Squeezing the juice out of language, Cilla McQueen

James Brown
Victoria University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 0 86473 374 7

Winter I Was
Gregory O’Brien
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0 86473 375 5

Poetry could turn out to be a favoured literary form in the 21st century, having the capacity to compress a large amount of thought into few words and to transfer many layers of meaning simultaneously. It can produce music in the mind. It can make and remake codes within itself and be accessible to few, or it can state in everyday language shared truths about the human condition. It is eminently suited to an age of lightning communication.

The covers of both Winter I Was and Lemon make visual statements which artfully suggest the salient qualities of the work within. O’Brien’s book is graced with a set of Piranesi-meets-Dada collages in the nature of etchings, created by the poet’s brother; Brown’s with a visual whammy at the centre of which is a lemon.

Depending on how you see it, the sunlit lemon on the beach is either receding at great speed or jumping up to smack you in the face, the only point of focus in a rapidly expanding universe. Turn the book over and the vision is gently deconstructed as reviewers offer a literary niche. Brown considers the reader’s interpretation to be just as valid as the authorial intention, yet warns in “The Public” that “some failed to understand, and were discounted.” The found object may or may not bear impenetrable meaning, but the zoom-awareness of the lemon neatly suggests both the intensity and the serendipity of poetry.

In an essay in the December 1999 issue of New Zealand Books, Kate Camp describes her generation as “individualist, consumerist, secular and largely apolitical” and makes a case for a widened definition of literature to encompass visual media and popular music. The arresting cover is intrinsic to Brown’s book. Image is carefully positioned – branding’s the game – following the demand of those “faceless markets” that he describes in “Waterford II”, where his laconic observations on global marketing reveal a poetry elastic enough to encompass topics not often its province. Foucault and Chomsky drop into the dialectic.

The lemon disrupts the surface tension of the language. Brown’s pleasure in the jolts of energy produced by the juxtaposition of discrete images is most evident in the “found” aspects of his poetry. In the book’s first poem, mischievously entitled “(damaged by water)”, an uncertainty principle is operating in the text which Brown the bricoleur proposes as an ad hoc construct to question the adequacy of language. Textual layerings reveal and/or obscure “the coded iterations of a mind” (“The Poem that took the Place of a Computer”). Brown’s stated intention to shock and disrupt the reader’s linguistic expectations made me wonder what the expectations of the poetry readership are and for how long they will require disruption, but I found my own disrupted by “Meditation 6”, as I pondered on the acknowledgements. It is indeed a “found” poem, being the “logic sequence” of a poem by Edward Taylor as discussed in an academic article. Call it intertextuality or pinching, Brown’s originality is in seeing that this sequence satisfyingly performs many of the functions of a more conventional poem. His own language works best in this precise, stripped-down mode, for instance in the shrewd “Discourse / Counter-Discourse”, a memorable poem in this collection.

The future of language is certainly speed and spareness. “The Language of the Future” has a holistic rather than linguistic view of communication and the techno-whimsy doesn’t give many clues, except that “everything we say / will be understood” although “most / will come to regard communication / with a lengthening suspicion”. Poetry’s aural and oral aspects are acknowledged: “But there will still be the stories / for we will always have the need / to be guided by voices”. Language can freeze or prove inadequate, however: “pictures without any sound” in “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”, while in “The Acid House” “the elegant passages are empty, / and we’re couched within them,
alone / and listening carefully.”

In takes and zooms, the suggestive stanzas of “A Merchant Ivory Production” produce kinetic energy enough to sustain a short film, extending an invitation to the reader to become viewer and participant. “Australia: A Novel in Fiction” proposes a future for the novel in mysterious bites, the stanza as episode. This seems to fit Camp’s prediction for the novel: “Literature will mimic television serials, enabling people to feel a sense of connection with others as they move through a narrative at the same pace.”

Brown’s best work is edgy and elliptical, the product of a mind adept at finding resonances that contribute to the kick of language shifting and slipping. It’s fresh and effective in “The expanding background / tears along the hairy causeway” (“A Serious Assault on the Senses”) and “as the verbs decline, their rear-vision mirrors / will display the past / like kinetic sculpture” (“The Language of the Future”), although the latter is worthy of a tighter poem. Now and again there’s the problem of the throwaway ending becoming a part of the reader’s (disrupted) expectations, a closure in itself, but “Rectangles”, “The End of Happiness” and the unsettling “Satellite” find an idiosyncratic shape. In “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”, there is a guarded but genuine depth of emotion; similarly in the “the dry vigilant tears” and “hedged public words” of “Rectangles”.

Water has damaged and disintegrated many of the found objects in Gregory O’Brien’s eclectic three-part sequences “Contents of a Garden” and “Contents of a Stream”. In a similar way to Brown’s “(damaged by water)”, they invite meditation on the postmodern process of fragmentation and homogenisation in which discrete elements acquire sudden distinction through their connection with each other and with a human consciousness. Where Brown’s response tends to disillusion and a sometimes defensive irony, O’Brien’s stream of thought flows past and around the detritus of society with a sense of acceptance and continuance.

