Parkville: Five Islands Press, 2010, 63pp.
It is almost exactly fifty years ago that Douglas Stewart wrote, in the preface to his collection of “Voyager” poems, that “any Australian should be able to read a poem about Captain Cook or Leichhardt”. He saw these explorer narratives as both myths of origins and resonant tales that might bridge the gap between the crude but reader-attracting bush ballads of Lawson, Paterson et al and the increasingly hermetic and abstruse modern lyric. Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s version of the Captain Cook narrative is certainly readable and probably more approachable than Slessor’s great poem (which it inevitably confronts) but it is a complicated work nevertheless.
“Five Visions of Captain Cook” was structured by a system of refractions and so, interestingly, is Possession. Instead of a simple, chronological engagement with Cook in the form of third person narrative or dramatic monologue, Kerdijk Nicholson’s work has, instead, three imagined books, interwoven so that they reflect on each other. Fourteen poems are about Cook at various stages of his career: they are second person lyrics and the fact that they continuously address Cook (“You’ve ordered the deadlights / be kept open . . .”, “You imagine the scent of South Sea fruit on your fingers”) means that they highlight the interaction between the poet and her subject, leaving us to wonder who possesses whom (for just as Slessor’s poem is moored alongside, A.S. Byatt’s novel is also in the offing). Six poems are imagined to be “Notes extracted from a lost manuscript”: these are lyric poems, meditating on what I might, if I was jaundiced enough, call post-colonial pieties and look as though, in conception, they might have been inspired by Peter Boyle’s Apocrypha. Finally, there are nine poems about the poet’s own life. These recall, to some extent, the poems of Kerdijk Nicholson’s first book, The Bundanon Cantos (another work which thinks about its structure very carefully) and, as I’ll say later, far from being intrusions of authorial egotism into the life of a distinguished subject, are actually a crucial part of the book’s structure.
The lost manuscript poems begin with an imagined definition of that problematic word “explore” suggesting that its derivation from the Latin “ex plorare” (literally “to cry outwards”) is occasioned not by the calls of a hunter, as is commonly assumed, but “possibly from the shouts of those who are objecting to being examined or investigated, whether in organised scientific manner or otherwise”. And they finish with a fine poem, “Today the distance between the threads of the net”, which concerns itself with the net – both conceptual and mensurational but also imperial – that the great voyages of discovery throw across parts of the world. These lyrics, as lyrics appended to narrative tend to, derive a lot of their power from the interesting points at which they stand: they are very oblique. “What was lost” is a list poem, looking back at Cook from the position of a more recent Polynesia, stripped of much of its culture. “Ambition is such a small thing” goes back to look at the forces that drive a man like Cook, using the language of hawthorns and hedgerows as a metaphor for the net and concentrating on issues of dimension so that the world-changing comes from the small:
It is like the pip in the haw, hard nor is there much flesh on it. How is it that such a small thing once it takes hold, hedges acres in? If hacked at the base, slit and laid, it still binds on, thorny, covetous bugger.
And “You, the one who stands for us” focuses on dreams which perhaps lie (the poem questions whether “desire makes dreams”) behind ambitions:
. . . . . What you started to measure, we have measured. We have counted the words of the world. We have catalogued ourselves, the outcomes of your dreams.
The poems devoted to the narrative of Cook’s voyage share something of this lyric refraction in that there is very little of the continuous about them. They do not, even, as lyric versions of narrative tend to do, locate themselves around dramatic highpoints. We see Cook, in Queen Charlotte Sound, watching a shooting star or considering one of Banks’s preserved heads. The opening poem, focussing on his childhood in Yorkshire, is an extended attempt to give some kind of character portrait and focuses on Cook as someone who responds to the mysteries of the wind and sea, especially the former:
. . . . . wings cannot contain it, it is the science of blessings, it comes, or not at all. It is the only thing that knows us, all the crannies, the secret places where the caulkers have not reached, where the weevils hide; it sees all. Changeable as it is, it is the truth. Measure it as you will, it cannot be over- thrown, only managed, never mastered; and it will never be told or embraced: it will be a relentless taskmaster and will never love.
The Cook we see here is one who struggles for some kind of control – over lands, names, words and fate – but who recognises that one must, literally, “go with the flow”. To fight against the often vicious demands of this particular deity means only that you go under. It’s tempting to see, in the way the wind and the ocean are described, something of the Old Testament Jehovah and to see in Cook something of a figure like Abraham or David who is not above exploiting any gaps left between the commandments of God. But there is also the question of whether the arbitrary rule of the winds and waves is not a metaphor for greater changes in human consciousness – in this case the Enlightenment demand for knowledge and measurement. Cook might conceivably be being described here as a man who becomes great by riding, rather than fighting, great imperatives in human history – though that might make Kerdijk Nicholson’s position seem closer to that of the Tolstoy of War and Peace than she might want it to be.
