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.

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.