David Dick Reviews Ken Bolton and B. R. Dionysius

By | 9 July 2014

With a different perspective of form, Threefer aspires to a more organic, direct presentation of memory, accounting for all its random inexactness, twitching repetitions and progressive distortion over time. As Bolton writes in ‘Some Days’: ‘“No form, no structure,” & Cezanne/stood very still’. Bolton writes in the book’s notes that the first poem, ‘Footprints’, is attempting ‘to do something similar’ to ‘the CD Footprints Live [which] revives many of Wayne Shorter’s best compositions & adds some new’; while the final poem, ‘Some Days’, ‘was composed in 1999 and much worked on, largely from scraps written in the mid to late 1970s.’ Bolton is indicating a kind of memory-as-collage, in which these ‘scraps’ are still ‘worked’ by Bolton into a controlled shape of unruliness. This shaping occurs by way of punctuation and wandering typography that direct and slow down the reader’s attention – but are nonetheless of its moment, suspect to the poet’s interruption and fragmentation, even if they do happen to produce effects that may strip the poem of some of its desired naturalistic, direct feel. Yet, this effect amounts more to a sense of the time in which the poem was written: the broad spectrum of a cultural, literary or personal moment and the narrative this may elicit, rather than a chronological advancement. Memory, then, never quite achieves the neat compilation in Threefer that it does in Weranga, but Bolton is not necessarily trying to make sense of memories so much as present the moments in which they became present to the poet, and thus become (the) present for the reader:

her thoughts focus on the same things
as mind do

      	    (Eva Hesse
		             Rainer Werner Fassbinder – 

to use them    as counters, tokens

skipping constantly between existing
in their own right

		    	      & as ideas, signs (‘On Reflection’)

Bolton insists on ‘things … existing/in their own right’; that is, being what they are laid bare on the surface on the poem, apprehended by the reader as the material of the poem in the process of being written and being read. Even if these things are somewhat fractured by the discursive language around them, this is to only express the wandering of the consciousness and the easy distractions of, and from, looking back. Appropriately, they exist also as ‘ideas, signs’, pointing to the broader significance that the poem and its scraps, even with direct intent, necessarily attach to these memories.

There is a sense of refinement throughout Bolton’s poems, enhanced by his use of ‘found’ or ‘recouped’ materials. To speak generally, it is as if he has always been writing a variation on the same poem: one invested in an artistic and/or social scene, characterised by the poet trying to get started, day or night, while drinking wine and listening to a record, peering at a poem or a painting, the poem looking inwards as it stutteringly develops. ‘Footprints’ even seems to directly reconsider ‘The Terrific Days of Summer’, rhythmically breaking line by line as it elaborates on what a ‘day’ can be:

lists of adjectives for days
			         : terrific days,
			         inelegant days,
			         eloquent days, days,  
			         like spring & days
			         like summer,
			         impenetrable days
			         literal days
			         the saddest days
			         days that are stoical, classical or cool

This poem helps to express how Bolton is always finding new and slightly different ways for his work to come alive, by shifting focus, referencing different people and scenes, and, most importantly, reacquainting himself with transcriptions from his past that constantly seem to return the poems to the heady days of Australian poetic avant-garde in the seventies. It is almost a Cubist practice of conceptualising the same commonplace objects into near-abstraction, exploring analytically all their sides and possible perspectives, as if accounting for different people in different times and places. The excellent ‘Some Days’ tells exactly this:

                                                        & objects
moving / from time to time,    perform
a slow, cubist minuet   moving slowly & subtly about the room
the scene   seen always as a scene  –  framed / by the window
or the french doors     or,  –  the small box  –    seen, & recognized,
only when seen again, from that same point of view,
 –  from which you must have stared at it for some time,
& come to know its details, the way the shadows fall inside it
airless & softening

The poems in Threefer are ‘scenes’ for its objects – its language – to operate within. The objects change as the consciousness shifts in the ‘room’ of the poem, noting the different way ‘shadows fall’ and thus alter the appearance of what may be present. ‘Some Days’, considering what happens in a prolonged moment of recollection covering years and relationships and art, is suspect to moments of distraction that divert the poet’s attention from the process: ‘The cat butts my chin’, leading to ‘My heart sets out/on another one of its trips.’ The scene of the poem is under constant bombardment from a sense of the present, which inevitably alters the way the past is remembered.

