John Geraets, ed.: brief 22 (December 2001)
Alan Loney / John O’Connor / John Geraets
John Geraets, ed.: Ab.ww/Loney (September 2000)
John O’Connor, “Purposeful Nonsense.” New Zealand Books 11 (2) (June, 2001): 22-23.
“Opinions,” says Clint Eastwood in one of the Dirty Harry films, “are like assholes – everybody’s got one.”
Now, if I begin my discussion of John O’Connor’s NZ Books review of the special Alan Loney Festschrift issue of Ab.ww [now brief]: 17 (2000) with this quotation, doesn’t it sound as if I’m calling my esteemed colleague an arsehole? Actually that’s not my intention, as I find his essay both stimulating and intelligent, but it would be a bit hard to persuade him (not to mention other people) otherwise.
Of course, I can always claim that the point of the quote was simply to illustrate the fact that everyone has their own opinion, and a right to express it.
When I see a dung heap, I do not rummage in it to see if it is a dung heap.
By the same token, the fact that O’Connor begins by quoting this statement from that noted aesthete Lenin does make it sound as if he’s calling either Loney’s poetry – or this issue of the magazine he founded – a load of old crap. And yet he too can invoke the same escape clause: “Ignore the operatic dichotomies (boring old fart versus radical chic, etc.) and consider the issues.”
I’m only too happy to “consider the issues,” but one would have to admit that the dung heap analogy (like my own “asshole” quote above) is prejudicial language, and therefore sets a bad precedent for any attempts at objective discussion.
The title of his “opinion” piece – “Purposeful nonsense?” – should give us pause also. This is as unloaded a question as “When did you stop beating your wife?” The question his essay sets out to answer is clearly not: Is this work nonsense? but: Is this nonsense work?
O’Connor begins his analysis with two lines from Loney’s “Melbourne Journal:”
writing as a form or mode of waiting
waiting as a form or mode of writing
He allows that there are “forms or modes” of writing: poetry, prose, etc. However, “it is obvious that waiting – unlike the sonnet, haiku, biography, short story or novel – is not a type of writing.” True. One might remark parenthetically that this objection would apply to most of the similes and metaphors generally considered part and parcel of the poet’s craft: My luve is not like a red, red rose (for example). A rose is a flower, whereas my love is (presumably) human. The evening spread out on the sky is not like a patient etherised upon a table. Such a comparison would be impossibly fanciful, and so on …
O’Connor’s central objection to Loney’s “distich,” though, lies in the nature of the word waiting. “I have never heard anyone speak of types of waiting.” With all due respect, this does not strike me as a particularly cogent rebuttal of the “sense” of Loney’s statement. A brief consultation of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (1964 edition) provides me with: pause, tarry, stay, kick one’s heels, be expectant or on the watch as “forms or modes of waiting.” Am I just splitting hairs? Hardly. It’s surely obvious that one can wait attentively or inattentively, expectantly or hopelessly, a long time or a short time, patiently or impatiently. In short, there are “divisible,” “uncontroversial” types of waiting (to adopt two of O’Connor’s terms).
Could writing be a type of waiting? Not in a normal, everyday sense, no – just as waiting is not a commonly recognised genre of writing. Does this make the statement meaningless? As O’Connor himself acknowledges: “such language is not intended to make conventional sense.” Quite so. And yet … waiting is (and always has been) a pretty loaded concept. Waiting for Godot (Who’s Godot? Where is he? Why are they waiting for him?); “Waiting expensively for miracles to happen” (Auden, “the Capital”); “They also serve who only stand and wait” (Milton, “On His Blindness”). That last even seems to anticipate waiting as a form of writing! “J’ai failli attendre” [I almost had to wait], said Louis XIV, forced to pause in front of a door which had not been held open for him. The Sun King does not wait. The rest of us, I fear, are mostly forced to. How we occupy the time is up to us.
Personally, I don’t find Loney’s statement meaningless (which is why, I guess, I originally quoted it: on page 76 of the issue in question), though it certainly is teasing. Maybe some of us just can’t stand being teased.
