This review is 1,700 words
or about 4 printed pages long
Stuart Cooke is a Sydney-based poet. He is currently completing his first novel.
Ever since opening a copy of Martin Harrison’s The Kangaroo Farm (Paper Bark Press, 1997), I have been utterly fascinated by his work. I had found a poet obsessed with the moment of perception, with the way it is received and then felt. The Kangaroo Farm revealed a very keen awareness, in a self-reflexive sense, of exactly where he was in space; his language gently probed, and discovered, and then contemplated. Summer (Paper Bark Press, 2001) also exhibited this open self-consciousness, however the long, flamboyant lines of Kangaroo Farm had been pared back to a smoother, more concentrated style. It was this self-reflexivity that lead Harrison to a kind of lyrical essay, a poetic which at once speaks of space, and then of the temporal space in which physical space is seen to exist. It is a ‘meta-poetry’, I suppose, in that it is not only concerned with talking about the world, but with the way we talk about the world as well.
Initially, Harrison’s new chapbook, Music, appears to be a rather radical departure in both style and form from his earlier work. Full of prose and broken fragments of poetry, it looks so much less crafted, less formed, than anything from Summer, and it seems that the poet whose earlier work was rarely overtly ‘experimental’ has begun to experiment. But I don’t like the term ‘experimental’: it suggests that only some poetry ‘experiments’ and that other kinds simply plop onto the page and sit there inertly; ‘experimental’ ignores the idea that all poetry is, by definition, a form of experimenting.
Harrison’s earlier work provides some perfect examples. While poems such as ‘Rice Fields Near Griffith’ or ‘Walking Back from the Dam’ appear to be constructed in neat, ordered stanzas, the lyrics themselves, however, are deeply complex systems of probing and exploring, of watching, of questioning. Moments are layered upon other moments; time is spread thin or compressed to intense particles. These poems, then, are about creating poems within poems, within poems. They are as thoroughly new and ‘experimental’ as anything else out there.
Now, in Music, the dispersion of his line into a prosaic thread across the page, and the fragmentation of his narratives into longer, essayistic monologues are actually features derived from earlier lyrical essays like ‘Rice Fields’. What Music does differently, however, is take the logical nodes of these essays and split them apart. Now, time and movement — two features so crucial to verse — are pushed to the background; Music embodies thought, and sense-time. Significantly, the collection is titled Music: prose and poems. That is to say, this is not a collection of prose poems, nor is it a collection of prose about poems. Rather, what Harrison is doing here is articulating a kind of space from which poetry emerges, a space of poem fragments and drifting, poetic monologues.
This is an articulation of the primordial space, the space from which all poetic discourse must first emerge, and after reading the first piece in the collection, ‘Double Movement’, it is clear this is very much a poetry of consciousness. A dense, descriptive passage suddenly ends and the poem leaps across a seemingly random collection of fragments — some of which, crucially, are spoken, while others would appear to be thought:
Expectation builds on drifts of high-up cirrus. A single angophora branch hangs out, zig-zagging like a lightning streak. It seems to move
So a shore of windless air, invisible as a gigantic measurement is invisible, does nothing — arriving from pre-dawn stillness, turning, arching, building its silver light. What’s taken away are the stem-work and light-work of complex, living forms “vague mist turns to nothing, heading east”...
Music, this is the way consciousness works: sudden detours flare up and distort narrative, new paths are followed, the poem becomes a dreaming track, a vivid intersection of memory and feeling. ‘What you see is what you track’, he writes and, indeed, such a sensual, subjective understanding of perception allows Harrison to explore experience of being
in space with a tentativeness and emotive power of which few other poetries are capable.
