Heaped atomic details, Alan Loney

Empty Orchestra
David Eggleton
Auckland University Press, $19.95
ISBN 186940 1271

When David Eggleton’s Empty Orchestra arrived in my letterbox, it was the fourth book I had received that day. Beside it was another sent to me by a friend, and I had bought two others that morning. One was Loops, poems by Robert Creeley, a handmade book in 116 copies by Nadja in New York. The purchases were Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death (University of Chicago Press, 1995), and poetry by Susan Howe: a bibliography of the king’s book, or eikon basilike (paradigm press, providence, copyright 1989). The four books are radically different from each other in several ways, but for each one the other three could nicely function as a context in which each might be read. Each revels in its difference in content and as an act of publication, and all can yet be seen as part of a wider pattern of textual production in a multifarious community. I will keep these matters in mind throughout this review.

Empty Orchestra is Eggleton’s third book of poems. The earlier volumes are South Pacific Sunrise (1986) and People of the Land (1988), both from Penguin. There is also a volume of short stories, After Tokyo (Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop, 1987) and a series of poetry broadsheets issued at least as far back as 1978 and as recent as 1982. The present collection pursues his usual preoccupations. Some of these poems have been part of other occasions ‑ an exhibition catalogue with photographs, a text for a site‑specific sculpture, another incorporated into a public works structure, with yet others arranged for music in a variety of collaborations. A set of social engagements, then, and a fair number of the poems have appeared in various magazines.

Like many of our poets Eggleton has, I believe, suffered from not receiving, apart from reviews, any sustained serious criticism. What this is apt to mean is that works can tend to become something of a monologue, jutting into an air which might also be a void, rather than participating in a dialogue with its community ‑ the community that, in his case particularly, is the source and impetus of the poet’s literary response. The tag of “Mad Kiwi Ranter” ‑ the poet’s own, of himself ‑ provides in some way the conditions of such a monologue. Primarily a performance poetry, the works are declaimed to a listening audience, rather than presented to readers separated by their own circumstances. The audience can talk back if there’s a question time, yet the opportunities for sustained questioning or engagement at such times are severely limited.

I have often wondered at the possible number of writers who have responded to serious criticism by rethinking aspects of their writerly practice or of the philosophical basis of their activity. Should Eggleton have received the sort of criticism I’m thinking of, would he have been so repetitive in his practice over his nearly 20 years of publication?

In terms of performance, a good turn can take a lot of repeating. Most people have music they play again and again and/or particular authors and works that are part of their daily life. It was, I think, Beatrice Warde who said that the advantage of literacy is that the words can be on the page in front of you. The question then is: What is the advantage of performance works being written ‑ other than acting as a score for yet another performance?

This is not a new question. It was asked by many reviewers, for instance, in the 1970s when the lyrics of John Lennon’s and Bob Dylan’s songs were published as if they were or could be counted as “poetry”. In performance, a lot of words can be delivered in a short time, and what is retained might be more of a tone or mode of delivery than remembered detail. When the words are on the page we can look at them slowly and repeatedly, thoughtfully testing each detail as we go. This distinction, of course, is generally understood, but it is precisely this gap, this fissure between performance experience and reading experience that Eggleton’s published poems occupy.

In Susan Howe’s wonderful eikon basilike, it could be thought (though I would disagree) that some of the poems are unreadable or unperformable in any sense. There are poems where words and lines of text are placed on rakish angles, some are upside down and many are overlaid, crisscross, on other lines.

What’s more, eikon basilike is originally the title of a forgery, supposedly written by Charles I of England before being beheaded on 30 January 1649. Although a forgery, it nevertheless had a strenuous publication history, it was replied to by Milton, was part of a controversy about authorship and a recent formal bibliography was published in 1950. In asking what King Charles’s putative writings of 1649 might have to do with current New Zealand society ‑ the subject, that is, of Eggleton’s poetry ‑ the answer is mediation. Television, newspapers, videos, radio, computers and the manipulations of power that are achieved through them, minute by minute, on all of us, is mostly what concerns Eggleton the poet, in the present collection as in earlier ones. Human beings are, he proposes, defined, confined, described, inscribed, shaped, manipulated, engineered, constructed and deconstructed by those agencies. Our lives with and in them he calls, in the poem of the same title, “states of dependency” or, to borrow a phrase from Howe, “Scope of the body politic / Mock alphabet and map”. For Eggleton, the whole of the social text is a forgery.

Apart from other people’s lives being often resistant to our readings of them, the language in which we express our readings may itself be unexamined as to its own nature as mediation. Eggleton well bridles at certain kinds of language: “The cultural gatekeepers at Checkpoint Charlie hum / a hit parade of programming languages from Angst to Zen” (in “The Satanic Viruses”). But the institution of language itself that includes those degenerate patterns among others is unaddressed in Empty Orchestra. If Ian Wedde is right in his introduction to The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse (Penguin) when he maintains Eggleton writes in a “language centred in a culture whose dimensions are internationally familiar” this does not mean that the poet’s language may simply be taken at his (or its) word. Language is always more than the intentions of any speaker/writer.

