Astonished Dice by Geoff Cochrane (Victoria University Press, 2014), 240 pp., $30
My dad was very fond of the movies. ‘See,’ he’d tell me – I was not much more than a toddler – ‘they showed a close-up on her shoes. That’ll be important later on.’ Like the father of Bruno Swan in Geoff Cochrane’s story ‘Down Through the Pines’, my dad lived and breathed Hollywood’s golden age. Stories were games, exercises in pattern recognition. ‘How many other things have been bright red, apart from the sports car?’ he’d ask. ‘That’s a clue.’
A sort of ad hoc, chap-at-the-bar, cinematic literacy slinks through this Geoff Cochrane collection of very-short to almost-long stories; as indeed, it does through all of the poetry books of his I’m familiar with, stretching back some two or three decades. In Astonished Dice, one character is working on a boxing picture for John Garfield. Another’s film turns out ‘… a scandal. An obscene provocation. A monster from the deep, a rotting heap of slime.’ Film-contra-culture references regularly emerge from characters’ minds: ‘Did you know, arhat, that Ice Station Zebra was Howard Hughes’ favourite movie?’
But with Cochrane, you’re more likely to be pondering whether the speaker intended their overreach-much use of arhat – or Arhat, perfected one, attainee of Nirvana – to assonantly resonate with a term of rather more profane endearment – asshat. Perhaps they didn’t; but this is the territory. The language is at play.
His characters may love to think about and even try to live in that blessed world of movie narrative, but they are out of luck, as per their fitful strut across a Geoff Cochrane tale. Characters are not so much developed as they are ripped out of a hidden Polaroid – the chemical colours fresh and stinking – in moments pulled from the air as quickly as any photographer could negotiate via his or her photographic apparatus. A line from one of his more recent poems – published in The Worm in the Tequila (2010) – states ‘My books of verse are my novels.’ I’d chance to suggest, on the evidence here, that within his books of short stories are some of his finest poems.
Once you’ve stopped looking for (much of) a plot, or for the people to change or learn something, it may occur to you that the poised, animated quality of the words themselves are suggestive of a musical motive. There is a hint of time-based sculpture in the way they sit up and speak to you: could they be a type of song we are unfamiliar with? Despite his 1970s credentials, there’s precious little in the way of Ye Olde Counterculture plastic surgery disasters. No, the good old days are gone, if indeed they ever were: there’s no sweet beat simplissimus à la Charles Mingus’ ‘Scenes in the City’ here. Nor is there the hot, hectoring verve of Tom Waits’ ‘Step Right Up’, or any of that faux-boho nonsense. If I were to choose a songster for comparison, it would probably be Laurie Anderson. Think of how her sentences stand alone first, before they wittily cavort among themselves. Think of how she annunciates: ‘Thanks for showing me your Swiss Army knife … and … um … thanks for letting me autograph your cast …’
I’d quite like to hear Cochrane – or someone – intone his pithy routines over a boxily compressed AM frequency somewhere. Perhaps on Puketapu AM out of Palmerston, in between the flute-led instrumental remix of ‘You Should Be Dancin’’ and the theme music from The Onedin Line. For there is undeniably something of the old New Zealand that people profess to love – just before they sign the property speculation subdivision papers – about him. The dryness. He doesn’t give a toss about then or now, but there’s several things about it all that entrance him. He’s not particularly tortured, but neither is he lying.
It’s worth going over, because Cochrane’s own personal history – a brutal and lengthy waltz with the bottle, which definitively ended a quarter century ago, succeeded by as steady a publishing schedule as just about any serious writer in NZ – floats through a great many of these tales. ‘Sixteen years ago,’ Bruno Swan recounts, ‘I was coming to an end.’ Others have been ‘released from the clinic’, before they ‘slipped … crashed and burned’. Doctors ask ‘Do you dream about drinking?’; and the novels of one of the writers depicted ‘have never made him any real money’. Charles Bukowski – whose often lovely verse is habitually overlooked – did the same thing in his stories. Hank Chinaski is him; yet there’s an important distinction to be made between what writers like Bukowski do with their stories and what Cochrane is doing. We are meant to feel that Chinaski, despite being despised and continually out of luck, is well hard and a sort of champion for the dignity of the low-class drinking man, just doing what he can; and if he happens to have a lady friend and things get sorta crazy, well, who the blimmin’ heck are you to say anything? The man is still a man.
