Passages to India John O’Connor

Into India
Geoff Cochrane
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0 86473 357 7

The Girls on the Wall
Diana Bridge
Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 86940 209 X

Geoff Cochrane’s Into India is divided into two sections. The first of these, also titled “Into India”, takes its title from a poem within that section which is also featured on the back cover. I take it that this is making a statement about the book as a whole, or at least about a significant part or aspect of it. The poem is good enough and short enough to quote in full:

Her solidity was rumoured.

I thought of her body
as something to travel to,
a goal hard of attainment.

Well, I’d make the journey.
I’d see this monument,
stone temple steeped in moonlight –

unless I found myself
in the neighbourhood beyond,
where dogs starve and chickens limp
and a man’s corpse is hollow.

The photograph on the front cover – which contrasts what appears to be an ultra-modern apartment block with a run-down wooden building of the inner-city flatting type – makes the same point: there is a world of apparent light and grace, but the narrator of these poems is unlikely to be in it – the squalid flats are closer to us and more on our level than the more attractive backdrop. One is tempted to imagine VUP’s editors agonising over the book’s title, “Should it be, Notes from an Unsatisfactory Life? Perhaps, Purgatory Against a Backdrop of Heaven?” “Nah, Into India. More intellectual.”

The poems of the first section are well arranged. Most of the weaker ones serve either an introductory role or act as a contrast to the nightmare aspects of the rest. It is, then, in these darker pieces that Cochrane is at his best. His narrator inhabits a world of fake credentials, violence, sickness, counterfeit passports, addictions, loveless sex, fear, death – a subculture of hopelessness where Cochrane’s usual non-logical (even irrational) stacking up of images towards a poem works well. A piece such as “Levin” moves from the smell of a heater turned on after long disuse, to the smell of burning skin, abstract comment about “our cruelty”, then (via an asterisk, well-placed) to a family member’s decor (bits of cars, a CD carousel), on to one of the presences of these poems, “her absent body”, which

makes its nude denials.
What she rebukes, she cancels.

I see the dab of hair,
her navel’s drunken eyelid;
I see her drinking womb,
her cervix holed and sipping.

“Degrees” is another of the markedly successful pieces: “It begins / in doubt” and makes its way to a positive dream-surreal web that “has foci, / remarkable eyes / and mouths” that are “hallowed and lovely”. This is not allowed to last, however:

Now thrill

spikes the chart.
Her face is in
my blood. It trails
corrosive frost.
And when she moves a limb
it leaves a space
which I fill with fear.

Usually the more hopeful side of things is represented by natural objects like falling water or by the more conventional imagistic motifs of clear water and silver fish, light on water, or a moonlit temple (as above). True to Cochrane’s vision, however, the darker side of this dualism comes out ahead. Here and there, roses are “blitzed”, plants are “like wrecked umbrellas”, fountains are defunct. As the narrator of these poems muses, “He was a sort of hero, Mapplethorpe / He had a monkey which he starved to death”, or again, somewhat unnecessarily, “there can never be / reason for optimism.”

The proportion of less successful poems is higher in the second section of the book, titled “Black Holes”. Certainly there are some fine pieces here, but too often a clutch of problems recur. Heavy-handed repetition, for instance. This at the start of an otherwise successful and shatteringly bleak evocation titled “Modes”: “A seriously empty afternoon – / silent, grey and empty.” Oddly used adjectives also jar, and jar. We have, “ a nasty danger”, “a toey shuffle”, “a dreamy smash”, and a “cleanly reprieve”. Lastly, there is a frequent indirectness, when directness would enhance either strength of image or clarity of statement. “Black Holes”, a very strong poem indeed, starts thus: “Whenever I feel a cold rain on my cheeks / and look from a place of shelter at the harbour, / its surface poisoned by a winter twilight, / I think of a man who died.” Presumably the speaker is often at an open window or in a semi-enclosed structure of some sort: it would have been better to be specific. Such indirectness may add mystery, but it is of the “puzzle” variety, rather than the sort that adds significance or life. Mysterious elements in poetry need to point beyond a poem, or broaden it out, perhaps to spiritual horizons. Of course, Cochrane’s approach to his subject matter cuts him off from that possibility.

Indeed, this is my greatest dissatisfaction with this book. By self-imposition these poems have a limited emotional and even intellectual range. With little hope of redemption or transcendence, they can only explore and be constrained by their subject matter. Nonetheless, at their best, Cochrane’s poems are powerful subjective expressions of the darker side of human experience.

2

In a prefatory note, Diana Bridge tells us that the first section of The Girls on the Wall, which gives its title to the volume, “reflects a love, disillusion and growth contour, envisaged in terms of an interaction with Indian art.” This is a fairly general authorial interpretation.

More specifically, the cycle starts with gratitude and sex rather than with love, but this only lasts for a page and a half before (a narrator-driven) dissatisfaction sets in, on the part of the painted girls on the wall who are weary of being the playthings of an Indian prince. Our girl figures then get, or are made to be – this is after all an “interaction” with traditional Indian art – quite liberated in their thinking and the narrator becomes infatuated, even at times ecstatic, in their presence: “oh my beloved, / your face wears the burden of desire”, and so on. This develops into something of a religious quest, which is thankfully moderated by changes of tone:

To look for a god of your own

go first to that yard
with its army of girls
coaxed from the walls of Konarak
… one gourd breast
(a string’s width from the other)

is enough to
tip you into worship.

Well, this is poetry – one can create one’s own universe, so to speak. But if a poet does so, that creation is expected to be convincing. This requires partly vision, partly craft. Perhaps if the poems of the cycle stood out more strongly individually one could accept the general concept, whatever the degree of cultural imposition. Too often, however, the verses are weakened by preciousness of tone:

would you have me
beautiful at nights

or show me in drops
of quartered amethyst

by day?
I would cup your stories
in my fingers,

and long for you
as one longs for an ending …

or by portentous vagueness: “I am not to touch her. // Only to note the way / the ideal gathers bone”; or by a breathless, far-reaching vacuity: “oh, the uncertainty is all the stories / of the world.” Related faults. No doubt Bridge is a gifted and promising poet. But in this reviewer’s opinion, an approach of this sort is either too ambitious for her, or more likely, her most natural path to further development lies elsewhere.

Other apparently more modest poems in the volume impress more than these “premier” pieces. Bridge is particularly strong in some of the poems of the third section, titled “Closing the border”. “Hill path”, for instance, with its delightfully disturbing free-falling apes is a well-crafted, anarchic, factual/mythic piece that manages to compress a great deal of emotionally charged material into just 18 lines. An idiosyncratic tour de force. And for evocation, the two-page “Eye” is on lively, high ground:

Five rupees for the five years
of a girl head-banded to her load.
Nothing for Surya, sun’s rays,
who skips beside.
Stretch your neck up
half a head. There is
Russian Roerich braiding snow,
one blue, one purple,
the hot gold of his sun
reflected off a
soft drink bottle …

“A koan for leaving” and “Arrival” also work their magic, as does “Chrysanthemum”, another piece that assimilates its emotion and so reverberates beyond the personal. This is the poetry of the internalised particular – it becomes universal.

To me, these later poems demonstrate the quality and potential of Bridge’s work. When she is emotionally controlled, and in concrete and perceptive interaction with the real – rather than an idealised – cultural world, her poems can become very powerful artefacts indeed.

John O’Connor is a Christchurch poet, critic and publisher. His collection A Particular Context appeared earlier this year from Sudden Valley Press.

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