reading revival: a poetry book blog

reading revival is devoted to promoting australian poetry books and related discussion through reading one book - firstly, duty by geraldine mckenzie. i will choose a new book roughly every 3 months

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Duty. By Geraldine McKenzie. Paper Bark Press. 100pp. $30.00

Reviewed by Geoff Page

Duty is very much a first book, not through any lack of sophistication but from its sense of the different directions its author might take from here. It is a book marked by wit, ingenuity (conceptual and verbal), humour, pathos, technical assurance and self-conscious experimentalism.

In the more experimental poems, which make up a substantial proportion, McKenzie bends her syntax to the point where, probably under the influence of the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, she makes it disappear altogether. In ‘next dance’, for instance, the last line reads ‘flap dang bamm boozled right rort write’. I’m not sure that even Noam Chomsky could parse that. There’s a noun and a verb in there somewhere but just what the signifiers are signifying is none too clear. Words, as James Joyce found, are marvellous, resonant things, full of textures and associations but to throw away the syntax that normally holds them together is a risk rarely worth taking. ‘A poem should at least be as well-written as prose,’ said Ezra Pound, referring, I think, to excessive syntactical liberties being taken way back in 1910.

That being said, however, it’s important to note that Duty does contain some poems that are outstanding by any criterion – including that of the ‘well-made poem’. McKenzie’s sequence of nine sonnets, ‘Illuminations’, is very assured technically and full of verbal élan. The final couplet of #II is typical: ‘as we undress, lie down and slowly visit / love, he preens before his new exhibit.’ There are echoes of Wallace Stevens’ imagery throughout (‘no pianissimo distracts / those minor lovers counterpointing sighs …’) as well as a tone that goes right back to sixteenth century love poetry.

But McKenzie is not all verbal highjinks. Her ‘another nature poem’ does a strange, almost surreal justice to the trench grotesqueries of World War 1.Her image of ‘a pair of rats …/ too busy fretting as they / nurse a nibbled hand over / gravelled slopes …’ is just one arresting detail. The last stanza, by contrast, has a different, rather languid mood: ‘leaning back, one offers me a cigarette -- / we smoke and chase its random issue / into blue, offering our softness to / the sun, the guns a natural mutter / as a small plane flits above us’.

The poem, ‘Testament’, set in World War 2, is similarly convincing. So too is the erotic ‘Scenes from an imaginary romance’ and the successfully experimental ‘text/book/work’ about the well-known mating habits of the praying mantis.

In the face of such unarguable successes it seems a pity that so much of Duty is taken up with a sort of youthful experimentalism where the author seems to be glancing over her shoulder for the approval of her American mentors or her European antecedents -- and perhaps their local disciples. In this first book the highly talented McKenzie is at a kind of crossroads. I hope she takes the right one from here.


At 8:40 AM, Blogger michaelf said...

this review appeared in the canberra times. of all things to appear in a review surely a price too high is the worst. at least its 24.95 at my local bookshop ..

‘flap dang bamm boozled right rort write’: this seems more influenced by rock'n roll than l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poetry.. is it a mistake to want critics to take us seriously?

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Jill said...

I notice that a lot of Australian critics, when trying to deal with Australian poetry they deem 'experimental', 'left-field' or they just don't 'get', resort to labelling it l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e poetry. It shows how little they understand that particular moment in US poetry or understand the myriad kinds of influences (as you say, what about rock'n roll?) or effects that the poet is dealing with. Such labelling can stick in all kinds of irritating ways, that it can 'brand' a poet. It often sounds dismissive to me. As if it's not quite the done thing to have such 'modern influences', especially from off-shore.

At 6:09 AM, Blogger michaelf said...

i think theres an attitude of fake deja vu - havent we read this all before? ive never seen a review that mentions langpo (ok i cant be bothered with the l=a=n= etc - & its not 'required') in australia that goes anywhere with it - dismissive as you say. reading thru the review this morning - (& i dont want to seem like im attacking page as a convenient scapegoat - thanks for letting me us it on reading revival geoff - (& i recognise the constraints of the newspaper review - but often its all we have) but these are the issues that i want to explore on this blog: it seems that the poetrys being broken up into two - not merely the good & the bad - but the real & the wrong - gp doesnt say which poems are the youthful experiments - & while i dont think duty beyond criticism - the experimentation - not really a useful term here because its just working within a tradition - seems assured to me. its like hes offering what murray seems to have done in describing kate jennings: she took the right path: grew up. we all change as we approach our audience(s).. but what im interested in here is looking at duty as a range of things: a book: not a collection: i do this & i do that. as picasso said - its all research.

