Rob Wilson: Free Will and the Clouds

Wollongong: Grand Parade Poets, 2014, 84pp.

One’s initial description of Free Will and the Clouds might be that it is made up of seventy-two poems in the surreal narrative/scenario mode. But that might be a dangerous pigeonholing since it suggests that surreal narrative is a consistent, predictable genre when in fact it is as various as any other. One of the issues of this mode, as with any poetic mode which eschews making a connection with its readers at the level of common human experience (so-called “humanist” lyrics, for example) is whether the resulting poems are in any sense engaging. Rob Wilson’s poems work for me at this level – where many don’t – though I might be hard-pressed to analyse why they make a connection with the reader. Wittiness might be one reason but I think that that turns out to be a symptom rather than a cause. If poems don’t connect first, what might be wittiness turns out to be mere smart-arsery.

Surreal poetry can often engage intellectually when it sends the reader in a search for its generative elements. We ask, almost instinctively, “What connects the disparate parts of this poem? Does it spin out of an underlying and often unspoken image or phrase – Riffaterre’s hypogram – and, if it does, along what axes does it spin?” Although such an intellectual engagement can be compelling, as compelling as the solution to a maths problem or a detective novel, it also begs a lot of questions. The most important of these is that it assumes that there is a generative unity that can be uncovered by really good readers and so the act of reading might run counter to the intentions of a really hard-line surrealist who wants his or her poems to be absolutely beyond the realm of something so trite as paraphrasable meaning. Or perhaps meaning may be there and may be there to be discovered but the meaning derives either from the reader or from the juxtaposition of elements. In this situation, any two lines chosen in the most aleatory way possible and run together will contain a meaning but it will not be an “intended” one in the sense of being intended by the author – though it is quite possible to argue that it derives from the cultural, or even linguistic, matrix from which the two lines are chosen.

This is, in other words, a complicated area with all kinds of difficulties for the reader – especially any reader who wants to write about the poems – and my introduction to this review is partly designed to build an admittedly porous defensive wall around what I have to say about these poems. The possible relationship between the writer of surreal texts and the texts themselves can span an entire spectrum from, at one end, “These come like dreams and like dreams I know they are meaningful and that I do not understand the meaning. As a reader, help me” to “What you call meaning and find as meaning in these poems is just a soft-centred readerly fantasy. My poems are successful abstract constructions which work ‘poetically’ without recourse to such fantasies”. A reader of poems in this mode has to try to intuit how their author is positioned when it comes to these issues. Readers have only the text whereas the author (and, probably, his or her friends) have the additional knowledge of what lies behind the poems, ranging from general theories to specific poetic positions and, even, complex generative schemes which could never be deduced by any but a hypothetically perfect reader and which can, like Roussel’s, be detonated later to the humiliation of incompetent readers. As “Save Our Souls” from Free Will and the Clouds says:

There are codes in everything.
If you look hard enough,
I’ll be sitting here
trying to make this joke I’ve been tinkering with . . .

