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.

A. Frances Johnson: Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov

Glebe: Puncher and Wattmann, 2017, 86pp.

This new book by A. Frances Johnson has the same neat three-part structure as her second. But whereas The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street was divided into past, present and future (with the future significantly coming first), Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov is built around three homophonic puns: Soar, Sore and Saw. And although the new book has some significant differences of emphasis, it clearly comes from the same stable. It begins as did The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street, for example, with poems about the kind of grotesque interpenetration of what should be different orders of existence, focussing on the present development and future possibilities of drone technology, especially that part of the technology which eschews crude flying- and guided-bombs in favour of a birdlike mechanism with only minimal effect on the environment it’s exploring. Understandably these poems don’t pass up the opportunity to criticise the murderous American use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the last of the poems about mechanical birds, “Soar II: String That Holds the Sky”, focusses on the moving testimony of the son and grandchildren of a woman killed by a drone strike in Pakistan – but poetry, being what it is, responds better to free-ranging imaginative possibilities than it does to moral outrage. As a result the best of these drone poems seem to me to be those which focus on the ambivalent status of these UAVs themselves. “Microaviary” from The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street, for example, concluded with a poem, “Hummingbird versus Raven”, in which both “birds” abandoned their military destinies and pursued their own lives, the Raven heading for Africa and the Hummingbird, in Bavaria, “attempting to build a nest out of nails in the forest of Odin”.

“Hummingbird versus Raven” is thus a poem that wants to explore surreal possibilities rather than dwell on technological and ethical issues. The same could be said of “Love Song” from this new book:

. . . . . 
This technological pianissimo is a subtle achievement.
But for scientists, flawed “hear and avoid” mechanisms are dead giveaways.
There can be no stealth without concealment of song.
Some days a vagueness of pitch confuses the young corporal on headsets.
When his birds do not return, he can still hear them over the wire,
over the shush of white noise, mimicking the harmonics
of ancient Urdu love songs.

The drone of “Birds”, in contrast, goes about its murderous task “never fooled / by sugared Persian love songs”. Many of these poems are interested in song in the same way as these two. The former begins, “Bastard variations in form and song”, referring not only to the mechanical construction of an imitation bird but also to the principle of variation in music. And the book’s second poem, “Hummingbird”, overtly draws poetry into its imaginative ambit:

Target accuracy of poems
as with fixed-wing UAVs
varies wildly.
Only the remote operator
reads intention like a book.
This is his bastard ghazal.
Unlike the poet,
he won’t discuss payload,
precise and imprecise hovering,
the true arc
of his birds avian stunts.
That’s how the poem began
and ended, looking for trajectory,
for onscreen radiance,
explosions in quiet rooms.

It’s very much part of what makes Johnson an interesting poet that what looks like an opportunity for a fairly straightforward moral condemnation of the way technology, admittedly impressively, takes the natural world and recreates it as a destructive force should turn out to be interlaced with so many metaphors about the writing of poetry that it may well be a statement of ars poetica. It’s especially interested in the nature of authorial intention and control, questions which are always interesting in the consideration of any art but especially poetry. Poems go out into the world where whatever it is that they are trying to do – their “payload” – can be missed, misunderstood or distorted by readers. In the end, though, like the drones’ handlers, poets are hoping to make occasional “hits”, “explosions in quiet rooms”. It’s a theme – or perhaps one should say, “a conjunction with interesting imaginative possibilities” – that is taken up overtly in “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle versus Poem” and, again, it’s the question of authorial control over interpretation that interests Johnson: “the poem is less reliable / in open space, but more flexible / than fixed wing models // favouring the single reading”.

The rest of these “Soar” poems are devoted to either oppression or elevation in one form or another. The prose-poem, “The Problem of Russian Novels in the Desert”, is a portrait of Bashar al-Assad, working by bringing the very un-Syrian world of Russian fiction into conjunction with the portrait of a tyrant. It’s not a surreal conjunction since Russia supports the Syrian regime and part of the poem’s point is probably that this support is as inexplicable as the importation of Russian novels into the middle-east. At another, more surreal, level Syria is imagined to be undergoing the kind of climate-change that other poems interest themselves in. But here it is a matter of unseasonal, smothering snow. Conceivably this is designed to be a symbol of the importation of things Russian – if you want the arms, you’ll also have to take the weather and the literature – but that might make the poem more logically explicable than it wants to be. But, at any rate, it is a “soaring” poem because in it Assad dreams of flying:

. . . . . Forget about reading, I implore you! Oblomov, Karamazov, Raskolnikov are no use any more. I now regard time with a gull’s cold eye, cosying up to avian metaphors, though I can barely tell the difference between kites and drones. My blood seems poikilothermic now, much like that of the ibis, last survivor at the edge of the lake. But still I cannot fly. Expectation of transfiguration, flight, you see, remains strong . . .

It ties the poem in with the opening bird poems as well as making a nice pun on “flight”.