O’Connor goes on to analyse in great detail, and with considerable acuteness, the implications of Loney’s “fragmentary,” “affective” method of constructing a poem: “We are left … with unimaginable concepts, specific types without (as it were) samples or ideas of their reality.” This is certainly a problem. I would go so far as to say that it is the central problem – the fact that one is trying to communicate, in writing, fugitive impressions which no reader can ever precisely share. He goes on to say that it tends to result in “a poem of potentially interesting bits and pieces, not necessarily a successful poem.”
Very true, again. But then, what is a “successful poem”? O’Connor does not ignore the need to provide us with a definition. “That will depend on how the pieces are brought together and shaped into an effective, reasonably coherent unit.” And how is this done? “Such shaping requires selection on the basis of meaningful relationship.” The military metaphor of the “effective, reasonably coherent unit” (rather like that Band of Brothers I’ve been watching so avidly on TV the last few weeks) evolves through natural selection into a more affective (or affectionate) “meaningful relationship.” Love and death – that’s what it’s all about.
The crux of the matter lies in the next paragraph. “I find the fragments largely fall short as poems or sequences.” He doesn’t like them, in other words. They’re irritating. “Some people prefer their expectations of language to be subverted. Others prefer them to be adjusted, enriched, transcended or whatever”. Some of us like to sit in the stateroom sipping cocktails, others like balancing up beside the smoke-stack, but if we’re all on the Titanic in the first place, then it doesn’t matter all that much what we do …
I say “if” because any implications of Apocalypse in our civilisation’s rise (or helter-skelter plunge towards the abyss) might be indignantly rejected by some of you. But the point I wish to make is that this disagreement between Loney and O’Connor may seem, on the surface, a mere question of taste and temperament, but deeper down it comes to an interpretation of not only the bounds of poetry, but the limits of meaning and language itself. “The question remains whether a significantly destabilised language is capable of exploratory or genuinely challenging communication.”
Are we on the Titanic? or safe in our front rooms? Is our language destabilised, or is it capable of “more definite, if not clinical, outcomes,” as John O’Connor would like to think. I can’t possibly answer such a question to everyone’s satisfaction, but I can at least point out that the dispute is not a trivial one. There are battle-lines, but friends and foes are not always easy to detect.
“Let’s not recycle the language of absolutes,” though, says O’Connor further on. Let’s retreat (at least temporarily) from this No-man’s-land:
… There is then much of interest here, even if at times one feels that the commentators are stretching the limits of critical tolerance – aligning more with benefit than doubt. Jack Ross represents this in terms of the poem-as-self-reflexive-reality myth: “I can’t embody Alan’s poems by writing about them – they are, in their own right, and the only way to sidestep that would be to quote them, entire, on my allotted pages. I can make remarks about them … I can describe them – for what that’s worth – and make certain speculations”, which is also an open and intelligent recognition of the difficulty of engaging with such work. When, after his bibliography, Ross places a line from “Melbourne Journal” – “How little, finally, one makes, of everything” – it is difficult not to read a comment into this. …
“The poem as self-reflexive-reality myth” – I can see how my words could be interpreted that way, and it does sound like a namby-pamby cop-out. However, I should mention that my essay discusses three (at the time) unpublished works of Alan Loney’s, which sets up certain extra problems. People often don’t read a work before reading criticisms of it, but if they can’t read the work in question, then the commentator has an unusually difficult task.
I’m sensible of the compliment implied by the words “open and intelligent,” and hope I can convey as little rancour in my disagreement with O’Connor’s reading of my essay. In a sense, of course, he’s right. “How little, finally, one makes, of everything,” is indeed a “comment.” It has to be. It expresses Loney’s despair at his inability to get all he desires into his work (“I want! I want!” – that William Blake engraving of a man crying for the moon); it also expresses my own dissatisfaction at getting across so little of the true nature of these three works. “Little,” however (I would maintain), is not shorthand for “nothing.” Something comes across. How much depends on the reader’s skill as well as the writer’s.
“Our poetry has long been aware of these ‘new’ possibilities; our poets feel free to use a range of techniques from across the spectrum.” This is the last part of O’Connor’s critique. Not only does Loney fail to communicate his intentions clearly, but his methods are, in any case, old hat. “The strongest poems of the last two decades .. are just such centrist or technically eclectic works.”
