This review is 2,500 words
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If James Stinks (and so does Chuck) announces Nick Riemer’s emergence as a substantial poet with a clearly-defined set of preoccupations, it should come as no great surprise to anyone reading Australian poetry over the last five or six years. A number of the poems here appeared earlier in his Vagabond Press pamphlet from 1999, Falling Objects, while a similar number were anthologised in Calyx: 30 Contemporary Poets, edited by Michael Brennan and Peter Minter. While the work in these earlier publications hints at the character of the poems in this new book, its real core lies in a number of very strong newer poems that expand on the forms and concerns of the shorter poems Riemer has hitherto published.
There are no duds here, even if a couple of poems (“Two Piece”, “This glass” and perhaps “A way; accident” are the only that come to mind) don’t achieve the refined effect or consistency of many others in this book. These poems are distinguished by a lack of the imagistic precision and rigour that informs so much of the rest of the book. In them is a sort of diffuseness that leaves the poems unable to drive through the coupling of conceptual and imagistic scapes that otherwise characterises James Stinks.
Leaving this aside, the book is a sharp, concentrated statement, and reminds me of why I’m (generally) a fan of the shorter collection of poems, like this one, as against the sprawling tomes we often have to pick through. A couple of relatively recent comparisons to Riemer’s book, in this regard at least, are John Mateer’s The Ancient Capital of Images (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005) and Spencer Short’s magnificent first book, Tremolo (Harper Collins, 2001). James Stinks is about on par with these books as far as brevity goes, and these three collections suggest a loose, but arbitrarily drawn, affiliation around the idea of a post-lyrical, post-Language poetry that can meshes lyrical rhythms, natural and urban imagery with concerns that breach the boundaries between metaphysics, politics, epistemology, ontology and perception.
One of the real pleasures of reading James Stinks is Riemer’s voice. It is idiosyncratic, at turns playful, erudite, funny, wicked, and direct. Even if Nick Riemer resembles no-one so much as himself, there are some reference points which might include J. S. Harry’s digressive poetics as much as her idiosyncratic voice. It’s probably no coincidence that Harry launched James Stinks (and so does Chuck) late last year. Jorie Graham also stands out to me as a sort of forerunner to some of Riemer’s seemingly rambling philosophical-linguistic excursions. The philosophical concerns that remain at the heart of Harry’s work have their counterparts in many of Riemer’s poems. The key point here though is that the seeming looseness of Graham, Harry and Riemer actually confirms the real discipline of form and thought in their work, and it’s this, I think, that draws them together in useful and interesting ways. All three at times look to teeter recklessly on the edge of over-abstraction, or formal, linguistic or conceptual chaos, but each finally reins the poem back, drawing on things’ relatedness and concreteness, acting out a drive to at once split open and reconcile a broad range of seeming binaries.
Riemer focuses an intense attention to things in their detail and their relationships with the things around them. At times an almost obsessive-compulsive attentiveness to detail drives a poem like “The Polystyrene Oblong”. This poem is perhaps emblematic of the entire book, in terms of Riemer’s attitude to and interrogation of things, his attentiveness, and the self-deprecating comic tone behind much the work here. The almost inane attentiveness in this poem quite quickly becomes hilarious:
Overlapping parts of several cells, there are some slight
depressions in the surface which are shinier than the rest.
There are lots of these — oh, and also variations
in the brightness of individual cells, maybe in their density
… Even though the strip
as a whole is made up of globes, the surface mostly
seems to consist of half-globes: the top half of each
globe is missing. But sometimes a single point
at the top (or ‘pole’) of an entire globe is flush
with the rest of the surface, and the whole globe’s body
curves down towards the inside of the strip,
leaving a cavity in the surface…
In a sense this reflects a pattern of desire to map out an object in all its detail, to detail specifics that seem not to matter, but in doing so, find that this detail, and the contexts thus implied, are precisely what does matter. Between description and description’s implicit obsolescence is both its meaning and its emptiness.
For Riemer, this “gap” seems to be a vital, creative space. Even if this is so, Riemer remains content to view such gaps as indeterminate, for this is where their creative impetus resides:
… These gaps have many shapes.
