When Poets Write Prose: Daniela Brozek Cordier Reviews Recent Collections by Joanne Burns, Stephanie Green and Jane Williams

By | 26 February 2020

The title of Green’s collection – Breathing in Stormy Seasons – is apt. Her writing evokes an image of drifting through life peacefully enough, until, caught up in stormy turbulence, we struggle to regain our breath. We do, but not without being marked by glimpses from the eye of the storm of an otherness that stays with us, haunts, and somehow, subtly, changes us. It is this that makes her works haiku-like. Like the writing of the seventeenth century Japanese poet Basho, Green’s texts capture profound moments of insight by evoking living in a world of events and rich sensory and felt phenomena.

Of those credited with stimulating interest in prose poetry in the West, the nineteenth century French writer Baudelaire is one of the best known. He was famous for being a flaneur – wandering simply to look. Paris was, during his time, undergoing vast changes associated with industrialisation. Both city and landscapes were changing a great deal. Painters responded visually to these changes, and it should not, therefore, be surprising if poets too wanted to convey the visual effects of these changes in their writing. Our world is experiencing significant changes too, and many of these affect what can see around us, but today’s changes are not just external, they are also virtual. We increasingly live by the screen, and that is the visual medium par excellence. Perhaps an appeal to the visual senses goes further though. Like the nineteenth century, our age is becoming increasingly complicated. It is hard, therefore, to know how we should be now. Appealing to vision may be a way of dealing with this, for there is a sense of objectivity about what we can see – we feel that it can be seen by others and is verifiable; more so, at least, than things we perceive through ‘hidden’ senses, like physical and emotional feelings. Theoretically, we can all see, smell and hear the same things, but we are less sure whether you feel what I feel.

Jane Williams’s Parts of the Main offers a powerful meditation on the question of ‘how to be’. She uses both prose and conventional poetic forms in this collection, but strikes out first with prose: her first text is ‘Still/life’. This work evokes a sight that is commonplace enough in contemporary Australia. It describes a self-portrait of a pregnant woman in detention on Christmas Island, but Williams does not stop at ekphrasis. Why should she? We have all seen such images for ourselves. Williams nudges us, rather, into the silence where the image ends, asking: ‘What happens now? What happens next’. She thus launches directly into the question of how to be, imploring us not to turn away from the image and forget it, but to linger and reflect on what it means; on what we must do. Her use, in this poem, of the prose form, and emphasis on what can be seen, empowers her work to focus the reader’s awareness directly onto the woman and her artwork, without an intrusive layer of secondary intervention imposed by the writer. Williams places us before the woman and makes us directly accountable to her.

Like Green’s, Williams’s texts often probe ethical questions. If writing is a powerful agent for stimulating empathy and making us a social species, short prose texts could offer a fast-track to circumvent narcissism and, one might hope, autocracy. They are like little high-potency capsules we can take to taste many different lives without having to make the commitment that long stories require. This is what makes Green’s and Williams’s pieces more microfictions than poems to me – they read like very brief short stories and impart the feeling of solidity or objectivity that prose stories tend to have; whereas conventional poems generally feel more subjective and slippery. They tend to mean different things to different readers to a far greater degree than prose stories.

Williams’s ‘Renewal’ is an example of these features of prose – there is a couple (visitors in a foreign city), an accident, a reader in suspense who reads on, wanting to know if the couple will meet again. The story stimulates concern, sympathy, laughter. It is visually descriptive and thus has a sense of solidity and objectivity, and it is threaded through with a strong narrative thread that makes sense. Yet Williams cleverly questions her own approach. Sometimes it is hard to be sure if a text should be read as prose, or, line by line, as standard poetry. ‘This complicated inner life’ is an example of this. If you search carefully you will find a place where the first word on a line would, surely, have fitted at the end of the previous line, had it not been intentionally broken where it is (‘search / for’). This hints that the text is having a bit of a bet both ways, and indeed its theme suggests this too:

you’re thinking novel: big picture work of substance you
have outlines whole drafts the scaffolding for the building of
an entire yet undreamed of civilisation then one of those
dreaded 3 a.m. calls to doubt when the only sensible thing to
do is to watch TV on your wonder phone because the path
you’re on seems less clear less certain less pathlike in fact more
like a stream of quicksand ...

The end of this poem sees ants ‘navigate that / single crumb homeward more than slaves to the hive mind / more than marks on the page’. It is a marvellously enigmatic yet evocative text, but also, in its final appeal to what can be seen, says a great deal about how we flail about in the darkness, looking hard for something ‘real’ to rely on. Williams’s humour and intelligence are clear for all to see in this text.

Poetry is a powerful medium for expressing how we know the world, and we owe it to ourselves not just to look back at the poets of the past, but to question why poets might be drawn to particular forms in our own time. What do their choices tell us about the world we presently inhabit? As an ensemble, Burns’s, Green’s and Williams’s books offer a stimulating range of approaches to writing short prose texts or prose poetry, and reasons why one might chose this form of expression. Where Burns’s writing is playful and psychologically interesting, and might help us sift through the strange ways our minds work, Green’s and Williams’s works have significant ethical dimensions. They strive to present the world in ways that might help us better understand it, and they call upon vision to help this process. They ask readers to look, and to verify what they themselves see. In this way perhaps we can come to know the world and each other a little better. I think we need this.

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