joanne burns’s amphora

joanne burns, amphora (Giramondo 2011)

In the question time at a poetry session of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival a member of the audience complained that ‘most modern poetry’ is deliberately obscure, doesn’t use rhyme or rhythm, and is generally not reader-friendly. He might have had Joanne Burns in mind: apart from infrequent commas and an occasional dash or semicolon she mostly eschews punctuation, she rarely writes metric verse (presumably what the questioner meant by ‘rhythm’), she uses big words, makes frequent reference to other poets and (in this book at least) religious arcana, and she often wanders down trails of seemingly random association. But, you know, spend a bit of time with her poems and chances are you’ll come away feeling oddly refreshed.

For example, the third of amphora‘s seven sections, entitled ‘streamers’, is described in a subheading as ‘a series of koannes’. I imagine everyone knows what a koan is – or at least, like me, knows that ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ is one. Almost idly, I went to Google to check my initial assumption that ‘koanne’ was an alternative spelling. Apparently not, said Mr Google. Then I realised that the word was a playful invention, combining the poet’s first name with the zen challenge to the rational mind: so the reader is given fair warning to expect some kind of idiosyncratic almost-sense, not to struggle to make sense, but to let the non-sense play around in one’s brain. Some of them work brilliantly:

you miss the bus
before it arrives how easy
to change the lightbulb

(Incidentally, the lack of punctuation here doesn’t really cause difficulty; it just slows the reading down.)

I found the whole book engaging, but it was the second section, ‘soft hoods of saints’, that spoke to me: a Catholic child’s perspective on stories of the saints nostalgically recalled, overlaid with adult erudition, mashed up with high and low cultural references and approached with a wry, mostly affectionate, probing intelligence. From ‘haggle’:

saints show us who we aren’t. impossible to imitate. our prayers too fast. impatient. saints and their trust in their god. slow and endless. wearing belief like soft hoods. invisible protective. we can only gawk at their images, legenda. in the holy cards many saints are accompanied by floral arrangements. flowers. do saints have flaws. once they are officially saints surely all flaws must hit the floor to be swept away in the giant hagionic broom

This is fun, but something serious is happening as well.

My blog posts about the books I’ve read don’t pretend to be responsible reviews. If you want to read an excellent, exploratory discussion of amphora, I recommend Martin Duwell’s review posted on 1 June this year.

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