Getting self-absorption right, Bill Sewell

The Body of Man
David Herkt
Hazard Press, $24.95
ISBN 0 908 790 73 2

Stuck up
John Dolan
Auckland University Press, $19.95
ISBN 186940 120 4

Retaining Wall
Claire Matthewson
Whitireia Publishing, $19.95
ISBN 0 473 031329

Literature is a self‑referential activity. It not only devotes a great deal of energy to examining its own material, language and the inadequacy of language; it also engages with other works of literature.

The engagement of literature with itself is one of its most powerful driving forces, after sex, death and religion. It probably outranks politics and, in the twentieth century at least, it might even edge out nature and landscape. The engagement of literature with itself also takes many shapes, ranging from simple allusion to adaptation of earlier forms and works, to parody, pastiche and ultimately forgery (of which more later).

In the work of David Herkt, John Dolan and Claire Matthewson, all of whom are represented here by first collections, the engagement with other writing is evident to different degrees. But, to whatever degree, it is also clear that without that factor, they would all lack what has become an indispensable poetic tool.

Just why literature should be so self‑absorbed is a question which has exercised a number of writers. T S Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) spoke of the “historical sense” and maintained: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” Rilke conceived of poets in successive generations as being manifestations of Orpheus, the archetypal poet. The American critic Harold Bloom, on the other hand, has seen the relationship between living and dead poets in terms of a keen rivalry, claiming that many writers are motivated by what he calls “the anxiety of influence”.

Self‑referential literature is by no means sterile. It gives to writing a depth which complements the inventive use of language. It creates layers of meaning which an educated and astute reader can uncover and savour. It provides unexpected and often witty juxtapositions, a particularly successful example being Cilla McQueen’s “A Legacy”, which translates the sentiments of François Villon into a late twentieth century New Zealand context. The result is mutual illumination of different historical eras and different cultures.

But there can also be disadvantages. Excessive self-reference can become navel‑gazing and solipsistic. Poets can sometimes spend so much time worrying in their poems about the inadequacy of language that they forget to make the best of their imperfect instrument. Also, they may compile a private canon, which they share only grudgingly, to the extent that often the reader misses the point.

This is a particular problem of allusion, since its presence can so easily be disguised in a poem. The allusions which draw on sources shared by a significant number of readers work best, those which do not are too often lost. Allusion should be only one of a number of devices operating in a poem and should not be pivotal to its enjoyment. The use of allusion requires as much skill as any other poetic device; but allusion alone can rarely carry a poem.

Amongst the three poets considered here, David Herkt shows the most signs of an engagement with other literature. His substantial (in both size and accomplishment) first volume, The Body of Man, is grounded in two of its sections on a close knowledge of early nineteenth century German literature (“Hooded in Darkness”) and of Rimbaud (“The Last Delirium of Arthur Rimbaud”). Elsewhere he alludes in varying degree to Defoe, Cavafy, Shelley, Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” and “The Waste Land”, to mention just a few examples. His achievement is that he is able to do so without overburdening the writing.

Herkt is primarily a love poet, and a gay love poet. The forms in which he chooses to express this love vary considerably. It might be in lyrics as beautiful as Auden’s “Lullaby”, such as “Territory”:

Who spoke in his sleep the muttering syllables

of an unfamiliar tongue

calling out those names

the words flying from his mouth

like morning pigeons

high above the Territory …

Retaining Wall

 

It might be in his blunt, uncompromising and sexually explicit “Satires”. Or it might be voiced in the series of letters purporting to have been written by a contemporary of the poet Hölderlin, one Robert Schwartzhelm, to his former lover, Wolfgang von Tiefurt (“Hooded in Darkness”).

These letters construct a bogus context of academic respectability. Schwartzhelm (a name which means literally “black helmet” and which is echoed in the title phrase) has a career which in many respects parallels but is overshadowed by that of Hölderlin. He is a political dissident who is confined on grounds of insanity, having been betrayed at trial by his lover, a member of the aristocracy. The 10 letters express the agony of separation (“Your absent presence lies beside me. It is the terrible reverse of existence.”) and betrayal, but they are also prophetic of events like World War 1 and include meditations on the role of the poet.

Schwartzhelm never existed, nor did his lover, nor many of the characters who appear in the letters. In creating Schwartzhelm, Herkt is following in a tradition which includes Chatterton and his Rowley poems, Nabokov and Pale Fire and of course the greatest literary hoax of the twentieth century, Ern Malley (who makes a brief entrance in the “Satires”). Such forgeries, if they are accomplished enough, take on, like characters in novels or plays, a life of their own. Ern Malley is now a much anthologised Australian poet; Robert Schwartzhelm might yet enter the annals of German literature – on the basis that if he didn’t exist, he should have.

Perhaps the heart of The Body of Man is the section entitled “Notes from a Plague Year”, which revolves around the death of a lover from AIDS. “Notes from a Plague Year” is not so much a chronicle as a meditation, which keeps returning to the same themes: death and sexual love, of course, but also the insubstantiality of human flesh, the way it cannot be held within fixed borders and how only the poet’s words can counter that process:

His body described

becomes these words

is sentenced to their limits

& he breathes here

with his brown eyes

& a faint pulse at his throat

that is called by these syllables.

