Resisting closure, Michael Harlow

Sidetracks
Alan Loney
Auckland University Press, $24.95 
ISBN I 86940 194 8

Salamanca
Vivienne Plumb
HeadworX, $16.95, ISBN 0 473 05155 9

Sweet Banana Wax Peppers
Jenny Powell-Chalmers
HeadworX, $16.95, ISBN 0 473 05460 4

Alan Loney is New Zealand’s most engaging and
 provocative “language” poet, writing to discover the book outside the canon. His work – seven books of poetry to date – may well be the “pull toward” Calvino’s “new apocryphal book still to be rediscovered or invented.” After all, the “new” is such an old story it needs to return to itself again and again – each time risking the language against the reality of the experience, and articulating the imaginal and the actual in a shared field of perception and reflection.

That is to say, Loney is a true metaphysical: a poet who ranges between and around and across literature and philosophy, allowing in his work both fields of enquiry to approach each other. One function of art is to keep opening doors, keep connecting to the “other side of reality”. After all: “white waves / white sails / white wings / white clouds / white walls / white petals / white dress / can be a metaphysic” (“Missing Parts”). Loney understands this, and he does so in a congruence of registers, analytic and lyric, that keep his work grounded in the demotic; the text stays open to dis-closure.
Sidetracks, as text-title inclusive of “Notebooks 1976-1991” with prefatory gloss, is a declaration by Loney not only of the writing mode and its intention (“notebooks” as these works are), but a re-visioning of the traditional and oppositional distinction between mainline (mainstream) and the sidetrack (the marginal): “writing is … always both a diversion and the main course … all our activities are ‘sidetracks’.” You know where Loney is coming from, something of a signposted poetic (“all writing is, it seems to me, still its own and specific occasion”), and a possible context within which to enter the work as collaborative reader:

   tracing
the enigma, is not

to solve a puzzle

but to dwell, alive
in its terms
(“tracing the enigma”)

Among other considerations, this is a neat elaboration of Keats’s Negative Capability and a clean take on Stevens’ notion that poetry ought to resist the intelligence almost successfully; it’s that “almost” that matters most, of course. However, co-incidentally echoing either voice, it seems clear that these are ideas very specific to practice in Loney’s work; and ones that are central to his deep concern for “language as the centre for / whatever activity poems might be”. Texts that are open to the semantic plurality of language.

At all points of entry and exit, Loney resists closure, aware that writing is an absence as well as a presence:

the sayable / the unsayable
are not limits
of
each other
(“retrievals”)

Loney values the fragmentary, the short-take (there’s a music and cinema frame at work here), that caught-moment in which as observer, recorder, and transcriber he is open to what likes to occur with what, and just now; aware that there is an essential and inevitable dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious. And aware that writing in its innate hospitality to paradox and ambiguity, and the doubling mathematics of word-play, not only provides instances of illumination but also allows language to contest itself – all in search of the essential identity of opposites, and in the flux and elusiveness of all experience:

let’s be clear

yes, let’s

like, let’s find
a way to say

that all
prior
writing & event

is, in a state of

flux                   o happy

birth/decay

to you
(“arrivals & departures”)

A risky and sometimes anxious enterprise (“There is no insurance against the risk of writing / Derrida”): the struggle to articulate something of the realities of experience is one in which the writer-persona, as participating witness, lives and works at the edge of eloquence and the dis-closure of the astonishments the heart knows; and at times, of course, inside the alphabet – “and the 26 little soldiers dancing / the little ‘dance of Eternal/Death’” (“If I remember/If I imagined”) – and on the shadow-side of the “terrifying place” of silence: for example, in the final sequence/suite of poems in Sidetracks the tender, quite moving threnody for the artist, Robert Motherwell. Indeed, there is a kind of grave-talk that weaves in and out of this bracket of poems, pitched often to a lyric register that sustains a meditation on memory and the imaginal; of life and death where pastpresentandfuture share a space of experience – in which “that bird’s call / is mine, is the never-ending / heart’s cry / on the way”. And in these evocative observations of the natural world the cadenced scoring of images is finely tuned to the turning of the season and the life-cycle:

at a sudden leaf-shedding,
almost the whole tree’s complement
off in a single gust, the dry
myriad leaves pay no heed to
traffic flow, and roll, slide and
almost clatter in great communal drifts
across the road in a death
in which no choice, no
knowing, no
fear, no

reconciliation is required
(“If I remember/If I imagined”)

These texts are linked not only by juxtaposition and a shared focus of particulars, but by tonal qualities that demonstrate how the ear may well be the true reader and writer: “hearing / what I’m reading / as I’m writing”.

