Review Short: Owen Bullock’s River’s Edge

By | 5 April 2018

River’s Edge by Owen Bullock
Recent Work Press, 2016


Owen Bullock stated in his ‘The Breath of Haiku’ article in Aoeteroa that ‘the modern haiku can be about anything, not just nature’. Readers of his previous collection, Urban Haiku (Recent Work Press, 2015), will be well aware of this position. Preferring to focus on the human and blur the distinctions between haiku and senyrū, haiku of human nature as opposed to the world, Bullock’s latest collection, River’s Edge lends itself well to investigations of textual forms.

old notebook
his daughter's
recipe

The individual lines featured on the back cover hint at what lurks beneath the surface of River’s Edge: a focussed recollection of the wisdom and experiences of a variety of people that brings together multiple viewpoints at once. Like a recipe followed by heart, unpretentious and yet demanding, each poem represents the attempt to preserve the moment – at a loss to see clearly beyond the titular river’s edge:

some of the waves
overtaking
the others (55)

Above all, the collection’s appearance is deceptive – while the haiku are characteristically brief and simple, they are intricately crafted and mindful as memories resurface and are subsequently overtaken, as expressed by the overtaking waves of the poem above. Sometimes as unobtrusive as a passing phrase about cleaning the mantel within someone’s home, the text demonstrates the advantage of a form that omits so much and yet hints at what is left unsaid, as revealed within the establishing haiku:

dusting
her little vases
this is my devotion (3)

By no means the last poem about seemingly irrelevant moments that at times evade understanding, words are rendered particulate within these fragments, the lines unstable and language suggestive of the personal. From the first page, Bullock appeals to the reader to not simply be satisfied with aphoristic haiku, inviting them to peer beyond what is printed on the page and read between and across the lines. For example, consider the following poems:

New Year’s Eve
to New Year’s Day
the unlit candle

old clocks
that don’t work
top his kitchen cupboards (38-39)

In these two instants, the reader gets the sense that each line could be interchanged, omitted or exchanged within the individual haiku and considered a stanza within a larger poem. The potential of the ‘unlit candle’ in the concluding line of the first haiku to also serve as the establishing line in the adjacent poem is refreshing and reveals the multiplicity at the centre of the text, the potential for a myriad of interpretations and perspectives. These meditations on memory celebrate dislocation and uncertainty. Despite the repetitions of ‘I’ and ‘my’, the collection seems to relinquish a sense of possession:

walking a road
I drive daily
nothing familiar (25)

In this instance, Bullock suggests an ever-evolving experience and perception, one that is simultaneously informed by the speaker and referential to the reader. The reader approaches the collection with their own experiences and memories, ‘walking a road / I drive daily’ and Bullock, considering these several perspectives, offers ambiguity, ‘nothing familiar’, leaving readers with the feeling that what they’ve just read might be their own recollection. Suggestions for co-creation are hinted at in the text’s lack of a context or titles, in what might be considered an attempt to disavow ownership of words or narrative. Consider the following, from the middle of the collection:

somewhere
in that mass of cloud
a few of your cells (51)

Above all, these meditations on individual and collective memory centre on the creation of a nebulous and subjective experience for the potential reader. This is not to say that Bullock doesn’t make space to return to tradition, such as in the vertical poems that appear in the collection:

avoiding the bumps mascara in progress (57)

These poems serve similar objectives to the poems described above, but Bullock’s decision to write certain haiku vertically may be considered a return to traditional Japanese haiku structure. The decision represents a further challenge to readerly expectations. With no syntax and cut to infer tone or emphasis, the reader determines the rhythm. The implications of these unfolding observations are determined by and revealed according to decisions known only to each individual reader.

It is the collection’s unpredictability and capacity to ‘reanimate old meanings and words to reflect radically new contexts’ (‘The Breath of the Haiku’, 48) that makes River’s Edge worth reading more than once. Held in an opaque, regenerative temporality, the instants sustained within this simple paperback are brief, captivating and ever evolving:

getting younger
each day that passes
river’s edge
          for Caron (33).
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Review Short: Owen Bullock’s Work & Play

By | 6 March 2018

Work & Play by Owen Bullock
Recent Work Press, 2017


In the poem titled ‘guide’, Owen Bullock writes that ‘After experience comes knowing and theory’, a phrase that fails to capture the fragmented and eccentric nature of the poems contained within this collection of Work & Play‘ (2017). Rather, the volume is replete with the ‘fat air of conversation’ and as ‘words come out, / some meditative, some loving, some detailed’, Bullock seemingly on a whim throws ‘meditative words on the scrap pile, chews the words / of love like tobacco and sp[its] them out after lunch’ – keeping the details (A mouthful of air). It is this vicarious composition that frames the texts key question: ‘what constitutes work for someone who must play in order to create?’

In place of an answer, Bullock weaves an immersive reading of the power of experience within experience, the contrasts that situate themselves within a moment, which he then acknowledges and inserts himself into by rewriting. Such fluidity is deployed within the collection like hand grenades, dismantling the original structure and creating something out the rubble, as ‘lines peer out / flickering, flashing’ (repechage), which we as readers must then dissect and try to make sense of (Layers). Indeed, reading one of Bullock’s poem is much like wading through a war zone, as words are left hanging and conversations half finished, as he establishes in the opening poem, ‘Yeah. Yeah, that’s it bro’‘:

Yeah. Yeah, that’s it, bro. He had a skinful. Yeah. I couldn’t 
tell, just had this feeling, you know? Back of me head. 
No, I never been there before. But I knew that’s where
The horse would go. 

