Glenn Colquhoun, Playing God
Part of this year is about not being a doctor, and in not being a doctor, I am reflecting heavily on my relationship with medicine. So it seems apt that this reading journal should open with Playing God, Glenn Colquhoun’s collection of poetry which deals with this very issue. I must have skipped over Glenn’s introduction the first time I read it; I’m sure I would have remembered how well it described my own feelings towards the profession:
I am an ambivalent doctor…[medicine] allows me the most intense and beautiful views of human life. At other times she terrifies me by revealing my limitations as well as her ability to deal so arbitrarily with our existence. But I am a shallow man. The pay is good. The special treatment is difficult to ignore…The stories are addictive. The opportunity to stand inside the red-hot zone of another human being is pretty much beyond compare…I don’t know how long I will live with her or she with me.
I was interested in the way Glenn used structures from medicine, such as history format, the visual acuity chart, the mini mental status examination. In terms of content, I wonder how much I enjoyed this book because I am in on its secrets. I know exactly what he’s on about because I’ve been there. The view from the ninth floor of Auckland Hospital, the radiology department at Waikato, the consultants he mentions – it’s like reading about your own family and upbringing. Not to mention those references that are so well worn in hospitals: old ‘crumbly’ patients, surgeons being ‘sure of themselves’, old men and their ‘prostrates’, the famous ‘blue pill’ that every old lady seems to be on but no doctor can ever identify. So then I wonder, how important is subject matter to the reader? It sounds a silly question. But in order to really identify with and get inside a poem, does the content have to relate to personal experience? Or should ‘good’ poetry transcend all of that, should a reader be able to read about something quite alien but still love the poetry: the music and the words?
Bernadette Hall, Settler Dreaming
There are definitely stylistic similarities between Hall and Bornholdt. Certainly the way they both set their words out physically on the page is similar at times. But there’s also that wry wit infusing their work, the inclusion of everyday domesticity, the mosaic of present tense experience jammed together. Also, the combination of plain language up against beautiful imagery. For example, in ‘The Beautiful Plains’ (what an ironic title, in view of what I just wrote),
is followed directly by
Given the orangey sweetness of the cantaloupe,
cut like a cup and filling with nectar
overnight in the fridge…
That’s just lovely. Both are much stronger because they are served up next to one another. I think that this is particularly important in long poems (the one I have mentioned spans six pages), where a change in the richness of language is like a change in pace, and serves to hold interest.
Jenny Bornholdt, These Days
I’m thinking – after Mary Anne’s reading seminar which dealt with this issue – about how you arrange poems in a book. I guess it’s easy when you’ve got a narrative. But even then, it’s a bit like arranging songs on an album, I suspect. You don’t want to exhaust the reader with too many sad poems all in a row, nor happy ones for that matter. Two list poems at once would lessen the impact of both, several long poems could get tiring too. I read These Days with these things in mind. I find Jenny Bornholdt really easy to read, I think that has a lot to do with how she mixes up forms and tones, grouping a couple of prose poems together, then a few short ones, then four or five pages of long, slender poems. The more I read it, the more I love this collection. She writes so beautifully about everyday things, it sometimes tricks into appearing banal, but there is this strong current of significance underpinning the lot of it. Every now and then there’s a reminder – in this collection it’s moving into a new house, her pregnant belly, a friend’s marriage – and I feel like I am living the very intimate moments with her that stack upon one another and define her place in her family, in the world. The moments that make up her life at that particular time, the way she sees things, the way they change her. The way she refers to members of their family by their real names reinforces the impression of non-fiction.
My reading seminar is about ‘Doctor Poets’. I’ve been searching through a collection of William Carlos Williams poems to try and get one or two about being a physician. Perhaps it was a mistake to initially get the thinnest anthology on the shelf, but I can’t find any in my collection of selected poems. It has made me read through a broad range of his poems, and I am quite obsessed with some of them. The pared down poems are my favourites. ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ is famous for good reason:
THE RED WHEELBARROW
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
And similarly enthralling is ‘The Locust Tree in Flower’, in both versions. The first consists of eight stanzas of three lines each. Then, the poem has been pared down to this:
It’s great to see these two poems side-by-side, to guess at how WCW worked on one to produce the other, to appreciate the way in which one explains the other; they are both richer for it.
