Anna Jackson, ed.: JAAM 14 (November 2000)
Murray Edmond. Laminations. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2000; Sue Fitchett & Jane Zusters. Charts & Soundings: some small navigation aids. New Zealand: Spiral, 1999.
Sue Fitchett & Jane Zusters: Charts & Soundings (1999)
Reading these two books together is fascinating. What the one lacks, the other seems to make up for. That’s more of a paradox than might appear, I hasten to add. Murray Edmond’s Laminations is, after all, a dazzling affair. There’s an immense amount to learn from his use of language, and ideas, and rhythm, and time, and all those other things that poets concern themselves – and us – with. Sue Fitchett’s and Janes Zusters’ Charts & Soundings has simpler virtues. Its virtue is its simplicity, in fact. It’s a poetry of place, and love, and location (and no, I don’t mean the same thing by “place” and “location” …)
So what do the two books lack? I’d like to get any carping out of the way as quickly as possible, so let me illustrate by examining Edmond’s poem “Can That Mango”:
What do you require to renovate such a consummate liar?
A light foot, a stolen line, a competent singer,
and some place to sing withal
What’s that he says?
Kiss and ride, kiss and ride.
Man, can that man go!
This is the seventh and final section of a poem which is, to put it mildly, a little difficult to fathom. There appears to be a dialogue going on in the first part:
‘The fall of a sparrow, the flight of a mango, each takes place
beneath the angel wings of our providence –’
‘I prefer the formal approach:
first write your title and your epigraph, then add the poem –’
There are indeed two epigraphs: one about lyre birds (“Not content with his own voice, the lyre bird soon launches into mimicry”), the other about liars (“I am a derivative poet” – Robert Duncan). Turning to the notes at the back for guidance – a fairly necessary procedure in reading Murray Edmond – we find the following deadpan explanation:
Two angels discuss a man and get him confused with a lyre bird.
Clear as mud. Of course, rereading the poem with this information in mind, one understands far better its punning inventiveness: “consummate liar”/ lyre; “can that man go!”/”the flight of a mango”/”Can that Mango”. One also gets some inkling of a possible subject: man’s mimicry – through language/plumage – of meaning, the bright squawk which conceals his lack of substance. “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen ?” [Who, if I shouted, would hear me among the angelic orders?]
Citing Rilke’s Duino Elegies – locus classicus for angel references – sounds warning bells, however. Is Edmond’s poem anything more than clever? I suppose what enables Rilke to get away with it is his compassion for the life and world around him: he invokes the angels; he doesn’t (and can’t) speak for them. Does Murray believe in angels? The colossal naïve effrontery of the question perhaps reveals to us a certain simplicity which has been banished from his poem. I don’t feel edified or harrowed by “Can that Mango,” though I’m certainly impressed by it. It’s a poem of dazzling surfaces, exclusionary angles (pun intended).
The book is, after all, called Laminations, and though it begins and ends with quotations from the Biblical Lamentations, there’s a sense in which it won’t surrender to raw feeling – it is (much of the time) plastic-coated, slick, slippery, hermetic, impenetrable …
What of Charts & Soundings, then? This sumptuously produced book of poems (by Sue Fitchett) and photographs (by Jane Zusters) has a charm which doesn’t have to work so hard to succeed. Zusters’ photographs of rooms, and houses, and faces, and women kissing each other or floating Ophelia-like in pools or rivers don’t need much commentary, and what editorialising there is – faces projected on big soulless buildings, etc. – is largely supererogatory. Similarly, Fitchett’s short poems of place – “Tiritiri Matangi,” for instance – give a precise sense not just of her own island but of the tides of life in general:
as we draw curtains
come in cold
winter’s dark ferry
But – “Everybody’s got a great big but,” as Pee-Wee Herman once observed – just over the page from “Tiritiri” we have the poem, “Mapping the Waitemata …” In the progression of de-Frenchification of island names from Noisettes to Noisies to Noises, Fitchett sees:
MururoaM ruroaMoruroahere’s hoping
Sermonising in verse is generally a mistake, I think, particularly if it concerns someone else’s experience rather than one’s own. Poetically, it tempts one to recycle shop-worn clichés rather than “making it new” (to recycle a shop-worn cliché). I’ve got nothing against engaged poetry as such, but you need at least an admixture of Swiftian passionate indignation to carry it off. “No Ordinary Sun” takes the subject of nuclear devastation seriously enough to succeed, but I don’t believe much is added by this kind of Masonic handshake of a poem (Are you right on? Do you have the right views about …? In other words, are you one of us?). There’s a bit too much of that in here: ritual invocations of Rwanda, Auschwitz … remote sites of suffering which should transcend casual mention.
