This is an edited version of a article which will appear in the special Cornelis Vleeskens issue of P76 which will be curated by Pete Spence http://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/p76-literary-magazine/
Trivial Pursuits, PressPress 2012.
Broken Glass & Driftwood, originally published in Riverrun Vol 1.No 3 1977. Republished Earthdance/Donnithorne Street Press 2012,
Hong Kong Suicide and Other Poems, Gargoyle Poets – Makar Press 1976
I first read Trivial Pursuit in April 2012 and felt like I had rediscovered a friend. I had meet Cornelis Vleeskens a couple of time in the mid eighties – around the time of Fling poetry. He was one the poets whose work I had read in various magazines and admired and I remembered being very impressed by Full Moon over Lumpini Park. Then suddenly it seemed he disappeared from the poetry scene, the work in magazines all but dried up and there didn’t seem to be any new publications. This was, in fact, not the case. Vleeskens hadn’t stopped writing and creating. He was still working, but at a very personal level. He was writing some very fine poetry and circulating it among a select group of friends and colleagues. At the same time he had expanded the scope of his work and was actively involved in producing mail art and a body of very impressive Visual Poetry.
Then about the time I read Trivial Pursuits in 2012 I heard that Vleeskens was very ill and that the prognosis was not good. I had intended to write on the new book immediately after finishing it, instead I hunted out his other work, his earlier books, his visual poetry – whatever I could find. Perhaps I felt it was important to put this late work into some kind of context, perhaps I just wanted to catch up on some of what I had lost. While it was not unexpected, Vleeskens’ death on 11 May 2012 did came as something of a shock.
For me Trivial Pursuit became a way back into Vleeskens’ work and a way of trying to piece some of the fragments of the last 20 years together. It is a single poem, made up of many parts, running through a 32 page chapbook. The first thing that stands out about Trivial Pursuit is that it is funny. It is a long time since I found myself laughing out loud with a poem (as opposed to laughing out loud at a poem!) but I did find myself giggling on the bus while reading this book. Not all of the jokes, however, are one liners. In a long sequence half way through the poem we read:
I misunderstand the cold!
I struggle to misunderstand warmth!
I often misunderstand 11.30 in Glen Innes
I misunderstand my misspent youth
I misunderstand youth!
and hiphop and bodypiecring and tattoos
except on sailors in sleazy bars down the docks
I misunderstand D.O.C.S
I’m pretty sure I misunderstand angels!
I misunderstand the strawnecked ibis
I misunderstand breaking the bank at Monte Carlo
but I’m not sure I’d misunderstand a windfall!
I misunderstand why bats turn left at the exit
I misunderstand “no right hand turn”
I never misunderstand ORANGES! But
I sometimes misunderstand my kelpie
I think I misunderstand Rob Kars’s smirk
I definitely misunderstand this poem!
While this section is quite humours in itself with the repetition of “I misunderstand” setting up a rhythm which is only associationally broken, the real word play lies in how this section relates to lines in other parts of the poem. For example the reference to the time “11.30 in Glen Innes” contues a pattern in the first part of the poem where Vleeskens places sections of the poem by referring to the time: “it is 12.20 in Glenn Innes and a Friday” (p3), “it is 1.35 on a new day/and I’m walking on the sunny side/of the street:” (p6), “it’s 12.40 in Glenn Innes/(lunchtime) I need a break….(p11), “it’s 10.50 in Glenn Innes/and there’s a knock at the door! (p15).
The actual reference which caused me to disturb the serenity of the morning bus commute, however, came a few pages later:
the gang’s all hair and another
strenuous hike takes us to the edge:
did the Brisbane River break
the bank at Monte Carlo?
Suddenly the earlier link with the bank at Monte Carlo is made, is this the misunderstanding, or is it the earlier meaning? I was too busy giggling to worry.
These word plays run through the poem. One of the most obvious and successful begins on page 4 when Vleeskens links orange the colour to orange the fruit and orange the national colour of Holland (his birth country):
………..I think it’s kosher
to eat an ORANGE while
listening to a Dutch composer!
On page 10 he expands the word play to include place
and ask myself did the defeat
of the Boers create an ORANGE-free state?
