Joanne Burns: Amphora

Artarmon: Giramondo, 2011, 135pp.

Given that Joanne Burns’s first collection was published almost forty years ago, it is not surprising that her output is fairly extensive, running to sixteen books if chapbooks are included. One of the features of the full-length books is the way in which they are always divided into sections – there are usually about half a dozen of them. These sections contain poems that are not only related thematically but also in terms of method. Whether they are written in batches or, in the preparation of each of the books, a couple of years’ work is subdivided into convenient groups, I am not sure: but I suspect that the latter is more likely to be the case. Reading as many of her books as I have been able to find confirms the presence of a distinctive stance towards the world – humorous, unsentimental, never pompous or prophetic, immersed in fleeting experiences – which sometimes produces successful poems and sometimes doesn’t. What I do feel confident in saying, however, is that Amphora is a really successful book, without doubt her best. What stands out about Amphora (though this may be a feature of her earlier books which I have simply missed) is the interesting patterning of its sections. Reading it is a bit of a voyage although, as I’ll show later, the final destination is difficult to describe.

The first section has a confusing double title “Ichoria” and “Angles not angels”. The second part of this, alluding to Gregory the Great’s famous pun, seems to set up the parameters of this section: angels not as gestures towards transcendence but as rather more homely openers-up of perspectives for poetry. The first poem, “Pitch”, is very much about the kind of inspirational angels which Burns’s poetry will have room for. They are going to be fairly practical and unambitious:

i want an angel, maybe even two,
like the ones assisting isidore, the
spanish farm servant saint, angels
who were seen to plough the fields
for him while he was deep in prayer,
i don’t know exactly what they looked
like but i don’t need one with that much
muscle or one from the top ranks of the angel
hierarchy and I don’t want an angel with huge wings
that rustle . . .

and so on in this delightful way although the poem – which is very much a compendium piece (a mode that should be encouraged) – has room for angels to function as poetic inspirers and as guardians: “a flash of light a silver wink in the dark a stroke of thought behind the brow down the nape of the neck so slow it’s really fast. it could remind you that you’re about to die if you don’t shift your arse”.

Two longish compendium poems, “Raft” and “Rung”, explore this decidedly earth-bound experience of the transcendent. The former is concerned with light and darkness and reads almost like a gloss on Jeanette Winterson’s “not all dark places need light”. It rejects “the bright pin and pierce / of a vision” and decides there will be “no eulogising of celestial light / over the dark satanic”. Instead, the poem concludes by dreaming of a proto-order before the division into light and darkness though that dream could itself, be seen as a transcendental gesture.

“Raft” is threaded, rather unsatisfactorily, on an opening reference to the idea that carrots help children see better. This pleasantly homely start moves into a meditation on seeing and light. “Rung”, on the other hand, is a set of poems about ladders and, inevitably, myths of transcending by climbing onto a higher plane. Yeats (“The Circus Animal’s Desertion”), St Perpetua (who, before martyrdom, imagined herself ascending a ladder), Wittgenstein (for whom the ladder of language has to used then abandoned), Miro and others all get a mention as does the step-ladder behind the poet’s bathroom door and the ladder used to prune back the bougainvillea after her father’s death (“this ladder has no fine points sticking up towards heaven”). It finishes by asking why ladders should always be associated with climbing upwards:

but me. i look for an easier solution. enough of biblical endurance and ordealism. i climb down the ladder of memory. rusting, salty, white-painted rungs. the nervous thrill of that moment. not the tongue stretching up for the dry, sticky host of a first communion gravitas but arms reaching out for that first swim in deep water. letting go of gravity and pushing out into glossy emerald waters. the heart electrified in the momentum of its liberation. sun streaming through squinted eyes. arms lifting over the water like sudden wings. kicking towards epiphany. so this is heaven.

That is a fine expression of a poet’s poetics, a way of avoiding what another poem describes as “fresh phanic desire” which, inevitably, curdles into sentimental debris. And “sentimental debris” is the defining note of the second section of Amphora in that it deals with the lives of individual saints including such luminaries as Maria Goretti (“the perfect girl who would always choose death”) and saints Rita and Zita. If there is an overall position in these poems – which are inclined to focus on the way the saints are portrayed and presented – it is that the popular saints (as opposed to those “journeyman saints . . . . hanging onto the lower rungs of beatification”) are part of a media glamour show. Their numbers increased by the late pope as a “restoration project. fortifying church pillars against the chisels of the western cynics” they are “the showbiz circus sideshow, the special effects saints. the stars”. I especially like the conclusion of the poem about St. Zita which makes a lot of this explicit:

- maybe brigitte bardot wouldn’t like this card but would
zita like b. bardot; zita was bolder than a sex kitten
bolder than the brass of a church     saints are a part of
celebrity but who would pray to a movie star primping on
in a make up van, enduring the stare of a thicker light,
fussing over heightcellulite & snapping only a good side;
like domestic servants and maids stars could pray to
zita – as a finder of lost keys, i don’t know how she got
this additional gift, perhaps there’s an upgrade degree
for saints like her: how to deal with a swipe keycard

