Nathan Curnow: The Apocalypse Awards

Nth Melbourne: Arcadia, 2016, 63pp.

One thinks of Nathan Curnow – based on his previous books as far as the recent The Right Wrong Notes (which is really a kind of miniature selected poems) – as a fairly familiar kind of biographical poet expanding the inner life by exploring the social and family worlds: he writes touchingly though unsentimentally, for example, about his children and thus, by implication, about his own experiences of fatherhood, one of those inner-life expanding events available to many. There isn’t much there that would prepare us for this new book, The Apocalypse Awards, where the subject is the end of the world and the mode, fitting for such a grotesque imaginative scenario, is largely surrealist. On first reading it seems like a momentary aberration, perhaps an attempt to escape an image of himself as a poet which seems too limitedly cosy and has just a suggestion of being a pre-conceived project. Its nearest relation might be an earlier book, The Ghost Poetry Project, in which suites of poems were written about ten supposedly haunted places in Australia. But the grotesque, violent and imagined territory of the haunted is hardly as intense as the apocalyptic and, on top of that, was marked by absences: no ghosts appeared. Readers were left to guess at the poet’s stake in the experience and in the same way a reader has to guess at his stake in the fifty-two poems of The Apocalypse Awards. What makes the question worthwhile is the way the poems develop with successive rereadings: fake projects usually look inviting but rarely sustain interest. These poems, especially those in the first and middle sections, have a pleasing habit of staying in the consciousness and flowering there, grotesque images and all, and that rarely happens unless they derive from the deeper layers of authorial creativity.

A clue for readers might lie in the two epigraphs to The Apocalypse Awards. The first is attributed to Kafka (though I had never previously seen it) and points out that the so-called Last Judgement is actually “a court in permanent session”. The second is from the Neil Gaiman graphic novel, Signal to Noise (also something I’ve never read), in which a character says, “There’s no big apocalypse. Just an endless procession of little ones”. This invites us to read the poems as extreme projections of what might be a more subtle internal state. If I suggest that a candidate for an internal state which expresses itself in apocalyptic imagery is clinical depression, this comes from the fact that the only parallel work I know is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

Anyway, on – as they say – to the poems. The book is in three parts, made up of two lengthy collections with a single long poem, “The Lullaby Pregnancies”, separating them. The poems of the first section are rather narrative in cast, often dealing with imagined preparations for the end of the world, and are often faintly comical and quite grotesque. The poems of the final section are collections of nightmare images, much more surreal in method, and often dream-driven. The central poem, “The Lullaby Pregnancies”, connects with the end of the first section in which the causes of the apocalypse are put down to over-breeding on the part of humans – “no one blames a tree in its final season / for blossom that outdoes itself / the world remembering what it once did best / before giving up all together . . .” It’s a really nightmarish and violent scenario made palatable, oddly enough, by its surrealist cast which seems to put the entire poem in a bracket and marks it as an extreme byway of the creative imagination. The five poems of “The Lullaby Pregnancies” rather enact the movement of the book as a whole, beginning with a reasonably comic recreation of the way humans with their industries and their fads react to something and gradually becoming more disassociatedly surreal. We begin with “Team Love” who hand out pregnancy test kits for all:

Team Love will arrive with pregnancy tests
requiring compulsory participation
introducing the term “lullaby pregnancies” -
this implausible wave of conceptions
it came before locusts and deep image colour
world’s end – a cinematographer’s dream
when all I ever did was touch myself
to recorded whale music
PREGNOW - PREGWOW in a large envelope
10x Urine Collection Cups
a pregnancy pack with 25 strips . . .

We are in the middle of an apocalypse which is, in a sense, the inversion of those narratives (like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale) where the end of the world occurs through sterility. But, as I have said, the faintly comical government agencies quickly become sinister and almost unimaginably violent (except, of course, that it is imaginable):

we’re blaming the midwives hunting them
they’re stripped and dunked to one hundred
we set traps – a woman full-term on a platform
every new-born baby another riot
they armed themselves so we spread more lies
we hang placentas in trees for the morning . . .

