Poetical philosophies, John Dennison

Song of the Ghost in the Machine 
Roger Horrocks
Victoria University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9780864739858

Shaggy Magpie Songs
Murray Edmond
Auckland University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781869408411

Generation Kitchen
Richard Reeve
Otago University Press, $25.00,
ISBN 9781877578922

Roger Horrocks’s Song of the Ghost in the Machine describes itself as a kind of philosophical poem, a collection of ambulatory musings in loose pentameter arranged into 11 sections, and turning on the question of the self and consciousness. It is, in fact, something of a suburban questing, picking up from where the speaker of Curnow’s “Canto of Signs Without Wonders” left off, albeit with more footnoted deliberation and a good deal less troubled by the equivocations of perception. Each section is preceded by a miscellany of quotations from various sources, which lend the whole book a liturgical feel – sentences for the day, followed by short blank verse homilies for the post-Christian on pilgrimage through the suburbs of the Enlightenment project.

This is stepping out in earnest, deliberated posture, a totally praiseworthy desire to transgress the “no-go area” created by “the postmodern mood of irony”. In this, Horrocks’s style both points up the sincerity of the quest, and at the same time points out its limits:

Gravity never lets me forget I’m subject
to earth. Climbing this muddy slope, the poise
of the inner ear helps keep me from slipping.
The day unfolds to the rhythm of breathing and
the beat
of rain. My legs tingle with messages.
Who is this stooped, grey-haired old man
who bears my name? The person I am becoming.


As the author’s note puts it, “poetry can be philosophical or conceptual without being clunky or academic”. It can be serious, earnest even, without needing to opt for the defensive cliché of irony. True enough. But why existential earnestness should eschew much of the linguistic play and delight which is the habitual mark of poetry is not clear. Yes, Horrocks’s style performs a kind of honest up-frontness. But there’s a flatness here, too, which inhibits the serendipity and renovations that arise from a fuller keyboard of sonic and analogical effects. Poets do not use language to get across a message. A poet lives in language, and is drawn through language and its playful (visual, musical, formal) possibilities into memorable emotional acuity.

So much is basic to Murray Edmond’s Shaggy Magpie Songs, a free-wheeling foolery of rhyme and allusive, theatrical improv. Reading between the promiscuous rhymes, you find similar existential concerns, a similar interest in past dead authorities (Nietzsche, God, Sartre, Kendrick Smithyman), but cannily pulled off in a cunning refusal to look life, anything, the reader, in the eye. Rather, the ear is opened up, the leg is pulled, and the lights go on. It’s the kind of show which easily ramps up into some memorable takes on local and Pacific history and politics – read “Matakitaki, 1822”, “Digging for Kitchener”, and “Tongatapu Dream Choruses”.

By contrast, Song of the Ghost in the Machine is less often “philosophical poem” than a collection of philosophical musings with line-breaks and moments of imagistic clarity. An exception to this is the important second section, “Consciousness”, and in particular its “One Hundred Descriptions” of the predicament of human consciousness. The list of aphorisms, forced up against a question which cannot but be approached slant, generates delightful and memorable stuff: “The headquarters of the hard problem”; “the knife and fork for your meal of the world”; “An intricate, dangerous gift for which you still seek an operating manual”; “A travelling salesman, office-seeker, beggar, evangelist, huckster”; “the king’s nervous taster”. Memorable, too, are the confessional moments, as in the final section, “God”:

For the first time
I’d stepped outside the life in which I was born.
In my last dream of God, He went out with a bang.

The joke brings home what is most moving and compelling about Horrocks’s quest in Song of the Ghost in the Machine. Each of us, as Charles Taylor has superlatively mapped, are subject to the immanentised conditions of belief that have accumulated over the past five centuries; and the sense of loss, of the strictures and refusals which characterise the post-religious confidence of many intellectuals is unignorable. Taylor amply points out such a predicament is far from a done deal (few serious intellectuals would want to totalise, for example, the discoveries of the natural sciences into some life answer, some Scientism); but Horrocks’s Song attests to the way in which Descartes’s quest for certainty, resting as it did on a hopelessly self-reflexive starting point, remains alive and well, even if we have long since despaired of answers.