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Peter Minter said...

I'd just like to add to Jill's comment regarding the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E label.

I think Geoff is right to say that Geraldine's book is to some extent influenced by 'Language School' poetics, but his comment raises a deeper issue, addressed by Jill in her comment, that Australia poetry critics often misapply the term when reacting to any experimentation by Australian poets.

I am still amazed by the very lazy application of this term when it isn't really relevant.

The Language School of poets were critically responding to social and political conditions in the US toward the end of the Vietnam War. They were coherent as a 'school' between the early 1970s and the early-mid 1980s. They used Marxist and Post-Structuralist aesthetics to critique modes of language use that they felt were part of the larger dynamic of capitalist-military culture at that time. In very general terms, they wanted to re-map poetic language, often by disrupting, as Geoff point out, grammar, denotation, etc. They wanted to protest and effect change, in language, against what they then perceived to be a corrupt and warmongering dominant culture.

So, I'm with Jill here. The issue I sometimes feel frustrated by is that Australian critics tend to associate any form of contemporary experimentation with ths very specific group of poets who were working in a very specific way. Most Australian poets I know who are into experimentation are equally influenced by experimental poetries that grew in very different contexts from many parts of the world.

I have suffered this very lazy criticism myself at times. My own poetry practice moved on from readings of the Language School when I was in my 20s. My experimentations are more influenced by 20th century poetics from Europe, Asia and South America than they are from the US.

To me, Geraldine's experimentations are also influenced as much by broader westerrn (French, German, English) innovative aesthetics from the 20thC as they are by a very local American school from the 1970s. Which was itself deriving its impetus from a much deeper history of innovation.

I don't mean to be an apologist to the Langage School here. To my mind their work is interesting but not really all that useful to our context today.

But we remain cursed by lazy critics who don't do their reading, don't see the broader influences, and who do themsleves and Australian poetry a disservice.


At 7:29 AM, Blogger michaelf said...

language poet(ry) becomes a convenient shorthand - goddess forbid exploring a range of experimentation - or of ideas - in a review - there's a conflict between the notions of language poetry & language poetry - if a language poet writes a sonnet what has happened / happens?

part of this predicament it seems to me exists because the language poets were prolific in publishing poetics - theories and examinations, analyses of what they were doing & why - there's a conspicuous lack of such material in australia - hence the regularity of demands to please explain - some relevant material can be found in five bells & on jacket but there are no journals or anthologies devoted to these issues.
what does experimentation mean to different practitioners? where do techniques forms styles come from? do they bear any relation to the current 'corrupt and war-mongering culture' (from peter ms previous comment). what relation does the practice of poetry have to the word 'culture'? when 'culture' - and notions of change - have been so coopted by the forces of reaction?

why wouldnt a hungry experimenter get something from language poetry - more contemporary & less dispersed than surrealism or high modernism - or more recently flarf (see jacket 30 or google for more about flarf)?

At 10:57 PM, Blogger Peter Minter said...

H=u=n=g=r=y E=x=p=e=r=i=m=e=n=t=y

At 8:37 AM, Blogger michaelf said...

a=n=d f=u=r=t=h=e=r=m=o=r=e
contexts timing etc aside (!) - there will always be a gap b/w what we write here - well b/w any writer and another - another cultures movement - where irony steps in - how will this irony be read? my favourite example is hockneys californian scenes (pools etc) - english / outsider/ yet californian .. in this way all poetry (!?) written outside of langpo can be seen thru its lens as ironic langpo. ok so im going too far - yet after an amount of langpo reading - the lack of pressure on language by some other poetries dissatisfies .. becomes 'processing' (yes its not the experimenters that are machinelike.. or is it the machines that are taking responsibility for the future? who could blame them?)
this pressure this attention to language is then read as langpo itself: the irony & power of langpo manifest ..


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