Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Three Cool Cats

Right back at you, Jen, and - Bon voyage! I hope Singapore appreciates you in a way that officialdom (at least) has so signally failed to do in Auckland - knock 'em dead ...

I've been debating for some time what would best to do about various extraordinary beautiful little books of poetry which have turned up here over the past couple of months, and then it occurred to me that maybe a joint post would be the best way to deal with them. They do all seem very interesting to me, though in distinctly different ways.

Once I had the title, the rest started to arrange itself quite easily. It's an old Ry Cooder song, apparently - most famously covered (of course) by the Beatles - but I think that "3 cool cats" is a pretty good summary of these three authors and their three curious little books.

I'm going to take them in alphabetical order, to avoid any unseemly wrangles about precedence, but I seriously doubt that Jill or Jen or Ross would ever feel tempted to do anything so uncool in any case ...

Ross Brighton: A Pelt, A Shrub, a Soil Sample
(Christchurch: Neoismist Press, 2009)

Ross Brighton's A Pelt, A Shrub, a Soil Sample is a really beautifully-designed and put-together book. I think that Annie Mackenzie's drawings, in particular, are a joy, and mesh perfectly with the poems.

I've put in a sample page below so you can judge for yourself.

Ross Brighton himself is an exciting new presence on the poetry scene. He's been giving everybody a hard time with his searching blog-comments and general feisty argumentativeness for quite a while now, and it's nice to see Scott Hamilton and various others (myself included) jolted out of the massive complacency of their judgments on poetry. I believe that even Lee Posna (author of an essay on contemporary American poetry in Poetry NZ 38) is to get the treatment in an upcoming issue of the same magazine ... Check out Ross's blog here (It also contains useful details on how to get hold of his book).

Do I get his poems? No, not really. I kind of like them - they have a kind of lyric music and complex symmetry to them - but I'm not sure whether they're love poems, nature poems, or experiments in poetic word disruption. Maybe all three at the same time. That doesn't hugely worry me, though - as I say, the book is beautiful, and I imagine his work will come into ever sharper focus as time goes on. Will Christie's work made no sense to me at all until I heard her read one day, after which the scales fell from my eyes. The same thing happened to me once, long ago, while I was reading a John Ashbery poem called "Scheherazade". Suddenly all that had been mysterious was clear as crystal.

No doubt the same will happen with Ross Brighton in the fullness of time. For the moment, though, I see enough in them to persuade me that it's worth taking the trouble to try to understand them, and him, better. I kind of prefer deferred gratification, in any case. Those of you who know Ross' work better will no doubt have already worked out precisely where it is he's coming from already. Comments and elucidations welcome.

Jill Chan: These Hands Are Not Ours
(Paekakariki: ESAW, 2009)

I guess I've been reading Jill Chan's subtle, understated, contemplative lyrics for more than a decade now. They used to come in little packets to Spin magazine, back in the late nineties, when I edited one of the three yearly issues, and there was always something mysterious and distant about them. They roused my curiosity in a way that few of the other contributors did.

I'm not sure that Jill's work has changed all that substantially since then. There was already a kind of formal perfection about her approach to poetry which risked (on occasion) the suspicion of coldness or distance. She has relaxed a little, though, and it's become ever more apparent just how vociferous are the demons who require this elegant poise, this pirouetting on the edge of the abyss.

In short, I'm a big fan. With the possible exception of Richard von Sturmer, I can't think of another New Zealand writer who could more proudly carry off such labels as "Zen" or "spiritual" poet. Her own personal website has shifted addresses, and now resides here.

This book, These Hands Are Not Ours, is a sequel to her earlier volumes The Smell of Oranges (2003) and Becoming a Person Who Isn't (2007), from the same publisher, Michael O'Leary's "Earl of Seacliff Art Workshop."

And might I just put in a plug here for O'Leary's impressive track record in searching out and publishing the works of just such visionaries as Jill Chan? I do honestly feel that his press (run with Brian E. Turner) will be seen as an increasingly important contributor to New Zealand poetry and writing in general in the years to come.

If you check out their website, I think you'll be astonished at the calibre of much of the work they've put out - and with minimal encouragement from the Arts establishment, too. Hats off to them, I'd say. We need many more such voices in the wilderness.

Jen Crawford: Napoleon Swings
(Auckland: Soapbox Press, 2009)

I've already had my say about Jen Crawford's poetry in the speech I gave at the launch of her full-length Titus Books collection Bad Appendix last year, and also in the editorial to Poetry NZ 38, which featured the bulk of her searing "Pop Riveter" sequence. Her blog, Blue Acres, can be found here.

What can I say about Napoleon Swings, the latest poetry chapbook in an increasingly distinguished sequence from Michael Steven's Soapbox Press? Sarah Broom perhaps put it best in her launch speech at Galbraith's a couple of Sundays back. Reading these poems is like trying to make your way through a thick jungle of foliage, with no possibility of getting up high enough to see your way through the gloom.

She concluded that probably the best approach was to stand still for awhile and allow the lianas and creepers to twine themselves around your feet and start to root you to the forest floor.

