new zealand electronic poetry centre

Michael Harlow


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
veiled in a secret;
. . .   
a secret   about a secret
made happy by a secret
                                                                                                                         — Sadiq

– 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:

One night I saw the light.  
That is the truth.
We don’t know why
we cry out to saintgod
but our crying never stops.
                      (22 :26) 

And for whom the world is first in the house of language, inscribed in the book,

when he turns off his remote Censor and revisits the circulating library
(the world) to find pages to insert in his new book (his heart)    
                      (26 : 32)      

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:

I stand earthy here, baked by 1000 years of tyranny and Man’s inhumanity to Man, the dry sweat of trains, slab constructions, daylight robberies, doctors with machetes, electricity, gas coming out of taps, the definition of exclu­sion, fulgid deaths of saints, discovery of vanishing points especially the blank point through which saintgod slipped

            b        u        t

you will live in an era of new proprioception, quartre étoiles, bright locofocos over Ocean City, leaving me   in my old age growing up again in the fuzzy town of my childhood where nothing was original, not even our peccadillos, where I promised with my hand stuck to a tree by a knife I’d eat the wind all my life and ramble from commune to commune as my blood

            w        e        p        t

onto stones like the ‘unrecapturable nostalgia for nos­talgia’, yes, arrive daughter somewhere in sunshine rubio with the rapture of expectation, live in your immensity through the longest years—live them as fired up as I am now, wordless in the insomniac night of my bio-clock, at this moment of worldly separation from

            y        o         u

                       (74 : 97)

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.

Fq is, among other plausible descriptions, a labyrinthine text; a maze, and often an amazement: of twists and turns, sidetracks and detours, of visionary moments, and discontinuities, of surreal topographies and presences. Reading Fq is often like reading a description of a mind's imagination in high gear and full flight – describing the encounter with itself through a projected world of objects and events; and a cast of characters as fantastic and curious as they are often visionary and apparitional. At the centre of which is anti-hero and proto-agonistes, ‘In lights, Shoe is “A to Z” / (Mr Ess),’ inside the alphabet – you might say Alpha to Omega – aka The Road Man, Traveller, Roadster, X-Man, Road Knight, Rooster, alter-ego figures for 'Shoe,' scribe and diarist, exiled as voluntary resident-writer, courtesy of ‘The Thing’: 'Welcome to Akkadia' (Academe), intones the hedonic and comfortably cynical but gut-troubled ‘Sir Rodney in his slippers . . . panting from an antacid’ (2 : 5, 8 : 11).

It takes a great deal of practice knowing how to get lost in order to find a way (back) to oneself; to reaffirm one's poetic identity through a soul-making relationship with the Other – a major theme in Brunton's poem:

Road Knight is lost
in a long black cloud,
the Other side of life
where not even absence is present     
(V : 51)

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).

Shoe visits one vertigo after another . . . dancing a pas de dieu
with himself . . .   — altered beyond repair like San Juan
bleeding from his mouth as if God spoke through it.
. . .
Jesus, will anyone understand this?
There is one story only ...
All he is saying is, The time
came but the Man didn’t show.
                    (10 : 13)

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
—fortunate circumstance—
with the whiteness of the whiteness of winter
& he believes again in his creative power!
                                                            (V : 51)

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™):  

Shoe meets his ghost where Soul meets Natural World. She apes him. He does her—Happy Duplicates coming out in their own image and in each other’s image (16 : 20)

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:

they are already in mid-stream, taking his ghost with them to their tropical isle.
Like that, love comes and goes.
                 (16 : 20)                                   

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:

I have, she whispers out loud, wandering days
when I comfort men, why
one afternoon, I could open this door and, fantastic pin-up, be here,
whipped cream ready for action
Struck dumb, he drops the bouncing ball
                 (3 : 6)

And of course, as the unattainable Beloved,

           . . . the Jewels of the Bride
are denied Shoe,
haughty BIJOU took this heute her bijoux
back!, handing him a crupper
                 (131 : 161)

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.

The Beloved then, as ‘Nadia Greatorex in a Speedo,’ who in text 11 ‘Aletheia’ (Greek. truth as in 'holy truth' of no less than the Resurrection) returns as Nadia-Aphrodite who ‘walks out of the ocean / beneath blood-shot stars,' her 'No' transmuting momentarily into Cinderella, ‘She is invisible . . . Who will wear your shoe.’ And of whom, ‘Long ago, faraway, her grandma said: / “Look at hershe won't stay here.”’

She crosses the border
with the other refugees into
the 40 nights of eternity
His loneliness lasts 1000000 years
. . .
Nadia was fast
but he was slow—long ago, forever
                 (11. 14)

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)

seamless lady: bless me
while you’re here,
cancel grief at my sins
you hot platter
before whom—I can’t help it—
I deliquesce, the ‘memory
of an amnesia’, I is an I
standing still,
just a little bit longer
caress me and end my frailty.
This Is My Prayer.  
                 (104 : 130)

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.

As writer and performer, one is obliged at least to keep the conversation and stage-play interesting and engaging, even if the script and the performance sometimes go walkabout from each other – and Brunton and Shoe and Herself and Co do this, and more. It is, I think, a measure of Brunton's integrity as a writer, and his committed intimacy with and to the language of the 'persistent imaginal,' and his gift for keeping the 'conversation' interesting and sometimes fascinating, that the 'flaws' and lapses in his work are considerably interesting, too. And as Shoe says, ‘Closing the Site’: 'This is bird bye bye' (130 : 160).


Michael Harlow

Last updated 24 March, 2005