Bumper Books, $32.95,
The idea of the long poem as a stretch limo glides towards me. The vehicle is at once ostentatious and stylish, excessive and sleek. Displaying privilege, it also accommodates a raucous wedding-party helping itself to cheap liquor. Even its burka-like modesty is ostentatious – what is going on behind the veils of those smoked glass windows? And the chauffeur’s ambiguously proprietorial expression – is that faintly menacing livery, with its air of rakish thuggery, a prop from Theatrical Costumes Inc? Is this fellow holding open the door with an ironic flourish an owner-driver?
I enter the stretch limo and engage the driver in a preliminary conversation about certain theoretical generalisations. Most critical writing about long poems or long poem sequences has to work on a continuum between analytical exegesis and subjective response. The analytical exegesis works on a continuum of its own, between the careful, scholarly recovery of what references in the poem are to and what the poet means by them or what historical contexts tell us the poet probably means; and interpretation or, as it may be, guesswork. Subjective responses, too, have a continuum: from emotional responses formed and informed by relationships with the poet and their work, and therefore by a certain intuitive knowledge about the references to and the meanings of exegesis; and visceral reactions “as shallow as sparrows in a drain” as Fq has it in “29 moon lover”.
At its biggest stretch, from best informed exegesis all the way across to most simply visceral response, a reading of a text is going to provide some kind of calibration of the text’s own stretch. A poem that doesn’t in itself contain much that requires exegesis isn’t going to ask for that kind of earnest effort from its readers, just as poems that don’t intend (or achieve) much of an emotional or dramatic impact are not going to require or elicit that kind of response. That said, most of us are familiar with the kind of uninteresting, leaden pedantry sometimes applied to texts with no significant codes to crack – best described as make-work criticism – and equally uninteresting expressions of gratification over texts that deal in emotional mundanity, however breathlessly delivered – best described as make-sincerity criticism. However, critical stretch that reaches out to the exegetic and emotional margins of ambitiously stretched text (the stretch limo travels past a zoo in which “The last white wolf in our hemisphere died yesterday”) is interesting for a variety of reasons.
Chief among these reasons is probably an ideal: the relationship between a reader and a writer (a driver and a passenger). Even when writers rail against their readers, or deliberately insult them, or throw up obvious barriers to understanding, there remains an implicit contract that assumes some readers will understand they are being insulted. Jonathan Franzen of The Corrections fame is the most recent of a long line of conservative commentators to celebrate this relationship in several of the essays in How to be Alone (2002). It’s a relationship that has, for 30 or so years, been weighted in favour of the reader by a combination of postmodern reception theory (emphasising the reader’s construction of the text) and an a-modern demystification of literary modernism (the limo is in a zone where “skies continue bluish”). Of late, however, the idea of the reader-writer relationship as a conversation initiated and paced by the writer has regained credibility in the slipstream of revisionist thinking by evolutionary psychologists such as Judith Rich Harris, Steven Pinker, and Geoffrey Miller, who have begun to redress an imbalance in our thinking about how much meaning is constructed by culture, and how much is elicited by human agency within social relationships.
This kind of description of “stretch” in both reading and text is hardly a novel proposition. Where it gets interesting is in the suggestion that the stretch of the reading and the stretch of the text may be analogues of each other (if the reading attempts that), and in the historical tendency of both readings and texts to polarise at exegetic and dramatic extremes.
Thus, we have a string of more or less oppositional positions around this issue of stretch: the classical as against the romantic, the metaphysical as against the lyrical, the dispassionate as against the passionate, the esoteric as against the accessible, the high as against the popular, the literary as against the folk, the intellectual as against the emotional, and even, recently, the digital as against the analogue – as though such polarities could reasonably demonstrate, for example, that so-called popular forms of poetry (or music, or performance) were not also sometimes esoteric in their references (the limo enters “another cosmogony”).
What is esoteric? That which is culturally opaque to those who are not initiates. At its simplest, this will include what in The Blank Slate: the Denial of Human Nature (2002) Steven Pinker calls “accumulated local wisdom” and in the same book “shared arbitrary practices” – for example, which side of the road to drive on, currency, designated days of rest, and other ordinarily “normative” cultural practices. At its more complex, the esoteric will include highly exclusive normative business, such as Masonic handshakes, the arcana of regatta laws, the kabbala, the encrypted references to a history of quotation in art, architecture, popular music, cuisine, or what have you – and the roman à clef). The chief function of the ordinarily normative esoteric is to produce broad social conformity and sense of belonging. However, the chief function of the exclusively normative esoteric is to signal welcome to a community of initiates, or “stakeholders” as cultural bureaucrats like to call them, while at the same time signalling unwelcome to non-initiates. One effect of the esoteric is therefore to make people feel either welcome or shut out. Another is to make them feel tantalised, intrigued, and envious – surely one of the dramatic characteristics of the roman, or poème, à clef (the stretch limo accelerates past “The Human Wreckage Crew”, who are singing “in an occult polyphony, Holy Smoke 1998 AD”).
What is not esoteric? Simple information, available with ordinary effort, not designed to produce conformity or induce exclusive feelings of belonging – information that is not culturally coded, dependent on “tone of voice”, nuance, inflection, or historical context – what John Searle in The Construction of Social Reality (1995) examples as socially shared information (George W Bush is the forty-third president of the United States) and facts about the natural world (the whale is a mammal).
The back cover of Fq contains a quotation from the sequence’s number 104, “Camellias (Our Lady)” which ends, “This Is My Prayer”. The meaning of “prayer” is explained in a quotation from Plotinus, also on the back cover:
The prayer is answered by the mere fact that one part and the other part are wrought to one tone, like a musical string which, plucked at one end, vibrates at the other also.
