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Improvisations and Ruins

Pelican Dreaming: Poems 1959-2008 by Mark Young
Meritage Press, San Francisco and St Helena, 2008
A Pelt A Shrub A Soil Sample by Ross Brighton
Neoismist Press, Christchurch, 2009

Reviewed by SCOTT HAMILTON

Mark Young is an enigmatic figure in the history of New Zealand literature. Although his earliest poems were published fifty years ago, the shape and extent of his achievement is only now becoming clear. When he was still in his teens, and still living with his parents in Hokitika, on the remote West Coast of the South Island, Young began to write poems that owed little to the literature that was being produced in New Zealand’s metropolitan centres. Largely unaware of the work of post-war Kiwi poets like Allen Curnow and James K Baxter, the teenage Young took much of his inspiration from translations of European and Latin American poets – Lorca seems to have been a particular favourite – and reproductions of modernist paintings. He wrapped the exotic, often surreal images these influences gave him in language that was, for its time, exceptionally colloquial and direct.

While many of his contemporaries were still writing earnestly about dairy factories, state houses, and other features of the ‘local and special’ in clunky iambic feet, Young was producing poems as unselfconsciously strange and direct as ‘The Mexican Church’:

In summer

pick the bodies of young girls

clean.

          & the bones

lie there whitely,

                  waiting for

their canonisation.

Many of Young’s earliest poems take their settings from books and paintings; before long, though, the young voyant shows himself able to bring his colloquial language and rich imagery to bear on the world outside literature and art. By the mid-sixties Young had graduated from the West Coast to the Bohemian inner city Auckland suburb of Grafton, where he mixed with other iconoclastic Baby Boomer poets like Alan Brunton and David Mitchell. Young’s poems from this period are full of intensely apprehended detail. Whether he is wandering over Grafton Bridge or lying down in a seedy flat, Young perceives the microcosmos around him in a manner that is both sensuous and objective. Despite his eye for detail, he is never short-sighted: he can appreciate the connections between the little world around him and the rest of the universe. A poem called ‘The Distances’ shows Young’s ability to balance the familiar and the faraway:

                                    & I am a believer

in the miracle of shortwave.  Quito,

Ecuador or Radio Peking. The NHK

or the VOA. Pop or propaganda –

you have your choice amongst the

electronic music of the night ether.

Caught in its web, I am a Columbus

searching for new countries, turning

the dial slowly, hoping to hear

station identification through the static

& distortion.

                              This is 1 a.m. Auckland;

a time of dead houses, where only

the streetlamps perforate the darkness.

But in Australia it is

11 p.m. E.S.T., & in Cairo

it is eight hours earlier. To turn

the dial is to turn back the clock.

1 a.m. Auckland. The night is just beginning.

With their peculiar combination of super-localism and internationalism, poems like ‘The Distances’ sidestep the terms of the long-winded debates about nationalism and regionalism that preoccupied Kiwi writers like Curnow, Kendrick Smithyman and Louis Johnson in the 1960s. In ‘The Distances’ the boundaries of that much-disputed notion, New Zealand, are both radically shrunk and massively expanded. Young’s New Zealand is a Grafton street full of ‘dead houses’, but it is also, thanks to the ‘miracle of shortwave radio’, distant cities like Cairo and Quito.

Some of Young’s early poems appeared in the fugitive magazines that the literary wing of the counterculture of the ‘60s threw up, and in a slim 1969 volume called Blues for Lovers; others had to wait until 1999 to see the light of day in a survey of the first fifteen years of Young’s career called The Right Foot of the Giant. Not all of the early poems are successful. Some of them are ruined by  clichés and attitudinising, while others read like caricatures of Lorca or Neruda. Even if Pelican Dreaming excerpts The Right Foot of the Giant too generously, though, there can be no doubt that the best of Young’s early poems rank amongst the most important produced in New Zealand in the 1960s. Young should have been able to build on their achievement and establish himself as one of the key Kiwi poets of his generation. Instead, he became addicted to drugs, emigrated to Australia, and fell silent for a quarter of a century.