Then there is the reference to misunderstanding ORANGES in the section already quoted from page 16, a line on page 18 “how many slabs for an ORANGE hangover”, then place is referenced again on page 22 when he asks: “do they grow oranges in Orange?” And given the number of mentions of Orange in this poem one can’t help but think of Frank O’Hara.
Running through this of course is the reference to Vleeskens’ Dutch background. He listens to Dutch composers, discusses Dutch artists and pulls in a Dutch reference when you least expect it:
well blame it on my eyesight
or Ashbery or the schizochroal eye!
Which works like a series
of aplanatic corrective lenses
(as if designed by Huygens in
the 17th century Netherlands)
While the poem appears at first reading to be loosely structured, the word play and the interconnectivity of the text suggests that there might be more than first meets the eye. The poem actually layers image on image, carefully building so that the mundane act of walking down the street becomes a discussion on poetry and poets, on art and artists, on food, about place and history – among many other things.
While Pursuit highlights the skills of the later poet it is interesting to turn to his earliest work which appeared in Hong Kong Suicide and Other Poems (Makar Press 1976) and Broken Glass & Driftwood (Reprinted Earthdance/Donnithorne Street Press 2012 – originally published in Riverrun Vol 1.No 3 1977).
There is a gentle lyricism to a number of poems in these two collections, indeed ‘Poem for Celia’ in Hong Kong Suicide, recalls Dransfiled’s ‘Pas de deux for lovers’:
the quiet of the dawn;
lost in the fishermen’s lights
trawling harbour waters;
seabreaze blowing mosquitoes;
& stars through the open
window. we lay side by side
i, dreaming clouds of smoke;
you dozing in your quiet
music; skin gently played by
the knowledge of goodbye.
While Hong Kong Suicide was Vleeskens’ first published book (part of the original Gargole Poets series which featured poets such as Alan Wearne, Antigone Kefala, Rae Desmond Jones, Kris Hemensley, John Tranter, Jennifer Rankin and many others), the work in Broken Glass & Driftwood belongs to roughly the same period and, I some ways, introduces some of the elements which we find in Trivial Pursuit.
The title poem ‘Broken Glass & Driftwood’, for example, is a poem about making poetry. The physical world becomes a metaphor for the writing process:
words pass like seconds & minutes
of days spent. they’re like a taunt
line in harbour tides, not always
a catch: mullet nibbling the torn
edges of poems: broken glass &
driftwood. (for robert adamson) lies
of years blowing in the trees. the
blues of nothing caught off jetties &
the rocks. my line lies on the bottom
driftwood memories have been laid
out in the sun to dry. i’ll need
them to fry my catch. maybe I can
forget the broken glass. it’s drawn
enough blood already. washed up on
beaches & islands & harbour shores &
always leaving pieces behind when a new
tide pulls me out again. I wonder if
there’s enough left to build a poem.
Interesting the reference to Robert Adamson provides an immediate echo of this poem in Trivial Pursuits through the lines:
throw in a line Bob the mullet
Once again there is a unforced lyricism to this poem, at times almost haiku like. The link between words and time “the seconds & minutes/ of days spent” moves easily into the image of fishing (and during the mid to late 1970’s references to fishing could not but help to suggest Robert Adamson who was riding high at the time as editor of New Poetry and the writer of poems such as ‘The Mullet Run’. Interestingly there is a line in ‘Mullert Run II which refers to the river “turning orange with mud”)). In the second stanza there is the unexpected use of the word ‘poem’ “mullet nibbling the torn/edges of poems”. For anyone who was every taken fishing as a kid, the expectation was that the mullet would be nibbling the torn edges of prawns (I remember the feeling of the line tugging gently and reeling it in only to find the prawn still on the hook but torn all around by small fish mouths too small to take the hook). The poem becomes something more at this point, the image in the first line “words pass like the seconds & minutes” is recalled and extended and becomes much more ambitious.
Interestingly the next direct reference to poetry does not occur until the final line but the imagery runs right through the poem. The fishing line that lies on the bottom, the “driftwood memories…..laid out in the sun to dry” suggest the struggle to find the words, to create the poem. But in the final instance the easy link between writing a poem and catching a fish is denied. It is not the mullet waiting to be hooked or the memories of driftwood – “of years of blowing in the trees,” that represent the poem. Instead in is the broken glass, which at first is to be discarded “maybe I can/forget the broken glass. it’s drawn/ enough blood already”, which becomes the core of the search of the poem. Blood has been drawn, but obviously there must be more, as after each tide fragments of glass are washed up on the shore. “i wonder if/there’s enough left to build a poem’.