In contrast to Dionysius’s motifs, Bolton illustrates how memory, sharply aestheticised, subtly shifts and changes. Both ‘Footprints’ and ‘Some Days’ twitchingly return to certain phrases, images, events and names, slightly altered as the memory of the poems – its meandering voice, assured and savvy – comes back to them from slightly different perspectives, seemingly dependent on the development of the poem itself. It is illustrative of how certain things and memories are subject to change as context changes, and, also, how hard they are to keep stable, even if physically present as a written-down ‘scrap’. The interior of the poem inevitably shifts the external significance of its collaged sources, so it comes to carry dense and multi-layered meaning: what it meant in the past when it was recorded; what it means to the poet in the present; and what it means now, actually present and put to use in the poem. This could also be a jazz sense of free association, returning to certain motifs and exploring their melodic potentiality. For instance, in ‘Footprints’:

The Paris Commune

Manet O’Hara Coltrane
					Puvis de Chavannes, in Glebe.
					          In Bega !

 – & the loons, like de Chirico – the Germans, Kirchner
Kokoschka, Adorno – Christa Wolf.

Four pages later, ‘Puvis de Chavannes’ is absent, the order is changed while space begins to grow between ‘Manet O’Hara Coltrane’, as if the speaker is struggling to remember them as quickly or easily as before, and ‘Kokoschka, Adorno – Christa Wolf’ are located in parenthesis like an afterthought:

The Paris Commune
                      Manet    Coltrane    O’Hara

		      – & the loons: de Chirico – the Germans, Kirchner
		      (Kokoschka, Adorno – Christa Wolf)

								                   Filippo De Pisis

Again, on page twenty-four, this pattern repeats ‘the loons’, adding ‘Konrad Bayer’, while losing ‘Manet, Coltrane and O’Hara’. The figures may have some importance in terms of ‘meaning’ for the poem or the speaker, but what is more immediately apparent, even relevant, is their breakdown into linguistic objects. As ‘On Reflection’ puts it – directly looking to its own ‘reflective’ practice of a walk down Adelaide’s Hindley St, thinking on and embodying the street’s change over time – they are ‘things’ and ‘signs, ideas’ embodied in a language designed to point to the fracturing form of the text itself – ‘loons’ one and all – rather than what they mean as ‘artists’ in the broader network of the poem.

I could go on with Threefer: to explore the presence of Adelaide and Sydney as a kind of background that becomes a semantic foreground to memory (in a manner similar to, although purposively more abstract than, Weranga); its discursive strands, and broader repetitions. Bolton’s is a complex mind in action; form is never more than an extension of content, and it is one that rewards different readings. Where does the reader slow down or speed up? How does the reader make sense of a seemingly random ‘#’ breaking up a line of reasoning that returns pages later to perhaps be concluded? In one sense, the poems are chatty, almost light in their scattered appearance and stray observation; and, in another, this very immediacy cannot escape metaphorical attention, even as it desires its language be things. What do all these artistic figures really mean? How have they shaped the text? Does the mention of O’Hara’s ‘A Step Away from Them’ in ‘Footprints’ mean that Bolton’s poem begs an elegiac reading? Does the presence of Rilke in ‘Some Days’ achieve a similar end? If Weranga is an attempt to carefully reconstruct memories to poeticise and, in effect, make sense of them; Threefer asks questions of how we remember and the vulnerability of the apparently objective items we keep as mementos; how suspect they are to the language that contains them.

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