F**k you, Faerie Queene
Originally published in brief #28 (Spring 2003)
As I sat down to begin this review, the postman delivered a mail-sack with my long-anticipated copy of Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s 4-volume, 5,000-page, complete translation of the Mahbaharata ("As an epic it is the greatest – seven times as great as the Iliad and the Odyssey combined, and the grandest – animating the heart of India over two thousand years past and destined to lead humanity for thousands of years in future.") Yeah, that’s the way – keep it subtle, guys: show, don’t tell – show, don’t tell:
So what’s that got to do with writing about this last work ("finalised for publication just before his death in Amsterdam, June 2002") by Alan Brunton, "life’s supreme uranic poet, Overseer of the Scribes of the Great Records" (9)? I suppose, on the one hand, it seemed like a good omen: a Karmic intervention by the universe outside. On the other hand, it reminded me a bit of the rhetoric surrounding the release of this sequence of poems: "All the big questions are asked and all possible answers interrogated … Fq is funny, bleak, tender, savage, philosophical, prescient and crazy … It confirms his reputation as the most innovative, abundant and far-reaching poet of his time." (Fq publicity handout, Oct 2002). Vyasa, Homer and Sappho rolled into one would have a hard time living up to that drum-roll!
That’s certainly what Douglas Barbour thought, anyway. In his recent Jacket review he said:
He concludes: "I can only offer my honest response to Fq. An interesting, sometimes delightful, often entertaining, occasionally provocative work, which also has many lacklustre moments, awkward, prosaic lines, confusing twists and turns." Not, as they say, a rave. (I particularly like that "even within New Zealand" line: even in that distant barbarian province, nestled on the far edge of the Empire of Babel …)
Ian Wedde appears to entertain similar views. When, in his long piece "The poem as stretch limo" (in NZ Books (March 2003) 6-7), he finally gets around to talking about the poem, he summarizes as follows:
Huh? Wha’? "Thin, almost transparent, just before sleep." … With praise like that, who needs criticism? Perhaps I shouldn’t have been amused, but I was, to find in that same issue of NZ Books an editorial by the late lamented Bill Sewell, on the subject of the "Clayton’s" poetry review ("The beer you have when you’re not having a beer," for any of you too young to remember Jack Thompson slumped on a bar stool, salivating over a urinous pint of the unmentionable). The relevant rules, so it appears, are as follows:
Bill Sewell’s remedy was to "Be bold in approaching the poems; pussyfooting around is a waste of time." Barbour, to do him credit, is bold; Wedde clearly wants to be kind to the memory of an old friend, but one can’t help feeling that he could have found more to say about the poetry if he’d felt any particular liking for it.
So, after all that, where do I stand on the matter? Well, I guess my first reaction was a little like Barbour’s. What collection of poems could possibly justify that build-up? After I’d read the first few of them (knowing I would have to review the book), I felt more like Wedde. How do I get out of this one? Can I just bullshit on about the subject of "obscurity" in general, with a few pertinent quotes, and get away with a pose of mandarin aloofness? But then I read more, and more, and then more again …
Barbour comments, towards the end of his piece: "I have to confess that there are many other books I would re-read before I came back to this one." That’s, I think, where we differ most. I enjoyed the book hugely – once I’d actually sat down and started it. I more than enjoyed it – I loved it. I laughed, I cried. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know that sounds like a dumb cliché, but I did. I laughed and cried. There’s a beautiful poem "Precious Stone," clearly meant for the poet’s daughter Ruby, on p.97. I’d like to quote it in full, but maybe this will give you some idea of it (show, don’t tell):
Sentimental? I think not. Sad, yes. Beautiful and clear, too, I think. Who wouldn’t like to receive a poem like that in the post? But wait, there’s more. Earlier in the same poem we get a similarly passionate recreation of the writer’s own past:
That was what got me, I guess. There was to be no "old age growing up again," nothing but this moment, this souvenir of a youthful vow to "eat the wind all my life"‘ – a vow he manifestly upheld. And the neologisms – "proprioception," [self-perception? An Olsonian coinage, Michele Leggott informs me] "locofocos" [foci of place? Loco folk-os?] – seem, in context, less allowable than necessary: the only way of invoking this intangible future. As necessary as those obtrusive letter-spacings, imparting a sense of duration and time to certain talismanic words: wept, you… I don’t know about you, I find that moving.
Is that all there is to it, though? A Villon-esque Last Will and Testament addressed to those he left behind? That may be how we (inevitably) read it, but that was not how it was intended. Fq was to be yet another instalment in his life’s work: a weighty one, to be sure, but to be interpreted in its own terms – a long poem with beginning, middle and end.
Perhaps the major problem with the publicity handout (which still seems to me entirely appropriate for its moment – just before the celebratory concerts in Wellington and Auckland – not to mention function – an upbeat overview designed to sell as many copies as possible), was that it encouraged a reading of Fq as an essentially manic and celebratory text: "existential vertigo is coefficient with loopy lyrics in the mind of Shoe …" That moment has passed, and I think it’s time to admit how dark, how difficult, how terrifying a poem this can be.
