Why wouldnt I admit it? Bored, irritated, enervated by the whole biz --what John Forbes, amplifying the Sydney/Melbourne, 1970s, 'new poetry' discussion about the mainstream, called "talented earache"! Then again, as one good poem doesnt make a summer so one bad poem doesnt herald winter. Yet it speaks volumes of one's expectation for poetry that bad writing (and I hasten to qualify : in one's own opinion, thus disposition as well as the particular education undertaken in service of the art) can cause more misery than an inadequate menu or perpetually late train.
The more important complaint is not being able to see the poems for the poetics (or less --for the method of their construction). In my head I sound-off like that 70s discussion & rail against the sound of squeaky clean construction & its inevitable decorum, regardless that some of my own (particularly '90s) production is pronged on the same indictment!
And then, out of the blue, the universe deals a delightful hand --Grant Caldwell's glass clouds, Michelle Leber's The Weeping Grass, Pete Spence's Sonnets, Cornelis Vleeskens' divertimenti. Or do I simply wake up on the correct side of the bed? (Surely I dont have to explain that!)
A first impression of clarity of thought & expression, as I skimmed Caldwell's new collection, had me imagining a poetry of wisdom. And the image (or proposition) was still in my mind as I read Leber's poems, that they were knowing & wise. For example, regarding the latter, the gleaming blade of the line which introduces her poem, The Boonwurrung Coast, located at Cape Paterson (coincidentally where Cornelis Vleeskens hung out for many years) --"We let all things take form in the morning light."-- is capable of cutting through anything, including the taxonomy & imagery of sea-birds & flora let alone hints of initiation into shamanistic mysteries. And the triple repetition of the pregnant phrase "In the best part of May" (in the poem of that name), is similarly almost independent of the narrative (however brilliantly inhabited by the anthropomorphised persona telling its creation tale).
In Leber, the gainliness of that combination of scientific & perceptional language evokes authority. Local Barometer, for example : "Port Philip Bay is quicksilver in a glass. / Grey beryllium dust and copper sun-shards rise above waves. / A wind-whip of a baton conducts in tricky 7/8 time. / Ordinarily, a sea-gust's libretto is sung from a silver gull, / and now a gannets' gale-force chorus carves sandstone. / Within this capsule - held up by vertical cliffs / - an interior spring prevents a cloud's collapse. / The weight of water once floating in Torricelli's tube, / now scummed on a pollution-meniscus. / As a desert licks a city's hem-line, / fever rises in pacific oceans, shifts moisture to the equator; / flash-flooding in the north, yet our backyard is cinder / - tomorrow, horizon's axe will swing at noon."
No doubt these are crafted poems --they had to have been carved & chivvied to make their particular density, and a long way from what I'm going to say about Cornelis Vleeskens... But I'm being led to contradictory propositions : firstly, that what she has to say calls the tune; secondly, that her keen observation imposes veracity regardless of subject-matter. One thing for sure : no ho-hum in Michelle Leber's Weeping Grass (Australian Poetry Centre, 2010)...
As I've flagged, something of the same's entailed in Grant Caldwell's glass clouds (Five Islands Press, 2010). The tone of 'something being said' emanates from sufficient poems to impress authority. Not the old literary gravitas (no matter 'made new') but the conjunction of writing and spoken-word's well oiled tongue. From the outset let's insist Caldwell isnt casual however relaxed --the relaxation with syntax, that is, which is the crux of modern English-language poetry, --allowing then its objectors to be eccentric rather than reactionary (except for the vanguard camp, censorial to the last). Plain-speaking, however, is only one of the founding twins; the other never ditched the richer dictionary. Thus the double spring & thrust of 20thCentury & on's poetry. Caldwell's stepping-off from that rung doesnt yet qualify as construction --it's still utterance, more or less (the how it is, the what happened). And maybe it is 'irony' which distinguishes him from numerous other common speakers, and most of them unheralded --as Vleeskens is, for example --not that he's bitching : equanimity rhymes in divertimenti with wine & good music, and what more would one want?
Further to 'wise' : as though ancient Chinese hermit or mendicant poet...! Maybe it was the haiku-like poems in the centre of glass clouds (though that's 'Japanese') as well as his serious meditations on perception (necessarily equating phenomenal experience & language representation --"the window of the past is complete / but you are blind, or a blind") --which compelled the impression. Not to say subsequent reading disabused it --more, that the amount of distress also gathered there revoked the semblance of resolution. In Melbourne, though, as any capital of the Western world, where else does wisdom lie than in the tension of normal attachment & its desired opposite? Caldwell's erstwhile persona of the wry humorist (open his last book, Dreaming of Robert de Niro (FIP, '03), at random for any example) is perhaps succeeded here by the poet following doubt's philosophical trail to a halfway house of serenity (if one accepts as influence two of these poems' dedicatees, Derrida & Claire Gaskin).