Young re-emerged at the end of the nineties, after being contacted by Michelle Leggott and other scholars enthusiastic about the poems of his youth. Excited by the opportunities for instant publication offered by the internet, Young has set up a series of blogs which have won a wide readership amongst poetry-lovers. The best of his ‘online’ work has been republished in a stream of ‘hard copy’ journals, chapbooks, and books. Although Young continues to live in Australia, his recent work has widely published in his homeland.

The poems of the second stage of Young’s career have the same beguiling combination of colloquial language and strange, original imagery as the work collected in The Right Foot of the Giant. The casual, often chatty tone of the later poems, though, represents a departure from the portentousness of the early work. Young’s 2008 Soapbox Press chapbook Lunch Poems paid tribute to Frank O’Hara, and the work which fills the second half of Pelican Dreaming makes clear the extent of his debt to the madcap New Yorker. When he was invited to explain how he wrote his poems, O’Hara declared ‘I just go on my nerves’. In the work he has produced in such quantities in the last decade, Mark Young also goes on his nerves, responding improvisationally to the flux and flow of the world around him, and recording the vicissitudes of his thoughts and feelings.

A poet who writes prolifically about the minutae of his life runs the risk of boring his readers. Anyone who has slogged through O’Hara’s Collected Poems will have encountered long stretches of formless, repetitive chatter, as well as much-anthologised masterpieces. In his later poems, Young uses a couple of simple but clever formal devices to counter the threat of tedium. He keeps most of his poems relatively short, so that they record the movement of a single thought or the unfolding of a single event, and he breaks his sentences into short lines.

The staccato rhythm of Young’s short lines is often at odds with the casual tone of his poems and the relaxed cadences of his sentences. A sense of disruption and confusion is created, as Young’s phrases are given new, unexpected meanings by enjambment. Consider, for example, the first stanza of ‘In Conspiracy City’:

I barely blink when the

fighter-jets come

screaming down

the valley

The poem’s speaker begins by expressing his indifference, but before we can learn what it is he is indifferent to we are forced to ‘blink’ and shift our gaze, as the poem’s first line ends abruptly. Because it occurs on a new line, after a brusque enjambment, the arrival of the ‘fighter-jets’ is experienced as a sudden intrusion. The speaker’s relaxed tone and expression of indifference feel rather forced.

The third line of ‘In Conspiracy City’ seems to bring disaster: the jets are ‘screaming down’, presumably to deliver a deadly payload or to crash in flames. In his fourth line, though, Young brings us back from the brink: the planes are screaming down a valley, not screaming toward the earth, or toward some cowering target. The pilots are presumably on some sort of training mission, and the speaker’s protestation of indifference is explicable: he lives close to some sort of military installation or training zone, and is accustomed to, if not comfortable with, the expensive instruments of death in his valley. As the rest of the poem makes clear, he knows that the conspiracies hatched by the air marshalls and politicians who control those machines of death will not be aimed at him, but at ‘rogue regimes’ and ‘failed states’ in distant parts of the earth. He will not be bombed or strafed, though Iraqis or Afghans may be bombed or strafed in the name of his safety.

‘In Conspiracy City’ is a precise and disturbing evocation of the strange sort of normality experienced by those of us who live on the home front of the twenty-first century ‘War on Terror’. By following the movement of his thoughts and cleverly manipulating the shape of his lines, Young has created a poem which is at once intimate and widely significant.

Some of the most suggestive poems in the second half of Pelican Dreaming are very short. Here is the complete text of ‘The Human Condition (1933)’:

We

are one

with the landscape.

If Young’s one-sentence poem were presented in a single line, then it would be the sort of banal aphorism we hear on second-rate nature documentaries and in the speeches of sentimental politicians. By breaking his sentence into three lines, though, Young gives it an ambiguity, a difficulty, that is foreign to television talking heads and speech writers. Does the pronoun of the first line represent humanity, or some subsection of humanity – some nation, or tribe, or family, or group of friends? Does the poet think that ‘We’ are ‘one/with the landscape’ in some sort of mystical, pantheistic sense, or is he suggesting that ‘We’ are united as humans, and that the ‘landscape’ is something outside us – something that is ‘with’ us only in the sense that it is a part of the equipment we use to live our lives?