2

There’s a fairly wide range of experiences spoken to in Vivienne Plumb’s debut collection of poems, Salamanca. To do them justice would require a more extensive reading. That said, I think Plumb is most engaging and challenging in the poems that speak to the intimacies of personal relationships: the wounded memories that attend loss in the aptly named “Vanishing Cream”, in “Goodbye (Mabel Howard)”, and in the object-oriented, more lightly toned “How I Get New Shoes” and “Heaters”. Then there’s “Journey to the Centre”, which explores the failure and loss of relationship, and the search somehow to find the language to confront and express the inconsolable:

The agapanthus buds are beautiful
penis tips, I think about what
he’ll be doing to her now, her lush flesh
… Love: Oh, I wish for some of that and I spoon
thick brown manuka honey down my sore throat.

What gives Plumb’s work depth of feeling beneath the surface-skate of the language is the search and struggle to find a language to articulate and deal with the terrible reality and knowledge of the shadow-world – experienced variously as loss in love, the despair of the isolate and the fugitive keep of loneliness (“Mrs Gittoes’ Eight Parts”), or a death-threatening illness in “Goldfish”:

My son doesn’t go to school
any more he goes somewhere
else. He goes out walking alone
with his hat on his head,
lies on a bed, where they slip
a drip to the vein and
he has his body pumped full …
In ward one he starts to tell me
his dream: we are chased
by a giant goldfish, we reach
a cellar, we are trapped
by a goggle eyed fish in a dead
sea end, and then suddenly
he is all alone with an enormous
tome on his lap, the words medical
dictionary are embossed on its cover,
and he opens it, and he begins to read.

But it’s not all heart poems and the inner-world shadow: Plumb has a sharp eye and an attentive ear for the social-cultural Zeitgeist. And she has the language kit to provide the energy and the insights, and the music to keep the ideas afloat: a gritty, sometimes jaunty graphic register of observation – as in her roisterous “Vic’s Dick”, a witty, subversive celebration of springtime erotics and graffiti in a university library. A delightful and hard-edged read.

3

One of the most striking and engaging aspects of Jenny Powell-Chalmers’ first book of poems is her highly imaginative way of seeing, and listening to the curves of the imagination: a curiosity about and regard for the fascination of fictions, and the eccentric in the ordinary and the commonplace. She knows how to “make strange” the familiar, as in “There is a boy with a mouth full of glitter” who “When the sun / is strong / … can bounce / the light / in fantastic mosaics of colour”. Or, in “My son, flying” – a rather surreal yet palpable take on levitation, and the unbridled imaginal of the childworld:

He flies at hand-height
above the carpet, moves
efficiently from room to room
and tells us “this way
it saves buying shoes.”

… He only complains when he flies
high and flips over, to hang
upside down like a human
bat. It gives him a headache
so we climb on chairs and pull
him back down
to the floor.

A poem seriously playful in its celebration of the fact that words can dream again, yet one that is grounded (almost) resolutely in and through the use of a direct, unadorned, demotic register; the conversational talk you find in these micro-narratives of anecdote and story.

Accurate to description of theme and subject, the back-jacket précis heralds, in four sections, a range of texts. There are poems that offer portraits and snapshots of negotiating one’s way in the domestic world – including the birth of a son, as in “Afternoon at Home”, “Hilary” and “Father”. There are poems that recast conversations with Eros, and the “love talk” of relationship, sometimes through the world of objects invested with the erotic, sometimes through musical metaphor – what we see and hear in “Blue Silk”, “Making Love to a Tuba”, and “Lust on the Line”.

There are poems that are excursions through art and the art world, and its possible alchemical lines – from Hotere and Tuwhare, through Modigliani and Jackson Pollock, to Warhol and Fomison, imagining how it is to enter the visual, specular worlds of the “other” and the deep aesthetics of intimacy. Finally, in the end section of the book, there are poems that resurrect and reanimate the strange, often dislocated subterranean world of the irrational. These last poems (“Gulli-gulli Man”, “La Copertina” and “Wrapped River”), for all their provenance in the “painful experience of mental illness”, are strikingly provocative and insightful, and nicely judged in the way language is deployed largely in counterpoint to the rush of sentiment and the edgy dance of feelings.

Michael Harlow is a writer and Jungian analyst, living in Christchurch.

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