Says who? I don’t think so. I don’t like centrist parties; I incline more to the left in politics. John O’Connor votes differently, it would appear. That’s the virtue of living in a democracy. We don’t all have to agree. “Opinions are like assholes …” I like many of the same things in poetry as John O’Connor: that’s apparent, given my admiration for much of his own work. I think if he read Loney’s “Melbourne Journal” (and I don’t mean this as a criticism – it’s not yet available to be read, except as an unpublished typescript), he might find more to admire than can be suspected from my very brief account of it.
So why can’t we all be friends? Can we all be friends? The proof of the pudding’s in the eating. In the second part of this essay I want to do something I’ve been wanting (I almost wrote “waiting”) to do for a long time. Analyse a body of poetry, in this case the published work of the editor of the special Loney issue, John Geraets, in the terms suggested by John O’Connor’s essay, and see if I can come up with cogent and persuasive reasons why I think this poetry works despite its (apparent) lack of:
- “shaping into effective, reasonably coherent units”
- “selection on the basis of meaningful relationship”
- and “centrist or technically eclectic” methods of composition.
- John Geraets, discourse #5 (Auckland: Hard Copy, 1985)[discourse]
- John Geraets, Itsan (Auckland: Watermark, 1990)[Itsan]
- John Geraets, Sanage Adventure Field (Japan: Linemen, 1995)[SAF]
- John Geraets, ? X (Auckland: Cornerdreamers, 2000)[? X]
“Every five years it shows itself, like an itinerary of cities of the mind” (SAF, ) says John Geraets in the preface (or “First Move”) to one of the five-yearly instalments of his poetry which have been appearing since 1985. I’d like to talk about them in order, not simply for the sake of convenience, but also because I think any insights I may have into his poetic project depend (at least to some extent) upon chronology: the fiction of development.
discourse #5 is, in any case, a good place to start because of the “eclectic” nature of its contents. It includes some very eighties illustrations (and none the worse for that! I love eighties music! Madonna rocks! … sorry – I’ll be good …) of bare-breasted hippie girls and their guttersnipe mates by Béla Trussell-Cullen, a kind of a short story called “decline”, and – most important for our purposes – a review, entitled “Dasein – Willy’s Leap,” of the then recently-appeared Willy’s Gazette (1983) by Leigh Davis. So what kind of critical discourse does Geraets adopt when discussing Davis’s poetry? Well, dithyrhambic might be the best description – asserting the impossibility of critique:
For Willy, what questions? With what are we to probe him …? This Willy is not to be interrogated. For to press him means to put your fist clean thru the paper … (discourse, 100)
Poets’ criticism is often an important clue to their poetics (of the moment, at any rate), so we should see this opening as a warning – of the limits of discourse, in good post-structuralist style. Further on, though, he talks of “the way sometimes one poem is the adjunct or perhaps the root or even the repetition or reappraisal of an earlier or alter piece,” and it is this which might be an aid in reading the poetry of discourse #5.
it surprises off the spoiled
door: is lit beyond repose
in the yellow room:
Outside are dripping tree-ferns
The lyricism here is very recognisable – almost Kiwi nationalist, Fairrburnian, though with a pleasing (Japanese?) precision of imagery. Then it breaks:
notepad. It has served upon
itself: done with
semiologie – a fishbowl!
It still isn’t clear what “it” is, but now we understand that to be, in some sense, the subject of the poem. Saussure, the father of structural linguistics, prophet of the sign, is invoked to remind us of the gravity of the perceptions involved:
It announces itself to her & she
discretely listens: i.e. she
passes herself within the text 
We’ve moved, then, from sign (lyric evocation); to signifying system (beyond, or “done with / semiologie”); to our mute witness: “she,” who completes the cycle by passing within the text. As one does.
There’s generally a “she” in these poems: evoked in “Grammar blue skirt & emblemed blazer” with “noir wry hair” ; “she comes surprising into the room – her / pink pyjamas” ;
She takes a few steps forward, stoops, folds her body forwards from
the hips & looks back up thru her (spread) legs. Oh I (he) has
forgotten what it is to lug this neat fluency
(smooth) back to the book, a lexigraph. 
This intensely erotic, tactile poetry – it’s no accident that Geraets’s second book, Itsan, begins with the quote (from Charles Bernstein): “The mind is a purely sexual entity, and play with language, outside the rote routines prescribed[,] is play” (2) – won’t simply yield itself to the moment, however haunting. It constantly strives to break the “rote routines,” freshen up what might otherwise turn banal:
what, this freshness – of apples, milk
a mothergazing down across her nipples
& the baby suckles, grips her breast, brackets their
there she sits in the black chair
black hairback here
& I – or she – has been to Patagonia 
The beauty of the breast-feeding scene cannot be left undisturbed. We must be jangled by that weird last line, that enlargement of the terms of discourse.
