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Like the drafts and notes for drawings and paintings in an artist’s sketchbook, most of the poems in Angela Gardner’s first collection, Parts of Speech, are compiled from an accumulation of glimpses or impressions. Welsh-born, Angela Gardner is a printmaker and painter now living in Brisbane, Queensland. This is, in general, a serious, almost mannered book. It is carefully written and exacting, reflecting the way an artist aims to place whatever’s selected for the frame in the right place, or as close to it as possible. Gardner’s style is sparse, her language mostly straightforward, and she often favours couplets and single lines.
The book is broken into four segments. The first, Notes for a Day, is made up of seven poems written on a visit to England. Here the artist’s notes begin. One poem is called ‘Celadon’ and the title poem of the section is organised in the order of The National Gallery in London’s exhibition rooms. Gardner chronicles her day’s visit in this long poem of brief responses. The short stanzas are descriptive of the paintings, the gallery interior, the other visitors and so on, and many of them are witty. One room, ‘37’, is ‘only the drapery’ and room ‘40’ is blank, which intrigues the reader as to what’s actually in it.
Saint Jerome reads
in what looks like a flat-pack
Crown of Thorns
and a man with a spiked collar
people you’d avoid in the Tube
paintings so florid
I long for the shop
flat photographic postcard sized images
posthumous portrait ?
Trust the Spanish!
The attendant talks to himself
trying out the acoustics of the room
Goya and Wellington look on
The sequence ends with the purchase of twelve postcards from the gallery gift shop and the following poem, written (the notes tell us) for a friend back in Australia is ‘Twelve postcards’. It is atmospheric, set at midnight on a quiet street —
the lonely approach the lost with directions
walking brings maps back to scale
light now so crystalline
limestone dissolves into sky
‘Twelve labours’, the following suite of twelve poems, is strangely cryptic and, for me, as someone not deeply educated in ancient Greek mythology, difficult to decipher. I think it is a modernisation of the story of the labours of Hercules. But it does contain parts of other myths. It includes ritual, a stalker, a gruesome fratricide and the excision of a horn from a bull (but wasn’t it Theseus, not Hercules, who killed a minotaur?). The poem is at times unsettling and the imagery is powerful —
we started a fire in the crown of the trees
flicking up lighted cigarette ends
until burning embers rained down
and sparks leapt across the grove
the women underneath the burning trees
screamed but that and the fire were a decoy...
...the fire dried the stinking outlet to the swamp
where we sliced at them with blades
that were the thin reflection of the moon
and drove them away:
the women and their rites.
after that we sold it
and the next people concreted the place.
But Gardner’s use of the colloquial renders the poetry nonchalant. The offhand monologue undermines it and, ultimately, also undermines my effort to comprehend the more cryptic aspects. Perhaps the comical tone is intended? Here, in the final segment, Hercules complains about having to collect the golden apples (guarded by nymphs known as the Hesperides) —
Finally she wants some bloody apples
Nothing would please her but apples
and not any old apples
but the golden apples of the Hesperides
I’m all over the place (haven’t I done enough?)
I don’t even know what direction to take
but Prometheus sets me straight
and next thing I’m on the wrong side of the garden wall
asking Atlas nicely for some apples
(yes you wouldn’t think it of me)
I’ll shoulder the burden of the earth I say
and you can take a holiday see the sights
deliver the apples. Coupla months he reckons
to be away. No worries I say
just hold right here a moment
while I get comfy
Tricked he was poor fellow
And me with the apples
thoroughly undeserving really
My ticket to paradise.
It takes some moments of adjustment in order to move straight into reading the next section of the book titled ‘Post Industrial’ which begins with a very grave, long poem about the war in Iraq called ‘Embedded’. The power of the poem is in its minimalism and direct speech.
The ire of God continues
over video reportage
Again they come to the ancient place
such that another’s misery may not touch them
It will visit us by proxy
television faithfully imitating every cruel movement
until we are also removed from you
The Oil Ministry guarded as the library burns
and the museum looted of seven thousand years
Another poem of note in this group is the Dugganesque (i.e. Australian poet Laurie Duggan, friend of and probable influence on Gardner) ‘The unobserved life’ where Gardner’s semiotic note-making tendency and her occasional reclamation of formal or archaic words emerge (both trends appear elsewhere in the collection).
smoke plumes over the Pinkenba refinery
at the airport windows
the sky lightens and tele-evangelists
lose ground to American Idol
and ‘two shopping trolleys’ aren’t merely silver or simply lying on their sides on the concrete, rather, they are
a pair of argent wire carriages
tilting couchant against a field of grey
Gardner handles the quotidian well. She sets up a metaphorical beginning to a poem that turns out to be simply about doing the washing at a laundrette on a rainy Saturday in ‘Clean clothes’
the radio onto Saturday
(denial’s optic a light drizzle
that halts possibilities or
hibernation got complicated)
Giving the stoic cold and damp
highground without the tumble
The almost Christmas with well off
target and neat footwork escape
to the laundrette
There are many astonishing moments in these poems — ‘an aperture to make stars manageable’ and
representations of the exterior world
which comment on material fragility
the clothes of fishes
the repentance of prostrate plants
field mice escaping the thresher
And there are some strange situations like a poem told from an angel’s viewpoint.
Apart from art poems on the C19th English landscape painter John Constable, and a mention of every artist’s reference text, Muybridge’s photographic sequences studying animal and human movement, Gardner also writes from an artist’s interest in physics and the extra sense of looking at the world through lenses, via which she can enter the tradition of the poet regarding the stars and the sky in wonder.
Weak moments are rare, although I think one poem ‘The mircle drug’, which is a literal attempt at language play and reads instead like Edward Lear on a ‘mircle drug’ — ‘bilge diddle decrypt atrophy throb clergy’ — could have been cut. Gardner has already invented words like ‘blet’ and ‘flisk’ (which in their context seem to be deliberate and not typographical errors) and she uses popular scientific terms like ‘diatom’ and ‘codon’ confidently, so she doesn’t need the inclusion of ‘The Mircle Drug’.
Overall, many of these poems, whilst not abstract, are coded and some of them remain impervious to me, just as Gardner writes it — ‘Near you that delayed lucidity/ and puzzlement’. Yet the beauty of the images, the unexpected turns and the precision in her choice of words save them from being exercises in style. Angela Gardner’s first collection is incredibly graceful and thoughtful.
Pam Brown is the author of many books of poetry and is the associate editor of Jacket magazine. Her author notes page here on the Jacket site has a photo and a biographical note, and also links to a dozen or so Jacket pages where her work features or where she is reviewed or interviewed.