Merrill Moore, Clinical Sonnets
Merrill Moore was a Boston psychiatrist. He didn’t live particularly long (died at 54 years of age), but in that time wrote over 40,000 sonnets. Stored them in the ‘Sonnetorium’ – fantastic. I can’t say that I’m at all fond of the poems in this book, aside from curiosity value. I don’t find Dr Moore’s use of language exciting, and his outlook is definitely the wise old (male) doctor of years gone by. Here’s an example of one of his titles:
You know what it means to be thoroughly satisfied? Well, she was that, and it was the first time. It had never happened to her before in her life. This experience she finally told me about. She was a stenographer, born in Idaho. She moved to Indiana when she was 17 and had worked there for 10 years for one company.
(!) He then goes on to talk about this woman who he has introduced in the ‘title’, and completely takes the mickey:
She was not good looking but she had a nice
Personality. Which she kept on ice.
On the whole though he seems to treat his sonnets as mini analyses of his patients, and in that way they are quite boring – it is the old problem of seeking to provide the answers as to why these people behave as they do, rather than seeking to ask questions. I suppose that is what his job was all about, or, at least, how he perceived it.
One particularly nice aspect of reading Merrill Moore was the copy of Clinical Sonnets in the VUW library. I found it on the bottom shelf, jammed in amongst other titles, with a red sticker which denotes that the librarians are watching this book, aware that no one is much interested in it. Then on the front page, handwritten in blue ink: ‘For Dennis [sic] Glover with compliments Merrill Moore Boston 1955.’ Which feels like peeking into their lives for a moment, in this small piece of communication between the two poets, there on the bottom shelf. Sadly, I looked at the due date flap of paper stuck into the back, and no one has ever gotten it out. I am the first. What a sad thought, even if I don’t much like his poems.
Dannie Abse, White Coat, Purple Coat
I’ve focused on reading Abse’s medical poems, which feel as if they are grappling with a clinical life, rather than sharing insights as Moore does. I related especially to ‘Carnal Knowledge’, a poem about dissecting cadavers and Abse coming to terms with his own mortality. I really like the way he uses sound to set the scene in the first stanza:
You, student, whistling those elusive bits
of Schubert when phut, phut, phut, throbbed the sky
of London. Listen: the servo-engine cut
and the silence was not the desired silence
between the two movements of music. Then
Finale, the Aldwych echo of crunch
and the urgent ambulances loaded
with the fresh dead. You, young, whistled again,
entered King’s, climbed the stone-murky steps
to the high and brilliant Dissecting Room
where nameless others, naked on the slabs,
reclined in disgraceful silences – twenty
amazing sculptures waiting to be vandalised.
Every sound is so loaded. The student whistling is light, young and indifferent to the scenes of death around him, presumably partly because it cannot touch him in his youth and partly because he is saturated with the idea of death through living in a war and dissecting a dead body every day. The phut, phut, phut, the crunch and the ambulances are all haunting, ominous sounds and the deathly silence of the servo-engine cut comes back later as the silence of the cadavers on the dissecting slabs. I think it is clever how, in this one stanza, Abse has introduced many attitudes, characters, places and events in a concise manner.
Another poem which I found quite striking was ‘Tuberculosis’. I felt less of an emotional response to this poem, but appreciated it in that nostalgic way you do when you are looking down a line of figures in history, sharing experience, talking to one another across time through poetry or letters. Abse first mentions his friend, who clowns:
‘TB I’ve got. You know what TB signifies?
Totally buggered.’ He laughed. His sister cried.
Then he mentions ‘that other John’, John Keats:
And what of that other medical student,
that other John, coughing up redness on
a white sheet? ‘Bring me the candle, Brown.
That is arterial blood, I cannot be deceived
in that colour. It is my death warrant.
Then there is Abse, the narrator of the poem, with a patient in front of him who is cured of TB. And finally, the last lines:
…Later, alone, I, questing for
old case histories, open the tight desk-drawer
to smell again Schiller’s rotten apples.
refer to Goethe’s poet-physician friend with TB who couldn’t work without the smell of rotten apples in his desk drawer (thanks to the web again). I like the idea of this exchange of experience through history, across time and social class, the concept that words can survive far beyond the lifespan of a person, and can go on ‘talking’ to people who might respond with their own written words. I also think that tuberculosis in itself is an interesting disease in the context of literary history – it seems to have taken out so many writers. Which is in part because it was so prevalent in society of course. And again, in the 21st century, TB is a worldwide killer, especially amongst the HIV-positive community, so that the symbol of blood-stained sputum in literature has its own resonance today.