Given its subject-matter and parameters, I think it has to be like that. What, after all, does Fq stand for? On the one hand it is, as we were reminded by Peter Simpson in the NZ Herald (30/11/02, p.G7), a reference to Spenser’s Faerie Queene: another quest poem, originally planned to be complete in 12 books, but actually reaching only six-and-a-bit – one, moreover, whose eponymous heroine never actually appears (I think it’s also important to note Brunton’s awareness of Spenser’s well-documented tenure as a brutal colonialist official in Ireland). Say the two letters out loud, then, and you get "F**k you": a salutation particularly appropriate to the despoilers he’s so often addressing – Lola InternationalTM: "an Inca death mask / fashioned from pure CaSO42H20 by unexplainable, even anomalous forces: / Goddess of Justice, the Law – cruel, eccentric" (16), most prominent among them.
Such echoes of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land ("unreal city … I had not thought death had undone so many") must also surely be intentional. For the moment, however, that city ("London Athens Jerusalem") appears to be called Christchurch. That’s not to imply there’s no humour there – Brunton’s poem is funny in a way Eliot’s "rhythmic grumble against life" could never be – but it’s an exceptionally bleak humour:
That’s beautifully put, I think – "Too much sun. Too much light." – albeit, again, not precisely cheerful. It’s more the mood of Milton’s Samson Agonistes ("O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, / Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse ...") than knockabout farce. Eliot said that the last speech Othello gives before killing himself sounds like a man "trying to cheer himself up." One gathers, in context, that this is supposed to be a bad thing, but it’s a bit difficult to see why. I certainly read a lot of Fq in this light. It is, after all, a seasonal poem: in 12 parts (144 + 1 poems) approximating to the twelve months (really more like nine) of Brunton’s 1997 writer-in-residence-ship in Christchurch, and reflecting the Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter of our gumshoe poet’s moods. The wintriness of the "Funerary rites" above, then, is counteracted by the opening of section XII:
Green things overflow
That’s the advantage of Brunton’s form, it seems to me. It’s flexible enough to allow him to include almost anything: any mood, any moment, any thought, and yet remain unified by the theme of exile: Bruton’s Tristia, if you like: his Epistulae ex Ponto ["ovilely, like exiled to the Pontus not New Brighton" (7)]. Like Ovid, Brunton wants to philosophize, construe the laws of the universe (one might, in this vein, describe Moonshine as his Metamorphoses, Romaunt of Glossa as his Fasti), but his centre is Amores, love poetry. Polly Pop, BIJOU – even the elusive Nadia Greatorex – enchant, delight, entice our hapless bard: his "system suffers exquisite duress" (22).
It’s tempting to go on quoting, revealing, expounding … Fq, it’s true, divides readers. It makes demands. Your view of poetry, what it’s for, what it can achieve, can never be the same once you’ve taken this book on board. How does Smithyman put it, in "An Ordinary Day Beyond Kaitaia"?
This poem demands no less of you. It’s inclusive, incisive, insightful, informative, infuriating by turns. Barbour and Wedde felt this and rejected it. Been there, done that, they said (in effect, at least) –Just one more hippy poet trying to redefine life, the universe and everything. We’ve heard it all before. And so they had, and so have all of us. George Moore, I’m told, had to draw his own aesthetic line in the sand at Debussy. Up to then he’d managed to keep up with each new artistic movement: Wagnerism, the Celtic revival, Impressionism, everything. But Debussy, Expressionism … no, that was simply too much. One has to draw the line somewhere, after all.
I’ve had to redraw my own line to admit Brunton. His relentlessly jaunty, allusive, pun-packed tone of voice does not automatically appeal, but I’ve found just reading him: not dipping into him here and there: really reading him has convinced me. This poem is the real thing. It needs to be read, enjoyed. I haven’t (I’m sure) worked out half of what half of it’s about, but it continues to fascinate me. So it will you if you give it half a chance.
In a sense I still sympathise with Barbour and Wedde’s reservations, but I think they’re wrong. If something this lively, complex, and precisely constructed isn’t great poetry, I no longer know what is.
Whether or not Nicholas Flamel succeeded in finding the Philosopher’s Stone with the help of his mysterious two-florin tome is open to debate. The title of the book I quote the story from gives at least one view on the matter. Personally, I find it harder to reject the fascination of the esoteric text. Alan Brunton has given us just such a book, tailored to the circumstances of immediately pre and post-millennial New Zealand, and for that I’m in his debt.
I’ve said to read it and see, but is that really practical? Do lines like: "The Thing puts down a great concrete foot and catches Shoe’s coat. He cuts himself free with nail scissors. / 3 slaters climb ladders, hired to repair the sky" (152) rule it out of court? The interesting thing with Brunton’s poetry is that, when read aloud, the difficulties mostly evaporate. So for a while that’s how I saw him: a "performance poet." But now I’m positive those cadences are inherent in his work. You have to give it a chance, but his language, his circumstances, most of his references, are ours:
That was the dream, all right – to throw off the bounds of restraint; crash through the Kiwi norms (conformity, decorum,, compromise: as dominant in our tame literature as in our lives), that suburban dream of perfect amity: bereft of love, enthusiasm, excess; the well-mowed lawns, the rows of square state houses; no tangled, diabolic thickets of bush (except for "Tui Glens" and scenic tourist backdrops); the well-turned lyrics; the plangent vernacular social texts … the boredom of the whole thing demanded such a reaction:
Maybe the time came and the man did show. The man we needed – the rough beast we’d all been waiting for. We didn’t notice, but that man was Alan Brunton.