amphora by joanne burns
Giramondo Publishing, 2011
joanne burns has been publishing experimental poetry in Australia for over four decades, and amphora is her thirteenth collection. At 135 pages, it is substantial and generous, of a breadth that allows for the prose poems burns is best known for along with a number of spectacular short poems and some longer series. amphora to my mind affects a very strange hybrid of both 1970s Aussie experimentalism of chance operation and intertextual sophistication, and a preoccupation with the subjects of metaphysical poets both of the tradition, as well as modern.
This seems an impossible proposition. Unless we broaden our definitions of either – to include contemporary metaphysical poetry, or to consider iconoclasts of experimentalism divorced from alliance such as П. O., or to think of those forebears of poetic Modernism like W.B. Yeats or Charles Baudelaire on the cusp of post-Enlightenment – we would surely have to disqualify the other from its definition. However, although much of the experimentalism of 1970s Australian poetry to which burns is connected might be seen as disruptive of a symbolist programme, burns’s mode, her seemingly contradictory hybrid of the yarn and the vision, is time and again made manifest through a rather laconic, sceptical and straight-talking voice. In ‘rung’, for example:
cixous writes of her childhood experience of the story
of jacob’s ladder. how she was drawn to the images
of descending angels. she writes of the dream ladder.
going down. growing into the earth. the descent on
the ladder of writing will be tough. down through the
spirit body of flesh and earth.
Note the material propositions attending the metaphysical, an activity bound to the act of writing itself: “the descent on the ladder of writing will be tough”. ‘rung’ is one of the most sophisticated and stratified of the poems in amphora, a poem that, like John Milton’s Paradise Lost, dramatises earthbound angels.
A transcendental subject inculcated in the material and burns’s urban Sydney milieu of neon lights, public spaces, and ideas, we see the pursuit here of an almost heretical presumption of a deity’s subsidence in all things, a pantheism that calls itself into doubt by holy maggots and a metaphysics of refrigerated goods. I say heretical since burns is willing to pursue the metaphysical sometimes to the most banal of places, to “pavement cracks”, “a pneumatic pool mattress”, grated carrot, ghee lamps, and in light bulbs.
But, while an immanence of the transcendent is one side of this mode that finds an enchantment in pavement cracks, burns also discovers the sky “besmirched / by the casualness of chemicals” (‘only the sky’). In ‘rung’, the ladder of ascension, through the material world into heaven, is upended. burns asks whether the descent – the conceiving of the transcendent in the realm of, and constrained to, the possible – might be just as desirable and just as tough. In ‘pitch’ she asks:
is ‘psychopomp’ another version of ‘angel’,
guiding the spirits of the living as well as
the dead. according to the oxford dictionary
of foreign words in english: this word has
the feel of a photoshopped guru touring
an international lecture in ballrooms
of five star hotels
Much of burns’s poetry is concerned with the understated, casual association of a metaphysical subject matter such as a psychopomp with a trivial object such as a Sai Baba-like touring sham. As a prosthetic psychopomp of interrogation, burns wields her language to draw us into the mud of the earth and crack the crust of the province of angels. In ‘shiny’, a poem about Saint Rita of Cascia, she writes:
rita and her festering wound that wouldn’t
heal for years, until the occasion of her death when
the wound’s worms transformed into twinkling
lights shining like rubies in the now perfumed air
For a poet known for prose poems ruminative and replete with societal critique, these are a surprise if only for their dogged interest in the miraculous. But, this is not burns returning to the religiosity of her Catholic convent education exactly, though pilfering from it extensively like any good Tzara-inspired collagist, the materiality of the world and the irrepressible presence of the poem on the limina between the body and whatever-else is continually brought into question in these pages:
this grandeur of god.
but the view in the cloisters goes deeper. they creep up the
narrow spiral stairs to a cell. there on the pillow lies a
wooden replica of the crown of thorns. o rose art thou sick.
the shock of this witness to the worship of cruelty resounds
like a poem.
Along with Francis Webb, burns writes on recently sainted Saint Mary Mackillop, mentioning Mackillop alongside other saints in poem ‘haggle’. It can be assumed that ‘haggle’ is a slightly older poem than the rest in the collection (since in the poem Mackillop remains “in waiting” “for that canonising miracle” on “the lower rungs of beatification,” “not lucrative enough for Rome”) and, this being a poem about the “stains of saints on the ground”, again shows burns as a critic of the bodies and wounds of the miraculous Aussies.
The question of this poetry seems to be the question of what the miraculous feels and smells like. This is a gesture one can find even in her book with Pam Brown Correspondences from 1979 (for example in ‘VI’: “to smell you eating your body and blood of Christ…”). I’ve emphasised the earlier section ‘ichoria’ in amphora, perhaps the most religiously interrogative, not for reasons of its religiosity but for the breadth of its imagination and the subsequent infections of language as a result, though section ‘this week next week the week after’ later in the book is as admirably coloured with an enchanted materialism.
The concatenations of word associations, Raymond Queneau-like in ‘haggle’, enter more Steinian territory (but also the territory of list poems by Michael Farrell, Nick Whittock or Tim Wright) in ‘streamers’ – a poem and a section of the book – wherein further and further discombobulating koannes (burns’s take on the kōans of Zen Buddhism) are proposed around the subjects of food, reading, weddings and funerals. Some, like the publisher, as well as the critic Martin Duwell, have written that burns’s sensibility might be read as a surrealist one, and this aporetic section might be seen to typify this characteristic.
This is not exactly untrue. However, though burns is willing to write of “a puddle of blood designed as a table of memory” (in ‘harvest’) or of the ceiling as “no placebo / & punctuation scattering / in the rayon’s whistle” (in ‘streamers’) her poetic sensibility seems rather of a dual mode of transcendental speculation and Aussie experimentalism, a superbly corrupt form of her own. A poem like ‘shiny’ is neither surreal nor part of a Christian metaphysical tradition; it is the work of a Webb-like visionary speaking the impossible empiricism of sidereal worms in the pithy and conversational diction of John Forbes.
Moreover, like Australian experimentalists Laurie Duggan, Ken Bolton and Pam Brown, the literal and the laconic of conversation turn at once to the productive corruptions of the contingent. burns’s is an inwardly-inflected, eruditely referential, interrogative and linguistically probing manner of proceeding in poetry. She writes, “always dicey, this word play”, and as such, through a devout sensitivity to the dicey nature of language and what it intuits to come, she pursues the seemingly insignificant and trivial not only to its frustrating banality but also shimmering meta-physicality. For example, in ‘shed’:
the offer of the dark tooth its
sudden sunlight a mouth so distant
from the derelict mirror the shrill
bleach of wind; night falls like dawn
a tongue shimmers in its polished garden
you touch it as it flees
It seems burns privileges poetry’s contingent and associative presentation with which to confirm, doubt, or call into question the assumptions that underlie the presentation of thought. For burns, the very interrogation of what lies behind things and the ensuing ambivalence provides the poetic line with its ambiguous bounty. But, I think burns speaks of her own methodology best: “take a cup of dice / and throw, less control / over the ingredients now, they / roll out as they please: firm”. amphora is a book of poems of brio and interrogation, paradoxically speculative and sober, proceeding with an Oulipean sense of contingency latent in the next word, though without any explicit constraints being proposed. At its best, when rolling firm words out, the “fortune teller” – as burns writes in ‘stock’ – “spill(s) the beans”.