Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Review of Fremantle Press New Poets We Have to Have

by John Kinsella; posted by Tracy

I was disappointed to see the latest Westerly poetry round-up summarise the 2010 Fremantle Press collection of three ‘new’ poets with the general label ‘competent’. After lamenting the lack of ‘variety’ in the Fremantle list in recent years, the review leaves us with the simple assessment that the three-in-one collection was surely done for reasons of cost.

Now, in an age of declining poetry book sales (which is, true, matched by an exponential rise in web interest and performance interest in poetry), the presentation of three full-length collections, in an attractive and intelligently edited and introduced single volume, is a gain rather than a loss.

Let me express my connection to this volume before I begin — allowing that most collections published in Australia have at most one or two degrees of separation from a reviewer. The volume was edited by Tracy Ryan, my partner. One of the poets collected, J. P. Quinton, has assisted me in various tasks, and another, Scott-Patrick Mitchell, I adjudged (anonymously) the winner of a poetry competition some years ago. I have only briefly met the third participant, Emma Rooksby.

Dismissing each of these collections as ‘competent’ reduces the possibility of newness, innovation and breadth of publishing vision, far more than binding them within one cover in what will be an ongoing series (the 2011 volume has just been published, including two poets, and next year’s volume is a collection of performance-driven poets).

Westerly has a long history of supporting Western Australian writing, rightly placing it in a broader ‘Australian’ and regional context. The latest issue includes a wide selection of Australian poetry, with Western Australians coming off particularly well. What’s more, after questioning why Fremantle has tended to publish ‘established’ poets over recent years, the poetry round-up spends all the ‘Western Australian’ time concentrating on examples of those very poets. If it’s difficult to open a gambit with new poets and there’s no discourse to slot them into, let me provide a series of possibilities which will be just as much about how not to ‘slot’ them in, as how to ‘read’ them.

The first New Poets volume was part of a process that saw the submission of many manuscripts by journal-published poets looking for the publication of their first full-length collection. The process not only fostered the three poets included in this volume, but also resulted in a master class, in which a number of other poets presented and discussed their work in a supportive context.

The fact that Rooksby, Mitchell, and Quinton are dramatically different practitioners is a double plus in terms of their being collected together. It signifies diversity and cross-talk; it is about associations and clarifications of how we might read poetic cultural subtexts by creating context.

In her collection Time Will Tell, Emma Rooksby is what I would call an ‘internalising’ poet. The title’s colloquial familiarity captures much of the subtle tension between public and private that emanates from her poems. Pithy, compacted language, with a strong sense of ‘turn’ of phrase and idea, works image and rhetoric with equal skill and determination.

The external world is often presented in vivid sketches, but always folds in on the private or even intimate moment. Often there is the sense of a private conversation going on between the ‘voice’ of the poet and one with which s/he is intimate. But it would be wrong to think that these poems are simply making private communiqués public. Rooksby is concerned with how much private knowledge becomes something else when it is painted within the public frame of shared experience and awareness.

Hers is not a poetry of the material, though she is concise and precise in her empirical observations; neither it is a poetry of metaphysical aspiration. Rather, it’s a poetry of grounding, pinioning those hermeneutic fragments and moments that compile a life. The poem becomes a record of uncertainty locked within the apparent certainties of language (but that changes too). Memory is unreliable, but that doesn’t stop us constantly trying to validate and confirm memory in thought, in speech. This is structuralist poetry, in which subjectivity is a nagging doubt.

Try, but the quality of memory
decays. Somehow each incident
that’s set aside for treasuring
gets furred with motes of dust

In short, sharp, seven-line poems such as ‘Early afternoon’, ‘Winter’, and ‘Guardians’, interspersed through the collection, we are given imagistic glimpses and moments, interludes in the repetition of days. Rooksby’s uneasy relationship with closure in form, and her persona’s relationship with those towards whom it directs its voice, are epitomised by the closing line or lines of these pieces: ‘Surfacing, you see the long path back, in fading light’ (Early Afternoon). Rooksby’s skill is in taking the quotidian and showing its necessity to a greater, almost spiritual vision. She doesn’t demean or diminish the ‘ordinary’; the reader feels privileged to be part of the ‘quiet’ accumulation of detail and observation built across poems. The process is not passive; it’s a wrestling with how and why we privilege one perception over another.

Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s {where n equals} a determinacy of poetry is a collection in which (or maybe through which) poems are part of a broader display. If Rooksby delights in bringing the details of life into focus, Mitchell delights in graffiti-ing the streets of the psyche’s inner city (I use ‘psyche’ in its analytical sense, not as a vague sense of something). This is not so much in his specific references to inner-city spaces or markers (though they are there), but in his creating a street-map of language-play and public displays of private art. Mitchell’s elliptical and paratactic plays on line and expression are as much about the ‘domestic’ moment, the private encounter with language and occasion, as Rooksby’s poetry. His work ranges from love poems with a self-ironising edge (consider his love poems and poems of desire in the light of Rooksby’s opening poem, ‘Drink’ and the aesthetics of de-romanticism: this can manifest in so many ways!) through to a struggle with the validity of the symbolic versus the representational, in poetry and artistic expression in general.

Mitchell’s syntax and grammar are about beginnings rather than ends. By no means the first poet to place his punctuation at the beginning of a line rather than at the end, he’s nonetheless one of the most able practitioners of this approach. This invites a line to begin rather than end, and asks for an inverted reading, as well as encouraging us to read against meaning that has so often already been expressed or investigated ironically. Which is not to say Mitchell takes himself less than seriously — or expects the reader to take it less than seriously — but that he is fully aware that creating poetry is a self-conscious act of display and performance the moment it is spoken or is committed to the page.

Mitchell’s constant linguistic play on subjectivity advances beyond mere questions of the lyrical self or unified self, and questions the subjectivity of the recipient subject. He takes a ‘confessional’ mode and reinstates the very doubts expressed by confessional poets themselves (e.g. Robert Lowell). Take the poem ‘dew’ — a play with a Victorian romantic cliché, a self-reflexive love poem, and the medieval traditions of aubade:

.it is morning &
you twitch at each
kiss from these lips
placed ethereal on
ridge & slope of
body i dote

The ‘landscape’ solidity of ‘ridge & slope’ in the context of the body not only maps flesh on place but also links sensibility to surroundings and occasion. The you is as implicated as the ‘i’, but is also separated off as an idea, a notion, an extension of the ‘i’. The ‘you’ only exists because of the display of the poem. This reaches a deadly self-irony that still operates in the realm of need and desire in the seemingly off-putting (though not), ‘alopecian dreams’:

I dreamt last night
I had hair
; long
, arse tickling

The play of classical literary tropes with the slightly ‘off’ familiar is at the core of Mitchell’s poetics. Its best expression is actually found in a poem of more overt ‘beauty’, the wonderful ‘heliograph’ which reminds me of Callimachus’s (ca. 305BC.-ca. 240BC) ‘Hymn to Apollo’. Mitchell’s great skill resides in his poems’ openings — like Rooksby, his frustration is with the need for poems to end at all (which is not a bad thing!). ‘heliography’ opens with:

ball me up in a ball of light so I can write
how our sight foresaw this new beginning

The Steinian repetitions, the gentle sound-play, the nursery-rhyme explosion into what amounts to ontological clarity, launch us into a tour de force of ode-making fused with the ironies of ordinariness. Performance in the light of the sun matters to Mitchell.

The colloquial gets a full workover if not makeover in J. P. Quinton’s Little River. I feel confident in saying there’s nothing quite like Quinton’s voice (including his own voice!) in Western Australian poetry, and possibly Australian poetry as a whole. If you can imagine aspects of John Forbes and Nigel Roberts coalescing with Les Murray and maybe John Tranter, you might get some way toward unravelling its studied intricacies. In terms of environmental sensitivities, you could be rewarded by looking to John Anderson and maybe even Charles Buckmaster. Which is not to say Quinton’s ‘voice’ is the result of absorbing his models, but rather that he always writes meta-textually and always with an ironic awareness of how ‘voice’ can only ever be derivative and comparative. He says it as he hears it, and as he ‘speaks’ to his mates, the bloke in the street, in the bush, on the road.

