Pay­offs in dis­tinct prose style

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Michael Far­rell

Cas­san­dra Ather­ton’s Ex­humed (Grand Pa­rade Po­ets) is all prose po­ems. Her nervy style is dis­tinct from an ear­lier gen­er­a­tion of prose po­ets (Burns, Gary Cata­lano, Ania Wal­wicz); it feels both post-punk and post-John Forbes.

The po­ems are short, as­so­cia­tive and fast, their speed en­abled by the spare use of punc­tu­a­tion. The pun­ning as­so­ci­a­tion at times can feel pre­dictable, es­pe­cially when em­ploy­ing lit­er­ary cliche, but there are hu­mor­ous pay­offs: “Bah Hum­bert!” ( But­ter­fly Hunter).

Ex­humed’s first sec­tion, ti­tled in­ter, sug­gests the iso­lat­ing, bury­ing as­pect of be­ing in a re­la­tion­ship, while also ac­knowl­edg­ing the dy­namic of lit­er­ary, cin­e­matic and rock mu­sic al­lu­sion that helps pro­duce the po­ems. (There are five pages of sources.) Many of the po­ems draw on in­ter­tex­tual ma­te­rial to thicken a ro­man­tic scene. Bor­rowed ti­tles such as Lolita and A Room of One’s Own come with an amount of the­matic res­o­nance for Ather­ton to work with (or against). Nev­er­the­less, the po­ems could ac­tu­ally bear more in­ter­tex­tu­al­ity, bor­row­ing more than ref­er­ence and nar­ra­tive al­lu­sion.

The reign­ing af­fec­tive mode could be said to be light­hearted angst. In P.R.B., in lines that jus­tify the book’s ti­tle, Ather­ton’s nar­ra­tor claims to be “Bro­ken hearted”, but this is im­me­di­ately fol­lowed with “I be­come your post­hu­mous Beatrice. Dig me up Dante! Ex­hume me”. Ro­mance’s I-you axis can be­come tire­some, and Ather­ton seems to be con­tin­u­ally try­ing to en­liven things, even if that means play­ing dead.

Her at­ti­tude al­lows her to get away with out­ra­geous puns, like that of Cal­lous, a poem on the theme of opera. There’s a sud­den shift to third per­son in The Fairest of Them All and Sleep­ing Beauty. The fairy­tale re­write is fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory but, com­ing af­ter vari­a­tions on so many adul­to­ri­ented texts, seems to re­cast the whole (An­glo­phone-West­ern lit­er­ary-cin­e­matic nar­ra­tive) assem­blage as ex­am­ples of fairy­tale.

The con­clud­ing poem of this sec­tion, Queen of the May, is an ex­tended, am­bi­tious se­quence based on Alice in Won­der­land: per­haps hint­ing at Ather­ton’s next di­rec­tion. An un­usu­ally short poem is a stand­out, its brevity cre­at­ing in­ten­sity: “I re­mem­ber us drink­ing wine at the top of the Rialto. You let me slip my tongue into your tiny glass of golden liq­uid. Sweet vi­gnette. I have drunk the juice wrung from angels’ hair” ( Just Desserts). D.C. Pi­geons is great, and comes as a re­lief from al­lu­sion and hu­man in­te­ri­or­ity, hint­ing at (world) pi­geon power. I’d like to have read more like this and More, a poem with a more sub­dued tone and more mea­sured rhythm.

Has there been an Aus­tralian poet as troubadour­ish and pi­rat­i­cal as Dun­can Hose? In Bun­ratty (Puncher & Wattmann, 76pp, $25), Hose sin­gle-hand­edly re­in­sti­tutes (an imag­i­nary) Ire­land as the mother of the poet-rat­bag-lep­rechaun: or pre­tends to. And this is fair enough if you think how many Ir­ish were forced to come here and imag­ine Ire­land from then on.

Through sheer po­etic lewd­ness, Hose of­fers an an­ti­dote to art’s decades of earnest­ness about the (hu­man) body: “one can’t help th emotes and / mites / That get in you and up you like seed and tur­bod­iesel … with a click of the throat well make a song to mod­ify your brisket” ( Hand Cramp Shantey); “I haveso in my gul­let … I mauve my tongue ( Pea and Cream Shantey); “I fin­ger­put a red rab­bit on your furk­some la­dy­belly” ( Liquor’s not like that).

