Cassie Lewis reviews Ted Nielsen

20 March 2003

Search Engine by Ted Nielsen
Five Islands Press, 1999

The Australia that unfurled from the 1980s onwards is ever-present in Ted Nielsen's poems. However, this is not a poetry of sentimentalism – shared icons act like familiar furniture in a strange room. New technology, with the possible futures it breeds, breathes through this book. Additionally, the author carries his leftist politics into the current conservative landscape – testing them, honing them.

Nielsen makes frequent references to Australian poetry of the past thirty years in Search Engine. What interests me most is the way that these poetries have been filtered through the lens of Nielsen's own work.

'Physical metaphors' anchor the complex abstract in this book which, while not flawless, is large in scope. It's as if the term 'search engine' were analagous with the 21st century mind, sitting at its computer terminal late into the night.

The first time I read Search Engine, sitting in a bar 12 000 miles from Sydney, I had a strong sense of the localism that globalisation overlooks. I'll lift some words from the book at random that demonstrate this cultural specificity.

Mike Munro
bitumen
Sydney
mid-Pacific
opera house

Nielsen's engagement with the local leads, naturally, to social commentary. In 'Signal-to-Noise', for instance, the author updates an Australian icon.

your grins tilt
like the sails on the opera house,
they fall from brochures
as you walk away.

Such lines show how tourism's 'brochures' chafe against reality so that the interdependence of commercialism and language is made implicit.

Additionally, the poems' titles are almost a catalogue of late '90s life: 'Copywriting', 'Acting Prime Minister, 'Badly Dubbed', 'Emergency' and 'Infotech' to name a few. Titles locate each poem within a contemporary landscape. In 'Infotech', the title's resonance is amplified by the poem itself, until

you ask the search engine to look for regret
& it sends you the whole web.

Search Engine finds metaphors in the contemporary world for the process of writing poems. Economics impact affect so that 'fear equals market forces' (“Sonnet 17:Extant”). Similarly, in 'Pretty', a poem set on on Boeing 747, 'stars are a promise' like those made by advertisements. Tundra is replaced by 'the glow / from reviews'. And

… in the lobby bar at eight
there's a working group on grammar.

Significantly, the author confronts some of the ethical complexities of new technology. We are shown a speedy present with an undertow of foreboding. Nielsen's tone is frequently 'insouciant' – Ken Bolton uses this word in the back cover blurb for Search Engine. Below is one of my favourite quotes from the book.

She said, 'you're certainly collecting
lots of qualifications,'
& I agreed, although we meant
different things

('After We Shower')

However the poems have a sober concern for the future, and the sense that self-awareness doesn't exempt one from caring about outcomes. Consider the lines below.

Stretched tighter
than nerves on the back bench
you blink at the gathering storm,
wishing you weren't lashed
to the mast

('Acting Prime Minister')

Although Nielsen's poetry raises a fresh set of concerns it is informed by contemporary Australian work: in particular, John Forbes' poetry seems to resonate with the poems' conceptual framework in quite a profound way.

Forbes' use of physical imagery to describe complex ideas – in poems such as 'A Snowman in Miranda' (from New and Selected Poems, Angus & Robertson, 1992) has parallels with Nielsen's assertion that

physical metaphors often seem
more interesting, somehow

('After We Shower')

Arguably, such physical images ground the meditations in Search Engine. The results are frequently humorous, as in 'Sonnet 61' where 'half-formed ideas' are likened to a departing lover.

There are,too, darker ruminations – in 'A lover's density', Nielsen writes of how '…the unseen driver pulls away from the stop / gathering speed'. This image provides a keen, open-ended metaphor for volition.

I'll talk a little about Nielsen's technical style. He makes frequent use of ampersands, and lower case for starting sentences. The book includes twelve sonnets and otherwise it is written in free verse.

Most of the poems in Search Engine are lyrical and epistolary. However, they are addressed to a changing 'you' (For instance, see '17 December 1998', where the author uses 'you' from shifting perspectives) – who is by turns 'the figure of the poet'('Souvenirs De Voyage'), a second person, or persons in general. The poems resemble the viewfinder of a handheld movie camera: one image rapidly displaces another, as in 'Managerial'.

change the channel and listen to the rain,
waiting for everything to stop moving,
for the kids across the road to tire of breaking bottles.

The stronger poems are rigorously built. In Nielsen's 1993 English Honours thesis he quoted from Martin Johnson's 1970 review of John Tranter's Parallax and Other Poems, where Johnson perceptively notes “the interlocking complexes of signficance both within and between semantic units … which ought to make a poem irreducible to paraphrase.”(See New Poetry 84 (1970) p.43) Nielsen's stronger poems achieve such irreducibility. The poem 'Physics Tells Us Not to Be So Stupid' contains these brilliant lines.

there is no more poetry
in the heart than in computers
but thinking makes it so,
which is why we fought
those battles.

The poems 'Infotech', 'Radio Telescope', 'Pretty', 'Dream Machine', 'Sonnet 17: Extant' and 'Sonnet 53: Historical Sonnet' further exemplify such intellectual rigour.

Other poems, unfortunately, felt technically uneven. 'After We Shower' contains some of the book's strongest lines, for instance

there's obviously a point at which
the algorithms break down
& the future flies apart like a vision

but includes lines that add relatively little, apart from a sense of the colloquial:

which is kinda funny
when you think about it

Despite these criticisms, the overall impression is of an author concerned with linguistic economy and compression, and with constructing poems that think. Interestingly, Nielsen is also able to elegantly deflate the Romantic, as if arguing that beauty is not diminished by clear-sightedness. Thus a tonal shift occurs after the word 'trees' in the following lines.

What's lurking behind those trees, grey poplars
weaving into focus in the silver morning light?

('Sonnet 128: Eternal Beauty')

Such lines create a strong foundation for Nielsen's writing. I was left with a positive impression of Search Engine and look forward to its successor with interest.

Ted Nielsen's thesis, 'Developments in Australian Postmodernist Poetry: a Study of the poetry of John Tranter and John Forbes' is available online at www.magicdog.com/poems/hons/index.html. Cassie Lewis has written three chapbooks: High Country (Little Esther, 2001), Winter District (Potes & Poets, 2001) and Song for the Quartet (Soup, 1997). She also runs the e-mail discussion list Poetry Espresso.

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