One of the first things one can say about Free Will and the Clouds is that there is a lot of verbal activity driving the poems. This is a feature of surrealism but it is also a feature of fairly conventional, Freudian, dream analysis. The difference is that in the latter the function of the puns and slips is to cloak whereas in the former it is often to drive the poem as it develops in its own weird and unpredictable way: the best quick example of this might be John Forbes’s “Stalin’s Holidays” in which two lines – “Does form follow / function? Well after lunch we hear a speech . . .” – develop in this way. In Free Will and the Clouds there is a certain level of this sort of punning language: “The Speed of Gossip”, for example, begins “Few are satisfied with their lot in life / till someone turns their wife into Eritrea salt” thus connecting Lot’s wife of Genesis 19 with “lot” meaning “portion” – a not uncommon pun – and allowing the internal rhyme of “life” with “wife” to strengthen the connection. In “Tried to Go to Heaven” a boy’s yelling “Extra! Extra” generates the phrase “extraneous information”. The same poem speaks of “mouthy games of chess” which might be an example of that enjoyment of the sound (rather than meaning) of odd conjunctions: the next poem speaks of “a slouchy perch / on the side of a green hill”. Two lines from “Save Our Souls” – “Out at the heart farm, / vile waterways cackle over rocks” – have quite a few things going on at this level. To say that waterways cackle is the kind of image one might find in a fairly conventional lyric, interestingly contrasting a first word where soft continuants are dominant with a second where it’s all a matter of hard stops; to call the waterways “vile” is to allow mood to irrupt into the poem in a way that recalls many surreal lyrics; and to speak of a “heart farm” is to make a nice assonantal pairing within a thematically intriguing concept. Finally there are a few examples of deliberately playing not with double meanings of words but with double readings of syntax. “I Saw Esau” – whose title suggests verbal play – has as its first line, “All he was after was” with its ambiguous “after”. “Camera Farm Mishaps” has the clause, “Drag out the death / penalty box now we can all / share in the joy of the state . . .” where either “death” and “penalty” can be connected (and the box might be a place one can tick on a form) or “penalty” and “box” can be connected (and suddenly we’re in the world of very sinister football matches!) The same trick is played in the next poem, “Cobwebs on the Anvil”, which says, “Jack / in the box office will fill you in for half the original price”.

Some of these poems yield more easily to our “irritable search after meaning” than others and one is inclined to hang grimly onto these in one’s first few readings of the book. Take “November Tango”, for example:

He tiptoes everywhere these days
figuring they’re on their way by now.

All I could do was scream into the air
as the sky darkened with cloud.

A snowdrift.
A heavy overcoat and glasses
and a scarf buffeting the chin.
But on those cicada-hot birthdays,
you would spring to life,
hopping barefoot over
molten bitumen to catch the milkman.

The railway line
stretches in both directions.

People always think they can start again.
The suburbs,
the parks and dirty streams.

The title suggests one of the images of the poem, people skipping over hot roads in summer, and thus has the quality of phrases like “the toilet queue shuffle”, but it also uses two words from the Civil Aviation alphabet and thus represents NT (perhaps the Northern Territory?) At its heart I think it’s a poem about the circularity of the seasons as opposed to the illusion of linear development which encourages people to think “they can start again”. And it begins with an example of the kind of linguistic play I’ve already spoken of. In the first line we read “these days” as a minor, cliched adverbial phrase modifying “tiptoes” but it is also the referent of the “they” in the second line which, before we realise this, we will read as a sinister, if not paranoid, reference to unnamed individuals.

Among these more “approachable” poems is “Puberty Blacks” (whose title suggests that it is about an intensified version of puberty blues), “Dream Staggers” (whose title and some later, significant lines – “Now you are headed for that maze, / with the black dream staggers” – locates us in the images of dreams, their emotional potency and their problematic interpretations, “Vinegar and Brown Paper” (a comic/nightmare version of “Jack and Jill”), and “Look at the Camera!”:

I think I’m a window.

When that thought first occurred,
it sat comfortably with me.
“That’s it,” I said. “I’m done for,”
and squeezed the wood of the doorframe.

Individuals stand wide in the park
then move toward the fountain,
barely looking at each other.

Here’s the part of the poem where
I try to impress you
like the first time you
heard about ghosts.

I am slightly concerned that you are a camera
and that your memories sit coiled inside you
gelatine thick.

Like “November Tango” it’s a poem built on oppositions: the self as a window and the other’s self as a camera, the former transmitting reality undistorted as in the fourth wall of realist drama or the methods of realist prose and the latter brooding on experience before allowing it to hatch into something possibly monstrous. The poem’s oppositional structure is stressed by its symmetries: there are four- then three-line stanzas after the opening statement and the poem begins and ends with different metaphorical readings of the idea of sitting. At the same time the entire poem either develops or plays with or mocks the title of the play (and film) based on Isherwood’s novel. And yet another perspective might be the context of the poems seen in toto where images of cameras (and looking, recording and being seen) regularly recur, especially later in the book.

