An Imaginative Renewal: Peter Kirkpatrick launches ‘Pachinko Sunset’ by David Gilbey

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/

David Gilbey reading at the Sydney Launch of Pachinko Sunset. Photograph Tahira Husain

David Gilbey reading at the Sydney Launch of Pachinko Sunset. Photograph Tahira Husain

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.

David Gilbey with Pachinko Sunset. Photograph Lachlan Brown

David Gilbey with Pachinko Sunset. Photograph Lachlan Brown

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”:

Flannel-flowers dancing
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

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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/

Island Press' 2016 Poets will be at the The Dan O Connel Hotel Melbourne at 2pm on 19th March 2016

Island Press’ 2016 Poets will be at the
The Dan O Connel Hotel
Melbourne at 2pm on 19th March 2016

Surreal Inventiveness: Peter Kirkpatrick launches ‘brush’ by joanne burns

brush by joanne burns (Giramondo 2014) was launched by Peter Kirkpatrick at Gleebooks on 11 November 2014

brushWhen Giramondo asked me to launch joanne’s latest collection, I felt an immediate and very real frisson of excitement. Here was a brush with fame! joanne is one of this country’s finest poets, and I’ve immensely enjoyed reading her work over the years. For me, as I expect for many of us, the reading of poetry is an experience of the senses – especially that of sound – before, and even after, it’s an activity of the mind and of thought. Or perhaps that’s just me. Working at a university makes me suspicious of intellectuals.

But what I mean is that – like many if not most of us here – I like to feel a poem’s textures and music before trying to form any more reasoned insights, let alone any conclusions about its meaning. In that way the reading of poetry – like the consumption of any art – simply offers a more intense way of being in the world. But it’s my role today to launch this book, so it’s not enough for me merely to brush up against it, like a cat against an ankle. I can’t brush off the expectation of having to make a coherent public statement about it, or brush aside its considerable virtues, however broad brush my comments will be.

God knows that, as a teaching academic, I spend enough time wondering what kinds if reasonable things to say about a particular poem or poet, when my first impulse is often to just to point and say, Whacko-the-chook, isn’t that entirely fucking lovely! – and so collect my salary and leave for the pub. With that particular critical methodology in mind, then, here is ‘sibylance’ – spelt s-i-b-y-l-a-n-c-e – the first poem in the sequence ‘road’, which appropriately joins the beginning and end of joanne’s book::

sun sings through the dust of the window
and the silver sink what a birdshine, lime
rind glows through the jam jar, epiphany
way above the trench of garbage bins down
below, you could be fishing on any old river
right now this could be one of your last finer split
second moments, meet me on the golden green;
there is movement in the grimy courtyard someone
shifting apartments dumping decor, a framed photo
of marilyn maybe madonna maybe not, more likely
a poster of a georgia o’keefe bloom, jaded floral art
a little crinkled where a vodkatini or an orgasm hit the wall:
moma moma where art thou; past the front door packs
of paris hilton wannabes looking likely in sunfrocks
skim along the streets towards skinny lattes, all eyes
preying for someone to snap them inside a slow
myth at the crossroads

This isn’t a lecture, I hope (old habits die hard), but I’d draw your attention to the way the poem moves through three zones: the kitchen, with its shiny sink and lime marmalade; then down to the garbage bins and the detritus of the courtyard in which someone moving flats has left a damaged framed print, maybe of a female star, maybe of a Georgia O’Keefe flower painting; and then into the outside world in which ‘paris hilton wannabes… skim along the streets towards skinny lattes’. The references are all emphatically female, but not uncritically so. The jump from the singing domestic space with its ‘birdshine’ to ersatz Paris Hiltons seems enormous, but is it? The poem in a way descends from a bright, even epiphanic kitchen, to images of the commodification of women artists (Monroe, Madonna, O’Keefe): a process that leaves the wannabe models ‘preying [p-r-e-y-i-n-g] for someone to snap them inside a slow/myth at the crossroads’. Modern myth is now the mass media which creates and, through mechanical reproduction, endlessly reconsecrates corporate versions of the ideal woman as goddesses of fashion. ‘Moma moma where art thou’, indeed. (And surely there are moments when we all want our MoMA.)