Dannie Abse’s poems have a lot of medical, biblical and mythological references, and in that sense can only be appreciated fully by an educated audience. It’s funny, because you feel so self-satisfied when you ‘get’ the reference, you feel like you’re in on some sort of secret and it makes you feel smart (even though you may only get it because you looked it up). But if I had to choose, I’d much rather have the poetry that pleases me on that simple base level of words and sounds. As opposed to poetry you research and ponder and then finally feel like you might be penetrating.
Writers on Mondays kicked off with Robert Dessaix, who is an extraordinary speaker. I have not read any of his work, but his reading intrigued me, as did the discussion afterwards, and the discussion we had at IIML the next evening with the MA students. His view is that death and love are really the only things worth writing about. And love in quite a specific sense. I didn’t get that bit, it was some sort of ‘high love’ (as in ‘high art’), although he didn’t quite use those words. It excluded a whole lot of things we might call love, including the love a mother has for a child, which I felt a bit uncertain about.
Dessaix had me in this dream-like state listening to him, almost catatonic in fact. He spoke beautifully and I was totally taken with his complete and unshakeable world view: talk of abysses and valleys and being on the top of the mountain in a snowstorm and I won’t try to quote him because it would only come out unfaithful to his words. He has a frightening brain: he even had his own language which he built as a child, complete with grammar and derivations. He answered our ‘what would be the word for this?’ questions with the speed and certainty I have seen only in psychics and people on telly trying to sell Mega Memory. I really couldn’t ask any questions because I felt like Lynn of Tawa in comparison. Especially when he was bemoaning the loss of the art of conversation. I do take his point that love and death produce the most remarkable work, and that experiences around them are the only two things that will have a person ‘standing at the edge of an abyss’. I think that’s why the hospital is such an intoxicating place to work. It is all love and death in a hospital, human beings confronted by these two, big, huge things. ‘Being on the edge’ – that’s what my friend in the Israeli Army said my job had in common with his – ‘we are both on the edge of things’.
Bob Orr, Breeze
What struck me about Bob Orr’s poems is the way he can string along some very lengthy sentences in his poems. Here’s an example from ‘My Grandmother’s Funeral’:
With your heart attacks
& your cigarettes
your Hillcrest house
& your over
fed fox terrier
who could make a party
like you did
at the piano
when you improvised.
It’s an interesting way to lay a poem on the page, in that you rely on only line breaks to provide the pauses and stops. I like the way the long sentence draws you on. I think you’d need to be quite disciplined to write a long sentence like this into a poem, particularly with no punctuation.
‘The Balcony’ is a fabulous poem with fabulous plain language:
the clogged sinks
the stacks of dirty dishes
washed maybe once
a week. The bathrooms with taps
adding to a record of rust.
It is incredibly careful but feels so fluid. The whole poem has an airy quality that suits the idea of sitting on a sunny balcony with no responsibilities, achieved through a paucity of punctuation, short lines, long sentences that flow down the page. Most of his work has this confident simplicity which I admire so much. But the end of ‘The Balcony’ feels cluttered:
My head is a red roof
my backbone wooden stairs
my heart a secret balcony overlooking the years.
Poetry Day has been pretty exciting. Woke up to the tail end of CK Stead on television, being far kinder about the stupid questions he was asked than I would have expected. Then Bill on Good Morning, then a trip to the National Library for readings by a whole lot of Wellington poets. There was poetry on the pavement. It was great. It felt like a real celebration.
Main Trunk Lines, an exhibition curated by Jenny Bornholdt and Greg O’Brien, was upstairs. It also felt like a celebration, and seeing them all in one room, I was struck by just how many great poets we have in this country. The exhibition itself was mostly books, but there was also some great visual art on the walls. It was neat to actually see the Pine postcards and Maladywork of Bill/Ralph Hotere which I have read about – somewhere – previously. Poetry and painting: a beautiful marriage. Painting can move words into new places, reach a new audience (and with a new price tag as well). The most interesting bit was manuscripts of work in progress. I must admit, I was expecting more of these.
Writers on Mondays featured Jenny Bornholdt today, reading and being interviewed by Damien. She reads beautifully, and I was surprised at how eloquent and confident she was when she was in discussion with Damien, also. (She seems quite shy when she introduces her poems.) The poems she chose were very easy to listen to and follow, partly because of the style in which they are written, but also because of her well paced, clear reading. She has written the most amazing poem, I can’t remember the exact title, but it was something like ‘The Confessional’. It was classic Bornholdt – seeming at first like random, banal observations, but along the way realising some very deliberate crafting and coming together at the end to something tied up and very moving. Jenny said today that in this poem she is ‘arguing’ for poems being able to be something ‘sprawling’ that goes off in different directions, rather than the usual description of ‘compaction’. Some might call this style ‘baggy’.