Perhaps that’s what’s most striking about discourse #5, its attempted inclusiveness: the clash of imagistic detail with literary-theoretical power-language, diversity with unity. The piece entitled “Something There is of One” becomes almost a manifesto in this regard:
Yes, yes, the buildings. The sun comes down off the copper coloured windows of the public library building across Victoria St up against the hospital board building. & coming up gasping at the surface for delicate air, for that difference. Out of Nature: “She whom I suppose to know, I surely love.” 
“She whom I suppose to know, I surely love.” Knowing can only ever be supposition; love can be a certainty: “The other as distinctly the place from which speech or its composite arises.” 
So what of Itsan (/ “It’s an”)? It’s an “adjunct or perhaps the root or even the repetition or reappraisal of [the] earlier or alter piece,” with a colour cover picture of Ponsonby’s twin towers to match the close Auckland detail of the earlier book. And yet:
It has to be a light touch for you to respond to, I guess. (Itsan, 7)
This poetry is a simulacrum of seduction: light, fleeting, searching for a response before it can settle its intensity on anyone or anything:
tightly bound: strange dalliance. A kiss touches, just touches and presses
her lips. Wanting to respond. (11)
The scene shifts to Australia at various points, though there’s really “nothing to distinguish it at all.” On the contrary:
everything is an Italian girl with bobbed
hair and shrouded eyes the lids of which settle half
down the brown iris and black of the pupil, white soiled
tights, an old fawn pullover and skin to sleeve a continent. (15)
The collection ends with a bizarre, lovingly-protracted evocation of the film Witness (1985) to cap some more casual movie references in Geraets’s first book: the “giant (excellent) 12' ants as in Gordon Douglas’ / film THEM!” (10); the death of Natalie Wood: “Natalie may’ve herself unhitched the dinghy (the others partying) then / have kicked out on that until her arms simply surrendered” (21); even Travolta in Staying Alive: “Strut is as strut / simply must” (55).
One sees that Kelly McGillis must have made a big impression:
He washes a foot with
a sponge (ponge); her foot, her arms; her breast, they call it
honourable and interpolate. (32)
But Geraets’s fascination is even more with the detail of the film, its labyrinth of readily apprehensible , strangely weighted signs:
The girl has revolver held to her head as the men bicker
Others arrive – of peace, on the grass tracks. Blue shirts. (33)
I imagine by now you’re beginning to get a sense of Geraets’s poetics: Defamiliarisation of the (seemingly) familiar; the erotic as a region of the mind (“The mind is a purely sexual entity”); an intensely ambitious program of inclusiveness – of imagist detail, technical terms, and geographical reference. Names, too, are part of the agenda: ranging from the famous (Francis Ponge, above), to close friends and “colleagues, to Roger, Wystan, to Will-Leigh” (discourse ).
Sanage Adventure Field is a single long poem, published during Geraets’s residence in Japan. The constant preoccupations here are clarity, lucidity:
when a complete lucidity is achieved you will hear the sound of a bell. (SAF )
Instructions for reading and the work to be read appear to be largely interchangeable:
You will find that each
sound needs to be made
and that generally one
word equals one
One could hardly claim that this adds up to a lucidity of reference, more a private language of “whodicky flamboyance” . There’s less that’s concrete here to grasp, more the mind at sea in a sea of language: Barthes’s Empire of Signs.
Early in ? X (as self-questioning a title as has ever been found?) Geraets declares:
once the questions of poetry intrigued me, now it’s the questions themselves that do (8)
This would appear a distinction worth stressing, a move forward: “Measure in poetry has little to do with a measure of success.” (50)
Some of the experiments have become almost impossibly austere: much of “alphabet slides” (52-66), for instance, largely passes me by. But they alternate with a dizzying barrage of subjects and stylistic levels: from Zukofskyan variations “derive[d] from” the Book of Isaiah (Hasay: i-ii):
every morning you’re over with her.
Her comfort milk.
