Pander 8 (July 1999)
Kenneth Fea. on what is not. 55 pp. & Graham Lindsay. Legend of the Cool Secret. 63 pp. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1999.
i am/ am not
is not/ is
if no go to
to go or no
i go/ go not
This short poem, one of three in Kenneth Fea’s book, illustrates the advantages / disadvantages of his method. Baffling in appearance, allusive in style, it nevertheless conceals a core of instruction: an essentially didactic nihilism. The poem broadcasts certainty (albeit of uncertainty) rather than doubt.
If Fea’s intention is to challenge conventional responses to the lyric, then he is successful. We might otherwise be beguiled into facile reading of a poem such as “The Reaper.” The discipline is also required to avoid any suggestion of sentimentality. In the sequence CHILDWARHOOD, for example, the lines “barrel of / a toy gun thrust through a pane (bandage and kiss)” gives a vivid sense of childish infraction – with all its despairing guilt and rapture at forgiveness. It’s hard to see how this could be otherwise achieved. “The perfume of romance” wafting through the innocent scatology of “small beer” is another marked success for Fea’s approach.
His francophilia is a more complex case. It assists him as a formalist, but seems in other ways not really crucial to his aesthetic (I’m comparing him here with poets like John Ashbery or Frank O’Hara who also see life through French spectacles: there, though, it is visual art rather than literature which influences them). “Vacances colorées” is an extreme piece of bricolage in franglais which, I feel, becomes him less than most of the other block-shaped monologues about place, and time, and distance.
“Brief human-like signs persisting for no reason.” This line, nicely juxtaposing the fosslized footsteps of three australopithecines with some hikers (on the previous page), encapsulates what Kenneth Fea has done for us in this book. Made up, as it is, of “snapshots … letters … fragments,” as the blurb informs us, it is hard to see how commentators can do more than “obscure it with their clarifications” (as one of his – many – French epigraphs puts it). Fea may fall short of the fragmentary eloquence of an Ashbery or an O’Hara, but his book is its own thing: unique, precise, well-plotted – not a wellspring, perhaps, but a mirror-maze of beguiling shards.
The poem “Wellspring,” on page 54 of Legend of the Cool Secret (and repeated, with different formatting, on the back cover) might be seen to sum up the difference between Graham Lindsay and Kenneth Fea – a curious coupling in many ways. It becomes more than a mere reviewer’s convenience, however, when we see the extent to which Lindsay is interested in the process of creating a poem, which has become for him a voyage into inner space. Fea, by contrast, likes to give the sense of a frozen moment detached from time. We might see them, in Freudian terms, as poised on either side of the pleasure principle: Lindsay still hunting for the meaning behind experience, Fea content to trace its lineaments with a diamond on the glass.
I would have to give my preference to Lindsay. His poems gesture, at times, with wild indiscipline – his reach can exceed his grasp. The bizarre social commentary of Father Lapsely’s (pun no doubt intended) “blowjob thoughts” in “Juxtaposed windows” sits strangely with the poet’s resonant refusal to be a camera in “Hospital in Kabul”:
No-one breaks the tableau
nurse, doctor, or member of the camera crew
to rescue her
from the point
live in our face
on the dinner news
However, returning to “Wellspring”:
You come to the edge of thought
and peek over
into a kind of quarry
or amphitheatre facing the sea
at the joy of consciousness.
It is not that these lines are extraordinarily well-crafted, but simply that they express a kind of passionate involvement in mere existence which can, at times, achieve a lava-like intensity. In “Freeze frame”, for example, the somewhat hackneyed subject of a family snapshot (“These slow-flowering images”) bursts into an exploration of life, death, and history – from “soft, chuckling / water logged / with corpses” to a “Tight-lipped doll in a bassinet, fiercely asleep.” Even (one might almost say “especially”) dolls, clocks, and photographs are fiercely alive in a Graham Lindsay poem.
There are obscurities – references (even with the notes) I miss; but these will no doubt bring me back again and again to this strangely compelling book. I can’t resist closing with a quote from the first poem in it:
Maybe the children will
bring the story to light.
Maybe, in the end, they will.
R. Norrie: Graham Lindsay