Maria Takolander: Ghostly Subjects

London: Salt, 2009, 67pp.

I have commented elsewhere on Australia’s lack of a minimalist poetic tradition. In a sense it is something that could have been predicted because minimalism, at least in poetry, often requires a distinctive kind of audience. This might be made up of courtiers who understand the subtle double-talk of court language and the way it extends naturally to poetry, or it might be made up of aesthetes within a canonical culture who understand the briefest and subtlest references. But whatever the situation, whether I’m describing Wyatt, Hafez, Li Po or Basho, I’m certainly not describing Australia. You feel that the emptiness of the land and the absence of public appreciation of poets as well as the lack of a strong tradition of critical response all mean that poets here are shouting to each other and spinning long poems, essentially built on rhetorical formulae, partly to be heard and partly to keep alive their sense of themselves. It occurs in other English language traditions – in the US and England, especially since the nineteenth century – but in Australia it seems acute. When poets do choose a minimalist style without any confidence in their audience, they finish up as hermeticists, something that Australian literary responses are very intolerant of, or they write haiku and tanka for all the world as though they were sipping tea in a miniature Japanese garden.

These homely thoughts (to quote Alistair Cooke) were prompted by Maria Takolander’s Ghostly Subjects in that Takolander, as well as being an exciting new poet, also writes in what might be thought of as a branch line of the minimalist tradition. It may well come from having a Nordic (Finnish) component although one of the poems (significantly called “Minimalism and the Abstract”) seems to reject this when it says “you see I do agree with igloos / but I can’t recall the language now I’m afraid / I’ve lost my nordic goddess.” Whatever the cause it is always a treat to read poems of consistently high quality written by a young Australian poet which sound so unlike the poems of other young Australian poets.

Ghostly Subjects is technically Takolander’s second book because Narcissism – a small volume in the Whitmore Press series – was published in 2005. Half of Ghostly Subjects is made up of the poems of Narcissism, but Ghostly Subjects has a much clearer structure and certainly a more helpful one when it comes to trying to work out what Takolander’s poetic personality is. Its four sections: Geography, Chemistry, Biology and Culture make quite clear not only the ambit of the interests but also the structure of the intelligence. They are already abstractions rather than experiences and though the book is full of poems inspired by experience and recording that experience, there is a lot of processing that has gone on before the poem appears. Similarly there is an emphasis in the book on the process of learning: the first poem is called “Geography Lessons” and there is a suite of poems later in the book called “Lessons Learned from Literature”. In other words, this is poetry coming out of an intellectual tradition (to use the word loosely) interested in a subtly different way of dealing with experience.

The middle sections – Chemistry and Biology – concern respectively love and, very generally, the body. “Grief” is profoundly minimalist and as close to impenetrable as Takolander’s style gets:

Stay that pebble.
Child


In your fist.
The well is tended.


Quietus.


--


Now it rises.
Like something mammalian.


Savage
Of the sleeping mewlings.


Poor.

With the help of the title we can work out a fair bit of this and it can always be defended by the claim that as it deals with the painful and indescribable it can only do so by approaching the subject tangentially. Perhaps it is no coincidence that it is followed by a relaxed gothic prose poem exactly dealing with what Poe – in the poem’s epigraph – calls “feelings more intense than terror for which there is no name upon the earth”.

Ghostly Subjects’ section on Culture begins with a poem, “Cosmetics Department” which is entirely about surfaces. And the hard, brittle surfaces that the poem deals with (“Fingernails are hard with all of human secrets”) are matched by the sharp assertiveness of the style which refuses to cocoon its subject (Make-up? Popular culture?) in a cosy nest of lengthily described personal experience. Other poems from this section deal with the films of Kubrick – a film-maker of particularly intense visual surfaces – and a number of writers – Kafka, Plath, Borges – also noted for their distinctive surfaces. The Kafka poem begins with the word “paranoia” and the Borges with “narcissism” and these words are the titles of the last two poems of the previous section. The narcissism of the poem of that name, though, is the result of a happy obsession with all the parts of the body whereas in the Borges poem it seems to derive from Borges’ notion that an artist such as Shakespeare is capable of dissipating himself into so many characters that he becomes nobody himself – an echo of Borges’ much-loved description of the circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.

When I began by saying that I see Takolander’s work as an avenue of a minimalist poetry (and there must be many other ways of locating her work) I did not want to give the impression that it was stylistically homogenous. Yes, “Cosmetics Department” is ruthlessly and abruptly propositional and the tableax poems are short, sharp vignettes. But there are places where the reins are loosened a little. “Whale Watching”, for example, is a big set-piece poem of the kind we are familiar with in Australia: a group of people are gathered above a beach in the hope of seeing whales give birth and the child of one of these people breaks away to go to the beach herself where, in a nice pun, she “ignores even the officious waves”:

. . . . . 
You’re worried about her and break away.


I’m no mother.
These whales are more warm-blooded than me.


I stand a zealot among zealots,


Waiting for the tear, the breach:
Error or revelation.


When I find you at my side again,


She’s sand-covered and crying.
I learn she’s lost her Tic Tacs.