This is Quinton’s genius; this most ‘voiced’ poet really writes outside poetic voice. He writes and speaks in his poem as he sees and experiences it. It’s what we used to call, in my ‘out-of-it days’, a ‘no-bullshit voice’. You believe it, whether it’s true or not. It counts as witness. When I said ‘studied intricacies’, I meant that Quinton’s ‘talk’ in the poems is both casual and immediate, and highly studied. He is a master of open-form poetry that gives the impression of having been written in stricter forms. In his work there is a kind of formal and tonal mimesis which are not replicable. At its most blunt, you might even think Charles Bukowski or Banjo Paterson; at its most sharpened and deadly you might think John Donne.

Little River is a book of range and variation. From engagements with localised popular culture in which tropes work hand-in-hand with the blunt reality of their application (or where ideas and theories of their nature derive from), through to environmental poems, poems in which the relationship between the ‘self’ and the transcendentalised ‘natural’ world is pondered and troubled over (the Swan River in Perth is a vital focal-point for Quinton), through to elegies that overwhelm with their bluntness and clarity, their almost brutal confrontation with loss of an older brother.

To give a sense of how a Quinton poem fuses casual language usage with formal (seemingly almost accidental) constraint, the ‘throw-away’ observation with sharp, cutting insight, and a simultaneous respect and trashing of ‘art’, we might consider the devastatingly ironic ‘Art for Life’s Sake’. Quinton can be gauche, brutal, frank and razor-sharp in the same line. Once again, as characteristic of Rooksby and Mitchell, Quinton is a deft poet of beginnings:

Your brain-damaged neighbour checks the mail ten times a day
for a bill he knows is due next week. Here, the sky is forgotten.

But Quinton is a poet of endings as well, maybe because loss and death are never far behind an observation, a thought, a recording. The last three lines of ‘Art for Life’s Sake’ say it all, and more. And it’s the more that comes out of confronting loss every time you wake that does it:

Having kids means spending all your time trying not to hand down
the malignant shit your parents gave you. At least with art you’ve only got
yourself to blame and perhaps Mr Imagination will stick around.

One gets the sense there is no other way to write it. Take these lines from the elegiac ‘All the Albums We Listened to Together’:

Is it you
Your deadness
Or me
My unforgiveness.

Air-drumming along
In your kombi
With its over-adjusted headlight

The first stanza quote shows inversion and play on primary and all-encompassing ‘values’: death and forgiveness. The person addressed is dead. Forgiveness has not been forthcoming. And yet the absoluteness of the dead is questioned in the irony of the ‘ness’, and the failure of forgiveness is countered by the guilt of the ‘un’. Suffix and prefix become the values, rather than the concrete reference. In the second stanza it’s the ‘over-adjusted headlight’. The light works, but doesn’t work right. This contains condemnation and understanding without saying so: nothing is precise, there is no exact measurement of death and its causes, and of how we deal with loss.

Quinton is a landscape architect, and his poems are landscapes. The persona is out in nature to remake and qualify himself, to give purpose. But the intellect behind this subjectivity can’t give way to ‘feeling’. Feeling is brutal. Reality is all-consuming. The poem ‘The Lookout’ shows closure up for what it is, and architecture of place, emotions and ideas, cancels itself out. We survey place from our privileged position of life. We begin:

Ice melts, green belts.
Alpine cold, frozen eucalypts
mountains near and far off.

and thirteen lines later we close off with:

Not so long ago
siphoning the world
my brother broke down and gassed himself —
a total, fucking, gas.

Endgame. Quinton will be one of the most significant poets of his generation.

So, one asks how three such vital poets can be merely described as ‘competent’. These are groundbreaking poets in a groundbreaking collection. Tracy saw it when she selected their work, I saw it while she was doing so. It has to be said. These poets have to be heard.

[Fremantle Poets 1: New Poets. Emma Rooksby, Scott-Patrick Mitchell; J. P. Quinton; Edited by Tracy Ryan. Published by Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2010]

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