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This issue of JACKET is a co-production with SALT magazine

Lucy Sheerman

See Sense: Embarking on a Reading of Jennifer Moxley, Grace Lake and John Forbes

Though we may dream the dream of equality, we dream it on a scale much larger than ourselves. If we try to make a poem of this dream, it will be smaller than its origins. Being time-based beings we cannot escape compromise, concealing history with each new life, born to begin the accumulation of knowledge from zero to one and so forth. Poetry is the frustration of such limits.

— Jennifer Moxley, Preface to Imagination Verses

This piece is 2,250 words or about six pages long.

The frustration of limits that takes place in the poetry of Jennifer Moxley is a process which distresses the equilibrium between abstraction and knowledge. Her poetry unbalances the boundary between self and not-self in a way that opens up fields of meaning and possibility that can exist in language and, perhaps, nowhere else. To read a Moxley poem is to submerge oneself in a world of chance and possibility while never being allowed to forget the limits that reality, the reality of the self and of the literal, imposes on such notions of utopia or freedom. Before we even sleep, the dream of a utopia, or even of autonomy, is one that is constricted and compromised. The search for freedom is constrained only by the limit of the poet's energy, regeneration, the will to keep going, even, as Bernadette Mayer has shown. A poet afloat on the sea, sailing in search of the ends of the earth.

The poems collected in Imagination Verses (New York: Tender Buttons, 1996) demonstrate the devastating impact of this tension, revealing the 'injustice' or downright cruelty of the imagination. The versus of verses, the pain of the conflict between reality and imagination both exist here. The first poem in the collection, 'Home World', depicts a lyric self at odds, even battling with, the identity imposed by the world of words, the 'home' in which the self dwells. As a manifesto of sorts with which the reader enters into the book it reveals a troubled 'I' at pains to speak despite the despotic force and frailties of form and content. 'I will say    ', the poem begins, 'what the register calls forth'. Immediately the limits of the 'register' enclose and manipulate the writer's speech; the medium of the poetic form or of speech itself, the summons to conform and participate in the institutional bureaucracy of taking a register, and the conceptual cognitive gap between speech and the register of meaning or understanding that takes place in the listener are all taken into account.

The poem continues after this slip of foot, a sort of false start, to map out what 'I will say': 'the range of the heart / a journey in the strap of speech, / unrealized, failing to grapple / with even the first word, / or world where I saw humans / in the shadows of buildings / unable to speak at all.' The grappling reveals the struggle that the poet senses, the shadowy half-life in which humans dwell 'unable to speak at all'. Her decision to speak is both an epic statement of courage and endeavour and also an acknowledgement, perhaps, of vocation.

The darkness of this dwelling place encloses a type of Styx where 'they could not see the river for the bank yet still kept talking about the bridge'. This metaphor envelops both the bridge between imagination and reality that the collection attempts to create and the structural contract between the two that language embodies. The poet is not given an elevated spatial perspective over this filth, although there is, perhaps, a temporal distance in the admission, 'I lived there too.' The failure of artifice, or imagination, to heal or temper such a sense of desolation and vacancy is expressed in the line, 'My illusion could not deflect the float or the filth upon it, and all that foliage what could it have meant in the light of adornment?' The desire for growth, regeneration, is obliterated in such stagnant water and shadowy soil. Nature is remembered as 'an evil dream'. Growth is stunted: 'I could have grown tall, but I awoke to no words and wonder left'. This closure of the opening poem after the brave beginnings of 'I will say . . . .' with 'no words . . . .left' leaves, indeed, the reader speechless, perhaps. Although the 'wonder left' implies a redemptive force in the wonder and power of expression (words) left in dreams and in the imagination of the series title.

Grace Lake (aka Anna Mendelssohn) maps a similar trajectory of pain and loss, while also etching a space of aesthetic chance and freedom in her collection Tondo Aquatique (Cambridge: Equipage, 1997). The relation between water and language is a constant theme in Lake's poetry. The title itself, Tondo Aquatique, means a circular painting or relief of (or in?) water. In the fourth section, Lake writes, 'I don't know which colour to choose, the blue I dreamt is untranslatable.' The deception of speech and of appearances circumscribes these poems. The freedom of art, of the poet to act or speak, is controlled by the surface beauty of specific juxtapositions and diversions created by the melody or assonance of language. At a moment of sharp pain or untenable anger the momentum of the poem submerges into an enchantment with the world of words, a reflection, deflection of surfaces that underlines the pain of the poet while its deliberation offers the chance of liberation. 'I am full of opinion which is the extraneity / that literary discourse, the corset & the corsair, / the corset in the corsair, the modernized pirate, / the nifty shifters of initial letters, eponymous opticians'. Meanwhile the gap between appearance and reality, the piracy of misinterpretation, is at best devastating. Misreading, the assertion of control over the illusion arranged by the poet, is a physical assault on the body of both text and writer: 'On Beautiful words the tenor of hatred was merciless / Rather than witness the annihilation of a population / The courts stand as the last outpost to Hell / With a representative section of invited jurists.// Having never been told the meaning of Democratic participation / the poetess let the people speak'.

