Martin Langford: The Human Project: New and Selected Poems

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2009, 205pp.

The main strength of this collection which selects from twenty-odd years’ work (Langford’s first collection appeared in a three-authored book, Faultlines, in 1991) is the consistency of its concerns. Consistency is not the same as homogeneity and Langford’s great themes of loss/entropy and what it means to be called human are developed in different kinds of poems, often in quite adventurous ways. It is not uncommon, in selections, for the consistency to be something that is retrospectively imposed when the earlier books are pruned, so that we see these from the perspective of the concerns of the most recent ones. But that hasn’t happened here. Reading the earlier collections shows that there was always this same set of interrelated themes. A second response is to register how good these later poems are: a polite way of saying, perhaps, that Martin Langford might have been one of those poets who are slow to develop but, at the end, not only have something interesting to say but are ready to explore different poetic shapes that can be devoted to this saying.

Faultlines began with a poem about immersion in the natural world. It had a very Sydney feel to it, not only in its invocation of water and light (it read rather like a Brook Emery poem) but in its assertion of the primacy of immediate experience over language and story: “This is a gift from the sun and the planet. / This is not something that humans and words have made up.” But the fourth and fifth poems are like a little introduction to Langford’s essential material. The title of “The Shadow” refers to the shadow of the ape, that part of us which is responsible not, in Langford, for the glory of unmediated experience of the natural world, but for a true, old-fashioned brutishness. I have to confess that this has always made me rather uncomfortable. I thought that the modern world wanted to overturn that odd division of the self into animal and “higher” which surely only reflects the confederate prejudices of the Greeks (whose higher self was a philosopher) and the Christians (whose higher self was sexless). (One is reminded here of Gibbon’s acid comment that it was a favoured opinion of the church fathers that had Adam not sinned, the congress of the sexes would have been unnecessary and “some harmless mode of vegetation” might have been invented for the propagation of the species.) Nowadays we rather want to focus on the fact that even the most violent animal predators are rarely cruel in the way humans can be, though, having said that, it’s more than possible to see in chimpanzees, and other of our close primate relatives, features of the less desirable side of ourselves. And lions at a kill are an unattractive sight as are, down the pecking order, hyenas. On the other hand they don’t build Auschwitzes based on crazy racial theories.

At any rate, it is not my place, as critic, to take issue with the author’s position. A critic’s task is to explain what that position is, as a distillation of the poems that it generates. The second poem, “Thermocline”, is a much more successful piece. The poet listens to his grandfather as he “keeps on talking: / miniature, serious sounds, / getting things clear, / setting things right” while in the larger view “the canons of entropy / tick, tick through all space.” Taking the laws of entropy and matching them with an old man’s vulnerability to the “merest breeze” is daring and brought off well. The one encourages large-scale rhetoric, the other homely description and thus they balance each other out really well. The most elegant expression of this sensitivity to entropy is the final poem of the 2001 collection, Sensual Horizon, “The Currawongs”:

No matter how fine-grained the present ””
          a clearing of brilliant, nibbed grasses:
centreless, endless, a sea of blond etching,
          stem-shadows rhyming with seedheads,
tiny white stars nestling deep
          in the creases and blacks ””
there are always the farewells of currawongs,
          rising through neighbouring forest
and wheeling away: Goodbye to the moment, Goodbye to the sacrament, detail.
One song, split up amongst many;
. . . . .
           Goodbye to the Edens of presence . . .
From sun doodling neon on water at Circular Quay;
          from shops of worn sandstone;
from luminous weed and warm steps;
          diasporas ”” the part song departures ””
never more potent than out through a silence:
          the pause before rain starts;
through blue-shaded cumulus,
          pale-green and wind-harried skies ””
blown leaf scraps, keening and belling ””
          leaving you, always, behind, at your birthplace:
the bare rock no art can redeem ””
the sweet-moment-just-passed.

The only thing that prevents me declaring this poem a masterpiece is that its rhapsodic mode is not something Langford does often and I can’t escape the suspicion that he might here be trying on another poet’s style and seeing how his material adapts to it.

At any rate, these issues form a kind of matrix in which the central issue of Langford’s poetry ”” what it is to be human ”” can be worked at. We are, it seems, located at two kinds of horizon. The first locates us at the point of just having left the brute world but retaining a great deal of its shadow. We are not yet, apparently, able confidently to reject the animal past and, when we do things like go to war or sell real estate, we behave as though the animal imperatives still operated. This is the theme of poems as different as “Touch” from Faultlines and “The Olympics” from Sensual Horizon. The former laments the fact that touch between humans has to be framed inside understandings and contracts:

. . . . .
Where is its art-form?

Why do we do it so badly?

So ungracious, sly?

