Paula Green & Harry Ricketts: 99 Ways into NZ Poetry (2010)
“Disorder and Early Sorrow”
At the time I wrote this poem, in late 2001, I was working at a Language School in Eden Crescent. Every morning, on my way to work, I would walk past an obelisk with a memorial plaque to “The Rev. John Frederick Churton, LL.B.” in the little park at the foot of Princes Street. Someone had made a spelling mistake on the bottom line of the inscription: “He rests from his labours and his works do follow him,” and had been forced, as a result, to squeeze in one missing letter above the line.
I suppose that gave me the idea of the provisional, the improvisatory – the thing (the world? your own life?) you have to try to patch up and repair because there’s no possibility of starting all over again.
There are two basic techniques on display here:
- The magpie impulse to collect any sparkly little bits of language one happens to overhear or see written up anywhere – on T-shirts, billboards, gravestones, window displays, etc. On this occasion I had the plaque inscription, the sign from the Korean Barbeque restaurant, and Thomas Mann’s haunting short story about thwarted desire in a child: “Disorder and Early Sorrow” (1925).
- Then there’s the concept of what Surrealists (and Spiritualists) call “automatic writing”: trying to get in touch with the unconscious (collective or otherwise) by letting your words flow out with as little editorial intervention as possible. Waking up from a dream, sitting half-hypnotised on a bus, or walking in the early morning are all good times to exercise – or be possessed by – this faculty.
The poem attempts to convey a mood or atmosphere more than to make logical sense. Something seems very wrong here – and yet it’s hard to say what’s wrong exactly. Is it the suffering of the world or the speaker’s inner weather which is most in turmoil? I don’t want the reader to analyse this poem so much as to reconstitute an analogous feeling from its various disparate bits and pieces.
If it does indeed fall into the category of “experimental” poetry, it would have to be because of this deliberate refusal to provide clear, unequivocal connections.
That’s not to say, mind you, that a closer look at Mann’s short story, or even a wander round the waste-places of Eden Crescent (a favourite haunt of the homeless in Auckland) mightn’t suggest some further associations. Precisely what is it that’s supposed to be going on during afternoon tea, for instance? I know, but I’m not going to tell.
I can reveal, though, that it was Jennifer Lopez who wore “a thong / to pick up kitty” – I think in the movie Enough, the kind of thriller you find yourself going to see when you’re let loose on the city at the end of afternoon class. A quote from that film stays with me all this time. That might have some relevance as well. It comes from the best friend of the heroine (Lopez), constantly on the run from her manipulative ex:
You have a divine animal right to protect your own life and the life of your offspring.
I’ve thought about that quite a lot since I first heard it. I’m not sure that I agree, but it has a certain primeval incantatory logic to it. I suspect, though, that it’s the kind of rhetorical sleight-of-hand – statements which sound good but which mask a far more complex set of assumptions – that I wanted to question in the poem as a whole.
Disorder and Early Sorrow
Please help yourself to the buffet and enjoy all the fresh meat & vegetables available for your good health. But please, a special request from management, do not waste the food, think of all the hungry children in our world – we are sad for the starving children.
– Jin Joo Meat Buffet Restaurant
His wors do follow himwars? worse?
Last line of the inscriptionsqueeze it
inHis wor^s do follow
His works do follow him
Please take a momentthink
of the starving childrenof Somalia
Are you thinkingabout them
ducking round thisplinth
in Eden Crescent?
in a roomOne after
the otherlike a metronome
(five minutes each)Swallow
Of course one wearsa thong
to pick up kittyStella Maris
Lady of the Seaora pro nobis
as in Th. MannUnordnung
und frühes Leid
cry yourself to sleep
[Jack Ross, Gothic NZ: The Darker Side of Kiwi Culture, ed. Misha Kavka, Jennifer Lawn & Mary Paul (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2006), p. 69]
99 Ways into NZ Poetry. By Paula Green & Harry Ricketts. ISBN 978-1-86979-178-0 (Auckland: Random House, 2010): 364-65.