Andy Kissane, The Tomb of the Unknown Artist (Puncher & Wattmann 2019)
Here I go, blogging about a third book of poetry in a row. But, Dear Poetryphobe Reader, there’s nothing to fear. This one, like the last two I blogged about, is really good. Andy Kissane writes the kind of poetry that allows you to focus happily on the content and leave the poetic stuff to do its work while you’re distracted (like T S Eliot’s burglar tossing meat to the dog*). I think of him as a poet committed to bearing witness.
The book is in four unnamed sections, each with an epigraph suggesting its organising principle.
The first section’s epigraph is from Sharon Olds’s poem about her father’s death, ‘The Race’: ‘all night / I watched him breathe.’ The poems that follow deal with death and loss, and with being alive, though they’re not as abstract as that makes them sound. The poet contemplates his own death. He farewells his father:
in my own marrow lies the moment
when you fathered me, that unacknowledged
('The Last Quarter')
He has a polite encounter with an old lover, and celebrates quiet moments of domesticity and parenthood. Among these poems, almost as if warning the reader not to read the others as directly autobiographical, there are two dramatic monologues, ‘Marriage Material’, spoken by a 19th century bride, and ‘Dressed’, spoken by a young woman of now (‘Desire is pure, as clear as water, and shame – / well, you just don’t feel any’).
The second section is heralded by a quote from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: ‘One man will always be left alive to tell the story.’ Arendt was talking about the impossibility of ‘oblivion’: everything will be remembered by someone. As I read it, the central thread of this section is the idea of witness: to a concert or a movie, to plagiarism, to some of the great horrors of our time including Australia’s offshore prisons, and, closer to home, to a Sydney storm and schoolyard bullying (of which more later).
The third section is a sequence of ten poems set in the US–Vietnam War, all in the voice of an Australian (or possibly US) soldier, introduced by a quote from Tim O’Brien’s 1990 short fiction ‘How to Tell a True War Story’: ‘You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.’ The sequence doesn’t tell a single straightforward story, but a narrative shape emerges from individual scenes involving the narrator and his comrades Dave, Des, Johnno, and Boffa.
Des appears beside you, his thumb
hauling you in the direction of safety.
You hoist your pack & crabwalk
after him, before a monsoon
of mortar shells drop right there –
on the piece of dirt where you were
(from 'The Firefight')
It’s in the lineage of The Red Badge of Courage, has all the power and none of the insidious cinematic glamour of many ‘anti-war’ movies. I read somewhere that these poems are part of a verse novel in progress. If so, I’m looking forward to the novel, but this sequence doesn’t leave me with any of the cheated feeling that comes from reading an excerpt. The final poem, the sonnet ‘Back Home’, rounds the sequence off, not with an ending, but as an agonised cry about the lack of comprehension from even sympathetic non-combatants. Perhaps because I went to court as a conscientious objector for the US–Vietnam War, I needed a long walk after reading these poems.
The final section, ushered in with a quote from Michelangelo – ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free’ – deals with visual art and sculpture, referring to work by Cressida Campbell, Grayson Perry (the title poem is a response to Perry’s The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, 2011), Degas (spoken in the collective voice of his nudes), Cézanne, Jan Senbergs, and Kissane himself imagined as a painter.
It’s not easy to choose just one poem to discuss from this marvellously varied collection, but my mind keeps going back to ‘Shooting Footage’, from Section 2. It’s longish, but it’s got a story (click on the image to see it in a separate tab, then you may have to click again to see it big):
The Acknowledgements section gives no extra information about this poem, so it’s anyone’s guess whether the incident it describes is a fiction or taken from life. It would be a mistake, either way, to just assume that the speaker is the poet. There’s plenty to make me think that it’s not so, although he may be the poet at one remove – working with images rather than words. (For the sake of discussion, I’m going to assume that he’s male, even though a woman filming in a school playground would generally arouse less suspicion than a man.) It’s a beautifully executed dramatic monologue.
