Nar­ra­tive ten­sions run deep

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Michelle Cahill

In Let­ter to Lord Byron WH Au­den re­minds us that the novel is “the most prodi­gious of all forms” though true ex­am­ples are rare as “a po­lar bear”. He was re­vers­ing a hi­er­ar­chy that once priv­i­leged po­etry over fic­tion, with its propen­sity to de­light and en­ter­tain, which was con­sid­ered to com­pro­mise the ca­pac­ity to en­lighten or to in­form. It is in­ter­est­ing to ob­serve the his­tory of this ren­dezvous be­tween gen­res.

There’s no deny­ing com­mer­cial lim­i­ta­tions pose risks for con­tem­po­rary po­etry, a genre in­her­ently re­sis­tant to nar­ra­tive de­sign, be­ing prin­ci­pally in the ser­vice of lan­guage. Yet hark­ing back to Aris­to­tle, po­etic tragedy pro­vides a par­a­digm for all fic­tions, with el­e­ments of plot, char­ac­ter, thought, lan­guage and spec­ta­cle.

Po­etry is at the mo­ment resur­fac­ing from its cul­tural marginal­i­sa­tion by ex­tend­ing the reper­toire of its nar­ra­tions. Per­for­mance po­etry’s ap­peal to the fringe, to youth and the dis­en­fran­chised has ex­tended into the main­stream, with spo­ken word poet Kate Tem­pest its un­ri­valled star. (In Aus­tralia we have Max­ine Beneba Clarke and Candy Roy­alle.)

Lon­don-based Tem­pest has re­ceived prizes such as the Ted Hughes Award for in­no­va­tion for Brand New An­cients and been named a Next Gen­er­a­tion Poet by the Bri­tish Po­etry So­ci­ety. Her voice is hyp­notic, work­ing-class and po­lit­i­cally con­scious, gal­vanis­ing re­sis­tance in an in­creas­ingly divided coun­try to Bri­tish and Euro­pean ne­olib­er­al­ism.

Last year she per­formed her new long poem Let Them Eat Chaos (Pi­cador, 80pp, $22.99) live for the BBC. Epic and orac­u­lar, its uni­ver­sal ad­dress be­gins with a dra­matic outer space pro­logue, draw­ing com­par­isons with Bjork or David At­ten­bor­ough. Tem­pest then ven­tril­o­quises seven neigh­bours from a Lon­don street whose lives we en­ter when the clocks freeze at 4.18am and we peer through time’s por­tal.

She brings white, work­ing-class Lon­don alive with syn­chronic­ity, as Vir­ginia Woolf did with post­war, im­pe­rial Lon­don in Mrs Dal­loway. How­ever dys­func­tional these char­ac­ters may seem, fac­ing sub­stance-abuse, em­ploy­ment and hous­ing is­sues, Tem­pest ar­gues our iden­tity is col­lec­tive, hint­ing at how this con­strains the in­di­vid­ual, elit­ist voice of the lyric: “You and I apart are eas­ier to limit. / The il­lu­sion’s so com­plete / it’s im­pos­si­ble to bring it into fo­cus.”

The nar­ra­tive ten­sion deep­ens, mov­ing from the third-per­son nar­ra­tor to first-per­son so­lil­o­quies: from drug-ad­dicted Jemma to “fast­paced, shit-faced, low-main­te­nance props man, Pete”; from Bradley, a ‘‘Manch­ester boy done good” to lovelorn les­bian Pi­ous; or the al­co­holic Zoe, who is pack­ing clothes, posters, CDs, a stolen road sign and her “Che Gue­vara Bust” as she moves from her first-floor flat.

Tem­pest nav­i­gates the page pow­er­fully, ex­ploit­ing rep­e­ti­tions, with chis­elled line breaks and cantos that pulse like a so­cial­ist protest march for “Poor kids shot dead /poor kids locked up /poor kids say­ing / this is the fu­ture you left us?” The strug­gle of the work­ing class against cor­rup­tion is con­tex­tu­alised by present­day colo­nial and en­vi­ron­men­tal abuse, by ‘‘In­dige­nous apoc­a­lypse / dec­i­mated forests’’, with a pe­ti­tion to ethics de­riv­ing from John Stein­beck and Shake­speare: “The win­ter of our dis­con­tent’s / upon us.”

Tem­pest has worked across an im­pres­sive range of gen­res. With the help of her edi­tor, Don Pater­son, she has honed her tech­ni­cal craft on the page, her stan­zas obey­ing po­etry’s in­ter­nal prin­ci­ples, dis­rupt­ing into en­er­getic chaos, then lay­er­ing into co­he­sion. De­spite the au­di­ence Tem­pest com­mands, what this book lacks is sub­tle vari­a­tions in tone and the­matic com­plex­ity. Let Them Eat Chaos is bril­liantly bold; an ur­ban, work­ing-class long poem best de­liv­ered through live per­for­mance.

