The poetics of limitation, John O’Connor

Playing God
Glenn Colquhoun
Steele Roberts, $24.95,
ISBN 1877228753

LOVEINABOOKSTOREORYOURMONEYBACK
Sarah Quigley
Auckland University Press, $21.95,
ISBN 1869402847

People with Real Lives Don’t Need Landscapes
John Dolan
Auckland University Press, $21.99,
ISBN 1869402871

 

Three books with apparently little in common.

Winner of the Readers’ Choice Award in this year’s Montanas, Playing God is Glenn Colquhoun’s third book of poetry. The theme is medicine/medical practice with section titles such as “Patients I Have Known” and “Diseases I Have Known”. Yet what struck me most forcefully was the sheer fluency of his line, the technical continuation from earlier work and a recurrent editorial imprecision.

The poetry is essentially formulaic, figurative and at its representative best in “The earthquake”, subtitled “for a child with epilepsy”:

She was a small country
built on a fault line.

Her belly was a round field,

A farmer stepped out the
position of fenceposts.

 

Here – putting aside the singular use of “position”, and that countries, as distinct from buildings, towns, or cities, are not “built” on anything – the skill and emotional depth are evident. There is the apt simplicity of language, the dynamic earthiness of the secondary image within the extended metaphor, the implicit equivalence of the girl and this country, the flexible, unobtrusive repetition. The ending is equally effective:

Her face was a small town.

People drank coffee
on hot afternoons
in her streets

And did not notice
the slight roll of the spoons
on their saucers.

 

One thinks of Wilfred Owen noting that “the poetry is in the pity”. Yet it’s not that simple; the poetry here is in the effects of unobtrusive technique combined with compassion.

When the technique begins to break down, so does the poetry. Between the fine opening and ending we have:

Her feet were a coast,

They splashed wildly
when she played.

Her eyes were an ocean,
as blue as an unsailed sea.

 

But does a coast splash? Or is it the sea that splashes on parts of a coast? In fact, of course, her feet (“they”) do the splashing, the problem/pity in that sense is in the metaphor. Again, the parts of her body are parts of a country throughout, except where her eyes (plural) become, not as the metaphor might suggest lakes, ponds or windows (plural), but an ocean (singular), which is unhelpfully outside the “small town” (her face) and too large-scale for it, an ocean which is then unhappily compared to the sea (itself). Recurrent imprecision compromises the ability of language to evoke/recreate, to communicate to potential.

The use of repetition is also problematic. Apart from a handful of prose pieces, the vast majority here are single idea poems, employing structural repetition to one degree or another, typically at or near the beginnings of lines. For instance, “Teddy” opens: “Teddy was not well./Teddy had been feeling sick./Teddy had to go to hospital.” “Mothers, love your sons” opens:

Mothers, love your sons.
Love your big, dumb sons,
Your idiot sons,
Your swaggering sons …

 

Again “A medical education” opens:

In obstetrics I learnt that a woman opens swiftly like an elevator door. The body wriggles free like people leaving an office on a wet afternoon.
In surgery I learnt that the body is an animal. The heart paces slowly like a tiger in its cage.

 

Redundancy, tautology and imprecision aside, there’s a need for the repetitious element to be used more flexibly, more sparingly.

Beyond simply wearing thin, the prioritising of repetition and figurative usage naturally has further consequences. Taken individually or in small numbers, the best of the poems are attractive and distinctive precisely because of their oratorical/rhetorical leanings, the outcomes of the techniques employed. Yet the largeness of rhetoric is destructive of particulars and complexity (the sensory and psychological detail of textual reality). Despite describing a world of (often natural) objects, the poems generate relatively few concrete images; despite a virtual community of patients, there are relatively few characters.

Such prioritising, especially of repetition, also makes it difficult for the poems to develop, except incrementally. For instance, the second part of “Parkinson’s disease”, “Multiple choice questions”, gives four of 12 possible causes as:

(a) It could have been from curses
placed by people that he hurt.

(b) It could have been a screw loose
or a spanner in the works.

(c) It could have been his gutters
filled with rubbish or with leaves.

(d) It could have been he might have
fought with something he could see.

 

Yet after eight pages of repetitions, metaphors, similes and lists the accumulation of comparative data is such that focus becomes blurred, at best. The flow of new language that might – within the flexibility of organic/dynamic structure – have aided the development of depth/perspective devices is reduced to the mere filling in of spaces between structural pillars, often in response to their superficial metaphoric demands. At this extreme, we’re uncomfortably close to kit-set poetry, as Colquhoun himself inadvertently suggests in his earlier An Explanation of Poetry to My Father: “Similes and metaphors are rolled-up sets of plans carried underneath your armpit or in the back of the truck … A place where what you are putting together has already been put together …”

This narrow technical direction of course leaves the reader with a limited, relatively passive role – imaginative response depending on the degree of textual openness rather than accessibility. Even most of the shorter, more disciplined pieces run to adjectival, circumscribed meaning rather than to the opening of possibilities. They communicate too little by saying too much, as in “Performing
miracles”:

The heart is stitched
laboriously into place by sharp
needles and fine thread.

The lungs are cleaned
by stiff brooms and bossy cleaners
throwing open all its [sic] windows

Or in “An attempt to prevent the death of an old woman”:

Don’t go old woman, don’t go
Down beneath that deep sea
Down onto its soft bed
There are still fish to be caught
Old woman, don’t go.

