Prose Poem or travel writing? Mark Roberts reviews Vanuatu Moon (Parts 1 & 2) by Paul Cliff

Vanuatu Moon (Part 1 and Part 2) by Paul Cliff. PressPress 2011

Paul Cliff’s two part prose poem, Vanuatu Moon, asks a number of important questions. Unfortunately, by the time I had finished Part Two, I did not feel most of these questions had been fully answered.

One of these questions related to the term ‘prose poem’. When I think of prose poems I think of Joanne Burns or maybe Ania Walwicz…or issue 10 of Mascara where there are some interesting, intriguing and, at times, amazing short prose/poems by Susan Schultz, Suneeta Peres da Costa, Adam Aitken and Jill Jones among others. So I went looking for a definition of ‘prose poem’ to try and place my understanding of the term in some sort of context. The standard Wikipedia defintion seems good enough to start with…..”Prose poetry is poetry written in prose instead of using verse but preserving poetic qualities such as heightened imagery and emotional effects”. If we apply this to a section of one of Suneeta Peres da Costa’s pieces in Mascara we can see how such a simple definition works:

Was shy, retiring, but his problem was he shone and gave a bad impression despite his every effort to go unremarked. He would try to be still, so as not to upset the careful geometry of others’ existences, but if he was knocked by the smallest force—a gust of wind, say, or a loud noise—he shimmered and glowed and peopled shouted and raised their fists at him………

The Mirror Man

This is prose, but it almost seems that is constantly trying to be a poem, and it is this conflict which drives the work. Paul Cliff, in the prelude to his long prose poem Vanuatu Moon, starts well enough with a description of a plane sitting on the runway at Sydney airport:

The difference already begins here, on the Sydney
tarmac. In the Air Vanuatu Boeing: with the stern-faced
Melanesian hostess standing at the aisle’s head wearing
a frangipani at her ear, and us all packed into these
very cramped seats….

There is a hint of what might come later in the sequence, “the difference already begins..”, we anticipate what that difference might be, how it might grow. There is the contradiction between the stern face of the hostess and the frangipani behind her ear. This anticipation is maintained in the second section ‘Invocation’ where the sense of difference is intensified by a prayer to the sea and air for their safe arrival. This section recalls earlier invocations or prayers offered up by sailors to survive storms and for safe passage through treacherous seas.

Unfortunately this sense of difference is never completely realised. What I found in the rest of Vanuatu Moon was a fairly conventional narrative of a holiday – basically a piece of travel writing. The ‘difference’, for the most part, seems superficial. The writer is on holiday, the people are different, there are interesting things to see. After the promise of the first page and quarter the tone of the writing slips into a flatness, from which it only occasionally escapes. We learn, for example, that:

In the air-conditioned cool, the array of imports
astonishes you. French, Swiss, Danish, Dutch and Italian
cheeses. Truffles and mushrooms. Escargots. Processed
meats, pate and game birds. Exotic beers and wines.
No less than 12 brands of deodorant and 15 of
shampoo (I’ve counted, it’s true).

‘Bon Marche supermarket, Numbatu’

There is a sameness to the prose which starts to detract from the descriptions of Vanuatu which fill the two chapbooks. It is this sameness which, in the final instance, prevents the sequence from reaching it’s true potential.

There are a number of lost opportunities in the two books. For me the most obvious was the ‘Surplus Cargo’ section in book one. Here Cliff describes how the Americans deposed of all their surplus war equipment at the end of World War 2 by simply building a ramp and driving it into the sea:

                                                            being
uneconomical to ship back home, and the
Condominium baulking at the asking price, the Seabees
constructed a ramp on this site, loaded up all the
airstrip – and road making plant – steam rollers, forklifts,
bulldozers, graders, trucks and such like – with all
manner of more surplus stuff, fixed open the vehicles’
throttles and, in a dramatic, emphatic kind of merry
‘Fuck You’, just let all the cargo go (feral) – hurting its
way up then incline, to Evil Kneivel itself into the sea.

There is the potential for some interesting imagery here – of steam rollers being driven off a ramp and crashing into the sea, the roar of engines, lights, noise and so on.There is also the sense of injustice that this machinery, which could have been left for the locals to use, was simply destroyed. While this is briefly touched on, Cliff never deviates from his narrative and we have to do the work, to imagine what could have been written.