In the final poem we leave the expecting mother about to give birth and about to seal the hatch of a bunker where she and her new-born child – “I’ve a sharp boiled knife the cleanest towel / the gas lamp I’ll hiss along with“ – will die together when the food runs out.

This five-part poem is a hinge between the two longer sections. As I’ve said, the first section is made up of poems which investigate grotesque responses – on the part of governments and individuals – to the oncoming apocalypse. In the first poem, “The Last Day”, we are briefly introduced to jargonised responses from religions – it is called “The Great Migration”; the media – sedatives are provided free by a weekend newspaper; and individuals (always the more interesting and moving) – “there will be a club gluing model planes / quietly in the candlelight after curfew”. One of the things that makes this a poem which stays in the memory is its painful conclusion:

the voices of trembling children singing
louder children louder like rehearsed

I’m not sure where in Curnow’s experiences of fatherhood this image came from but it rings wonderfully true and reminds us that the earlier poems of parenthood such as “Bath Towel Wings”, the second poem of his first book, No Other Life But This, have a darker side that balances the cuteness:

Embracing herself in bath-towel wings,
corners clutched with tight, pink fists,
she waits for pyjamas in the centre of the room,
warmly dripping what is left of the bath.
I don’t want to die, she says, and if I could waive
death somehow, waive it like a day at school . . .

The other poems from the first part of The Apocalypse Awards go on to explore the sorts of imaginative possibilities that “The Last Day” introduces. There will have to be, as the book’s title confirms, a Hollywood-style Awards Night, for example, technically irrelevant but “some kind of ritual at least”:

. . . . . 
Should we celebrate? Yes! Now more than ever!
and that’s when the host pulls out
the winner is Tango Defeats Depression
thanking God becomes a bigger joke
the orchestra is ready to drown on cue . . .

In “Death Duty” – “we are all on it / getting promoted every day / constantly filling the vacancies” – we meet “the only industry in perfect health”; “Duel” records the pre-suicide moments of a couple who have spent their entire relationship fighting; “At Tender Touch” the closing down of a brothel; and “Christians” the altogether calmer, professionalised approach – they “break into small groups to share / Kingdom Rule – What It Means For Your Super.” But other poems record more insane scenarios which have more poetic promise perhaps. There is an outbreak of Houdini-like escapology – “the last global craze” – and “The Angel” describes a bizarre ritual in which people, often in organised groups, line up to kick the angel of destruction in the groin. Again it is the comic bizarrenesses of human group behaviour that stimulates Curnow as he imagines single mothers, boy scouts (hoping “for a last-minute badge”), and Cancan girls all lining up at the free-throw line of a basketball court, waiting for their turn.

Perhaps the best of these comic-horror scenarios is “Seances” which proposes not, as one might expect, a simple increase in spiritualist activity but a situation in which there are so many dead to send messages that the Ouija boards get out of control and go on banging out their messages despite the desperate attempts of the users to stop them:

. . . . . 
some wrap it in blankets and stash it in a drawer
some submerge it in a tropical fish tank
an anonymous narrator dictates War and Peace
and the back story of the Cheshire Cat
something is spelling quality mince matters
perhaps a butcher with undying remorse
this last parlour game this after-life rhythm
a constant tapping of fees and charges
Rosabelle-answer-tell-pray – believe believe believe
over and over from beneath the house
wedged in a locker at the Ever Fit gym
abandoned in a food court at an empty mall . . .

From “Back Paddock” on, the poems are not so much explorations of responses to the Apocalypse as descriptions of extreme activities which require a generalised apocalyptic atmosphere to occur. The message being, I assume, that this kind of behaviour is becoming more and more the norm as groups of Americans plan for life in a post atomic-war age. “Library” gives the best description of this imagined world as “a mix of The Road and World War Z / plus A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. In this poem a group barricade themselves inside a library and set off searching for How to Take Hostages for Dummies. In “Legoland” the world is taken over by lego simulacra of reality and in “Meteorite” someone who finds a landed, smoking meteor – surely the most harmless of visitors from outer space – finishes up taking it into the chicken coop where he reads it “Gilgamesh and Ozymandias”. And, finally, there is a description in “Botanicals” of people strapping flower bulbs to the backs of their heads so that, when they die, their bodies will nourish the plant. Grotesque but, in it’s odd way, rather moving.