Caldwell's tour de force is the hypnotic across the sea, which begins "the sea comes / across itself / here it comes / across itself / see it coming / it comes and comes / across itself / it keeps coming / it never stops", continuing in like fashion for a further 35 lines. It is a reiteration of the fact of sea --of 'the sea' as an event --which succeeds in summoning sea's ceaseless movement whilst rendering each wave's singularity, and the poet's observation of it a definitive exhileration!
Reading Cornelis Vleeskens' divertimenti on random days (Earthdance, 2010), has me thinking of Franco Beltrametti, as occasionally I do : almost met, courtesy of Tim Longville & John Riley, who'd advised that Franco, our fellow Grosseteste Review contributor, would be visiting London in '71 --or was it shortly before the Hemensleys returned to Melbourne in '72? --but that was cancelled. Any meeting in the flesh was forever thwarted by his sudden death in 1995. He remains an exotic correspondent, then, from the golden age of hand & typewritten letters, always missed now as though a friend.
And Vleeskens' book instantly recalls Sperlonga Manhattan Express, an international anthology edited by Beltrametti (Scorribanda Productions, San Vitale, Switzerland, 1980), because of the A-4 / 210-297mm page size & the visual content --Franco's pics from all hands & lands (e.g, P. Gigli's photo of the Berrigans, poems by Koller, Raworth, Gysin, Whalen postcard/cartoon, J Blaine, G D'Agostino, et al); Cornelis' own montage, drawings, calligraphy, typography --the same mail-art internationale, Fluxus, neo-Dada style more readily recognized from Pete Spence's affiliations & practice --particularly relevant here because of the latter's regular appearance in the divertimenti.
Vleeskens & Beltrametti are both Europeans who've crucially intersected with the anti-formal (looser, casual) English-language poetry (are they 'casualties' then!), especially the post WW2 Americans, progeny of Pound & Williams, New York, San Francisco, the West Coast, at a time when Europe was reaffirming its own liberatory tradition (Dada, Surrealism & on) &, similarly, opening to new worlds. And because they're not British or North American or Australian, except by adoption, their European origins & references are never out of mind.
Not an exact match, by any means --but somewhere along the line they've both decided to riff on life & not on literature, though there is a literature of just that sort of thing, and a life that contains literature, music, painting, etc. But theirs is another reminder of the efficacy of the un-made, journal-esque writing, --as clear & direct as we reconstruct the Ancient Chinese & Japanese to be, and whose transparency doesnt necessarily prefer the naive to the esoteric or the well-known to the uncommon (take the music Vleeskens listens to daily &, therefore, records in his communiques --or his philately habit or the breadth of his correspondence, all noted).
Beltrametti's poem The Key might be credo for Vleeskens too :
What was well started shall be finished. / What was not, should be thrown away.
Lew Welch, Hermit Poems.
1 ) the place & the season : winter
2 ) somebody (myself) right here : real & unreal
3 ) what is he doing & what's going on in his head
4 ) how & why is he saying it
5 ) to somebody else (you) elsewhere
the circle (real & unreal)
--published in Face to Face (Grosseteste Review Books, 1973), the blurbs for which by Gary Snyder, Cid Corman, Claude Pelieu, Adriano Spatola, Giulia Niccolai & Guillaume Chpaltine are fair snap of his American/European compass.
Context & correspondence, as in O'Hara, Berrigan, Phil Whalen of course, are vital here in distinguishing such notes & exclamations from the bagatelle they might otherwise be --and Jeremy Prynne's terrific comment on O'Hara jumps to mind, that unlike New York's "art gallery nympholepts", he "always has that pail of serpents in view" --: the poet's obligation, as felt, to be right here, to tell how & what it is without literary diversion, the further extent of which is selling-out, blunting if not losing the existential point. (Echoing Olson's Human Universe suit for the poem as 'one of Nature's things', Ray Di Palma hazards, "a poem is one of the almost successful / forces of nature", --in the 3rd of one of Language Poetry's more beautiful sequences, Territory (from Numbers & Tempers, Selected Early Poems, 1966-86; Sun & Moon, '93), which begins, "the desperado / and his abacus / in utopia" --the perfect cartoon for what I'm getting at?! --but that project was performed within /refined writing, albeit a stepping-up of the casual, and isnt the minstrelsy of the memorandum with which I'm ever besotted!)
Divertimenti : to amuse himself & his friends --to divert & be diverted... Diverted from what? Old cliche : the bind of daily life. But hardly, since it's all this poetry's made of. His note : "These divertimenti originally appeared as individual leaflets and were written for the poet's own amusement and that of the handful of friends who were lucky enough to receive the odd one in the mail or at a poetry reading during the last two years of his life on the Victorian coast... he now lives a totally different existence on the NSW Northern Tablelands."
