Eczema and ampersands, Janet Hughes

Sing-song 
Anne Kennedy
Auckland University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 1869402952

Electric Yachts
Tony Beyer
Puriri Press, $26,
ISBN 0908943253

Nonsense
Nick Ascroft
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864734514

Imagine a sequence of 80-odd poems centred on a case of eczema. That’s what Anne Kennedy gives us in Sing-song, her first volume of poetry – and she pulls it off, by using skills she has honed as a writer of prose fiction, as well as those more particular to the poet’s craft. Sing-song sustains so much narrative development, you could argue for calling it a verse novella. I don’t mean to suggest that Kennedy is something less than a poet – the separately titled poems are all shapely and musical; but only some will deliver up all their sense and all their pleasure in isolation.

Sing-song relates a period in the life of a family from the perspective of the mother. In many poems she distances herself wryly as “the eczema mother”; the little girl’s eczema is the connecting thread through the sequence, from its appearance to its cure. I can tell you that it gets cured, because the prologue does – but not the cause of it, which teases the reader until very near the end. The balance between withholding and revealing typifies Kennedy’s narrative deftness.

Sing-song is a comedy – it has a happy ending, and its serious matter is treated with a light touch, and a good deal of outright humour. Big issues are broached, in domestic manifestations – financial and marital stress, race, love and parenthood, belonging. The prologue explains and sets the tone. The child, freed from itching agony, is a “latecomer to singing”:

and I’ll tell you why. It was

the move to a dark house, dark
mortgage and winter lingering

and things turning out like the fifties
after all and nothing to be done
but fix its small reflections, dim
mirrors on an Indian shift. We

got a cure for skin and for a long
time watched the botched remedy
at work, masked mortgage, sky, house’s
darkness, and all her baby song.

 

The causal ambiguity here reflects the chicken-and-egg way the poems explore the interrelatedness of emotional, familial, social, medical, spiritual and political matters. A cold, dark house with dodgy neighbours, the burying of an afterbirth, and eczema – the possible connections, reflections, projections are explored tentatively.

Medical procedures are “rites” in a wry sub-sequence (we’re left to draw our own conclusions about consequence): “The first rite” which “wasn’t a rite/but”; “The anointing with steroid cream offered by the General Practitioner”; “The Cult of the Virgin”; and the “Third rite” (baths), followed deliciously by the “Wyf of Bath”: “This is why people went on pilgrimages … You’d bloody well do anything.”

The child’s affliction is mis-treated by a succession of practitioners, and glibly put down to her Pakeha/Maori parentage. Kennedy’s humour ranges from tender to tartly satirical on “the magazine of blonde children” that says “aqueous cream is … the most benign, most/pacific cream”, and savage in respect of a particular “Quack”. The humour is a great attraction, but far from the only one, in this rich collection. It may be too domestic for some tastes, but to treat it as merely domestic would be to belittle its wit, intelligence and poise, and its subtle and engaging craftsmanship.

2

Sing-song is pretty much sui generis, but the other two volumes here invite comparisons. Both Tony Beyer and Nick Ascroft reflect on their own poetic practice, and the poems in question – indeed the volumes – talk suggestively across the divide between modernist and postmodern paradigms (to generalise wildly, and recognising the overlap).

In “Days of 1968” Tony Beyer sketches with broad strokes the politics and poetics of the 60s:

while streets of Paris burned again
& (nostalgic ampersand)
the poetry revolution was taking shape
in Melbourne and Sydney
and the word was about to be Freed
in Melbourne and Sydney
at the university I’d dropped out of

 

He seems to look at his youthful poetic allegiances from an amused distance, and then dismiss them:

I was in love with Baudelaire and Rimbaud
and Guillaume Apollinaire in whose honour
I shunned punctuation for years

 

But don’t be fooled by the tense, for the entire volume is unpunctuated except for  strategic parentheses. The poem concludes by recording a big choice:

instead of achieving literary prominence
I’d fallen for the woman who is still with me
and was none the worse for it

 

And this is the work of a poet who makes careful choices, then stands by them. Beyer is happy to junk the ampersand as a dated mannerism; but he sticks with open form (unpunctuated) and makes it work. And he sticks with the modernist project of engaging with and making sense of things. In Part II of Electric Yachts, he sets out the beliefs or hopes underpinning this aesthetic:

the voice in
what can be said or sung
is the true measure
………………………………………………………………….
singing orange and red
and  green and brown
ground into being
singing the sky’s
blue resolution

 

The other nine sections, and indeed the volume, enact this commitment to registering the encounter of the musical voice with the world. The voice is robust and direct, running close to speech rhythms, hovering between plainness and a subdued lyricism: “tick tick the rain said /three drops like blood spots/in the shallows of clover foils”.