Finally, there are the poems which are about the poet’s own life. I have left these till last because, in a way, they are the most interesting. They are certainly the bravest because if they were not well and cleverly done we would have the impression of a poet shoving her head into great events in history. And it would not be once (like an artist basing a minor character on himself) but continuously: “Captain Cook: My part in his story”. The issue, as it so often is, is the author’s stake in the narrative. To make a narrative really live, to become literature, the writer has to have some connection with it, long and lovingly explored. It’s one of the essential differences between literature – something which has a chance (at least while the aesthetic effect lasts) of engaging a reader’s deepest self – and mere genre fiction (skilfully written to a template) or a Writing School project. Slessor’s poem announces at least one of these connections in its famous, though perhaps throwaway, lines, “So Cook made choice, so Cook sailed westabout, / So men write poems in Australia”. Cook is the point of origin, this says, for a country which, a hundred years later, produces the poet at his desk. And though there may be a wince at the gap between the great voyager and the petty scribbler, there is also the recognition that, as Cook was a mage figure, “beating krakens off / And casting nativities of ships” so is the poet, too, a magus, a bearer of whatever magic still lives in the world.
So the essence of these poems is connectivity and resonance. The first connection that appears – though I’m not sure any of the poems exploit it – is that Nicholson was born and grew up in Cook territory: Yorkshire. When she calls him “Nuncle” in one of the lyric poems, there is an assertion of kinship and thus to be searching for the essence of Cook’s character is also to be searching for the essence of the poet’s own. Again, though it is not a connection exploited, we could say that poets are at the mercy of not winds and tides but the vagaries of words and inspiration. Perhaps, since every poet is a voyager of either the inner self or the conceptual world, this is a connection present in all poems about voyagers: it certainly appears in Stow’s wonderful poem, “The Singing Bones”, where it is the poets who understand the explorers, “They were all poets, so the poets said / Who kept their end in mind in all they wrote”. These personal poems also refer to the death of the poet’s father and the sense that the parent always lives on in the child. Many modern narratives have begun with the death of the father symbolising (as in, say, Carpentier’s Explosion in a Cathedral) the death of an ancien regime, or, quite commonly, the death of faith or of childhood. In Possession the emphasis seems to be on connections and the way in which lines of descent mean that the past (Cook) is embodied in the present. True origin narratives establish the foundational figure as a blood-relative rather than merely the origin of a culture.
At a less general level, it is clear that the poems are shaped by the connections between Cook’s world and the author’s. The earliest of these describes cleaning up after a violent storm where “entire masts of forests” have been blown down. Banks’s dogs, which make numerous appearances from the wings, connect up with the poet’s dog. “Stars, unbroken code” is a long poem built around issues of mapping and living:
. . . . . The wind forbids as much as rain, unlike words it does not discriminate; whatever the syntax or the architecture, it wants it down. In this bright spring blue, wattle-lashing sky, its hot violent air rotates on the ecliptic, part of some zodiac unable to be named and I have a cartographic urge to transect the celestial equator, to contradict the wind. Sitting still here in my Ptolemaic universe writing text on text . . .
Both this poem and a later one concern themselves with the poet’s essential material, words. And it is something that Cook worries about too, finding them shifting and unreliable compared with charts. The final poem about Cook, “These few words I saved for a child’s mouth”, begins with a death, goes on to deal with the gap between reality and a verbal version of reality and concludes by making Cook think about a word which is crucial to modern Australians who have inherited a situation which was begun with his voyage:
You buried Young Buchan, epileptic, landscape artist, in the deep: Banks moaned I must submit to the irretrievable loss . . . no more of Buchan’s scenes of arcadia of which we were going to be kings. You rage. Indeed! Boswell says Hawkesworth brewed your journals, published journalistic lies - you would rather a map any day, where truth and beauty reconcile. You like that word reconcile: meaning “compute”, “make amends” and “bring together as friends”.
Though it is probably not an intended meaning here, it is hard not to imagine the author reconciling with her subject throughout this book. Possession (very beautifully produced, as are all the new books from Five Islands) is quite a triumph against the odds. It ought to be no better than the kind of thing a new enrollee in a writing course dreams up, a project needing a convenient amount of research and producing a coherent, booklength work. But actually it’s a book of true poetic engagement, a worthy modern descendant of its hoary Voyager ancestors collected fifty years ago by Douglas Stewart.