How would you know? His latest Earthdance chapbook, Sandals in camel (drawings & poems), is surreal as narrative & peppered with elsewhere's place names & distinctions (New York, Parisian, Berlin, Belgian, Catalan, Japanese, Thai, Italian etc), persuading one of his long assumed cosmopolitan ambit. Interesting inference though --'texts' of the life as lived versus 'poems' (importantly, formed in the cross-wires of Dutch & English).
An earlier collection, Ochre Dancer (Earthdance, '99), has the same atmosphere & tone of divertimenti or better said, the divertimenti are cut from his familiar cloth differing only in the attitude of making or framing.
That's the discussion then, in the blur of any such distinction these days... Bits of life (titles & notes of musical recordings, books, lists of food & drink bought & consumed, incoming mail) intersect with thoughts, observations, conversation.
Recalling Kath Walker (Oodgeroo of Noonucull)'s admonition not to appear like a preacher or a politician, Cornelis muses, "Sometimes I wanted to PREACH // But now I just want to share / some of the ordinary things / in the days of a retired poet..."
Diversions from the notion of retirement? Retirement from poetic ambition (craft & career)? I'd identify with that myself. Breaking the cast but keeping one's hand in, and surprising oneself when something more poem than antidote happens along. The list/letter/journal poetry of our time makes it harder to distinguish source from artefact, but found or made they provide as many pleasures as there are days.
"Ah! a new month!
So I turn the calendar to March
A Corneille arial landscape
looking like a cross between
Mondriaan's sketch of a jetty
jutting into North Sea waves
and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri
The calendar was published
for Corneille's 70th birthday
11 years ago but I still
flip over each month
to show that not all days are the same"
Divertimenti is a book which can be taken up anywhere. It invites flicking because of the open-endedness of its narrative.
"Find an image
of the sun's atmosphere
in The Nature of the Universe
by Fred Hoyle (1950)
so reach for Catherine de Zegher
Untitled Passages by Henri Michaux
of the exhibition at
The Drawing Center, New York, 2000
& put on an old vinyl recording
of Peter Sculthorpe's Sun Music #1
for Orchestra (1965)
The sun sets at 5-58
en 'n zure bon
Enjoy a glass or two of red
& the clear sound of Marion Verbruggen
playing airs from van Eyck's
Der Fluyten Lust-Hof "
So many dates & times of day, month, year, but the book is always written in present tense, and a sense of the present, in which historical time is subsumed, pervades. All times in diverimenti are concurrent; even the different places defer to the here of Vleeskens' whereabouts.
Despite it being a kind of 'in-lieu of writing' (an 'in-lieu-of-writing writing'?), possessing the light touch of genial conversation & a journal's talking-to-oneself, it also teases one as a discourse on time & place, & of poem as its own place where, paradoxically, its own mercuriality might be traced.
Unsurprisingly, much of this has been the preoccupation of divertimenti's fellow classical & modern music afficianado Pete Spence --typically recalled by Vleeskens at one point, "I think up these lines / while walking home / after putting Katherine / on the 6.37 a.m. bus for Melbourne / but have to wait to write them / till the telephone wakes Pete at 10.35 // My pen & paper are on the desk / in the guestroom where he snores on"...
Spence's Sonnets (a co-production of Karl-Friedrich Hacker's Footura Black Edition, Germany & New South Press, Kyneton, Australia; limited edition of 50, 2009) have been with me throughout these reflections. Sonnet 9 is a good example:
" walking Planck's constant in a red shift?
great day! upwind the day winds down
squares of light are thrown about
should i feel ok now that yesterday
is the subject of these poems? better
to be quick about it like a shadow
taking shade from today's sun! when
will i have room where there's room
where i can roam variously & hang
my tantrums & other guests?
the pushbike's 15 minutes in the frame!
its the end of the terror of Perrier fever!
a mullet sidles through the air
& i'm stunned by its flight! "
Riffing off life or literature? Seems to me it's a perfect blend of voice & reference, where perfection refers to an individual's inimitable register, in this case Spence's naturalization of reference, the opposite of ornamentation, of literary embellishment. It's all become as particular as experience, and 'all' are the prime sources he's so kind to append : Ted Berrigan, Laurie Duggan, Peter Schjeldahl, plus Forbes, Satie, Beckett, Shakespeare... All adds up to "Spence"!
Looking now for the perfect conclusion I find this from near to the 'end' of divertimenti :
" That photo of Peter-Jan Wagemans
makes him look like
a well-fed Vinkenoog from the sixties
In his liner notes
he comes across
as didactic & conceited
I pull on my walking-boots
& listen to Het Landschap (1990)
played by Tomoko Mukaiyama on piano
It is not the landscape I see around me
It is not any dutch landscape I recall
He states it is the landscape
of his music - but he is wrong
It is the landscape of my writing"
[16-8-10 / 18-9-10]