Robyn Maree Pickens
Seasons by William Direen (South Indies Text & Music Publishing, 2022), 72pp, $22; Resonating Distances by Richard von Sturmer (Titus Books, 2022), 150pp, $30; Breach by Lisa Samuels (Boiler House Press, 2021), 75pp, $28
William Direen’s Seasons prompted me to consider readerly expectations of access to a speaker’s inner world. A man spends a year in the remote Strath Taieri/Maniototo—inland and north of Ōtepoti Dunedin—but seemingly withholds his reasons for being there. Is he ‘taking time out’ or is he really there to engage with the region’s hot summers and winter snow? If it is the latter, which encompasses the entanglement of people, weather, land, and livelihood, shouldn’t this be sufficient?
Perhaps the description of the collection as a ‘poetry diary’ led this reader to expect access to the speaker’s ‘inner world’, to his perspectives on the events unfolding around him— seasonal and otherwise. Several times throughout the collection, these expectations seem appropriate, as in the last stanza of an untitled poem:
Returning, a tungsten porch light
makes my house seem less forbidding.
I imagine two could live there, three.
As singular as the tungsten porch light, the speaker is alone if not lonely, but the reader does not learn the set of circumstances that led him to a year on the strath. For over twenty pages the speaker chronicles a storm, shearers, rugby training, and a power failure before the next and surprisingly emotive release:
I do not seek another,
another land, another wife,
companion or child,
nor do I resent this daily difficulty
of silently recording.
Direen, as if aware of the passage’s uncharacteristic revelatory content and directness, has indented the stanza. The reader is thrown two large bones: ‘another wife’ and ‘daily difficulty’. Bones are, after all, bones, and the reader gains no new flesh to coat either one. A child is introduced thereafter, followed by a wedding, the planting of seedlings, and the death of a boar. Maddeningly, enticingly, maddeningly, the speaker glosses a significant romantic koan some twelve pages after:
A friendship expands:
‘You are beautiful’ happens,
‘I love you’.
The details of this extraordinary event—in ‘a town of fifty roofs’—are ferreted away by the speaker and sealed in a fossil at nearby Foulden Maar (poetically speaking). Perhaps it is a particular contemporary desire or unthinking expectation to know EVERYTHING. Why is the man there? What happened to his wife? Do they have a child? Does the near-blind boy who plays the piano remind him of their child? Did he fall in love? What happened?! It is not that ripening fruit, rural community gatherings, and wide skies bristling with starlight are uninteresting. It is perhaps rather, the increasingly uncommon experience of reading poetry that throws allusive flares without a search and rescue party providing a blow-by-blow account of the exact events at the precise times.
Anesthetised by explicit trauma poetry, to know comparatively so little about the speaker’s life and grief can almost be a disorientating experience. Direen’s expansive descriptions of non-human nature are often startling in the best sense: ‘a quivering antenna for a preface’, or ‘[t]he moon is white as a split turnip’. But even these are curtailed and bare with the speaker’s life ache and joy. However, does this degree of allusion and apparent withholding not hold or grasp the reader differently—like straining to hear someone with a quiet voice?
Each section of Resonating Distances by Richard von Sturmer throws the reader into divergent territories. Part One opens with an unsettlingly piercing stare of a seagull; Part Two with a reproduction of Tobias and the Angel (1465–1470) by Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1429–1498); Part Three with a theatrical figurine on top of a skull; Part Four with a stone statue of Monk Sengqie (China, 11th century); and Part Five with a photograph of Pinocchio by Vittorio Franceschi (1936–). These disparate subjects, characters, geographic areas, and eras signal Sturmer’s wide-ranging interests and research and are indicative of the global references of the collection. The quintuple structure is an integral organisational apparatus for the 170 verses and 50 prose texts of this collection. It enables Sturmer to incorporate ten sequences of three or four tanka verses in relation to ten prose pieces in each of the five sections. That is, each section comprises ten poems and ten prose pieces. The connection between the two stylistic modes centres on nouns—over the course of writing and editing the tanka sequences, Sturmer began to note the recurrence of nouns. This led him to establish a constraint: namely, to use all the nouns in the tanka verses in a short prose text. These texts vary in form and tone from short, third-person fiction that tugs at Borgesian incredulity, to accounts with a documentary sensibility.
In the spirit of Sturmer’s constraint-based structure, I chose to read Resonating Distances in a comparably constraint-based manner. Each of the five sections begins with ten tanka sequences organised and titled numerically, which are followed by ten prose texts. Intrigued by Sturmer’s imperative to write short texts inspired by the nouns of the preceding tanka, I took alternating approaches to the sections. I read Part One by flipping between the first tanka sequence and the first text, the second tanka and second text, and so forth. I then read Part Two according to the organisational structure: ten tanka sequences followed by ten prose pieces. Part Three I flipped between; Part Four I followed; Part Five I flipped between. In many respects, this constraint-based approach was destined to produce a somewhat expected outcome: by flipping between verse and prose it was easier to remember the nouns used in the verses and appreciate the narrative dexterity required to redeploy them in the prose. Correspondingly, by reading in sequence, it was harder to recall the nouns in their prose deployment. This diminished recall in-of-itself produced only a softer echo, but without noun-recollection the narrative departures and swerves had less grounding. Interestingly, regardless of the reading approach, over the course of the collection, the prose texts became slightly longer and cleaved more closely to the tanka verses. By the fifth section, Sturmer not only incorporates the nouns in the prose, but also the thematic context of the verses. For example, the French poet and proper noun Robert Desnos (1900–1945) exists as a noun and a thematic presence in the corresponding prose piece.
