Aidan Coleman: Mount Sumptuous

Mile End, SA: Wakefield Press, 2020, 55pp.

Aidan Coleman’s first book, Avenues & Runways, is an example of a comparatively rare thing in Australian poetry: something in the minimalist tradition. To risk a gross generalisation, Australian poetry, viewed from a very distant perspective, does seem word- and assertion- heavy as though, in a country with a very small audience and a fairly low professional standing, poetry and poets have to be seen to be working hard and producing nice thick texts. What subtle suggestivenesses there are are likely to be framed by dense text. Avenues & Runways belonged, I think, to a sub-branch of this minimalist mode which is usually called Imagism. The word (and, probably, the mode) was invented by Ezra Pound in 1915 and he is responsible for one of the examples that all poetry readers know: “In a Station of the Metro”.

It’s clear that part of the drive behind the Imagists was a reaction against the verbosity of the Romantic and Victorian traditions. As with the processes of poetic history generally, the natural movement was towards the opposite extreme. But, just as a contemporary minimalist Australian poet has to withstand the accusation of being no more than an effete gesturer, so Pound was compelled to emphasise intensity and compression rather than cultured suggestion. His own description of the lengthy drafting that produced “In a Station of the Metro” is probably not trustworthy but it does stress the process of compression and extraction that resulted in a more intense and focussed result: it isn’t a bland putting together of two images – like a student’s haiku writing exercise – but rather a capturing of an intense but fleeting moment of experience conveyed through an image. And the experience isn’t a culturally general one: it’s a unique experience of a unique individual. If the mode still speaks to us it is probably because, although we are in no way like Ezra Pound (in personality as well as in historical context!) we know that we have similar intense and fleeting experiences and if we were good poets we might have been able successfully to convey them. That’s the roundabout way in which the Imagist poets “spoke for” their generation.

They also – though this might seem to be wandering a long way from Aidan Coleman’s new book – cleaned out the language of poetry: no mean feat at the beginning of the twentieth century. It’s the language rather than the imagery that places the Imagists at the beginning of English-language modernism. Pound’s poem is, compared to the poems of his first books, fairly denotative. We might quibble at “apparition” but generally there is nothing in it that might not have been written today, more than a century later. The same could be said for Hulme’s rather marvellous, “Autumn”. But the same couldn’t be said for all of Pound’s poems in Lustra because of his complex engagement with the literature of the past, both Romance and Oriental. One of the interests of “In a Station of the Metro” is that the two images which are combined are, respectively, something drawn from the European world – Paris – and something suggestive of oriental art traditions, but also something absolutely modern combined with something suggesting the japonoiserie of the previous century.

As I’ve said, this seems a long way from Aidan Coleman’s poetry but it does set it in some kind of perspective since someone choosing the minimalist path is likely to run up against many of the issues foreshadowed a century ago by the work of the Imagists. In some of the poems of Avenues & Runways the imagist form is exploited for its mix of compression and surprise. Take “She’s”, for example whose compression is advertised not only in its shapely skinniness (whose swaying lines visually mimic the subject) but in its refusal to allow the title to require an extra word:


the choppy swing
of hips

a cool breeze
this café

like the sea
for Egyptians

Everything depends here not on a red wheelbarrow but on the last word. Where we would expect Israelites, we get Egyptians. The Reed Sea parted for them too but it closed over their heads and destroyed them. It’s a nice poem about casual eroticism – it’s after all a “cool” breeze – and its mesmerising effects on others. It’s also structured so that the knife isn’t turned until the last word, and that in itself provides a strong formal pleasure.

Another poem, “Estates”, uses the imagist mode to describe suburban sprawl:

Here, on empty blocks,
the grass fists and flames,
sizzles by day
or hums with the dull voltage of insects.

The houses built are set out neat
as breakfast on a tray:
the water tank,
the shed, the velcro-lawn.

Now it’s evening, lights come on.
You hear the echo
of a bouncing ball, 
bikes rewinding the streets home.