I said that the ‘road’ sequence linked the beginning and the end of brush, and I think it’s possible to read this book somewhat against the grain of its conspicuous, surreal anti-linearity as something of a livre composé. We begin with the sequence ‘bluff’, a terrific series of satirical riffs on the discourses of capitalism, and in particular those of the stock market, and end with ‘wooing the owl (or the great sleep forward)’. Loosely speaking, then, we journey from a patriarchal world along a sibylline road towards the realm of night and sleep, long associated with the moon and thus the female principle, and here too with the owl: the owl of Minerva, perhaps, symbol of wisdom, though one that has still to be wooed and won over. I dare say writing poetry can sometimes feel like herding owls.

But I’ll leave you to form your own connective tissues between the individual sequences as you read them. Before I say more about the poems, let me draw your attention to the terrific cover illustration, a 1946 watercolour by Joy Hester. It’s like Sidney Nolan’s Ned Kelly has become the evil robot he always wanted to be, turned into the face of Luna Park, and now eats women alive. As an example of multi-layered imagery that turns on a dime, as the Americans say, it’s not unlike what happens in brush.

What strikes me most forcefully about joanne’s work, in this volume as in her earlier collections, is its witty discontinuities, its surreal inventiveness, and its satirical mashups of other discourses: qualities that I would principally characterise as playful – and I don’t necessarily mean ‘playful’ in a lighthearted sense, for one can play quite seriously. Ask any hardcore computer gamer. Irony and satire are both playful modes, in the sense that they play upon their objects. The word – and I’m not the first to make this observation regarding joanne’s craft – is ludic, from the Latin to play. Indeed, the word ludicrous didn’t originally come into the language as meaning absurd or preposterous, but rather, as the OED has it, ‘Pertaining to play or sport; sportive; intended in jest, jocular, derisive’. Thus Doctor Johnson wrote of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, by way of high praise, that ‘it was universally allowed to be the most attractive of all ludicrous compositions’. In its original sense, then, I might tentatively suggest that joanne is possibly the most ludicrous poet in Australia. Here’s an example of what I mean, from the title poem ‘bluff’ in the book’s first sequence. This is ‘fancy’:

iv. fancy

bankers danced the zumba junta
in the constitutional ballroom just
a bit of festive fancy dress like a
tv mockumentary on a bitter winter’s
night the pink batt cocktails kept them
warm enough; some escorted current
spouses others escorted escorts there was
a mix up when pecuniary interests were
introduced to love investments, just by chance;
certain guests rang promptly for their drivers, others
rang up potential losses; there was a moment when
the floorboards shifted like a listing, like a tower of
mini pizzas whose anchovies shone like bullets; then
the dollar suddenly shot up reaching the peak of the
continental drapes

‘Bankers danced the zumba junta/in the constitutional ballroom’ suggests the links between capitalism and political power, particularly in the South American context. Notice the copulative assonances in the first line; ‘zumba junta’ is in fact an internal near-rhyme. ‘The constitutional ballroom’ sounds like it could be a function centre in Canberra. Well might the anchovies on the mini pizzas shine ‘like bullets’. Well might the drink de jour be ‘pink batt cocktails’, maybe served with asbestos canapés, courtesy of Mr Fluffy. But money and power also mean money and sex: ‘some escorted current/spouses others escorted escorts there was/a mix up when pecuniary interests were/introduced to love investments’. This is a kind of chiasmus: we may want to say ‘pecuniary investments and love interests’, but joanne splendidly swaps the adjectives. Then there’s the clever punning of ‘certain guests rang promptly for their drivers, others/rang up potential losses’: a rhetorical device called antanaclasis. I could go on (unless plied with alcohol I generally do). But the point is that the continual play on words here is perfectly serious while also remaining perfectly playful.

