Song of the Ghost in the Machine, by Roger Horrocks (Victoria University Press, 2015), 87 pp., $25; Crankhandle: Notebooks November 2010–June 2012, by Alan Loney (Cordite Press, 2015), 59 pp., Aus$20
This review will consider new books from two well-established ‘alternative tradition’ writers within New Zealand writing, Roger Horrocks and Alan Loney. The latter, resident in Melbourne since 2001 and much dissociated from the goings-on in this country, is one our most outstanding and prolific poets. The former, university professor to Loney’s autodidact, is better known as a teacher, filmmaker and critical writer; and here I review what is just his second book of poems, the first having appeared a third of a century ago. In part due to such dissimilarities, the two books will be reviewed separately before I return with some more general comments.
A useful ‘motto’ that could be applied to Song of the Ghost in the Machine comes from the 10th century Arabic philosopher Abū Hayyān al-Tawhīdī: ‘the most beautiful speech is that which situates itself between poetry that looks like prose and prose that looks like poetry’. For this is the distinguishing feature of Horrocks’s writing, remarkable in the way that it veers away from the standard trope of poetry as quintessential and the poet as inspired creator. Craftsman and thinker more than master of newness, Horrocks takes several different strands of thought and language and weaves them into a striking final configuration.
I will focus on three distinctive features that contribute to the achievement of this autobiographical poem about consciousness. The first is the relevance of structure. There are 11 sections, which range from everyday activities like ‘Walking’ and ‘Sleeping and Waking’, to complex ideas, including ‘Consciousness’, ‘Evolution’ and ‘Gods’. Each section opens with two or so pages of quotations from an array of literary, philosophical and scientific big names; and each of these quotations is intended to offer something which the poet hopes will ‘challenge the ideas round it’. The book concludes with a three page ‘Author’s note’, followed by nine more pages that detail ‘References’ – altogether a total 87 pages, of which roughly two-thirds comprise the poet’s poetry. However, this is not an ‘academic’ text. Characterised as ‘a philosophical poem’, it is not even really that: it is not to be read for the latest breakthroughs in conceptual thought, although we know well enough not to underestimate the smarts of the writer as he contemplates what has gone in to his own formation. The included material functions as a kind of a fecund intellectual company (‘chatter’), which produces conversations within conversations and thus leaves ample room to manoeuvre. It enables Horrocks to move beyond what he deprecates as a tendency in contemporary poetry to overly domesticate issues of identity; his aim being instead to achieve ‘an extended sense of self I call “consciousness”’.
SotGitM picks up, after a gap of some 33 years, where The Auckland Regional Transit Poetry Line leaves off. The latter also sought (somewhat more optimistically) to show ‘where consciousness can go from here’ and was similarly arranged in sections, in that case the 10 weekday commutes between home in Titirangi and work at Auckland University, each trip issuing a jotted-down flow of associations.
SotGitM’s contents are more closely aligned to the stated topic: ‘Death’ concerns the illness or death of friends, and the poet’s own prospective passing; ‘Micro/Macro’ addresses issues of ‘scale’ and humankind’s loss of its central place in the universe; while ‘Evolution’ traces life from the start through to the impending threat that Artificial Intelligence and the like constitute; and ‘Gods’ explores their demise and the call imposed on human resilience and ingenuity. The poem ends with an ‘open-ended epitaph’: ‘his faith is simply (simply?) to be aware’. ‘Consciousness’ includes 100 aphorisms on that subject. And ‘Melancholia’ presents a boyhood Horrocks, as ‘he’ confronts the challenges of growing up and establishing his independence. Rather than provide a sustained or definitive argument, the assorted sections cull extemporaneous thoughts and memories, crafting a pattern that’s at once personal and implicate, a kind of open and inclusive self-defining.
Life happens in various packagings, hand-me-downs, crammed with expectations. And though society’s rule-sets can never fully accommodate the deepest and most interesting stuff – ideas change, the skin sags – they do warrant observance beyond a mere acquiescence. Sheepish nods are given to matters of personal grooming and appropriate behaviour. (An alluring reference in Transit – when the bus jolts to ‘the younglady with the green hat’ who is thrown across her fellow traveller and ‘I started to makelove with all my body’ – becomes in SotGitM the more decorous ‘this ancient / dance which celebrates the body and sounds its energy’). While law and custom may not be depth, they nevertheless remain the given means of expression and support. Similarly, in the poem, structural organisation serves simultaneously to energise and constrain, lifting the protagonist’s game by placing him in the biggest company. Denoting individuality, ‘consciousness’ serves also as collective noun.
And while organisation reveals an extensive ordering process, the two remaining features – style and use of language in self-representation – draw this outward ordering inward.
