The Farewell Tourist by Alison Glenny (Otago University Press, 2018), 77 pp., $27.50; Night Music by Harvey Molloy (Black Giraffe Press, 2018), 88pp., $25
Two collections, two worlds; Alison Glenny’s first book and Harvey Molloy’s third. The books connected by a centering of natural forces, use of a narrative frame and their characters’ attempts to reconcile the cosmic with the real, to grasp at glimmers of divinity with an animal derived mind.
The world Glenny creates in The Farewell Tourist is as complete and consistent as one would expect from a novel, calling to mind proponents of fragmented narrative poetry: Charles Simic, Lynn Jenner and Selima Hill. While the collection sustains a narrative, it is a mysterious and unknowable one, built around the waning love between a nameless ‘she’ and ‘he’.
The thrust of the narrative comes from the setting: Antarctica in the Heroic Age (from the late 19th century to the end of the World War I), an age before technology offered Antarctic explorers any assurances of comfort or survival.
The ice continent is a treacherous and dizzying environment. The characters navigate pressing danger and endless reflections, an emotional and environmental hall of mirrors, with inadequate tools, scant resources and distorted perspectives. Their own basic and animal needs conflict with the grandiose self-image of the time:
He dreamed of a device that would shrink the landscape so
it could be scooped up by hand and examined through a
jeweller’s glass. Its features minutely surveyed without
leaving the warmth of his sleeping bag …
The book is rich with precision, imagination and expansive relational observations of natural and cosmic forces at work pulling and propelling characters through time, space and relationships.
It was elusive and it wandered, so they thought of it as
female. It attracted them the way the oceans are tugged by
the moon, and in surrendering to its pull, they knew
themselves to be men.
Characters pen impassioned correspondence, cut open penguins, try and fail to assemble pianos, find mittens full of nails and dream of food that is constantly whisked away.
Curious scientific instruments with which the characters measure and record their icy environment appear throughout the pages, but it is so cold the instruments become unreliable: ‘In the darkroom I hold my breath to prevent a fine snow from covering the surface of the plates’ (11, ‘Footnotes to the Heroic Age’).
The incessant measuring and recording illuminates the disingenuous confidence of Edwardian imperialism, as if the act of measuring assured dominance through rationality: dominance over the environment, dominance over feeling. Confidence disintegrates as the explorers grasp the overwhelming nature of the forces they face. Of which, we suspect, love is one.
You must not give way to despondency
[The remainder of the page is torn off and missing]
Do not let the weather do not
[The remainder of the sentence is illegible]
(Appendix 2, Correspondence)
Glenny draws on texts from the time to provide detail and a memoir feel. Her first-hand experience of Antarctica (she visited there, and wrote in a tent) is palpable. There’s an unnerving realness to the collection, most notably in Glenny’s breathtaking depictions of luminosity through the snow, ice and cold; light being immutable, even in the unfathomable depths of crevasses, even at night, as the shining moon pulls oceans, compressing tidal ice then releasing it.
Ice locks jewellery boxes shut, sticks clothes to the wall, is measured for firmness with a pencil and poled for hidden, luminous crevasses. Snow is a white haze that obscures thinking. It is photographed and posted as tokens of love, it is brushed from the narrow toes of boots.
The Farewell Tourist is a book of multiple forms, a sequence, with dictionary-style definitions, footnotes on blank pages and letters with visible erasures. The cumulative effect is one of discombobulation and circularity, of pressing elemental forces and lovelorn questions circling back on themselves as if searching for resolution, even if that resolution is to be erased.
The section ‘Appendix 1, Magnetic Traces’ is particularly effective. Poems from the prose sequence are returned to us largely erased. The scarce scattering of words on the page mirror stars in the night sky, a lost ability to think or remember or feel. The effect is powerful, like the pressing of knots on a back.
Glenny has a sensual visual style that calls to mind Hera Lindsay Bird in its impact and use of juxtaposition and bluntness, yet is understated in execution. Images are seeded in the reader’s imagination.
… She pretended to be
the wind, and he enacted a magnetic storm around her. In
the final act, she helped him demonstrate the tent.
Emerging over and over from the triangle of canvas, each
time to fresh applause.
It was only on a second, closer reading that I realised the word ‘orange’ had not been used to describe the tent – the visual was so firm in my mind. In this way, Glenny shows her remarkable ability to draw the reader into co-creation.
