Susan Fealy Reviews Alex Skovron

23 February 2009

Autographs by Alex Skovron
Hybrid, 2008

Alex Skovron is a thoughtful poet, one who confronts the complexity of living in the 21st century with its burden of human history. Of Polish-Jewish background, Skovron emigrated with his family from Poland at the age of eight and arrived in Sydney via Israel in 1958. Autographs is Skovron's fifth collection and it arrives five years after his previous collection, The Man and the Map. His keen interest in the architecture of a collection gives us fifty-six interconnected poems in prose, organised into three sections: 'Dance', 'Labyrinth', and 'Shadow'.

Visually, the poems on the page resemble small opaque lakes, patterned with tiny ripples. Reading the collection feels like diving into water with barely a splash. This poetry flows where it wants to go, it invites a sense of immersion, a weightlessness. Like listening to music there is aesthetic pleasure in following the long, uninterrupted lines of melody, shifts in tone and pace across the collection.

Autographs is a meditative and imaginative collection. The themes of all four earlier collections – history, memory, language and the self – have been reintegrated in a freer space. While stylistically it brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, it is distinctively the work of Alex Skovron. A signature of this poet is a precision of rhythm and tone within a poem, while across the collection, an intricate complexity emerges from the multiple cadences of carefully sequenced poems. Also characteristic is the focus on identity, time, the urban human, and the co-existence of the ordinary with the strange.

'Invitation' and ' Supplication', two poems from the book's first section, suggest that a search for meaning and concern for humanity are part of self and imply that writing, like self, can be both process and construction. 'Invitation' addresses the strange tension between the inner freedom and yet compulsive coercion that arises from the writer's task to document experience ahead of an awareness of its meaning:

SLOWLY WE filtered in. We'd never visited a place like this before So massive you couldn't see the walls, so lofty the ceilings were lost in mist. They led us each to a bench (there were thousands, running in rows into the distant gloom), told us to commence. We had no inkling what to do.

We had to remind ourselves why we had come, reached into pockets for the invitation cards. 'You will rewrite the world,' the message said.

The poem ends with the suggestion that writing may help hold back a certain dissolving emptiness but, even then, it may not be of lasting significance. 'Supplication' has the powerful simplicity of a prayer. The poem is a quiet and passionate request to undo the past, and unfurls details of past violent events like a backward sequence of images on a film reel:

LET THE FILM turn before it touches the Moment. Let the motorcade stop, drift backward down the plaza. Let the jetliner freeze, metres short of the tower, flow back out of the frame like a toy wing at the sling's limit.

Pathos builds as this poem's hope for the world pivots on a moment:

Let words unravel, and all manner of thoughts, and things done and undone, let the Moment be immaculate and true, untouchable as a dream. And let the days unfold and fold back again, so that as we awaken and begin to forget the dream, we remember the Moment.

The long lines on the page, their rhythm, rhyme and repetition, flow this poem towards a surprising conclusion. We are brought to where the poem began: a moment. The poem almost recreates the experience of consciousness itself: lived moment by moment but with the illusion of continuity. The turning of the poem around the weight of history and a single moment seems to expand and contract time into an odd sense of timelessness as if we are dancing on a pin and the surface of eternity at the same time. The poem's smooth contraction to a single point in time also brings into focus the precariousness of a moment. It therefore becomes a broader comment about the fragility of life itself.

' Dance,' the title poem of the first section, also begins with the desire to preserve a moment – 'AH, TREE … Street afternoon quivers on tentacles of light, conjures the glimmer of a thing suddenly strange. Drop a thought-shutter, keep it strange, so the mere moment can sing' – and the poem becomes its very subject of discussion: a word dance that celebrates the imaginative vitality of language. It dares to claim that our language for trees, and our playful associations to them, are as alive as an actual tree:

How it offers too this joyance of repose, tree-truth, those slantings of smoky textured light. Now say again – meanings of tree. Go on. Say treescape, skytree, canopy. The skull's labyrinths, the blood's arterial metropolis. Sapchart, ancestor-tree, the sempiternal seed – all the treeness of things, their treedom. Now reconstruct the first touch of tree: a trunk that frayed, bark that bled, a branch that broke. Ruckus of the excoriated stick rattling on fencerails as it ran, scrapings of the sharpended stick repatterning wetsand as it walked.