Sturmer’s tanka sequences are frequently crystalline: clean, clear, and parsed down to bone. In most instances, each tanka verse consists of one or two sentences, and the lineation follows a natural-seeming break in the sentences’ clauses. The result makes for effortless reading and enough ‘space’ (quietness of tone and pace) to appreciate the sonnet-like turns of the movements Sturmer conjures between verses. With characteristic grace, Sturmer manages to segue from a dog in verse one, to clipping a toenail in verse two, to Rilke in the third and final verse.
The dog pants
in the noonday heat;
under her gaze
ants are tracing
Clipping a toenail
the room already
I should throw Rilke’s
bowl of roses
out the window
and let the house become
as cold as ice.
Despite reversing chronology (from noonday in verse one to sunrise in verse two), and somehow recuperating the act of pedicure, Sturmer’s clean lines and prosaic subject matter in the first two verses facilitate the unexpected magic realism (and beauty) of throwing heat-causing roses out the window.
Each poet creates their own world and Lisa Samuels’ collection, Breach, performs this maxim to a particularly charged extent. It is perhaps a commonplace response for some readers of experimental poetry to feel ‘locked out’ or held at a distance from the speaker. In the context of Breach, which articulates the speaker’s experience of pandemic lockdown, it would be disingenuous and sleight of hand to make an uncritical connection between readerly ‘lock out’ and Covid-19 ‘lockdown’. In the first instance, such a connection hinges on the extent to which the reader might feel held at a distance by the speaker. The first stanza of Samuels’ long poem insists the context of Covid by repeating the name of Li Wenliang (1986–2020), the Chinese ophthalmologist who warned his colleagues in Wuhan of the yet unnamed virus. The reader is also gifted the neologism ‘aqualungs’ in the same stanza.
In what will be a tired comparison on my part, the search for ready semantic coherence in experimental poetry is akin to descrying representational objects in an abstract painting. To tap, even lightly, on the relationship between language and comprehension in text-based artforms is a perilous undertaking. The poet does not intend ready semantic and lexical coherence; the abstract artist is not striving for representational recognition. Yet (tapping lightly) there are instances throughout Breach that offer ready comprehension and other stretches of short, taut lines that intentionally resist, even restrict, access. This juxtaposition (tapping again), in which ‘I comprehend’ alternates with ‘I do not’ unsettles the comparison with abstract painting. It prompts two (unoriginal) questions: is the quest to identify passages of semantic comprehension appropriate, and if not, or not only, or not always, does the reader, therefore, mobilise other modes of apprehension: how does language fall on the ear and/or how does it call the body? It is of course tempting to zone the semantic conflict, the alternation of comprehension with not, to the experience of lockdown, to the pandemic. Yet this too feels sleight and slight, as the impact of the virus is at once microcosmic to, and emblematic of, capitalism and socio-ecological crisis.
How does the language of Breach strike the ear, therefore, and how does it resonate somatically with the body? There is never one answer of course, as responses are subjective. What is clearly apparent throughout Breach (and Samuels’ other publications), is an exceptional intellect and a forensic understanding of language: its constituent parts and how these can be rearranged and productively deranged. Samuels’ affinity for the malleability of language, slippages between meanings conjured through omitted letters, intentional ‘misspellings’, not-quite homonyms, and other strategies illuminate Breach. We are each ‘only doing the bet / one can’—our best is a bet: the omission of ‘s’ enables this dual reading. ‘They a company’ and ‘one could at / tribute’, and ‘if every life mats / equally / then what’s on life’ function similarly. Trans-linguistic interactions abound: ‘blood do sang’ (sang is the French word for blood) becomes ‘blood on / blood’, and the following split in the English word ‘tangible’ at ‘tangi’ (te reo Māori for ‘cry’ and ‘funeral’):
there’s a mask
between you and
This sets a linguistic precedent for ‘death / death blows / residual tangi’ towards the end of the collection.
Breach embodies Samuels’ critically well-known theoretical concept ‘deformance’, a portmanteau of ‘deform’ and ‘performance’ that offers alternative aesthetic and semantic possibilities beyond the readily comprehensible. This excerpt from the fourth section of Samuels’ Breach quintet could even serve as a poetic affirmation of deformance:
we heard you
ear to ear
Perhaps this excerpt itself embodies the collection’s epigraph by Spinoza (1632–1677), ‘The idea which constitutes the formal being of the human mind is the idea of the body’, a body or bodies that are marsupial, plural, vulnerable and ready to be heard.
ROBYN MAREE PICKENS is a queer pākehā art writer and poet who lives in Ōtepoti.