A train brews to boil
then simmers;
the crossing bangs
its pots and pans.

In a sense it is four separate imagist pieces put together to make a combined portrait and the structure of the combination is based on time: two daylight stanzas are followed by two in the evening as though the structure were a kind of expanded example of the old one-image-matched-against-another. This larger structure is one protection against the charge that the minimalist approach is merely precious. Of the individual stanzas probably only the last one has an immediacy and force that Pound would have approved of and it’s a moot point whether the entire poem could not have been successfully reduced to this single stanza. It does, after all, have all the implied connections between suburban domesticity – the “pots and pans” – and the infrastructure of housing developments along railway lines. On the other hand it’s an aural image (and a strikingly accurate one) and the larger structure of the full poem allows for a mix of visual and aural.

Finally, “Wednesday Nights” describes driving home after an evening class:

And then these Wednesday nights
driving home; the meditation
of a straight road; the cut and paste
of shopping centres, service stations,
the rhythm of street lights.

Three lanes and few cars,
there’s nothing else to read or mark.
The road opens onto fields;
the airport, set against the dark,
calling in lost stars.

It’s “about” the relaxed meditative state that a regularly repeated, and thus familiar, journey on an empty road can induce. It’s intensified because the previous activity had involved a high degree of concentration on specifics: reading and marking. Just as the road opens up into fields and an airport, so the mind, too, expands. The “lost stars” will be plane lights which do, in the distance in the night sky, look like moving stars. This poem works more allusively than the other two I have quoted because Coleman’s first book reveals a general interest in airports – in its title, for example – and we add to this poem the framework image of takings-off: of meaning in a poem as well as planes. “Wednesday Nights” is thus, in its own small way, a poem-poem, revealing an interest in expansion, of “taking-off” not only of the mind’s movement into meditation but of the poem’s movement into wider meaning than its homely domestic material. It’s a point to return to when looking at Mount Sumptuous.

Such a first book would normally have made its follow-up especially interesting because minimalism as the path of an entire career rather than a single, first volume probably requires even more daring. External events – in the form of brain cancer and a devastating stroke with long-term implications – made the situation of the second book much more complex. Most of Asymmetry is an exploration and expression of this crisis. Just as Peter Boyle’s Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness tested how well his surreal poetic mode could cope with something as overwhelming and ordinary as the grief of loss, so Coleman’s illness is a test of the imagistic style which he continues into this second book. Peter Goldsworthy gives a good description of the situation on the back cover of the book (not a place that is usually full of enlightenment) when he says that the poems of Asymmetry “read like some profound and moving metaphor for the process of writing poetry itself”. This is true but the nature of the situation, of extreme closeness to death and then aphasia protects the poems slightly. Since what they deal with is of itself powerful, they are not as reliant as the poems of Avenues & Runways on the sophistication of the poems’ shape, images and resonances. Some are no more than pared-down descriptions of hospital experiences: “. . . The click / and dull bounce of machines . . .” But later, as the poems describe rehabilitation at home and a shaky return to work, the true imagist perspective is recovered. In “Reading Aloud”, for instance:


The eyes nervous
over the hazardous page

A deep breath in .  .  .

Then mount the wobbly tightrope bicycle of speech


Each syllable locked
in an opaque shell

Each word to be jigsawed,
parcelled, stamped
in a wink or flash of the tongue

Like America sometimes
I trick the iambs
or guessmudge my way clear

Again, in imagist style, this is really two different images: one for the preparation to get back on “the wobbly tightrope bicycle of speech” – a very memorable final image – and the other for the actual performance with the tricky syllables. And yet each stanza has its complement of interestingly clashing images: the first, for example, of an image from the natural world – the eyes moving nervously like dragonflies – butted up against an image from the circus world.