The title which Young has given his poem helps us to refine these questions. La Condition Humaine is the name that the Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte gave to a 1933 painting in which he showed a canvas standing on an easel in front of a window. On the canvas and on the pane of glass, the same pleasant rural scene was depicted. Magritte was fascinated by philosophy, and his painting-within-a-painting reminds us of long-standing philosophical questions about the nature of reality. Since the time of Immanuel Kant, at least, Western philosophers have been preoccupied  by the relationship, or the lack of relationship, between the world we perceive with our senses and the world that may exist beyond, or perhaps before, our perceptions. Kant used the term ‘the thing-in-itself’ to describe this recalcitrant ultimate reality. Some of Kant’s successors, like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche,  claimed to have solved the ‘problem’ of the thing-in-itself by locating ultimate reality; others, like Heidegger and Wittgenstein, insisted on the futility of searching for a reality that exists prior to and apart from sense-perception. The problem that Magritte’s painting poses still puzzles and intrigues laypeople, as well as philosophers. Are we ‘one’ with the world outside of us, or are we, as one reading of Young’s poem might suggest, united, and perhaps even defined, by our separation from a ‘landscape’ that lies, in its essence, beyond the reach of our senses?

We cannot see the title of Young’s poem without remembering that 1933 was the year in which the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. Zealously supported by Elisabeth Nietzsche, the sister, literary executor, and self-appointed official interpreter of the author of The Will to Power, the lumpen intellectuals who made up the Nazi party’s leadership demanded a ‘revolution in thought’ from the philosophy departments of Germany’s great universities. Plenty of revolutionaries soon volunteered their services, including Freiburg University’s Professor Heidegger.

Whether they identified as Nietzscheans or Heideggerians, the Nazified philosophers of 1933 proclaimed that the ‘problem of the truth’ – the puzzle that Magritte’s painting poses, and that Young’s poem repeats – had been resolved by the arrival of the ‘Fuhrer principle’. Through a sort of bastardised pantheism, the Fuhrer represented the ‘blood and soil’ – the volk and landscape – of Germany. The gap between humanity and nature had been closed, but the ranks of humanity were thinning, as ‘unnatural’ minorities – Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, communists – were purged from the volk, and from the landscape.

By including the year 1933 in the title of his poem Young suggests that he wants us to consider the terrible consequences of Nazi ‘philosophy’, as well as the erudite musings that lie behind Magritte’s painting. Like the fragments of Heraclitus or the haiku of Basho, Young’s poem is a resonant but ambiguous statement which is capable of stimulating almost endless thought and discussion.

Like Mark Young fifty years ago, Ross Brighton has taken up a position outside the mainstream of New Zealand literature, after finding inspiration in the work of exotic overseas poets. Where Young borrowed from Lorca and Rimbaud, Brighton looks to the Language poets, that gang of self-consciously experimental North Americans which formed in the 1970s and drifted apart amidst obscure theoretical debates in the ‘90s.

The theory behind Language poetry stood upon the two rather wobbly stools of post-structuralist philosophy and Frankfurt School Marxism. Leading members of the movement like Ron Silliman proclaimed that ordinary, ‘transparent’ writing, which exists to transmit a prepared message or unfurl a narrative, is complicit in the ‘commodification’ of human life by capitalism, because it implies a hierarchical relationship between writer and reader. The Language poets tried to create texts which were deliberately fragmented and indeterminate, and which therefore required the ‘active intervention’ of the reader to be completed. In the last few years a sense of dissatisfaction seems to have overtaken many members of the Language school. Ron Silliman once wrote polemical essays demanding that everybody write like him, or risk ‘acquiescing’ in ‘late capitalism’, but one of his most recent books is a disarmingly straightforward prose memoir of his youth in Bohemian San Francisco.