Pilot breasts. (27)
to travel vignettes – real or fictional? – of Sri Lanka (“finish lake”):
Acacia with thin leaves, Brazilian rubber, lilacs, crow, fan palms, Cuban hollow palms, crow, yellow Malaysian bamboo, bamboo, mahogany, Japanese garden, balsa, ebony, another crow, epiphytic orchids, many small flowers, another crow, the one before. (14)
to the near-love sonnets of “Coverage”:
Fail to say the yo yo of our breathing –
or that my own breath should puzzle yours
& that I am nothing more. (66-67)
There’s a flexibility and mastery of diction here persuading us that: yes, we have come through. Only to be slapped down by one bafflingly obscure last poem:
Loneas nightly thein Thevered wata
theersand boveplains Whereing fluttes moveling (71)
The title, “(feed voices),” persuades me there’s some system here: jumbling according to design, but it escapes me for the moment.
Whatever else this is, it’s not a poetry of comfort: of the tame, familiar. It courts failure as it seeks to channel excessive referents into simplicity of utterance. It teaches you when you curse it most. There’s neither “certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain” (Arnold, “Dover Beach”) to be found here.
As for those three categories borrowed from John O’Connor: “shaping into effective, reasonably coherent units;” “selection on the basis of meaningful relationship;” and “centrist or technically eclectic” methods of composition – the units are certainly (at times) effective, but not coherent, reasonably or unreasonably; there’s much relationship here, but seldom meaningful (“Sometimes he would watch his woman, as she would take a pin, a silver sewing pin, and would insert it quite deeply and in a dextrous manner into the inner part of her ear, into the inner lining there” (discourse, ) – we hear a good deal more about the pin incident in this story, “decline,” but it’s certainly not an orthodox way of describing a love affair!) As for the methods of composition, they’re certainly eclectic – witness the very variousness of ? X – but the reverse of centrist: de-centrist, perhaps. Does this negate its power as poetry? I don’t think so, but then maybe I’m just a cliff-dweller. Perhaps my jaded appetite, like King Xerxes’, has begun to demand ever-more-outré pleasures.
One body doubtless and most unlike one
other, scenery almost like leaves’ leaf-
marks, mere tree unashamedly vs big
daubs of pleasure, jelly tips. A wet skin
sequestered, pleasurables I spy: (69)
“Pleasurables I spy”. This seems to me the best way of summing up John Geraets’s poetry – loving, painterly: “big daubs of pleasure,” yet never too far from the (Kiwi) quotidian: “jelly tips.”
May you live in interesting times …
[ancient Chinese curse]
Have I succeeded in answering any of John O’Connor’s points? Almost certainly not. Not to his satisfaction, at any rate. Our tastes and sympathies differ (perhaps not so much as he suspects). I’m still most interested, I have to say, in discourses that challenge stable views of reality. Nor do I see this as an (entirely) temperamental thing, but a response to the circumstances we live in, the knife-edge of pseudo-certainty we walk on – and what it shields us from.
I detest quarrelling for the sake of it, but I see O’Connor’s piece (possibly unwittingly) contributing to a closing-down of possibilities and openings. What I respond to in Loney’s “Melbourne Journal” is the disciplined way it recreates certain outer regions of suffering. That speaks to me. I couldn’t care less about Avantgarde vs. Mainstream battles. We’re all sitting snug in our studies sipping glasses of port as far as that’s concerned.
I’d far rather support my poetic colleagues than defame them, but this is not about careerism and inflated reputations – it’s about the point of all this fiddle. Is it mere exhibitionism – wanking in the public eye for private gratification? or are we trying to wake people up to the submerged?
“With your unconstraining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice”, says Auden in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” I don’t see the mission of poetry as trivial (nor, I’m sure, does John O’Connor). He sees the special Loney issue as a case of the emperor’s new clothes. I see it as a chance to open minds to neglected possibilities.
Being critical yet affirming is a difficult balance to bring off, but I certainly don’t consider what Loney (and Geraets, for that matter) have been trying to do irrelevant to the larger task of poetry (and culture) in our times. Why is destruction – suicide bombing, felling buildings with aeroplanes – so sexy? Why do words like domesticity and love sound so dull by contrast? You have to listen to the myth-makers if you want answers to these questions. Like it or not, we’re doomed to live in interesting times.