The other major question that remained unanswered for me was why Vanuatu Moon ran over two chapbooks. After reading the first book I approached the second book hoping for a change in the narrative, for some tension perhaps, or even a change to the structure of the prose. Part Two, however, continued where Part One left off and I was left thinking “why two books”. In retrospect perhaps the final outcome could have been improved if it had of been edited down to a singe book. As it was I was left thinking I had read a very well written small travel book about a holiday to Vanuatu. I had long since given up, however, on the notion of reading a long and complex prose poem.

– Mark Roberts

_________________________________________________

Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.

5 thoughts on “Prose Poem or travel writing? Mark Roberts reviews Vanuatu Moon (Parts 1 & 2) by Paul Cliff

  1. Nice to read this review Mark. I haven’t read Paul’s book, but it sounds exactly the kind of poetry I would like to read, being a poet obsessed by writing about travel, movement, cultural difference etc. I am thinking of what you mean by this comment about Paul’s encounter with the difference and otherness of the flight attendant: “Unfortunately this sense of difference is never completely realised.” I think in the cross-cultural encounter, often writing and writers confront an aporia, or absence of realisable meaning or a kind of silence that occurs precisely because we have had an encounter with the Other whose difference is perceived as profound, uncanny, beyond our abiltity to explain, and silencing. So maybe Paul’s poems are worthy for having left the unrealisable as unresolved or unframed. I also like Paul’s down-to-earth approach to not making the tourist experience a lyric or trancendental experience, (in which he Tourist, is the defining eye) but more of an immersion in a material and economic structure of tourist encounter – ie. the flat lack of lyricism, style or “poetry” is a strength of this kind of prose poem itself, as it de-mythologises the romance of travel. This is a million miles away from Judith Beveridge’s “Indian” poems for example, which are intensely lyrical and therefore the other place is an imaginary India in which the poet can mount the contemplation of religious and spiritual ideas. Paul’s book sounds like a worthy deconstruction of tourist/host encounter and exemplifies a certain modern kind of unadorned prose – what Roland Barthes called “zero-degree” writing.

  2. Come to think of it, Cliff’s description of the attendant as “stern-faced” is definitely an exception to “Zero-degree”. I think these are the moments Cliff’s text becomes ideological, judgemental, perhaps stereotyping. Is there any real empathy in the book? Is there any moment when the Self-other distinction morphs into true relationship and communication?

  3. I’ll have to give this book a read, but it will be with a slightly apprehensive brow at first. I do agree with Adam’s comment from above …

    “I also like Paul’s down-to-earth approach to not making the tourist experience a lyric or transcendental experience, (in which he Tourist, is the defining eye) but more of an immersion in a material and economic structure of tourist encounter, I also like Paul’s down-to-earth approach to not making the tourist experience a lyric or transcendental experience, (in which he Tourist, is the defining eye) but more of an immersion in a material and economic structure of tourist encounter”

    … as, with the exception of one poem, the entirety of my first collection (which is autobiographical, and a purely incidental point) couches the poet as traveller, one immersed in detail and texture of place and distinctly not extrapolating grand(iose) ideas or reinforcement of glib assumptions.

    But your assessment of …

    “The writer is on holiday, the people are different, there are interesting things to see. After the promise of the first page and quarter the tone of the writing slips into a flatness, from which it only occasionally escapes.”

    … is quite a damning one. I’ll have a read and draw my own conclusion. It sounds like one of the fundamental things not to do – to exoticise – has been breached.

  4. Being an Australian poet criticised for trading on exoticism, I am sensitive about the word itself and about patronising misreadings of how migrant and diasporic writers deal with thier connections to the Great Outside. Exotic means that which is outside, foreign, other. The odd thing in my case is that my critic did not seem to contextualise my exoticsm in terms of my writing about my Asian family and Asian connections, which is much more of a challenge than trying to write of exoticism. I hate exoticising my relatives, and I hope my writing doesn’t do that. At the same time all travel is caught up in the travel industry and the whole discourse of exoticism, and getting escape velocity from that is difficult.

  5. Pingback: Issue 3: March – April (and a bit of May) 2012 Contents. | Rochford Street Review

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