Concise, Wittily Memorable & Elegant: Adam Aitken reviews ‘Urban Gleanings’ by Mark Mahemoff

Urban Gleanings, by Mark Mahemoff, Ginninderra Press, 2017

Mark Mahemoff’s most recent collection of poems will please a recent critic of Contemporary Australian Poetry, who claimed that there isn’t enough poetry about this city. Mark’s URBAN is my Sydney urban: the train stations are familiar, the aircraft noise, and the people he describes. “This is pure city” he writes, and his poem meticulously distills this quality, which is all out there in the world, but it takes a poet like Mark to find that purity.

In fact in a most extraordinary poem about a poet’s memorial reading – an evening he and I and many other poets spent at Callan Park in memory of Martin Harrison’s life and poetry – I am given a true memento of the event which was both wonderful and difficult – and the extraordinary thing is how Mark describes that afternoon perfectly.

The book cover reminds me of a bricklined underpass I used to walk through in Newtown, or the railway bridge in Macdonaldtown, a suburb in the inner west of Sydney, where I once lived as a student. But such non-descript and seemingly dull sites hide deeper connotations, as vestiges of early working class modernity. Indeed the city I recognize in these poems is that place where community and shared memory is slowly being erased, the way terraced communities are removed to make way for a new freeway overpass. Mark’s gleaning is a kind of literary harvesting of what he calls the problem of memory, that memories are necessary but remembering is often traumatic, while forgetting – being endemic – has now become a symptom of collective dementia.

For Mark, the URBAN – what he calls ‘life scaled down’ – is a rich subject, a starting point for observation and self-reflection. There is something typically dark in Mark’s irony and humour:

Is there anything emptier
than an empty childcare centre?

While this is simple, and austere, it is concise, wittily memorable and elegant. Other poems are very thickly described. For instance poems in which Mark overhears neighbours and a soundscape of the suburb vitalises the poem.

There are few poets as good as Mark at writing about the commuting experience, which he sees as existentially horrifying, because all commuters are somewhat alienated from each other in what French writer Marc Augé calls the ‘nonplace’:

We jerk to a standstill and halt inexplicably for some minutes in the middle of nowhere, then lurch back into movement¹

Still, disillusionment with this dystopia is wittily defined in a memorable line:

dreams
often end up in mothballs.

As the actor Bill Nighy said, we can think about death 12 times a day, and it feels normal, even healthy!² But these scenarios are transformed into moments for empathy – for the poet keeps all senses on alert to human life, however dismal. In this way poetry can encourage our empathetic response, especially our feelings for ‘misfits, old, young and wrecked,’ but he’s also empathetic for children, and empathetic for parents and parenting, even those who aren’t good at such roles. In poems about parenting he himself comes across as a self-questioning, self-deprecating and humble parent and these poems are very much about how a man learns to be a carer.

In contrast to the state of superficial sentimentality, empathy is only possible if the observer subject becomes deeply engaged with the person he sees, so much so that he/she enters into the subjectivity of the other:

Sight

That woman with grey/blue eyes
must now face old age
which her grey/blue eyes
did not see coming.

Or is it me and my fear
staring back from the bathroom mirror,
wishing my sight was less clear?

William Bronk is a great influence here, with his experience of love tempered by wariness of those conditions that make love difficult to achieve:

Humbled

It’s a dirty business, making love to the world
once we know what it is without
its sweet dresses, descent demeanours, and still
feeling love for it, facing it.³

Mahemoff’s ‘Double Rainbow’ re-states this clearly:

Everyone’s gaze was held by this vision. The promise of gold that had never been kept. And even as night came, long after it had disappeared, they all held the memory of what had occurred. There were small pools of hope left on every street.

Indeed the poet gleans for hope – as if hope is the poet’s poetic grain left over after a harvest; and Mahemoff is a poet who quite clearly believes in poems that tell stories, as a practice of re-membering. Stories make sense of events, thus the micro-narrative prose poems – these seem to challenge John Ashbery’s description of a universal dementia:

The world, as we know it, sinks into dementia, proving narrative passé. 4

This borrows Ashbery’s stance, and suggest Mahemoff belongs to a clear anti-narrative camp. However, in an elegy for his grandmother, ‘The Myths’, the grandson tells her story and implants her in history’s grander narrative:

born in 1918
in a village so sequestered
that all its inhabitants
flocked to watch a car drive through

‘Mocking Time’ shows an extraordinary ability to telescope time and experience, rather than stretch it out as narrative would do. In ‘Mocking Time’ youth meets age and we become acutely aware of our shared fate:

A child is staring,
bewildered by my age
and how I arrived here.
Leaping and skipping,
she can’t imagine
such a journey,
having already begun it
irreversibly.

Above all Mahemoff brings humour and acute observation to urban absurdity: for example the overly friendly and intrusive café waiter satirized in a way that allows for into self-deprecation and deep reflection on the customer’s own state of mind:

Eventually he leaves you to your paper and pen
while making you aware of a deeply ingrained flaw.
An inability to state with directness and transparency
what you don’t want, or need less of, or more.

This is indeed a book of GLEANINGS – a perfect title, meaning to obtain (information) from various sources, as in “the information gleaned from press cuttings”; and to gather leftover grain after a harvest. The point is that Mark’s gleaning is in fact a defiant – almost a socialist – gesture which can create a portrait of the ordinary working person, and to write poetry about ordinary people is indeed to write poetry which makes no pretentious claim to being great or deeply profound. Mahemoff’s own definition is true: GLEANING is to “Survey the darkness while recollecting light.”

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¹ Marc Augé, Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity (2009), trans John Howe, Verso.
² Jenn Selby, ‘Bill Nighy fondly thinks about dying ’12 times a day’, The Independent, Monday 9 February 2015
https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/bill-nighy-thinks-about-death-12-times-a-day- 10033429.html
³ Metaphor of Trees and Last Poems (1999) Talisman House, 1 edition
4 Hotel Lautreamont (1992) Knopf 1st edition

 – Adam Aitken

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Adam Aitken is a Sydney poet. His last book Archipelago was shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Award and the Prime Minister’s Prize in 2018.

Urban Gleanings is available from https://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/store.php?product/page/1305/Mark+Mahemoff+%2F+Urban+Gleanings

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