John Tranter, Ten Sonnets (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 90, 2013)
Kate Lilley, Realia (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 91, 2013)
This series of elegant chapbooks finishes up this year at No 100, which means that John Tranter and Kate Lilley at 90 and 91 respectively are leading us into the straight – which may be the only straight thing about either of them (no reference to sexuality intended).
I went to the launch at Gleebooks on the weekend because I am generally baffled by the work of both these poets, and hoped for some guidance on how to read them, and I got it. John Frow, Eng Lit and Cultural Studies scholar, who did the honours, commented that in both books – and in The Tulip Beds by A J Carruthers, Rare Object No 92, which he was also launching – the poems were generated using a mechanism: in Tranter’s case the rhyming sonnet form and in Lilley’s a found-object framework.
Five of Tranter’s ten sonnets have an additional mechanical dimension: they list the five vowels and assign each of them to a colour. And other mechanical elements turn up in other poems: for instance ‘Poem Beginning with a Line by John Anderson’ was written, we’re told in a note, ‘while listening to a paper on his poetry given by Ella O’Keefe at the University of Auckland in March 2012’, and incorporates lines from Anderson and from Ms O’Keefe’s talk. (I hope she’s flattered by being incorporated into the sonnet rather than offended by the lack of attention.)
Speaking of notes, six of the books 16 pages are taken up with notes, which quote liberally from Wikipedia. It’s hard to tell for the most part whether these notes are meant to inform the reader, to mock the reader for wanting information, to slip an extended prose poem or two under the radar or simply to get the book’s pages up to a multiple of eight. One note explains what ‘Scuba’ is an acronym for, but is no help in explicating the couplet in which it appears:
U, olive green of underwater hair –
Scuba, the acronym, in a crowded room.
Another manages to compare Tranter’s work to Shakespeare’s, if only on the matter of complexity. On the other hand, a good half of the very long note on ‘Poem Beginning with a Line by Bunting’ is a lucid explication of a poem that at first I found impenetrable, which begins:
Boasts time mocks cumber Rome.
Roasts thyme scents set on ledge.
Interestingly enough, the note explains, that first line (from Basil Bunting’s ‘At Briggflatts Meeting House’) can be decoded into standard English. So can the second, but the rationale for its existence is that it echoes the first – it’s not clear if its sense matters at all.
Following John Tranter’s lead, I’ll now quote Wikipedia and tell you that the great modernist American poet William Carlos Williams ‘summarised his poetic method in the phrase “No ideas but in things”‘. It’s tempting to say of the poems in Realia, ‘no ideas, just things’. The longest poem in the book. ‘GG’, is mainly a list of items from the estate of Greta Garbo sold at auction last December, presented without commentary:
Greta Garbo flatware
Greta Garbo cordial glasses
Greta Garbo Sherbet stemware
Greta Garbo Swedish butter press
__Viking mould imprints 14 5/8″ x 4 1/4″
and so on.
Of course, the art is in the selection. I looked up the actual 302 page catalogue, and the poem got even funnier. You can almost hear Kate Lilley saying, like Anna Russell, ‘I’m not making this up!’ The weirdness of starting each item with ‘Greta Garbo’ is not her invention. I didn’t check that everything in the poem is genuinely from the catalogue, but I did search for the line that most aroused my suspicions
Greta Garbo Stim-U-Lax Jnr Hand-Held
and there it was, hidden in plain sight:
Some liberty taken as befits a poet, but an honest steal.
Neither of these books appealed to me much on first contact, but when I came to write about them, even so spottily, I warmed to them both. My own fiddling with sonnets has taught me that there’s a lot of mechanics in poetic form, and it’s interesting to put the mechanism front and centre and see what you get. And listing found verbal objects without comment or interpretation can create interestingly comic or disturbing effects.
The Vagabond Press facebook page predicts another five titles by the end of the year, by Emma Lew, Bella Li, Emma Jones, Ania Walwicz and Jennifer Maiden. To be launched in Melbourne.