The book can be read as an ar­gu­ment for the wastrel life, which does in­deed have a prod­uct be­sides death. It’s easy to imag­ine such non­neolib­eral ex­cel­lence be­ing com­pletely ig­nored. But this is a hu­man con­di­tion “GODDAMMIT’ ( Charm of a bi­valve chantey). It’s not all Ir­ish, nor bone-idle in­so­bri­ety, either; it’s a re­sponse to an imag­i­nary Au­den’s (or some­one’s) pro­nounce­ment that poetry be play­ful or drunken speech, lin­guis­ti­cally badly be­haved. And if it not be the speech of the king of Bun­ratty cas­tle, then maybe that of the “Mayor of Mer­im­bula”.

There’s a lot of read­ing and melopoeia in this Poundean pileup, more sweet-sound­ing than any­thing I can think of in Aus­tralian English, that per­haps must stray greatly to make it: “Afol­low a trail of thum­blets of black whiskey” ( Drag Rac­ing Shantey). If I want to mis­spell English, that’s the ef­fect a Hose dose has. Bun­ratty is a re­minder that white cul­ture is weird and var­ied: it doesn’t de­fine the rest with its nor­mal­ity.

If it’s pas­tiche it’s pas­tiche as virus, as rau­cous cau­cus, slurp­ing up all sorts of lingo from the grave. It’s only the re­cur­ring “O” that seems dead and un­charm­ing, tend­ing to pro­vide un­worked-for ex­pres­sion. The se­ries of 10 shanties are the book’s ma­jor con­tri­bu­tion to Aus­tralian poetry. Think Cour­land Pen­ders as a leaky air­ship with a naked wait­ing Os­car the Grouch, and the only thing on the menu clams in al­co­holic gravy. Love it or throw up.

The ti­tle of DJ Hup­patz’s happy avatar (Puncher & Wattmann, 72pp, $25) in­di­cates a dif­fer­ent con­cern with the lin­guis­tic present, loop­ily iro­nis­ing con­sumer and in­ter­net cul­ture. As the ap­par­ently found poem Herbal Essences makes clear, un­sus­tain­able prod­ucts of­ten self­ac­cuse. Hup­patz’s im­mer­sion in flarf (a New York-based poetry move­ment which pro­duced po­ems from in­ter­net searches, of­ten com­bined with de­lib­er­ate bad taste) is ap­par­ent: but the tone is less ag­gres­sive, hap­pier. happy avatar’s po­ems have a con­cep­tual and syn­tac­tic ease: their reg­is­ter mov­ing in and out of dif­fer­ent modes of in­ter­net speak.

It may be partly due to the (small) font, but I had the im­pres­sion of a par­tic­u­lar, sen­tence­based, col­lage prac­tice, of sen­tences ar­ranged to fit reg­u­lar stan­zas. Hup­patz’s tonal con­sis­tency means that line­breaks have barely any ef­fect: “The af­ter­im­age of statis­tics / flicker un­der a flu­o­res­cent tube / and the car­ni­val is so re­mote / you can only day­dream its edges” ( Keep Press­ing). In On Golden Soil, sound de­forms sense (a Rus­sian for­mal­ist def­i­ni­tion of poetry), yet a per­sonal in­to­na­tion in the last line has an ironic bog­gling ef­fect, as if a com­puter just turned into a per­son, so of course they are mak­ing sense: Iron or wig­gle un­wrought in pet­ri­fied mat­ter the mar­ket will bear lam­bast at last on sunny shores a for­mer silo now makes a de­cent cap­puc­cino … On­line you for­get china’s peaks and scale time crusts flooded or quaked rates are rates but so much of what goes on is be­yond me

Nar­ra­tion veers from su­per-in­tel­li­gent to mo­ronic (rutaba­gas in Hol­ly­wood, any­one?) without let­ting go for a mo­ment. It’s a highly Amer­i­can­ised work, but only, I think, the kind that an out­sider can write; and Hup­patz uses the ap­proach in or­der to make local com­ment: “Whoa, slow down there Banjo, whad­daya / mean there’s a NEW Aus­tralian poetry?” ( Please Upvote For Great Truth).