People say, I’ve looked a hundred times—usually in the
same places. So I look where they don’t think it could
be, and there it is.

The second stanza is key here. Rather than provide an explanation of the unfolding conversation, Bullock resists the semantic route and focuses on how experience provides inspiration for poetic innovation and textual challenge. He takes something ‘that isn’t there; making it up, seeing what happens, for the sake of; inviting, inviting others to join, playing games, making rules, revising, breaking rules, assembling, destroying; going inside[and] finding out who isn’t there’ (definitions of play). These interpretive qualities of rendition are mirrored in ‘this lark’:

I hear stories all day
listen, nod & make noises
make noises, listen & nod

The antimetoblic nature of this excerpt reflects the arrangement of the text, with Work‘ and Play‘ neatly divided into two separate sections, falling either side of a blank page, 35 pages in. Work‘ summons a whole host of processes and inspiration, taking spoken words, thoughts and experiences, and weaving them together in a loosely fitting sequence, which is then eloquently strewn across the page. In such poems, Bullock shows an instinct for the representative moment, filtering down stanzas, paragraphs and concrete poems to a fanciful discourse bent on creation, reflection, repetition and volatile instability. Allied to this, we consider ‘Proems’:

Proems are hand grenades you say throwing one to me
what was firm ground is rubble I twist on broken concrete
torn turfs the sign from the street you laugh entering a 
shop you’re about to hold up in case it still has iambs even
they can come in handy when you leave your bag of punctuation
at the op shop drop the little rulers you used to draw line
endings into a busker’s hat they collapse into coins small
change the intention’s what matters

The minimal and frugal use of punctuation displayed within this poem, and Bullock’s reconfiguring and refreshing of language and ideas holds a beautiful poignancy throughout the entire collection. Drawing on what one can only assume was a day wading through streets and shops, the effect of the poem seems to reflect the dynamic quality and variations of common speech, in addition to asking questions like, how do we interpret poetry? And where does one stop to implement such critical pauses and stresses, iambs as it were, for reflection and consideration when punctuation is put out for collection and recycle at a local op-shop? The answer, he infers, is to make things work or leave them as they are. The poems themselves existing in strange and unexpected places, picked up from Bullock’s encounters within mundane busy streets or engaging in a conversation. ‘Changing the intention’s what matters’ and in the ‘Work’ poems, Bullock delivers an engaging lesson on creation, ‘peel[ing] the town’ for inspiration (Layers), taking stock of fragments and making an ‘inventory’, written to the absurd and pushed into poignancy.

Across the blank page at the midpoint of the text before ‘Play’, we consider the meeting point of lineated and prose poems in the bridging haibun (prose and haiku), ‘Broga, Bega’. This section is exactly as it sounds, a poem interwoven with sections of traditional haiku cut by long prosaic sentences. The haiku segments trace a traditional nature narrative, while the prose serves to ruminate on ‘a framed jigsaw [of] ornaments’ and memories, considering personal dilemmas and reflection, as the concluding haiku stanza determines:

losing at scrabble
wanting to get rid of
some ‘I’s

Beginning with ‘Spring’ and running to ‘the candidate’ in Play‘, Bullock opens up the text to the consciously experimental, displaying a keen sense of observation deployed within prose and lineated poems, and combined with a love for language play, formal contrast, aural unpredictability and the deployment of all the senses. For example, the title poem, like Bullock’s last effort, River’s Edge‘ (2018), is a traditional haiku sequence, while ‘displace’ is based on haiku techniques, but is more conceptual than a haiku and tends to err more on the side of a senyrū. Within ‘lips du’, Bullock uses a words ambiguity, duality and homophonic (and translatable) properties to emphasise particularity in interesting ways. For example, his use of ‘du’ could refer to the French translation for ‘of’ or the Germanic ‘you’. The concluding three lines compound this ambiguity:

I have your lips on me

                                                                                             eye                               aye
                      
                               Vudu

Here the strophes are constantly in collision with each other, the comment about ‘lips on me’ perhaps reflecting the imaginary conversation at play within the sequence or Bullock’s tendency to steal ‘intuition / And use it as [his] own’ (prison for magicians), reinforced within the opening line: ‘The matrix was a doco’. Or does the single word in the concluding line serve to contextualise the whole? ‘Vudu’ the Spanish word for voodoo, determining the thematic drive of the Play – experimental, malleable and manipulated – Bullock as his very own Agent Smith.

Within Work & Play, poetry is an unstable thing. It’s a challenge to intuition, intention and process, and a stimulating evocation of fragments, other lives and experiences, testified by its collaborative and run-on creation. Reading the book was a process of homogeny made strange, stretched to its utmost limits and deftly delivered with finesse, taking something from ‘where [you] don’t think it could be’ and creating something where there was thought to be nothing (Yeah, yeah, that’s it bro).

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