In The Blue De­codes (Grande Pa­rade Po­ets, 102pp, $23.95), Cassie Lewis, a Mel­bourne poet who lives in New York, adopts en­tirely dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tive strate­gies. Her po­ems drift and di­gress through de­scrip­tions and mem­o­ries of high­ways, train sta­tions, towns and cities such as the Great Ocean Road, Queen­scliff, Dublin, San Fran­cisco, Mel­bourne, Brook­lyn, Lake Michi­gan. The voice is uni­vo­cal but dis­con­tin­u­ous, in­flected and in­ter­rupted by ex­ter­nal ob­jects, sub­tle ob­ser­va­tions, and sug­gested in the gram­mat­i­cal am­bi­gu­i­ties of the book’s ti­tle. In many of the prose po­ems nar­ra­tive works at the bound­aries of prac­tice, un­der­min­ing the con­di­tions of each piece’s ex­quis­ite ex­is­tence.

In At the Ter­mi­nal she writes: “Your mind’s sub­tle blue­print on my mem­ory. Un­der­stood. I am free. You are free too: this is un­der­stood. ... Train ter­mi­nal gun­metal grey and your breath, sweet con­trast.”

A mu­si­cal­ity runs anal­o­gous to the po­etic text; the speak­ing voice is syn­co­pated, im­pro­vised, some­times rhap­sodic: “Step lightly on the earth and it flows. I’m lis­ten­ing to that sub­lime wave of mu­sic in my head.” The lyric is off­beat, the se­man­tics and syn­tax left-field, elu­sively re­ject­ing au­tho­rial control but open­ing each poem to the world through anec­dotes, dreams, in­ci­den­tals, parataxis and ekphra­sis.

In Open­ing the Box Lewis writes ca­su­ally: “I no­ticed walls be­came stairs, af­ter Escher’s Rel­a­tiv­ity / Do you re­call when this blue shift oc­curred, how and why it could?”

In Black River the third-per­son nar­ra­tive is ten­derly re­alised as a por­trait of a farm labourer dream­ing of his girl­friend. In other po­ems sec­ond-per­son nar­ra­tives break the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal chron­i­cles. “Be hos­pitable to strangers. / Some­times you may want to give away ev­ery­thing you have.”

Chronol­ogy is bro­ken with flash for­wards and flash­backs as in Di­alects: “You’ll be switch­ing tapes / with one deft hand, on the wak­ing dream-driver’s side.” These switches dis­rupt co­her­ence; nar­ra­tive con­flict and sus­pense are dif­fused by sup­po­si­tion and the sur­real. The Blue De­codes af­firms the con­tem­po­rary po­etic anti­nar­ra­tive. Lewis writes about ex­pe­ri­ences with del­i­cacy, arous­ing aes­thetic in­ter­est, and touch- ing on en­vi­ron­men­tal fragility: “Now I wade out into icy wa­ter — my home, my lake. / We have slept out in the open. We have no words.”

Writ­ten in the re­al­ist mode, Caitlin Mal­ing’s Bor­der Cross­ing (Free­man­tle Press, 108pp, $24.99) func­tions as a more struc­tured book nar­ra­tive. In free verse po­ems and se­quences, Mal­ing trans­ports the reader from first-per­son chron­i­cles in Hous­ton back through mem­ory to her child­hood in Perth across the Nullar­bor; from Ore­gon to Mon­terey to Las Ve­gas; from a wed­ding an­niver­sary in Alaska to East Texas, Mis­sis­sippi; from Vir­ginia, Los An­ge­les to Shreve­port. There are sev­eral reg­is­ters at work: the auto-fic­tional com­po­nents read like a travel diary with con­tem­pla­tive seg­ments where land­scape and lan­guage con­verge nu­mi­nously.

There’s a sur­pris­ing rhetor­i­cal qual­ity to the verse as it risks re­ceived cer­tain­ties and pushes eth­i­cal and eco­log­i­cal bound­aries: “What makes a tree burn like that?”, or “Is it brave to refuse the home that’s of­fered?”, or the pro­found “Can grief come be­fore the ac­tion?”

At other times a quiet irony in­forms med­i­ta­tions on land­scape, mem­ory, time and home, re­ject­ing the sim­ple bi­nar­ies of ex­ile and re­turn nar­ra­tives: “I wish to be where it’s taken / about a cen­tury to grow.” This the­matic largesse is kept un­der re­straint by Mal­ing’s con­fi­dent tech­nique, al­low­ing for vari­a­tion in line lengths and ef­fec­tive en­jamb­ments. In Fe­bru­ary in Ore­gon she writes: “Mov­ing be­tween hemi­spheres means win­ter never seems to come / but just is and the sun moves with you.”

