A. Frances Johnson: Save As

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2021, 76pp.

The poems of Amanda Frances Johnson’s fourth book have the same kind of double focus as those of her earlier collections. They look towards personal and family history as well as outwards to a world that seems fraught with intimations of apocalypse. And, as with the earlier books, the poems are divided into large sections with related titles in a way that stresses that these are not self-contained poetic subjects. In The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street there were future, present and past sections; in Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov the three sections were homophonic puns – “Soar”, “Sore” and “Saw”. Here the two sections are “Save Us” and “Save As”, the former generally made up of poems focussing on individuals and the second on wider, public concerns. It’s perhaps worth pointing out that the title of the latter (which doubles as the title of the whole collection) is something of a motif in Johnson’s work. It appears as early as in the poem, “Future Ark”, from The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street where the saving of species is done digitally – “inside the darkened hull, / /under haloes of urgent ultraviolet, / you hit save as”. A somewhat similar scenario of a future flood generated by climate catastrophe appears in “Ultima Thule: Swimming Lessons” from Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov and the same pun, “save as”, is deployed at the end. At any rate, the way her books are structured suggests a desire to see relationships between poems that look outward towards the gathering storm and those that focus on individuals, especially family members. These latter poems tend not to explore inner lives but rather lives under great stress and as such could be seen as intimate versions of those that focus on planet-wide matters.

The first poem of the book stresses the interaction of personal and familial with the broader environment in which these are located:

I was a daughter of lead, petrol my childhood.
Bowser and breast fed the same rush -
stains on the drive sump lakes for doll picnics.
“Nice clean Amoco” was seatbeltless.
The futura was Ford. Opec. Crude.
Combustible plant and animal corpses. . .

and as such it perfectly establishes the book’s double focus. But it also sets the tone in a way that is quite complex to explain. To summarise: good poetry – it is often said – unlike journalism, doesn’t draw its energy from the things it is dealing with but rather from its own resources: an introverted artform. When it comes to the apocalyptic quality of the times in which we live balanced against the personal pain of ageing, dementia-suffering parents and relations, good poetry can’t expect to derive its energy from the misery and fear it faces. Johnson’s approach to this has always seemed to be to make sure that her poems stay afloat by, on the one hand, their textual density and on the other, their conceptual sophistication. So that first poem, very much about the oil-based culture of the end of last century, wins readers over by the way it uses the idea of the poet as a “daughter of lead” – a description repeated at the beginning of the first three stanzas. This also establishes a kind of hieratic tone which is slightly at odds with the whimsicality of the conception. It’s a tonal tension that occurs throughout Johnson’s poetry: a clever conception as a way of dealing with obvious (almost cliched) environmental issues helps to strengthen the texture of the poem because there is a slight dissonance in tone between that required by the subject matter and that provided by the conception – which might be humorous and almost larky.

The book’s second section, “Save As”, begins with poems which serially address standard early twenty-first century environmental issues: deforestation, coal-dependence, space junk (though the poem, “Moon”, has a more general view of pollution on earth than that suggests) and global warming. And these poems work hard, at a conceptual level, to escape the charge of allowing clichéd subject matter to produce a cliched poem. The first of them, “The Violent Trees”, might have developed out of the image of a war on trees as it is conceived as a dramatic monologue spoken by a soldier in an army which is attempting to put down a kind of imaginary (or faked for political purposes) insurrection by an army of trees. That makes a start at producing an uncliched poem but it is made more satisfyingly complex when it introduces the issue of poetry itself. One of the reasons for the speaker’s hatred of trees is the idea that trees are responsible for bad poetry by providing conventional nature images. They, like poetry, need to be taught a lesson about discipline:

. . . . .
          Trees teach the slouch-hatted soldier
the deceptions of camouflage, provoke anew
the wild, bloody signatures of white foresters.
I blame trees for straining poetic excess:
“verdancy”, “mote”, “middle distance”, “landscape”.
Like me, the politician plays a useful role,
busily extracting, taking nature down,
teaching poetry a lesson, discipline. . . 

