachel’s low spirits are compounded and complicated by the love/hate relationship with her son Chris, who lives for surfing, plays truant from school and is into marijuana. Ruth wonders how he can say such hateful things to her and yet appear to other adults as polite and “no trouble”. She takes hope from his art teacher’s comment:

Chris is a difficult case. He is the sort of kid I could
murder one day
and adopt the next.

 

The narrative theme that rings most true is this mother/son relationship.

The plot pivots around two other themes. One is Ruth’s relationship with Grace. Ruth helps Grace with her English. Grace teaches Ruth tai chi. Grace’s husband abuses her:

        ‘Last night, a special dream for me.
I call it: eight stages of grief,’ Grace says, and hesitates

“A baby is born,
grows into an old man, you love someone
he go away.” Grace flutters
her hands bird-like. “But you live with someone
you don’t love.”
… [Grace] adds,
“Happiness is a moment.”
I wonder if she dreamed the four other stages;
if dreams are different
in other languages. If the metaphor is untranslatable.

 

The other theme is a portrayal of the bitchy, gossipy, yuppie, go-get-em world of the Auckland media scene, a counterpoint to the quiet scenes with Grace. Television exposes a gay cricket captain and an All Black captain tries to escape the same fate, by having a relationship for the magazines with an anorexic Generation X star-writer. Ruth sends an email about what’s happening camera- and society-wise.

        But what’s happened,
I wonder to the narrative, the plot, the design?
We’ve settled
for something more deceptive than fiction.
A spectacle
Made to look like life. Willing participants seeking
overnight celebrity.

 

After using IVF, Ruth’s Australian friend Jane is pregnant. Jane’s doing well as a media presenter. Ruth is envious of her success, but concerned about her age when the child becomes a teenager. To have some income Ruth writes for a sleaze magazine called Urbane and defends it capably on TV:

Well done. Still the consummate
performer then, Ruth?
He’s wrong I think. I’m sharper now.
Put it down to age.

She worries about a right-wing politician who looks likely to become Deputy Prime Minister after the election: “Don’t worry. Darling, I’ll shaft him sooner or later”. A close friend has a lesbian affair before returning to her husband. Her house is burgled.

3

The word “overkill” lurks in my mind, but although I keep telling myself there is too much, the effect is cumulative. The scene where the politician gets his come-uppance is dramatic, compelling viewing. Ruth’s reaction attracts me to her character:

        I’m uneasy at this
most public of trials. Complicit somehow
as if I’d gone
out of my way to walk past the public stocks.

 

Her complications are intensified by a growing relationship with bookseller Francis. He quotes love poetry, yet appears reluctant to love. She desires him, yet is repelled by him, especially after learning he writes pornographic novels. Is she “retreating into an invented idea of love?” Chris doesn’t want to know about their sex if they are having it. One of the oldest narratives of them all – will she, won’t she? Brown plays it capably. Finally, the inevitable tragedy next door played through, Andrew no longer in her head, Chris drives her to and from the funeral.

As a novel it held me, twice, though as the excitement subsides I begin to ask where is the mystery? – which is probably one of the reasons it did not succeed for me as a poem. But its appearance indicates a wind-shift. With postmodernism well-peaked, the search is on for fresh or
old modes and vehicles. Kendrick Smithyman’s Atua Wera and Bill Sewell’s Erebus and The Ballad of Fifty-one are illustrative. Even within postmodernism, sequences are being used, as in Jack Ross’s Chantal’s Book. It is on the cards that more novel poems or poem novels lie ahead.

 

Harvey McQueen is a Wellington poet and reviewer.

 

 

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