It is revealing how much that last line – deliberately bathetic it is true – looks awkward and rings false. Casual domestic anecdote is not something that Takolander seems to do well or, generally, want to do well.

The most intriguing of these rein-loosening poems is “Reality Check” the final poem of the Chemistry section. It is said that all poets carry within their writing – published or unpublished – an anti-poem, something utterly different to all their other work, perhaps committing those things (sentimentality, cruelty, self-obsession, impersonality – whatever) that they would consider unacceptable in their “day-time” poems. This may well be what is happening here because “Reality Check” is everything that the other poems aren’t: relaxed, extensive, discursive, chattily personal. More, in fact, like a classical elegy. It details everyday experiences of travelling with one’s partner to poetry readings, exhibitions and so on. But underneath (or perhaps on top) it is a poem-poem recording the desire to incorporate memorable bits of dialogue into poems:

. . . . .
                                   Another time, driving back
from a poetry reading at Portarlington, the road to
Geelong taking us to the crest of a hill from which


we could see Melbourne floating like a magical
castle across the bay and the You Yangs as blue as
the sea, you exclaimed: “Fuck me, look at the sky!
How big is it?” I started a poem with those lines but
never finished it, the Muses, whom I like to confuse


with the Furies but who are, rationally speaking,
probably just judgement and chance, compelling
me to patience. . .

The poem, for all its casualness, has a complex double structure. It is a love poem in that the lover’s words are embedded in it and it thus celebrates the weird relationship of two poets. At the same time it is one of those poems which in speaking about its own making, finishes by becoming the thing that it previously spoke of. It finishes with an outsider’s words being included in the poem as well and since they were “I’m not here”, they are included paradoxically. It is tied up nicely in a pun in the last sentence: “The cry seemed / unselfconscious. I realise its place in this poem.”

To me the most interesting section of this book, though, is the first: Geography. This is because while poems dealing with, say, popular film are an experience of the last forty years or so, geography has always been part of the Australian poetic tradition largely because it was a challenge to English language poetic forms to come to grips with the strange lands which the first settlers found. So it’s more possible to judge what kind of difference Takolander’s poetry represents. Not unsurprisingly the approach is very visual and the emphasis is on perspective and scale and these relate to sharp visual portrait making – tableaux as one of the poems calls them. But the interest isn’t exclusively painterly since the poems worry continually about the interaction of the human and the natural. In a sense this is an extension of the question of perspective and scale since it asks what the role of the human is. And the poems also hover on the edge of an expressionist pathetic fallacy, wondering to what extent the human can be upscaled to the natural. If this sounds very abstract, well they are abstract poems! “Geography Lessons” seems largely about this and the final lesson is

How an ocean can rage at the moon
        until you adopt its colossal anger as your own
        and live believing it is all something personal.

And a fine, complex diptych, “Driving by the You Yangs”, contrasts two different views. In the day view the emphasis is on the mountains seen as a backdrop to the intense, minuscule activities of life: “These starlings above the railway line / Are always panicking, / Their tiny hearts like ticking bombs . . .” In the night view, all emphasis is on the driver: “The night, immense and tragic, / Makes of me what it will. / Inside these uncertain windows, // Fire-lit by passing cars, I’m a child again . . .” “Ghost Story” is also about scale and perspective moving from the widest of perspectives, “Under a night sky . . . On a land mass shifting over the earth’s blood . . .”, down to a domestic quarrel in a cottage.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the poems in this section are “Peace be with you (and also with you)” and “Tides”. The former, I’m not totally confident with:

We are waiting for the avalanche:
This surge of turbulent gods and angels,
Debris of ages, rendered.


We have gathered for the wake.
Beautiful, we offer up our eyes:
Lapis lazuli, marble white.


Please, not to brood.


Under divine sky, obscene,
We shift cold limbs,
Fist and grapple tender haloes.

This seems about suicide bombers on their first day in heaven though there are other ways of reading it (as the bomber’s family gathering to celebrate, for example), but it is intriguing for its positioning in a section called Geography and for its figuring of the visitation of the divine – or the instant of explosion – as an avalanche. The second poem, “Tides”, is about the Madrid bombings. Here the emotion behind the poem is really intense and geography acts – in its perspectival role – as a kind of containing device, or at least a framing one.

Entire oceans don’t know what to do.


. . . . .


Dismembered fish and rock-torn gulls.


In the unfurled trains, fires, residual, are made from air.


Phones are ringing in the pockets of herrings.
Sirens, sirens, sirens, sirens.


The unfathomable suddenly everywhere.

That rather lovely, and in no sense decorative, pun in the last line connects with the first line and emphasises the perspectives that the poet is interested in. The result is a highly processed poem of anger and despair.

Overall it is the rejigging of a very old set of engagements with landscape makes the poems of Ghostly Subjects fascinatingly relevant. It is possible to write brittle poems about the surface semiotic systems of items of popular culture but something more challenging to try to write about landscape in the way many of these poems do. And it is a tradition that one wants to see kept and to see continually successfully refreshed in this way. After all it sorts out those influences that are merely alien blow-ins and which have no power to have any kind of hold on landscapes that have puzzled us for over two hundred years. The first section of this book is alone enough to establish that Takolander’s style is both challenging and successful.