A live author smiles from the jacket flap, for Winter I Was also shows its colours: warm, neo-modernist, personal. The exquisite collages produce a similar disruption of expectations to the lemon effect, only more slowly, inviting contemplation of an intriguing poetic world. The design achieves a nostalgic feel and the back cover invites us to read more of the lyric poem that threads through the text.

Little enigmas, the illustrations provide pauses for reflection, small way stations in a book of journeys: travels within New Zealand, train journeys, processions, very small journeys like that of the wedding ring that “rolls down a cold path. / You catch it // on your finger”. The journey provides a useful framework within which to move around in time, and O’Brien uses this to cinematic effect in the moving verse-novella “The sky above the sea”, where political and cultural themes are interwoven in an impressively sustained piece of work.

Poetry’s capacity to crystallise intense experience is significant both to the individual and the community at important points in the human journey. O’Brien’s poetry reveals an engagement both physical and spiritual. “To name a child”, says Lauris Edmond, “is brave, / or foolhardy”; and for O’Brien too it is a “struggle”, “like buying a house” to find the “beautifully voiced but still incomprehensible names.”

The settings of several poems in estuaries, beaches and harbours evoke recognisably New Zealand locations. The Whanganui River poem “Sat up and watched go by” flows like the river through the indigenous landscape. The poet responds to it with a cultured, European ear and eye, in terms of Palestrina and Barraud. Where he translates Maori place names into English in “Speed Camera”, I feel the translation may only tell part of the story. Although the sequence “Six Places in New Zealand” fails to get under the skin, “Luna and Arthur”, a landscape poem in memory of Toss Woollaston, proposes a major theme of immanence with its delicate oppositions of “visible” and “invisible”. Similar oppositions fuel “In memory, John Forbes, poet 1950-98”, which hauntingly evokes presence-in-absence.

O’Brien’s Catholic faith naturally informs the poetry. In “The sky above the sea (altarpiece)”, a man is “making a film of what / the camera cannot see” as the poet listens “to the sounds that occur within sounds.” In “Portrait of a man I’ve known”, two figures disappear “leaving only / their frozen breaths behind them // above the platform, their words lingering there, / visible, vaporous, dissolved only by distance.” Light both symbolic and natural is a recurrent motif. A “translucent sliver” is the last of the world seen by a man about to drown before “the dark waters / started dismantling the fine thread of sunlight.” In a church, “Sunlight filters through so the blessed lives / are projected onto us, illuminating the air.”

O’Brien is rarely lost for words. Digressions and discursions grow from the oral roots of his poetry. Language does sometimes fail: “The word eludes me. The world” (“In very peace”). More often his sentences flow smoothly, sometimes across several stanzas, effectively controlled in the narratives and journeys but loose in “Storm Warning”, in which the straightforward message is nearly obscured by the portentously heightened language. In “Speed Camera” a gallic sense of fun allows the poet to deflate his own “canonical” (post-colonial?) tone – “a photograph – the perfect marriage of shutter speed to the intermittent fall // of light on wave-lit beach” – with the terse “‘Traditionally, Greg, we did not have / cameras.’” Sonorous and richly textured as the language is, at times it’s long-winded: “Which is where these lines might / settle // or keep going, like the actor / who can deliver // his lines – in this case, Hamlet – // cartwheeling across the stage” (“Sat up and watched go by”) or Baxterian in cadence: “So it is I would carry both of you here, or await you” (“Speed Camera”).

Although O’Brien’s is seductively mellifluous, I think that Brown’s language works harder. In “Picnic at Darkness Falls”, there’s an implied interaction between reader and author, objective observers whose attention is concentrated by means of frames and zooms on the relationship between the couple beside the river. A poem that begins conversationally becomes tauter as the concentration sharpens. Brown eschews description and relies on the reader to create a virtual, visual setting around mentions of river, falls and the surface of water, which serve as departure points for images which, however, are at times laboured – “Little buffs of foam” are “like stars or galaxies, or at least / those slow revolving swirls / in TV animations of the night sky” – and philosophical observations: “We never abandon our dreams, / we siphon them off.”

O’Brien in “View of Wellington from Marahau” puts himself in the place of the surveyor “gridding up the tilted / and irrational properties / of wind and water”, a neat image of colonial objectification of the landscape, and “finally being thrown clear / of his fastidious paperwork, into unimpeded space”. However, as the surreal takes over, the syntax loosens, and adjectives, with which O’Brien is generous, proliferate.

I enjoyed spending time with these poets. In the rapidly evolving New Zealand poetry scene, they are two distinctive and increasingly assured voices.

Cilla McQueen lives in Bluff and is working on a book of poems and drawings about the area.

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