At this point in the course I’m coming face to face with my own personal demon:
avoidance. It’s the weight of the possibility of handing in something that I’m not proud
of that’s sitting on my chest like a stone gargoyle. This makes it hard for me to do work,
even though I feel anxious about it all the time, which gives the illusion of working
constantly on it without doing any single thing about it. I know that Julia Cameron’s
answer to this would be artist’s pages. (So I’m spilling a little bit of my mental turmoil in
the hope it helps, and if it doesn’t, at least I’m getting my Reading Journal page-count
God, I’m so envious of people that seize every opportunity they get given with both
hands. I know that everyone has their own difficulties, and that I’m definitely not alone
in feeling like this course is overwhelming at times. I guess for me, it’s a minor personal
tragedy to see the thing I love—poetry—eaten up by avoidance, my little devil.
Previously, I’ve had him ruin various academic endeavours, and now I’m so, so scared
that he’s going to come for my beloved; the one thing that used to spring up like a hardy
weed in the cracks of my procrastination.
The truth is, there’s 3 months to go in this course, and the closer I get to the end, the less
I want to work on my project. The more I care about it, the less I can set pen to paper (or
fingers to keys, as the case may be). The fear that I will squander this opportunity to
dedicate myself to writing for the year becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m so
concerned about wasting my opportunity to create something I’m proud of that I am
wasting it. I spent a full day in bed fantasising and researching about attending the
University of Edinburgh, as if compulsed. I had many things more important to do; I
feverishly, doggedly fantasised about a future time where I might escape my gargoyle.
Except, the thing is, he will come with me wherever in the world I go.
So now that I’ve complained, how will I cope with him? Well I know he hates me taking
on manageable tasks. That’s why I’m writing this, and good thing too, because this is
due in a month, not three. I know the answer is to keep reminding myself not to get
bogged down by the big ideas, to keep reading, and writing done daily — even if one
does have to take a day off to fantasise about the University of Edinburgh now and then
— will get me there. What won’t get me there is AVOIDANCE. This has been such a
constant in my life I’ve probably got to write about it sooner or later.
I know I’ve been improving as I get older, even if my avoidance has only been getting
better absolutely piecemeal. The only way to improve is obviously to go through it, to
fight it. This year could be one more long lesson in combating my devil rather than a
lesson in writing brilliant poetry.
Anyway, talking of avoidance, poor Louise Glück. I’ve been in the ongoing process of
abandoning her (and many grand plans) this year. I’ve switched to an online copy of
Meadowlands, but maybe this will help me get it over with quickly. I should really write
about some other stuff before I have to hand in the reading journal. I’m tempted to say I
should write about one poem from Meadowlands and one from somewhere else.
However, I’ve made and abandoned so many plans in here that I’m too embarrassed to
make any more. I’ll just see what happens this time.
So the next poem in the book is Telemachus’ Kindness. So far, the Telemachus poems
have been my favourite. What a brain-blast Glück must have felt when she realised that
Telemachus could be the ideal insider/outsider perspective on the marriage. He also has
the detachment that allows for a wry sense of humour about the situation: see the
brilliant Telemachus’ Detachment.
I think one thing that’s quite impressive about Glück’s poems, that I’d like to pull off, is
the way her story and the story of Penelope (thousands of years ago on a different
continent) feels utterly indispensable and interchangeable with her own (or at least the
speakers). This is apparent throughout the collection, here’s an example from
Telemachus’ Kindness “When I was younger I felt / sorry for myself / compulsively; in
practical terms, / I had no father; my mother / lived at her loom hypothesizing / her
husband’s erotic life.” This could be the perspective of Telemachus in the Odyssey, but
the subtext is also there: Glück’s son was injured by his father’s absence, and doubly
injured by her obsessive writing (‘living at her loom’) about it.
