Recent Reading: Poetic Conversations

Enigma and Light, David Mutschlecner (96pp, Ahsahta)
My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer, Paige Ackerson-Kiely
    (109pp, $17.50, Ahsahta)
The Rapture, Tim Cumming (81pp, Salt)
Voluntary, Adam Thorpe (67pp, 10.00, Cape)
a compact of words, rob mclennan (95pp, 12 euros, Salmon)
grief notes, rob mclennan (76pp, BlazeVOX)

Imagine a world where Agnes Martin and Gertrude Stein converse, where Charles Olson and Joan Mitchell discuss painting and poetry, where Heidegger and Pound debate the meaning of life. That world is here in David Mutschlecner's exquisite new book from Ahsahta Press, currently producers of some of the most beautifully designed volumes. Enigma and Light is boldly wrapped in a close-up of grey canvas, with only the type and a bright slash of yellow paint on the reverse to break it up. Inside there is a similar effect: these are slow-paced and well-considered poems with not only a quiet music but a depth of allusion and philosophy, poems where

   thought rolls and turns and
   catches the crest-
   light epiphany
     [from 'Charles Burchfield / John Henry Newman']

But it is not all abstract or ethereal, these poetic conversations take place in a world where

   We stand in the parking lot's cold
   and talk about the man who was found
   frozen to death
   curled on the stoop
      [from 'Herman Melville / Martin Puryear']

and the poetry is spurred on and around these kind of everyday events. Mutschlecner goes from strength to strength with each book he writes.
Enigma and Light is outstanding in its intellectual and musical achievement.

Paige Ackerson-Kiely's book is also beautifully produced, but her work is feisty and opinionated. This author [wo]manhandles text into slabs of opinion and experience, channelling emotion and lust, anger and love, into taut enigmatic ventriloquist prose poems and carefully paced poems which approach their subject from a number of angles, like a streetwise cubist. This author takes an idea and runs with it, for instance in 'Folding', which begins

   We fold under the ennui, the mute spiritus
   languishing in group-speak. We fold

   the muttered hymns into loops behind
   pop songs that we are advised to feel.

   We fold across the shuddering
   plains of our nation disabused of its raising.

   We fold the girl into a woman []

and goes on to fold the labour force, 'shitty cars', 'the dull monogamy of the ocean' and eventually unfold an image of worship, desire and god within each lover. This kind of poetic trajectory appears to be merely associative, but it is clear that these poems are hard-won, come out of a socially politicised and widely-read, an acutely aware, poetics. This is quirky, original, astonishing writing.

Feisty is the wrong word for Tim Cumming, but there has always been a gritty urbanism about his work, a suppressed anger and furious criticism in his engagement with the city, which has previously been the focus of much of his work. The Rapture offers not only a much wider array of subject matter, but also reveals a more gentle side to Cumming's work, particularly in the nostalgic third section where Cumming re-engages with Dartmoor as a child. Here, stories, geography, childhood and family love and tension articulate place and memory with a shocking clarity and precision.

Elsewhere, a harsh poetic music is broken up with gentler images of nature, moments of emotion, and subject matter such as art and weather. This is still rivetingly tough, mature poetry though, particularly in the section of improvisations which reads as a centrepiece to this volume. I'm particularly drawn to Cumming's Belgrade, a

   City of scaffolding and violins, coffee
   grounds under the statues of dictators
   and voices on the party line, summer rain
   drumming through the city of exhaust
   into sheets of hail over the Western suburbs
     [from 'Belgrade Tram']

Adam Thorpe is a much more mainstream poet, and I often wonder what exactly it is that draws me to his work, because they aren't in any way experimental or innovative, just straightforward, well-crafted poems. This is the sort of work I read to be reassured, to buy into shared emotion and experience: when Thorpe remembers his father, I remember mine; when he articulates the life of a writer, I buy into his geeky young self; when he offers up an image of a painting made from words, I see the painting he describes. Sometimes I need the ordinary, the emotive and straightforward, and Adam Thorpe can do that stuff well.

rob mclennan (sic; the lower case is his insistence, not my mistake) is far from ordinary. He has an amazing writing and publishing output, and cannot fail to be on the radar of any poetry reader paying attention. From his Canadian base mclennan runs a pamphlet press, various book fairs and events, online journals of both poetry and poetics, inbetween travelling widely to book fairs, conferences and events around the world. En route he enthuses, challenges and networks and leaves in his wake a fine poetic output.

I've just caught up with his 2009 book, a compact of words, from Irish publisher Salmon, a book rooted in domestic matters, including familial breakdown/break up. Much of mclennan's work here is his trademark, or at least familiar, single or two line verses, drawing on the ghazal as a form, with diverse images and ideas accruing meaning as the poem goes on, but others are more straightforward and lyrical, particularly the poems in 'blindness: seven poems for kate'. These are poems which pick at mental and emotional scabs, states of being, poems which articulate real life but aren't afraid to confuse and abuse the norm.

   what is the difference between song & burial

   the difference of another document
      [from 'the wrong man']

grief notes perhaps continues to chart a separation, but through an act of remembering and mourning. This book is one sequence or set of poems, each including the book title and then a further phrase. These are neither mawkish nor indulgent works, though, these are clever articulations of memory and loss, doubt and at times despair. Who hasn't, like mclennan been full of regret like this?:

   I remember: whispers made
   in sudden fields

   as certain & as wrong as words
     [from 'grief notes: weather,']

Slowly, slowly the poems build, through emotional aside, careful consideration, rant and rave, articulate and inarticulate thought to the final realisation that

   hope is a four-letter word
   just as dangerous, a further
   street or river that then

   leads sight, not the future,
   but realizing we have one.

rob mclennan is original and hard-working, a writer who writes rather than pontificates, a doer and a maker and
grief notes: is one of his best books to date.

     Rupert Loydell 2012