Kate Middleton, Passage (Giramondo 2017)
Most of the poems in Passage are either erasures or centos.
/Explanatory note for the benefit of readers who know even less than I do:/
Cento is defined in my excellent Gepp & Haigh Latin–English dictionary (1888) as ‘a poem or composition made up of scraps from various authors or parts of an author’. A basic, nonsensical nursery-rhyme cento, for example, might be:
The mouse ran up the clock
to fetch a pail of water.
He put in his thumb,
see how they run,
How does your garden grow?
An erasure is created by erasing some or most of another piece of writing. I enjoy making them from newspaper columns that annoy me. Here’s one based on a recent attack on the #changethedate movement:
/End explanatory note/
Both forms can be fun, but when, as in Kate Middleton’s work, the source material isn’t well known or readily available, and the poem is longer and more than a fun game, questions arise that I don’t know the answers to.
Given my new policy of just talking about a single poem when blogging about poetry books, I was tempted to choose one of Kate Middleton’s fine poems that aren’t centos or erasures or in some other way symbiotic with another text (such as the handful that are responses to episodes of a TV show I’ve never heard of). There are plenty of such fine poems – but to choose one of them would feel craven. So here’s the cento ‘Elegance’, which I’ve singled out because I’ve read its source text, Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man.
It’s possible to read this without any attention to its cento-ness. The opening couplet announces an emotional tone and names a locality. The next two stanzas sketch an unprepossessing urban landscape – this is not the West of movies but western Sydney. Then the poem turns to address the person looking at this landscape, and becomes a portrait of a writer as one who conceals his metaphorical knife in public, is loud alone at home, and struggles to avoid clichés (‘ordinary answers’).
It’s a cento not only from Luke Carman but for him. Writing cover letters to nowhere is a pretty nice description of a writer’s job, and the references to chance and repeated falls are extraordinarily apposite to the way Carman’s writing often mimics an intense distractibility, and so much of it is about his own social awkwardness and other struggles.
It’s a sweet tribute. By the end, one wants to revisit the capitalised ‘West’ from the second line. Carman is a kind of Western hero after all, even though his West is not Monument Valley, but Western Sydney.
So what does it mean that the poem is a cento?
Being by profession a proofread type editor, and by inclination a bit pernickety, I got out my copy of An Elegant Young Man. I didn’t have time to reread it all, but I read enough to find some of the poem’s source text. ‘Barred shopfronts flicker phantasmic blue’ is distilled from ‘shuttered-up Asian supermarkets and squash centres and brick unit blocks with TV flickering a phantasmic blue through the windows’. ‘I guess you’re like a minor Aussie character / in movies’ comes from this: ‘I mostly stood still and tried to seem happy-go-lucky, like those minor Aussie characters in movies like Chopper and Getting Square’.
So Kate Middleton hasn’t been rigid in quoting the original. As the Emerging Artist said, she’s referencing the text rather than quoting it. In these examples, she leaves out the detail of the shopfronts and the TV, and the happy-go-lucky appearance (which is ironic in its original context anyhow). It’s not just referencing, but also repurposing. She finds in Carman’s text words that describe him in relationship to the milieu that is his subject in ways that he (presumably) wouldn’t think to describe himself. It’s a kind of alchemy.
I still don’t know how the longer centos work, from writers including Siri Hustvedt, Eliot Weinberger and Sir John Mandeville; or erasures that run to several pages. I’m happy to leave that question to better informed readers than I am.
Passage is the third book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I was given a complimentary copy by Giramondo, for which horizon-expanding gift I am grateful.