Perhaps the most conventionally surrealist poem (I’m aware that that can be seen as a paradox) is “The Battle and the War”:

Like closing a dead man’s eyes
is considered priceless,
the smoke outside your skin is directly related
to the fire in your gizzards.

Chess and physics.
My father is paying my sister to follow you around.
You’ve been dead for weeks and weeks
and nobody sang,
stood on a stool
or drafted a petition.

Sit around and listen to Chopin
and flip that fucking coin for once.

Whatever the overall “meaning” (and one can think of a few possibilities though they would need to incorporate the opposition of individual battle and larger war as well as that of chess versus physics), the structure of the poem is held together by the idea of a coin which is, at first, placed on a dead man’s eyes to pay the ferryman over the Styx, secondly, used to pay someone and thirdly used for determining chance.

Surreal scenarios or narratives thrive on disjunctions either, as I said at the beginning, to encourage the search for a unifying element or to try to thwart that search. From this point of view, Free Will and the Clouds isn’t especially forbidding. True, a poem like “He’s Just Gonna Do Nothin’” is a bit of a challenge as is “Everything He Owns”:

The room is old and will burn
to the ground minutes from now.

You and your dad on the side
of the highway with a big bag
of spuds,
Universal dyed black
into the hessian.

He stayed up all night shaving
the morning air of orange peel.
Currawongs whinge loudly from the gum.

The central stanza may be a memory (or photograph) and thus something the poet “owns” and the last conceivably might be also; but the first can hardly be. But then the desire to read the three elements as consistent is part of a reading’s inevitable search for meaning.

As often in surreal poems, the consistent element is one of tone and mood. Rereading Free Will and the Clouds is likely to leave you with a strong aftertaste of bitterness and distress combined with a jauntiness that is often expressed in the wonderful titles. Such a combination makes one think of the blues which often mix a lugubrious musical tone with some indications of personal resolve. “The Harpo Marx Blues” is a poem that expresses this well. The poet’s dog has run away, his “baby” has left him (though the next line mitigates the conventional misery of this by continuing “sitting at a train station”), he has dropped his watch and “dreamt of you again”. The last stanza makes a nice surprise by moving from lament to observation:

. . . . . 
mouth-blown free reed instruments
appeared in the United States, South America,
the United  Kingdom and in Europe
at roughly the same time.

In “Pet Idiot” we meet a psychic rupture that outlives the dream in which it appeared:

. . . . . 
Love poems? God only wrote war songs!
Sat in a tree young and thought up guns.

Doctor, the gash is still there
despite the dream clearly being over.

Something seems ruptured
                          to put a finger on it
like a Tennessee Williams illness. . . .

The very first poem of the book, “Moon on a Stick” finishes with “The part of your heartbeat will be played by / a smooth grey stone / high on a dark shelf” and a later poem, “Backyard with Marquee” has a very downbeat (if mildly humorous) conclusion:

. . . . . 
I read a book that said
the universe is simply a tunnel,
dark at either end.

There is a small museum,
behind the clock you pass on your way home.
You’re there, mislabelled
on a black shelf, struggling to move.

Ultimately the way most readers will get some sort of handle on this impressive (and, as I’ve said, very engaging) book will by reading it as the impressions of a mislabelled poet, struggling to move in a psychologically oppressive atmosphere. In the book’s last poem, a slightly untypical piece dedicated to the late Benjamin Frater, that poet’s afterlife is to be celebrated – “you’re Johnny Cash / living in a flat full of burned rubber, / singing underwater, / falling in love / with the Earth and its birdlife” – whereas the fate of those still alive and writing on the planet is a bit bleaker: “and I’m sitting in some room / in the world / trying to make sense of senselessness”.