Lens Flare by Benedict Andrews
Pitt Street Poetry, 2014
Lens Flare is a collection of poems – the first, as far as I can tell – written by a theatre director more accustomed to staging Chekhov in New York or Verdi in Denmark than to publishing poems in Australian journals. I opened the book expecting to find that slightly off-key poetry written by accomplished practitioners of an allied practice – this could also be song-writing, fiction, even painting – whose singular depth of involvement is unquestioned, but is not in poetry. Instead I found this:
I dreamed sister that you and I climbed, at night, the hill at Balhannah where ghost gums creaked, dark grasses blew, and the hooves of horses sounded in the shadows. Below, father wept in our warm stone house, its electric lights aglow like honey cells... (from 'Balhannah')
The poems are precise and unforced. His poetry is serious (but seldom tonally heavy) and cleanly crafted – even crisp in its linguistic texture, with hardly a word or line that feels unnecessary. The poems in the first section of the book are generally lyric in impulse and style, with the poet and his lover present in poems of intimacy and closeness; but instead of dramatising the self these poems more often project the sensualities of place and experience and as such they provide agency over lyric centre. Many are set across time and place:
I woke in the dripping dawn while my friends still slept. Planted on a canvas chair in the clearing, I watched the after-burn of my dreams play against the horizon. I couldn't remember your name or the place we lived or what I hoped for or custom or nation or law. (from 'Wapengo Lake')
Lens flare, for its technical reference, suggests the introduction of light or even blemish on the ‘perfect’ image, and brings our awareness to the picture, the operator, perhaps to subjectivity and even a consideration of bias or distortion in the seeing along with the randomness of flare as accident. Given the frequent references to and explication of dream-states in these poems, lens flare seems to signify displacement and other-ness, which is also intrinsic to those poems framed as past, as memory. Lens flare (outside these poems) certainly signifies this, just as it might nostalgia, which in this case is not relevant.
What does it mean for a poetry collection when a director and dramatist heightens not physical space and actors – as character-and-voice and lighting and the sheer viscerality of the stage – but the verbal spaces of poems? The book’s second section takes this into literal performance as each poem dramatises a hotel room – 72 poem-rooms on 9 floors of a hotel. ‘The Rooms’ opens with an ironic epigraph from Walter Benjamin: Every instant is the small door through which the Messiah might enter.
The poems are not arranged in any meaningful sequence that I could discern but that is appropriate if they are to represent random poems, or room-events as-poems, and not narrative; and not, for example, casting the first floor for old adults, middle floors for families, upper rooms for adulterers and suicides (is there a front-desk paradigm for room allocation?). These poems are the poetics of space pretty much played as personal worlds reduced – and therefore magnified – within compact, generic space. They portray singles and couples or singles and escorts, but no family groups, no old marriage partners or gay couples or two youths sharing a room while raging on the town. The space, then, is confined to room, bed, TV, mini bar and bathroom. And 72 poems, which is a lot: too many. It becomes potential – for the acts in-between and neutral, or divergent, or erotic – and as such it releases labile desires. In the following excerpt (Room 201) that potential is as typical as any hotel stay:
She'd almost forgotten what being alone felt like. She could go down to the bar, meet some random guy or girl, get fucked silly, jump start her worn-out body. Instead, she stares at highlights of the pop star's funeral. His gold cortege glides by in slow-motion.
We all know. The ironies and wit of the last three lines are brilliantly diminishing and sad, but so funny. Myth and humour combine in Room 203 as the tourists become roomed out:
Eventually he tired of the statues. Room upon room of dead men and marble myths. Armless soldiers, dickless patricians, ecstatic youths, eyeless busts on plinths. Cupids, a satyr. Leda twisting, swan-fucked. Daphne branched, half Laurel, Apollo in pursuit. His wife admired how the stone froze speed while he added up expenses. Jesus, money evaporates. On the fresh sheets, his wife's caressing limbs scratch like twigs.
Given that as readers we can hold in suspension and ‘know’ only limited information at any one time, reading 72 poems in any order is to face the revelations of the poems, their linguistic enactment, then, as a non-stop series of flashes; and in every re-reading this lighting up is likely to manifest differently each time – as a changing difference. To some extent this range of difference in any one poem, extended across all poems, could be said to render all 72 poems equal – or to represent all poems at once. They are the same poem with minor – but endless – differences happening 72 times. I like it. A paradox. And, musically, it makes a case for not reducing the 72 to … 20? But I would.
The final section features another sequence, ‘Kodachrome City,’ which is a minor tour de force; these poems are more hip, jazzy, multi-vocal and performative (even melodramatic), ventriloquising brasher voices than anything in the previous sections. I suspect the dramatist in Andrews enjoys this heightening of voice across shifting entrances (and exits) while maintaining a mild narrative. Most poets do. Good. Andrews may be much in-demand as a stage director but he is also an excellent poet, and his skills might embarrass many poets who have spent decades doing little else.