So while at first reading ‘Broken Glass & Driftwood’ appears to be a relative simple poem relying on some strong imagery to draw the reader in, on closer reading it is actually much more complex. The creative process is linked to ebb and flow of tides, and of time which turns fallen trees into driftwood and wears broken glass down into fragments of colour washed up on the shore and, in the end, the poem itself comes from an unexpected source.
In most of these early poems the actual act of writing is nearly always central to the poem. In the second poem in Broken Glass & Driftwood, ‘Between Sleep & White Uniforms’ there are, once again, moments of almost intense lyrical beauty:
(waking again: chalkdust
blown over the harbour
like unwritten poems
the chalkdust echoes the fragments of broken glass – though this time they are blowing over the water rather than being washed up on the shore. They are being blown over the harbour, fragments of unknown/unwritten poems. Later, however, the poem does materialise
waking again: new chalk
& typewriter poems for
‘Between Sleep & White Uniforms’ is a longer poem running over a number of pages, each section is a different waking, a different attempt at a poem or a relationship with a lover or probably both. There is a transience to both the poems and the relationship here as chalk poems can disappear in a flash
…………..chalkwritten words wiped for
falling short. i came to these pages for
explanations ……………..there are none
This transience is emphasised in a later, unnamed, poem in the book:
a rewrite of old poems scribbled on the
outgoing tide while we were digging for
The poems in Hong Kong Suicide, while still retaining their lyricism, have a sightly harder edge to them. The title even hinting a something a little darker than driftwood and broken glass. The title poem is subtitled ’10 preludes’ – is this a wink at T S Eliot or Wordworth or Katherine Mansfield? Probably not, though it is an interesting train of thought. I suspect Vleeskens was bypassing the other ‘famous’ literary preludes and going straight to it’s musical roots. Each of these ten pieces can stand alone as a poem, but they also work as a sequence with everything working up to a final flip of the corn.
The imagery here is grittier, more crowded and a little more desperate. The images are that of a crowded city with people piled up on each other:
the more people in the room/the less room.
four chinamen bent over mahjong; the back
room sending sweet smoke signals and the
occasional laugh; Sesame Street sounds
strange in chinese, the kids don’t seem to
& chinese opera
from cheap speakers;
The list in prelude 2 recalls a poem in Broken Glass & Driftwood ‘ – Another Chalk Poem – which simply refers to a shopping list written out in chalk. But here the list is part of a slightly larger whole. Prelude 2 is a simple capture of an image, almost like an extended haiku, but it is a dynamic opening image, the clashing of sounds and cultures which lead into the final lines:
haggling over the price of a bowl of won ton mi
And we are led into the other Preludes and we are reminded that Vleeskens’ Hong Kong is the British Hong Kong before the handover. There is the feel of a ‘frontier town’ of border guards and searches and spying. There is also a playfulness here in Prelude 3 we are told:
not after the shock of seeing
the police superintendent up on illegal earnings charges
the night after
i slept with
and then in Prelude 5.
sketches like this don’t work without
some sex-appeal, another girl friend perhaps?
give her the same name/……. i lie every time
…………………………………………..i use it
give her a guitarcase/ …………the lies come easy
…………………………………………..once you admit to them.
So as we piece the preludes together, the narrator/poet’s voice is undermined by the poem itself. In Prelude 9 there is a description of an early morning dash across Hong Kong by two lovers in search of breakfast. But we sense the narrative starting to unwind:
i live in Jordan Road, Kowloon
with an empty refrigerator/she
stays with her uncle (foreign
office or something). he doesn’t
like me, even my poems have
become third person, singular
first person, plural:
we alight from the peak-tram,
have a champagne breakfast &
soil borrowed white sheets (the
maid’s on our side, she’ll wash
them for a bribe, Hong Kong’s
first person, plural:
we are an inveterate liar.
so what/who to trust the ‘I’, the poet, has declared himself a liar, but the poem is still there – jumping from the first to the third person and back again. But what of the suicide? The tension builds through the Preludes – after all the sequence is called ‘Hong Kong Suicide’ so there should be a suicide somewhere, unless the poet is indeed an “inveterate liar”.
