A. Frances Johnson: Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov

Glebe: Puncher and Wattmann, 2017, 86pp.

This new book by A. Frances Johnson has the same neat three-part structure as her second. But whereas The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street was divided into past, present and future (with the future significantly coming first), Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov is built around three homophonic puns: Soar, Sore and Saw. And although the new book has some significant differences of emphasis, it clearly comes from the same stable. It begins as did The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street, for example, with poems about the kind of grotesque interpenetration of what should be different orders of existence, focussing on the present development and future possibilities of drone technology, especially that part of the technology which eschews crude flying- and guided-bombs in favour of a birdlike mechanism with only minimal effect on the environment it’s exploring. Understandably these poems don’t pass up the opportunity to criticise the murderous American use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the last of the poems about mechanical birds, “Soar II: String That Holds the Sky”, focusses on the moving testimony of the son and grandchildren of a woman killed by a drone strike in Pakistan – but poetry, being what it is, responds better to free-ranging imaginative possibilities than it does to moral outrage. As a result the best of these drone poems seem to me to be those which focus on the ambivalent status of these UAVs themselves. “Microaviary” from The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street, for example, concluded with a poem, “Hummingbird versus Raven”, in which both “birds” abandoned their military destinies and pursued their own lives, the Raven heading for Africa and the Hummingbird, in Bavaria, “attempting to build a nest out of nails in the forest of Odin”.

“Hummingbird versus Raven” is thus a poem that wants to explore surreal possibilities rather than dwell on technological and ethical issues. The same could be said of “Love Song” from this new book:

. . . . . 
This technological pianissimo is a subtle achievement.
But for scientists, flawed “hear and avoid” mechanisms are dead giveaways.
There can be no stealth without concealment of song.
Some days a vagueness of pitch confuses the young corporal on headsets.
When his birds do not return, he can still hear them over the wire,
over the shush of white noise, mimicking the harmonics
of ancient Urdu love songs.

The drone of “Birds”, in contrast, goes about its murderous task “never fooled / by sugared Persian love songs”. Many of these poems are interested in song in the same way as these two. The former begins, “Bastard variations in form and song”, referring not only to the mechanical construction of an imitation bird but also to the principle of variation in music. And the book’s second poem, “Hummingbird”, overtly draws poetry into its imaginative ambit:

Target accuracy of poems
as with fixed-wing UAVs
varies wildly.
Only the remote operator
reads intention like a book.
This is his bastard ghazal.
Unlike the poet,
he won’t discuss payload,
precise and imprecise hovering,
the true arc
of his birds avian stunts.
That’s how the poem began
and ended, looking for trajectory,
for onscreen radiance,
explosions in quiet rooms.

It’s very much part of what makes Johnson an interesting poet that what looks like an opportunity for a fairly straightforward moral condemnation of the way technology, admittedly impressively, takes the natural world and recreates it as a destructive force should turn out to be interlaced with so many metaphors about the writing of poetry that it may well be a statement of ars poetica. It’s especially interested in the nature of authorial intention and control, questions which are always interesting in the consideration of any art but especially poetry. Poems go out into the world where whatever it is that they are trying to do – their “payload” – can be missed, misunderstood or distorted by readers. In the end, though, like the drones’ handlers, poets are hoping to make occasional “hits”, “explosions in quiet rooms”. It’s a theme – or perhaps one should say, “a conjunction with interesting imaginative possibilities” – that is taken up overtly in “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle versus Poem” and, again, it’s the question of authorial control over interpretation that interests Johnson: “the poem is less reliable / in open space, but more flexible / than fixed wing models // favouring the single reading”.

The rest of these “Soar” poems are devoted to either oppression or elevation in one form or another. The prose-poem, “The Problem of Russian Novels in the Desert”, is a portrait of Bashar al-Assad, working by bringing the very un-Syrian world of Russian fiction into conjunction with the portrait of a tyrant. It’s not a surreal conjunction since Russia supports the Syrian regime and part of the poem’s point is probably that this support is as inexplicable as the importation of Russian novels into the middle-east. At another, more surreal, level Syria is imagined to be undergoing the kind of climate-change that other poems interest themselves in. But here it is a matter of unseasonal, smothering snow. Conceivably this is designed to be a symbol of the importation of things Russian – if you want the arms, you’ll also have to take the weather and the literature – but that might make the poem more logically explicable than it wants to be. But, at any rate, it is a “soaring” poem because in it Assad dreams of flying:

. . . . . Forget about reading, I implore you! Oblomov, Karamazov, Raskolnikov are no use any more. I now regard time with a gull’s cold eye, cosying up to avian metaphors, though I can barely tell the difference between kites and drones. My blood seems poikilothermic now, much like that of the ibis, last survivor at the edge of the lake. But still I cannot fly. Expectation of transfiguration, flight, you see, remains strong . . .

It ties the poem in with the opening bird poems as well as making a nice pun on “flight”.

