Review of Chrome by Paula Green
First published Glottis 5 (2001): 127-30
In Chrome, Paula Green – as her given name might even suggest – is the female apostle, or messenger, for various (and often opposing) tints and shades of meaning. Like her first book, Cookhouse, this collection is saturated with pictures of domesticity and peppered with the tropes and paradigms of critical language: two traditionally opposite spheres which Green seeks to fuse. Where Cookhouse used food and recipes to measure the phases of loss and renewal, Chrome uses colour to mark the stages in a similar process of memory and self-analysis.
‘Chrome’ itself as a title evokes various connections. Compounds of the metal chromium are variously called chrome red, chrome yellow, chrome green; in the book Green divides the discussion of identity and home into four sections, each named for a colour. These, in often gnomic utterances, touch on the poet in her domestic now, the poet in historical relation to mother and to father, and finally, return to her present vocation.
It’s not far from ‘chrome’ to chromatic: or minute tonal shifts in either aural or visual scale. It is a fitting association for a collection in which the subject matter is approached painstakingly, and meaning is offered, renegotiated and even negated inch by inch, margin by margin.
The title also suggests the first syllable of chromotype, an image produced in a photographic process. And Green’s work is visually punctuated with black and white photos of usually vividly coloured natural objects; honeycomb, fruit (tamarillos, I think), grass, water. There is, here, a rich and knowing visual pun on Green’s work: how do you capture the intensity of colour in the black and white of print? If you sap away the colour, does the identity of the thing remain? If, in fact, the nature of the things is obscured, is colour itself essence? Can colour offer an analogue for identity, as Green tries to make it do?
The title also suggests the first syllable of chromosome – the genetic tissue which stubbornly remains a part of identity, no matter how we self-construct through language. This is the meaning which initially seems most at odds with Green’s view of the writing process and the progress of self-knowledge. For example, in Red, the section on the mother, Green says: ‘I am writing my mother / to the point of return.’ To take the theoretical overtones of this to one extreme, the lines imply that Mum is an idea, a conglomeration of words, a creation of the writer-daughter that exists primarily through language and on the page.
Yet the interpretations of much of Green’s consciously ambiguous phrasing slip and slide. Chrome is also the slick, gleaming surface of metal plating: a reflective substance. A link which implies that poetry reflects back the world to itself: that a reading will always reflect back the concerns – and limitations – of the reader. Suggesting, also, therefore, the elusiveness of meaning.
This particular echo of post-modernity calls up another: as Green writes about her yellow self, her red mother, her green father, and the blueness of poetry, her approach to colour initially suggests a relationship to the Deep Image poets of the 1960s and 1970s, whose work, in intensely sensuous chains of metaphor and simile, explored the powerfully associative aspects of colour, both borrowing from tradition and forming new emotional connections between pigments, things, and psychological interiors. Green’s work often asks the name of the colour alone to do much of the work that the Deep Image group eked out with both surreal juxtapositions and realist descriptions, each of which could carry a startling clarity. And while colour is a structural device, Green’s poems don’t intend to delve into the unconscious with the concentration of a poet like, say, Diane Wakowski: Green’s bent is towards the more rational. She constantly interrupts her own images with aphoristic statement: ‘the mother suffocating the daughter / in the daughter she suffocates herself,’ ‘In repeating ourselves, we see ourselves.’ Such lines could only loosely be called confessional, as they tell, don’t show; Green withholds details of the circumstances or events that might have fed such conclusions – implying that she hopes the reach of her poetry will also take in a more generalised sense of family.
In Green’s colour chart, descriptive synonyms occasionally crop up: in Yellow, for example, we meet ‘old,’ ‘jaundiced,’ ‘buttercups’ and The Golden Notebook (a literary reference which reinforces the notion that Green wants to meld aspects of women’s lives which until recently were more often rigidly compartmentalised). Yet, in the main, we’re not helped along by parallel, connotative adjectives for colour. Instead, more frequently pushed up against the frank maxims such as those quoted above, are couplets like:
Such usage suggests an idiosyncratic symbology: Green’s private associations with colour attempt to rewrite the traditional.
That couplet might not seem the best choice as illustration of an argument; it appears plucked from context, unanchored, verging on the nonsensical. Yet its dense use of metaphor, its verb transferred to an unusual context, and the absence of guiding punctuation (which in Green’s case, often effectively erases conventional syntax), are highly characteristic.
Much post-modern work is dazzling in its transcription of the mind’s gymnastic leaps and rapid powers of connection and concatenation: reading it feels like being taken on the exhilarating intellectual equivalent of a jet boat or roller coaster ride, as you have to abandon your usual approach to literature to the sensation of lurch and free-fall. At other times it’s like reading the equivalent of TV-channel surfing; or it can feel akin to being taken behind the scenes to see the Wizard of Oz is just a little gnome, when you’d thought all the powers of illusion were about to transport you: post-modernity shows you all the strings and pulleys and trapdoors behind the scenes in the writer’s theatre or workshop. Green, too, aims to break down our cosier or more pedestrian reading habits. She makes the blades of the mind labour hard. Immersion in the difficult syntactical quirks of Chrome is like cutting wet grass with a hand mower; one step forward, the mechanism seizes. One step back, try to unlock the rotor. How can Monday wash Tuesday? How is Tuesday a little cabinet? Or is the little cabinet yellow with thought? Ohh, go back again: does Monday wash a little cabinet for Tuesday? How is thought yellow? How is complication yellow? How would working these out help a general understanding of Green’s take on her main themes? Such constant questions and pauses fight against the wider, overall movement of the work: the couplets usually aren’t end-stopped so we’re asked to move fluidly from one to another, pushed along also by the structural sweep of the 12 line stanza and each individual section. Yet halt and stumble I did, trying to work out possible interpretations. And although it would be easy to borrow the saying that if you give an ape a mirror, she’ll only see an ape – and so it is with books (Chrome reflects the reader), my guess is that this rebarbative, stuttering effect is not only deliberate and desired, but possibly an indication of an intrinsic impasse within the poetry itself.
Much of Green’s practice suggests the avant-garde. One of the progenitors of Language poetry, Charles Olson, advocated improvising line by line, syllable by syllable. Green directly echoes this approach in her opening lines: ‘syllable by syllable she decorates herself / rhymed with seagrass or saffron fuelled.’ Another of Olson’s arguments was that form is no more than an extension of content. So Green, in doing away with conventional syntax, punctuation, the logical progression of a thesis, says that her central subjects – identity and home – vex her, stall her, are choked and questioned in the midst of articulation and have been difficult for her to work through. Meanings blend and blur, contradictions will not be resolved, and this is the nature of self and home.
So perhaps what initially, to this reader, seemed the most perplexing contradiction, is actually an understandable retreat to the comforts of that bourgeois bogey of the post-modern: the lyrically expressive self. In the final section, Blue, which is about poetry, the avant-garde project seems to be dismantled. The established visual form remains, but the syntax clarifies, and Green writes:
It’s okay, Mum, Donator of Chromosomes! You can come back: we’re not only fabricated of language. There is an essential, native identity inside us after all. I suspect that the major artistic struggle behind much of Green’s serious-minded work is over how to reconcile the clever, energising and dazzling formal innovations of post-modernism, with an abiding belief in the inviolate voice, the private sensibility of the individual writer, with what she calls in Yellow, ‘her own true self.’