If I can use an old-fashioned term before going on to update it, what’s happening in joanne’s word-play here is a kind of poetic vaudeville, or what Henry Jenkins in a different context calls a ‘vaudeville aesthetic’. Vaudeville: that form of entertainment that now goes under the name ‘variety’ and which is based on rapid sequences of acts that offer constant sensation and surprise. Variety may have moved to the club circuit, but it was once a potent mode of popular entertainment that challenged straight theatre, with its emphasis on verisimilitude and the subordination of all elements of a production to its dramatic unity. To that extent you might say that joanne is the poetic antidote to David Williamson. But once upon a time variety offered a powerful model for the modernist avant-garde. Thus in 1913 the Italian futurist Filippo Marinetti could write of ‘The Variety Theatre’ as generating ‘the Futurist marvellous’, whose elements include:
(a) powerful caricatures; (b) abysses of the ridiculous; (c) delicious, impalpable ironies; (d) all-embracing, definitive symbols; (e) cascades of uncontrollable hilarity; (f) profound analogies between humanity, the animal, vegetable and mechanical worlds; (g) flashes of revealing cynicism; (h) plots full of wit, repartee, and conundrums that aerate the intelligence; (i) the whole gamut of laughter and smiles, to flay the nerves…
Etcetera. I reckon that’s a pretty fair description of what takes place in joanne’s poetry.

But don’t get me wrong. For all that Federal Parliament might suggest otherwise, I know that vaudeville is dead. Searching for a funkier term to describe the aesthetic mode of joanne’s verse, might I suggest channel surfing or, better still, zapping? The famous lack of capital letters in joanne’s poetry certainly implies that each element has a kind of equivalence in the linguistic structure. No word looks over the shoulders of another, you might say. But even zapping isn’t quite the right term, because it’s not as if you’re moving moment to moment from a news broadcast to a sitcom to an animal documentary as you might when channel surfing on TV. Joanne’s poems don’t normally jump entirely out of their channels every couple of lines; each poem stays within its special groove. Rather, what she achieves is a kind of crosstalk or co-channel interference in which one ‘signal’ is, as it were, superimposed on another. We live in an overcrowded media spectrum and, in a complex, layered way, joanne’s work echoes the ludic, ironic and, at times, serendipitous collisions in communication that occur within it. In that way she becomes our poet of the multi-media vernacular.

Which brings me to my final point. As joanne writes, ‘falling is a kind of vernacular’. That’s the last line of the poem called ‘easy’ from ‘in the mood’, the second sequence of brush: ‘falling is a kind of vernacular’. The vernacular is what we do artlessly, what we speak without having to think about our words. All of us fall into language as children and, speaking for myself at least, I continue to fall around within it, stumbling over it, and getting it twisted around my tongue. But joanne refers to literal falling, those brushes with death: tripping over and losing your glasses; a child running into a wall during play; and, poignantly, a boy who has fallen from ‘the top of a city tower’, who had earlier impressed the speaker by asking her the meaning of that word ‘vernacular’. Everybody falls, has physically fallen: we do it without thinking. It’s as everyday, as vernacular as sleeping and eating, but never rehearsed, never regulated like those activities. Instead it’s surprising, shocking, dangerous. For that reason just about everybody does falling very badly. But not the practitioner of vaudeville. Not Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Roy Rene. They knew how to fall so that they didn’t get hurt; they made it into an art form; they made it playful. They brushed themselves off and prepared themselves for the next sensation.

Joanne burns is a poet who shows us how to fall craftily and elegantly with words – to surprise, to shock, to take risks, and to play – and her work zaps the sensational vernacular world we all inhabit as crosstalking, late modern citizens of language.

– Peter Kirkpatrick

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brush is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/poetry/brush/

Peter Kirkpatrick teaches Australian Literature in the Department of English at Sydney University. He has published two collections of verse, Wish You Were Here (Five Islands, 1996) and Westering (Puncher & Wattmann, 2006), as well as the chapbook Australian Gothic and Other Poems (Picaro Press, 2012).

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