Novaless I-XXVI by Nicholas Manning
Achiote Press, 2007
These words came to mind when I tried to list the main concerns of this twenty-six poem sequence: light, love, perception and apperception, rapture, thought, things, stars, source, memory. The poems in Novaless I-XXVI are highly sensual, their strange disjunctive images always in the process of forming or resolving in the mind. The sequence as a whole seems to be concerned as much with the operations of thinking and sensing as with any outside objects of reference. Nicholas Manning's poetics works against the divide between exterior and interior. His siding with complexity, in these and other ways, is suggested in the first lines of the book: 'to speak / of * the forgotten / is easy lyricism…'
Manning, a poet who lives in France but was born in Australia, edits The Continental Review, an internet journal established in 2007 to provide a forum for poetry which utilises video content: conversation-interviews between poets, poets reading their work, and various word image experiments by poets are gathered there. He also writes the popular poetics blog, The Newer Metaphysicals. This is a writer clearly engaged and in conversation with contemporary international poetry and poetics – particularly the American and European avant-garde or post-avant varieties – but also with his Modernist and Romantic forebears.
The poems in this, his first book, are heavily textured with a set of punctuation marks – the French guillemets, exclamation marks, colons, ellipses, asterisks, as well as frequent italicisation – which are repeated to produce altered effects: a sequence of phrases preceded by colons works to produce a sense of unfolding openness or successive, soft amplifications. At a glance the poems appear almost stippled with these notations to minor shifts in speed or emphasis. For me, they slow down, or stretch out, the act of reading. And while the poems are lyrical they don't flow, or if they do it is a flow that is constantly interrupted so that you are drawn back to the singularity of each phrase; it concatenates with the words and phrases around it, and is stationed within the poem:
the children mullioned
together letterings * flowerings
mollified : the wax
Asterisks are the most obvious typographical anomaly, buttonholed between words rather than the more conventional placement between sections of a poem to mark an extended pause. These stars seem to register a kind of aporia, or to gesture towards a range of feeling beyond the limitations of the alphabet. (Nabokov in 'Time and Ebb': 'and then nothing but a lone star remained in the sky, like an asterisk leading to an undiscoverable footnote'). A move like this might not work for many reasons, or if it did the possibility would be that overuse would render the symbol decorative, an empty material effect. But after reading three or four poems in this book, I began to get the hang of these stars and to see how they become part of, and extend, the grammar and music of the poems. I read these marks at different times as breaths, as pauses which bring my attention to – energise – the gap between two words, or, as a kind of expostulation on mute. The asterisks also suggest that the poems – or Manning's head – are in the stars. The poems are definitely more cosmic than earthy.
Some of the poems appear to record dream, or dreamlike, images: 'the elephant *'s trunk encrusted / the breasts' arching a cave / processing / of thatched hurdles and boughs'. Later in the same poem we read the lines, 'by the reflection of your face / or in the bronzish hoary boards'. This second line appears to be an image of stunted or troubled reflection, suggesting a kind of stuckness. Light, reflection, refraction and their correlates in transparency and opacity are important in this book. They reoccur throughout the sequence and seem to be the material, or the matter, of perception:
in its * decaying light
is not matter : < < literature >>
The metaphor conducts a reversal from expected understandings of the sensory realm: the fresco (wooden, touchable) is not matter, yet light, like earthy matter, 'decays'. In another poem light and shadow prefigure a mood, a state of mind:
an observer : the shadow
in showing beneath moving shows
divination *'s white ashes
clumped into our
all of these reflections
< < I am mindless >> . . .
Aspects of a love affair are hinted at across the sequence in micro-images that suggest states of longing and ecstasy. The fifth poem, as with all of the poems, is visually dense, and many of its lines seem to be exhaustively compressed: 'the hectic leaves / the mud-picture of force / over mats * of starry moss'. This series of hard, flat images is threaded seamlessly. There is something of the text message in these poems too: the lowercase lettering, the compression of the language, lines and emotion given over (hopefully or hopelessly) to a typographic symbol. There is little obvious humour in most of the poems ('no irony no' reads one line), yet Manning's ear is clearly attuned. While this is a poetry that may first appear beyond the scope, it is full of tangible, pleasurable images, and, often enough straightforward, naked, even campy, records of emotion which contradict the claim of overseriousness, such as: 'snow an indescribable thrill !' or 'and literally blinded by tears'.
As a whole, this sequence of poems is generous in its language, and, unlike certain strains of Modernist or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, it brims with images, feelings and ideas rendered in language. Manning's poetry is – to borrow an image from one of its poems – both 'fine-flaked' and desultory, in its range of interests and rendering of thought and feeling's movement, and in the shifting points of attention it gives itself up to. For a small book it is dense with ideas and feelings, intelligent and always surprising images.