new zealand electronic poetry centre

Michael Harlow


Peel and Dig   

Review of Laminations by Murray Edmond. First published in The New Zealand Listener (20 May 2000): 46-47.

When we read Laminations as the covering title for this recent selection of poems by Murray Edmond, we are in the territory, archaeological, of peeling away surface layers and digging down into the deep hold where language itself is the likely ur-text of the book. We are into the lexicon of the plural psyche and the many-layered possibilities for meaning in the word-world; where language is pre-eminently generative, and a theatre of memory – as we hear in ‘A Wave of Seven Self-Generating Key-Words’: ‘Out of the same mouth/ no word twice. We marvelled at this law/ of generation set in motion by our generation.’ The fact that we talk – and later enscript – to give meaning to our lives and our relationships with the world is one of the not-so-secret subjects of this book.

But we read and also hear, and we are meant to, Lamentations: speaking of the ‘fat lady, whose word is flesh’, who ‘stands to sing a verse for supper’, we hear how ‘Reality’s snitched on the show./ It doesn’t even go. It’s bust. The word ain’t/ flesh. The pity is she sings and sings and / sings and still the show goes on’ – from ‘Two Wing Circus’, just one of the deeply engaging political poems in this volume.  

The image and presence of the poet as juggler-jongleur seems apposite for Edmond, growing out of his extensive theatre experience. And it’s accurate to practice in many of these poems. The notion of language as a play-space – that is, playing seriously in the house of language becomes a voice-style. Resonant of the composer and writer John Cage’s performance-talks (one of the tutelary figures in Edmond’s oeuvre), poems written on the air, is that dislocating, sometimes fabulist, neo-Dada style that emerges as composed talk. It serves Edmond very well indeed; and he has made of it his own characteristic idiolect.

It’s a voice-style that not only accommodates a committed and vigorous response to what is happening politically, socially and culturally out there in the world (‘Rant for Mickey Joe’, ‘The Gannets of Pilsen’ or ‘Starfish Streets’, for example), but one that has lashings of wit, often sharp-edged in its ironies, and sometimes charged with quirky and occasionally absurd dislocations. Puns, the double entendre, jokes, homophonic and homographic word-play, parody and sometimes fabulist swarms of language in search of a place to settle down – there is hardly a text that isn’t animated and enriched by such word-play.

As in the wittily titled ‘XSFXU2’, a parodic rhapsode and take on alien-abduction fantasies: ‘Come in, invaders, abduct me./ My body is lighter than freckles,/ my fruit arrangements keep attracting wild women from outer space/ all they want to do is sit on my knee and tell me I’m lonely.’ One becomes the object of one’s very own delusionary desires, and finally mutated into an insect: ‘I am insectivorous,/ my thorax gleams … The rasps on my spurs work like microchips./ The ears in my legs are always alert/ for the moment of their coming’. A metamorphosis that calls up Kafka, one of the monitoring presences in Edmond’s gallery of literary estimables.

And it’s gratifying to have a New Zealand writer/poet so actively engaged with, and challenging, the deranged ideologies of power politics. There are a number of politically alert poems in Laminations that, among other considerations, ask how we can find a language that somehow makes sense of a world in which the ‘model’ concentration camp of Theresienstadt/Terezin in Bohemia was also called ‘this City Beautiful with its 1200 rose bushes,/ bandstand, playground with swings and roundabouts,/ kindergarten, madhouse, café, dormitories stacked with suitcases,/ … and station departing for points east:/ after the film crew had left in August, the transports began again./ Began again.’ That – from the very moving, memorial poem ‘Starfish Streets’.

And sometimes the voice is more private and personal; less rant and raconteur, more reflective and lyrically poignant in its regard for matters of the heart, and the intimacies of relationship. As it is in ‘Small Fry’, a rather tender-hearted re-creation of a ‘night of night fishing’ with a daughter, and where the pun of the title projects not only the young girl, but surfaces in the ‘small fry who rose/ through a chaos of lines to nibble’. And the poem becomes an occasion, touched by a flush of nostalgia, for recovering an intimate moment in time; a catch of memory and desire for the past and the present to be as one: ‘neither of us wanting to leave this Elysium/ and go home without a catch,/ …our hearts torn,/ hanging on and hanging out/ for a bite, even a small one./ To stay here forever.’

And the same lyric voice we find in the quite lovely memory-poem, ‘Step and Wave’, animated in the recovered image of the dance and the dancer, who: ‘skipped, turned, twirled, jumped –/ moves as pure as Isadora’s/ …when delight spilled over into steps of dance’. And whose memorial return is limned as ‘a swift sketch,/ quick strokes, skipping all over/ the bare page’ and ‘the drawing stays, …your sharp hand your quick eye/ can make such marks as these,/ marks which hold the wave still/ while light skips and dances’. A poem enlightened by images of the dance, confluent with that of a sea-wave. Indeed, the double-entente in ‘Step and Wave’ is nicely judged and brightly provocative, doubling as it does the shifting grammar of nominals and verbals. And we can hear: the ‘laughter of memory and/ memory of far-off laughter’.

But, of course, it’s not all standing ovations and bravo. As one might expect, there are poems in Laminations that resist, sometimes strenuously, a relaxed and easy reading; that are, as they say, ‘difficult’ in terms of getting hold of some kind of coherent centre of meaning. And there are, for this reader, one or two poems that just don’t make it, for various reasons that have as much to do with my reading preferences and limitations as they do with Edmond’s recently alleged obscurity, ‘artistic ineptness’, unintelligibility, solipsism and assorted descriptions of critical complaint. Laminations and the writing therein is none of these, not even remotely so. I would say, rather, that anyone interested in New Zealand poetry (or any other provenance for that matter) owes it to that interest to read and listen to the songlines laid down in Laminations/’Lamentations’. In the present lit-art climate where too often the ‘fast food’ demand, consumer-chic and the instant-Zen of cultural expectations command the field, Laminations is the real goods – and a welcome arrival. Of course, it is difficult to hear anything if you fail to listen. So do: read it and listen; and the pleasure of all that composed talk, too.



Michael Harlow

Last updated 18 April, 2005