Out to Lunch by Andy Kissane
Puncher & Wattmann, 2009
Folk Tunes by Alan Gould
Salt Publishing, 2009
Even in the earliest era of proto-literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh sought to represent human voice, its intonations and social communications. Yet the clearest sign of a versatile writer is the extent to which he or she can dislocate the voice, free it up, loosen it into multiplicity. And the more experienced the writer, the more likely they are to catch on to this. John Tranter said, at the 2008 Poetry and the Trace conference in Melbourne: “It took me ten years to write poetry, then ten years to find my own tone and voice, then another ten years to get rid of the tone and voice.” Andy Kissane and Alan Gould are veteran poets, and so it might be assumed they are by now able to take their voices out for a walk on a very long leash.
Lunch with friends seems a fine premise for Andy Kissane’s most recent book of poetry, Out to Lunch. There is much good sustenance here, and plenty of dialogue. The poems are awash with landscape – much of it outdoors, by the beach and in restaurants – careful observation, and stories, almost to the point of indigestion.
This is Kissane’s fourth book of poetry; he also writes fiction, and has a novel, Under the Same Sun, to his name. A fictional approach is evident in his poetry, which is also highly conversational. The poet seems to live life vicariously through the tales of others – e.g., “my aunt the nun” – yet, curiously, the voices he colonises least well are of writers and photographic observers. To everyone and everything in this collection a voice is given. The poet regularly talks to, and on behalf of, inanimate and imaginary things as well as people.
An eight-page sequence, ‘Meat Matters,’ addresses various kinds of meats processed for human consumption – chops, bacon, sausage, beef stir fry – in the context of social and familial interactions. In ‘Mincemeat’, for example:
my mother wound the handle
of the grinder
while she simultaneously explained
the facts of life
Recording the babble that surrounds us all is at the core of writing, poetry included. It is a writer’s responsibility to seek out voice and confront language systems – hunt them out, revel in them, echo them, parody them – as well as give these sounds a vocal accent.
Most of Kissane’s poems and individual lines are highly narrative-driven, e.g., “With both hand she holds the letter and reads” (‘Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’). The stories are engaging, some are moving (in an O. Henry kind of way), and the poet has an instinct for poignancy: “My daughter runs ahead, hair flying out behind her / like the tail of a beloved horse” (‘Summer Stroll’). Is there much depth of feeling conveyed, though? However descriptive, elegant and eloquent Kissane is in his writing, there can be a drollery that trivialises even his aphoristic poems: “Byron loved his mortadella / as much as any other fella” (‘The Humble Sausage’).
The poems are prosy – almost by definition. Kissane is very good at the opening hook – “Every day Azra walked to her uncle’s workshop / to weave rugs too precious to walk on” (‘The Carpet Weaver’) – but some have weak endings, e.g. “‘Nothing’s worth dying for,’ he replied, as the steam / floated up from the rim of his cup. ‘Just live, while you can’” (‘Out to Lunch: Drinking Coffee with Mandelstam’).
When the poet cranks up to deep conclusions, he can miscalculate. His poem about a woman unexpectedly dancing on a bus, ‘Bus Ride with Grey Owl and Dancing Woman’, ends by him burying his face in a book:
I go back to the songs of the Tsimshian people
and when I look up, the dancing woman has gone.
The grey owl speaks in the dark of the evening.
Will you follow me though the hole in the sky?
The squirming poet, speaking on behalf the other passengers, thinks the dancing woman is crazy, and can barely “tolerate her.” The reader, though, might be tempted to leave these grumpy bookworms behind at the next stop and follow her, before the hole in the sky closes.
In the last pages, the poet imagines himself in discussion with various literary characters from well-known novels. These characters are mostly annoyed by their creator, wanting to break out of the authorial box. Atticus has “damn trouble” with Harper Lee making him out to be a saint when he wanted “more of a life,” and Raskalnikov complains that Dostoevsky just “needed a novel to support his gambling habit.”
This is an entertaining premise, and allows depth of scrutiny. However, some poems paddle in the shallows, and the author might be showing his age. In the last poem of this series, he informs the three fallen women: “Madonna is now a rock star.” Well, yes she was, a quarter-century ago. Might the poet have overtly drooled less – he observes cleavage (breasts riddle the collection as a whole), full lips and the odour of “sap and verdure” clinging to Emma’s “pale white skin” – and gone further than dipping into the conversation with glass ceilings and date rape (‘Sipping Chardonnay with the Fallen Women’)? The women talk amongst themselves, and mostly ignore the poet – he is the first to admit it – trying to bite his tongue and not say “cleavage.”