Most of the shapes there aren’t words to describe. They
let you see through to the inside of the strip,
but it’s impossible to tell if this is made of globes
All this seems derived from his ambivalence about saying anything with real certitude, and from his clear awareness and manipulation of poems’ status as artefacts. Reality is out there somewhere, but even if he is looking straight at it, it is nonetheless, as one of the witnesses in the recent Cole Inquiry into the Australian Wheat Board’s “activities” in Iraq said, simply “hearsay upon hearsay”. Riemer acts out this preoccupation through the movement and technique behind and within the poems, rather than simply talking about and around it. The attention paid to detail is in some ways reminiscent of that in the work of Judith Beveridge, but in Riemer it is driven by a more clinical focus. This hints at a poetics of transience and immanence at work in Riemer’s poems. If there is significance in the sheer presence of particularity in a poem like “Polystyrene Oblong”, there’s also an accompanying non-attachment to that particularity, as evidenced in the poem’s closing lines: “Don’t think you’re/ getting more for less in this poem: it’s a poem about an/ oblong of polystyrene. Now forget about it” (42).
This non-attachment also indicates a substantial lack, or avoidance, of egotism at work in Riemer’s poetic. But at the same time, Riemer’s interest in description is both a reification of the self’s interests, as well as bordering on the obsessive-compulsive. Riemer joins this compulsion to the attendant detachment from self to create a vehicle by which he tracks the digressive nature of mind as well as the contingency and provisionality that things appear to have. In allowing the poem to light on seemingly unconnected things, he allows it to find seemingly disparate associations. If some of Riemer’s work moves, whether deliberately or not, away from foregrounding the self as a conscious feature of the poems, it acknowledges, and necessarily so, the working of the mind/self just the same. In fact he closes the book’s first poem, “The Fence” in this way:
so, this has all just been about my voice hasn’t it
sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry sorry.
What goes unspoken is the question as to what other ways are there of writing or speaking if not through one’s own voice. By addressing absence in this way, Riemer thinks through ways of using language and writing ethically without ever talking about ethics. This ethical component is as much about the use of language as it is about perception, and its linguistic expression as representation: that is, the poems.
Clearly, any such expression contains complexity, such as Riemer illustrates when he writes “I don’t want to/ be coy. In some ways its been very easy to describe this object./ I’ve quite enjoyed writing this poem” (42). In a real sense, Riemer’s interpolation of his “own” “direct” voice here is a ploy, dismantling the idea of a poet somehow able to speak directly, without artifice, into his poem. This reinforces the notion of Riemer’s writing as an argument, even as he doesn’t directly mount one: “(These examples aren’t all that/ significant for what I’ve been saying)” (42).
Another equally curious instance of Riemer similarly interceding in his own poem occurs in the final two sections of “Mayan forecourts”. Here, he seems to put forward an argument, and then appears to undercut it while in fact clarifying the previously put position:
grace-notes of hawks,
The formation of “exceptional/ shapes” from “waste” gets at the common identity of order and chaos, but Riemer doesn’t want to give the impression he, or the poem’s speaker, is particularly attached to such a view. In the poem’s final section, Riemer steps even further away from actually holding a view at all, while, ironically, making at least a play at interceding as both author and authority:
to make this
what I originally
wanted to say:
Cutouts in the snow
The moment of
A clear place
The evasiveness here is not evidence of lack of commitment to a specific position on these matters but rather a statement on how it might be untenable, in at least some situations, to hold any position with conviction. This stance recurs again strongly in the “Rain Bethlehem” sequence later in the collection.
If there’s a strong sense of ambivalence to do with issues of representation, perception and language in these poems, Riemer pursues these creative activities just the same, although “regardless” strikes me as inaccurate, given that he very much takes the problems these issues pose into the texture, diction and tones of his poems. The poems enact, as well as speak of, these concerns.
Things’ sheer transience worries out a substantial, perhaps even motivating, tension in Riemer’s work. The impulse to representation is always necessarily undercut by things’ impermanence, but Riemer embraces this quality to the extent that it appears as a major component of his stock of imagery. As I read it, this shapes a key part of the way Riemer perceives things, at least in so far as he can “represent” his thought or perceptual processes.