This is all some kind of background to a reading of Coleman’s third book, Mount Sumptuous. It was an interesting book to think about in advance of reading. Would it be a kind of return to the style of the first book? Would the events recorded in the second provide a new perspective on the possibilities of the imagist style? In fact, what the third book does is focus on issues of meaning and especially of authorial control over meaning. In this sense it is a far more challenging book than the first two, but more challenging for the author as well as for the readers. I think its aim is to retain the minimalist component of the imagist aesthetic in its resistance to all kinds of lushness, especially verbal lushness, but at the same time to explore ways of widening the gap between the items that are brought together in the poems.

Sometimes the rationale for the images makes obvious sense to the reader. There are, for example, a series of six poems spread through the book with alternative titles of “Primary” and “Secondary”. This gives plenty of warning that these poems will be based on the colour wheel whereby three primary colours – red, yellow and blue – are interspersed by colours – “secondaries” – formed by the mixing of the primary colours on either side. The six poems are organised so that each primary is followed by the secondary across from it on the colour wheel: red is followed by green, yellow by purple, and so on. Since each poem is basically a group of images united by their colour, they are given a logical rationale, but if the colour is stripped out (either by readers imagining themselves colour-blind or by imagining the images on an old black and white television) one is left with the issue of the interaction between images at the level of meaning. The first poem, “Red”, doesn’t really present any great difficulties for a reader. Its series of images includes a first car, mouths and apples in stories, children’s scraped knees and teacher’s corrections, carefully and unthreateningly written in green rather than red:

My first car red as a half-sucked
Jaffa, the crackling bacon
of its radio. The brick of all-meat
towns you dress
to kill on Fridays. The O
of mouths and round
of targets – you recall, in panic-big letters,
the shiny apple from a story

best avoided. Red is not
my favourite colour the child screams,
over khaki shorts and wounded knee.
Now the teacher chastens gently
in lowercase green.

Although these images are all butted up in imagist fashion, there is a clear overriding theme derived from the fact that they are all about the past and actually move backwards in time as the poem progresses. There is a case of cross-over between images when the auditory image for an old car radio – “crackling bacon” – connects to the “all-meat / towns” that the adolescent goes to the movies or dances in. The second image puns on the cliché “dressed to kill” in its meaning of “well-dressed” and the unpleasant but widely accepted euphemism that slaughtering animals for meat is “dressing” them. This links across to the phrase “wounded knee” in the second-last image which, apart from its homely meaning of childhood gravel rash is also a reference to the notorious American massacre of the Lakota Indians in 1890. So one could say that the larger units which are being connected here are about childhood and slaughter. More than that, as a reader, I can’t say, except that perhaps the poem’s interest is in the way in which, as children, we are prepared for “adult” horrors by stories.

My point in looking at this poem in detail is to explore whether this series of poems is organised so that they become more open, more tenuous, more “difficult” for the reader as they progress. The last of this suite, based on orange, is the last poem of the book:

Easier to paint
than rhyme, this volatility. A poet-envy
of the art-fluke, or ripeness
cut in segments sucked to the pith.
A plaintive case deflating
on a snack bar counter
where citrus men
swash fizz through lunch
and later repair the voltage of night
in the out-of-sync bounce
of signal and blinker.
You take a little kindling, the light
of a cupped match,
to hazard across deciduous campuses:
the vast, blue continent of theory. Go softly on.

It begins with a reference to the fairly well-known fact that “orange” is one of those words in English for which there is no rhyme. But, of course, for someone writing in an imagist mode it’s a reminder of the primacy of the visual. After this introduction there are two main images: a group of electrical repairmen having a lunch that involves swigging orange soft drink before going out “to repair the voltage of the night” and the poet himself lighting a match on campus – a hazardous thing to do when there are a lot of dried winter leaves around – and an attack on “the vast, blue continent” of, presumably, abstract thought (I don’t think it refers to the “Theory Wars” since they are too far in the past). That this continent is “blue” is a way of bringing the poem up against the primary colour opposite on the colour wheel. I don’t think, on reflection, that there is a great difference here with the first of these poems in terms of the demands it makes on a reader. Its final words, though, do lead on to another issue of the poems of Mount Sumptuous.

