Bewilderment and Wonder: Claire Gaskin launches ‘Reflections of a Temporary Self: New & Selected Poems’ by Grant Caldwell

Reflections of a Temporary Self: New & Selected Poems by Grant Caldwell, Collective Effort Press/Trojan Press 2015 was launched by Claire Gaskin at Collected Works Bookshop in Melbourne on 24 March 2016

reflections on a temporary selfGrant has been a mentor to me and many others and I am grateful for that for me and for poetry. Grant’s qualities, intelligences and sensibilities translate to the page. He is even and embracing and so is his poetry, ‘a man passing/on the footpath/ followed by a plastic bag’, life passes by; the man passes by pursued by the empty and inescapable. The man and the plastic bag are of equal significance, both by-products. Grant has been unceasingly, uncompromisingly committed and dedicated to his practice over decades. I have always found his vigilance about constantly examining very reassuring. Language is lived, ‘there is darkness in the adverbs of his actions’. There is an inexhaustible quite enthusiasm and delight in the observational as illustrated in poems like ‘across the sea’ with its short lines and repetitions, ‘look at it/it never stops’ and ‘tobin bronze’, where the specific details conclude in an insight, ‘changing with every step/a man/ into a gambler’.

He quoted to me once; make the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary. He is so principled about this, it’s a discipline. It is the asceticism of austerity. No embellishment no affectation. Grant’s attention to specifics is so relentless in his poems that pathos and the supposed apathy of the everyday and situational are taken to their very limits to where they become exhilarating, ‘miraculous aberrations’. This is achieved through a flatness of the picture plan that has the effect of making all things equal. In the poem entitled ‘aparty’ which sounds like apathy we end with evoking stars and lotuses by mentioning their impossibility.

The intellectual, spiritual and philosophical concerns of the poems are alongside the mundane and practical. We have poems about being on the bus which become social comment, we have poems citing ‘the tao te ching’ and ‘hinduism’ and we have poems where Flaubert is quoted while the narrator is watching someone try to fish something out of a gully trap. Flaubert is quoted in the poem entitled ‘10 a.m. new year’s day 1990’ as saying ‘to be happy/ you must be stupid/ healthy/ and selfish’, alongside observations of the cat and the man next door. This placement this lack of separation has the effect of elevating the everyday to the philosophical and reducing the intellectual to the irreducibility of the everyday. The everyday being irreducible because it is independent like, ‘the figure of independence/ the cat’, it is on the street not in our institutions.

This man with his teeth is captured by the narrator in a private moment. Everyday indifference is under scrutiny here, made public. The poem is putting the intellectual on an even plain with the observable and immediate. Blanchot says when talking about the everyday, ‘this banality is also what is most important, if it brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived – in the moment when lived, it escapes every speculative formulation, perhaps all coherence, all regularity.’

The poem is taking on the nature of happiness, ‘flaubert also said/in order to be happy/first you must be so/the man next door/is going inside’. The seemingly ordinary is astonishing in its humanity. We get it out of the gully trap wash it and put it in our mouths. The everyday free from abstractions is the site of the real. There is a play off between truth and reality in this poetry, both boxing at the same weight.

There is a Pascalian philosophy that the truth can only be got at by listing what it is not, ‘it can only be described through negations’. Grant applies this in his list poem entitled ‘it’ and then humourously negates this method with his concluding lines, ‘but it’s pretty close….’ This Pascalian method ignores the everyday where thinking in binaries of right/wrong, positive/negative, true/false is irrelevant because of coexistence. In this list poem there is the intellectual, philosophical and spiritual coexisting, ‘it’s not Krishnamurti or zen’, ‘it’s not art’ it’s not physical reality or human relationships. Egalitarianism and non-judgement is also reflected in the structure of this collection of selected poems. The book is not divided into sections according to the seven books of Grant’s poetry. This book develops according to the themes and concerns of the poems. I think the structure asks us to appreciate each poem for its content rather than weigh it up against earlier or later poems accessing development. So development is radial rather than linear. All is now.

The bewilderment and wonder depicted in these poems means they are never earnest but always questioning, ‘the pointlessness of squares’ he says when referring to tourists taking ‘snapshots of their expectations’. When Grant uses poetic devices they are always playful, ‘the monkey is meditating’ but later in the poem the monkey is rushing after the tourists who are ‘screaming and laughing’, the monkey no longer meditating but not the lesser for it. The narrator is always in a state of bemusement at systems and constructs, ‘tight families picnicking in the park’, the alliteration further tightens the ‘tight families’. In the poem entitled ‘The Lights Turn Green’ a series of scenes depicting people in differing states of possession and dispossession is concluded by observations of lobsters in a tank suggesting regardless of status everyone is a lobster in a tank waiting to be eaten, ‘four small lobsters with their clippers bound in black plastic tape, also wait to be eaten.’ The ‘also’ seems conclusive, not just referring to the crabs in the adjoining tank but to all of us regardless of difference we are not free, we are ineffectual ultimately we have our ‘clippers bound in black plastic tape’. The book is full of surprises as it states life is, ‘a woman walking the coast/ carrying a man’s heart she didn’t ask for/but wanted all the same’. We are carried across the line lyrically by the alliteration to be undercut by the content, we have no choice no agency no control but sometimes there are delights even though the ‘intangibility of emotion/ knocks you like an elephant’. What can we hold onto? ‘the pleasure of habit/you find your measure of/in confusing spirals/the flux of wings/the bang/of miraculous aberrations’. Flight is about repetition of wing beats. In the poem ‘sunday – the sun is out’ observations and interactions of a walk to bronte beach ends with ‘i open all the windows/lie on the floor/and fly away’. Repetition is flight but it is also imprisonment, ‘the free bird/doesn’t know its name/the bird in the cage/is insane from repetition’. Identity is imprisonment. What you consume will consume you, ‘water with teeth in it’.

In this book with poems in it dealing with subject matter including owning a dog, going to a B.B.Q., watching the news, there are visual poems and pantoums and haiku all thematically strong full of the wisdom that ‘there is no wisdom/there is no attainment/whatsoever’. But there is the comfort in the everyday going ‘for a bit of a bushwalk’ where we can be anonymous, independent and escape all authority whether it be intellectual, religious, political or philosophical where, ‘einstein, buddhism and my stiff neck’ are a title all equally lower case.

I am delighted and honoured to say that Reflections of a Temporary Self is officially launched.

 –  Claire Gaskin

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Claire Gaskin has been publishing and teaching poetry since the 1980’s. Her collection, a bud, completed in the receipt of a Literature Board grant, was published by John Leonard Press in 2006 and shortlisted in the SA Literature Awards. Her collection, Paperweight, was published by John Hunter Publishers in 2013.

For details on how to obtain a copy of Reflections of a Temporary Self go to http://www.collectiveeffortpress.com/contact/

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