With the book’s middle three sections, “Streamers”, “Amphora” and “Pogo”, we are in the environment of a kind of mild surrealism. The first is subtitled “a series of koannes”, neatly personalizing the koan as a textual exercise designed to frustrate the logical mind. The twenty-nine short poems lace various paradoxes together in a way that makes the syntax as problematic as the content. They can be as homely as the first one:

weigh the rice before you boil it
how else can you catch up
with yourself wash the radish
after you eat it the soil requests
you share its emergency although its
colour may not suit your hand towel

or as “poetic” as the seventh:

the dream dog barks
mid-caninese and you
bark back in spanglish in
the neighbour’s dream you yell
in caesarine no river
to cool your salmon

“Amphora” – which is actually the book’s middle section – is a collection of poems built around common cliches. Some of these use misread (or, to be technical, untroped readings of) phrases so that “she kept her distance” modulates into “she kept her distance in a yellow and blue lacquered box she had bought on dal lake” and “the trouble with leaving things up in the air . . .” becomes the introduction to a poem which finds things in the air difficult to find and, when found, difficult to get to unless (in a return to the world of saints) like Christine the Astonishing, you can make yourself as light as a bird. But more interesting are “Relief” and “Composition”. The former crosses the punning technique with the earlier compendium poems by beginning with the poet as relief teacher (a phrase which, perhaps thankfully, doesn’t get the same treatment) asking “for the slip which lists classes to relief teach for the day” and going on to become a poem about petticoats and teachers as well as a poem about all the other possibilities of the word “slip” including how time has slipped away since teachers wore slips.

“Composition” explores, I think, the idea of poems being built out of the detritus of existence. Though this is a critical cliche it is not a verbal one and this page-long prose poem describes the poet setting out on a tour to collect pails of dust from the “inner and outer fields of your farm debris”, packing the dust into amphoras (intriguingly this poem uses two words that seem important to the book) and allowing it to settle and petrify so that when the amphoras are smashed open there are neat columns which can be fitted into an impressive piece of architecture – a book of poetry, presumably. The poem finishes with the poet browsing “the dharma of dust whisperings while playing the harmonium at auspicious interludes of mist”. Overall it is a poem about “passive aggrandisement” where poetic material just accumulates – “let life grow these soft goods for you”. It is difficult for the innocent reader to decide whether this is a kind of poetry being contemptuously rejected or a kind of poetry that she finds herself, willy-nilly writing, but it is an engaging piece either way.

The poems of “Pogo” accrete around specific words, being written in what Burns calls “a semantic state of mind”. “Lathe” is built around the various polysemic possibilities of “poppet”, “Spreadsheet” of “coaster” and “Stock” of “dice”. This latter is a favourite since it brings together the abstruse Latin meanings of “die/dies” and the humble task of preparing soup stock:

always dicey, this word play. you let the words roll around in your mouth till their sheer brio pushes them out through your cheeks. qualmlessly. how long should the cud be chewn. chawn is a better word. but you hear the purists chut-chutting. the edges of words cutting.

you dice the vegetables like a textbook illustration . . . .

The question here – what is the best length of time to go on doing this semantic/polysemic play? – is a good one. Burns never takes us into the vertiginous possibilities of something like Finnegans Wake but the result in these poems of Amphora is a taut and intriguingly structured poem.

This leads us to the last two sections of the book, “Writing in the Dark” and “This week next week the week after”. The first of these is very brief, containing only four short poems and they quickly teach us that the title of the section has nothing to do with writing poems while watching television. They are dense, surreal and difficult and are really “night” poems in a way that makes you recall the Winterson quotation I used earlier or perhaps even the slow movements of Bartok. “Eheu fugaces” is probably the most approachable, being a very visual night-piece but “Nocturnal emission” is altogether more difficult. It contains the image of the poet walking off a ferry at night “with your mouth / wide open and new countries rush / to fill it”: this might either be sublime (travelling on water disorients you to the point where familiar land is new) or very basic (you get home, watch the news and experience a host of new cultures). At any event, it has a complicated conclusion:

providence, nocturnal
providore, a geography
of faith, when you swallow you
don’t choke on a wild herb’s lotion.

Some of the twenty-five poems that make up the final section seem verbally generated: those beginning “making room / in the room” and “what is the theme of the theme”, for example, although they enjoy exploring the conceptual conundrums they propose. “Pencil it in” warns that anyone borrowing the grin of a prime minister might be stuck with it forever – as we used to be told would happen if the wind changed and “Bookmark” is a good example of the way these sorts of poems hover close to a paraphrasable meaning:

the ghost swam through
the loyal grass in a voile meander
the extravagance of its weeping
shivered through the gums in search
of a more sylvan setting this
ambiguous nostalgia was really
disconcerting the anthology
reeked of too many early mornings
the cellophane flowers already sweating

Is the anthology Australian and the bookmark English/Georgian? The solution must lie in some kind of set-up like that.

As I said at the beginning it is tempting to read this as a highly patterned collection structured in sections as two; three; two. It is also tempting to read it as a kind of voyage in poetry from the relaxed and chatty (though the subject – the religious – is a very serious one) through the mildly surreal results of polysemic verbal play, to a kind of deeper surreal that the poet thinks may be the way into certain subjects. Perhaps it isn’t a one-way journey so much as a patterned presentation of different kinds of poetry, free from any judgements about their relative value. At any event, this is a book where comments about poetry itself (as in “Composition”) are important and the most revealing may be “Zag”, the first poem of the final section:

the poems are running
running away running from
that dread of having to explain
themselves, those lists of
food ingredients they’ve
read on the back of packets
instant noodles for example;
they don’t want to be registered
for gst or voting rights they know
they don’t live in a democracy but
at least they can live in privacy if
they scatter