Light, dark and heavy handed

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ai­dan Cole­man

Grant Cald­well’s Re­flec­tions of a Tem­po­rary Self (Col­lec­tive Ef­fort Press, 176pp, $20) fea­tures a gen­er­ous se­lec­tion of the au­thor’s work from the late 1970s to the present that ranges from haiku, word games and short, sur­real lyrics to di­gres­sive con­ver­sa­tional pieces. Many po­ems con­vey a sense of un­adorned re­portage, as in Bus Poem I, in which a man is hu­mil­i­ated when a bus driver re­fuses to ac­cept his con­ces­sion card. The poem ends: “he looks at the pas­sen­gers / then he leans over re­ally close to the driver / and he says / you’re a prick / you know that? / a prize prick. / i bet you have trou­ble sleep­ing. / what’s it like be­ing a prick like you? / the driver says noth­ing. / the pas­sen­gers are silent. / the man throws his hand­ful of coins / in the air / so they land all over the driver / and he gets / off / the bus.”

Cald­well’s style in such po­ems em­ploys the best aspects of per­for­mance po­etry — di­rect­ness, en­ergy and nar­ra­tive drive — with­out be­com­ing bogged down in the kind of ex­ces­sive ex­pla­na­tion, moral­is­ing or sen­ti­men­tal­ity that plagues the genre. At first glance the con­tent of some po­ems seems barely to jus­tify their length, as in the colour of black light. The first 1½ pages doc­u­ment the ac­tiv­ity of buy­ing and sell­ing books at a profit and hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about Charles Bukowski (un­doubt­edly an in­flu­ence). But Cald­well’s pac­ing is flaw­less and the loose, con­ver­sa­tional rhythms are as in­te­gral a part of the drama and com­edy as they are of the poet’s jaded and cyn­i­cal, yet lik­able, per­sona.

Cald­well’s metaphors are some­times more cere­bral than sen­sual, and he risks word­play where most re­frain. Take the fol­low­ing lines from a man run­ning thru the dark of the day: “the traf­fic can’t hear it­self think / the sky is as calm as a bank // the bank of clouds drops no rain / on the um­brel­las of the poor”. This lyric, which shows Cald­well’s pen­chant for the sur­real, ends in a mo­ment both ba­nal and un­set­tling: “he turns on the TV and ev­ery­thing dis­ap­pears / he too dis­ap­pears and the TV // goes on talk­ing / the vol­ume ris­ing / and the light”.

Most read­ers will find de­light among the book’s 60 or so haiku. Cald­well prefers a form shorter than the tra­di­tional 5-7-5 syl­la­ble count; it is closer to trans­la­tions from the Ja­panese and punchier for it. My favourites in­clude: “this morn­ing / in the let­ter­box / sun­light”; “five ravens / in the eu­ca­lyp­tus tree / watch­ing the garbage truck”; “loud rain — / when it stops / some­one is shout­ing”. In Cald­well’s hands the haiku is tougher than it is del­i­cate and of­ten very funny in a way rem­i­nis­cent of the Ja­panese mas­ter Issa.

The colo­nial past looms large in Martin Lang­ford’s Ground (Puncher & Wattmann, 158pp, $25), a book that in­ter­ro­gates the myths of our past with an eye on how they might shape our cur­rent and fu­ture discourse. In Orig­i­nal Fic­tion, “A Cap­tain Cook ar­rives. / He plants a flag. / Af­ter which, New Hol­land’s le­gal … His Majesty’s cannon con­firm it… And they’re not the only proof Oz is au­then­tic. / Aus­tralia’s le­git be­cause Flin­ders drew / del­i­cate num­bers and webs round the coast. / Be­cause Phillip lost his front tooth.”

The An­zac myth is de­bunked in sim­i­lar fash­ion in Gal­lipoli: “We weren’t fair dinkum / un­til / we were au­tho­rised / by your deaths”. The poem ends with the chill­ing rhetor­i­cal: “O how can we thank you enough / for your screams of per­mis­sion?” If Lang­ford’s po­ems are di­dac­tic it’s be­cause our de­struc­tive in­stincts are matched only by our ca­pac­ity to for­get and be­cause our mo­ment in his­tory is frag­ile and pre­car­i­ous.

Aus­tralia is pre­sented as a con­ti­nent of harsh light, and Lang­ford’s po­etry has a sim­i­lar ef­fect of lay­ing bare: “The built world fades back to its drafts. / The way that it of­fers it­self / as a stage, or as text, gets too hard / to be­lieve. Earth flakes to bis­cuit. / The bleached grasses die. Stacked sig­nage — / po-mo, pre-mod­ern — sur­ren­ders to light.” (from IV: The Sea­son of the Sky from Seven Syd­ney Sea­sons). Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, there’s an easy com­merce be­tween thought and im­age in the deft un­coil­ing of th­ese lines.

Cities in Lang­ford’s work are places of iso­la­tion and am­ne­sia. Syd­ney is: “Just a loose plain of shim­mer and flow / where all con­se­quence ends. Peo­ple / flock down to it — not to ex­change / their ideas, but to set them aside” (from Syd­ney). Eco­log­i­cal themes are fore­grounded in this poem, as else­where: the city’s ephemer­al­ity is con­trasted with ‘‘the old river’’ that cli­mate change might for­ever al­ter.