Not walking as children,
through bright, starlit caverns,
but butting each other with needs
on the floor of some kraal?

And the latter is a reasonably predictable attack on the culture of competition, success and conquest (not to mention the inevitable cheating) that is implicit in the Olympic games (no doubt about to be held in Sydney when this poem was written):

. . . . .
Passion for triumph’s the perilous border
at which our whole project can fail.
If we can’t get past this, we will never get clear
of the canines and ranks of the apes. . .

One of Langford’s problems is that, having said this about our relationship to our animal ancestors, what is a poet to do? The 1993 collection, The Great Wall of Instinct (whose title reveals its position on this issue, though the book itself is radically pruned, contributing only five poems to this Selected) gives examples of one technique. A poem called “Fantasies” finishes with a rehearsal of the basic position:

But the stone of my coldness just sits there:

an ancient indifference ”“

like everyday selfishness;

programmed aggression from beasts
whose first task is to live.

And is followed by an example of a genre which is important in Langford’s poetry: the portrait. Here the portrait (“Kelvin: Walking at Dusk on the Beach”) is “infected” by the poet’s ideas about human behaviour so that the animal world keeps poking its ugly face through:

As always, talk is just con.
Kelvin wants torsos, wants power;
money to screw with
and others to keep him -
soft, knobbly gargoyle that spruiks
by the drifting of sea.

Always, though, fear
makes him careful:
like me, some scene
where the warthog masks up -
lips, tushes, plastered with blood -
settling small eyes to explain
that he’s kind, that he’s nice . . .

Dusk-colours swirl and dim homewards.
Windless, deep, estuarine glass.

Working on friendliness,
pig-monsters plough
through the hopeless and silver-aired calm.

I don’t think anyone, let alone the poet in the calm light of retrospection, would think that this was a successful poem. For a start it seems too happily judgemental (though the exact force of that crucial “like me” is difficult to determine) and it also succumbs to the problem that the “theory” automatically removes any humanness in the creature under observation: thus neatly begging the question. But a portrait is a way of embodying abstractions and thus a potentially fruitful area for exploration, more fruitful, probably than the beauties of “Currawongs” which promise, ultimately, no more than stretches of lovely rhetoric. The title poem of the collection in which both “Fantasies” and “Kelvin Walking at Dusk on the Beach” is another kind of portrait, rather more abstract in that it shows the moments when the animal instinct emerges. The second part of this poem, dealing with “your lover”, is, presumably, interestingly close to home, but the first is a portrait of a “decent and hard-working” man:

And the most important thing,
of course, is not to get flustered,
when the face of the decent and hard-working father
who raves on and on about trade unions, sport,
somehow turns shiny and skink-like,
his prayer-knots of Articles
shrunk to the curious feints of a small desert niche -
tactics and tricks of the gene
in a sterile, red dust . . .

So much for our position as creatures not yet far enough removed from the “sad primate life” to be able to escape its shadow. The other horizon seems to be, rather, before us. It appears in Langford’s poetry as a world or mode of existence in some way reflecting the natural world, especially the sky. Our current state, it says many times, is one of grids, lattices, bars, nets, snares, traps ”” all symbols involving a division of space. And there is an emphasis on the division of time as well. Beyond this particular horizon is the undivided breadth of the sky and the vast mass of the sea. But, since this is, after all, a humanist not religious position, notions of transcendence have to be treated with great care and tentativeness: it is not a matter of earning something or learning a technique in order to leave the sordid present behind. This is good news for poetry since poetry, faced with the certainties of the conventional religious transcendences, really can’t do much more than toe a party line and put itself, obediently, in a diminished position. Poetry seems flourish in the frustrating impossibilities of transcendence. Perhaps this is one reason why Sufi poetry, at its best conceived on the datum of the irritating absence of God, is as good as it is. At any rate, the tentative gestures of Langford’s poetry when it looks towards the horizon in front, make for good poetry, I think. I especially like “Flooded Paddock” from the terribly titled 1997 collection, In the Cage of Love’s Gradings:

One hundred years ago,
someone first pondered,

then got up
to slab fence all this:

smashed fragrant chips into sunlight;
clambered through tatters and hush . . .

Now it marks nothing but ocean:
somnolent hectares of wash.

Fence-posts, redundant, guard eddies -
sky-countries: cloudbanks and haze.

Undaunted – cheerful -
I head off to tension new work.

It is an interestingly optimistic poem and one which symbolically expresses the hope that freedom from contemporary divisions can be productive.

In Sensual Horizon, there is a fine set of poems about music, that notorious introducer of the topic of transcendence. The first describes a symphony (Mahler? Bruckner?) speaking of a large orchestral climax:

. . . . .
a pause for some piccolo griefs . . .
And then the great launch
of the final tiered claim: that we’re home,
that we’re on higher ground.
That we don’t have to live
in the difficult rippling of now.