The poems of the book’s final section are surrealist pieces organised so that they begin with poems that “make sense” in the apocalyptic environment of the rest of the book but which gradually become more extreme. How much they are based on dreams – that regular provider of meaningful but incomprehensible images – it’s hard to say though “Dreamliner” and “Bear Forest” both tempt the reader to interpret boat and forest as symbols of dream. The first poem, “Red Shawl Flapping”, seems entirely coherent:

there are not enough flowers and the wolves close in
a baby wakes in an empty house
a splash upon the doorstep and a red shawl flapping
but nobody heard the shot
strands upon the spade that remains unhidden
a plot of earth beneath the pines
the moon comes chanting at the broken gate
the rope puzzles remain unsolved
cicadas sizzling above a war of wheat
sparrows revel in the dirt-bath dust
a television turning the milk upon the bench
toward a slow bold hunter’s nose
and the baby the chanting a red shawl flapping
on the grim slack whip of the line
a racket of carriages passing in the distance
everything gets dragged outside.

Clearly we are here in an environment which is part crime-scene, part Brothers Grimm. The images are laid down bluntly (rather like the “racket of carriages” of the poem) but they get a kind of incantatory effect by their repetitive structures, an effect supported by the use of the slightly archaic and formal “upon” rather than the more demotic “on”. The repeated phrase, “red shawl flapping”, prepares for the later poems where there is a much more intense repetition of important statements.

By the time we get to poems like “Excluding Guns and Ammo”, “Confession” and “Ravine” we are a long way from coherence and in a nightmare surrealist world whose images are consistent in that they share the apocalyptic atmosphere of the rest of the book. But if there is no humane “cuteness” there is also no palpable emotional commitment. As such, there may be a therapeutic function in the sequence or there may be an adjusting of poetic reputation on the poet’s part but, either way, it’s hard to see the poems of this final section as representing a road one would want Curnow to travel too far down. A poem from the middle of the final section, “Ex”, seems to want to be read as symbolising the dream images as a circus (a symbol that goes at least as far back as Rimbaud and perhaps further). I read it (somewhat nervously) as a critique of the keeper by his ex-wife: both of them being components of the creating consciousness, one providing the material the other keeping some kind of control. But when she says, at the beginning, “the keeper is living in a fantasy / dream sequences are for losers these days / my job is to keep the talent tight / in the circumspect light of the compound” there’s a statement there about dream-images that might be true for the poems of this final section.

Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow: Radar

North Hobart: Walleah Press, 2012, 115pp.

Most double-authored books of poetry have a contingent feel about them: two manuscripts, when edited down, are not long enough for a single volume and get yoked together, not necessarily by violence but not necessarily profitably either. Radar is distinguished by the fact that, no matter what the processes were which have produced this final result, there are interesting connections and oppositions between the two poets’ work and each makes a rather interesting background to the other. Kevin Brophy has a substantial publishing record – about which I have made comments in an earlier review – whereas Radar is Nathan Curnow’s third book if we include the thirty-two page No Other Life But This in Five Islands Press’s New Poets Series.

Curnow, whose fifty page collection appears first despite the order of the names on cover and title page, is probably best known for his The Ghost Poetry Project. In that book he writes seven or eight poems about the experience of staying overnight in each of ten of Australia’s most haunted locations: these include predictable places like Norfolk Island and Port Arthur but also a Cadillac hearse brought to retirement in Sydney from Pennsylvania and, perhaps more surprisingly, the Fremantle Arts Centre (which turns out to be a convict-built ex-lunatic asylum). On the surface Curnow’s first two books seem at odds. The title of the first, alone, suggests a perspective commitedly materialist with precious little tolerance of either religious views or the more downmarket otherworldly which appears in UFO sightings and experiences of the supernatural. And yet the obsession that seems to drive his verse revolves exactly around this issue of the status of the otherworlds that many people sense impinge on our more mundane experience of life. And this is approached with a pleasant openness that carefully avoids being naive or gullible on the one hand and closed-minded on the other: a sort of poetic equivalent of Louis Theroux.