The verse paragraphs predominantly used provide continuity and a sense of proportion, as does the deployment of a steady five-stressed line (a ‘walking’ pace) – any temptation to ‘pump up the lyricism’ is shunned. In places the restrained sympathetic voice can verge on the prosaic, even the humdrum. ‘Gods’ and ‘Evolution’, where history of thought predominates, are ideas-reliant. Even so, what holds our interest is a coolness of expression and a clear grasp of inference that retains that sense of lived response. Portentous concepts are down-sized through humour and mischievous puns:
The question changed from why to create the world
to a different mystery – how to construct a life.
Now time is running out. Have I kept the faith?
Along with the broad sweep of thought there’s an irrepressible playfulness. The passage quoted from above ends with an offhand remark that, ‘each / answer finally gave up the ghost’ – a freshening euphemism softening any sense of over-earnestness, as well as being a play (one of a number) on the book’s title. Euphemisms, clichés, puns – sometimes three in one – counteract any risk of affectation.
The importance of this wordplay is especially evident in the ‘Consciousness’ section, the ‘heart’ of the book. The 100 definitions are not scientific facts, or philosophical premises, but metaphors. And because almost two thirds of them begin with an indefinite article, their suggestive, exploratory quality is emphasised. The figurative quality of the writing is marked. In ‘Body’, which deals with a worrying cancer threat, the poet beautifully and amusingly turns the ‘freezing my energy’ scare on its head by converting it into a war-games enthusiast’s hyperbolic battlefield (a Hamlet pastiche?):
To eat, sleep,
think became a struggle and I blamed the body
for double-crossing me. Then I realised the enemy
was a trespasser who threatened us both, and my flesh
was fighting its own last-ditch battle.
Together we were raw recruits, quarrelsome comrades,
until the invader was torn out by the knife: then scarred
but sewn up, we could resume our old partnership.
On the surface, the depiction appears naïve – ‘Then’, used to launch the second sentence, is clumsy. What does compel the attention however, beyond syntactical control, is the way that such control is subverted by a figuration that highlights almost the opposite qualities, especially through a profusion of single and extended metaphors. In ‘Body’, the protagonist splits his identity from his body – like the boy who scraps with his friend, only to realise he overreacted and they were never really enemies anyway. The line following continues: ‘No thought without a body – that’s / the deal’. Here we realise that the boyish petulance is actually an opening to a quite profound realisation. Throughout, seemingly straightforward and sometimes personally quite difficult occurrences are not fussed over, and something in them (through the poetic figures) is permitted to surface in a way that is engaging, deep and likeable.
‘Dreary platitudes’ are avoided and the seriousness is kept always warm-hearted, without tendentiousness or morbidity. There’s another delightful extended ‘boatload’ metaphor later on that carries through an entire verse and ends: ‘Macro and micro mesh, the one and the many. / Their seafaring ways remain an enigma, but I’m / a grateful captain and there are no signs of mutiny yet’.
Let us now turn to self-representation. So if the world picture has broken down, and with it humankind’s continuity threatened, what is left to base one’s life on? The starting question is also the closing question – ‘how to construct a life?’ Irrespective of the various references to ‘you’, ‘he’ and ‘we’ (very few ‘she’) sprinkled through the text, the pivotal, sustaining pronoun is ‘I’. Other pronouns serve as facets of the personal I. When there is reversion to a third person narrative, as occurs in ‘Melancholia’, or the various pronouns which appear in ‘Sleeping and Waking’, such attempts to dramatise the account are only half-successful because the focus in them is essentially still the reflective ‘I’ – focal variations rather than a change of lens. Personal authenticity, curious intelligence, compassionate attending: these are the affirmative qualities that we associate with the life played out here, underpinning its different phases – from the young lad who ‘survived his dark time’, to the older man facing decline (another euphemism: ‘death is a oncer which no one can foresee’), the ‘zest for existence’ remains undimmed. In the end there is a satisfaction, a positive consolation, that I’s ‘turangawaewae’ is intact:
I end as I began, with a human figure walking,
moving in its cloud of limitations, fragile and transient
but noisy and alert.
And yet, for all this, it is not the simple I of identity or I as the key to significance that is ultimately important. What distinguishes this text from much contemporary writing is that the I-figure constitutes a locus for viewing and experiencing and responding and adjusting, rather than the place where meaning stays put. Couching the journey as one of a single consciousness travelling within an expanse of inherited and concurrent consciousness/es provides a kind of reassurance in face of the ever-changingness and final unreliability (think of Locke’s ‘perpetual perishing’) of all forms of thought and life. Less the uplifting, or the jubilant coming-through, found in Augustine’s or Rousseau’s Confessions, the affiliation for SotGitM that I am inclined to propose is with Boethius’s Consolation or, more surprisingly, Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes or even Pope’s Essay on Man. Horrocks’s poetry provides an impressive link between the grand ‘ghosts’ of the past and those imminent.