 

Given the surfeit of conventional thinking/feeling being done for the reader the poems too often suggest the production of ready-made sentiment rather than, as at their occasional best, the poetry of compassion mediated by unobtrusive technique.

2

The first section of Sarah Quigley’s LOVEINABOOKSTOREORYOURMONEYBACK has its sharper and lighter moments, as in “Age-old”:

‘You have a big head,’
said the sun conversationally,
‘and a big heart for
someone who is only two.’

 

However, the manner is more often delicate, hushed, selective: “Pollen fell like small pieces/of rain” (“Bridal”); “Her white fingers/crossing like bird’s legs,/wading in the pale blue china bowl” (“Her white fingers”).

Happily, the two subsequent sections ring the changes. When Quigley adopts a longer, more fluent line, a firmer voice, and acknowledges the realities (rather than the aesthetics) of human behaviour, she becomes markedly more interesting. The poems are still, on the whole, her version of poet-centred: “my constant vigilance/over the state of my heart”, as “Dinosaur Times” has it. But an apparently growing recognition of the world in its own terms gives us a number of significant pieces like “The Kapinos Equation” or “New York Four”. The latter is remarkable despite occasional stutters – for instance, the “streets”, though plural and “oblivious to you”, are somehow still flexible and aware enough here to “flick you/like a finger [singular] bent and released”. The poem moves from a bookstore (via O’Hara) to an evocation of New York’s “meat-packing district”, “Five-dollar palm readers”, basketball games, doorways “smelling of piss and paint”, fish vendors (absent yet “leaving shining scales in the air”) to the sensory present/ironically implicit messiah of “a sometime Madonna,/child feverish in the net cot,/fruit flies humming in the hot bananas”. This from Part III:

Anger at the turnstile
of Broadway and Lafayette.
The ticket-seller’s voice is magnified
and booms across the platform
to clash head-on with the oncoming train.

well fuck you asshole!

His angry legs and arms
are cramped into a glass box
in a trick of the world …

Despite the achievement, the overall impression is that poetry for Quigley is still at base the aesthetics of Japonisme or, more often, the generalised emotional residue of personal turmoil:

the bell ringing below me,
shaking the house about like a heart.

It’s that time of day
when everyone else thinks about home
and I write.
(“Poetry is the hardest thing”)

 

Were Quigley to more regularly access a wider range of content and/or emotion — regulars in her prose — her poetry would be stronger yet.

3

Shocking as it may seem, John Dolan is neither young, female, ethnically trendy, nor has he done BM’s creative writing course. It took me a while to get over this. Then I thought, “Possibly, just possibly, a white (well, Irish-American), middle-class, middle-aged male from the South (as in South Island, temporarily) might also be able to write poetry.”

I opened the book to find out – full of scepticism, of
course – only to find more scepticism; People With Real Lives Don’t Need Landscapes is nothing if not questioning. Indeed the violence/death-orientated, intellectually hip, post-Christian poetic imprint may raise questions it doesn’t necessarily intend. However, it is a relief to find a poet who so obviously knows his craft. Take “The Death of John Lennon as Miracle”:

‘Error has no rights.’
Slogan of the Inquisition

Is Mark David Chapman
(the dirty little coward that shot Mister
Lennon) a saint?
He gets my vote for heaven.
Or ‘What Happens to a Cyanide Molecule? A Ballet”:
‘Death to the fascist insect that preys on the
life of the people!’
They said and shot the superintendent.
With cyanide tips – not that it mattered;
It went through him too fast to smear a single
Cyanide molecule-shrub on his wigwam ribcage.

But exaggeration, however well “executed”, has its limitations. Despite such excesses/matinée successes as the historically rampant Mongol in “The Problem is How to Thank”, who finds that while killing is just a boring job it does have its lighter moments (“when the arrow/takes a little one at a funny angle and it/runs around dead”) or the “YAY FOR ME!!!!!!!” ending of “How I killed the Mouse”, Dolan is clearly more than a technically proficient poet. Why then he should choose to limit himself – and constrict his attempts at a more meaningful world view – by catering to the sillier, kill-or-be-killed type of undergraduate I can’t imagine. Yet he does so repeatedly in the poems and also allows his publisher to do so in the blurb:

Hired [at Otago] to teach … 900 snarling first-year med students … he was the subject of various voodoo death cults … some even produced a T-shirt with a highly unflattering caricature of [him above] the words BLAH BLAH BLAH … he clawed his way out to become a scurrilous journalist at the eXile, a Moscow expat paper which holds the current record for ‘most death threats against staff’.

 

The result is to set up, even coerce, a certain type of reading.

All the same, there are poems, mostly near the beginning, which combine a conflicted, apparent anti-liberalism with enough clear humanity and humility to find a place in the mind and heart. These go beyond the egocentric anti-hero, unable to forget God in a Godless world where history is a series of bloody sieges leading to the consumerism of Pleasant Hill, California – or, more simply, suffering leading to pointlessness. (Unless of course one counts such performances virtually alone as point, which comes down to the value of gallows humour without belief in, or the liberation of, anything much else.) So yes, there are at times more adult poems. But no, dominantly, the pose and related performance take over from potential content rather than working with it.

 

John O’Connor’s sixth book of poetry, Working Voices (a collaboration with Eric Mould), has just been published by Hallard Press.

 

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