These might seem unpropitious times to practice Language poetry, but Ross Brighton takes his inspiration from Susan Howe, one of the less abrasive and doctrinaire members of the school. Where the likes of Silliman, Charles Bernstein, and Bruce Andrews have enjoyed juxtaposing rough-edged fragments of the contemporary American vernacular, Howe has been preoccupied with the voices that whisper and sigh in obscure historical documents. Hers is a poetics of recovery, not confrontation.

Brighton is not quite the only New Zealander to attend to Susan Howe. Michelle Leggott  has been influenced by Howe’s love of archives, and by her desire to recover female voices which have been silenced by persecution or intellectual fashion. Leggott’s poems often attempt to combine the flowery, pre-modernist style of unfashionable female writers like Eileen Duggan and Ursula Bethell with a postmodern poetics of fragmentation and dissonance. If A Pelt A Shrub A Soil Sample has any local precedent, it can be found in the work of Leggott.

The appropriately-titled ‘Sibilance’ gives an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of Brighton’s style:

scattering sun sound

      shattering

                    the windowpane of twilight

evensong against hills

the breeze the shards

                                    comes birdsong

flying      concentric lines

the waveform fountain

waking surf

and white cries across the sky-page

sing wide

a further winging on outward

flowering rain

the touch of this hand

The sound-patterns of ‘Sibilance’ remind us of some distinctly unfashionable writers. Brighton’s love of alliteration is everywhere apparent, and is sometimes perhaps rather too apparent. When the poet introduces us to ‘scattering sun sound/ shattering’ he sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins with a lisp. Yet Brighton is not simply reinventing the past. The self-consciously pretty images of ‘Sibilance’ might have come directly from the work of Duggan or Bethell, or even a rotten-ripe nineteenth century Romantic like Algernon Swinburne, but they hang suspended on the page, freed from regular stanzas and from any suggestion of narrative or argument.

It takes courage to court ridicule by trying to combine two very different, and historically distant, styles of writing, and Ross Brighton has courage aplenty. A less honest poet would not dare to use the earnest, unashamedly Romantic images of ‘Sibilance’ – ‘white cries across the sky-page’, ‘flowering rain’, ‘evensong against hills’, and so on – without irony. Brighton has an obvious longing for the lush, exotic, pre-modern world that these images call up, but his postmodernist commitments remind him that he cannot reconstruct that world. Reading the poems in A Pelt A Shrub A Soil Sample is like picking through the burnt-out ruins of a grand old house, and finding occasional, sadly evocative objects – a worn wedding ring, an old photograph seared at the edges – amidst the ashes. Brighton has made an oddly promising debut.

LINKS

Ross Brighton blogs his response to this review.

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Scott Hamilton is an Auckland writer and reviewer. More of Scott’s writing can be found at the Reading the Maps Blog.

5 comments:

  1. Torrance, 28. October 2009, 13:25

    Why does this review of books of SHORT poems take SO LONG?
    Why all the big noisy words?
    The job of a review is to introduce the book with basic information.
    Poetry is not like algebra. It doesn’t have to be decoded.
    A poem should soar on the wings of beauty, not sag under academic talk.
    I’m sure Mark Young and Ross Brighton will be unhappy that they are nothing more than raw material for the obsessions of this geek.

     
  2. Impasse, 29. October 2009, 13:05

    I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a writer complain that a review of their book is TOO long… they’re usually fascinated by anything a critic has to say about their writing, the more the better. And what is a ‘noisy’ word? one you have to think about? if you don’t like thinking you should probably avoid reading.

     
  3. Michael Leong, 30. October 2009, 6:49

    It’s interesting that Young’s ‘The Human Condition (1933)’ is a hay(na)ku avant la lettre…

     
  4. Ross Brighton, 31. October 2009, 16:48

    Torrance – may I prove you wrong. Much thanks to scott for this.
    And for the record, I think my work is probably pretty noisy…. some of it at least…. so noise is all the more appropriate.

    Keep bangin’ those pots and pans….

     
  5. Colin Herd, 5. November 2009, 11:43

    I am not sure Silliman’s ‘prose memoir’ is as straightforward as you make it seem, considering that it is a collaborative memoir, in installments.