The title of the first book, No Other Life But This, is so pointed that one goes to the title poem expecting a celebration of family life, perhaps – something that Curnow does well – or a polemic against various beliefs. The actual poem is rather a surprise:

The bird comes to ground at twilight,
thirsty for a drink. She hops across the grass,
staccato fashion, hops, stops, watches:
movement as a flash of fear. Caution
has a rhythm, she plays it precisely,
every two-legged jump potential take-off.
Eyes sharp, head tilting, her tiny, peanut brain
drawing angles into comprehension.

The children's containers are water collectors
that have littered the back lawn for days.
She springs to a lip, quizzes the threat,
surprises come with a puff of feathers.
Bowing to drink she considers again,
every twitch revealing her secret,
the hunch that fits inside her head:
there is no other life but this.

This takes a while to assimilate. On the one hand it could be an assertion that life is driven by instincts (especially fear-driven ones) rather than beliefs. It could be a celebration of the extraordinary grace of the natural world: a later poem, observing a baby daughter’s sliding off into sleep says, “Grace is found in such simple mechanics; / the way wings work a bird without it knowing”. But it might also be saying that there is “no other life” apart from the kind of open-minded attention to detail out of which the poem is constructed. However we read it, though, there is no lack of engagement with the problems of beliefs in the poems of this first book. The very first poem situates the author in conversation with a woman who has a child with a serious heart defect. The discussion revolves around “portals” – presumably a way in which more lurid notions of the supernatural are making their way into traditional Christian beliefs – and this, to any poet or reader of poetry, chimes with her son’s problem. In the second poem, a little daughter, wrapping herself in a bathtowel so that she seems to have angel’s wings, talks to her father about death:

. . . . . 
I tell her that I love her but she's heard it before.
She wants to know where we go after this.
She believes in Santa. I can't let her trust Jesus.
Yes, your heart stops working and your lungs.
I want to tell her that life gets busier
which means there is less time to worry. . . . . .

These two poems demonstrate that Curnow has discovered, early on, that the domestic is one of the best settings for the sorts of issues he wants to deal with, and he does write brilliantly about family life.

But the material of the visits to haunted sites in The Ghost Poetry Project is made from the uncanny. For this to work at all the poet has to have some degree of receptivity to the idea of haunting even though the the sum total of unnatural experiences attributed (by the eyes and ears of faith) amount to not much more than strange tappings and reported ghostly figures. (The cynic in me can’t help but feel that if the world of the “beyond” wants to make an impact that would be taken seriously it needs to do something radical at these sites – scare some people to death as in Ring, for example – just as those claiming to talk to God or to be incarnations of past lives need to tell us something about the cosmos or the past that we don’t already know.) The true impulse behind the book probably lies in the biographical note which says: “As a child Nathan Curnow suffered ‘night paralysis’ He could barely breathe due to an overwhelming sense of terror”. The “project”, lurid but trivial at first sight, is really an attempt to induce and thus cure (as an adult) the terrors of childhood. This is made clear in a group of poems, distributed among the visits, which deal with the mythical bunyip. Here his own childhood fears and those of one of his daughters are allayed by the mantra that “bunyips only eat avocadoes”. The final section of the introductory poem makes the aim of the project clear:

Because the night is an eight-ball eye of a cow,
dark as the sludge inside your bones, fear locking
your delicate limbs deep beneath a tent of blankets.
I am returning as if I conquered the Butcher, as if
he lost his grip at last, descending with language,
my only defence, the one shot to defuse myself.

