Escape artist

Maria Takolander Reviews The Deep North: A Selection of Poems (with a note by Paul Kane) (New York: George Braziller, 2013) by Bronwyn Lea. This review appeared in Cordite.org.au
(20 December 2013).

by maria takolander

The Deep North: A Selection of Poems by Bronwyn Lea (with a note by Paul Kane). New York: George Braziller, 2013.

It is a tribute to the quality and readability of Bronwyn Lea’s poetry that a selection of her work forms the second volume in the new George Braziller series (edited by Paul Kane), which aims to introduce contemporary Australian poets to American readers. True to lyric poetry, Lea’s poems are musical in their composition, and they can be intimate in their subject matter. However, Lea’s work is never just about crafting agreeable verse, and it is never just about her personal experience. What makes Lea’s poetry so striking and meaningful is its acknowledgement of a wider and worldly context: historical, geographical, biological, political. In fact, Lea’s poetry might be said to enact an ironic rejection of the claustrophobic potential of autobiographical verse by continually fleeing from it to something else. This might be typical of contemporary post-Romantic poetry generally, though in Lea’s poetry—highlighting the importance of gender to the work—that flight is often symbolised by the rejection of the trappings of romantic love for a liberating movement into ‘a vantage point … a vista’ (as we read in ‘Driving into Distance’). This makes Lea’s work reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s restless verse, with Dickinson’s presence apparent in the exquisite poem ‘Insufficient Knowledge.’  Continue reading

Pleasures of aporia: Paul Hetherington’s Six Different Windows

Six Different Windows by Paul HetheringtonSeen through one window, Paul Hetherington’s Six Different Windows appears to be a collection of poems concerned with the death of art. Such a theme is perhaps not surprising given that Hetherington, in addition to his seven books of poems, edited three volumes of Donald Friend’s diaries for the National Library of Australia, the last of which was shortlisted for a Manning Clark House National Cultural Award in 2006.

Creativity and its decline consume the collection. In a poem entitled ‘An Ageing Artist Reviews His Work’, a painter sets fire to two years of work; in ‘Artist’ – a poem that might, for its biographical correspondents, be about Friend – an irascible painter refines his style until he cannot write his name. In ‘London’, sculptures and paintings fill ‘every corner of seeing’ yet the speaker is gripped not by a celebration of form but a recognition of its lack: ‘We existed in a space that was skewed,’ he confesses, ‘disrupted, disowned, ill-conceived.’

The human form in its architectural glory is a frequent study in Six Different Windows. But just as frequently bodies find themselves at odds with the minds they house. In a love poem called ‘Holding’, a man grips a woman – her back arched, her head thrown back – as she falls away from him. ‘Time has no dimension’, he learns, beyond ‘the running steps of her rib cage’. In this unstructured moment, he has become ‘alien to himself’.

More than surfaces Hetherington’s poems prefer a view of the body’s interiors: ‘The blood was always there,’ a speaker observes in a poem that ruminates on childhood wounds and the mystery of girls’ menstruation. He considers his own body – ‘little more than a container / for the litres of blood’ – and marvels at ‘the body releasing itself / in a hundred ways – as if always / wanting to let go of itself’.

Yet form and body offer only one view into the collection. Hetherington wrote his doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and his poems clearly stand in a tradition that upholds a poetry of mind. Hetherington’s poems are more sensual than Dickinson’s and make greater use of narrative, but the similarities extend beyond a passion for the em-dash. Both Dickinson and Hetherington are interested in the mental construct of ‘space’ more than the physical construct of ‘place’. And both take pleasure in a mind in disarray: the disjunctions of aporia provide the necessary kick to throw their poems into being.

For Hetherington, at least in his poems, the pleasures of aporia seem peculiarly female. While his male subjects are often alienated from their bodies and bemused by the loss of their generative powers, his female subjects are invigorated by emptiness, chaos, disobedience, and other improprieties. For them, the mind’s perceptions and processes are not to be controlled but played like a game: ‘Is the past like this,’ a speaker asks, ‘something to step into / like an antique dress-up?’

Hetherington’s women are usually found in transit. In the poem ‘Passport’, a gypsy on a train to Switzerland strips down to her ‘bra and colourful knickers’ in a moment of seeming madness. She remains silent and unperturbed by the passengers’ stares as guards wrap her in a blanket and escort her from the train. She has escaped, the speaker thinks admiringly, the ‘confined space called right behaviour / that we had entered and agreed to share’. In ‘Through A Window, Looking Back’, another woman watches the Italian countryside recede as her train speeds toward her lover. Her pleasure is not a simple sense of freedom from family and domestic routine, but a sensation of vertigo – ‘the stomach dropping into space / on a steep climb’ – that hits when she remembers:

how once they’d been at loggerheads
for two days, and on the third, had made love
and barely known each other
or themselves. She’d wanted to keep that –
the not-knowing, the animal life
that had risen. She had wanted
to stay strange to herself.