The second poem continues the reservations of the first, approving the music of Debussy rather than that of the romantics who surely didn’t “believe in the triumph [they] pleaded”. The sequence ends with an assertion of the homeliness of the true human position (having rejected the transcending gestures of a host of composers):

There’s a home
in acknowledging
no other saves me -
a neighbourliness -
side by side, equal with.

Yet how will we ever again
source such power
if we’re not fighting
masks of ourselves.

There is a slight flatness about this ”” the horizons are very limited indeed ”” so perhaps it is worth noting that this is the location of the great Mozart operas (masterpieces of an ambience of secular enlightenment or at least of a universe in which, as a later Langford poem says, “galaxies wheel past, regardless”) which advocate, among much else, forgiveness as well as a refusal to impose stratospheric expectations on other human beings. It is remarkable though how many of the poems have, buried within them or overtly displayed, a double perspective. Often it is just a matter of the cosmos (the ultimate indivisible whole that we inhabit) making a guest appearance as it tends to do in the first series of poems from In the Cage of Love’s Gradings were the explicit aim is to register the strangeness of landscapes: the strangeness, attractive to poetry, emerges because of our double position – we are seen in the perspective of the landscape but the landscape is seen in a far wider perspective as well. In “Clouds” the possibility of release is raised and all that seems required is that human beings should change their perspective. A site of competition, an urban basketball court, is constricted by wire and walls, but ”” the poem says ”” it takes only a few steps and a change of focus:

Wire and brick walls
round a basketball court:
and then ads,
as if everything sought to be food.

Every direction,
a montage of walls -
except, through a gap in the steps:
cloud upon cloud,
a fabulous slurry of greys.

Self disappears there.
Verbs have no subjects.
Ownership does not exist.

Luminous floodplain
of stories not broken by fear.

Just down this stairway.

Down these few steps and across.

Connecting our feral animal life with stories as the poem does here, uncovers another element of the Langford universe: the world of life on a restricting grid of ambition, violence and selfishness is also the world of narratives. Stories in this poetry are a means of self-location. They help us make sense of things but they also limit; they are, in the words of another poem, one of the “contraptions of identity”. As one of the later poems, “Story”, which talks about the possibilities and functions of poetry says:

keeps glancing at places
where it
cannot go:
where senses arc out
on the curve of the other -
where poetry starts. . .

Perhaps this is summed up best in an extensive prose poem, “Agon”, in which the “narrative of the streets” is seen to be in competition with “the silence of the sky”. What I like about this poem is its refusal to stop at the level of simple opposition or, even worse, of the trumping of one perspective by the other. The conclusion is complicated and sophisticated:

The sky was not a narrative itself.
But then: neither really, were the shops. Although they used language to trade with and dream with, such phrases and constructions as they used only really resolved into bigger fables with the creative use of elision: an upward drift of singularities, subsumed within the hierarchies of simplification. Really, like the great sky itself, there was simply rub and counter-rub, drift and counter-drift: in the case of the street, however, the atoms and particles were investments and obsessions, favourite sayings, private speculations.
Which did not prevent everyone from combining them into the convenience and simplicity of narrative. A narrative which, such was the general cast of mind, they habitually opposed to the ahistoricism, and the lack of context, which they thought of as being attributes of sky.
That neither, really, were narratives, meant little or nothing. The question remained, as potent as ever: which one was going to win?

“Agon” isn’t included in New and Selected Poems though the book in which it appears, Sensual Horizon, is fairly generously represented. All of Langford’s earlier collections ”” including Sensual Horizon ”” are reduced to a mere hundred pages or so. This is very ruthless but justified since the number of successes is fairly small. I do have a strong sense though of an increasing sophistication in the poems, a move away from the desire to state a philosophical position about where the human race is located to a desire to explore both what this means for poetry and the ways in which poetry can explore and exploit it. And the result is that The Human Project ”” the “new” in this New and Selected ”” is by far the most satisfying individual book of Langford’s. Which means, I suppose, that a long, long apprenticeship must finally have borne valuable fruit. All of the book’s themes are familiar from those of the previous ones, but they produce poems that are far more interesting and complex.

