Auckland University Press 1996, $19.95
ISBN 1 86940 141 7
It is often tempting to approach any new book of poetry as an example of either “mainstream” or “postmodern” work and assess it according to the various views one might have of these very active presences in our literature. But there are writers — Mike Johnson is one of them — who write as if they don’t much care for either category. Put another way, they look at the tradition in which they operate somewhat differently from what this particular binary viewing might permit. It is Johnson’s non-residence at either of these addresses that no doubt keeps him from being a household word in New Zealand’s poetry or an “obscure” or “academic” one.
Initially Johnson’s work owed little to the local tradition as laid down in the 1920s and 1930s and not much more to the turnaround in that tradition of 1969-71 in the pages of The Word is Freed and successive issues, 1969 to 1973, of the New Zealand University Students Association Arts Festival Literary Yearbook. There were, too, no echoes from outside these shores of Philip Larkin or Seamus Heaney, nor of Charles Olson or Lyn Hejinian.
But there were of Americans Gary Snyder and Lew Welch, with T S Eliot always, as now, an audible presence. It’s too much to write of “influence” here — more of an alignment that the poet shared and pointing not to a British or European or American reading of the poet’s task, but to an Asian one, Chinese, Japanese and very old.
It is worth going back to Johnson’s first book, The Palanquin Ropes (Voice Press, Wellington, published 1983 but written before 1981) to see what sort of ground was unfolded there and how it shaped the work. From the start a tone, precise and lining up directly with Arthur Waley’s Chinese Poems and not far off from the famous Han Shan or Cold Mountain poems (tenth century) and the world as a “sutra with no words”. In the world, however, things, events, are named as simply as possible: “passing cars, voices / red roofs”, etc.
Or is it simple? These are in fact the most abstract of terms. What sort of cars? What year or model or colour? What voice? Whose? Saying what? In what tone? To whom? Which roofs? On what buildings? Where what happens? Where? Such questions would provide a kind of concreteness, or connectedness, a sense of society or place or history. Instead the bare nouns bypass particulars for a different sort of attention which, paradoxically, seeks a “fragmenting depth” to be found in surfaces, as “water fresh-sprung clear / over grey stones”.
This pattern continues and is worth running through. There are echoes of childhood but not of family; events but not of psychosocial effect; places but no “sense of place”; land but not landscape; words but not language; description but not presence; successive days and nights but not history; other people but not relationships. All up, acts of transgression, breaking the law and lore of anything that might be a “New Zealand” poetry. Not even the place names or Maori gods are societal — a liberative shutting out of the poet from a specifically sociopolitical fabric. Other parts of poetry’s fabric also are stripped away — initial capitals, fullstops, colons, semi-colons and dashes all give way to the comma (pause) the questionmark, the exclamation. All this is peeled off in the confrontation of the body with its mortality (yes, we think with the body) and the mind with the unlikely but obsessive prospect of enlightenment.
Since The Palanquin Ropes Johnson has published two novels, one book of short stories and three poetry collections, of which Treasure Hunt is the first for 11 years. During this time the lines in the poems are often longer, the punctuation more varied and the language is richer, more detailed, more discursive, more elaborate. The book has two sequences, the title sequence, of 22 one-page poems, and “Open Sonnets” — 32 14-liners.
Textually, “The first riddle is the self”, and that epigraph comes from the Chinese poet Gu Cheng, who killed his wife Xie Ye and then himself on 15 October 1993 on Waiheke Island, where Johnson himself has lived for many years. The book is written in “the shadow of murder”, on an island, in a neighbourhood. In the second section, there are four sonnets “for Gu Cheng” — not “to” or “about” but “for”; and, of course, prepositions, in coming before, go out towards a fellow poet in an appalling situation.
What is sought in Treasure Hunt are clues hidden in the welter of clues and signs in the plethora of signs. At the beginning, “To begin with you know no Treasure, nor any map / with spot marked X” (poem 1); and it ends (poem 21), “You’ve got this far and still you don’t know / what the treasure is / or in what back-quarters or jazzy districts it may be found”. The focus, everywhere, is outside the “self” and yet “You are the territory”, where the territory is littered: a wardrobe, a garden, a telephone, containers of various kinds, a morepork, an island with forest, “your empty shoes” (that go walkabout on their own), under the sink, cupboards, the city, animals wild and domesticated, feelings, landscapes, etc, etc. Each is brought under scrutiny, interrogated, searched for the meanings that they do and do not yield up: “Certain things you will notice, little irrelevancies / that bear no relation to any particular Sign…”
Amid this packed, gathered collection of clues to an unnamed assumption the poet stands as something like an amalgam of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Holmes to Watson: “You have not observed. And yet you have seen.” (A Scandal in Bohemia) And Watson to his “reader”: “I did not gain very much, however, by my inspection.” (The Red-Headed League). “In my beginning is my end”, wrote Eliot in East Coker and it is this sense, not only of the particularities of things that hide themselves in their revelation, but also a religiosity in being “at the place you started from / but unchanged / and unspoken for” (poem 21).
