Reading Brunton: Fq and the Fascination of Fictions
Originally published in Landfall 207 (May 2004): 196-99
Alan Brunton, Credo quia absurdum est (‘I believe that which is absurd’), is one of those writers who goes looking for life inside and out, and for questions and answers in places and spaces that few wriiers care to go. How to unravel the novella de misterio that
'We are a secret
– the epigraphic citation to Brunton's long poem sequence, and quest romance, Fq. Read: the short-signed Fq, qua Faerie Queene; hear, in homophonic play 'F_ _k you'; that kind of brazen and bravura protestant language play that is a signature feature of Brunton at work 'inside the alphabet.' He knows how to say 'No' with thunder, which is of course another way of saying 'Yes' to what's gone missing or needs acute attention; and there's a fair measure of that kind of attention in Fq.
Brunton must be one of New Zealand's most audacious, and original poets indeed. Few if any of the locals sound or read quite like Brunton, or take the risks with language that he does. How to make some kind of sense, transcendental or otherwise, of our relationship to the world and ourselves? A world that in ‘our century is saintgod's obituary,’ says Shoe, Road Knight-Traveller and Fq’s principal agonist, looking for a way to return to himself on a soul-making quest. And how is it that we are so mysterious to ourselves, and others? What does it take to survive that numinous moment, in the long journey toward re-union with the Other, and the estranged and exiled Self – when:
And for whom the world is first in the house of language, inscribed in the book,
But language the great liberator of the imaginal can be also be a prison-house, that great hole behind words that the poet Octavio Paz acknowledges, and which underscores a kind of semantic anxiety that runs through the poem sequence: the voice-in-crises, swinging between loss and despair, loneliness and anger; a voice sometimes at the edge of the abyss. And swinging the other way, a voice filled with hope and rhapsodic desire, delight and tenderness – a range of emotional intensity that can be moving and stunning in affect. Here's Brunton out on his own in a poème en prose, ‘Precious Stone,’ addressed to his daughter, Ruby. A poem then, for love; but one that is also instinct with elegy, and a pleynt against political and cultural anomie – in the face of which it is also alive with hope and the heart's affection; and it's worth quoting in full:
As they say in the commune of the demotic, 'smart move,' and a deft
consideration by Brunton to re-call as pre-text the still canonical Faerie Queene (via Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, et al). And nimbleness of wit, too, at a time when the author was (the very respectable) Writer-in-Residence, at a University of Higher Learning/Canterbury ('The Thing’), and himself a character in the roadshow. So – what have we here architektonikós? Some recent critical commentary and promotional blurbs tell us: a book-length sequence of 145 poems (including the preludic text, ‘Pro Luego’), comprising twelve books (or parts), each book introduced with a prologos lyric, and keyed to the calendar year, moving through the cycle of seasons.
Road Knight is lost
And nothing succeeds like failure it seems, in the process of returning home as the archetypal Road Knight, in the persona of the recording angel, and the shadow-voice of that ‘Overseer of the Scribes of the Great Records,’ under the sign of Uranus, ‘Alan Brunton / life's supreme uranic poet’ (6 : 9).
But She does 'show,' from time to time in various guises, Shoe's dream-like and apparitional soul-mate, here as muse-creatrix:
Moon Maiden arrives at the end of her circle
Early on in the roadshow, quest-journey, Shoe has a ghost-like encounter with his longed-for Beloved – appearing as his 'Double,' his psychic partner, the shape-shifting Other self (also incarnated as Nadia, BIJOU, Polly Pop, Lola International™):
And they embark on a rather surreal and fast-forward tour of the city: ‘They ride the loop into the Square . . . They run around like it's Elsewhere,’ and end up ‘the Minstrel & his Fantom’ at Shoe's place as ‘The night ties up like a felucca with black sails.’ Suddenly they are beset by a phantom-swarm of merchant sailors plying their wares (a splendid list of portmanteau-blend words that reads like a Wizard's spellbook – and an example of the angst and anxiety leavening use of the comic Brunton understands and uses often artfully); and Shoe's would-be tryst with his inamorata dissolves as she is spirited away:
And She does, again: as BIJOU, ‘O-Educated, young, smart & full of boodle, expert in labial movement’ (21: 25), who incarnatus est as Circe, seductive anima and femme fatale, entices:
And of course, as the unattainable Beloved,
The eros-persona, the redemptive dream-wish, who might deliver him from the loneliness and the rack of despair that shadow him so often during the tenure of his quest-journey, ‘through amnesia—between here and The • ’ And (lest we forget to remember), forgetting is always about remembering. Fq as part memoir, then, the flaneurist stroll through memory: a way of reading oneself backwards. The past and the just-past, and the present – a maze-walk towards the future, with a nod in the direction of Herakleitos and the Pre-Socratics of whom Brunton would claim kin. There is much about the nature of time and space and poetic practice in Fq, and Brunton as 'philosopher-poet' keeps this card on the table and in play.
This great desire for the redemptive re-union with the Self's soul-mate is at the centre of Fq as a quest-romance, and its major theme or rather substance out of which the Roadshow journey is fashioned; that is, soul-making. See and hear this passage from the very fine and moving poem ‘Camellias (Our Lady),’ who is also Theotokos or God Bearer. An invocation to (Our)
And of course, it's not always obvious or an easy 'spot' as it threads thematically through the poem in various tropes and guises, not all of which are centre-stage or upfront. As one might expect from the Roadmaster, principal entertainer, sometime dancing man (softShoe, what have you), strolling player and jongleur – with one eye on survival, the other on the world 'high' and 'low' – there's a fair display of legerdemain here. Some of it very entertaining and hilarious, sometimes baffling and fascinating, sometimes just plain curious, overwrought, and content to be going nowhere special.