Beyond that, Sarah pointed to certain verbal analogies and echoes of T. S. Eliot's Waste Land, but also to the vital fact that the dedicatee of the sequence, Debbie Gerbich is the woman who committed suicide after her confidential confession to having had group sex with convicted rapist Brad Shipton was made public by the Sunday Star Times in 2007.

Just as "Pop Riveter" explored the alienated wasteland of a factory workplace, then, "Napoleon Swings" looks at the battle-ground of contemporary sexuality with a dispassionate and truthful eye. It's a poem to be studied and thought about long and hard, combining as it does Jen's characteristic lyric conciseness and precision with an ever more intense engagement with the debased language of our bankrupt mediascape.

I think you need to get this book, and you need to read it. Get back to me on what you think. If it's a sexy book, it's sexy in a really profoundly disturbing way.


Richard said...

Re Jen Crawford's latest book - it helped me (as well as letting the vines grow, that is for me letting go and letting the poetry happen) to read closely her previous book "Bad Appendix" esp. say the poems such as 'Hippocampus' 'the long boats', where the reference to Randell Jarrell is important I think, and the poems in that book got me to feel more "in synch" or whatever with those in "Napoleon Swings" - there is, in both books, a great concentration of language, a near surreal intensity of ideas, words, and lyricism. It is great poetry.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, I agree, Richard. I'm extremely impressed with what Jen is up to in these sequences: "Pop Riveter", "Napoleon Swings" and the earlier "Admissions" - there's a real sense of engagement about her poetry, an urgency and momentousness which belies any "difficulties" in reading them - the difficulty is part of the point, but not at all in an arbitrary way.

Richard said...

Brett helped me - firstly my own work (work?) can be obscure (so I was somehow caught there!) - not because I want to fool people but I often see poetry as much more than just a story - although that is one valid way - it can be - there are great poems of the narrative or the "normative lyrics" that "explore" subjects relatively clearly (Or alternatively they have structures or 'philosophies' or some driving ethics or ideas) - I have written things (poems to subjects with a fairly clear 'message') myself especially when I started out about 1988 or so - but I wanted to approach the condition of pure art or music (and to, more or less successfully, resist being understood!);probably that was said, more or less in those terms, by Valery) - the "difficulty" is often how one engages into a work. Smithyman is useful to "work out" as well as to 'read through' ; Ashbery is closer but not 'like' Jen, as we are all unique of course. I can read Ashbery much in the way someone might listen to music or look at an art work. Sure there is, under his work, a sense of loss, love, and so on, but it is not 'coded in' - it is latent; although Randall Jarrell is an interesting writer as well, as he has the intensity (perhaps of the hurt in) of some of Jen Crawford's work and sometimes Olivia Macassey (say of that Abelard poem) or even Olwyn Stewart's or David Brown's - I don't know Ross's or Jill's work. I know Jen mentioned Roy Fisher (to me). He is certainly 'on the edge'.

We always look for 'influences, but it is just a way of 'navigating' and organising these writings in our - hmm - not sure. We humans just like to classify and organise things.

Brett Cross also suggested ways to read into or through or with Jen's work. And that includes relaxing adn letting the tendrils and the twines do their work - somewhat.

A deep study of writers ranging for say Smithyamn and Baxter to poets in Titus and others (there are many writers both 'recognised and less so, to those who have not got much acknowledgment at all) needs to be made. I see the publishers focusing on dead artists and writers - not always bad - but what about attention to living writers?

And not only but also those we hear about already. My feeling is that books about Brash and Hyde et al (both important writers) should not preclude books - well about me and you Jack! But seriously - there are so many young and not so young in my and Ted Jenner's case ! - writers just not being recognised or even 'tackled with' in a deep way; by academics or literary people, who should be onto it...

And 'Bad Appendix' and 'Napoleon Swings' are seriously radical - we need a Charles Brasch who recognised McCahon's genius, and who he helped to promote - he also privately financed many other artists and artists and probably musicians [Peter Simpson today on the Concert Programme] - to recognise living geniuses.

Richard said...

I even think that the writers everyone knows about are not discussed with or in any depth - I think criticism in NZ literary world is seriously lacking with some exceptions.

There are some good exceptions to this. Martin Edmond on Brunton and
going back to Parallax and Loney himself, and foreward to (various) and Brief... Bill Direen, Jack Ross, maybe Ross Brighton, Michael Steven and Brett Cross. Others. But a lot of it needs to be less general and more explicative. Scott Hamilton is very good - perhaps there are some new (mostly young and keen minded) writers coming up who will fill the gaps.

The desert may yet bloom again!

Ross Brighton said...

"relaxing adn [sic] letting the tendrils and the twines do their work" I like that.

Think jazz - I'm big on Cecil Taylor at the moment

Dr Jack Ross said...

Well, Bronwyn and I recently watched our way through all 12 episodes of Ken Burns' Jazz, which is maybe some kind of a help - though it's probably something a bit more recent than that you have in mind ... good safety tip, though.