The ecological catastrophe imagined in “The Problem of Russian Novels in the Desert”, takes the form of a rise in sea levels as a result of human-induced climate-change. The sea levels hardly “soar” but they rise sinisterly enough. “Ultima Thule: Swimming Lessons” is a kind of semi-comic version of the incipient Noah’s flood and, in contrast, “Sea Level” is a more straightforward though complex meditation on “the salt order that threatens” (for someone who lives on a sand island in a fishing village a couple of metres above sea level, this is especially wince-inducing). But the poem isn’t a simple tract about climate change: its “you” wants to learn something about the alternative way of ordering reality that the oceanic represents, to get beyond the world of containment and domestication of the liquid:

. . . . . 
You’ve learnt the lessons of containment: skyscrapers and houses, banks and zoos.
In the city, people press their hands against glass and feel the pulsing tremor of curtain walls.

You are like them; this is part and parcel of your day job, listening to life moving through
encryption. Knowing that, in the end, all your resolutions will melt.

On the way back from the coast you notice cavernous shops selling light fittings,
acres and acres of lights, a confusion of Bethlehems. 

In the distance the city skyline glows with penthoused unbelief.
You shift in closer now, you have come back – strong, certain as tides.

As I read it, we are back, here, in the world of the mechanical birds and their metaphoric possibilities about the nature of poetry: a salt, liquid order requires, after all, a different sort of poetry, one less about the containment of experience in a neat work with a single meaning and more about fluid poetic possibilities. (The poems which follow are about soaring in the sense of mountain climbing and the last of them, “Australian Awe”, concludes with a wonderful imagined piece of outrage – “What’s wrong with you? / What did art ever do to you?” – which gets its effect by joining the conventional reading of a cliché with another, more significant one.)

The middle section of Rendition for Harp & Kalashnikov is, as its title, “Sore”, suggests, about pain, specifically the grief of loss. The initial poems take up the loss of the poet’s father, an obsessive and unassuagably painful theme that can be traced back to Johnson’s first book, significantly titled The Pallbearer’s Garden. The later poems deal with the loss of a sister-in-law to cancer. Like all good elegies these poems have at least half an eye on what they are doing in the same way that, when we cry in grief, we can also stand outside of ourselves and see ourselves weeping. This, I think, is why the first poems are grouped together as ”anti-elegies” and the first of these says quite overtly,

. . . . . 
Poetry always cherry-picks memory
for its own ends; yet that’s a
medicated narcissism for some.
Earnest elegies are often rejected
by dogs and children. Listen to them howl.
Voting for life outside of ritual.
I’m on your side; I’m with the hounds 
and the kids. I won’t let elegy
make you over into a bad oil painting,
don grief’s cloth pantomime . . .

The later poems of both groups are kept animated by their surprising perspectives and tactics so although there are a lot of repetitive elements – the sister-in-law’s chemotherapy wig, for example – these still look like occasional poems rather than a set cold-bloodedly exploiting a rich thematic stream.

The title of the third section, “Saw” suggests that the poems it contains will focus of reality as seen by a poet rather than on the quirky and imaginative conjunctions that the future technologies have to offer. Again, the approach is not quite what one might expect, it is more experimental than unashamedly chosiste. The first poem, “Laverton: First Star”, recapitulates the idea of transfigured soaring. Asleep by the side of the road, the poet imagines taking out a ladder from her purse and climbing up to “rest my cheek / against a globe of star”. But the project doesn’t work: you can climb Yeats’s ladder but you can’t get rid of it and so you are stuck with the world and its griefs, making poetry from it:

. . . . . 
I wasn’t blessed with that kind of luck.
She’s astronomically challenged, the dry gods
whispered as I fell. They’d have me work
a different genre, jobbing live words 
instead of dead stars . . .

The poem that gives its title to the section is not about the act of seeing at all but rather is a comic poem about the absurdities of the theory wars as experienced in the disciplines of history. With no central authority surveying past realities, there is nobody to write a history of history: “all our dreamscapes, our facts / and gyres of feeling / shrank into a strange Babel”. And the last poem, “Pilgrims” is something of an oddity as well. It details a trip to Rome – surely the embodiment of a central authority trying to stand outside of the unyielding late twentieth-century calls for the displacement of all such authorities – and makes a lot of play with this so that the driver’s grip on the wheel is “canonical” while the passenger controls, with “looser faith”, the digital maps. But at the end of the poem (and book)

. . . . . 
She exits the car before he can pull up.
The Ascension Giftshop’s
a good place to park, she says,
not looking back,
running towards love.

One wants to read it as a tart comment on the vulgarity of Rome’s pilgrim route – a vulgarity that must have existed since the city was set up as the senior city of the faith – but, ultimately, it is a joke about ascending, the image in this book for what the mechanical birds do, what the mountain-climbing anthropologist does in “High-Altitude Archeologist”, and what the poet wants to do by the side of the road at Laverton.