She also talked about how she wanted to get herself into that confessional poem, how she’d been reading Mark Doty and admired the way he was so present in his own poems. Reading Mark Doty’s Source, I can see what she means. Bornholdt’s poem definitely did have that wandering, reflective tone, in which Doty is clearly present and interacting with the world. She talked about how she often used the personal pronoun ‘you’ when she really meant ‘I’, and how this was something she hid behind. Which is odd: she may have felt more comfortable writing in that way, but no reader would honestly read her poems as anything but ‘I’. In other ways she has made no bones about the autobiographical nature of her poems, especially when Greg and her kids are mentioned by name throughout. But I do understand the way that the process of writing ‘I’ feels so much more personal and exposing than ‘she’ or ‘you’, even if you don’t particularly mind readers knowing the nature of the information and subject.
I used to think poems were best sitting on a page, so you could appreciate the words as they are intended by the writer, the way the writer has laid them out and placed them in a collection. But I have changed my mind. Poems grow by being put into the world in different ways. After the reading, I went upstairs to the Noel McKenna exhibition featuring Jenny Bornholdt’s poems. His paintings were arresting, somehow vast and intimate at the same time. But what I loved was what he’d done with the poems, how the poems had inspired his visual art and how his interpretation extrapolated them into another world. In the way that poems become bigger and permeate new worlds by other people reading them. The pots were fantastic. You could walk around one and around and around, caught in some sort of poem loop. There is something lovely about all of these moments in Jenny Bornholdt’s life being returned to – written by her, published, read by an audience, read out loud by Bornholdt, painted on pots, viewed on pots – it’s a meditation extended over years. That’s the great thing about poetry, it is so easy to read and re-read, put away and come back to later. What’s more, I might read a novel I like twice, maybe three times, but a poem can be returned to again and again, without losing a thing. I love the idea that words move into the world through writing, speaking, reading, reincarnated at each turn.
Today we watched the Robert Hass video at IIML, which was a reading followed by discussion with Jorie Graham. I like his poetry, it is something like that ‘sprawling’ thing that Jenny Bornholdt talks about, meandering around and feeling loose and free and tangential. But coming back to order regularly, to remind us that we are being led by a deliberate voice, a poet watching the whole project who will not let it stray far from where he intends it to go. There was a poem about Holland that made me laugh, stuff about even the junk in backyards being orderly, about clerks arranging notes in the till with the Queen’s head all facing upwards (I have done this, does that make me anal? It’s easier to count like that). There were a lot of apples, blossoms, herbs, roses, sometimes I think enough of that. It’s like oranges, nectarines, bloody plums! I know that like honey and watermelon, they are beautiful words, but poets do go on sometimes. There was a wonderful moment which I will not try to recreate here, where Hass is shooting hoops on a basketball court and his drunken Mum comes along and the ball is the only thing over which he has control. He realises in the poem that the hoop is the level of everything, it is just an intense peak in his poem and it took my breath away.
Of Jorie’s questions, I managed to make sense of one about verse and prose in his poetry, and why one might choose one over the other. Hass spoke of the sensation of intimacy in verse and how prose escaped that, how at a particular stage in his life, the intimacy of verse was too much. A champion of bagginess. He spoke of the demanding nature of verse. I agree that prose can feel like room to breathe in amongst a collection of poems, and I like it where it is included in collections in class. (I think all of the poets in our class have written prose now.) Hass also talked extensively about his mixed views about language and poetry. On one hand, he quoted (someone, didn’t quite catch it) that ‘poetry calls the world into being by naming it’. On the other, that language traps us into a world of symbolism, and that ‘language always can never get at the thing’. Hass talked at length about realism. He was talking about Impressionism and I’m not sure if this is quite what he said, so apologies to Hass. An Impressionist painting, in seeking to mimic the science of the eye, is delightful and uplifting to look at. And I’m not sure if he went on to say this, but I would add, to extend the comparison, that a realistic painting which looks like a photograph is fairly unexciting and certainly not uplifting. That is how I see poetry – it is not, and cannot be the thing, but in being a representation of the thing and not exactly it, poetry can elevate the thing to another plane, a greater intensity, just as WCW’s red wheelbarrow becomes something more than a piece of garden equipment in his poem.