Owen Bullock Reviews Alan Loney

14 March 2017

Earlier in these notebooks, Loney has mentioned the idea of scouting ahead of the avant garde, and in this passage he is unusually candid about his own place in the poetry scene:

my senses of being poetically marginalised are deeply ingrained in my social marginalisation—how I have never been able to survive in any normal fashion, or be a full member of the social body, or belong to a group, even if that group was the avant garde in New Zealand poetry

(October 1998-May 1999)

This confirms my sense of Loney as one who has ‘self-marginalised’, as I noted recently in Journal of New Zealand Literature. The above passage is an example of ‘confession’ which is really quite rare in Loney’s work. There is also a comment in the book about refusing the blandishments of success (August-December 2002), which is strange in some ways, since he has been successful in receiving scholarships and awards.

What follows the comments about marginalisation is a typically oppositional reaction to any vaguely resolved idea: ‘it is hard to think clearly about emotional matters when the writer in one takes over at the drop of the first word’ (October 1998-May 1999). This is another massive clue to an understanding of Loney’s practice. In so many cases, he creates oppositions, unpacks or undoes what he has just stated, resists closure and celebrates uncertainty, for example in The Erasure Tapes, ‘These are, and are not, the words of the ancestors’ and ‘I’d like to know, and won’t’. This awareness of opposites is a huge asset to the writer, for the way it both creates drama and resonance for our lives in what might be called the age of late capitalism. The journal entries can seem like a kind of anti-therapy, which must continue to resist resolution even if it discovers some new knowledge that is useful or harmonious. I think Loney would say this is inevitable, that there can only be contingency; it is as if all life is an uncertain sign (December 2002-July 2003). Part of me hastens to agree even whilst another longs for some sense of rest. The endlessly deferred meanings and resolutions can be waring as much as refreshing, and they are not for every reader. The mixed reception to Loney’s work in the past is probably due to the fact that people don’t want so much uncertainty.

The resistance to closure, when applied to poetry, creates a taut and resilient artefact. Loney has the skill to write any kind of lyric poetry, but, I believe, deliberately stops short at times. Why? Because it’s been done before in some guise and he knows that too well. And he avoids what is easy, even if it is not so easy to others. The lyrical breaks through at times, of course. In works such as ‘Squeezing the bones’, ‘Crystal fountain’ and ‘Lyre suite’ in Missing Parts: Poems 1977-1990, and the remarkable eponymous prose poem sequence ‘The erasure tapes’, we see that even Loney can’t resist the beautiful moment. In Melbourne Journal, lyrical fragments are common. The sense I’ve gained in other texts of Loney stopping short of the haiku form – here and elsewhere he acknowledges the influence of Chinese and Japanese poetry – finds some relaxation in this more obvious example:

mist & rolling fields
crows in the air
quails on the ground

(New York London 11November-7 December 2003)

Perhaps this stopping short is due to the very split he describes between the individual and the writing self. It’s also the curse of the poetic vocation, which is articulated in this passage:

today’s beginning. Its panorama makes this demand, this excessive demand, upon you: you have been looking and listening all your life, you are glutted with its sights and sounds pounding into you without restraint or let-up, and it says to you: here! listen! look again!

(New Zealand May 1999-May 2001)

Loney is writing this series of notebook entries from his late fifties to his early sixties, a time when youth has definitely passed, and the individual begins to look to the older generation, to what one will become in the future. Increasingly, the observations of the world include examples of the ageing or elderly. These fragments can seem sublime, and one realises all over again how fundamental observation of the world is to a writer. They also find expression in more complete poems such as ‘reductio’, with its description of the waning body: ‘and there you have it: a skeleton / that weeps’). The less personal, more detached observations sometime seem to take the self out of the self (December 2002-July 2003). Yet even one’s observations must be questioned:

I wonder to what extent my “observations of nature”
are possible because I don’t know the names of things.
Is there something about the state of my ignorance
that makes much of my writing possible

Names can make one think one knows something about an animal or plant, without real observation taking place, so I’m sure such ‘ignorance’ is productive. These lines are followed by the word list ‘solitude / celibacy / poverty’ (Melbourne May-December 2001), as if to answer the question of what makes writing possible: the answer seems to be in being apart from things. These stanzas make acknowledgement of nature’s primacy:

in the beginning was 
no word there was no
word in the beginning
was no word

if anything was pure
it was the stones
before we talked
about them

(December 2002-July 2003)

There is much to savour and ponder in this book. The reader had better be prepared for a philosophical journey, without resolution, and it will take energy, but they will be rewarded persistently. Melbourne Journal throws up so many issues about the self, writing and the role of observation, and utilises the fragment in such diverse ways that one could write a whole book about this book.

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