Auckland University Press, $19.95,
In the poem “Can that Mango” from Murray Edmond’s latest book, the following lines are spoken (or so a note informs us) by one of two angels who are discussing a man, and confusing him with a lyre bird:
‘I prefer the formal approach:
first write your title and epigraph, then add the poem –’
So taking the formal approach, I’ll start with the title. It seems to me that the poems have been assembled from various sources, including quotations from other writers, fragments of everyday language, and language fragments of personal memory, which have been juxtaposed or laminated together. These juxtapositions can occur between words, between sentences, and between verse paragraphs, and they generate a surprising number of different tonal effects, from the delicate surrealism of the opening of “Le Livre de l’Histoire du Monde”,
The world was stitched together at noon
on Sunday out of old bicycle parts
by a mouse with thread of ice and eelskin silk
to the meditative densities of “The Gannets of Pilsen”; from the agonised and almost ludicrous “walking” of “Starfish Streets” to the humour of “Escapade from Culture into Archive”, or “Counsellor to Client”; from the subtle placing of public and personal history of “Rant for Mickey Joe” to the directness of “Small Fry”.
The title also suggests the Old Testament book Lamentations, and from the first poem, “Rant for Mickey Joe”, to the last, “Starfish Streets”, there is a major concern with public and private loss and the possibilities of renewal, of beginning again. This concern is especially focused on language (“What now’s / the lookout for the language”), and the way power elites have drenched the world in repeated fragments of political, social, and personal improvement palaver, or propaganda. In “Starfish Streets”, amongst other things, the concern deals with how language can be used to kill people: reference is made to the fact that the Nazis called Terezin concentration camp the “City Beautiful”. Or there’s the attack on corporate language implied by “Cash” (“We can cash murder”). Or the almost bitter laughter of “A Wave of Seven Self-Generating Key-Words” in which the cant of a generation is subverted.
But if there is cause for lament, there are also the possibilities of change:
The invasion began again today. The Herald
said so. Saigon. Waikato. Port au Prince.
When a person dies, it said, a whole world
dies with them. & when a language.
Sorry, comrade. It goes without saying.
Old mate, the kiss of talk awakes desire.
Supernumerous reasons swarm
to pull it down, stone by stone,
& begin again. Begin. Again.
Edmond offers no easy answers, but I believe that the method of the poems implies a practice of continuous revolution, in writing, in the wider society, and in a personal sense. One of the epigraphs to the poem “Can that Mango” is a quotation from Robert Duncan, the poet who wrote the magnificent “A Poem Beginning With a Line from Pindar”. Central to this poem is the story of Eros and Psyche, or in other words the task of marrying innocence and desire, not just to restore some previous Eden, but to create a new one out of a society that has “damerg[ed] a nuv”. I’m convinced that this story is part of the explorations of laminations.
I suppose that some people will complain that laminations is too literary, that Edmond has read too many other texts and used them. Certainly, the book contains many epigraphs (not all of them as useful as the four that begin the book), as well as four pages of notes on sources. But like it or not, all poets read, even poets as apparently simple as Robert Frost (I think here of his subtle use of Thomas Lovell Beddoes in “Stopping by Woods”), so to complain that Edmond has read other people’s work is beside the point – like throwing Milton’s work out because he had read Homer, Virgil, and the Bible. And though laminations is a book clearly placed amongst other books, I believe that many of the poems ask to be performed.
I suppose also that some will be tempted to categorise laminations as the work of a “language poet” from Auckland, and we all know what that means, don’t we? Incomprehensible free verse written by a committee, the members of which not only believe the world is merely a language event, they lack ears as well. Certainly, we wouldn’t be reading “hard-won / poems wrought from self”, or the usual charmingly well-behaved poems modelled on the likes of Hardy or Larkin. But since the category could include, say, Charles Bernstein, Stephen Rodefer, Michele Leggott, David Eggleton, Bill Manhire, as well as Murray Edmond, it’s not that useful. Rather, I would ask: Are the poems interesting? Do they repay re-reading? Can they change you?
I enjoyed reading laminations, not simply because the poems challenged me (a reader with a preference for a different kind of poem), or because it contains two poems, “Rant for Mickey Joe” and “Starfish Streets”, that for range and ambition are amongst the best I’ve read for some time, but because many of the poems have beauty (and here I’m not thinking of The Beautiful). For me, a poem has beauty when it conveys (in Mark Strand’s words), “a truth so forgiving … it offers up a humanness in which we are able to imagine ourselves”, and I thus want to read it until it’s part of my life.
But enough of my opinions. Here are the last lines of “Small Fry”:
neither of us wanting to leave this Elysium
and go home without a catch,
our wet hair
plastered to our wet skulls, our bones soggy
and our trousers dripping and our hearts torn,
hanging on and hanging out
for a bite, even a small one,
a small one.
To stay here forever.
Now that has beauty. Go read.
John Dickson is this year’s Writer in Residence at the University of Waikato.