Raising the issue of poetry immediately complicates the author’s location – as a poet – in the poem. It’s worth noting briefly here that another feature of Johnson’s poetry is the way she increases the poems’ density, and hence their ability to stand on their own feet, by the use of puns and allusions. “Mote” and “middle distance” recall Max Beerbohm’s celebrated parody of Henry James, “The Mote in the Middle Distance”. Assuming this is intended, it is hard to see what role it was designed to play but it is a good, brief example of this method of increasing density by a particular kind of intertextuality and warning the reader that there are unexplored avenues to surprising places behind the surface of the text.

The best example of conception and density might be the title poem, “Save As”, which is ostensibly about global warming but is conceived as an address to that “muscly thug” the sun. Of course, any such address makes one think of Donne – “busy old fool, unruly sunne” – and so the poem is built by allowing “The Sunne Rising” to infiltrate it and prevent it sliding into a predictable lament about the disappearance of Arctic ice, etc. Donne’s poem is not about global warming but is an “aubade” – a morning-after-love poem – about his relationship with his lover (and the way in which that can encompass the whole universe). This fact alters the direction of Johnson’s poem so that she imagines her partner leaving to escape the sun:

. . . . . 
Your solution, dear, is pack
the hybrid wagon with the rags
of modern time and drive
to the other side, as if time
apart in remnant bush will cure
when leaf and love are done. . . 

“Save As” is, thus, a love poem crossed with an environmental protest. I’m not sure that this crossing works linguistically – “Thou art teary now” – but conceptually it produces something very intriguing. And as with “The Violent Trees” – and other poems – the role and function of poetry is involved. And the prospects are not good: in an environment where “climate-denying princes play us” poetry can only “elegise the fight” and as a result, as the poem says, when you press “save as” on the keyboard, “world fails to attach to worlde”. The “real” world doesn’t obey the rules of what is, simultaneously Donne’s cosmos-defining love coupling and the world of a mere verbal construction such as a poem.

The issue with a poetry that relies so much on an intriguing and challenging conception to rise above a cliched approach is that, although there is something intellectually and aesthetically satisfying about this, it can also be at odds with the tonal environment of the situation. Someone fighting the bushfires of 2019-2020 might well, in fact, see it as smart-arsery typical of poets. It’s a very old problem but each new attempt to solve it can produce something valuable. I think Johnson is a clever exploiter of the tonal dissonances that I have been speaking about and the way “Save As” connects to Donne is a good indicator of where she, at least, finds solutions. The so-called “Metaphysicals”, of whom Donne is the most important, revelled in conception – the more dissonant the connections, and the more dissonant the resulting tone, the better. The bully-boy tone of the opening of “The Sunne Rising” – “Busy old fool, unruly sunne” – is an obvious example, being far from the solemn, nature-struck tone expected of a conventional lyric address to the morning sun. These dissonances infuriated Johnson’s namesake, Samuel, as we know, because his very different notion of poetry involved skilful execution within conventional approaches and, above all, a tone in keeping with the solemnity (or humorous possibilities) of the chosen subject. I think we are happier with Donne than with the slightly more “journalistic” world of Eighteenth century poetry but the fact remains that, although intriguing conceptions excite us, help a poem stave off cliché, and strengthen the fabric of the poem itself by generating exciting tonal dissonances, there still remains the issue that the poem is driven away from being a proper response to the crises it wants to respond to.