“Go softly on” is a quotation from Hamlet. Fortinabras, Hamlet’s alter ego, the man he might have been, or might have wanted to be, were he not cursed by irresolvable indecisions, says it while giving instructions to one of his soldiers. Coming as it does as the last words of the last poem of Coleman’s book, it is almost inevitable that readers should see it as a kind of note-to-self, a decision to continue in this “soft” imagistic vein which is quite capable of starting fires. The quote is also part of the book’s extended web of allusions. Some of them are to such high-culture items as Hamlet, but many are to far humbler phenomena. The balance between the two is interesting since it shows a desire to avoid a poetry with nothing but high-cultural allusions and resonances in the classical Chinese way. There is room, in other words, for bandaids, brillo pads and Blue Light Discos. Many of these are explained in the extended notes at the back. And these notes are far more detailed than they need to be: nobody capable of reading poems needs to have explained what Auslan is, or that band-aid is the generic name “for a small adhesive bandage” as well as the name (without the hyphen) of a “charity supergroup”. The effect is odd and these notes become part of the book and part of the reading experience of the book in a way that is quite different to the explanatory notes that turn up at the back of a lot of books of contemporary poetry. In a sense they are a bit like one of the poems themselves, extracting brand names and television show names from the poems not with the aim of explaining the references but of putting them together in a set of statements that is organised in the same way as the poems are – by surprising and powerful juxtaposition. Looked at this way it brings Coleman close to something that one would think was a long way from the aesthetics of his poetry: an oulipo-like generating of a text out of previous texts.

The other poems of Mount Sumptuous traverse a scale from, at one end, complex but intriguing and engaging to, at the other, really incomprehensible to the reader. Comprehensibility doesn’t here mean “with an understandable and paraphrasable meaning” so much as something which, though resisting simple interpretations, still gives a reader something to grapple enjoyably with. The first three poems, “Oracular”, “Cartoon Snow” and “The End of Weather” belong to the easier end of the scale. Their juxtaposed images are intriguing to an outsider and continuous rereadings produce, at least for a while, a feeling of familiarity and confidence. A poem like “Proper Opera, a Rom-com” comes perhaps from the middle of the spectrum:

Laws I follow
your lead

in breaking
we kiss

the lights turn 

with recidivism

The title which has a near anagram followed by a rhyme puts a high culture form next to a popular culture one – as though anagramatisation and rhyme might be ways of making the things connect. The sixteen-word poem that follows might be barely comprehensible but I think we know roughly in what area its meanings lie: in erotic love processed through the laws of two different forms. As an example of the far reaches of the spectrum, I would choose “Jolt”:

Men’s heads pull them
through the suburb like fists,
their trolleys missed and lately collected.
Skin is not equipment
in this shaking off
of targets. Living is all
you digress for:

your heart tuned to the plane’s
engine, the slide of air
plateauing at speed,
in what seems certain, blank
and endless - the countenance
of our hostesses.

It’s not a poem entirely without footholds (images of movement through, suggestions of taking off and flying that recall poems of Coleman’s first book) but, after many rereadings, it yields only nugatory results – at least to me!

I think it is at this extreme end of opaqueness that some of the interesting issues in this book and in this mode arrive. If an author, writing in a minimalist mode, retains absolute control over meaning, the writing process might be no more than throwing out a series of clues to the reader while having the answer firmly in one’s pocket. The reader then jumps through the hoops provided and, like a good dog, returns with the answer. This is undesirable for both writer and reader and one can appreciate Coleman’s abdication from this sort of imperial control over meaning. But once it happens, all the emphasis is thrown on the writer who must be confident that the images he or she is juxtaposing have a rightness in themselves independent of meaning. As a non-poet I can’t say whether that is easy or difficult, commonly done by poets or rarely done, but it is a form of creative intuition and the entire viability of a poem is a heavy burden for an essentially unexplainable process to bear. Mount Sumptuous avoids the pitfalls that the poetry of Coleman’s first book might have led him into but it will be interesting to see whether it provides a viable and sustainable model for the future.