The drowning out of the poet's voice is always imminent in these poems. In the 'basic thanks / extracted in chorus from hot water tanks / that had scalded our voices faint' and the 'liquid vowels in trowels loading them from beaches' droplets of meaning threaten to evaporate altogether or be swallowed up into the larger sea of words. Language is also a physical pressure upon the body of the poet; as well as offering buoyancy it threatens to erode and overpower. The need to assert linguistic control and the rules that control meaning are central motifs both in the poet's interpretation of the words and actions of others and the interpretation that is imposed upon her. 'Her mind was met by texts that held her / in space she could find nowhere else to control'. Her own desire to speak, to be heard, is a sometimes overpowering burden. 'The text has been divided into single weights / that the burdens she is detailed to lift are the words of her former pages / that her body is all conjunction verb and boring'. Water and language are a liquid entity embodying the fragility of perception and the resistance to control. The seeing that exists in the 'sea' of words is also a physical engagement with the need to speak, to express a voice of dissent amongst all the voices and sounds of consensus. The chance for freedom inherent in the notion of what could or would be heard underlines the potential for a lyric as well as lethal potential in language that is evident in the final poem, 'tree by the cam':

the wood that was meant to be sea
the eternal reversal that politics play
the confusion over means and ends
suspended for his ship rather than his lunacy
suspended for his love rather than his buoyancy
& almost like a bird he swoops
his sleeves stripping april light.

The suspension of states and status in this poem creates a neverland of 'eternal reversal' and 'confusion over means and ends' resulting in a 'suspended' state of play between illusion and disillusion . The skewing of the definite article and hence the process of definition and descriptive play creates a series of detachments which threaten the coherence and continuity of this poem.

These shifting states and surfaces also structure the perspectives offered to the reader in the work of the late John Forbes. Moxley's 'dream of equality', which surfaces in Lake's poem as a desire for equilibrium is envisioned by Forbes in a process which destabilises the boundaries between real and unreal in its quest for the same vision of suspension or, even, equality. The search for truth ('ALL ART IS LITERALLY TRUE') and the possibility of redemption within the context of a grubby and disenchanting reality is a constant in Humidity (Cambridge: Equipage, 1998). There is a confidence in the regenerative potential of poetry as well as a belief in the importance of his vocation as a poet that he shares with Moxley.

In the title poem he juxtaposes an unpleasant reality, feeling 'at worst our clothes are wet steel wool', with a vision of the poet transformed into one of the beetles thumping against his brother's kitchen window; with 'the speed of my wings to keep me cool & a million bright things to bash my head against!' Forbes's poetry is driven by this poetic vision of risk and by the sublime possibilities which the search for, a collision with, or vision of light (or truth) can bring within the murk of the world.

The contrast between this vision of the sublime and the reality of the world is, as in the two previous collections, expressed in the attempt to create a bridge between land and water. As the title of the collection suggests, this can produce a dystopic combination. In 'The Return' Forbes constructs a meditation on the impact of rain and water on land. The salt created by the absence of rain from the mangrove swamps and mud flats serves as a metaphor for the emotional barrenness created by the long absence of 'wet footprints and tears' from a human relationship. The poem suggests a relation between the imaginative potential of language and poetry - 'I often dream about the ocean' - and the shocking absence and lack that such dreams can reveal or conceal.

Forbes's 'dream about the ocean' echoes the character 'suspended for his ship rather than his lunacy     for his love rather than his buoyancy' in Lake's 'tree by the cam'. The drift of the imagery between salt and fresh water, the solid and tangible and the ephemeral suggests the messy boundaries which shape the emotional register of the poem. The erosion of structure and limits enacted by water in the poem pinpoints the satisfaction Forbes takes from such subversions. His 'long ode to water' suggests a world awash with sensual possibility, 'green islands    sticky hibiscus flowers    & the mud that squelches between your toes'. Instead, the inhuman scale of the landscape 'glittering sandstone cliffs', 'colonies in outer space' and 'weeks of dry storm lightning' indicates the vulnerability and fragility of connection and dependence. Like 'Humidity' it offers a dream of equilibrium, even equality, 'the same brother you forgot', in the context of a sublime unhappiness:

I often dream about the ocean
                      and would like to write
a long ode to water, because I live
on a drought stricken flood plain
next to a sea where a baked delta
opens between glittering sandstone cliffs
& the dunes and beaches make holiday resorts
seem like colonies in outer space.
Where are the green islands? Where are
                                 the sticky hibiscus flowers,
the paddocks full of clover and grass,
the intricate mangrove swamps
& the mud that squelches between your toes?
                                 Instead I am covered in salt  —
the same brother you forgot
whose wounds were like rumours
of the rains' failure
but who returns even so, just as the wet arrives
after weeks of dry storm lightning out to sea
                                 & who stands in front of you
                           dressed in his flash city clothes
but suddenly shy, like a stranger embarrassed
by wet footprints and tears
& the sudden atmosphere of drama.

Forbes gives the reader a vision of what might be, while he never fails to remind them what it is he really sees. In 'Sydney Harbour Considered as a Matisse' Forbes doesn't pull his punches. The harbour he sees is both grotesque and beautiful. In a world that 'leaves you ugly and stranded, / the moment you admire it' he asks continually how to keep writing, looking, reading and why. The end, perhaps, justifies the means; 'the images don't change / beneath a varnish that embalms disgust — / girls reduced to tears just once, blokes in / sports cars fuming, their parasite careers. / Can art be good enough to save all this, / plus the perfume of frangipani blooms / crushed on sandstone piers? Maybe just.'

Jacket 3 is dedicated to the memory of John Forbes, and contains half a dozen poems by John, some photos, Gig Ryan's eulogy, a review of his last book, and some poems by his friends.

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This issue of Jacket is a co-production with SALT magazine,
an international journal of poetry and poetics, edited by John Kinsella
PO Box 937, Great Wilbraham, Cambridge PDO, CB1 5JX United Kingdom ISSN 1324-7131

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