Because the nights are long, I will find new words
to pluck the eyeball out, testing them like avocadoes,
light or a picture card of Jesus. Let us reach together,
touch the monster's face, decipher the walls of the cave.
I will be calling your name. Call back to me.
There is always space for courage.

Parenthood has many responsibilities but re-inducing and facing one’s own childhood terrors so that you can help a child overcome hers is an unusual and unusually difficult one. In the night-time experiences of the “haunted” places little important occurs beyond the experience of actually doing it and the poems make clear that in Curnow’s view hauntings begin inside our own brains and are then – in a phrase that makes one think again about the book’s apparently innocent title – projected into the outer world. The visit to Tasmania’s convict-built Richmond Bridge (where the ghosts of a vicious overseer, his dog, and an old man with a walking stick and straw boater, occasionally pushing a wheelbarrow, occasionally headless, have been seen) produces a moment of generalised scepticism in the poem “Introduced Species”:

Always these ghost stories of introduced species
a phantom dog, black cat, a spooky goat

Instead there should be tales of evil brush-turkeys
of posties swooped by ghoulish magpies

Sightings reflect the culture of the witness -
ghosts are no longer wearing chains

Mary only appears in Catholic countries . . . . .

At any rate, all this makes a kind of necessary introduction to Curnow’s poems in Radar. Here the aim, at least of the first poems, is to revisit not night-time childhood terrors but the experience of childhood itself. It takes place in Pinnaroo, a small town in South Australia near the Victorian border, and many of the poems focus on the parents – the father a minister in what seems like a pentecostal sect. The very first poem, “The Curtain”, has, as an epigraph, the address of the church in Pinnaroo on which the poem is based as an inviting Google Earth reference: I recommend following it. The poem itself justifies its pre-eminent position by being a complex meditation about the way in which we emerge from childhood into public life and the way in which the history of places can induce responses in us. In other words, I read this poem as a transition between the world of The Ghost Poetry Project – the internal horrors which make us receptive to suspicions of new, external horrors – and the world of being a public, performing writer who both exploits and exorcises these demons. At the conclusion of the poem, the curtain that the child is wrapped in (“I looked like a crimson bell, or a strange reminder / of my own breech birth . . .”) opens out:

I belonged to the boards, to the fabric that slipped
away from me once again, turning until it spread itself wide,
introducing me to the world. Who would be there?
What to say? A yearning I understood - the magic burn
of anticipation bound in faith, belief and trust - to convert
an audience, to be converted by the strength of a fallible dream,
hoping that what will be revealed is worthy
of the curtain opening.

Perhaps the perspective in these poems is that of revisiting the experience of one’s parents – something that is always prompted by the arrival of our own children. In “The Curtain”, Curnow discovers connections with his father the minister in his own need to perform and convert an audience. There is a fine poem, “Those Adamant Shapes”, that recognises the passed-on genetic material between the generations calling it, memorably, “the deep cargo that refuses to come unstuck”. And it seems fitting that the structure of Curnow’s contribution to Radar should be a movement from his parents to his children. There is an especially wonderful description of the moment when one of his daughters has an injection: “you turn away from your arm, the needle / coming, your shoulder bared for // the pinch, the plunge, a foreign wave tightens / the little face you held so bravely . . .” All parents will remember things like that and be glad they are so accurately and beautifully expressed.

If Nathan Curnow’s poems are committed to understanding the world we all know and inhabit – and thus have a sturdy, almost conventional poetic quality, deploying metaphors for their illuminative value, for example – Kevin Brophy’s contribution is a set of seventy prose poems. The prose poem is a much loved form in which the oppressive quality of the “real” can be left behind in favour of imaginative possibilities. It is the home of otherworlds. In Brophy’s poems we meet a family in which the busy father hires a replacement for himself and the replacement energises the wife and constructively puzzles the son; a man, newly dead, who remains suspicious that the odd place in which he finds himself is not really paradise; an Australian suburb in which the street-planting of scrubby natives eventually takes over, and re-australianises, houses and inhabitants; a man who decides to live a “less personal” more antlike life; a hole in the ground near the Fawkner Cemetery which grows by absorbing objects of guilt and so on. We also meet Robert O’Hara Burke whose attitude to life – as well as the events of that life – is so surreal that it only needs to be described objectively to seem like one of these otherworlds.