Mal­ing’s method is ob­ser­va­tional and metonymic rather than meta­phoric; her po­etic nar­ra­tive ac­crues cross­ing bor­ders be­tween phys­i­cal el­e­ments, the seis­mic and eroge­nous, be­tween per­sonal his­to­ries and lan­guage, in­ter­sect­ing strands of knowl­edge, bi­ol­ogy, physics, in­quiry and mem­ory.

In the con­tem­po­rary el­egy Her­ak­les she writes: “The year af­ter my par­ents di­vorce / pass in forty minute in­cre­ments, / with breaks for us to feed and wa­ter our­selves.” This is a fine col- lec­tion; it chron­i­cles the ma­te­rial, dis­cur­sive and the in­cre­men­tal in cross­ing bor­ders, while es­chew­ing the tran­scen­den­tal.

One of the most dar­ing nar­ra­tive ex­per­i­ments in re­cent con­tem­po­rary po­etry is Jack­self (Pi­cador, 67pp, $29.99) by Bri­tish poet Ja­cob Pol­ley, re­cently awarded the TS Eliot Prize. The ti­tle for Pol­ley’s fourth col­lec­tion, is bor­rowed from a highly wrought son­net on the di­vine and pro­fane na­ture of self­hood by Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins. Per­haps, though, it is more ac­cu­rate to say that Hop­kins is one of many in­flu­ences in this mar­vel­lous and dis­turb­ing col­lec­tion that an­i­mates a child­hood tragedy in the imag­ined La­manby, in Cum­bria, the poet’s home, us­ing the lan­guage of nurs­ery rhymes and folk­lore.

In the poem Ev­ery Creep­ing Thing there are echoes of Gen­e­sis and Robert Frost. Pa­gan themes are in­ter­wo­ven with the Chris­tian myths of birth, dy­ing and res­ur­rec­tion. The school­boy friend­ship be­tween Jack­self and Jeremy Wren is cen­tral to this pre­dom­i­nantly third-per­son nar­ra­tive as it un­folds through al­le­gor­i­cal por­traits that could be het­eronyms in the Pes­soan sense.

Jack Frost, Ap­ple Jack, Cheap Jack, Black­jack and other Jacks be­long in a world where the hol­ly­hocks and lupins whis­per; the goose shed be­comes a ghost shed where “Jack­self comes to hun­ker down / in the gold straw” ob­serv­ing him­self from “out­side his life”, and “the black pond lies star­ing” and blinks.

The ob­jec­ti­fied mys­tery and dark am­biva­lence in these po­ems is redo­lent of Ted Hughes or Robin Robert­son, but Pol­ley’s im­agery finds a more un­con­ven­tional, or­ganic cast as he un­der­scores dis­quiet with rap­ture. The lan­guage is ele­giac, richly laden with de­tail such as “the snail on its slick of light”.

Pol­ley skil­fully bal­ances the eu­phony of vow­els and con­so­nants; there is del­i­cacy, wit and am­ple vari­a­tion con­vey­ing rec­i­proc­i­ties of the ethe­real and the dra­matic: “by the mer­cury wires / of the spi­ders’ lyres and the great sound­hole of the night”.

In the chill­ing poem Pact, Wren hangs him­self with a “dress­ing-gown cord / over the rafter in his bed­room”, leaving no note, as promised. There is al­most child­ish ban­ter be­tween the friends at this crit­i­cal mo­ment, sug­gest­ing sado­masochism and the vi­o­lence of con­ceal­ment, dis­guise and spite: “you think I don’t have my own rea­sons / I’ll show you, he says.”

The bro­ken world of in­no­cence is only par­tially re­deemed when Jack­frost slays the mon­ster, Misery, who is ter­ror­is­ing the farm­ers and maids of La­manby, but this can­not bring back his soul­mate Wren.

Jack­self is at once fright­en­ing and flour­ish­ing, a paean to the power of po­etic lan­guage to trans­fig­ure re­al­ity and, for this reader, one of the finest po­etic nar­ra­tives in re­cent years, though I think we can ex­pect more as we reap the rich­ness and ver­sa­til­ity of hy­brid gen­res.

is a poet, writer and edi­tor. Her most re­cent book is the short fic­tion col­lec­tion Let­ter to Pes­soa.

Spo­ken-word poet Kate Tem­pest has a hyp­notic, work­ing-class and po­lit­i­cally con­scious voice

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