Rooms and Sequences by Mike Ladd
Salt Publishing, 2003
Mike Ladd's poetry works best when it traverses the line between prose and poetry, creating meaning in the face of irony. Simultaneously satiric and poignant, Rooms and Sequences takes the reader to a modernised first century AD through the eyes of an anachronistic Roman functionary, a Kerouac inspired look into life via various hotel rooms `on the road', pain and loss distilled through portentous animals, a series of short stories which look into the heart of loneliness, the human side of politics, and a series of self-referential poems about the writing process. While the poetry always retains a light touch, and is self-aware in the most postmodern of ways, these pieces go deeper than they seem to at first glance, and leave a powerful sensation in their wake.
In the first section, “Anakhronismos”, Ladd creates a fictitious character, Aponius Maso, a diarist living in first century AD, who was sent to the Roman Empire's southern boundary in South Australia, as the proconsul's “man in Adelaide.” The pieces are claimed to be translations of Maso's found notebook, complete with rather funny footnotes following the sequence. As the name would suggest, the pieces are full of anachronisms which humorously remind the reader of both the fictive nature of this work and perhaps the uncertainty of all translations. The references to McDonalds, modern technology and machinery, and an historically arcane location will often leave the reader laughing out loud, but don't dilute the real beauty of work:
I remember poor Craxus –
An inner ear whistling
like an off-frequency radio,
and the far-away look in his eyes
as he tried to find the station.
It turned out to be a tumour
the size of a nine volt cell,
powering the loops up and down.
In the end,
he shut himself in his room
repeating his name
in his own private code.
Ladd's sardonic wink doesn't change the fact that, at heart, these poems are as true as any in the book ? revealing the universal pain of a clearly presented man, living in any period. In other words, the simplicity of these pieces belies their complexity, as they layer seriousness on top of humour on top of more seriousness. Despite the universality and anachronistic setting, the poems are rooted in modern Adelaide and the mentality of the modern male, as he looks at the world around him, his own mortality and sensuality. Taken as a full sequence, they create a thorough characterisation of person and place. The ubiquitous golden arches, pollution and over consumption, war, greed, and the distractions of technology are all themes running through these poems:
This life is no more
than a day by the sea:
you come, you go.
the beach remains.
The sequences “from `Ninety-one Hotel Rooms'” take the reader in and out of six hotel rooms, creating scenes almost Kafkaesque in their alienation, but still personal and intimate as they delve into the unchanging psyche of what it is to be a human in perpetual motion: “Opening, and opening./we still surprise ourselves – /this ordinary, extraordinary thing”.
The reader peeks through the keyhole of these European rooms, noting the patterns on the walls, the irritation and attraction of other guests, the instructions in other languages and sees both the lives of others, and a mirror for himself in “the silky frictive voice of all our skins”. Written as a sequence of ninety one pieces, this is but a small yet compelling sampling of the total work, created in conjunction with artist Cathy Brooks, whose work graces the cover.
“This ordinary, extraordinary thing”, is a perfect description for Ladd's brilliant `3 Studies of a Rotary Hoist', which looks hard at the most iconic lower middle class emblems of Australia. What could be more ordinary than white Y-fronts hanging on a clothing line? Yet, with the eyes of a foreigner, the hoist becomes a true icon for what is both good and bad in Australia; a metaphor for detention centres, for nostalgia, for a quiet moment of domesticity in the life of an exile. Ladd's Hoist is sardonic, beautiful, mundane, political and oppressive, all at once:
Astrolab on a deck of lawn,
taking the azimuth of Orion's head
or a corner bearing on Antares.
Stuck here together,
we're sailing just through time.
Pegging out these soggy ghosts
that will be rinsed again in dew.
Other sequences in the book include “Aviary” which creates a visual impression of Australia through a series of animals: the dawn sounds of birds, the dark absent omen of an owl, the vicious pinioning of crows, cats, egrets, pipits, cows, dogs and ravens. These are the darkest poems in the book, using the natural world to traverse the crooked arch of human pain. These are followed by the prosaic sequences “Solitary Male: 3 Shades of Loneliness.” Although it is difficult to call these three pieces poetry as each forms a fairly complete short story, but the stories themselves are riveting, beautifully written, and collectively create a moving and poetic metaphor for loneliness. Their inclusion also forces the reader to re-examine the fuzzy distinctions between poetry and prose.
This is a marvellous collection of witty and evocative poems which will repay multiple readings. At times, their bones seem just a little obvious, as if Ladd were deliberately experimenting with different specific forms and presenting his exercises to the reader. This is particularly a risk in the visual poem `Kites of Sanur', `Audio Couplets', `Gay's Fables', or `Australia: Holiday Notes' where Ladd creates a sequence of near-Haikus based on a single mainly Australian image:
blue sky/blue pool
red sauce/yellow pie:
get yourself around that.
Even in these examples, however, Ladd's skill as a poet overcomes the obviousness of his personal assignments, and takes everything to its next level – the creation of meaning. It's something Ladd excels in. This is a delightful collection, as pithy and powerful as it is enjoyable and humorous.
Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader web site. Her nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything is available from the site and her first novel, Sleep Before Evening, is currently under consideration.