While reading The Farewell Tourist I woke from a dream and, looking out the window, saw the trees outside had taken on the sepia tones of the cover of this collection. Glenny’s world had invaded mine, the characters – and now the reader – suspended dreamlike, somewhere between history and immediacy, between seasons and states, between feeling and forgetting.
There is impeccable use of language and calculated risk-taking in this book, a relentless purposefulness and intellectual charge, offset with stark simplicity that leaves this reader transported, supple and surrendered to the experience. Thinking about it now I feel a light brush of snow on my hands.
Night Music by Harvey Molloy also follows a narrative of sorts, if more loosely. It is the story of a drunken narrator, having lost his keys, lying on the grass in his backyard looking up at the sky. The setting provides a frame for 88 free-verse poems of six lines. Each page has a number, counting down to one; each page has an image of the night sky.
close eyes: take the dark
passage down a thousand
stairs to open the trap
to the sky’s inner nadir
all I know is here
all I feel is real
Reading this book on a West Coast beach felt fitting, each morsel-sized poem an invocation that resonated with the easy magic of nature. Each new slice of white page and re-positioning of the cosmos, as the pages turn, echoed the movement of an eye blinking beneath the night sky: both the literal eye and the figurative eye of the memory.
those top drawer
gran doled out from a tin
I kept waiting
for an 88
It makes sense that Kristian Molloy (the illustrator) and Harvey Molloy are siblings, given the profound symbiosis between the poems and the images. I imagine this book being conceived during an evening with music and wine, an idea tossed around, an improvised collaboration from which this accomplished fusion emerges. The gloss on the inside cover feels like a tiny rebellion, a beautiful act of inversion.
where once you saw
now you see
a white scribble field
and a black boulder
These poems are delicious read out loud. The word music is in turn invigorating and soothing, and calls to mind chanting, a singalong bounce with the perfect nonsensical sense of children’s books.
I lie licked
a neighbour’s puppy yap
The book has the spirit of jazz, a wildness and disinclination to follow form. Themes and subjects leap off each other and the here-and-now; a drunken night, cosmic reflections, pagan rituals, a disgruntled lover, apocalypse, military and urban decay, grandma and grandpa, childhood’s treasures.
Molloy’s cosmic poems are so successful they tap into a communal consciousness. Sometimes I felt I recognised the words on some level as I read them, as if it was my own mind thinking, or blending in, or they belong to a truth everyone knows, being said for the first time.
I hear myself
this is the moment
I hear myself
The poet tunes into the experience of being human as if he is a musician in a band of astrological forces. We are intermittently returned to the cool grass on the backyard, between bouts of accompanying the poet on mystic flights though philosophy, destiny and fancy.
if I could be without
words I would not
be me: I’d be an ephebe
lost in chromatic flurries
a black sheep wingding
in the family typeface
Molloy’s deployment of language and image is by turn hi-brow and playful. Cloth nappies as ice giant’s snot rags, Pluperfect the dog and pie-eyed clown moons all live alongside kaylied falls, aldebaran burns and pluperfect gospel (multiple visits to the dictionary were required from this reader). The effect is invigorating as we travel alongside the multiple minds of the poet and the endlessly starred sky, all while the poems capture the fermenting, fragmentation effect of alcohol on the brain blurring the past and present.
The only pause this reader had concerned the appearance of a singing, river-bathing maiden, which strayed into male gaze territory without redeeming irony. Far preferable is the startling and original description of feminine beauty here:
I think of your hand
which I cannot
the six petalled flowers
of your summer eyes
Each time I picked up Night Music I knew I would find some satisfaction. Kristian and Harvey Molloy have created an open and refreshing space for practising being human in good company. The deep and expansive black night serves to remind that we all exist under the same sky with our fears and foibles, with or without our keys to hand. Hopefully aware of our magical properties, hopefully with treasured childhood memories and a present, past or future love to reflect on. Hopefully hopeful.
SIMONE KAHO is a New Zealander of Tongan ancestry. She holds a master’s from the International Institute of Modern Letters. In 2016 she published her debut poetry collection, Lucky Punch. Noted for her dynamic stage presence, Simone performs regularly in festivals, theatres, pub and galleries. First and foremost a poet, Simone also writes creative non-fiction, and directed a documentary web series on Māori and Pacifika women for E-Tangata magazine in 2019.