One way, if a crude one, of looking at this is to recall (without documenting) some of the open assumptions that occur not only in the poems (see “After Derrida, Foucault and Camille Paglia”) but in his own reviews of others. It is fairly easy to arouse the sympathies of others when expressing anti-academic, anti‑intellectual and anti‑theory sentiments. I’m bound to say that not everything in those particular gardens is lovely but it is also fair to insist that not everything in them is rotten. Eggleton’s book is published by an academic press and he is thus implicated in academic process.

In disparaging theory, one can reply that any and all of his pronouncements on poetry or life or what he might take their relationships to be are themselves, as being “about” something, irretrievably theoretical. And, waving the anti-intellectualist flag, he has to contend with the reality that his very roles as poet and reviewer are precisely those of an intellectual. To treat these terms as categories is to consign them to being listed as Other, a “them” to be avoided. Another way of looking at it is to say that one should not characterise the whole in terms of what one takes to be wrong with the worst of it.

No one, in New Zealand literature anyway, has harangued the culture so vigorously and consistently as Eggleton. Plenty of others, poets, musicians, cartoonists, commentators, playwrights, etc, have criticised, railed at or negatively analysed the place but Eggleton is alone in the sheer all‑embracing upfront and long‑term audacity of his attack. Like this: “Roger Douglas, the Finance Minister from Mars, / awarded a knighthood, he should be behind bars” (from “Deathstyles of the Poor and Anonymous”). Or this: “Now is the time for kids on detox, kids on rehabilitation, / all moonwalk hi‑tops, mood disorders and a problem family background / to be trained up as globally ambitious technocrats, Masters of Business Administration, / protecting the Freedom of the First World / with weapons of mass destruction, as advertised” (from “Mongreliser: A Flowchart”). Or this: “Monetarism is the calculated excesses of morally bankrupt battalions of consultants” (from “Reasons To Get Political”).

Part One of Empty Orchestra (the book is divided into four untitled parts) begins with a set of sermons (or summonses) against the evils of New Zealand society seen as part of the continuing rise and effect of capitalism throughout the planet. For Eggleton it’s not merely in the streets but in the veins also. Here he is the postmodern desacralised street-corner bible basher railing against a rapacious society and its all too‑willing victims. “Wake up and smell the neighbourhood getting high in the nineties on ecological degradation. The first fully dysfunctional decade…” (from “Demi‑Semi-Celeb”), he rants, with the tone shrill and manic as any TV ad or politician’s displacement. The sleep from which we are to wake up is the sleep of mediation, as I have already noted, and the particular form of mediation at issue is that of the exploitation of the “poor and anonymous”, with the “media” (especially the electronic) as the primary weapon.

There is, however, a movement in the book, away from the sermon to a calmer acknowledgment of “how things are”, at least from another viewpoint. The first part, saturated with and in often lurid metaphor, gives way (mostly, the distinction is not always so sharp) to something like history ‑ a more reflective, more descriptive writing, exemplified splendidly in the poem “Ruaumoko” and to a slightly lesser extent in “Waipounamu: The Lakes District”. The overall technique stays fairly much the same and relies on lists of places, stories, things, people, that are piled up, line by line, into more of a sense of being‑somewhere than into an overall story. In “The Trespasser” (who is you and me in Eggleton’s irrevocably but perhaps not irredeemably mediated world) telling a story is merely another way of “preparing to embellish and embroider the story / which has lead him this far”. The poems avoid (or seek to avoid) narrative by invoking hundreds of little narratives that are connected more by tone, style and ubiety than by making each little item serve a larger integrated theme.

The challenge in reading Eggleton (instead of listening to him perform) is to give all those heaped atomic details their own weight. Where those details collapse again and again is where their overt metaphorical structures exhibit the same sort of a‑historical, sound‑bite sloganising, clichéd quality of the mediations from which we need to (and I accept that we need to) “wake up”. Where those metaphors (“stockbrokers skyrocketing to Nirvana”) are left for a more located literality (“the rotary shed, the Taranaki gate, the sheep-station, the horse stirrup” in “Ruaumoko”) the whole sense shifts to a set of more comfortable recognitions.

“Ruaumoko” is arguably the finest list‑poem written by anyone here. It exemplifies wonderfully Allen Curnow’s dictum that “the literal is metaphor enough” and posts, as on a vast noticeboard, a huge list of things of the world, and of this part of the world, that the trespasser in us exploits and the poet in us observes, acknowledges and celebrates.

Eggleton is unique in New Zealand in his chosen mode. And he is certainly to be valued for that. Yet, on the grounds that all metaphors will at some point fall over if pushed, Eggleton’s images and metaphors have still to be read slowly enough to uncover the full philosophical basis of their construction. I hope it isn’t too much longer before that task is undertaken.

Alan Loney lectures in English at Auckland University.

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Posted in Literature, Poetry, Review
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