Lang­ford’s voice is au­then­tic and orig­i­nal, and ev­i­dence of his lyric gifts and tal­ent for phrase-mak­ing abound. But for all this, and the se­ri­ous­ness of his mes­sage, the po­ems want more move­ment and drama, and the con­sis­tency of tone — im­pres­sive as it is — left me long­ing for sur­prise.

The ti­tle poem in Jan­nette Pieloor’s Rip­ples Un­der the Skin (Wal­leah Press, 76pp, $20) is a neatly ex­e­cuted lyric that med­i­tates on suf­fer- ing and the brevity of life: “See the peo­ple cry­ing in the streets. / The streets are rivers … the peo­ple’s houses / tum­ble into the waves … The peo­ple aren’t ready. They’re still / in the un­curl­ing, in a scene dark and / beau­ti­ful.”

Many of the po­ems in the first quar­ter of the book re­sem­ble nurs­ery rhymes in their sim­ple im­agery, al­lit­er­a­tion and rep­e­ti­tion. The best of th­ese is Mary: “Ap­ple-dumpling Mary / hand­cuffed to the sherry / dressed in apron stains”. Few of the other po­ems meet the stan­dard of th­ese two lyrics.

In the prose poem In­vis­i­ble dumb-bells the fi­nal im­age of the dumb-bells — only a slight im­prove­ment on the cliche of weight — finds it­self in the com­pany of hack­neyed phrases: “They’ve been raped and abused, are weighed down with oth­ers’ de­ceit and lies, drag­ging loss of trust and loss of youth — in­vis­i­ble dumb­bells, look­ing for some­where to leave them.” The fol­low­ing lines from Pain are worse: ‘‘sap­ping its en­ergy well, / your stench suf­fo­cat­ing, / your spiked mouth / in­ject­ing de­feat. // Thief, / you’ve taken con­trol / and stolen our dreams / and hopes”. The lines strain un­der the weight of ab­stract words and cliches; the im­age of ‘‘in­ject­ing de­feat’’ and the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of pain as a ‘‘thief’’ are par­tic­u­larly bad.

In some of the book’s longer po­ems, the writ­ing is bet­ter for find­ing a more con­ver­sa­tional tone. Th­ese lines from The wed­ding are con­trolled in set­ting the scene: ‘‘ My friend’s white­silk wed­ding was a heavy makeup, / cam­eras flash­ing af­fair with women wip­ing tears, / hus­bands at­ten­tive and lit­tle girls neck-crane curled / in um­brella skirts’’. Most of the book, how­ever, could have been im­proved sub­stan­tially through some ruth­less edit­ing.

Taken from an An­dre Gide novel, the ti­tle of the open­ing poem La Porte Etroite in Ju­dith Crispin’s The Myrrh-Bear­ers (Puncher & Wattmann, 76pp, $25), sets the tone for a book haunted by long­ing and death. Car­rion, which is a re­cur­ring mo­tif, pro­vides the clos­ing im­age for Din­ner Party at Ness: “I bend down to stare into the glazed eye / of a shark, air-drowned and crip­pled, / Al­ready dogs have sav­aged half its side. // This trans­for­ma­tion, / this dis­solve of bone, breath and ges­ture — / this is the last mu­sic I will write.”

This strange and beau­ti­ful fi­nal sen­tence is apt for a book true to the lyric mo­ment — one in which faith grap­ples with doubt, of­ten at the ex­pense of the for­mer. This ten­sion is seen in th­ese poignantly sim­ple lines from The MyrrhBear­ers, on the death of the poet’s un­cle: “I and the myrrh-bear­ers / who re­cited Our Father, who art … / but could not fin­ish, / who fal­tered and stood voice­less / in the awk­ward­ness of prayer, / my Aunt’s fin­gers un­lac­ing from his — / a small let­ting go.”

The po­ems ad­dress­ing the ter­mi­nal ill­ness of a close friend — some­times through apos­tro­phe — cover the months be­fore and the weeks af­ter death. The can­cer is sub­tly per­son­i­fied: “Out­side a fig­ure waits on the gravel path / and noth­ing will keep him out; / not your locked door, / not the slashes of your suit­case. // Dis­guised as birds / he flies darkly at the glass” (from Liver Can­cer). Bib­li­cal quo­ta­tions are scat­tered through­out and many more al­lu­sions are in­ven­tively wo­ven into the text, as in the poem Wood­stock about Crispin’s father, a Pen­te­costal preacher: “Our father, lean­ing in the hall, / un­wound sto­ries of mis­sion­ar­ies … and how faith kept the bul­lets from their flesh, / and how faith planted tiny mustard seeds / in the mar­row of their spines / that decade by decade, grew into flow­er­ing off­shoots / of the one sa­cred plant.”

Crispin is a conservatorium-trained com­poser who has com­pleted postdoc­toral work in Paris and Ber­lin. This goes some way to ex­plain­ing the beau­ti­fully paced mu­sic of her lines, and the promi­nence of win­try Ger­man land­scapes. The way the clas­sic and con­tem­po­rary in­ter­sect with the tran­scen­dent in th­ese sharp and el­e­gant po­ems in­vites a reader to re­turn to them of­ten, and with profit.


is a poet and critic.

Among the best haiku by Grant Cald­well is this im­age: ‘five ravens / in the eu­ca­lyp­tus tree / watch­ing the garbage truck’

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