Nathan Curnow: The Apocalypse Awards

Nth Melbourne: Arcadia, 2016, 63pp.

One thinks of Nathan Curnow – based on his previous books as far as the recent The Right Wrong Notes (which is really a kind of miniature selected poems) – as a fairly familiar kind of biographical poet expanding the inner life by exploring the social and family worlds: he writes touchingly though unsentimentally, for example, about his children and thus, by implication, about his own experiences of fatherhood, one of those inner-life expanding events available to many. There isn’t much there that would prepare us for this new book, The Apocalypse Awards, where the subject is the end of the world and the mode, fitting for such a grotesque imaginative scenario, is largely surrealist. On first reading it seems like a momentary aberration, perhaps an attempt to escape an image of himself as a poet which seems too limitedly cosy and has just a suggestion of being a pre-conceived project. Its nearest relation might be an earlier book, The Ghost Poetry Project, in which suites of poems were written about ten supposedly haunted places in Australia. But the grotesque, violent and imagined territory of the haunted is hardly as intense as the apocalyptic and, on top of that, was marked by absences: no ghosts appeared. Readers were left to guess at the poet’s stake in the experience and in the same way a reader has to guess at his stake in the fifty-two poems of The Apocalypse Awards. What makes the question worthwhile is the way the poems develop with successive rereadings: fake projects usually look inviting but rarely sustain interest. These poems, especially those in the first and middle sections, have a pleasing habit of staying in the consciousness and flowering there, grotesque images and all, and that rarely happens unless they derive from the deeper layers of authorial creativity.

A clue for readers might lie in the two epigraphs to The Apocalypse Awards. The first is attributed to Kafka (though I had never previously seen it) and points out that the so-called Last Judgement is actually “a court in permanent session”. The second is from the Neil Gaiman graphic novel, Signal to Noise (also something I’ve never read), in which a character says, “There’s no big apocalypse. Just an endless procession of little ones”. This invites us to read the poems as extreme projections of what might be a more subtle internal state. If I suggest that a candidate for an internal state which expresses itself in apocalyptic imagery is clinical depression, this comes from the fact that the only parallel work I know is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

Anyway, on – as they say – to the poems. The book is in three parts, made up of two lengthy collections with a single long poem, “The Lullaby Pregnancies”, separating them. The poems of the first section are rather narrative in cast, often dealing with imagined preparations for the end of the world, and are often faintly comical and quite grotesque. The poems of the final section are collections of nightmare images, much more surreal in method, and often dream-driven. The central poem, “The Lullaby Pregnancies”, connects with the end of the first section in which the causes of the apocalypse are put down to over-breeding on the part of humans – “no one blames a tree in its final season / for blossom that outdoes itself / the world remembering what it once did best / before giving up all together . . .” It’s a really nightmarish and violent scenario made palatable, oddly enough, by its surrealist cast which seems to put the entire poem in a bracket and marks it as an extreme byway of the creative imagination. The five poems of “The Lullaby Pregnancies” rather enact the movement of the book as a whole, beginning with a reasonably comic recreation of the way humans with their industries and their fads react to something and gradually becoming more disassociatedly surreal. We begin with “Team Love” who hand out pregnancy test kits for all:

Team Love will arrive with pregnancy tests
requiring compulsory participation
introducing the term “lullaby pregnancies” -
this implausible wave of conceptions
it came before locusts and deep image colour
world’s end – a cinematographer’s dream
when all I ever did was touch myself
to recorded whale music
PREGNOW - PREGWOW in a large envelope
10x Urine Collection Cups
a pregnancy pack with 25 strips . . .

We are in the middle of an apocalypse which is, in a sense, the inversion of those narratives (like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) where the end of the world occurs through sterility. But, as I have said, the faintly comical government agencies quickly become sinister and almost unimaginably violent (except, of course, that it is imaginable):

we’re blaming the midwives hunting them
they’re stripped and dunked to one hundred
we set traps – a woman full-term on a platform
every new-born baby another riot
they armed themselves so we spread more lies
we hang placentas in trees for the morning . . .

In the final poem we leave the expecting mother about to give birth and about to seal the hatch of a bunker where she and her new-born child – “I’ve a sharp boiled knife the cleanest towel / the gas lamp I’ll hiss along with“ – will die together when the food runs out.

This five-part poem is a hinge between the two longer sections. As I’ve said, the first section is made up of poems which investigate grotesque responses – on the part of governments and individuals – to the oncoming apocalypse. In the first poem, “The Last Day”, we are briefly introduced to jargonised responses from religions – it is called “The Great Migration”; the media – sedatives are provided free by a weekend newspaper; and individuals (always the more interesting and moving) – “there will be a club gluing model planes / quietly in the candlelight after curfew”. One of the things that makes this a poem which stays in the memory is its painful conclusion:

the voices of trembling children singing
louder children louder like rehearsed

I’m not sure where in Curnow’s experiences of fatherhood this image came from but it rings wonderfully true and reminds us that the earlier poems of parenthood such as “Bath Towel Wings”, the second poem of his first book, No Other Life But This, have a darker side that balances the cuteness:

Embracing herself in bath-towel wings,
corners clutched with tight, pink fists,
she waits for pyjamas in the centre of the room,
warmly dripping what is left of the bath.
I don’t want to die, she says, and if I could waive
death somehow, waive it like a day at school . . .