Putting general issues aside and getting back to this excellent book, it is hard not to see it as a kind of compendium of conceptions. “A Short History of Aluminium Cans”, like “The Violent Trees” is a monologue and the interest lies in the fact that the speaker is a can himself (itself?) meditating, as humans need to do, on the environmental damage caused by his own existence as well on his bleak future prospects. Again, conception is bolstered by textural densities. He says “For my part in that, I’m sorry”, echoing Kevin Rudd’s parliamentary apology to the stolen generation, and, interestingly, “What’s left is aftermath, / demise of brand auras, refund / potential . . .” Here the joke is that the can sees only the horror of the demise of the can, rather as humans think of the catastrophes ahead in terms of the havoc wreaked on their own species. But the word, “aftermath”, suggests an allusion to Randolph Stow’s great poem, “The Singing Bones” and it’s tempting to think that part of the conception of the book as a whole might be an intertextual response to that poem’s concern with how the present is built on the bones of a past with very different values and how those bones continue to sing for those who can hear them. “My country’s heart is ash in the market-place, / is aftermath of martyrdom” is a reference which chimes very well with Johnson’s concerns and the word “ash” has already appeared in the poem “Save As” which speaks of poetry’s “ash-in-glove”.

“Ring-in” is another example of a poem approaching a very conventional theme – having a dead parent’s personal property returned. It’s one of the personal/familial poems from the first part of the book and is conceived as a description of a trip, with a friend, to a mortuary block “in a rainy satellite town of failing industry” to retrieve, especially, her mother’s rings. The approach to the place has a memorable and metaphorically dense description”:

. . . . .
                       We find the place, a plain Besser-brick parlour
framed in doric grief, the short drive massed with orphaned
icebergs that can never know life as a true rose . . .

The “orphaned icebergs” are those medium-sized pyramid-shaped rocks that people used to paint white and use along drives. They are orphaned because the word used to describe the way icebergs break off glacial ice-sheets is “calving” and these rocks are taken out of any parental context – like the poet herself, here. Again, the theme of poetry appears in the metaphor used for the noise of the friend’s tapping on the car window – “I can’t hear against the rain’s dolorous half-rhyme, and you, you are typing / on the roof, on your old Scalextric” – and the poem finishes, as its title suggests it might, with a series of puns on the word, “ring”:

We drive off together, all three, your sun-spotted ghost-hand in mine,
rings tight, but not tight enough; this unbearable ring, a ringing-in,
I peer through the wet windscreen, wiper blades noisy, ragged gulls arguing
for chips and a decent bird book entry. I see my friend is crying.
But me, I am desperate to spot a true rose.

The title poem, “Save As”, has set me thinking in terms of Metaphysical poetry and the tensions between the tone expected of the subject matter and the delight in the yoking by violence together. I’m momentarily inclined to see John Donne as Amanda Frances Johnson’s totemic poet and in this connection it is good to look at the one poem in the book where the conception is so complex that it is very difficult for a reader to twig to what is going on. “Death in Venice” appears in the second part of the book just before “A Short History of Aluminium Cans” and after another Italy-based poem, “Drought Faith”, which describes the moment when the Vatican, in 2017, turned off its fountains as a response to severe drought conditions: there are a lot of metaphors about sources, the flow of faith, “myths of perpetuity” and so on, here. “Death in Venice”, however, is a puzzle from beginning to end and this is because it’s difficult to understand the conception. It’s ostensibly about the dead:

We knew better than to come back,
marry ourselves underwater - 
no better church, our dull bones said,
than history’s murk lagoon.

In sleep, marble lions roam
with intent. Eyes closed,
stone paws gentle our necks,
force ersatz land claims.
We resile, ash-scattered.

There! Our old selves crawl
back to meet us. Marble, flesh
and water compact but remnant
amphibians won’t photograph . . .

I’m not sure at all what is happening here though that doesn’t stop one enjoying the poem. Its reference to “land claims” makes one think that this is as much about Australia as Italy. It’s positioning after “Drought Faith” makes one think of Venice’s experience of the same drought and the way in which lowered water levels might bring the bones of the past into view. My final, tentative reading is that it is really about history and how, in all places, history is built on the bones of past inhabitants. And these can, despite a radically different present – there are now “Nigerian hawkers” at San Marco, and cruise ships operate relentlessly in the area – still be brought alive enough to confront the present. As the poem makes the bones say, “we rise, open-mouthed, to the surface, / hoping to see ourselves there”. As such “Death in Venice”, a most un-Australian poem in terms of its setting, may well be a response to Stow’s “The Singing Bones” in which bones are allowed to sing their own song.