Matthew Hall Reviews John Watson

13 December 2009

Erasure Traces: Collected Works Volume 2 by John Watson
Puncher & Wattmann, 2008

Erasure Traces is an experimental work, in terms of linguistic innovation, textual depth and in the application of theoretical constructs to the formulation of poetry. I feel that there is a great amount of depth to the work which may be overlooked at a preliminary read and so I undertake this review to underscore the possibilities and potentialities that I see as dominant substrates in Watson's work. The book opens with Erasure Traces, from 2006, and continues on with At the Onset of Turbulence, 1989 and Frieze: A Landscape Poem with Footnotes, from 2001.

In the primary section of the work, (without knowing or questioning why the book positions the works out of chronological order, besides an aetiological pattern of linguistic development and poetic expression) Erasure Traces, Watson utilizes an idea exemplified by Adorno to discuss and enact the experience of the slow disintegration of nature, in this case, a river. The work is rich with eckphrastic references which support his thesis of creation as a necessary act of negation and alteration. He evokes both Rauschenberg's slow deletion of a de Kooning drawing, as well as Sartre's ‘to uncover a David already inside the marble,' to support the relation he is trying to establish as resultant of the modulation and slow dissolution of the absolutes of nature.

In Watson's river, ‘Erasures [are] implicit in the water surface itself,' and the ‘excess of white' creates a site of communicative action where the water passes, and the reader is left with ‘the belief that something might well emerge'. This emergence is noted through patterns of symphonic and directive language and is immersed in the thesis that Watson has presented: the alterations, the deletions, the evolutionary patterns of this stream of words as an amorphous representation of the river. Where some may see Watson's language as a faction which works to tear down images of the river, I see a unification. The paring back at language is to regain, for the poet, the essence of the ‘wordless chorus' which might represent ‘the river's slow drift'.

The language imitates and mollifies as the river changes course. Watch the calculated and rotund language which Watson uses in his mimetic descriptions: ‘In neglected orchids; dusk suggestions / Of rain'; the calligraphic reflections on the water become ‘Plato's Cave, elaboratively depicted / With heavy scribble and wash.' From a sensory base, Watson draws up to the delicately assonantal motion of the river as it arrives at:

And the theme of disappearance and its relation
To voluntary pruning, revising, removal,
Extirpation, obliteration, metamorphosis

The unrealised project presented here, is the manner in which the poet succeeds in tearing away at language, to create the image of nature. In Erasure Traces, Watson provides the reader with a delicate attempt to express ‘the expectation of fading/ Which the natural world so well observes.' To examine the hermeneutic implications of the imagery and its modulation does require dedicated work, and what is more, the image represents not a final signification, but a suggestion, a modulation of the river's path towards a distant, or sedimentary, end. Erasure Traces reflects Watson's ability to implicate and extrapolate whole landscapes from the impermanence of nature.

In At the Onset of Turbulence Watson begins with the poem ‘Manifesto', which indicates his direction:

As the object was to Francis Ponge
               So to me the incident, fraught
              And fretted with grooves, nodes,
Branches, digressions, reconciliations.

At base, this directive influence of Ponge may not seem as much of an instruction to the reader, however one should recall Le Parti pris des choses, in which Ponge sets about meticulously detailing the minute in everyday life; his calculated descriptions which are so intricately linked to the development of phenomenology. He writes, ‘The incident is wayward, / By its nature intransitive and unrepeatable, /Beginning here and ending somewhere else, / Often losing itself on the way'. The opening poem from this collection inaugurates as well as discusses this manner of representation, the world is alive with the flame of Watson's poetic incident:

                                            Ponge's Pebble,

His cake of soap, even his sun,
               Are relatively immobile and thus
               Encourage their own contemplation.
This is the provenance and charm of the object.

In ‘Pastoral' motion is linked with the passage of landscapes and time, where nature remains, like ‘immemorial memory'. This poem, which comprises 6 pages of the book, contains one of this section's most reminiscent binds of imagery, resurrecting a Blakean ontology of the depiction of order over the land, which both man and nature try to deviate from. The poet finds himself and his words in: ‘the sheer expanse,/ The slow ebb / Across the visual field', in which he can grasp a moment of reflection for that which has passed. This incident could represent a season, a sight, or a movement where ‘A young jacaranda seems suddenly/ to have appeared// between orange trees/ Even though its fringed shadows has lain for hours / On the planks beside the pool.' In ‘Pastoral', particularly, Watson draws strikingly discordant juxtapositions between the natural and the man-made, the eternal and the temporal. Watson's vision is dense with the Pongean incidents he evokes in this manifesto, and he works with the necessary precision to display them for the reader.

The final section of the book, Frieze: A Landscape Poem With Footnotes (2001), will force some readers beyond their comfort zone. It begins with two epigraphs which discuss the efforts of painters and writers to create order by the application of innovative form, and through the creation of paratactic relations of fragments of information. In this manner, the poem promises what it delivers, and the footnotes (some in couplets, some mathematic in description, some referential and explanatory) all add to the possibilities of expression in the poem. The second segment begins with Watson's experimentation with grammatical forms. He has adopted the factorial sign, which operate with their own varied patterns of meaning. The reader's first encounter with this is:

A horse| honeysuckle |a pony
| hedge of trees |brown pony

These divisions, the author highlights, imply ‘the need for a more comprehensive system of punctuation, a need not met by the comma or the dash which give the effect of a peremptory list, and which if overused increase the very haste they seek to slow.' And while the use of the factorial sign as a demarcation does take some getting used to, if the reader follows faithfully the notes and implications of the author, the effect is resolute. It is an expressive attempt to extend the powers of the grammatical to the development of new ways of extending the poet's creative control over the reading of the poem.

Aside from the footnotes, which do, as the title suggests, dominate the piece, Frieze relies heavily on the poet's ability to create visual landscapes from paratactic groupings:

wrenstart, bellburst
finchflit nettle
tidal boom
cormorant fleet
hinterland bush
A flowering flecks the river cliff

While the footnotes (excluded from the above section ) aim to present the reader with as much additional information as can be hoped for, this segment of the poem, standing in isolation, creates a whimsical landscape. The same is the case for the following, ‘The Rorschach ink blot of the further shore / river smoke/ smoke river / the sandstone river cliff's cadmium orange / orange trees in fruit against them'. The naturalist descriptions, paired with the artistic reference, command the attention of the reader, at the same time creating a soft landscape which resonates with a verbal reading. The lines are often remarkably demanding and complicated, but mightily apt at establishing themselves within and as a reflection of the natural.

Watson's work may not be for everyone, it is a poetry which makes demands of the reader, demands which, if met, create new avenues of thought about the poem and the author's needs and abilities to extend themselves beyond the conventional boundaries of expression. Watson's poetry remains definitive for its ability to express the landscape lyrically. The final stanza of Frieze defines the inestimable moment of perception for us:

So, in the forest, possibility
And sentience surround us like a haze;
The one and many lap us in their sea
So that we hope the present may at last
Reach back, and with triumphant cries,
Raise in its net, entire, the streaming past.

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About Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall is working on a dissertation on J.H. Prynne and Violence at the University of Western Australia and a series of poetic essays that pertain to the radical pastoral. His poetry, occasional prose and criticism have been featured in journals around the world. Hall is Editor of Cordite Scholarly.

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