The other poems from the first part of The Apocalypse Awards go on to explore the sorts of imaginative possibilities that “The Last Day” introduces. There will have to be, as the book’s title confirms, a Hollywood-style Awards Night, for example, technically irrelevant but “some kind of ritual at least”:

. . . . . 
Should we celebrate? Yes! Now more than ever!
and that’s when the host pulls out
the winner is Tango Defeats Depression
thanking God becomes a bigger joke
the orchestra is ready to drown on cue . . .

In “Death Duty” – “we are all on it / getting promoted every day / constantly filling the vacancies” – we meet “the only industry in perfect health”; “Duel” records the pre-suicide moments of a couple who have spent their entire relationship fighting; “At Tender Touch” the closing down of a brothel; and “Christians” the altogether calmer, professionalised approach – they “break into small groups to share / Kingdom Rule – What It Means For Your Super. But other poems record more insane scenarios which have more poetic promise perhaps. There is an outbreak of Houdini-like escapology – “the last global craze” – and “The Angel” describes a bizarre ritual in which people, often in organised groups, line up to kick the angel of destruction in the groin. Again it is the comic bizarrenesses of human group behaviour that stimulates Curnow as he imagines single mothers, boy scouts (hoping “for a last-minute badge”), and Cancan girls all lining up at the free-throw line of a basketball court, waiting for their turn.

Perhaps the best of these comic-horror scenarios is “Séances” which proposes not, as one might expect, a simple increase in spiritualist activity but a situation in which there are so many dead to send messages that the Ouija boards get out of control and go on banging out their messages despite the desperate attempts of the users to stop them:

. . . . . 
some wrap it in blankets and stash it in a drawer
some submerge it in a tropical fish tank
an anonymous narrator dictates War and Peace
and the back story of the Cheshire Cat
something is spelling quality mince matters
perhaps a butcher with undying remorse
this last parlour game this after-life rhythm
a constant tapping of fees and charges
Rosabelle-answer-tell-pray – believe believe believe
over and over from beneath the house
wedged in a locker at the Ever Fit gym
abandoned in a food court at an empty mall . . .

From “Back Paddock” on, the poems are not so much explorations of responses to the Apocalypse as descriptions of extreme activities which require a generalised apocalyptic atmosphere to occur. The message being, I assume, that this kind of behaviour is becoming more and more the norm as groups of Americans plan for life in a post atomic-war age. “Library” gives the best description of this imagined world as “a mix of The Road and World War Z / plus A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. In this poem a group barricade themselves inside a library and set off searching for How to Take Hostages for Dummies. In “Legoland” the world is taken over by lego simulacra of reality and in “Meteorite” someone who finds a landed, smoking meteor – surely the most harmless of visitors from outer space – finishes up taking it into the chicken coop where he reads it “Gilgamesh and Ozymandias”. And, finally, there is a description in “Botanicals” of people strapping flower bulbs to the backs of their heads so that, when they die, their bodies will nourish the plant. Grotesque but, in it’s odd way, rather moving.

The poems of the book’s final section are surrealist pieces organised so that they begin with poems that “make sense” in the apocalyptic environment of the rest of the book but which gradually become more extreme. How much they are based on dreams – that regular provider of meaningful but incomprehensible images – it’s hard to say though “Dreamliner” and “Bear Forest” both tempt the reader to interpret boat and forest as symbols of dream. The first poem, “Red Shawl Flapping”, seems entirely coherent:

there are not enough flowers and the wolves close in
a baby wakes in an empty house
a splash upon the doorstep and a red shawl flapping
but nobody heard the shot
strands upon the spade that remains unhidden
a plot of earth beneath the pines
the moon comes chanting at the broken gate
the rope puzzles remain unsolved
cicadas sizzling above a war of wheat
sparrows revel in the dirt-bath dust
a television turning the milk upon the bench
toward a slow bold hunter’s nose
and the baby the chanting a red shawl flapping
on the grim slack whip of the line
a racket of carriages passing in the distance
everything gets dragged outside.

Clearly we are here in an environment which is part crime-scene, part Brothers Grimm. The images are laid down bluntly (rather like the “racket of carriages” of the poem) but they get a kind of incantatory effect by their repetitive structures, an effect supported by the use of the slightly archaic and formal “upon” rather than the more demotic “on”. The repeated phrase, “red shawl flapping”, prepares for the later poems where there is a much more intense repetition of important statements.

By the time we get to poems like “Excluding Guns and Ammo”, “Confession” and “Ravine” we are a long way from coherence and in a nightmare surrealist world whose images are consistent in that they share the apocalyptic atmosphere of the rest of the book. But if there is no humane “cuteness” there is also no palpable emotional commitment. As such, there may be a therapeutic function in the sequence or there may be an adjusting of poetic reputation on the poet’s part but, either way, it’s hard to see the poems of this final section as representing a road one would want Curnow to travel too far down. A poem from the middle of the final section, “Ex”, seems to want to be read as symbolising the dream images as a circus (a symbol that goes at least as far back as Rimbaud and perhaps further). I read it (somewhat nervously) as a critique of the keeper by his ex-wife: both of them being components of the creating consciousness, one providing the material the other keeping some kind of control. But when she says, at the beginning, “the keeper is living in a fantasy / dream sequences are for losers these days / my job is to keep the talent tight / in the circumspect light of the compound” there’s a statement there about dream-images that might be true for the poems of this final section.