Yet again Telemachus sounds absolutely like he’s been to therapy, but here it is
suggested he has to come to his hard-won wisdom through the community as he
describes here in this poem “I found / I could share these perceptions / with my closest
friends, as they shared / theirs with me, to test them, / to refine them”. I don’t believe
the collection would be nearly as interesting if Telemachus’ voice wasn’t in here. It’s
kind of a narrative voice; he is seperate from the embroiled poems that come from
inside the relationship (Penelope/Glück and her “hypothesising / [of] her husband’s
erotic life”), and therefore has a sort of omnipresence that the collection needs to make
sense. We also assume that Telemachus may be talking from some time later, as he
describes himself as a “grown man.” However, this is not totally clear, maybe he is
already grown up (maybe Glück had him in her first marriage?) (It’s hard for me not to
hypothesise on the foundation of reality that most poems are, in my experience, built
For me, the equivalent to Telemachus might be the voice of the chorus, if I can get it
working. I’ve only written one from the chorus so far and I’d say that it complicates
things rather than clarifies them.
Friday 16th August
Telemachus’ wisdom also speaks to what the Glück/Penelope speaker cannot. That is an
aspect of universality to his parent’s experience; an antidote to the hotbed of emotion
and self-focus within the marriage itself. “gradually / I realized no child on that island
had / a different story / my trials / were the general rule” Telemachus says in
Telemachus’ Kindness. Compare this with Meadowlands I, and we see how Telemachus’
wisdom is greater than his parents, who focus on comparing themselves with the
neighbours “I wish we went on walks / like Steven and Kathy; then / we’d be happy.”
Instead of finding points for commonality, they focus on their differences, on the needs
they have that aren’t being met “what / a life my mother had, without / compassion for
my father’s / suffering, for a soul / ardent by nature, thus / ravaged by choice, nor had
my father / any sense of her courage, subtly / expressed as inaction, being / himself
prone to dramatizing”. Telemachus perceives this dynamic, which is a sort of unbiased
overview of his parent’s relationship we have seen developed through all the poems so
far, especially the conversation poems.
It’s clear that in the ‘real’ marriage, the conversation around both spouses’ grievances is
non-existent. That’s why the conversations in Ceremony, Anniversary and
Meadowlands I only obliquely point at the issues in the relationship, with the only
direct communication being criticism. For example, in Ceremony, John says, “Living
with you is like living / at boarding school: / chicken Monday, fish Tuesday.” This is the
tip of the iceberg, with the iceberg being that Louise is too rigid and routine-loving for a
free-spirit, live and let-live man like John. However, all conversations about these
differences happen in a veiled way—like the projection onto the neighbours in
Meadowlands I—so no openess or compromise can ever be reached.
We also see in Rainy Morning that, unlike Telemachus, even Glück cannot get a clear
read on the relationship, and feels ashamed that she cannot “love the world” like John.
Instead of having discussed and embraced their differences, she sees them as a gap that
she cannot bridge.
Glück ensures that we get the idea about what lies below the surface of the
water/marriage by leveraging the myth. The lack of intimacy and communication
between the two of them is expressed using the metaphor of John/Odysseus going away
to war leaving behind Penelope; I suspect that adultery is also implied, but not
necessarily explicitly at this point. The narrative voice in Parable of the Hostages, for
example, is detached from Glück/Penelope, and gives us an idea of how John might feel
in the marriage, even if he isn’t an actual speaker. This is because we get quite a strong
narrative about the frame of mind of Odysseus and his men here. “The world had begun
/ calling them, an opera beginning with the war’s / loud chords and ending with the
floating aria of the sirens.”
Telemachus hasn’t only come to a more complex understanding of his parent’s
relationship than either of them have, he’s also learnt something: don’t focus on the
differences between yourself and others, instead focus on your common
experiences—“My trials / were the general rule, common / to all of us, a bond / among
us, therefore / with humanity.” Perhaps, if Louise and John had realised they were
playing foils in one of the most common human dynamics not only in marriage, but all
relationships, they would be able to see through their polarisation to communicate in a
way that would help heal their relationship. Telemachus would likely say they needed to
learn to pity each other, as he can “pity them both: I hope / always to be able to pity
Monday 19 August
I can’t be especially bothered with Glück today, but I’ve got Anna Jackson’s Pasture and
Flock here. I’ll make some comments on whatever stands out to me as I read it. She’s got
a glittering sense of humour and the way her poems move me is subtle: they’re a real
answer to Glück’s high-minded poetry-poetry tone. Today, I’m enjoying reading
something a bit more ridiculous, something that pokes a little fun at the whole affair.
