A. Frances Johnson: The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2012, 80pp.

This second book by A. Frances Johnson (her first, The Pallbearer’s Garden, appeared in 2008) is as intricately designed as some of the strange mechanical birds with which it begins. Its three parts: “wind-up future”, “wind-up present” and “wind-up past” seem a more than satisfying way of grouping poems that are very different but which share the same voice and the same intellectual and ethical preoccupations. As its title suggests, it owes a lot to Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (a book I have never read but which I seem, by osmosis, to have accumulated a lot of knowledge about!) and one of the epigraphs “Why not write a poem about the wind-up bird?” seems almost to have been taken as a challenge.

And we meet wind-up birds immediately in “Microaviary”, the first poem of the first section. “Microaviary” is devoted to contemporary developments in the military science of unmanned surveillance and attack drones. In mode it hovers between the realistic and the surreal and thus nicely mimics the world of these technical developments where one is never sure where reality ends and dottiness begins: something which, come to think of it, is nicely in keeping with our attitudes towards the future generally. The whole sequence of poems ends up with a Raven drone gone AWOL through a computing glitch “attempting to build a nest out of nails in the forest of Odin”. It isn’t so much the military brutality that seems to worry Johnson (after all, drones, like “smart bombs”, can always be sold as a humanitarian development on the grounds that there is less “collateral damage”) or even the possibilities for unprecedentedly invasive urban surveillance but rather the perverse interaction with the natural world: the ethical issues are closer to those of Jurassic Park, in other words, than those of Avatar. But there is another theme running just underneath the surface of “Microaviary” and that is poetry itself. When the poet is struck by nostalgia for secret places which have been exposed by a world of surveillance drones, she includes in the list of what is lost a certain kind of poetry:

. . . . . 
Think of the kindness of dentists
in small, featureless rooms,
airports at 3am, half-remembered raves.
An old grief rises up:
in the absence of bird-egg blue, cubbyholes,
antiquated soaring lyrics
I must admire
new foxholes,
a terrifying ability to see.
. . . . .

This strikes me as an unusual and interesting development, the kind of thing that The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street is full of. When a PR man speaks of “unmanned drones” we are told he speaks in “unmanned couplets” and the poet finds herself missing even the “soldiers with guns, / the rat-a-tat-tat of older kinds of verse”. Song, she says, “is not part of the technology”. The status of poetry in a future world is taken up in an important poem, “Listen Century”, whose title might just be an inversion of “Speak Memory”. It’s written in four line stanzas which often have bathetic rhymes (in the manner of early Eliot) and recreates the experience of students of poetry listening to recordings of the great poets of the twentieth century, “intoning the images / of their lost century / to the next lost one in kind”. What the old know is that the weightless horrors produced by the scientific developments of their age - mustard gas, fall-out, napalm (a list in precise chronological order) – require “heavy lyric states” as a kind of human response. Modern, virtual wars, full of unmanned (it’s a powerful and suggestive pun) drones don’t “recruit words” and thus we are left with the question of the function and status of poetry in the twenty-first century. The students’ experience of the great modernists is a virtual one:

Meanwhile we sit in heated halls
straight-backed, well-fed and watered in row G
surviving or awaiting aftermath
listening to poetry

“Coal and Water” is another poem operating in the future of ecological disaster and a set of metaphors run through it, including a number of allusions to poetry. It is also sensitive to the fact that water provides a number of metaphors for “development”: “Meanwhile the press’s compound eye / hallucinates a Chinese-invested coal station / mid-stream, when mid-stream is simply an illusion / of a liquid past / something the doctor asks you to save / in a bottle”. This relates to that odd experience whereby the reality that provides the metaphors has disappeared leaving only dead or dying metaphors whose origins are incomprehensible. But “Coal and Water” also wants to talk about the responsibilities and torments of a culture’s poets:

Some poets have forgotten
to ask what it is
they are burning in the grate
On a cold night I am one of them
- the coal-fired heart
the pathetic revenge of the powerless
bringing paper fuel to the table
to burn and burn again
Is that all that's left?
The restive recitals
the pained nostalgia for trees and rivers . . . .

The book’s middle section is devoted to the present and includes many poems from Johnson’s Whitmore chapbook, The Pallbearer’s Garden. The poems are more personal in that they are likely to derive from experiences such as personal loss and intimate guilt. But these things are all woven tightly together throughout the book merely showing a different face in different sections. The totemic birds are omnispresent –  hawks, galahs, cockatoos and blackbirds – but the poems that impress include “Pallbearer” where, at a family funeral, the poet, watching the male pallbearers lift the coffin, instinctively raises her own arm to share the load in a fine and believable reaction which symbolizes the preparedness to take on the sort of responsibilities which the book’s first section worries about. There is also the very beautiful “Fontanelle” which deserves quoting in full, partly because the complexities of the poem’s structure, which are luminously clear, take longer to explain in critical paraphrase than they do in the poem itself:

