The Glass Rooster
Auckland University Press, $25.00,
The Year of Falling
Ma¯karo Press, $35.00
There is more than one way
to be human
more than one way
to be abominable
A friend observes that a key difference between those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or on the autism spectrum, and the rest of the world, is object-focused attention and people-focused attention. Another friend laments that the characters she writes are criticised for being cold, and that she herself is criticised because her writing does not warm readers up. Or, at least, it does not warm people-focused people up.
It’s not that those on the spectrum are not interested in people. In fact, object-focused people are often very interested in people as objects or peripheral information. And, as people, people might be very interesting to have off to the side of the shot. They’re simply not within the focal range for the way the lens has been set up. And it’s not that those off the spectrum aren’t interested in objects. The latter like things, possessions, and non-sentient life, too, but their depth of field is larger. Like having a lens set to a very low f-stop, the spectrumite sphere of attention is set to a single distance at a time, a distance in which the smallest details become clear. The field of awareness shows vignetting and you, a person, are blurred.
Janis Freegard has recently released two new books: a first novel, The Year of Falling, and a third book of poetry (or second and a half, depending on how you prefer to count chapbooks), The Glass Rooster.
Poetry is also frequently akin to a series of photographs shot on a low f-ratio – a single point of focus, all background information and noise blurred. If poetry is like a finely focused image, autistic viewpoint or even photomicrography, then novels, surely, are photos taken with an even distribution of light across the whole frame, like photomesography, like a neurologically typical person who takes in everything at a glance – something capturing the whole and not a part.
The Glass Rooster is object-focused. Each poem is a tight, concise, finely targeted micrograph image set against the less focused macrograph image of an “echo-system”, set against the out-of-focus photograph image of the world, and in some places, against an astrograph image of the cosmos.
The important thing here is that objects do not need to be cold, devoid of (projected) feeling, or impossible to relate to. Object-focused people need literature, too. Object-focused people need books written for them, about them, by them. Object-focused people need objects through which to connect to the people and world around them, and objects can generate as much emotional response in someone like this as an emotionally available character in a novel can generate for a person-focused person.
And perhaps people-focused people need object-focused people to highlight the details. Yes, you understand that home is not a place but the people around you (“When You’re Not Here”), but did you know that home can also be “Desert Flowers”?
She gathered them into her camera – skirtfuls – to:
… (c) remind herself that home can be found in many exotic places.
And did you imagine that home, for some people, is literally a house (“House”, “Room”)?
If the house were a body,
this would be its quiet mind …
The long time of waiting
for my own home is over.
This house is mine, and this room.
Or that flowers and houses are, to someone, people?
The book’s central character is not a human, but a glass rooster, an object some might call “cold”. Other characters appearing with their own voices and personalities are moldavite, an avalanche, lichens, raoulia, orchids, trees. The narrator at times becomes a frog, a naked mole rat, an albatross, the rooster, or imagines life as a camel. The addressee at times is a geyser, the rooster, at other times also a lover, one who is clearly not me, the reader, thus making the poem both intimate and exclusionary. Humans appear in the book as objects, art gallery visitors are exhibited here themselves, people are scenes in Italian films, another human is merely a skull finding two other skulls, and a man is made of balloons. In one unusual instance of a person as person (“Arohata”), the individual is, in fact, a prisoner, on display behind glass.
As object-focused writers are said to do, the poetry favours repetition, rhythm, form and structure, as well as lists of words seemingly given for either their aural qualities or their pleasantness as words. Forms found more commonly in primary school exercises than in literary anthologies are included here. The collection indexes and catalogues itself, and is divided into eight echo-systems, each beginning with a triolet. Even this form contains the kind of repetition and lyricism that some people find irritating beyond belief and others find completely entrancing.
I was moved to tears, which has not been the case with a book of poetry in my life for a very long time, and it is not the people in the book I have connected with here. It is with the names of plants and with categorical descriptions of all my favourite things come to life on the page in the same way they are alive for me in my world, and with seeing someone else love these things as intensely as I do.
The book ends with “Sphinx” and the lines:
You will stop thinking. Everything will
be very quiet, very still. You will find
you have become a poem.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I misread this as “you have become a person”.
The Year of Falling features similar motifs, a trip to Iceland, moldavite, references to song lyrics and other literature, all with a close attention to detail but now with the expansive depth of field the narrow focus of a poem lacks.
The story unfolds in the first person, alternating between the voices of Selina, Smith, and Selina’s landlady Quilla, and the characters all show odd Asperger’s-like traits. Selina spins in circles to Sufi music to calm herself down, escapes to trees when in need of safety and is even living in one by the close of the novel. Her sister Smith is rational, practical, good at problem-solving and tool-work, while failing at small talk and romantic relationships. “If oil started gushing from the middle of the kitchen floor, you’d just think ‘how interesting’ and go and fetch a bucket,” someone tells Smith. Even the landlady is an outsider who has not led the usual life. All characters show curious retention of unusual facts.
The sense of place is strong and, because I live here, I have moments of both, “I know that house. I’ve met that person” and “There’s no such celebrity chef!” Some people refuse to read literature set in Wellington, claiming they find the reading of it, not necessarily the writing of it, too parochial. But these books need to be written so that others can find us exotic, and while I may be too close to this city to fully believe either the story’s fiction or its reality, I appreciate such locational details when reading work set elsewhere. I can imagine this having a strong appeal to people who have visited or lived in Wellington, but do not call it home.
The plot itself is enough to maintain interest, but this is very much a first novel. The story feels fragmented and purposefully incomplete. The Glass Rooster, in contrast, is a strong, mature, vivid collection of poetry with warmth and impact.
Charlotte Simmonds is a Wellington translator and reviewer.