The imperative tone evokes something of a parent's encouraging urges to a child and this propels the poem forward as does the lively, onomatopoeic language. Childhood and imagination seem fused and envisaged as places of 'house, home, family, tree': joyous in both familiarity and novelty. Here, language is still malleable, new words like 'treelight' and 'sapchart' are generated and puns (such as 'treedom') tease out the magic possibilities of language. The end of this poem reaches into exuberant physicality where the reader is exhorted to dance with limbs stretching into the sky as a kind of shape-changed tree.

'Labyrinth' is the middle, and most openly autobiographical, section of the book. The title poem of this section explores the possibilities for memory being a home, a source of renewal and a consolation:

I've heard it thought all things we touch take on a fraction of our essence, our self. The incense burns to powder, we dwindle to dust, but memory meanwhile caresses the hidden contours, moments which lived and died, and survive as a chorus of ghosts. That is perhaps nostalgia's proper sadness. Soul of memory, the flame that lights the labyrinth to the library, the home within.

The sensuality and ritual of burning incense combined with playful phrases such as 'I've heard it thought' invite the reader to question what feels more real: moments attending to the world, engrossed in reading books, or remembering such moments? The poems in this middle section often seem the most intimate and are textured with objects and events close to home. 'Room', for example, lists details of the poet's childhood bedroom interior. The specificity of description evokes longing for that particular time and place and for the particular self that once inhabited it:

On the south a wardrobe, whose drawers conceal a childhood's treasury, from the little plastic jet a sudden Manila friend gave in farewell (at Hotel Avenue, where you ran the lifts) to games and tricks and hoarded keepsakes, and the marbles in those papery yellow tins from Quik.

'Room' is placed alongside 'Chamber', a poem located in Skovron's working study. Specific details of the study are also described but this time an everyday strangeness is evoked – 'To the right the door, a threshold into multifarious fractal worlds [-] Sometimes you subside there, listen to the illusions all about' – yet both poems manifest a longing for something that lies just outside of reach. The juxtaposition of 'Room' and 'Chamber' also invites us to contemplate consciousness. Is the present more 'real,' or just as full of odd illusion as our memories of the past?

These two poems, like others in this collection, invite us to see the self as a kind of time traveller: that consciousness via memory permits a fluidity of experience between the present and the past, a fluidity that yet locks us into the limits of our own experience of self. The book's final section, 'Shadow', is where the dark terrain of self is most fully explored. In 'The ', disembodied voices seem like inner and external voices which speak for the 21st century itself:

We are the ones who watch, who notice all, who make all possible. Sometimes, caught unawares, a shiver passes and you pause, perplexed. Do not concern yourself. We understand who you are.

Poems with omniscient and vaguely threatening voices alternate with poems that feature the quirky fictional character Kezelco and his foibles. The contrast of broad- scoped poems like 'The' with those that depict the tiny, everyday life of Kezelco serves to heighten the sense of dislocation and unease. The deft, specific placement of Kezelco into modern living sustains the motif of the ordinary alongside the strange. We find Kezelco in a number of mundane settings: an hotel room interstate for instance, or riding a tram. But he is almost always trapped by his obsessionality – musing about the limits to his compulsive honesty, being slow to act due to a compulsion to be careful and correct, and delaying his actions with a 'deadly proverb', 'Rush and regret!' Yet, although a vehicle for Skovron's wit, Kezelco is not dismissible as a simple fool: he is a complex character who seeks to understand himself and his world. In 'Dysphoria', for example, Kezelco seems at once ordinary and strange, as do his surrounds:

Kezelco glares at the pedestrians marionetting past. There are things he will never understand – the economy, reality TV. He asks himself how safe he can really be, riding a tram through the heart of a bristling map.The surly maiden rears like a diver, rips at the cord. He returns to the nearest fold. A coloured diagram catches his eye. He studies a graph of the hole growing in the sky.

Autographs is, thus far, Skovron's most energetic, imaginative and accessible collection. It leaves echoes in the mind of its many inhabitants like half-remembered dreams, dreams that invite return. It remains complex in its mystery, yet patterned with gestures of the ordinary. Autographs can be seen as songs of the self, but songs that are orchestrated with thought. It is, in its entirety, a carefully integrated poetic essay that comprises a rich and idiosyncratic vision of self.

Susan Fealy is a poet and clinical psychologist.

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