Why the search? Is it just an old trope that old literatures have worn until they are exhausted? Is it instead what we all (whoever “we” are) do, whether we like it or not, know it or not? Or is the notion of the search, the quest, the riddle of life, the hunger for a “grand, final, Theory of Everything” (poem 22) a joke we visit on ourselves and others, opening the fortune cookie in the pathetic hope that something awesomely profound will leap out of the paper at us, “inscribed in intaglio”, enough to stop the looking right there, or here?
Johnson of course knows both that and better than that and the poems assert clearly that the treasure is not to be sought, only found. And yet, “Perseverance furthers / and now you have it”, the task elaborated and the joke laid down. That first line is straight from the I Ching (back to The Palanquin Ropes), that rich old Chinese lode so plundered for its treasure by the west. In zen tradition satori, the sudden illumination essential to but not constituting enlightenment, is said to happen in any kind of circumstance, its coming always a surprise, unbidden and not at all the direct result of a specific bit of searching. The rainbow’s end is merely a trick of light and position, is never a “spot marked X”.
Light and position, however, pervade the Open Sonnets to saturation. A loaded title, almost a contradiction in terms and stacking itself (intended or not) alongside other fine sonnet sequences — James K Baxter’s Jerusalem Sonnets, Ian Wedde’s Earthly: Sonnets for Carlos, C K Stead’s “Twenty-One Sonnets” from Walking Westward and Michele Leggott’s Blue Irises in Dia.
Like Wedde’s, these sonnets are fairly loose in line length; like Stead’s, which are derived from Baxter’s, they are in couplets. And they are often similar to both in their sense of narrative or voice, especially when they directly address another. Whether they are in some way “open” is questionable. “Open” is a difficult term in our criticism and is not used in the same way by all those who find it useful. Here are several acts of closure, with several voices and different addressees within the poems. Undated, unlike Treasure Hunt (March-April 1995), they are also without the pressure of a single compositional event, keeping their distance from one another.
The distance implied by the search, the hunt, is by many of the sonnets abandoned in their intimacy of address, their connection with the things and processes of the world. If a leap is made, it’s not between looking and finding but between observing and being implicated or involved. Each sonnet is a narrative, telling a story about a relation of self-and-world, self-and-self — “spilling over, […] into the spaces around us, time also // folded and stretched; and when our arms go round each other there’s / no clear sense of who is who, or whose sleep smells so sweet”. (p29). Too many sibilants? Probably — the urge to find the “right” word or phrase will often lead to an awkward result. But in the best of these uneven sonnets there is a freedom in the “wet closeness of the bush […] as close and as clammy, as rife and as prodigal, // as heedless and consummate, free and sovereign / as this.” (p37). Not as, note, the end of a quest. It opens with the vocative “Love” and speaks of a conjunction that might be read as claustrophobic or tyrannical but for the openness said to be inherent there.
It is neither consistent nor secure. The second section draws on the relationship between the distance (the hunt) and the closeness (love), between The Treasure Hunt and Open Sonnets, which latter work is the section itself. The “self” here is broken up into several registers or voices : “…I walked around trying / to come to grips with this ache in the pit of my stomach” to “Each morning we make a tunnel of time, dearest” to “Seeing you after the play / standing at the bus stop”. The self, that is, is no longer a riddle with an answer to be found somewhere but a multifaceted speaker in changing tones in different circumstances.
But, still, the writing is more of destinations reached, or never to be reached, rather than that every location whatever is both an arrival and a departure point. The world, the other, the self, never give up their otherness. They always keep themselves at bay. There is a distance, an abyss, even in the closest embrace “with no clear sense of who is who”.
The book’s tension is between the coherence, the energy, the pressure of a single composition and the fragmentary, occasional dispersal of the sonnets. The title poem, 22 one-page numbered sections, was written in two months. That’s a highly concentrated time for a work of this scale and constancy. When were the sonnets composed? Which, if any, were completed before work on Treasure Hunt began? Does their appearance after the title-poem imply that they really do postdate it? Some of the half-line sonnets do have, though I could be very wrong, that feel about them. They approach the peeled back austerity of the earlier books and some, I think, could have been edited out with gain to the whole sequence. Dating them would have provided useful information.
It is easier to be seduced by coherence than by fragmentation, yet fragmentation has for me personally a greater pull, a deeper interest, even if I am less convinced of its overall success in this book. On the other hand, it is important not to split, to fragment, the two parts of this often seductive text, or to look for ways of favouring one side over the other. They together make up the whole work. The trick is to see how each part reacts upon, modifies, supports, and undermines the other.
Alan Loney teaches English at Auckland University.