Friday, June 23, 2006

3. David Chaloner

The third in this series.

The poets I’ve looked at so far, including David Chaloner, challenge preconceptions as to how language functions. They often leave out basic punctuation. They slap in a bit of white space. They speak in fragments rather than sentences. They place a fragment side by side with another fragment that bear no relation to each other. After a while the techniques become familiar, almost a new orthodoxy of the avant-garde, and you begin to wonder what’s left still to do. Not much, perhaps, but if it’s done well, that goes a long way.

For the most part, David Chaloner does it well. His opening poem, Revisions, consists of a series of short statements that bear no obvious connection to one another, but some of them are quite engaging:

The element of surprise makes hostages of us all.

That’s about as aphoristic as it gets. Not all of them are as pithy as that, and some sounded suspect to me:

The street is filled with debris and daybreak. Broken glass on the pavement mocks hysterical destruction but will not relinquish that state.

It’s the “mocks” that troubles me. I can’t understand that, even if “will not relinquish that state” presents an interesting angle.

Rural Pursuits, a poem in 4 sections, sets out most of David Chaloner’s concerns (at least, as evidenced by the poems in this book) – journeys and quests, departures and arrivals, repetitions in history, memory and doubt. He explores big themes:

…no return is mistaken
for arriving, and arriving
is only an interlude in something
of much grander scale,
that may fail exactly
as words fail to materialise
in appropriate manner.

That’s fluent writing that’s likely to expand anyone’s mind and vision. However, at times I felt Chaloner overstretched himself, and the same could be said of Guy Birchard and Richard Caddel too. Sometimes it’s better to say something simply and mean something complicated (even if you use an unusual linguistic strategy) than to say something in a complicated way but leave the reader feeling that you’re not saying anything much. The poem continues:

This assumption is another strategy
composed of dissimilar events.
And so disorder preconceived
is heir to deceit.
No artefacts, remains or tangible
evidence to produce.
History in the making.
An immaculate shift.

That sounds like waffle to me with a complete lack of economy, although I may have misunderstood.

That said, when David Chaloner writes well (and he often does), the results can be startling. In part 2 of Rural Pursuits, the narrator comes to a road he claims to know, but one can never be certain of this, or anything. The voice here is strong and distinct:

Look, that group of buildings, that hill,
this junction.
This sensation, I know this sensation.
It is being here, it is recognition,
it belongs with travelling
this road.
I know this place.
I have never been here before.
Today is the first time.
Do I know this road? Can you tell me,
can you, do you know this road?

Memory encounters doubt and the result is unreliability. The journeys in these poems are uncertain affairs, pursuits without arrival, stories that may or may not have happened, and a concept of time overlapping even itself:

At this hour, where you have gone
comes to the same place,
and something that did not happen once,
long ago, does not happen now, here.
When you arrive, they have moved on,
any moment now
to where you are.

Chaloner makes effective use of repetition to take you inside the minds of his subjects with their urgent questions, and he also creates atmosphere, a sense of place, in a similar way. Count the references to darkness at the beginning of part 4:

He was driving and it was dark.
He was driving in the darkness of winter
towards the house. Lights were visible
over the hedges, beyond the fields,
in the distance, in the darkness,
in the winter darkness.
The sky was blue-black, flickering
with starlight. He was driving and
it was dark…

And then again at the end:

A shadow of nausea,
a concentration of pain and darkness.
A winter darkness through which he was driving,
towards the lights. The lights at the base-line
of the sky. Towards the lights, coldly,
steadily, glowing.
Towards the cold, glowing lights
in the darkness.

That fourth section of Rural Pursuits is my favourite piece of poetry by anyone in the book up until now. The sounds and echoes that build through the poem make it memorable and worth reading again and again.

Further Instructions is another poem on journeys and time, retracing steps and resolving for an unknown future. The action appears to me to take place inside someone’s head, and the poem is a mirror to the process of thought. Chaloner delights in linguistic play and comes up with a fine image:

True earth. What lies. What lies in wait is the lie
of the land, crowned in copper light. Light sloping
over a ridge pulled free, pulled from free air.

This wrestling with memory, to look back and be ready to re-discover unfamiliarity in the world and confront it, even if it appears similar to what’s been seen before, is the urgent task, not merely to repeat the past:

The world outlines its utterness.
Utterance to circumscribe the world’s unqualified
lineaments. To state discovery as its journey.
As though return bore likeness but not familiarity.
To repeat. For nothing. For nothing but the ability
to confront. Slipping light.

Three poems under the heading Foreword from a collection called The Edge conclude Chaloner’s section of the book. I was wondering whether any of the poets were going to get political, or if they were only interested in politics at a linguistic level, and Chaloner played his hand (curiously, with upper-case letters at the beginning of each line – I say “curiously” only because so much of non-mainstream poetry tends to eschew capital letters altogether):

Land economies confound
The transient labour force
Whose trade is erased
Farms surrendered to ruin
Signify audacious outposts of failure

The second poem takes place in barren terrain. A departure takes place, guilt festers at the heart, time speeds past. But the third poem starts with a degree of hope:

Wherever you settle contradicts
The evidence of self-deluding quest.

However, it doesn’t last long, although I confess the density and complexity of Chaloner’s argument (if it is an argument) didn’t quite get through to me. But the images didn’t appear too upbeat:

Death’s fix cavorts with fractured dialogue
Bleached raiments hiss as you pass
As you turn a corner and the lush meadows
Deploy their hideous green laced with vetch

Needless to say, the poem ends on an ambiguous note, as these kind of poems tend to do:

…recurrent images laden with truth
Continually move away
Tracking the flawed course of unnatural lineage

One thing I’ve noticed about all three poets so far, and with others I’ve glanced at later in the book, is their preoccupation with light, darkness, absence, silence – as if they are straining towards the inexpressible and have found a convenient way to express it. I’ll leave that as a simple observation at the moment, but I wonder why these concerns and concepts are so ubiquitous.

But none of that should obscure the fact that I found a lot to like about David Chaloner’s work. He’s my favourite so far.


Cherilyn Ferroggiaro said...

Interesting thoughts - I have to agree with you. I hope you enjoy your Sunday. :)

Rob Mackenzie said...

Thanks Cherilyn. Reading this book has been an education for me. Cheers.