And in these final pages, he again gives in to weak endings: “I’m hoping no one will notice, least of all / the students, if I don’t bother to turn up” (‘Skipping Lectures with Raskalnikov’). At their best, though, like a Schubert quintet, Kissane’s poems are not just light but limpid: one can see all the way to the bottom of a perfectly clear pool.
Although Alan Gould is the more senior of these two poets, his use of voice has been variable, and more problematic. His earliest works did not just have descriptive vividness, but his rendering of characters, such as Skapti and Sigrid in ‘The Skald Mosaic’ (Icelandic Solitaries, 1978), were very moving. The ocean is never very far away in Gould’s poetry, and more recently his collection A Fold in the Light (2001) represented assorted voices. Fold was an illustrated book, but the line drawings were eerily empty of humans; this contrasted with the poems which were populated with voices.
The new collection, Folk Tunes, also contains voices – but other things seem to be going on in his writing now, most noticeably constant, merciless rhyming. Rhyming verse can make modern language glib, yelling This is poetry! with ironic hauteur. It bangs words together like a child’s drum, claiming poetry for the speaker and not the reader. It forcibly reunites stale old friends who would rather not meet again, and instead gives a winking shrug in search of audience approbation, e.g. “she and the juggler share a pause / at the point before applause” (‘The Juggler And My Mother’). Gould’s rhymes work better when they’re singing for the spectator, unashamedly song- or ballad-like, e.g. “The lick of it, the kick of it, / they’re raising up the quick of it” (‘The Quick Of It’).
Political opinion is offered more overtly in Gould’s poetry now, and his struggle to portray balance has become a poetic preoccupation. Many pieces contain politics, but he professes not to “blizzard us with attitudes.” (Images of the sea, again, are always close by.) Nevertheless, the poet takes partisan swipes at leftist preoccupations, literary criticism, postcolonialism and anti-discrimination legislation (rhyming “equal class” with “kiss-my-arse”). It doesn’t end there. Many of the usual suspects cop a spray from Gould: politicians, the media, fat cats (“ogres in togas”), CEOs, secular and religious fanatics. In ‘Ill Tempo’:
…treasurers, trying not to snigger,
engage the newsmen with some swagger.
Where fat cats rule, the big get bigger,
your choosers make the choicest beggars
Twitching with their habitual rage
these talkers butt this antique cage
In its oppositional ethic, there is more than a whisper of Les Murray. Gould even offers a poetic dialogue presuming to summarise his position (‘The Rap on Imagination’). He idealises unemployment, as does Murray, asking to be left alone to coast on the backs of workers: “the ravening for results that must efface / another’s ampler notion of the peace.” And, although he cites a “human narrative,” Gould, too, finds it impossible to resist “God’s bedrock in my character” (‘Questions in Early Summer’). His predilections can also skew his reading of other artists. (He has firmly dismissed the fine, quirky political poet J. S. Harry, and accused her, in the conservative journal Quadrant, of not describing human experience in a manner he recognises.)
The question of age emerges in Gould’s poetry even more than in Kissane’s. (“I’m over fifty,” the poet admits in an early poem.) There is no reason, though, that a poet cannot have juice at an advanced age: David Malouf and Peter Lloyd are two examples, both over seventy but having lately produced lively, moving and even shocking collections of poems.
Gould’s ageing perspective expresses itself in tandem with knowing nods at youth culture, and a fixed certainty about how things are. An otherwise fine poem about onomatopoeic ambience is jarred by his labeling it a form of Rap and explaining in couplets that “where I’m at” is how listeners should take music; perhaps, though, to separate how it is from where it’s at is an artificial division ( in ‘And Rap Below the Pier’).
Perhaps one important difference between these two poets is humility. Gould possesses the certainty of an old bloke backed up by common sense, and god. On the other hand, Kissane disarmingly admits his limitations: when invoking voices of children, for example, he cautions adults that we “haven’t a clue what it’s like” (‘The Earlwood-Bardwell Park Song Cycle’). When readers are convinced rather than exhorted, receive reasoned enticements rather than strutting flourishes, they might be more inclined to accept poets’ premises.
Stephen Lawrence has four poetry collections published and his PhD concerns poetry published in Australia in the last decade.