Anyone acquainted with Jennifer Rankin’s work can’t help but see resonances of it in Music. Many things, from the deft and powerful manipulations of time to the various images of snakes and crows, suggest that Harrison has been writing with her work in mind. And, indeed, how could he not? As Rankin’s language worked within her own frames of time and space, Music, too, is speaking of things as they take place within external moments, within a time wholly their own. Musical time, after all, doesn’t take place relative to real time, but relative to the space of the music itself. In ‘Fence Posts’, the second poem in the book, we can see this happening quite vividly:
It goes so fast it looks like the end of a piece of rope quickly pulled away. It moves faster than someone could run, panicked, trying to get distant from the house. Not a tree snake, yet this little red-bellied black arches over the grevillea’s twigs like a miniature roller-coaster, dipping and climbing. How it did so momentarily took our breath away. I say “us” because you’d come down to see it, too. I’d thought (remembering a biblical curse, something about dust and heels) they mostly had to stick along the ground:
like a train in the mountains
in the shrub
why tell it?
why call to you
about its apparition?
why speak its
— — -
‘Fence Posts’ begins by tackling an image that has begun to acquire quite a following in Australian poetry, the snake. We already have, of course, poems like DH Lawrence’s ‘The Snake’ and Rankin’s own ‘Forever the Snake’. Rankin, of course, promptly killed that snake that Lawrence found and — forever the procrastinator — couldn’t kill. She turned the event over and over before discarding it in empty space. To read ‘Fence Posts’ along side these other poems is to experience the complete dissolution of time into thought: first, the spare, precise lines of time in the Lawrence poem are interchanged and reworked in Rankin’s piece; then, while beginning with Rankin’s very real image of the snake, Harrison moves away from it to a place in which ‘objects are under attack’, in which the event itself is dissolved, and then lost. Now, objects lose meaning to the minds in which they are seen. ‘Fence Posts’ is timely, important writing.
I have had the pleasure of hearing Martin read parts of Music on a number of occasions now, and what is always striking when he does so is the rambling, yet highly fluid, sounds of them. During the reading of a poem like ‘The Past’, it is as if you become immersed in the speaker’s own thoughts: not merely in a tired stream of consciousness, but within the responsive, thinking, sensual mind. ‘Along the road winding beside new green paddocks,’ he writes, or says,
the already dry dust spurts blowing away quickly, like words just out of reach — “the past will always exceed the everyday” — much as if, in an abandoned house, a phone’s still ringing
Pieces like ‘The Past’ and ‘Breakfast’ travel in quite extraordinary ways. Leaping from point to point, from present to past, they generate tremendous power by illuminating liminal, half-formed narratives and ideas. Hearing them read aloud, you’re not always entirely sure of where they are going, but somehow the disparate points seem to link together quite necessarily, much in the same way as your train of thought may lead you from thinking about land rights in one moment to the colour of an orange in the next. It is a fine line that Harrison treads here, of course: the fragments can’t be too random, too disparate, because then they’d lose hold and become quite ineffectual. But Music is far from ineffectual. Instead, what you feel when you hear these pieces aloud, and when you read them, too, is a complete fascination with the experience of being conscious, with the way the world is many-sided and multi-layered because the speaker sees only parts of it. From ‘Breakfast’:
... it has to be said that reality doesn’t arrive as a lake. It arrives as an angel knocking on the door, pointing out how many things make up a world. Waking up, what it pointed to was this drowned valley, the yellow-box, the ash, the calm night-covered hill, the weight of wind and water. The weight of design and engineering. What it lit up was a complex moment in perception where to conceive a dam’s bearing towards human nature requires the same skills as the resolution of any ethically knife-edge, historically many-sided issue.
What to make, then, of this new collection? From a poet who until now has seemed to adore the full stanza and carefully crafted image, how are we to handle a collection as apparently divergent as Music? ‘Each poem’s an event, moment by moment,’ writes Harrison in ‘Fence Posts’, ‘That’s why it’s ultimately pointless to compare poetry with music’. And that’s why Harrison didn’t write a book of poems about music, but instead wrote a collection of prose and poems about it, a series of pieces that deconstruct events, sometimes even erasing them, sometimes making parts of them even more precise. ‘I like the way colour, tone, reference can be picked out, chosen again, changed, placed here and there, in a piece of music...’ This is careful, intelligent and exploratory work; in retrospect, Music will be seen as a stepping stone, an ‘event’ bridging Harrison’s rich, lyrical essays and the longer, more fragmented, narrative poetry that he is becoming increasingly interested in. For now, however, Music is a splash in a pond, a beautiful dispersion of language and of moment. It is a poetry in which ‘Nothing, then everything’ takes place (‘Incident at Galore Hill’). It is a fine, ambitious collection from one of Australian poetry’s most interesting masters.
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This material is copyright © Stuart Cooke and Jacket magazine 2005
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