According to Riemer, the evidence that we base perception on fades. Such imagery pervades his work, explicitly and implicitly: “A breeze picks up, obliterating every footprint” (22); “Paragraphs of light/ hinge from the clouds” (22); “everything is/ surface and byproduct” (51); “clouds lathe the lightless sky” (38); “Drink machines lie waiting under the sand” (46);
… In the East
hills glow pink, weaponlike; the world might be
shrinking, the ranges melting to sand,
the horizon flaking…
… this dissipation
would obey no measure.
In Riemer’s poetic, everything is process, nothing is certain to remain still or stable. The contingency this network of imagery gets at is, at a basic level, a creative force:
Waves are horned, bearded, ram cliffs
hedges of breakers, hunters, compose the shore:
This is perhaps even clearer in the fifth section of “Mayan forecourts” with the admission that “Anything that happens/ was possible” (35). What this does is to place everything that is visible, tangible, even thinkable, under constant question. After all, “Observations aren’t observations” (46, “Unrecorded”), just as thinking is a “paraphrase of a view/ by another view” (34). In fact, reality might be no more than metaphor: “The weather, as we know, doesn’t have an inside/ is coincidence, not characteristic,/ just what parka the sky is wearing” (26).
If language is unstable, we are unable to get at anything like “reality” in any concrete sense, other than through binaries, or as Riemer does, by dissolving binaries. In “The Fence”:
To tell the truth,
I suspect the other side’s blank: the fence is
What There Is, I’m convinced there’s nothing
except the fence.
In trying to trace the workings of language and perception and how they affect representation, Riemer unavoidably also looks at the slippages and shifts of the mind. If thought, as with language, might be thought of as containing its own obsolescence, or at least its deferral, then, as Riemer suggests, thinking might then be characterised as simply a “paraphrase of a view/ by another view” (34, “Mayan forecourts”), a process “dense with pointless mind-stuff” (44, “Beginning”).
This, then leaves intact little else other than belief, and its echoes and paraphernalia. One section of the book, “Birdbrain goes wrecking”, constitutes an ongoing dismantling or retelling of various historical and religious narratives. In “Rain Bethlehem”, a sequence that re-writes and re-contextualises a number of Biblical narratives, Christ experiences things as utterly flimsy, and meaning remains at best utterly elusive: “What is in the world?” (51); “everything is/ surface and byproduct” (51). “It seems that anything/ repaying effort is deficient, reverb/ in the mind” (51). Riemer is getting at two things, I think. First, that much of what goes on in our minds, and in and through the words we speak and write and place online, is reverb. While this may seem a little nihilistic, it brings us to the second of Riemer’s subjects here: the tenacity of mortals:
How can they survive, who can’t
send pigs crashing under the waves? I need
these miracles to stop me going mad
Again, religion and its narrative underpinnings are placed under continuing interrogation as Riemer undertakes his re-telling of St Paul’s story, where he crashes belief and faith against one of its mirror images, existential despair and fear:
The stories that I’ll have to tell
I’ve never understood. So I don’t write
what I mean, only what I can. I get lost
in the words. My own language’s meanings
changed with each new learnt translation…
probably have to believe in everything.
Even as faith and certainty seem most assured and beckon powerfully to Paul, they are also completely resistible. In undercutting the certainty and stability of language and narratives that can be constructed from it, Riemer also exposes the shifting surfaces beneath ethics and faith
Still, this book remains quite difficult to pin down. It resists a definitive reading, and this is a pleasurable thing, although it makes reviewing such a collection fraught with uncertainty. It’s certainly possible to point in a number of directions, to say that James Stinks finds itself concerned with a range of notions and attitudes to do with origins, language, representation, self, perception, the conditions and contingencies of our existence, the status of national, cultural and historical narratives. This loose collation of themes is where the guts of the collection lies. All this comes sooner or later to matters of language, meaning, knowing and self, and it is in addressing and considering these questions that Riemer excels. If it’s possible to make any generalisation, it might just be possible to say that there is, behind almost all of Riemer’s poems, a sort of poetics of everything and nothing at once.
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