Pachinko Sunset by David Gilbey Island Press 2016 was launched in Sydney by Peter Kirkpatrick on 27th February 2016 at the Friend in Hand Hotel. Pachinko Sunset, along with the other titles on Island Press’ 2016 list will be launched in Melbourne at the Dan O’Connell Hotel, Carlton, on 19th March – details https://www.facebook.com/events/914712998643164/
Sometimes I think there is a book of poems to be written in praise of ironing. Indeed, in many ways poetry resembles ironing – not least because most people say they don’t enjoy it. But what’s not to like about ironing? You take a wrinkled shirt or a pair of pants – in days gone by it might also have included bed linen, or even underwear – and restore it to its always intended, as it were ideal, Platonic form. If ironing is a perfectly mundane activity, its orderly rhythms can also become a form of meditation, whereby you enter that calm place in the mind inhabited by people who go fishing, or who enter holy orders – or who write poems. You take an ordinary, untidy object from the ordinary, untidy world and give it fresh shape and meaning, renewing its significance. I might go so far as to say that somebody ironing embodies a domestic version of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, making whole again, not the vast wreckage of time, but the rucks and rumples of the rinse cycle.
I’m pleased to learn that David Gilbey is a man who loves to iron. He even has a poem all about it in Pachinko Sunset, “Iron Men”:
An iron believes in order, pressing even rebellious seersucker into place.
pleats are a challenge: in Japan my daughter’s school tunic
was my Sunday night labour of love,
threading camels through a needle’s eye.
Not only is it nice to encounter a man who has been up close and personal with seersucker, I like the way that last line inverts the whole painstaking “order” semingly imposed by ironing. “Iron Men” also indicates that David is a frequent visitor to Japan. Three times, he tells us, he has been a Visiting Professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University in the city of Sendai in northern Honshu. Speaking as somebody whose linguistic range beyond English and swearing extends only to some high school French, I can’t imagine what it’s like to work at such a level across such a very different language as Japanese. It’s significant, then, that several of David’s poems play on mistranslation, and the surprising misdirections of meaning that result. In fact, mistranslation as misdirection is a keynote of Pachinko Sunset. Perhaps a better word might be indirection: the diversion rather than the complete loss of meaning.
In a section from the long sequence “Haibun Hikes”, David asks his Sendai students to write about an imagined holiday to Australia, and then cobbles together a passage of his own, using their mistakes, for them to mark. He turns the result into a sonnet, what he calls “a ‘found’ poem [created] out of our mutual language-making”:
The hotel there was more beautiful than our imagination.
At lunch I eat crocodile and lasagne.
I go to sea and swim enough with a shoal of fishes.
We saw many famous animals: kangaroo, koara [sic],
And the shy duck-mouth otter.
Yes, the effect is predictably humorous. But when in this transcultural exchange a platypus becomes “the shy duck-mouth otter” things also become both strange and yet somehow right, an imaginative renewal.
I have compared poetry to ironing, and mentioned that David likes to iron: “I’m an ironing kind of guy”, he tells us. On his many travels I am sure that pleat marches with pleat, and that all his creases properly rhyme. But I have also seen David in a more expansive mood, in which a hidden penchant for extremely loud dinner jackets reveals itself, and these highly colourful items more closely resemble abstract expressionist paintings – or, in literary terms, projectivist compositions by field – rather than lyrical poems. So if there is a fascination with order in David’s work – is that why he is so attracted to Japan and to Japanese culture? – there is, running alongside it, a spirit of play and of wild extravagance. In this regard it’s worth nothing that, outside of references to Japanese poets such as Basho, the dominant literary allusions of Pachinko Sunset are to the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century: poets known for their fondness for unlikely and abstruse metaphors or “conceits”. Thus, in the first of a set of “Slam Scripts”, David manages – tongue firmly in cheek, I suspect – to invoke both Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” in support of his argument that the lyrics of Swedish pop singer Mans Zemerlöw’s winning entry in the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, a confection called “Heroes”, is genuine poetry. The melodious Zemerlöw
Wizards his words, magics his music
croons his metaphysical conceit:
“I make the worms turn into butterflies”
David calls this “Eurovision’s Metaphysical Embrace”. No doubt that last line is best embraced in Swedish.
