Well, a good time seems to have been had by all at the big Titus booklaunch in K Rd last night. It was wonderful to see so many old friends, and to meet some new ones, too.
My novel EMO was introduced eloquently and insightfully (in my humble opinion, at any rate) by Jen Crawford. Then it was my turn to introduce her book bad appendix. This is what I had to say about Jen's poetry:
I guess there might once have been a time when one could say that so-and-so was predominantly a “love poet” or a “landscape poet” – or , for that matter, a “metaphysical poet.” There's a lot of evocation of places (both in Australia and New Zealand) in Jen Crawford's poems, yet the more distinctly they're delineated, the more obvious it is that she's referencing the landscape of the soul.
Take, for example, “primary school, port kembla” 
I walked along electrolytic street
and beyond the shadow of the stack
found broken cricks and patchy light,
and the stumps of old walls.
I lay down and gravel
pressed into my cheek.
beetles ran over my arms.
There’s a kind of directness about that which seems reminiscent of Blake’s “London”:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe
Or, perhaps more to the point, his “The Garden of Love”:
So I turn’d to the Garden of Love
That many so sweet flowers bore
And I saw it was filled with graves
And tomb-stones where flowers should be
That word “electrolytic” is particularly interesting – it sounds a bit like “epileptic” to me – as if it’s a very hot day and people are jittery, about to jump out of their skins. Here, though, it’s the street which is electrolytic, “capable of conducting an electric current” (as one dictionary definition has it), or, alternatively, conducive to electrolysis, that process of using electric currents to promote a chemical reaction. In this case (presumably), the electricity of human feeling and emotion transforming the solid landscape the poet sees: the stack, the cricks, the roses, the stumps of old walls, into the stuff of life.
I lay down and gravel
pressed into my cheek.
That’s a somewhat childish pose, perhaps – appropriate for the site of a primary school, that arena where emotions can run truly unrestrained. We can imagine the bitter tears, or (possibly) the ache of their absence, without their even having to be mentioned.
“Beetles ran over my arms” is, again, in this context, appropriate to the pettifogging, mind-numbing rituals of a primary school” “binding with briars my joys and desires.”
The poem continues with description of what is really no more than a walk through a landscape:
from here roads lead
out to the station, to the dunes,
the ankle-deep pool,
the mild veneer lake
But even that simple list of destinations sounds somehow ominous – as if each choice of direction were an existential decision. “The station:” getting the hell out of here, perhaps; “the mild veneer lake:” a more complete solution.
The journey actually culminates, though, in:
… the doorway of a pub
where in the beery cool a sparrow hunches,
watching not moving,
& when I step too close
It would sound cheesy, Wordsworthian, to talk about this as the “poet receiving comfort from natural phenomena” – the little bird which doesn’t fly away from her – but isn’t that what it is? Isn’t that what really happens sometimes? Maybe the pathetic fallacy isn’t such a fallacy after all? If, that is, one is honest about what it actually means – not that nature really does “sorrow for the son [or daughter] she bore,” (as A. E. Housman put it) but that our minds are naturally geared to interpret things that way.
There’s nothing cheesy about the expression of this poem, that’s the point. and one has to work pretty hard to get much detail from it. What is apparent at once (I’d say) to any reader is the mood of the poem – I doubt that anyone could follow Jen Crawford through this “electrolytic” landscape without getting a sense of anticipation, almost of dread.
The tone of Jen Crawford’s poetry is not polite and detached, not wryly observant and full of witty instances – nor is it loose and sloppy, unrestrained and “emotional” (in the worst sense). She’s not a beat, but neither is she a LANGUAGE poet. She has a lot to say about the substance and texture of experience, and she expresses herself with deftness and restraint.
The more I read her poems, the more I see in them. I don’t think it’s any accident that she quotes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ (so-called) “Terrible Sonnets” in her own poem called “terrible sonnet” :
oh put me out of my fucken misery.
It’s a note which hasn’t been heard in our poetry for far too long.
I'd like to repeat a few thank yous here, at the end of this post:
- to Brett Cross, for licking the three books into shape, and putting this whole launch party together. Titus Books has now issued 16 titles, I hear - a pretty amazing achievement off the back of a few enthusiasts with no grants funding whatsoever;
- to Bronwyn Lloyd, my lovely wife, for agreeing to collaborate with me on possible the oddest reading heard at a booklaunch so far this year;
- to Jen Crawford, for her kind and perceptive words about my book;
- to Emma Smith, for the most kick-ass cover image I think I've ever seen in my life (she's now admitted that the picture does indeed have a title: "have I been / pardoned / yet?");
- to Scott Hamilton, for his expert MC'ing of the event;
- to Cerian Wagstaff, for looking after the booktable and the wine, and also for taking so many excellent photos (a selection can be seen over at Reading the Maps) of the event;
- to Bill Direen, for his beautiful music and reading, and for so generously agreeing to share this launch with Jen and myself;
- to Peter at Alleluya cafe, for lending us his wonderful venue, high above Auckland city;
- and finally to all the people who came along to support us and to buy a book: for a while there it almost seemed to me as if everyone I'd ever met was moving in and out of the flickering lamplight.
Check out Scott Hamilton's write-up of the occasion at Scoop Review of Books.