I’m partial to this first series of poems ‘My friendship with Mayakovsky’, although I can’t
say I know who Mayakovsky is. (I’m guessing an old Russian poet – yep, he’s the Soviet
poet that wrote ‘A Cloud in Trousers’) I love the way this series runs on from one poem
to the next in a narrative sequence, and would like to try this myself. “He mooches over
to the AV centre / [‘The sun was right, you are a poetess!’] / Mayakovsky materialises
with gusto…” Here, for example the title is leveraged (we immediately know it’s
Mayakovsky’s speech) to move the action and give emphasis in places.
Sometimes, Jackson instead uses the title to create suspense in the poems – e.g. in
Mayakovsky looks up my dreams, which is at odds with the previous poem where the
speaker believed it was unlikely Mayakovsky would do any such thing. “Sure, I think. It’s
not the first time / a celebrity has picked me up / and dropped me, / Mayakovsky.” And
it appears to be true that Mayakovsky isn’t so fussed that he rushes—“After a couple of
months, / Mayakovsky remembers his promise / to check out my dreams.” However, the
action described in the title of the poem actually occurs between the end of the poem
and the start of the next. Very clever.
I’m probably also intrigued by this poem because I’m a little bit of a sucker for Dunedin
and this poem captures some of that rebellious, anarchist vibe. Of course, this blends
well with a poetry sequence about a politically-charged man—Wikipedia says
“Mayakovsky's work regularly demonstrated ideological and patriotic support for the
ideology of the Communist Party and a strong admiration of Vladimir Lenin,
Mayakovsky's relationship with the Soviet state was always complex and often
tumultuous.” On his politics, Jackson writes (of Mayakovsky entering her skull) “He
climbed in a futurist / and climbs out a feminist.” It would appear as though her
daydream about this mentor figure regularly gives Mayakovsky the power, one’s own
fantasies sometimes must have the power to do a little revisionist history.
However, also in the spirit of Dunedin, Jackson keeps it light while tracking this slightly
odd mix of afterlife-mentorship crossed with bad-almost-boyfriend. There is plenty of
dream-logic going on here, and Jackson seemingly effortlessly creates a whole world
(which does draw on some Hollywood ideas of heaven in comedy, à la The Good Place)—
“Mayakovsky is so drunk he forgets to walk / and flies, a habit he picked up / in
Heaven.” I also like the fact that instead of saying he’ll call, he says he’ll go and watch
her dreams—which he eventually does at Heaven’s AV centre.
For a dream of poetic greatness, this fantasy does dabble in a celebrity fame (to great
comedic effect)—“For the book launch we fly in plane loads / of vodka and caviar and
the most famous people / we can think of.” I can’t help but think that this can’t have
gelled well with Mayakovsky’s communist views, but that’s what’s so cool about this
poem: it’s not sense making. It’s about the fantasy of a twenty-three year old writer
diving into her wildest dreams before her life has really even begun. She feels anything
could happen—even Mayakovsky as a mentor.
The last poem My second coming reads more like real life. In this last poem, I perceive
that the “second coming” is the poet’s real life. The malaise of the poets real life is
explained away with her fantasy—“I get depressed. / All the people I know are dead. / I
stop briefly at a few parties just to be polite / but no one comes up for my autograph.” I
think in some ways this poetry series is very brave. It shares frankly some fantasies the
nature of which many people don’t share aloud. It normalises the desire to be
recognised for your writing—whether through publication, or recognition from dead
heroes. It also, with a light touch, recognises how disheartening looking one’s big
dreams in the eye can be.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mel Ansell is a poet currently living in Wellington. She has previously been published in Sweet Mammalian, Takahē, and Critic.