Compared with that of Sing-song, this is a wide world: Beyer takes us backpacking, alighting in Auckland and Wellington, Melbourne, Cairo and China; explores resonant New Zealand and Australian landscapes; and ventures into history and ancestry. Nostalgia or at least hindsight informs many poems, implying a will to make sense of a life.

Commemorating the September 11 attacks became a hazardous enterprise in the welter of visual and verbal coverage. In “The Laureate”, however, Beyer imagines Whitman and Ginsberg

shaking their heads at the smoke
and at poets
who claim to be in the business

of imagination
but say this one’s too big and too close
to write about

 

And his “In the Wake of America” is a fine elegy. It approaches the topic with restraint, by way of that same overexposed coverage – the “distraught anchor”, and shots of bosses who “aim gestural hugs at empty air/ to include the missing”:

business will never be as usual again
but in all its intricate slippages

of honesty magnanimity
a daily secular sacrament

of the treasured world
so easily gone

 

The poem doesn’t linger to wallow, but moves on to taut, oblique reflections on history. There’s a nod to the failures and inadequacies of the word – official mourners “have come to explain/with their mouths filled/with because and therefore/and silence remains”; and “slippage” is a telling word choice. Late modernism (and New Zealand’s was late) talked turkey with postmodernism in a way that arguably postponed the exhaustion of the earlier paradigm, and there are hints in these poems of a wary mistrust of conventional forms, verbal and otherwise, and an allied textual self-consciousness. But in Beyer’s work this reflexiveness merely qualifies the value of approaching “the treasured world” with words, where under the postmodern dispensation it often denies or annihilates.

3

Let’s consider the attitudes of Beyer and Nick Ascroft to punctuation. There is a paradoxical symmetry there, starting with the ampersand Beyer has shaken off, while dispensing with sentence punctuation. Ascroft uses ampersands for and invariably; but otherwise he punctuates conventionally, even capitalising the first word in each line – unless the word is &, in which case he compensates for the ampersand’s ambiguous status by capitalising the next word. This quarrels with the emphasis imparted by the words’ positions, and brings me to a halt every time, eye and ear struggling to reconcile the signals.

Beyer’s non-punctuation doesn’t obtrude or impede understanding, because the line-breaks and the syntax make for lucidity. The form confers freedom to mean, more inventively than you can in prose. Ascroft’s punctuation is obstructive. I take the point to be a foregrounding of surface, insisting on the things that language can do besides meaning, and playing at and with the boundary between sense and nonsense.

And if there’s a price to pay in accessibility? Well, Joyce said he expected readers to take as long over Finnegans Wake as he had spent writing it – seven years. And Ascroft is a most faithful and able inheritor of the Joycean mantle. He blows words apart and reassembles the bits, multiplying meanings and mischief – tease out the implications of “anthro-mo-pology” for starters. This is Ascroft’s one-word-liner for inferring genetic history from old photos, in “1830:
Inbreeding”:

Imagine them, slinking, humping, loping
Around proto-Gore, burning their
Flipper-paws on the billy,
Being unspeakable with whale blowholes,
& Then, heinous, each other.

& What fungal culture of
Stowaways, bail-skippers, whale-sniffers,
Cannibals, seagull-eaters
& Runaway monsters is still in
There breeding in, breeding in, breeding on.

This is easier than most of the poems. Sometimes the elaborate conceits are difficult to decipher, because the surface density of the language, exploding all over with local meaning, can obscure the direction of a sentence or indeed a poem.

But what diversions the word-bombs introduce along the way! You can have enormous fun before, or even without, grasping the point. There are riotous puns, and hilariously inventive and apt images. Try “Wasabi”: “Wee looks-like-a-lolly-&-tastes-like-a-bus-crash”; or what about the spider that “dangled in the noise of the wind like a fucked umbrella”.

The point, when you find it, is often political, and approached from an improbable angle, often by way of parable. In “Means Testicles” he rants resplendently against WINZ-imposed indignities. You may not find the point – I’ve missed some of them; and it’s telling that “The Dishwasher’s Advocate” needs (well, gets) an almost equally long explanation in the notes. Also, perhaps that Ascroft has to tell us in the introduction that there are only two nonsense poems in the book.

VUP helpfully tells us what other people think of this collection, all over the jacket. Down the spine, James Brown sums up: “Fresh, energetic, funny, political, unafraid and manic”. I’d add deeply absorbing. But I have reservations about the political dimension of the collection. One is a doubt about the logic of burying arguments so deeply in distractions. That poetry makes nothing happen has become axiomatic, to the point where political utterance becomes reduced to venting indignation unrelieved by hope.

My other reservation concerns something profoundly negative about the vision, notwithstanding the exuberant energy. In among the splatter I keep hearing a note of distaste for human life. There is a rejection of the arrogant way humans treat other species – fair enough; but Ascroft seems to reproach his species not just for behaving badly but for existing, and certainly for reproducing.

 

Janet Hughes is a Wellington reviewer.

 

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