In short, I’m fascinated by the glimpses of Waiheke island life, by the “queer face[s]” we’re shown, by the loving care that’s gone into making this volume so lively to read and leaf through. It’s a very accessible book, a glittering bauble which demands to be picked up. There is, however, a certain straining for effect at times which seems unnecessary. Fitchett’s poems (“New Angles”, “the thin men”) sprawl across immense white spaces to make very simple points. Zuster’s photographs juxtapose bodies and cityscapes to little discernible effect. Pictures like the cover photo (Amanda Rees – Wellington, 1971), and poems like “The Spirit of the Place” or “1981” make up for a lot, though. It would be pointless to claim it as a flawless book, but it’s undoubtedly a living one. Both artists have an engaging openness about where they’re coming from: psychic space and physical location.
The dominant feeling in Laminations is, by contrast, nostalgia. At its best, in poems like the “Rant for Mickey Joe” which opens the book, or the “Starfish Streets” which closes it, Edmond achieves a remarkable fusion between history, living experience, and its written overlay.
The first pleased me particularly for extra-textual reasons. To parody the wicked excesses of modern poetry, my father once composed a short verse which read:
flies over the Savage Memorial.
It was therefore with a certain thrill of recognition that I saw the lines:
an arbitrary seagull dips east
into the bleating wind watched by the eye
of the savage sea …
(Nice pun there on Michael Joseph Savage). The interesting thing is that Edmond’s poem can survive the competition. I can never avoid feeling a certain reverent hush when I stand in front of that strange, truncated obelisk – “There is no fame to rise above the crowning honour of a people’s love” – but at first I felt that “Rant for Mickey Joe” was striving too much first to undercut (“Up here on Boot Hill”) and then to overlay (“as it did when Keir from Grafton laid concrete / blocks by day & ran The Fat Landlady / for those with minds that could not sleep at night / up in Symonds St 25 years ago”) the simplicity of the scene. The more I read it, though, the more of a muchness it seems:
Old mate, the kiss of talk awakes desire.
Supernumerous reasons swarm
to pull it down, stone by stone,
& begin again. Begin. Again.
There is something grand – and silly – and important about Bastion Point, and Edmond lends it the resonance of Yeats’s “Easter 1916.”
Other poems clamour to be discussed: the delightfully teasing “Curiosity of the First Water” (“You don’t call them shags. I do. You call them / cormorants”) – the double meaning of the word “shag” exploited here perhaps definitively; “Home Coming” – his elegy/tribute to the late great Kendrick Smithyman; the tender “Small Fry” or “Step and Wave”; but “Starfish Streets,” that extraordinary end-piece, must occupy most of my remaining space.
Here poem and notes complement each other perfectly. The latter tell us of a condition called “‘dissociative fugue’ in which the afflicted person will walk and talk in a state of amnesia,” but we have already guessed as much from the former: its weird dissolves from Rimbaud to Roebling to Artaud to Desnos are a thumbnail sketch of our poetic century:
death of the father by poisoned foot
death of the modernist by stepping into space
from Symbolism to Naturalism to Surrealism to … Totalitarianism. Here history is a nightmare from which we are very far from awaking. This is poetry on the grand scale, a poetry worthy of those bleak litanies, “Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Flossenburg / … after the film crew had left in August, the transports began again.”
To sum up, then. The sheer intelligence and skill of Murray Edmond’s book is beyond question, but its cleverness seems, at times, a little overdone. I don’t mean that in the usual way of defeating lazy readers – who cares about them – but more in the sense of a deliberate policy of exclusion. It is as if the writer were himself in some Steiner-esque crisis of language and silence. In “Starfish Streets,” this condition is dramatised and made alive, but it’s a dizzying altitude to inhabit.
One dreams of a book that could be as homely and sweet as Fitchett and Zusters’ and as grand as Murray Edmond’s at the same time. For the moment, I’ll settle for both.
Murray Edmond: Laminations (2000)