Nothing of quest troubles Generation Kitchen. As with Richard Reeve’s earlier collections, certain fundamentals are taken as axiomatic, and rise through his inventions with an elemental consistency: matter is all, and is process; the human being rises via evolution into perpetual and deplorable violence; wonder, language, poetry, community are passing phenomena in the large planetary processes.

Reeve’s epiphanies are grounded in geological time, which is an accumulation of pastness, compacting and leaching into the overwhelmed present face of things:

The sheen of sliced earth was an eye on me. I …
was in awe at this blind horizon,
a dead sun of sand over the dirt, far-off, ancient
sailing heavy under the lips of the earth. There
might have been
an imprint of held-down faces,
some exhibition of the trials
conducted on the headland: the fossil ashes of
singing by a fire. Shades of decomposition
devolved, assumed
insignificance in the trench, that boneyard, that
riding sea.

(“Movers and Shakers”)

There is – to improvise with one instance of his seriously playful diction – something fiercely littoral about Reeve’s vision: an in-between zone of decay and wreckage, but also purification, morally unflinching in its blenched and bleaching gaze, dead things totting up their final returns to the land and sea (as in the posthumous joke “Not a Soul”), and water giving up its versions of life over and over, pulled by the gyroscopic steadiness of planets, systems, the blank cosmos.

So much is certain, is sufficient. The sheer material thisness of Reeve’s vision at points engenders a sheer thusness which refuses to countenance things being otherwise, eschews questions as a kind of weakness. The world is a closed and exhausted book. As with the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, there is a moral condemnation of the too-loquacious, rapacious, shopping animal “man”. At the same time, Generation Kitchen marks a softening of Reeve’s need to refuse – sometimes trenchantly – any transcendental scope beyond the geological, although the offence of humanity remains, “their factories that spread like impetigo” (“Generation Kitchen”).

I was fortunate enough to find myself reading Generation Kitchen on a Jetstar flight to Auckland, conditions perfect for pointing up the robustness and resource of his poetic response to a fatuous and meretricious public language, to contemporary environmental degradation and the impoverished economic ideology underwriting it. Reeve lives profoundly in language. His stunning “The Leith in Flood” courses across several vocabularies at once, pushing words out of obsolescence into near-new, obscure performativity. His ear is as acute as ever, and less showy than in earlier work, habituated to the language in a solid yet easy way, the heavy gearbox of Latinate gerunds grinding up alongside tub-thumps of Anglo-Saxon derivatives – the whole of English in full spate. This is Dunedin, but not as Jetstar Magazine will ever show it.

The wake-up call is most bracing in the third and fourth sections of the collection, in which Reeve’s unqualified technical ability is harnessed to utterly moral invective. Satirical, elegiac, at points lyric, this is unflinchingly poetic and public intervention in a national conversation typically characterised by the bland disingenuities of Big Interests or the uninformed emoting of online post-a-comment. In “District”, Reeve recasts Dante’s Inferno, imagining, as did the Florentine, the eternal torment of enemies still living, a pre-emptive, almost too-satisfying damnation. It’s brilliant stuff, contains, winningly, a send-up of the environmentalist poet, put into the mouth of the damned:

you nopes who will explore
the poncy rippling of some torrent tumbling
through root and fern, and hear behind its roar

And all this in easy terza rima. One comes away, spittle-flecked, impressed, and not a little grieved that such fierceness and levity should not more readily grace the fodder of the in-flight reader. A needful, singular voice.

John Dennison’s collection Otherwise was reviewed in our 2015 Winter issue, available in our online archive, nzbooks.org/archive/, and is on the long-list for the Ockham New Zealand Books Awards poetry section.

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