So, like a good thriller it all comes down to the final scene, or the final prelude in Vleeskens case:
he stands exhausted penniless.
(the poem has turned impersonal
but refuses to reach a conclusion.
he’s tried to swallow his pride
hoping to choke on it
but the little he has left
went down without complications.
(throw in his three year old son
if you really want complications.
they stand on the roof of the
newly completed Connaught Centre,
overlooking the Star Ferry.
he flips his last coin…….
There is something almost filmic about this last prelude, the image of the lone person standing on the edge of a tall building making deciding what to do. Once again the poem has changed to the third person, something that Vleeskens announces bluntly in the second line. Like a story teller developing his plot as he goes Vleeskens intrudes once again by adding in the man’s three year old son – so that he “he stands” of the 1st line changes to the “they stand” of the 10th line.
The ending of this last Prelude leaves us hanging, literally. The coin has been flipped but we don’t see it land. Does he jump? Does he take his son with him? Or does he turn around, take he elevator down to the ground floor and disappear into the crowd to return to his room to start writing the poem? The sequence is called Hong Kong Suicide, so he must have jumped, but we already know that he is “an inveterate liar”.
Like a piece of good music ‘Hong Kong Suicide’ improves with multiple readings. While at first it appears like a sequence of good but loosely connected poems, it soon becomes clear that there is an underlying structure to the sequence which propels it forward, like a post modern film noir, to leave the reader dangling on the precipice. But Vleeskens’ structure is not an easy one, as he says in another poem:
there’s more form crept in
than i intended to allow:
……………….– The Motorcar as Poem in Two Parts
It is a jumpy structure which may run for two or three lines and then suddenly change. An unexpected line break, a dropped line or a section that is indented and/or cut up adds to the jagged feel of the sequence. One senses that Vleeskens was struggling to keep the poem out of control as much as the character in the poem was trying to keep in control.
There was allot of poetry between Hong Kong Suicide and Other Poems, Broken Glass & Driftwood and Trivial Pursuit – in most cases at least 36 years worth of poetry. Some of that poetry can be accessed in collections such as Full Moon over Lumpini Park (Fling Poetry 1982), The Day The River (UQP 1984), Treefrog Dreaming Fling Poetry 1990 and many others (a non exclusive bibliography is included at the end of this paper). While some of these works can be traced through libraries, many others were published in very limited print runs and are almost impossible to locate. There is a definite need for a major poetry publisher to bring out a collection of Vleeskens’ work.
In the end I have come back to Trivial Pursuit and a piece that seems to bring together a number of the themes running through Hong Kong Suicide and Other Poems and Broken Glass & Driftwood:
OH! cast down your eyes
on these scraps of paper:
they’re blowing on a brisk Westerly
like hamburger wrappers
they’re covered in scribbled notes
indecipherable like a foreign language
or poetry! you recognise a score
and orchestrate the notes
it’s symphonic! it’s mindblowing!
it’s a rip-off!! (AND you’re tonedeaf)
what happened to the I?
is he the first person asleep?
all this time I’ve achieved so little!
it’s 12.40 in Glenn Innes
(lunchtime!) I need a break…..
There is the echo here of the chalk dust poems blowing across the harbour and the slipping between the first and third person. In the end I am left thinking about the title of this last chapbook, Trivial Pursuit. Throughout his work the act of writing and reading poetry was central to his thinking. For Vleeskens the act of walking down down the street was poetic and chalk dust or waste paper a potential poem. For him the trivial acts of life, checking he mail box, catching a tram in Hong Kong or writing out a shopping list was the stuff of poetry. As he says on the final page of Trivial Pursuit:
(it’s all smoke and mirrors!)
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is currently undertaking Post Graduate studies at the University of Sydney and currently edits Rochford Street Review and P76 Magazine (http://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/p76-literary-magazine/).
Other books by Cornelis Vleeskens that are still available include:
Cornelis Vleeskens – picture from the back cover of Hong Kong Suicide and Other Poems 1976.
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