joanne burns, apparently (Giramondo 2019)
apparently is the sixteenth book of poetry by joanne burns (who prefers her name and work to be written without capitalisation). It’s in four sections: ‘planchettes’, ‘apparently’. ‘dial’ and ‘the random couch’. I enjoyed all four very different parts, perhaps especially ‘dial’, which plays merrily and nastily with contemporary social and political language. But in this blog post I want to say a bit about ‘planchettes’ – partly because I think of my regular readers as wary of contemporary poetry, and my ruminations may cast some light on parts of that forbidding terrain.
People who are perplexed by contemporary poetry sometimes complain that they don’t like poems that are like cryptic crosswords. ‘planchettes’ might have been written in response to that complaint. According to a helpful note on the book’s back cover, the section’s ten poems ‘spring-board from the clues and solutions to crossword puzzles’. I’m not exactly an expert on contemporary poetry (sometimes I approach it with the fearful fascination of a toddler offering a long-stemmed leaf to a beautiful but sharp-pecking rooster). However, I’m a cryptic crossword aficionado, and that helped me to enjoy these poems. I’ll try to communicate something of the underpinning of that joy in three parts.
First: about cryptic crosswords. A recent Guardian cryptic crossword included this clue: ‘Person catching extremists in Ferrari with tank. (9)’ (See it in context here.) The successful solver pays scant attention to its literal meaning, and instead deconstructs it, after any number of false starts, as follows: F and I are the extremes of ‘Ferrari’; sherman is a kind of tank; put F+I with Sherman and you have a 9-letter word meaning ‘person catching’ FIsherman. Perform similar processes 20 or 30 times and the grid is filled. Only subliminally does one notice the often surreal or absurd images or micro-fictions conjured up by a clue’s surface. In this case: Who are the extremists, and why a Ferrari? who is the person in the tank, and is a weirdly asymmetrical chase scene implied, with an unlikely outcome? Is it a case of wealthy terrorists versus the power of the state? and so on. A solver may only notice the surfaces subliminally, but they are what make some crosswords richly pleasurable, while others offer only the dubious pleasure of pitting one’s wits against the setter (DA of the Sydney Morning Herald, I’m looking at you).
Second: about some poems. There’s a whole kind of poem – academics may have a word for it – that takes language from a particular, perhaps technical context, and puts it on display stripped of context. I was once at a poetry reading where someone read, at length and apparently without any alteration, an editor–proofreader’s marginal comments on a draft engineering manual. As an editor, I was bored by that experience, but I understood (or thought I did) that the poem was a verbal equivalent of a piece of readymade art – as in the urinal displayed as Fountain by Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (and claimed by Marcel Duchamp, but that’s another story). That’s not exactly what joanne burns is doing in ‘plaanchettes’ (and has done in the past with language from the world of finance), though it’s related. She hasn’t just typed out string of crossword clues. As I understand it, she uses the clues and answers as a kind of restraint. Which brings me to my third part.
Third: restraint. This is a useful concept when talking about poetry in general. (Remember, I’m not an academic, and this is mainly stuff I’ve figured out myself or picked up along the way, and I could be wide of the mark.) Rhyme and metre are familiar forms of restraint: if you want to make up a limerick about Scott Morrison you have to find words that rhyme with one or other part of his name, or maybe his self-chosen nickname, and then see what you can do with them.* Limiting a poem to language found in crossword clues is a more drastic restraint than rhyme or metric form, but the underling principle is the same. Closer to these poems is the cento, where every line of your poem must come from another poem; or erasure, created by erasing most of a text, the poem being what’s left. In these forms, perhaps in all poetry, the result can be as surprising to the poet as to the reader. If you know exactly what you want to say at the start, better write the dullest kind of prose.
Now on to ‘planchettes’. A planchette, as you probably know and I had to look up, is that little piece of wood on wheels used in séances to spell out messages from who knows where – the spirit world or the jumble and chaos of the combined unconscious minds of the people wielding the wood. I don’t know anything about joanne burns’s process, but the title suggests that the crossword clues and answers are like the letters on a ouija board, and the poet’s mind moves over them, randomly at first and then with closer focus until something emerges that’s coherent, or somehow resolved. The weirdness of crossword clues remains, but not their solvability. Here’s an example, ‘Calypsonic’ from page 5:
I suppose one could scour the world of crosswords looking for the clues and answers that this poem has mined (starting, I imagine with calypsonic as an answer), but to what end? The words on the page are what we have. If you imagine them as having emerged from something like a spiritualist’s trance, not asking them to speak directly, but allowing meanings to swim before our eyes, you have to swim with them for a while and let something emerge – as I imagine they emerged for the poet.
‘Calypsonic’ isn’t in the dictionaries I have easy access to, but I read it as a variant of ‘calypsonian’, meaning ‘to do with the nymph Calypso’. At the start of the Odyssey, Odysseus has been a prisoner in Calypso’s cave for seven years. She offers him immortality if he will stay with her, but he wants to be on the move, to return to his wife, Penelope, and so the story begins.
The first seven lines ask ‘you’ if you ‘feel like’ an Odysseus or a Calypso – choose your archetype. A lot of wordplay swirls around that central question, perhaps clinging to it like detritus from the source material, but also complicating it – the ‘permanent waves’ pun suggests that the sailor’s voyaging will never end, at the same time as evoking the landlocked world of a presumed reader, who may very well have visited a hairdresser; Calypso is a nymph, but nymph also signifies a stage in an insect’s life cycle.
In the Calypso–Odysseus scene, she is at home and he wants to move on. Here, though, the word ‘permanent’ is attached to the Odysseus side of the equation, and ‘chocka’ also suggests fulness. Even ‘tangible’ suggests solidity. Here the sailor is paradoxical an archetype of stability. It’s the Calypso figure who is unstable – the nymph is an immature insect, still growing, and it’s casting about for a new identity (‘in / search of a new nickname’).
In the second part, the struggle between a settled existence and restlessness comes to the fore. The reference to the view reminds me that this is a Sydney poem, at the same time keeping the ancient story in mind. (I probably picked this poem to blog about because I recently visited what is reputed to be Calypso’s cave on the island of Gozo. It has a brilliant view of the Mediterranean.) But no sooner is the location found than ‘before you were born’ suggests that major change is about to happen. Then there’s ‘a twelve / month commitment’ versus ‘a / capacity to yearn’. And the final punctuation, not a full stop but a dash, leaves the whole thing up in the air, undecided.
The question arises: who is ‘you’ in this poem? It could be the poet as well as any reader who steps into the frame. After all, the person wielding the planchette is receiving a message rather than creating it.
Reading the poem – and any of these poems – isn’t a labour of explication as those paragraphs might suggest. Some of joanne burns poems remain partly or completely opaque to me, which I guess is inevitable with poems that involve so much compression and indirection, but others, like this one, hit a spark. I can’t account for it, but quite apart from everything else I’ve said about it, it made me laugh.
apparently is the 31st book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Publishing.
* Having raise the possibility, I had to have a go:
Our smiling prime minister Morrison
let cameras film him at orison.
His 'How good's Australia'
snatched victory from failure
and now we're the ones he piles horrors on.