(“His Body Described” … p11)

 

Not all the poems work. Sometimes they slip into sentimentality and predictability; too many of them return to the same themes and imagery without significant variation. The other major gay sequence in the collection, “Satires” – a narrative of an eternal triangle involving two men and a women and the efforts of the woman and one of the men to seduce the other man – also fails to convince me. In its insistence on excluding the poetic, it becomes flat and prosaic. But these reservations do not prevent The Body of Man from being an impressive debut collection. Herkt is a poet to watch out for, he has Eliot’s “historical sense” and also knows how to turn it to contemporary ends.

If there is one element generally lacking from Herkt’s work, it is humour ‑ although the Schwartzhelm letters are undoubtedly a laugh at the reader’s expense. This is not true of John Dolan’s collection Stuck up which, though it describes itself as “the record of one summer in a life of a failure”, reveals a most engaging personality who exercises a great deal of humour, often directed at himself. Much of this humour, however, derives from the poet’s dialogue both with himself and with figures and ideas from literature and from popular culture. In this collection appearances are made by Boswell, Beowulf, Gary Snyder, Sir John Denham, Céline, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Star Trek and Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner.

It may be juxtaposition which generates the humour: one moment the poet is reading The Life of Johnson, the next he is using it to brain a bat which he spies crawling onto the carpet (“Bats and Spiders”). In another poem, “Let Me Not Be Coleridge”, he deconstructs Wordsworth by taking his name literally:

Wordsworth the words’‑worth

poetry entrepreneur,

never saying anything for free

never saying anything,

but oh so well.

 

Dolan’s collection has a frame into which he rather loosely fits poems on a diverse range of topics. The frame is a summer he spent in a houseboat on a lake in Canada accompanied only by a Great Dane called Borstal (who is featured on the cover). The poet is “stuck up” because his neighbours see him as standoffish and because he is entangled in his own anger, violence and an unsatisfactory relationship with a married woman who is known only as “[NAME DELETED]”, as well as his romantic impulses which are continually being held in check by his cooler, ironic, academic self.

It is the latter tension which produces the most interesting poems in the volume, three in particular: “Poetics of Cowardice”, “In Which I Get Snotty and then Whack Myself Good”, and “Imagine an Otter Staring Back from the Lake”. These poems lament the dissociation of literature from feeling, a feature of twentieth-century literature and its academic study: “The use of tears in metaphor / is of course forbidden / by the crank poetics I inherited”. There is no stopping such impulses, however, and by the end of the volume they gain the upper hand:

I thought I was joking,

‘Being ironic’ ‑ no. Be true!

I don’t want to be a critic anymore,

I want to be in the scene itself ‑

 

Dolan’s embodiment of the romantic impulse, an otter which insinuates itself via a schmaltzy Disney movie, “gets away”, because the poet likes otters, because, as he says, he paid for the movie. And when it is time to leave the lake the poet comes to terms with himself, realising that “life makes a kind of sense”. (“As I Leave”)

Stuck up is a lively and witty collection, which challenges and teases the reader. It has lyrical moments and moments of great poignancy. It features a ballad (“I Dreamed We Walked through Derry”), an approximation to a haiku (which is actually a concrete poem in the shape of a mosquito) and a prose poem (“Solstice”), which is really no more than a prose piece. And this points to one of my doubts about the collection: In too many poems the line breaks seem arbitrary, the rhythms and syntax are those of prose. Stuck up is never less than interesting but I wonder whether Dolan has always found the correct medium.

Claire Matthewson, in contrast, writes with rather more precision. The poems in her collection, Retaining Wall, are measured in every sense: the lines carefully calculated, the tone restrained, so restrained in fact that by the end of the collection the reader longs for some kind of eruption from the pervading ethos, and a flash of humour in the final sequence comes as something of a relief.

Though these poems are measured they are also minimal. They lack the flesh and flab of David Herkt’s and John Dolan’s work: they are mainly bone, and bone that is rather brittle. Such fragility can be exquisite, as in “Salute”,

Coming home from seeing the aunts

we’d curl up warm in the back of the Vanguard

Our brave father Theseus

behind the wheel

Could always conquer those black night roads and

The minotaur between Knossos

and our beds

 

Here she captures perfectly the (perhaps false) sense of security felt by a somnolent child placing total confidence in its parents. But it is a fragility which can also shatter into sentimentality and banality. An image like “the cabinet / where I store my heart” (“Safety Measure”) or some of the anecdotal material in “Robert 1945‑1992” (a tribute to the playwright Robert Lord) simply do not generate the resonance necessary to lift the writing into the poetic.

Matthewson’s use of literary allusion is likewise somewhat two‑edged. The poem “Untitled”, one of the three about “Mad Martha” which open the volume, plays cleverly on New Testament references, and the references to Greek mythology in “Salute” are satisfyingly assimilated. But elsewhere they appear contrived, as in “In Transit, Noumea”, which reworks the opening of “The Waste Land”, or the reference to Robert Louis Stevenson in “The Picnic”:

We have gin and tonic

for breakfast

in the bar of the Tusitala

Not yet ‑

home from the hill

 

The effect here is not to add particular significance to the poem, rather to impress on the reader how clever the poet is. We want our poets to be clever but we don’t want them to tell us how clever they are.

Which all goes to confirm that literature in a self-referential mood must choose its moments, and its mode of expression, with great care.

Bill Sewell is a Wellington legal researcher and poet.

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