The collection concludes with a portrait of a woman – perhaps the one from the train – who, having hidden herself for too long in an inadequate marriage, has arrived at a villa in another country: ‘She’s in a room not far from where the sea / breaks across the rocks, loosening her blouse.’ Memories of her family dissolve into silence, and the absence of greeting delights her. The woman ‘handles her arms, strokes the skin / of her legs’ and ‘unpacks her heedlessness’.

Hetherington usually reserves this kind of reverie for female characters, with the exception, perhaps, of the beautiful poem ‘Dépaysement’, which pays homage, as the title suggests, to the generative powers of disorientation. Like many of the poems in Six Different Windows, it begins with a view of the world receding. But this time the speaker, it would seem, is male. The man is strolling down a street in Barcelona watching a church bell lurch on the horizon. A white dove batters a high pane of the old city’s cathedral. Inside, incense drifts like the snow until everything – the speaker’s body, the sky – is charged and ringing with the deepest of mysteries:

My body was tolled across time
as someone walked in my yard
tying back plants, puzzling at grace
under a clangorous sky.

Review of Six Different Windows by Paul Hetherington. Originally published in Australian Book Review (Sept 2013).

The roy davids collection: poem manuscripts I covet

“There are people like Senhor José everywhere, who fill their time, or what they believe to be their spare time, by collecting stamps, coins, medals, vases, postcards, matchboxes, books, clocks, sport shirts, autographs, stones, clay figurines, empty beverage cans, little angels, cacti, opera programmes, lighters, pens, owls, music boxes, bottles, bonsai trees, paintings, mugs, pipes, glass obelisks, ceramic ducks, old toys, carnival masks, and they probably do so out of something that we might call metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe, which is why, using their limited powers and with no divine help, they attempt to impose some order on the world, and for a short while they manage it, but only as long as they are there to defend their collection, because when the day comes when it must be dispersed, and that day always comes, either with their death or when the collector grows weary, everything goes back to its beginnings, everything returns to chaos”― José Saramago, All the Names

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The cambridge companion to creative writing: so much depends upon the line

Extract from chapter in Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing

“The line,” as James Logenbach contends, “is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry”. Whenever we see, or more importantly hear, language arranged in lines we know we are entering the gallery of the poem. White space and silence frame the poem and alert us to its language. Consider the difference between William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” set as prose – “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” – and the same words set in lines.

Cambridge_University_Press“The line,” as James Longenbach contends, “is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry”. Whenever we see, or more importantly hear, language arranged in lines we know we are entering the gallery of the poem. White space and silence frame the poem and alert us to its language. Consider the difference between William Carlos William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” set as prose – “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” – and the same words set in lines:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

 glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

As prose, the sentence moves swiftly so that its essential meaning can be easily grasped. But set in lines, language slows down: each word in the poem is clarified, intensified, and raised in stature. The words are experienced not only as signifiers but as objects in themselves. At a reduced pace meaning opens up and multiplies. The portmanteau “wheelbarrow”, for instance, is cleaved so that we are encouraged to contemplate the word “barrow”, which can refer to not only a cart but also, perhaps, to a burial mound. This is not to argue that “burial mound” is the preferred reading in this particular poem, but rather to show how a word, when isolated, can be unmoored from its strict context so that its alternative meanings might come into play.

In prose, a sentence has a single beginning and an end, but set in lines beginnings and endings are abundant. Each line in a poem refracts into additional beginnings and endings inside the sentence, which grants not only heightened significance through emphasis – the start and end of a line are always hotspots – but lines also offers a sense of equivalence in which words and phrases can be weighed, or balanced, against other words and phrases. Michael Dransfield’s “Pas de deaux for Lovers” offers an excellent example. The poem opens with a statement that “Morning ought not/to be complex” but the sun, the poet observes, has been “cast at dawn into the long/furrow of history”. The poet appears to be weighing this ideal of detachment against a dawning attachment to a lover:

To wake
and go
would be so simple.

Yet

how the
first light
makes gold her hair

We can imagine the poet looking down as he completes the image in the next stanza: “upon my arm.” The poem spins on the word “yet” which stands in isolation at the heart of the poem as a single-word line (and stanza). An otherwise small and almost insignificant word, “yet” is granted primacy of placement and as such it demands to be taken as central to the poem’s meaning. It punches above its weight and undoes both the argument and the poet, who is helpless against his growing emotion for his lover: “Day,” he concludes, “is so deep already with involvement.”

the end of the line

Determining where a line ends – or breaks – is the art of the poet. “There is at our disposal,” as Denise Levertov argues, “no tool of the poetic craft more important, none that yield more subtle and precise effects, than the line break if it is properly understood”. Essentially there are two types of line breaks: “end-stopped” in which the line ends with a clear and natural pause created by punctuation; and “enjambed” in which the phrase, clause, or sentence continues across a line-break to decrease the pause and speed up the rhythm and flow of the thought.