If SotGitM is to be read as a taking account of things, then Crankhandle: Notebooks can usefully be read as a giving account. Loney’s writing career spans some 40 years, and he continues to be a publisher of fine print books (Horrock’s Transit appeared out of Loney’s earlier Hawk Press). He has established an international reputation as a progressive and exacting poet. And while this 2015 book does not break new literary ground, its exacting care is of a piece with previous work.
Notebooks is the latest in an ‘ongoing’ series now numbering four, the first of which starts in 1976, and the third of which remains unpublished. Again, we are presented with an older poet who (if I can put it this way) faces his own end, and an end to much that is so dear to him; again, here is a poet who rejects the notion that poetry itself is transformative of anything – what remains singularly Loney is a fearless, indeed relentless, confrontation with the vicissitudes in his own and the experiences of others, whether personal, literary or historical. My purpose here is not to analyse in detail individual entries, but instead to get a sense of the scales operating in the movements of thought and response that characterise Notebooks, and this I hope will suggest some pertinent resemblances and dissimilarities to Song of the Ghost in the Machine.
Here, too, I wish to pick out three main features. First is compactness. Always Loney’s poems are distinguished in being directly cut, as it were, from the language: each word is distinctly individual yet it also merges into relation with those words that precede and follow, so that meaning builds simultaneously forwards and backwards (‘cranking out / the crack’d word’: the writing process, as the book itself, is low-tech). Then there is the line as a whole, establishing the same backwards and forwards movement of meaning through contact with other lines before and after. Frequently the fragments function like moving parts of a Rubric’s Cube – while one anticipates a final resolving pattern the active fascination returns to moving and fitting things together, making sense.
as if the self
has left him
so he’s left
Punctuation and regular syntax are mostly dispensed with, and the lines, sometimes with gaps opening in them, are short and include a separating breath-space between them – most unlike Horrocks! – as well as places where two columns run concurrently down the page, generating a kind of unresolvable poetic interference between them. Here the craft is in making kinds of linked objects: as you examine them they seem to welcome further examination.
This observation brings me to a second feature, which is the interference or static that is not immediately obvious in individual words but is generated by their recurrence and adroit placement. I notice words or phrases that recur and as they do so seem to toss and turn: ‘light, dead, death, body, self, distance, bright, mind, poet, word, not, nothing, nothingness, you, book, life, never’. Pertinent words leave a residue of intensity that lifts and subsides with successive mentions, clustering despite the distance that separates them. Of course the effect of this is not symbolic. Somehow Loney is building an atmosphere of intimacy and familiarity that is also defamiliarising because it is not allowed to add up to anything finally settled or even to cohere as such – the result is a many-sided estrangement (‘a long way from home’):
I wonder what
it was I tried
to do …
a bit of distance
next to nothing – less
a quantity than a location
there, alongside you …
The third feature is connected to the first and the second, and it is the inescapable premonition of the terminal – interruptions stacking up. Thus we come upon the phrases
I am exhausted
I am dying
– which, though without specific context, nonetheless assert terminal points in a life and in the text’s progression, whether or not they are picked up on again later – who knows? There are frequent references to ‘death’, to treatments for various ailments, problems with the ‘colon’, a dickey heart. In this text with its multiple instances of utterance, playful for sure but mostly in a somewhat sombre or bleak way, it is not possible to speak in the singular: Alan Loney is one who is dying, although that subtext resides among other shifting combinations and elisions of words and scenes, and among other possibilities altogether.
Not altogether the coherence of a person thinking and responding to life’s exigencies, these are moments, besetting conjunctions, where to utter attests to a life constantly examined, never summarily and always conceding the restatement. No single utterance is definitive and the next occasion could as well be ‘bright’ or ‘dead’. Whatever it is, the one thing it is unlikely to be is a shrinking from what is pressing right there: ‘fragments are all we have, and will ever have. If some are very long and some very short, then that is simply how things are’ (Preface).
For both Horrocks and Loney, irony has been discarded in favour of candour. Such candour is personal and yet is not expressly emotional, and is certainly not confessional (in terms of anticipating response), nor does it seek recourse to lyrical intensity. There is a clear acknowledgement of the limits and constraints that apply to individuality, whether in terms of physical bodies that are clearly in the process of ‘giving up the ghost’, or, more tellingly, of intelligent minds delivering up the ‘ghosts’ that have inhabited and enlivened them. Self-reliance is insisted on, based on the resourcefulness and skill of the writer and the demands set by the craft: the capacity to define the inner dimensions of the immediate self, while acknowledging outer dimensions (just as much a part of inwardness), which together prove ultimately unpredictable and shifting. Again, for both writers, life is a constant coming to terms and resetting of terms, until it’s over.
JOHN GERAETS has a PhD from Auckland University on ‘Landfall under Brasch: The humanizing journey’. During the early 2000s he edited the innovative magazine brief. He has had five books of poetry published as well as a range of critical writing.