Convent Mermaid by Rod Usher Interactive Press (IP) 2014.
At some stage, every reader opens a book which leaves them cold, unmoved by the author’s every attempt to hold their interest. It isn’t necessarily that the writing is bad; it is because, for some reason, the reader can pull nothing from the page but a grumbling determination to continue, to find something which makes the reading worth the effort.
Rod Usher’s Convent Mermaid is just such a book for me. From first page to last, it left me wondering why I was forcing myself to read on. I even wondered why Usher bothers to write, but his dedication to his own poetic thought and style is obvious and commendable, if nothing else. If anyone could win me over to their work, it would be Usher, but this was not to be.
At the risk of being peevish, the first two poems in the collection represent my least favourite type of work. ‘First Hotel’ is the recounting of a baby’s thoughts and sensations in the womb, ending with the observation that “…if anyone had taken the bother / to ask, I’d have stayed on / in the all included, five star / Hotel Mother.” I’m not particularly averse to the idea that a baby may have thoughts, if only because I am not confident that we are born as a tabula rasa, but I am averse to attributing this type of thought to a baby, even if from an adult perspective. Moreover, the idea that the womb is a hotel in in some way is presented in an entirely unconvincing, unbelievable fashion.
The second poem, ‘If Not More’, has a Cromagnon cave dweller reflecting on his family’s life in their “comfortable enough” cave. His children want him to “modernise the cave”, but he preaches to them, “as any father ought. / Beauty, I explain / dwells not in the brain: / By a deer, by snow, by sunrise be taught.” For me, the imposition of contemporary ideas in this way is both absurd and unacceptable. In the hands of a writer such as William Golding, such imposition may be almost believable, but Usher is no Golding and nor, I suspect, would he want to be.
Works such as these strike me as inherently ridiculous, and Usher’s quirky humour does nothing to draw me into the ideas. Nor does it provide a sense of humanity or rapport with his subject matter, despite the occasional laugh.
Further into the book Usher gives himself away when he writes “Lifetime levity addict, I keep trying”. This is, perhaps, Usher at his most honest. The collection is full of often misplaced levity, usually abstract, intellectual and overly literary, but levity none the less.
And he does keep trying, again and again, line after line, which brings me back to my opening observation. This is a collection with which I have no sense of connection, full of thoughts and jokes which pained me to read, characterised by quirky diction and a world weary cynicism, tempered with absurdity and framed, somewhat awkwardly, within the space between birth (First Hotel) and death (If I Go First).
It isn’t that there is nothing in the collection that reaches toward me, but even lines to which I can and do relate fail to hit the mark. For example, one of the tercets from Moments:
in vagina’s warm embrace,
innermost of outer space.
As a dedicated heterophile with a great love of that particular feeling, I can relate, but the concluding line is meaningless without intellectual contortion. As much as such contortions are commonplace and easily understood, as this one is, the line adds nothing to the piece, which would have been more effective (to me) had the first two lines been joined into a monochord. The last line, quite simply, seems clumsy, irrespective of its intent, conceptual content or humour.
It is no surprise, however, that his work is enjoyed by many, and for the very features which I find to be deeply ineffective. There is, for all that I do not appreciate it, considerable humour in his observations, and his writing has sufficient skill that it is easy enough, even pleasurable, to read. But from where I sit, book in hand, Usher holds himself distant from his own thought, using his humour as an unstable bridge across which a reader may leap or falter. Indeed, in many ways it seems as though Usher uses his cynicism and humour to hold himself apart from the very subjects he writes about. He would not be the first writer to do so, and he will not be the last.
So, what to say about a collection in which every other line irritates, that doesn’t give what I, as a reader, want?
Firstly, read it again and, perhaps, again―there may be a piece of undigested Descartes interfering with one’s ability to read or lie comfortably on the stove in winter. Secondly, say what you think, but neither recommend nor reject it to others, who will have to find their own opinion in their own reading. Then put it on the shelf and don’t open it again unless compelled by some strange literary need to discover just what it is that others find within.
– Bruce Muirhead
BJ Muirhead is a writer and photographer living in rural Queensland. He has published online and in print journals, and was included in an anthology of Queensland poetry (1986). He has published art criticism and was photographic reviewer for the Courier-Mail newspaper in the 1980s. His writing and recent exhibitions, Primary Evidence (2011) andFlesh (2014), continue his lifetime interest in the human body and its relation to the inevitability of age and death. He can be found at http://bjmuirhead.wordpress.com and http://inaforeigntown.wordpress.com.
Convent Mermaid is available from http://ipoz.biz/Titles/ConM.htm