Three Sides of the TriangleBook cover

Poetry review by Simon Patton

Triptych Poets

Stuart Cooke, Bronwen Manger, Ouyang Yu
Blemish Books
ISBN 9780980755640

 

The second issue of Triptych Poets brings together three very different writers with little in common. Two of them — Cooke and Ouyang —  make use of languages other than English in their work, and this poses some pretty steep challenges to the reader. As the centrepiece between two men, Manger stands out for her poetic power: it’s not always under control, but she extends the orbit of language furthest without getting lost in airless deep space.

 

Stuart Cooke: Approach

Approach is unusual in its frequent use of long lines. This may derive from the poet’s interest in indigenous Australian song traditions. The opening stanza of the title poem is typical:

Between boys restless as gulls and tennis balls soaring,
between glass, tin slivers and men in their sandals,
between anxious waters sweating through curtains
and the white flame on the sea, come closer,
between the yawning flame brighter than vision,
the flame yawning and sinking around its resinous yoke.

The insistent repetition of the syntactic pattern “between . . .” is possibly derived from oral poetry, as is the amplification “the yawning flame brighter than vision / the flame yawning and sinking . . .”, the second line amplifying and adding more information about the image of the flame. Another characteristic feature is the use of verbs in –ing, a tense choice that tends to blur any clear sequence of events. Other poetic devices at work here include simile (“boys restless as gulls”) and metaphor (“anxious waters sweating through curtains”). Most of the lines are handled in the same way, with the stress coming on the final word, and this creates an effect that is incantatory, monumental, grandiose. This can be very effective, but there are also times when you stop paying attention to the actual details of the poem because of the lulling, predictable rhythms.

This feature may be linked to a second influence at work here: that of poetry written in Spanish (Cooke has written on Chilean poetics and translated Spanish-language poetry). Like French poetry, poetry in Spanish often mobilizes strings of evocative words that, by themselves, create an intensely lyrical atmosphere (lines from Lorca, chosen at random: “Widow of the moon / who could forget her? / Dreaming that the earth / be crystal”). In English, however, this “moon-dreaming-earth-crystal” seems a bit light-weight: the Anglo-Saxon remnant in us still demands muscular rhythms and more solid imagery.

A poem called “Japanese Garden” uses a shorter line length, inspired, no doubt, by haiku associations, and strives for clearer focus:

Take a world
and open it like a breath
in the cup of your hands.

Take some land soft as dough
and drop it
in a cool moon of water.

Take swamp hens, some ruffled swans,
let their songs shoot short bullets
over the waves of distant traffic.

Stop
while the swans’ long black necks curl
to the grass freshly growing
from the freshly laid dough. . . .

The first three lines are brilliant. The image is a startling one, and each of the lines is different in its own way. After this, however, the poem once again opts for syntactic repetition, and this immediately takes the edge off our alertness to what’s happening. The simile “land soft as dough” confuses us with irrelevant associations, while “a cool moon of water” is clever but rather predictably oriental. Again, verb tenses with a clear time frame are studiously avoided, leading to the quaint sounding “to the grass freshly growing”. You get the feeling that the reality contemplated by the writer is being moulded to a fixed and rather limiting conception of what a line should be.

In several poems, the line as basic unit of meaning is jettisoned, but this invariably happens in poems where conventional syntax is fractured. In “Elites”, for instance, some of the lines (may) run on into their next-door neigbour — “Chile clichés rolling off her long sticky / tongue clicks volcanoes Neruda went mojado / shaving land singing land tierra mojada fuck . . .”, while in “Sonnet to Rain (son del silencio)”, the line breaks operate in terms of typography rather than phrasing:

Hushed metal crescendo hear the cowbells clang

ing occasionally for the hell of it as if f
alling spirits weren’t caught by anyone but picked

up from the earth by hard white hands it’s

hard, yes, to talk about the dust, about what
what should or shouldn’t be but still you want s

omething if the world was at rest you would

have it this way you woul
d I hope agree with me and cool your frown your har

sh black text. Now (here comes the rain)

with a capacity for change only time will tell la
vida derecha echa la echaste (trust) live

the drought, eat bad rhyme. Shout: Give back the land!
My hair’s too thin to mimic a downpour.

Here the fracturing serves to distract from the prosaic movement of the rhythm and rhetorical intrusions such as the  “yes” in line 5 and “I hope” in line 9. As for the inclusion of Spanish, we are invited to enjoy the sound of it, but are given no help with the sense it contributes to the overall text. Suggestiveness wins out here, and meaning remains elusive.