It’s unfortunate that so many of Cochrane’s settings seem similarily lubricious in this way, because the incautious reader is liable to detect a pose in effect – and that’s a rampant cliché in 2014, if we’re to be quite honest – but actually it just isn’t so. Cochrane is entirely uninterested in convincing you that he is this, or that. He is interested, though, in ‘what this person said, how they said it, and one or two other things that happened ‘round about then’. A focus which causes the language to be incredibly vital, sometimes magical, without twisting your arm to suggest you invest in some arid, ontological, joint-stock venture or other. His personal history fills in some of the background, simply because that is in fact the background.
Likewise, Neil Young is a theme; specifically, Neil Young playing ‘Like a Hurricane’. More specifically, the lead guitar break of ‘Like a Hurricane’. Cochrane feels the weirdness of that famously epic, epically silly, ‘Like a Hurricane’ video, with Young lashed almost to disintegration by a wind machine. Neil Young is spoken of in Cochrane stories as a kind of food, spiritual nourishment. Stepping stones are touchstones the mind coming down to land in, not so much safe places as sustaining ones.
All that lengthily said, there are plenty of exceptions: places where the stories enter the lives of others just enough to ignite the language into an unexpected direction or three. The moods evoked can be eerie, even psychedelic. The start of ‘Red Shifts’ punts you straight into a dystopic, Blade Runner-esque night: ‘Fluorescent mice have colonised the sewers. As robots tend their spectral dynamos, rain streams from the beaks of gryphons.’
But the language, and the intensely interested eye, will not settle. Tommy confesses to an old murder, then asks the cop for a beer. The exchange ends on an observation about the scarcity of green pens. Forgetting Tommy entirely, we follow the cop home to find his life banal, then extraordinary, and so in general crowded with incident that doesn’t much touch him until the final line, where he forgets for a moment: ‘the pitiless drip drip drip of life’s accreting judgements’.
These stories of Cochrane’s are tiny stories, most of them only a few pages, which hold the attention and invite revisitations, not by what they are in totality, but by what they do in parts. A few are too thin to hold their sorcery of moments up – another movie tale, about Brando in the Philippines, only just gets going before it cuts off in mid-sentence – and while the artistic notion of publishing a scrap book of ideas is a seductive one, it is not the guiding principle here, where most of the stories are serious works and feel seriously worked, in the sense that the artistry is hidden but nevertheless apparent in the density of effect swimming in each paragraph.
‘Passion-fruit’ is a showpiece model story. It has that music discussed earlier in it, so that it can drop out of a discussion about the mood of a theatre’s upper stalls and what the projectionist had for supper, into a paragraph that simply states, ‘Doing smack in the basement, Ajax Jones.’
Not that we’ll learn much else about Ajax. Down at the Tutti Frutti milk bar ‘Luke Raven’s Levis concertinaed blackly above his ankles, just as in their designer’s facile sketches.’ A woman discusses this vision of a man-thing with the robot who tends bar. She’s unimpressed with Luke’s talk about his paintings as ‘gouts of oil and semen’, but something sparks when he explains:
‘I live with the sounds of trucks and trains and forklifts. I live with a melancholy, edge-of-the-city vibe.’
‘Like who dumped the mattress in the fennel?’
‘Like, who dumped the mattress in the fennel? Exactly.’
She’ll take him riding, but it’s not worth recording. Neville the robot accepts Luke’s judgement that he does not have a mind, but a brain. Ajax and Fat Johnson spin a bit of that junkie bullshit, and that’s that. But the story’s ravishing in its implications.
The most traditional narrative here is also the oldest and longest. ‘Quest Clinic’ was published in Sport back in 1992, in an issue that contained more than a few explorations of the state of the poetic nation: I’m not kidding, one of the essays begins with the words ‘What is a poem?’ Ah, but it was the nineties, given to establishing sureties. One thing’s for sure, though, and that is that whatever poetry is now, a substantial chunk of it is posing as this book of short stories, sweltering under a piece of cover art that’s about as attractive as some of the ‘public art’ that’s been beautifying the urban walls of our cities of late (and which in Astonished Dice’s case was done, I’m told, by a practitioner of exactly that style and level of street ‘freshness’).
Like another of his constant touchstones, Anne Carson, Geoff Cochrane reeks of ambition to take poetry into a multitude of uncommon corners, but unlike her he lives in a small country where the marvellous and uncommon is usually just swept into the corner. His two striking short novels, Tin Nimbus and Blood, seem to be almost entirely unread these days. It is testament to VUP’s gameness that this latest book is stranger by far than either of them – and is just a wonderful, first- class read. But that ‘street art’ cover seems to be saying something about the difficulty of getting this type of work noticed and appreciated for what it is. It seems to say ‘… uh, I dunno … how about this?’
Well, I hope it works.
JIMMY CURRIN is a writer, musician and artist who lives in Dunedin.