Why do this and run the risk of confirming ordinary innocent Australians in their suspicion that serious literature doesn’t engage with the pressing questions (about love-affairs, football teams or cars) that oppress them? The answer is usually that these sorts of meditations reveal the shape of the writer’s psyche rather as dreams might to those skilled enough to read them. It is as if, to borrow from Eliot’s Prufrock, “a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen”. Some of Brophy’s narrative prose poems, “The Secret Theatre of Home”, for example, do seem to have their origins in dreams but more derive from exploring metaphors. Take “On Reading Virginia Woolf’s Sentence, ”˜Undoubtedly there is a dullness in great books’”, for example:

If it is true that dullness is what distinguishes lasting literature from the “bleak shorthand” of contemporary writing, then dullness is the freight we readers also bring to books, mental half-realms where every stone has been turned, and every stone has been beaten into agreement that it is a stone, and every stone has vowed silence, every stone has agreed roundness or sharpness will be its predictable gift. Handle this stone, then, every day, and offer its dullness to the sky, sense its vigilance. This is the only way.

Here the poem deals with a fossilised metaphor – “no stone unturned” – which introduces the idea that the creativity of metaphor is very close to the dullness of cliché. The poem which follows begins with a cliché, “taking a pig to market”, and goes on to use the lively and observant pig on its unknowing way to slaughter as a metaphor for our own voyage through life. “Anxiety” plays with the mysterious metaphor of “falling” asleep whereby in dreams the sleeper “actually” falls into water and “Against Falling” (were these originally conceived as an alphabetically organised group?) has the writer scaling an almost impossible mountain called syntax. A really satisfying poem follows a woman returning home with a plastic canister containing her mother’s ashes. Her mother was a master (or mistress – it depends on how alive the metaphor is) of the cliché:

. . . . . Her mother’s birthmark on her left shoulder, the small tattoo of a lily on her ankle, and those retorts of hers, those reminders that education did not come her way, that money never drops from the sky, that men are to be managed not trusted, that women can never be friends, that televisions, like all other inventions, will one day be quaint forgotten things, these are all there in the canister, locked in, burned into ash so that not one word will ever escape again. She is sure her tired mother would be pleased to be silenced. Words, she used to say, are never enough.

Once we accept that this eloquent style of meditation and narrative, surreal in the sense of not being limited by the ordinary, everyday, “real” is a projection of the poet’s psyche we are left with the issue of how this psyche is structured. Here it’s a matter of choosing your ideology. We could emphasise dreams, language, metaphor, creativity or culture and then relate the others to the dominant one. I’m not an expert on this issue, but I recognise that in last century’s great students of the structure of the mind – Freud, Jung, Lacan et al – there is an overwhelming preoccupation with this. I’m not sure what Brophy feels are more essential elements than others but if I had to guess I would expect them to be the language features.

Which brings me to the book’s structure. As I said in the introduction, what makes Radar so interesting is its conjunction of the two kinds of poetry. True, they are not two kinds of poem by a single poet: but then that is not uncommon and always seems rather stagey. At the same time if they were “unconnected” poets they would just be representatives of two different approaches to dealing with the world in poetry. There is something finely tuned and right about the fact that the two poets have a mentor/student relationship as well as a friendship one. Radar’s unusually valuable blurb expresses the book’s structure and achievement perfectly: Curnow says to Brophy. “My poems are (seemingly) conscious, direct confessions and yours are unconscious waking dreams” and Brophy replies, “This world always senses another world. Maybe your poems rescue mine while mine throw a life line to yours”. “Unconscious waking dreams” is a fine description of the seventy prose poems though it opts for seeing the dream as the dominant feature in the structure of the poet’s creativity. I would have felt it truer to say that Brophy’s poems were inclined to live in the otherworld of language and its strange, expressive offshoot, metaphor.