We learn about the narrator through unobtrusive details. We’re not told how he knows Joshua, but he may have given a talk to his class, to be quizzed by him, and he may know him through his daughter who plays hopscotch in stanza 6. He rides on the same bus as the students at the end of the day, but he’s not a teacher.
Having introduced Joshua in cinematic close-up in the first stanza, the poem devotes three stanzas to his being bullied on the bus, showing not telling in best movie style: what his hair looks like, what his classmates say and do. The first authorial comment is almost admiring: ‘It is truly amazing / how far some boys can spit.’ The fourth stanza returns to close-up, this time showing Joshua’s pain, and with the narrator explicitly holding a camera. We don’t know if this is the first the narrator knows of the bullying or if he’s filming because he’s been told about it previously, but in this kind of economic story-telling such specifics don’t matter.
The fifth to seventh stanzas give us a naturalistic narrative: the practicalities (enough of them at least) of how the narrator gets to be in the schoolyard at lunchtime filming, and then the painful specifics of what he sees, with just the one moment of expressed emotion (‘My anger smoulders // like white-hot coals. I can barely contain it.’) Then there’s a curious departure from the narrator’s carefully established point of view in an echo of the earlier close-ups: ‘Joshua’s glasses fog up / so he can’t see.’
Without breaking the narrative surface, the first lines of the eighth stanza comes as a revelation: ‘”Let him eat bacon sandwiches,” / one of them says as they run off’. This isn’t just generalised nerd-persecution. Joshua’s name, his shiny black hair, the steam from the bathroom and the pulling down of his shorts make a pattern. It’s antisemitism. The scene of schoolyard cruelty resonates out into some of the darkest episodes of human history. But here the horror is near at hand, potentially within the narrator’s power to influence.
I film it all in one long take. It's the hardest
thing I've ever had to do, to film this and not
The poem is still a narrative about schoolyard bullying. But it’s also a reflection on the role of art: in this case, to record, to show, to bear witness. It’s not that it would have been wrong to intervene, but it might not have been as effective.
The final triplet expresses a hope, in this context well founded, that the work of art, in this case the film, will make a decisive difference. Without making a big point of it, the very last line and a half execute a subtle shift:
---------- --------And a silence I will end soon –
walls of brick and barbed wire, tumbling, tumbling down.
These lines are no longer talking about film, but about speech, no longer about the schoolyard, but about prisons. I’m tempted to read them as a mini-manifesto: a promise to speak truth about hard things, things that authorities like the Principal deny, with the aim of human liberation.
In an inspired piece of ordering that’s typical of the book, ‘Shooting Footage’ is followed by ‘Beached Dreams’, about the treatment of people who come to Australia by boat seeking asylum.
[Added later: Andy Kissane has emailed me some background on ‘Shooting Footage, which I quote here with his permission:
Its genesis began in a US film, The Bully Project but I don’t think I watched the whole film, just a bit of it. The spitting comes from my own experience of catching the bus to a Christian Brothers school in the 1970s, but the rest is made up. Joshua and the biblical reference at the end comes from a Liz Frencham song I like, ‘Jericho’, but it’s a love song and has nothing to do with bullying really, just gave me the idea for the ending. So essentially it is all made up, riffing off the above sources. I have read it aloud once at Albury and it was a very hard poem to read.]
Embarrassingly, the Biblical reference to Joshua and the walls of Jericho went right past me until I listened to Liz Frencham’s song on YouTube (here).]
This is the fourth book of Andy Kissane’s poetry I’ve read. My blog posts about the others are here (Every Night They Dance, Five Islands Press 2000), here (Out to Lunch, Puncher & Wattman 2009) and here (Radiance, Puncher & Wattmann 2014).
I am grateful to the poet and Puncher & Wattmann for my copy.
*The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be (for here I am speaking of some kinds of poetry and not all) to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice bit of meat for the house-dog. (TS Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1933).