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Poems of subtle perception and ruthless intellect

John Tranter reviews

«The Sea-Cucumber», by Martin Johnston
«The Crystal Absences, the Trout», by Andrew Taylor
«Number Two Friendly Street Reader», ed. Andrew Taylor and Ian Reid.

First published in «The National Times», week ending 26 August 1978, page 42. Provenance: this text was scanned and edited by John Tranter in 2008.

Martin Johnston’s combination of subtle perception and ruthless intellect made him at an early age one of the best critics we have had.

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The Sea-Cucumber gathers together most of Martin Johnston’s poetry written over the past 10 years.


He has lived for some time now in Greece and London, and has not been closely associated with the most recent developments in local poetry. In some ways, the poems in The Sea-Cucumber show that he was not so closely linked with the new directions poetry was taking here 10 years ago, either.


His personality and education are both so unusual that it is inevitable that what he had to say ran at a strong tangent to the main concerns of the group he is usually associated with.


The verbal surface of the earlier poems is often baroque and over-rich, and sometimes reminiscent of the early Kenneth Slessor:


Polychromatic springtime’s gay cadenza
fades, and the colour harpsichord is still


And there is more than a hint of T. S. Eliot when the mood turns melancholy:


Cellos in the fur
will scrape the brain across a string
unfurling spider webs in air
to suck the discords mornings bring
when evenings twitter and grow stale.


Apart from the awkward rhythms, this shows a young poet revelling in language and its ability to render mood and colour vividly, but the emphasis on technique leads to an embroidered effect, where the reader’s attention is constantly dragged away from the things in the poem and focused on the writer’s skill with words.


I am reminded of Johnston’s obsession with chess — both as a general inference, and specifically in the poem Mazurka for Buzzing Fly — where a clever analytic and mimetic technique is often sufficient to achieve success. Chess, of course, is a beautiful but useless game; poetry is something more.


One long poem, The Blood Aquarium, is generally regarded as Johnston’s tour de force, and it had a superficially liberating influence on many young poets in the early 1970s. It consists of 19 pages of modernist collage, a patch-work rumination on various European and Eastern cultures histories and philosophies — Wittgenstein, the I Ching, Buddhism, Shamanism, Borges, Gogol, Corelli, Durer, and so forth.


Han-Shan: ‘The Cold Mountain’,
Pascal squats here, muttering for a duster,
and Evariste Galois bursts in the cold red dawn
and becomes an inkblot;

scanning we may, yes, plot the tangents of night
and in the thirtieth century before Christ
Fu Hsi invents the binary system . . .


The poem’s length, the weight of the rhetoric and the significance of the references all point to the fact that Johnston is trying to say something quite important here, yet his technique is a constant obstruction, and does not give a fluent and cohesive form to his poetic impulses.


The mandarin-like allusiveness of his references make up one difficulty, his quirky and over-burdened style make up another; and between them the reader could be forgiven for simply giving up.


To my mind, the best poems are the later ones toward the end of the book. Johnston is getting better as he grows older, and it’s easy to see why. In the 14 pages of poems that make up the section Microclimatology, mostly written recently, I assume, in Greece, the author is ceasing to strive after effect.


The occasional surrealistic gesture is well integrated into the material; the language, though occasionally oblique, is well fitted to what he has to say, and his imagery has become his own, to be used for the poem’s purpose and no other.


Before dawn the fishing boats
float into floating mist that certainly conceals
little prospect of a light descent
from reportable middle regions in solid air,
freeze there, hunch
back under cover, steel
sea, boats, fish, a single liquid
falling, slow horizontal rain, through
the dark bedroom.


Martin Johnston’s combination of subtle perception and ruthless intellect made him at an early age one of the best critics we have had. His own poetry is now losing its earlier stridency, and is gaining in its place a quiet effectiveness.


Andrew Taylor’s 48-page book The Crystal Absences, The Trout is not a collection of poems, but a single poem written over a two-month period and revised during the next 18 months.


Its design is simple: the woman he loves leaves him for a time, and the poet writes of the sense of absence he feels, talks about his life from day to day, and meditates on many things. When the woman returns, the poem comes to an end.


The first fault you look for is a garrulous inconsequentiality. Though the poem certainly looks rambling on the page, its overall shape is much more coherent than it first appears.


The other obvious problem is flat spots: not every day brings a message from the muse. These have been worked over, and what emerges is a sequential relaxing and tightening of tone.


Edgar Allan Poe claimed that there could no longer be any such thing as an epic poem; the strain of keeping up the required poetic intensity for any length of time is simply too much for either poet or reader. The answer in our century has been to adopt the novel’s convention of periodic variation of tension, and Taylor handles this aspect of his long poem quite well, using the slack areas for exercises of wit and quiet rumination.


He writes of himself taking a stroll alone at night:


a single man walking
has the world’s eyes screwed
suspicious against him but
a single man with dog
is explicable even loved
do we like most man
or dog? certainly
somebody stole my Airedale
nobody stole me


The book works between the extremes of playful anecdote and genuine loneliness, and to me its best quality is the ability Andrew Taylor shows of making a wide range of ordinary experience into a very human and believable poetry.


This is his sixth book, and reveals how successfully he has moved away from the rather academic ironies of his earlier work into a more natural idiom. His voice is contemporary without being excessively up-to-date; he can speak passionately without falling into hysterical postures, and the everyday details of his life appear not as mere embellishments, but as part of the fabric of the poem itself.


Andrew Taylor, together with Ian Reid, edited Number Two Friendly Street, an anthology of poems from the Friendly Street readings held regularly in Adelaide during the last year, and featuring poets mainly from Adelaide, but many visitors as well.


It has to be said that the general standard is uneven. By this I don’t mean that there are good poems and dreadfully bad poems; the standard of achievement varies from very good to average, and this is unusual in a collection of this type.


Most of the 42 contributors are relatively unpublished, though poets like Geoffrey Dutton, Richard Tipping, Pi O and Eric Beach work on a level of practised skill that a surprisingly large number of the lesser-known poets measure up to quite well.


My own pick of the poems in this book is Eric Beach’s I Hate Poetry, which begins: “I hate poetry / those readings where you sit still / until the chairs ache / & you stare fixedly at the wax flies on the ceiling / & someone’s great thoughts / roll around in heads untenanted / like city buildings on empty nights / & the lonely words / window-shopping . . .”


It’s a useful collection of poems for the reader who wants something free of group in-fighting, polemic or manifesto. It’s a very democratic book, and one that manages to prove that democracy isn’t always the same thing as mob rule.

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