As we’ve seen, the interplay between the line and the sentence creates a dynamic unique to poetry. Sometimes, in the case of end-stopped lines, the line and the sentence correspond exactly, as in the opening lines of “Under One Small Star” by Wislawa Szymborska:

My apologies to chance for calling it necessity.
My apologies to necessity if I’m mistaken, after all.
Please, don’t be angry, happiness, that I take you as my due.
May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade.

The structure of the line is simple and clearly marked out for the ear by punctuation. The directness of the line accords a sense of formality to the poem that proceeds as a list of transgressions so human we would absolve the poet immediately, if we could. Szymborska achieves audible interest, however, in the middle of the poem and again at the end, as seen here, by extending the sentence beyond a single line:

Don’t bear me ill will, speech, that I borrow weighty words,
then labour heavily so that they may seem light.

Here, the end-stopped lines maintain balance and form, but the smaller pause of a comma contrasts with the longer pause (and breath) signalled by the full-stop to achieve a graceful fluency and increased flow.

But more commonly in contemporary poems – and as seen in the Williams and Dransfield poems above – a poet will aim for a more dramatic line-break by using enjambment. In Sharon Olds’s heavily enjambed poem, “I Go Back to May 1937”, the poet imagines her parents “standing at the formal gates of their colleges” in the late May sunlight:

I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air …

Olds’s trademark narrative energy moves not just horizontally with the line but plunges down the page, her lines breaking on prepositions, articles, adjectives, and pronouns, forcing the reader to leap ahead, dizzily, for the noun or the verb. Sometimes the ride through an Olds poem is so violent it feels as if the poet has taken a pen in her fist and torn it down the page. Such heavily enjambed lines invigorate with their wilful incursion into the sentence, even if their liveliness comes at the cost of being harder for the ear to hear the structure.

Enjambment offers the additional quality of allowing the poet to spin meaning on its head. Working in a highly condensed form, poets often celebrate the possibility of generating multiple meanings from a single statement. In Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas”, for example, the poet offers the idea that desire is full, amplified, but this meaning holds only for a moment before it is shattered in the next line:

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

When the syntax resolves we discover that we haven’t so much misread the first line but that the bittersweet enjambment has allowed two separate meanings to run concurrently.

the length of the line

Short lines, as seen in the Williams and Dransfield poems above, frequently can be found in contemporary free verse, where the poet determines line length based on a desire for equivalence, hesitation, emphasis, and other strategic effects. But sometimes a poet wants a more fulsome line: lines we can carry around in our bodies in the hope that we may summon them at a later date for the wisdom, consolation, wittiness, or joy they offer. Shakespeare’s “To be, or not to be: that is the question”, for instance; Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant – “; or Elizabeth Bishop’s “The art of losing isn’t hard to master”.

The success of these lines, and countless others, may have something to do with the way we think. In their article, “The Neural Lyre: Poetic Meter, the Brain, and Time”, Frederick Turner and Ernst Pöppel make a case for a remarkable congruency between poetry and the human nervous system. After examining a sample of metrical poetry from about eighty different cultures – from Africa to North and South America, Asia, and Oceania – they found a predominance of lines that take on average about three second to articulate. For Turner and Pöppel, this is no accident: a “the three-second period,” they argue, “roughly speaking, is the length of the human present moment”. In English a line of iambic pentameter corresponds most consistently – though not exclusively – with the three-second duration of our experience of the present moment. Which may account for tremendous popularity the ten-syllable line has had with poets through the ages.

Poets have used other parts of the body – the lungs in particular – to determine the length of their lines. Walt Whitman famously took his line to the end the human breath, which in turn inspired Allen Ginsberg to conduct his own experiments with the line as a unit of breath. Each line in “Howl”, for example, is designed be read in one breath:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix …

Ginsberg’s line pulls the reader to its natural end. The lines are ecstatic to read, especially aloud, as the poet, like a puppeteer, pulls the strings on the reader’s body. Similarly, in his seminal essay, “Projective Verse”, Charles Olson formalised the idea of a “breath-line” – in so doing, he hoped to connect the poem again to the human body.

This extract is from a chapter, “Poetry and Poetics”, by Bronwyn Lea in Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing. Ed. David Morely and Philip Neilsen. Cambridge UP, 2012: 67-86.