Monday, July 22, 2013

Something Old

This week’s “Something Old” is written by a guest reviewer, the distinguished Australian-resident poet Jennifer Compton, whose work has been reviewed previously on this blog [look up “Jennifer Compton” on the index at right]. When I asked Jennifer to write a “Something Old” for me, she responded by forwarding this review of the work of Australian poet Ian McBryde. The review is notable for the judicious way the reviewer balances what is admirable and what is worth criticising in McBryde’s work. This review originally appeared in Quadrant, under the heading “No Cheating Now”. Due acknowledgement is made to Quadrant.

“THE ADOPTION ORDER” by Ian McBryde  (published by Five Islands Press, 2009) Review by guest reviewer Jennifer Compton.

            I was eager to read Ian McBryde's newest book, The Adoption Order, because I liked his previous book, Slivers (Flat Chat Press 2005), so very much. Slivers is one of the few books that I re-read to check if the magic is still potent. And so far, so good. The heroic voice of the poet leads me through a Bladerunner landscape, smokey visions of epic sorrows and ironies.

''I was able to save everyone except you. And me.”

            Slivers fires up my synapses in the same way an elegantly wrought cryptic crossword does.

            And it interests me that in his previous book Domain (Five Islands Press 2004), there is a visual poem called Cryptic Crossword, which sets out on the page searing twentieth century words such as BABI-YAR, BIALYSTOK, CONCCAMP.

            But I cannot take to Domain. I quarrel with it.

            Did Lida Barova really press her forehead to the steamy glass in the train, remembering the noisy champagne promises? And at the Wannsee Conference was the laughter of chauffeurs, as they threw snowballs, audible to the black uniforms clustered inside? Surely you can only know these things if you were there.

            This captious, scrupulous stance of mine leaves very little room for the work of poetry, and its right to imagine anything and go anywhere. Perhaps I should simply blame the poet. The poet failed to convince. I intuited that he trusted the powerful words - Kristallnacht, ZyklonB – that he scattered in our faces would do their work while he drew his skirts aside.
            But still there are lines that resonate and evident skill. Ian McBryde is always a poet. I wouldn't quarrel with his work so much, or like it so much, if he wasn't, pre-eminently, a fine poet. He is not clumsy, and rarely strikes a bum note. But I do accuse him of with-holding.

            I venture to think that because he has a charismatic stage presence and a compelling voice, he can put a poem across to an audience, but that the poem sometimes lies on the page, without benefit of his artistry, lacking a little ...  something. What he can deliver within his performance, he sometimes with-holds from the poem.

            I ended my quarrel with Domain as I read it on a crowded bus, and a German teacher, reading over my shoulder, told me - “That German is wrong. It is not Guten Nacht. It is Gute Nacht.”
            There is something subtly askew with the book, and there is an end to it.

            I turned to the new book, The Adoption Order, with high hopes. I was at the launch at Collected Works bookshop here in Melbourne, and Ian read several poems with conviction and a high sense of drama, and I understood the book to have a strong narrative thread. The imagining of a mother and father who could never be identified or known. The title lead me down that path, and the appealing photo of a little boy on the end page, staring into an empty fireplace, did not persuade me I was on the wrong path. The last verse of Motherlode, the last poem on the book, fell, like a stone into a deep well, into my mind.

Language vanishes, the days
have changed shape. I will die
with your name in my mouth.”

            I remember those lines, and the way Ian said them. They have the trick of poetry, the insinuating way of being memorable.

            And then I came to read the book as a piece, as a whole. I sat to it, looking for story. The unfolding of a journey, and some of the stations along the way.

            The epigraph, courtesy of Lola Montez, - “Courage. And shuffle the cards.” - set the book in motion. And what a wonderful opening salvo of a poem. I quote in full.


Mother an empty tenement.

Father the sound makes
on metal roofs.

Sister a splintered boat
washed onto rocks.

Brother dust in cathedrals.

Wife the light
glancing off ice fields.

My children these still
and silent rooms

I wake to.”

            But then I found myself not being able to find the nub of the thing. Characters were being introduced who were not delineated for me, the reader. Meryl Leppard, Sarah Gray, Marion McBryde, Peter McBryde, Sheila McBryde, and others. Their names appeared as dedications at the tops of poems. Who are they? Are they, perhaps, an empty tenement, a splintered boat, the light glancing off icefields?

            The cast in this book is too large for me to get a grip on it. And the persona of the book has two mothers and two fathers which compounds my difficulty. I suspect the unknown biological father is the one who, in Outage, reaches for the child with dead hands, bony claws. And the unknown biological mother is the woman in Love Song Played Backwards who is walking away through a field of wheat, which is –

... silent and motionless
and blank as Saskatchewan.”

            But I suppose an adopted child creates many many ideas of the original parents. There is a confusion, a tangle.
            I resorted to google to find out what the Wilson Code was. It was too important a pointer to the long poem – The Wilson Code – which starts out in 1772 - “We burst furiously out of a history of fists” - and ends in Melbourne in 2009, to let pass in ignorance.

Can't sleep. What to do when the pills and the whiskey
and the smoke are no longer enough. Close your eyes

in a warm place. Know all the Irish rivers are born
from tears.”

            The poem ends by going finally to sleep, dreaming of Armagh.

            And of course, google helped me out. The Wilson Code (or the Jim Wilson Code) is American Airlines code for the shipment of coffins and cadavers. The ancestors are being delivered to me.

            I know this review is not being very generous to one of our most interesting poets, so, at this late stage, I will hastily say that The Adoption Order came very close to being the book Ian McBryde set out to write. And within it are stand alone poems that create their own world and breathe their own air. For instance, Songs for Paul, where the poet imagines how and why he was conceived, within which he summons up the father.

Late May.
Guess she's had the kid by now.
Little bastard.”

            This poem gives me all the stepping stones I need. It is powerful, and wistful, and bravura, and it turns back in on itself and completes the circle.

No cheating now. Spell rescue. Don't look.
Spell ruin. Spell empty well. Spell memory.”

            In Slivers Ian writes - “Come with me. This is important.” And this is his gift. I believe him. Even if I am sometimes a quarrelsome passenger, a difficult customer, I don't doubt that it is an important journey that we take together.   

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