The ne­go­ti­a­tion of in­ter­net ver­nac­u­lar is a con­tem­po­rary ex­pe­ri­ence, and one poetry seems em­i­nently suited to deal with. As is the dis­so­lu­tion — and re-so­lu­tion — of the sub­ject: “I seem sixty and mar­ried … ER­ROR: in­valid ac­cess … I should re­ally put in for a raise” ( In­valid Ac­cess). I don’t want to give the im­pres­sion of the po­ems as ex­er­cises in ironic know­ing­ness, though that is a risk they take: as much as any­thing, they seem to be about com­plic­ity, of the world as anti-cookie jar, where ev­ery­one’s hands smell bad. There is no re­demp­tion here, or an­swers, un­less hy­per-dis­com­fort can be said to be a form of grace (see Fuzzy-Wuzzy Angels). Yet Hup­patz as avatar does seem, in this lat­est ver­sion of im­per­son­al­ity po­et­ics, to be happy.

Writ­ten with Adri­enne Rich and Rumi as ap­par­ent guides, Shari Kocher’s The NonSe­quitur of Snow (Puncher & Wattmann, 62pp, $25) is very dif­fer­ent again from the pre­ced­ing three. Her po­ems for the most part are of a rare mod­esty and light­ness. The two-page poem Straw­ber­ries, for ex­am­ple, nar­rates a story of a mar­riage pro­posal in a straw­berry field — that the nar­ra­tor’s lover doesn’t re­mem­ber tak­ing place — without be­com­ing icky or in­dul­gent. Clay presents a mother, son and grand­mother to­gether mak­ing clay angels for a na­tiv­ity ta­ble. The grand­mother “hasn’t vis­ited in years”; a com­ment that cre­ates a sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the two women. The poem con­sists largely of the grand­mother’s lov­ing re­la­tion with the boy. It con­cludes: and tilts my son’s head (his shin­ing head) to plant a kiss that be­gan long ago in the top left-hand cor­ner of the win­dow now fram­ing her face the bones of her face her fine dry hair on fire

It’s a re­mark­able end­ing, the tran­scen­dent metaphor given to the grand­mother, in the grad­u­ally shift­ing voice of the grudg­ing mother: an im­age of un­usual gen­eros­ity, as if, af­ter denying that her son is an an­gel, she ad­mits, without any sign of sen­ti­ment, that her mother is one.

There ap­pears to be some­thing sig­nif­i­cant for the poet in the im­age of the mother’s hair: it re­curs in My Singing Empty Hands, an­other in­ter­gen­er­a­tional poem, told through a scene of two sis­ters, row­ing (in both senses). The poem is a bal­anc­ing act be­tween the cloy­ing ti­tle and the sis­ter’s bad mood. There are eight dif­fer­ent smells and two tastes: “my sis­ter’s words / smell strongly of wash­ing pow­der … my sis­ter’s hands on the oars / smell of soap and some sin­is­ter / cheap per­fume my daugh­ter some­times / wears when she is an­gry … I taste the snow in the air be­tween us … my sis­ter’s tears / taste like lam­ing­tons”. The poem ends with smell and the mother’s hair: “the smell of iron fil­ings / some­thing burn­ing / she wears our mother’s hair”. Kocher com­bines both pathos and synaes­the­sia, as if the im­age of the mother’s hair pro­duces the smell of burn­ing.

Fol­low­ing Rich, rather than Rumi, Kocher’s tongue is not al­ways quiet, par­tic­u­larly in the am­bi­tious longer po­ems Notes from the Abyss and The Bridge; both, how­ever, de­spite the wit of “jug jug jug” in the for­mer, cite Eliot un­nec­es­sar­ily. More sub­tly, A Let­ter to Dorothy Hewett is ad­mirable in its un­pre­ten­tious think­ing through of what Hewett’s death meant to the younger poet, and there’s a great Woolfean ekphra­sis in The Can­vas. is a poet and critic.


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