The first three poems act like a kind of overture for the entire book. “The Creature’s Tale” is a faux-children’s rehearsal of human history with a message that the earlier books have already prepared us for. At some stage a creature learns “to say choices” and to dream of a life “free of fresh blood”. Almost immediately it is dining with friends and driving “out to vineyards and hills” and then sitting alone playing with words which tell “tales of enlargements”. But, as with the other two opening poems, the tone is a lot more equivocal than we are used to because the tales that the mind can dream, and that language can tell, can make a world even more frightening than the old world of the instincts. I like this reservation and it continues into the second poem, “Lionspaces”. Here the narrative is of the gradual human mastery of the environment, displacing the lions which had once dominated and, eventually, “clearing the forests of Europe, Iran”. The conclusion is not entirely clear but there is no doubt that the tone is, again, equivocal:

Our fate, it seemed,
was to shape things forever:
the lions would never come back ””
golden-eyed, blown, without pity,
crowding the yard in an impatient mood,
swarming sedately
while Grandfather’s lawn disappeared ””
twitching their tails, testing doors:
while you waited too ”” in a puddle of sweat ””
not so concerned now with justice,
why it is some poems sound right.

This bringing together of two sides of the human ”” the side which is driven by animal instinct to build a world of grids and structures which will destroy animal life itself, and the side which is that of the language-using, world-dreaming humans, sensitive to others and especially to the animal other which is now under threat ”” makes for an engaging complexity and thus for a better poem. The final opening poem, “The Predators” extends the issue by describing humans as “word-haunted predators” and concludes:

We shall diminish the list of the warm ones
to foxes, five birds and rodentia.

Cousins. Hard cases like us.

Our landscape plans include:
stale exhaust, status-lined vistas;
the comfort of signage;
room for our families;
somewhere to nurse our regrets.

Easy to say we are SS who listen to Schubert.

But where did such genes learn such speech-arts?

Creatures defined by their teeth
but condemned to imagine?

Justice, for instance. Equality.
Kindness. And joy.

The old attitude to animals survives in poems like “Travelling with Birds” where, watching that wonderful film, Langford asks “What could be better than living the life of the instincts?” and answers by glossing it as “to give oneself over to precedence, lust, skill at war” ”” neatly taking out of play an entire poetic obsession with the issue of what a life of experience unmediated by language might be like. But generally animals now make an appearance under the flag of entropy ”” they are the diminishing and threatened. And some of the best poems of The Human Project are exactly about this including “The Silence of the Frogs”, “The Animal Book” and “The Animals are Passing from their Lives” the last of which, rather in the tone of “The Creature’s Tale”, imagines the animals of the world rather shamefacedly acknowledging the “superior powers” of the humans, trotting calmly into oblivion, and thus forming a kind of reverse of the procession onto the Ark.

But in essence The Human Project is worried about the situation of the language users, especially the poets. And the general issue ”” what can I do and how should I do it? ”” is the same issue that, unspoken, has appeared in the earlier books. Does one write portraits? Poems of protest? Poems of endless explication? And why are these unsuccessful? Well one of the best responses to a strongly experience impasse is to express it ”” as impasse. There a lot of good poems here about poetry and the situation of the writer. In “The Monks”, for example, the dream of brotherhood and forgiveness which motivated (in Langford’s view at least ”” my own might be more sceptical about the characters of medieval recluses) those monks who formed the manuscript-copying communities on the coast of Britain is destroyed by the instinct-driven barbarities of the Norse invaders. Doomed, their only bequeathable creations will be their manuscripts and their example:

On the horizon, a long-boat starts inching their way.
Nowhere to go so they may as well sing twice as loudly.

They sing me the room I write this in.
They sing me the question of what I should do with it now.

Again, these poems reject transcendent solutions. “The Answer” carefully reminds us of the dangers of such dreams and, by using the phrase “final solutions”, neatly implies not only a criticism of closure but of the nightmare fantasies that have, historically, come from such visions:

What is it with artists?

Who told them
their wounds could dissolve
to an unchanging bliss?

The transformative poem.

The redemptive design.

Happiness does not stay still:
it’s a mood that change takes.

Enough if we tease out of changes
a tension, a grace,
that might quicken heart’s doze.

But to dream of a final solution!

What terrors ””
what midnight desires ””
can only be solved by re-birth?

I think “Mahler in Midsummer” is largely about that composer’s dream of transcendence (“the great dream of being beyond terms”) and its failure.

The dream of transcendence is also the dream of, in some way, defeating the fact of entropy which rules the universe as surely as gravity and some good poems engage this. “Lit Crit”, the first of the section devoted to poetry and poets, goes:

The first test
is to ask
whether the poem
thinks that anything
can be saved.

If it says yes,
then don’t trust it.

The poet was scared.

It is no good pretending that the correct context for the language-using animal is anything other than the prospect of death and nescience against a profoundly uncaring and unimaginably vast cosmos. All of Langford’s earlier books, among their later portraits, have had poems dealing with the death of loved ones. Unfortunately as we get older there are more and more opportunities for such poems. The final sequence of this New and Selected Poems is a little suite on the death of his mother. Although it is a pendant piece, it gains from the entire context of the rest of his poems with their concern to identify the human and never to turn one’s face away from inevitable losses.