I spoke before about Pachinko Sunset’s interest in mistranslation and mis/indirection, and it is evident that these are generators of poetry for David, as evidenced by “the shy duck-mouth otter” – or perhaps even “I make the worms turn into butterflies”. The American critic Harold Bloom famously believes that all allegedly strong poets “misread” their poetic forebears, and in that misreading remake the Western canon according to their own lights. Like a lot of literary theory, Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence can seem a form of Higher Bullshit (not least for its Freudianism), but there’s something to be said for the notion that a poet, and poetry itself, characteristically misses or misreads obvious or assumed meanings and takes our minds into other directions: the pathways of the duck-mouth otter. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”, wrote Emily Dickinson, “Success in Circuit lies”.
Two of the many outstanding poems in Pachinko Sunset dramatise happy experiences of misdirection; of eventually finding yourself in the right place in the very process of getting lost. In one of these, “Cancer Ward: Octet for Jim”, the poet initially goes to the wrong Japanese hospital to see a friend: “they treat Alzheimers, not cancer”. Waiting to be redirected, he watches elderly patients who are now genuinely lost, “tottering, frail, already other-worldly”, but is distracted by TV game shows “where, like life, two mixed teams/answer questions, give opinions, banter and flirt”. Happy redirection is what this sequence of poems is all about because – as we discover when David eventually finds the right hospital – cancer itself isn’t necessarily a one-way street, and Jim ultimately returns to the land of the living. But in the finale David is characteristically lost once again:
On the way back, you get Jim’s instructions wrong again,
are rescued by a cheerful, patient Japanese couple
who give you a lift, in the other direction,
to the station.
“Cancer Ward: Octet for Jim” is about being rescued by the surprising, unexpected directions that life can take, and the ways in which other people can lead us there.
In another of poem of misdirection, “Arashyama Nocturne”, David’s friend Keiji is taking him to what must be a quite special sushi restaurant, only the pair get so carried away talking about poetry that they board the wrong subway train. “Forgive me, I often make this mistake”, says Keiji. At the end of the poem, however, a different order is achieved “above a [humble] tourist centre” as the pair sit down to a meal which is laid out like a poem: “a stanza of delicacies”, as David calls it:
slices of sashimi haiku,
tanka with beans, potatoes, burdock root,
pickles, fresh water bream and, to my surprise,
a wild strawberry with black and white sesame tofu,
topped with a curlicue of sea urchin.
Sometimes the wrong subway is the right subway.
Pachinko Sunset is not only about Japan. There are poems about David’s hometown of Wagga, and others that range more widely over his life and times. Even so, it’s fair to say that the transcultural connection with Sendai is the book’s dominant motif. This is in line with a growing, indeed inevitable trend in Australian poetry towards closer engagement with Asia. In this connection I note in passing that in August 1899 a Sydney poet, Robert Crawford, published an English haiku in the Bulletin, home of “The Man from Snowy River”:
To the Dawn on the hill-tops…
The Vision of Spring!
This appeared a decade before Ezra Pound and the Imagists expressed interest in Asian poetics. The Far East is in fact our Deep North, and Pachinko Sunset offers a number of broad and narrow roads into it. In that sense, it makes a welcome contribution to Australia’s re-Orientation.
That Japan is by now a familiar exotic for Australian readers is perhaps implied by David’s title. Pachinko – a popular Japanese arcade game played by dropping steel balls into a kind of vertical maze – is at once commonplace (pachinko gambling parlours are everywhere in Japan) and, to Western eyes, exotic. For me, Pachinko Sunset also carries echoes of the kind of mass-produced Sampans in the Sunset paintings that hung in long-ago dentists’ surgeries. Whatever the case, the essence of the game of pachinko is misdirection. Steel balls tumble through pins and traps which produce unexpected trajectories. The point is not that the balls ultimately descend through the machine, it’s the circuitous routes they take to get there: that’s where fun and profit reside. “Success in Circuit lies”.
Buy Pachinko Sunset, follow its poetic misdirections, get lost in it, and re-Orient yourself. And may all your worms turn into butterflies.
– Peter Kirkpatrick
Peter Kirkpatrick teaches Australian Literature in the Department of English at Sydney University. His research interests include poetry and popular culture, Australian modernism, and the literature of Sydney. His publications include The Sea Coast of Bohemia: Literary Life in Sydney’s Roaring Twenties (2nd ed. 2007); Serious Frolic: Essays on Australian Humour, with Fran de Groen (2009); and Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia, with Robert Dixon (2012).
Pachinko Sunset will be launched in Melbourne, along with the other 2016 Island Press titles at the The Dan O Connel Hotel on 19 March at 2PM https://www.facebook.com/events/914712998643164/
Pachinko Sunset is available from http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm or you can order by PayPal or Credit Card from https://rochfordstreetreview.com/about-rochford-street-review/island-press-book-launch/