Constant fizz and playful grace, Mark Houlahan

Alan Brunton: Beyond the Ohlala Mountains: Poems 1968-2002
Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond (eds)
Titus Books, $38.00,
ISBN 9781877441479

Sweeping the Courtyard: The Selected Poems of Michael Harlow
Michael Harlow
Cold Hub Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780473274207

My first Red Mole gig, sometime in 1977, changed my life. Last year at high school. In from the suburbs, off to the late, great His Majesty’s Theatre just off Queen Street, downtown Auckland. First up Red Mole, then Split Enz in their pre-hit parade, over-costumed glory. Such a pretty sight on stage, offsetting the moody splendour of songs like “Charlie”. With Red Mole, it was puppets more than life-size, shadowy figures and oracular announcements. A glimpse, in any case, of something completely other, some counter to numbing blandness and homogenised choices. That might seem a highly tangential approach to Alan Brunton’s poetry. Yet, as Michele Leggott and Martin Edmond underline in their comprehensive and sane introduction to this retrospective selection across Brunton’s long career, you cannot think of his poetry apart from his other activities and interventions, in masquerade and carnival form. Brunton constantly radiated a romantic poet’s intensity of vision, but he lived the opposite of the clichéd poet’s life, stuck in a lonely tower.

This brilliantly produced volume intersperses the sections of poems, grouped chronologically, with glorious colour images of performance masks found with Brunton’s papers after his death. They are intense, lurid – so evocative of nights like the one I so dimly recall. None more so, of course, than the mask made for Brunton himself, shaped around a very large face and painted with what Shakespeare would call “rubious lips”. This stares out from the front cover. It is not an invitation so much as a challenge thrown down by Brunton and his loving editors to voyage with him one more time “beyond the ohlala mountains”. So, if you do, what will you find there?

Not, as the title might suggest, a form of escapism; but, rather, poetic terrains where the “real” is constantly transforming into something else. Brunton travelled obsessively and, armed with the editors’ careful chronology, you can follow those travels to New York, Europe, the Ganges, Sydney, where Brunton writes in 1970:

a green flower flies in the sky

above Woolloomooloo,

and I walk at the double through these streets

in another country

for the very first time…

The poet’s “I’’, his seeing “eye”, is frequently present in such pieces, but gloomy introspection is not what you can expect to find. The poet wittily observes the passing parade and moves on beyond himself. This is partly because other preoccupations invade his thoughts, and partly that Brunton’s exuberance shifts on to other forms, dancing with tradition as the mood takes him. He dances with Pound’s Cantos or Charles Olson’s Maximus poems, but is in some ways more nimble than either, less trenchantly committed to a single epically encyclopaedic performance. He plays with far older traditions, too, as with the sly uses of Spenser in the late sequence FQ. We don’t get an enfeebled version of Spenser’s famously intricate stanza form, but we do get a quest narrative laced with Brunton’s characteristic appetite for erudition and the beautiful sounds of antique words, real or invented. Then, too, he has a great ear for the brutally colloquial, as in “Pindaric – Victory Parade”:

Totalled?                                  Yeah. Total nut.

Where you been?                   Fucking around. Fucking

                                                  graduated.

 

That really needs reading aloud, to hear how it updates a classic like Don McGlashan’s and Harry Sinclair’s “How you doing?” (in their “Songs From the Front Lawn”).

“Language is my neighbourhood,” Brunton writes in “Movie”, a late poem from 2001. He continues: “I live in Alphabet City / The people who live here open their hearts to the sun.” That is a concise encapsulation of the energy on display throughout the volume, using language not to turn in on itself, but playfully turning it out and on to the world. How will the “real” appear under surrealist conditions? You can also see in those lines Brunton’s skill as a coiner of epigrams, striking phrases that mark the volume throughout. He is not the kind of poet who produced many stand-alone anthology or anthem pieces. I recommend, then, reading this ample volume as a whole, engaging with its constant fizz and energy.

Michael Harlow’s Selected Poems is another generous career-long retrospective (though Harlow’s has yet, of course, to conclude), with the poems amply laid out on A4-size pages; and another excellent small press publication. There is much here to delight in, as Harlow offers new readers a clear sense of his poetry over the last four decades. He also provides a coda to the volume, “A Field Note on Poetry”, which reads like a prose poem as much as a critical guide to his poetics:

Poems that ask what it means, in the face of the absurdities and shadowy things thrown up by life ….

Poems that are lyric moments of recognition ….

A poetry that rests on and enacts the belief that we need to “see the sounds and hear the words”, so that despite every dark thing there is in the world, there will always be music ….

Far more so than Brunton’s, then, Harlow’s predilection is for the lyric moment of attention shaped as an oblique epiphany, a delicate, sometimes wry point, either in free verse or the prose poem, at which Harlow is especially adept. The “field note” is matched by a threshold shape poem placed at the opening of the book, “Sweeping the Courtyard”; this explains the book’s title and foreshadows what is to come:

 I am

always thinking about words

wanting to be music all the time,

except when I’m not.

 

The lyric openness followed by the sly undercut is a characteristic gesture, as if the whole venture would be imperilled by too overt emotional address, like the “awful daring of a moment’s surrender” Eliot approaches in The Waste Land.

Under this stance, politics is not ignored, but outflanked by absurdist imagery: Kafka is a key reference point for Harlow. An early poem, for example, “The Nannies are Coming!”, responds to the suppression of the student uprising against the Colonels’ regime in Athens, 1973. Harlow’s playful dismissal of military force looks back to the Soviet tanks in Prague in 1968 and forward to those in Tianenmen Square in 1989:

What do the tanks know, dreaming

at night under a full moon or the dark

of none?

 

Against their iron force, Harlow places confidence in the power of poetry to outlast. The book is lit up by a series of beautifully achieved lyrics, such as “The Book of Quiet” where we register

Sweeps of light falling perfectly

to the dark, scatter shadows that lick

the bodies of trees; that swim as fish

do through circles of their own.

 

Here the mind floats away from the daily to an eternity within the current moment that is deeply satisfying. If we could only hold on to this, the poet as teacher urges, we too could learn “to be alone in a single / room with ourselves, and quietly.” I love the assurance of holding the pause until the line is nearly over and then bringing the coda “and quietly”. Certainty of tone, confidence in the voice used to address the reader, are hallmarks throughout. Influences are freely acknowledged but, from the 1970s on, Harlow was clearly well at home in his own voice.

He shares with Brunton a fascination with arcana and obscurity. Some notes help clarify specific poems. He shares, too, a fascination found in other poets of his generation (such as Ian Wedde) with Taoism as a potential escape route from the prison of consciousness, and uses the I Ching as a liberatingly detached portal to creativity. “Beat the Pot and Sing”, for example, sets out from the 30th entry in The Book of Changes. Here again the poet floats above our lives with calm assurance:

One hundred years from now, in summer when

we wake our houses will have new holes

for air

I will fly up in the morning for breakfast and back

again ….

 

It’s the kind of thought that Chekhov’s characters often have, but they are trapped by their own egos, neurotic for their own fate. Harlow’s playful grace induces a different feeling altogether, seeing the world from a great height, yet able to capture the minute and particular.

You should buy both these books. Amidst the plethora of new poets from small and large presses, these are two of the most satisfying and nourishing collections of poetry I have read in quite a while.

Mark Houlahan teaches in the English Programme at the University of Waikato.

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