 

Bronwen Manger: Few Are Immune

Manger’s three strengths are her passionate sense of drama, her wide vocabulary, and her taste for the linguistically unexpected. Here’s a sample of her style from “Extraordinary love”:

We’ll meet near the lilies that grow
in the ditch beside
the railway line, I’ll meet
you in a room
nauseated by its own beauty,
repressed in the memory of time.
We’ll meet where the air smells
like Moscato, we’ll meet in the tide-foam
of a stranger's blue-grey eyes, you’ll meet
me searching for sanity between
the faces at restaurants,
I’ll find your name scorched in
cursive across the sky. We’ll
dine like lice in the garish plumage
of celebrities, I’ll wear
stilts so I can hear you sway, you’ll
swear off air and breathe
tomorrow, we’ll kiss and I’ll
exhale yesterday. We’ll sweat silver
down the gutters of Mars,
stride to outpace the white lace sky
when it’s falling; your neck
will audition as the new milky way . . .

The breathlessness of the run-on lines, the hectic irregularity of the line-breaks, the repetition of “we’ll meet . . .” and its variations, and expansive-ostentatious flourishes such as “I’ll find your name scorched in / cursive across the sky”, “We’ll / dine like lice in the garish plumage / of celebrities” or “your neck / will audition as the new milky way” all strive to convey an impression of emotional intensity. They succeed, to a degree, but should you want to know exactly what shade of emotion is at stake, you’ll find it much harder to put your finger on it. What this suggests is that the impressive force of the poetry masks a lack of nuance: your attention is grabbed a little too roughly, and when you stop to dust yourself down and ponder in depth, the words turn out to offer less than they seemed to promise.

Love is a theme explored at length in this collection from a range of perspectives that demonstrate the poet’s versatility. The negatives of loneliness and rejection are tackled, as well as the delirium of new love. On the whole, Manger deals best with love slowly estranged. Here is the last part of “Autumn in the townhouse”:

. . . You paint

the baby’s room while he
is away, buy rugs and mats to stifle the echo
that ricochets from his mahogany floors. See friends
who should be envious but aren’t. You sleep
deeply as the trees shrug away their leaves in
the afternoon sunlight.

. . .

But autumn
in the townhouse grew cold faster
than you planned. Sometimes all that holds you
is the gentle curve of a tiny ear, the gathering cloudburst
and promises and splendour of a new ally
waiting within.

The choice of verbs here — “stifle”, “shrug” — sound a note of despair within the surface opulence exemplified by “mahogany floors”, and they lead us inevitably on till we reach “all that holds you” with its multiple and appropriately contradictory range of meanings. The lines are skilfully varied to create mood, and the line-breaks are occasionally exploited to contribute meaning.

For a change of pace, in “Kinglake 2011” a public theme is tackled with some assurance:

The charred stakes of former trees are now haloed
in soft green leaves, each cell a vial of sunlight
glowing out defiant optimism. The secret heartbeat
of this old land is too young & too foolish
to stay sombre.

The brushstrokes of green
have already half-swept the devastation
from the short-term memory of hill & vale
in a chromatography of recovery
that slowly clambers to the top of rises.
The anatomy of the countryside is
too hopeful to stay ruined.

Memory of song & nest alight as birds
forget to grieve; the youngest & most
impetuous of the elements relents
and ends its tenure. Mourning is as daily
as it sounds, but somewhere in the grave
cathedral of our human aches
the stained-glass turns from grey to green
and a child’s voice echoes,
too full of wonder
to stay silent.

There are many fine touches here. The phrasing of “each cell a vial of sunlight” almost convinces us with its sure handling of stress, sound and sense. The idea expressed in “The secret heartbeat / of this old land is too young & too foolish / to stay sombre”, whimsical as it may be, is appropriately fresh and hopeful. The pun “Mourning is as daily / as it sounds” is deft and intelligently exploits its obviousness, while the handling of the line-break “but somewhere in the grave / cathedral of our human aches” — coupled with the literalization of “stained” in “the stained-glass turns from grey to green” — reveals an ability to evoke death without morbidity. Less assured is the easy and rather bland optimism of the whole poem, the careless anthropomorphism of “as birds forget to grieve”, the repetition of “memory” in the second and third stanza, the characteristically portentous “a chromatography of recovery”, and recourse to religious images at the thought of death. We all know that there will be more fires, and more terrible suffering: that’s life on Earth.

 

Ouyang Yu: Soul Diary: Key Words

Getting attention looms as a major concern in Soul Diary: Key Words, a suite of 86, mainly short, poems.  For nearly twenty years, Ouyang has been writing “angry” poetry with considerable success, and in this new work anger goes on providing a way to captivate readers:

but i’ve got tong that is 痛 that is pain
that is abuse that is anger that is bloody hell that is the will
    to bombard the hell out of them all
that is the urge to say fuck you all
that is the urge to conclude to be asian in australia is to live
on the reverse of the paradise
and even its obverse is paradise turned hell
that is hopeless even more hopeless than in asia than in
    china even more hopeless than in hell
so hopeless that you begin to praise it to say oh it’s such a
    lovely country
to say i like it here i always come back i like democracy
you pick your teeth again and smell your finger tips that
    carry the tooth-smell
there’s no-one here they are dead they are all dead sleep
dead night dead darkness dead telephones dead lights dead
    suburbs
dead cars dead streets dead night streets dead flowers
    opening
they are dead dead god that is bringing night wind by the
    night window
to the night computer the night fingers on the keyboard
stained with the smell of the teeth stained with the words of
    fuck
fuck dead fuck dead fuck 操 fuck操 fuck操 fuck操 cao操 fuck操 cao
操 fuck
such a hopeless place white australia forever god save the
    king + queen
fuck (59)

