Owen Bullock Reviews Alan Loney

14 March 2017

In other examples of juxtaposition, the poet’s rumination on issues of form and content in writing (October 1998-May 1999) are followed by the simple listing of a couple of names of fishing boats at Geelong, as if to say, ‘well, they are really just names, just things’. The text recollects, ‘But my mother’s devastating plaint still rings in my ears – ‘O, I did want you to make something of your life’, and then shifts to these lines:

how shall we live 
in bright day’s dark

without an irritable reaching
for the light

(Melbourne May-December 2001)

In Melbourne Journal the poetry explores the condition of memory which the prose preceding it establishes. In the above section, Loney’s choice of ‘irritable’ suggests that memory is a tangle from which one must unravel oneself. It is natural for the reader to want to untangle or decipher the thoughts as they are set down here, to establish meaning; there lies the hook of engagement. An active reader of Loney cannot avoid their share of the ‘accessibility function’, as Loney once accused a reviewer of doing in Landfall. One has to work to make the writing accessible, but the scaffolding of potential connections is present.

In a notebook, we might expect a good deal of writing about the self, and the writer surely doesn’t have to justify such inclusions – except that these particular notebooks are being published. Is there a difference between notebooks and a ‘finished’ product? For a writer who has so stoically resisted the idea of a finished work, and asserted the ‘unfinished and unfinishable business’ of writing in his Missing Parts: Poems 1977-1990 (Hazard Press, 1992), this would seem impossible. The preface to Crankhandle asserts that the notebooks series was no more or less finished than other works. So what does the reader make of these musings from the Melbourne journals:

all my writing life I have regarded poetry as heightened language, in every way. I want the writing to be technically sound – no, better than that, I want it technically brilliant whatever one’s imperfections. Of course we get labelled “clever”, as if there is nothing else happening on the page. And decorum, always.

(October 1998-May 1999)

The idea of heightened language is easily accepted, but what is the link between the idea of technical brilliance and one’s imperfections, and how is technical brilliance achievable given one’s imperfections? Is this self-effacing or self-aggrandising? Is a writer inherently aggrandising? One is having a conversation with the text. Loney takes what occasionally seems like teenage angst to a new level of sophistication. These are perpetual concerns, such as ‘what on earth / am I on earth for’ (October 1998-May 1999). The text acknowledges this insistence on self-examination when it considers the Platonic idea of the unexamined life, concluding, ‘When my own reflections find me deficient and dysfunctional – what’s worth in that? It strikes me an unreflective, unexamined life is greatly to be desired’ (January-July 2002). It is an unexpectedly despairing summary, at odds with the pursuits of such an intellectual.

Doubt is a frequent companion, but one wonders at times how essential or otherwise some of these ideas might be:

I wonder if I enjoy being alone, and more than I have ever admitted. I have spent so much time by myself in recent years that it must have answered some kind of need, or even preference.

(January-July 2002)

If any portion of this volume were labelled indulgent, this might be so. And yet one admits that the concept of solitude is a fraught one. Even when accepted by the individual as distinctly different from loneliness, it is socially difficult.

A similar question around indulgence might be asked of the lines, ‘what is to become of the “my” / in my “writing”’ (Melbourne May-December 2001). But there are implications here beyond the concern about indulgence of the question of uniqueness, and whether or not it is in fact shared with all other texts that have gone before. The question follows the lines ‘one does not choose words / they simply flow out of me’ which reminds us of inherited and arbitrary aspects of language as theorised by Ferdinand de Saussure. Or does the statement merely distance the individual from responsibility, acting as a disclaimer? The thread of ownership, or theft of language crops up again later, with the injunction:

let me hear you 
sing 
               with the words I have stolen 
from you

(December 2002-July 2003)

These lines bring to mind Loney’s statement in The Erasure Tapes (Auckland University Press, 1994), ‘theft is what the giver brings’, which displays a similarly anguished complexity.

In Melbourne Journal self-examination continues to the point of implied tears. The text also uses a quote from Anne Carson: ‘there is too much self in my writing’ (December 2002-July 2003). The serious ideas are occasionally broken by a more whimsical moment, such as:

what if, in Bridport Street
of a fine day & people doing
all the usual things at

10.04 am, and without prior
warning

all heaven were to break loose

(October 1998-May 1999)

When they do appear, lighter moments tend to come via observations of other people and oddities of things like public signage. Observations of the human animal in the landscape are a frequent component of Loney’s writing. These are detailed, detached and often poignant. They are mysterious too, in the way briefly glimpsed moments in other people’s lives cannot be fully discerned. The focus on language as tenor as well as vehicle results in much play, for example ‘all’s it / and it’s / not all,’ but there’s little humour in it, and the riddles often turn inwards (January-July 2002). It is a serious life. As much as I admire Loney, his spare technique, his understanding of the semiotic potential of language and his celebration of language alongside a habitual but natural frustration at its limitations, humour is rare. I tend to overlook this lack since the level of skill is high and much to be admired.

The writing is very quotable, as the fragments are shrunk to the intensity of aphorisms. In most people’s notebooks this would be tedious, but not here. The fragments include shards of poems and prose snippets which are deeply philosophical and poetic, in the manner of Wittgenstein or Nietzsche. Meditations on reading, the reading process and ways in which it needs to be revitalised (October 1998-May 1999) are perennial concerns of Loney’s. As Loney has noted in Missing Parts (Hazard Press, 1992) and in an interview with Robert Wood for Cordite Poetry Review, he started reading late and sometimes has to abandon reading altogether.

Reflections on the writing process, such as that ‘so much of what one knows follows after what’s done’ (October 1998-May 1999), seem to relate to the prophetic quality of writing and its intimate relationship with self-discovery and learning of all kinds; it’s re-articulated later in the lines: ‘there is not enough time in a single life / for what we have written to become clear to us’ (Melbourne May-December 2001). It’s an aspect of the writing life to which the notebooks return. This book conveys that knowledge can never be fully articulated, but only irrupts now and then ‘into a present discourse’; and we can never print out everything we know (October 1998-May 1999). Elsewhere Loney has stated that ‘nothing will remain unpublished’ (The Erasure Tapes). For this poet/printer, the idea of print is a constant, which cannot be without some regret over the progress of technology: ‘note the sheer variety of print technology as against the homogenising screen’ (October 1998-May 1999), he laments.

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