The ecological catastrophe imagined in “The Problem of Russian Novels in the Desert”, takes the form of a rise in sea levels as a result of human-induced climate-change. The sea levels hardly “soar” but they rise sinisterly enough. “Ultima Thule: Swimming Lessons” is a kind of semi-comic version of the incipient Noah’s flood and, in contrast, “Sea Level” is a more straightforward though complex meditation on “the salt order that threatens” (for someone who lives on a sand island in a fishing village a couple of metres above sea level, this is especially wince-inducing). But the poem isn’t a simple tract about climate change: its “you” wants to learn something about the alternative way of ordering reality that the oceanic represents, to get beyond the world of containment and domestication of the liquid:

. . . . . 
You’ve learnt the lessons of containment: skyscrapers and houses, banks and zoos.
In the city, people press their hands against glass and feel the pulsing tremor of curtain walls.

You are like them; this is part and parcel of your day job, listening to life moving through
encryption. Knowing that, in the end, all your resolutions will melt.

On the way back from the coast you notice cavernous shops selling light fittings,
acres and acres of lights, a confusion of Bethlehems. 

In the distance the city skyline glows with penthoused unbelief.
You shift in closer now, you have come back – strong, certain as tides.

As I read it, we are back, here, in the world of the mechanical birds and their metaphoric possibilities about the nature of poetry: a salt, liquid order requires, after all, a different sort of poetry, one less about the containment of experience in a neat work with a single meaning and more about fluid poetic possibilities. (The poems which follow are about soaring in the sense of mountain climbing and the last of them, “Australian Awe”, concludes with a wonderful imagined piece of outrage – “What’s wrong with you? / What did art ever do to you?” – which gets its effect by joining the conventional reading of a cliché with another, more significant one.)

The middle section of Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov is, as its title, “Sore”, suggests, about pain, specifically the grief of loss. The initial poems take up the loss of the poet’s father, an obsessive and unassuagably painful theme that can be traced back to Johnson’s first book, significantly titled The Pallbearer’s Garden. The later poems deal with the loss of a sister-in-law to cancer. Like all good elegies these poems have at least half an eye on what they are doing in the same way that, when we cry in grief, we can also stand outside of ourselves and see ourselves weeping. This, I think, is why the first poems are grouped together as ”anti-elegies” and the first of these says quite overtly,

. . . . . 
Poetry always cherry-picks memory
for its own ends; yet that’s a
medicated narcissism for some.
Earnest elegies are often rejected
by dogs and children. Listen to them howl.
Voting for life outside of ritual.
I’m on your side; I’m with the hounds 
and the kids. I won’t let elegy
make you over into a bad oil painting,
don grief’s cloth pantomime . . .

The later poems of both groups are kept animated by their surprising perspectives and tactics so although there are a lot of repetitive elements – the sister-in-law’s chemotherapy wig, for example – these still look like occasional poems rather than a set cold-bloodedly exploiting a rich thematic stream.

The title of the third section, “Saw” suggests that the poems it contains will focus of reality as seen by a poet rather than on the quirky and imaginative conjunctions that the future technologies have to offer. Again, the approach is not quite what one might expect, it is more experimental than unashamedly chosiste. The first poem, “Laverton: First Star”, recapitulates the idea of transfigured soaring. Asleep by the side of the road, the poet imagines taking out a ladder from her purse and climbing up to “rest my cheek / against a globe of star”. But the project doesn’t work: you can climb Yeats’s ladder but you can’t get rid of it and so you are stuck with the world and its griefs, making poetry from it:

. . . . . 
I wasn’t blessed with that kind of luck.
She’s astronomically challenged, the dry gods
whispered as I fell. They’d have me work
a different genre, jobbing live words 
instead of dead stars . . .

The poem that gives its title to the section is not about the act of seeing at all but rather is a comic poem about the absurdities of the theory wars as experienced in the disciplines of history. With no central authority surveying past realities, there is nobody to write a history of history: “all our dreamscapes, our facts / and gyres of feeling / shrank into a strange Babel”. And the last poem, “Pilgrims” is something of an oddity as well. It details a trip to Rome – surely the embodiment of a central authority trying to stand outside of the unyielding late twentieth-century calls for the displacement of all such authorities – and makes a lot of play with this so that the driver’s grip on the wheel is “canonical” while the passenger controls, with “looser faith”, the digital maps. But at the end of the poem (and book)

. . . . . 
She exits the car before he can pull up.
The Ascension Giftshop’s
a good place to park, she says,
not looking back,
running towards love.

One wants to read it as a tart comment on the vulgarity of Rome’s pilgrim route – a vulgarity that must have existed since the city was set up as the senior city of the faith – but, ultimately, it is a joke about ascending, the image in this book for what the mechanical birds do, what the mountain-climbing anthropologist does in “High-Altitude Archeologist”, and what the poet wants to do by the side of the road at Laverton.