This ranting persona — with its contradictory blend of personal suffering, self loathing, mindless violence (violence that also turns in on its treatment of the English language) and a contradictory rejection and acceptance of Australia — is difficult to ignore. In Soul Diary, other techniques for getting under the reader’s skin are rigorously explored, including smuttiness, misogyny, amateur etymology, paradox (“home is where the person is / when the person is gone” [25]), mock-confession, toilet references, gratuitous typographical effects (“pOetry a found obJect / reaDy for tHe takinG” [55]), self-pity (“why do you feel / sad / when you see people / succeed / why do you think  / you are a failure / at heart . . .” [56]), pseudo-philosophy (“can you write a poem / even when you don’t have any inspiration” [74]), trivial observations, and announcements (“i’ve spent my 1st 10 years / constructing myself into an australian / i’ll spend my next 10 / deconstructing it”) [85]. However, it is the use of Chinese characters that clamours loudest.

Chinese is used in two main ways in Soul Diary: as an accessory, and as an integral part of the textual meaning. Its presence, in terms of is graphic appeal (rather than sound, although the pronunciation of the characters is occasionally indicated), no doubt adds an aura of intrigue throughout, even as it withholds from the reader any possibility of a fuller understanding.

As an accessory, Chinese characters are added to the ends of lines or between the letters of a word, usually to pick out a “key word”:

4.

morning                灰
my heart so grey
the sky greys all over
or
is it the other way round?

29.

i woke up this morning with a sudden realisation
that for me australia is a decade of rejection or accepted
  rejection
and china doubles that
but what if                                                  湮灭
i continue in this thankless calling
more years of obscurity
perhaps

from 37.

. . .
i’m picking my teeth and my nose
i’m a d髒irty chinese poet
i’ll never win a nobel prize
with my d髒irty downward thrust

40.

2 toilets
water dripping
i see myself in one
i see them in another
dream 夢

In 4, the Chinese character for “grey” is added to the first line. In 29, the word yanmie (bury in oblivion; annihilate) echoes the key word “obscurity”. In 39, zang (dirty; filthy) is inserted between the letters of the English equivalent term. In 40, we find the character meng used with its English synonym “dream”.

Of course, these “accessory” uses are really only obvious if you know Chinese. Otherwise, the part they play is likely to puzzle, even though they do not “interrupt” the meaning expressed in English. A number of poems, however, require a knowledge of Chinese in order to make sense. Here are some conspicuous examples:

10.

be        always an    ordinary        person
and       refuse to    be turned      into    a    东西

 

21.

you can’t imagine
how much poetry gets killed
in one ejaculation
of so much 精

 

32.

so what’s the big deal?
two words, huh?
尸 and 穴
put them together one on top of the other, will you?
just a body and a hole, no big deal?

 

35.

remaining
virtually    unknown
is     a    懿
virtual        unknown

In these examples, Chinese characters and words are used without any hint of their meaning apart from the context. In 10, dongxi means “thing” as opposed to a “person”. In 21, jing (semen; sperm) is added, although it is strongly foreshadowed by “ejaculation”. 32 is one of two poems that dabble with the taboo energy of the Chinese character bi (equivalent to the English “cunt”) , a character that is often omitted from dictionaries and Chinese word-processing programs and, ironically,  frequently written by Chinese people with the English letter “B”. Poem 35 is a bit of a mystery. Since the character yi means “exemplary; virtuous; having to do with womanly virtue”, the text is probably making a pun on the adverb “virtually/virtual” (?).

Obviously, these make impossible demands on many readers. Almost no notes of any kind are added to make the reader’s life easier. One exception is provided by 77 and it is interesting to speculate about why more help has been given in this particular poem:

in the village where I stayed for two years
as a young man of 18 years of age
22 years ago
they called it 扯河
in their local dialect
that no chinese dictionaries will recognise
not even now
all the more reason for me to turn it into english for you:
扯 stretching
河 rivers
an action they used to refer to the lightning in the sky
that i’ve just seen on national geographic channel
stretching rivers of the sharpest brightness in the darkest sky
扯                              河

Here, the Chinese is incorporated meaningfully into the text, and help is given to the readers so that they get the point, enhancing rather than diminishing the effect.  Why has this extra effort made here, and not in all the other poems which likewise depend on Chinese for their intelligibility? I once used to try and teach English to an old Vietnamese man on Sundays. After a lesson on telling the time, we chatted about things in general. When I asked him how long he’d been in Australia, he looked up at the ceiling, thought hard, and then told me “Half past three years.” 77 is like that: the poetry of the anecdote requires no grimacing, stamping or angry fist-waving: it just about speaks for itself.