Light, dark and heavy handed
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.
THE CONSISTENCY OF TONE — IMPRESSIVE AS IT IS — LEFT ME LONGING FOR SURPRISE
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’