Not a complicated rhyme scheme like a villanelle
nor a beautiful rural city in France famous for armistice signing
Not a small fountain, nor a lyrically high bogan name
whose owner dreams of it
as her own distinctive line of underwear
A fontanelle is the gentling seal
between two halves of a newborn cranium
a membranous groove that accepts
a stroking or a crushing hand
The chance for either
before two hemispheres knit and fuse
Human hair seeks to camouflage it
in the most tender wars of concealment
(notice the onset of braids and curls and rigid hair parts)
And if this worlding is a form of closing
it is also an opening
The first wageless wager of the bones
that suddenly makes possible
complicated rhyme schemes
rural cities in France
the idea of peace and that which comes before
small fountains
lines of underwear
foolish and foolishly beautiful names
tender wars of concealment
stroking and crushing hands
the opening and closing of things

I’m not sure that this limpid lyricism is entirely natural to Johnson and I feel that she is more drawn to tense, complicated, wound-up poetic modes. But it doesn’t prevent “Fontanelle” lying close to her preoccupations, suggesting as it does a host of binaries contained by the closing hemispheres, including the human and the world, the inner and the outer, war and peace, and even the first world and the third.

There are no birds in “Fontanelle” but they have the last word in this section which finishes with “Moonlight, Rental Farm”. The poet, looking for something calming, steps out into a moonlit night, hoping that the estranging light provided by the moon might “calm and touch us equally”. This works up to a point but the blackbird intervenes:

Only the blackbird's call centre note
chastises, as if to say
moonlit semaphores
from behind clouds
look much the same as artillery
flash-dancing on the rim
of any tired century
That there is no bright or easy clemency
only waning signals that you and I live on . . . .

And, unsurprisingly, it is a bird which announces the final section of The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street, when the Black Cockatoo is seen as a bird with a mythical past as a survivor of catastrophe, an animal which has demonstrated its tenacity by escaping extinction. Its message is a bleak one:

. . . . . 
Not for them to be the bird of Hope
to mourn the marshlands of Baghdad
A thousand seed-gutted cones bomb the dry earth
The stripped, cratered hills will be theirs
no matter how we foul them, no matter how we die.

Although this final section is devoted to the past, like the other sections it does not interpret its provenance in time in any predictable way. It does deal with a colonial past and a family past but it also deals with the mythical past (at least in the case of this opening, black cockatoo poem) and a geological past (including a poem about a letter from Darwin to Wallace which takes us into the world of the nineteenth century discovery the geological past in the sense at least of an evolutionary past). The twin themes are guilt and responsibility and you feel that the author will be very sympathetic to Judith Wright’s position since that poet was obsessed by her family’s mistreatment of native peoples, by ecological disasters and by the shadow of a new, nuclear, war. Wright provides one of the book’s two epigraphs and significantly she, together with her “shadow sister”, Oodgeroo, is invoked in a poem called “We are So Far South of ‘South of My Days'”. The distance spoken of in that poem is, superficially, geographical (the Wright poem dealt with New England) but has a number of symbolic possibilities, including, I think, “south” in the sense of “far worse off”. (The lines about Oodgeroo, “We are light years distant / from Noonucal fanning tinder phrases / in unseasonable island heat / to save blue-ringed Minjerribah / from the perfect orthodontal / bridge of progress” have a particular resonance since I write this review on the island only a few kilometres from what was once her home.) Guilt for the horrors of a colonial past is a complex phenomenon and I don’t think it makes for the best poetry in this book, though the poems that deal with it are as complex and many-faceted as the others. “Monument: To Isabella Dawson of Kangatong” celebrates a person and an act which are obviously close to the author’s heart: a white woman who insisted on erecting a monument in memory of the massacred aboriginal people of Victoria’s Western Districts. But even this poem concludes in a complex and elusive way, invoking the moon last met in “Moonlight, Rental Farm”:

. . . . . 
You stayed rocking there like a young ladies' metronome
until the moon, resentful of your pale grief
refused to loan its pitted light

And you saw that things were needlessly backwards
The moon told you so as it traded sides
eyeing your big skirts jealously
knowing that you could never wait the vandals out
for they were you, all of you

The poetic consciousness that lies behind The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street is a complex one and shuttles between the personal and the macro. It isn’t at any level a simple or simplifying book and rarely falls into gesture instead wanting to understand the immensely complicated mechanisms that underlie pasts, presents and futures especially when the futures seem so bleak. At heart I think the perspective is an ethical one: what part do we have in this and how can we make amends – does “making amends” have any meaning? But there is also a poetic component in that so many of the poems concern themselves with the question of how poetry is engaged with these processes and how it might address them. As a result this is a complex book, intricate like the mechanical birds which figure so largely in it, and one which is challenging in the best sense.