Alan Brunton’s Fq is an astonishingly stretched text. It collapses the kinds of polarities listed above – such as that between intellect and emotion. It goes all the way from tauntingly esoteric poème à clef through a kind of arch, vaudevillian satire of “accumulated local wisdom” and “shared arbitrary practices”, mini-theatrical autobiographical narratives which play on the page like performances combining tear-stained funambulists with ranting Eminem, Swiftean jabs at pretension, to the most direct, visceral, emotional effects.
If we think of the poem’s stretch in Plotinus’ terms, but also as an acute dramatic tension between the esoteric and the visceral, we begin also to hear in its harmonic complexities a “Prayer”, which is filled with longing, grief, anger, loneliness, and hope – a heartbreaking affect that the reader can experience not in spite of the absence of literal, code-cracking exegesis at that end of the stretch, but because of it: because the poem has become an extreme performance, with all the emotional vibration and intensity that artifice, not honest testament, will produce.
The key to this is when the stretch limo’s driver transforms himself into a character in his own journey.
Something interesting begins to happen now, as the stretch limo enters a neighbourhood inhabited by characters.
The limo’s driver falls silent. “You’re on your own,” he says, sliding shut the glass screen between us. Of course I’m not alone – he’s still there, and he’s still driving. But through the screen I see that he has now become a character called Shoe, sometimes Shoe the Rooster, and I see him greet as familiars the characters whom we now pass at a succession of stations numbered 1 to 132.
What’s the story here? We know (because the book’s blurb tells us) that the poet Alan Brunton wrote a sequence of 144 (actually 145) poems (132 plus a “Pro Luego’” and introductions to the sequence’s 12 sections) while writer-in-residence at the University of Canterbury. We know (because we’re in the limo) that Shoe, exiled in an institution sometimes called The Thing, in a city with a Square, has written (is writing) a text he prefers not to think of as poetry (which is for “guys in turtlenecks”) while domiciled in “accommodation suitable for a gentleman” previously occupied by one Nadia Greatorex of whom there survives a “last siss of perfume” and a photograph of her in a Speedo.
Shoe suffers dolefully and hilariously from exile, lust, loneliness, memory, cultural bile, and political anger. These he records in poems that resist being poetry – it’s a struggle: “phantasmagorical memories/of the careless years/occlude his thoughts like bugs”. His basic narrative tracks through journal entries charting both the real time and the dream time of his exile – his encounters, memories, and hallucinations. He is involved in ongoing encounters with a core dramatic cadre of characters.
These include Shoe himself, introduced first as no more than the complete alphabetical potential of language from “A to Z”. There are also Lola, at first no more than an “enchanting melody”, but soon manifest as the mascarad Latino Lola International TM in a glimmering suit of algorithms; BIJOU, “groovy but void”, a seductive agent of corporate “creative partnerships”; the dyspeptic, invalid epicurean Sir Rodney, “panting from an antacid”, spraying the parquet “with phenobarbital froth”. Soon, announced by a scent “as indecipherable as Moscow”, appears Polly Pop, bombshells.com, who reappears near photocopiers in the Department, where she asks, “Traveller, have you written anything today?” There are also JJ, who is Nadia’s jilted lover (and, at one point, also a stranded whale), and Nadia Greatorex herself, whose phantom t(h)aunts the room of Shoe Rooster’s exile. There is also saintgod, who may be to blame, who may be able to help; and a lesser pantheon of gods and demigods.
There are some bit players: Terror, nasty proponent of male rites, member of the “Away Team”, who invites Shoe to “praise the Noble Tool”, and also abducts BIJOU and “smears her thighs with DNA”. Joe, and Clara Heaven, make up with Shoe the New Society for Psychical Research – with Shoe they discuss “Martin Headgear”. Shoe looks up the repatriated M/F, a philosopher-poet who appears in a “History of Idealism”; there are others.
Some characters are obliquely nominated: Ian Wedde is concealed behind “some poet’s Tin Cup Dream”, and the poet Louis Zukovsky appears concealed behind a wicked pastiche of his daintiest style.
There are also characters who appear with names we know. We encounter Alan Brunton, “life’s supreme uranic poet”. The Christchurch poet John Newton gives Shoe a cigar which cannot be illegal. Dr Anna Smith invites him to a seminar on Mysticism and Patsy Cline’s Search For Love. Sally, and Ruby, Alan Brunton’s wife and daughter, appear and disappear throughout the sequence – in number 14, “Funambulos”, Sally is there in the Paris of Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis “(thank heavens) c’est toi”. In 40, “Triolet: Nights of Power”, Ruby and Sally ride with Shoe through a memory in three parts which reassembles the verse of a song: “(i) all you wanna do … (ii) is ride around sally … (iii) so ride sally ride”. This makes Shoe “S-M-I-L-E S-M-I-L-E S-M-I-L-E”.
We’re back where we started. It’s been “a trip”: excessively virtuosic, simply moving, brilliantly theatrical, sad and hilarious. I so much want to thank the driver of the stretch limo, but he’s gone – like a funambulist, behind a drape that is like a shadow on the set. He’s left a copy of his guidebook. Every time I read it, something appears and something else slips out of sight. Even the title on the cover slips in and out of view – the “memory of an amnesia”. Unforgettable, taunting, addictive, like an image you have to remember, but only can when your mind is at full stretch, thin, almost transparent, just before sleep.
Ian Wedde’s latest collection of poems, The Commonplace Odes, appeared in 2001.