Friday, December 18, 2009



Pelican Dreaming: Poems 1959-2008 by Mark Young
(Meritage Press, San Francisco & St. Helena, 2008)

[First published in Issue 217 of Landfall, edited by Paula Morris and published in May 2009 by Otago University Press]

Unfinished Business

There’s a photograph of Mark Young in A Question of Faith, the catalogue for the 2002 Colin McCahon retrospective curated at Amsterdam’s Stedelijke Musuem. It was taken by Marti Friedlander at the Barry Lett Gallery during McCahon’s Scrolls exhibition in October, 1969. Young, who is not identified in the caption and would not be recognised by most of those who have looked at the photo, is standing before a wall of scrolls with his right arm raised in an oracular gesture. Just above his index finger, in McCahon’s inimitable script, is the pronoun ‘I’, and above that is the word LISTEN. Whereas McCahon has written LISTEN, I … Young, it seems, is declaiming: I / LISTEN … The occasion was a reading in the gallery by James K Baxter, David Mitchell and Young who would, within weeks of the event, flee New Zealand for Australia. There was a brief efflorescence of publication and performance in Sydney about five years later followed by 25 years of silence. Most people familiar with his work in New Zealand in the 1960s thought he was dead. Michele Leggott, closely involved in his rediscovery towards the end of the 1990s, would remark: the thoroughness of your disappearance was outstanding.

Leggott, along with co-editors Alan Brunton and Murray Edmond, wanted to resolve the enigma of Young’s disappearance in order to include his work in their 2000 anthology Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960 – 1975. They found him in western Sydney, completing a Bachelor of Applied Science in Operations Research. An immediate outcome was The Right Foot of the Giant (Bumper Books, 1999), Young’s first volume of poems. A longer term result was Young’s return to fulltime writing. And one of the consequences of that is Pelican Dreaming, Poems 1959 – 2008. Over 400 pages long, including an introductory essay by American poet and painter Thomas Fink, the book might suggest the word monumental—except monuments are never so various, so strange, so wise or so wild. Nor are they laugh-out-loud funny. As with the thoroughness of Young’s disappearance, so then with his unprecedented revenance: outstanding.

The selection is also by Thomas Fink, on the basis of works Young gave him to read. And the carte blanche that went with that. This is fascinating, not just for the generosity and acceptance of risk the method implies—I’m not aware of any other Antipodean poet whose poems have been selected this way. Fink doesn’t amplify upon the criteria he used, probably (and rightly) because he feels the work can speak for itself; but he does say he’s written mostly about modern and contemporary U.S. poetry, and so it is probably better to leave it to others who are more conversant with Australasian literature to assess how the poems in this book engage in dialogue with the contexts of New Zealand’s cultural history and the fact of Young’s settling in Australia. Not an easy task: Young was always an anomalous figure in New Zealand writing, even during his decade of (relative) fame in the 1960s; and his place in contemporary Australian letters is also equivocal though not without its resonances—there may not be a society on earth where truth is more weirdly mutable than it is in Australia and that might have had an effect. Notwithstanding, Young was always an internationalist and the respect he is now accorded in places as far afield as Helsinki and Santa Fe, Mexico City and London Town, is a true and fitting acknowledgement of this.

Pelican Dreaming begins, as The Right Foot of the Giant does, with "My hands had forgotten Lorca," a poem that includes a vignette of life in Wellington in the early 1960s: … for I / had spent part of last Saturday discussing / his poetry with a Chilean sailor … In this inaugural work, the tyranny of distance so often evoked in discussions of mid-century Antipodean writing is overthrown when the poet’s hands rediscover Lorca’s face as they move across a map of Spain. It suggests, elegantly and without insistence, that all places and all times are accessible to the mind. That we can go anywhere imagination leads, that the world is what the imagination brings to us. One of the remarkable things about Young’s poetry is that this early confidence in the possibilities of reaching out to uncover, discover, recover and re-order the world is fully borne out. He seems to have arrived complete as a poet and, despite the quarter century hiatus, the later work, which is mostly what Pelican Dreaming collects, exists on the same dizzying continuum of those first finished works from the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Young has always been open about his influences, which are various and unshackled from preoccupations of a local or nationalist sort. He has read a lot of 20th century science fiction, for instance, evidently from a very young age. Guillaume Apollinaire and the surrealists came to him early. European and Asian cinema likewise—he cites Bergman, Kurosawa and Truffaut in particular. He was a jazz musician, a bass player, before he was a poet and the inherent musicality of his verse is a testament to that. Donald Allen’s 1960 anthology The New American Poetry, which he was reading early in that decade, saved me from becoming a pallid poet in the English tradition. In Wellington, also in the 1960s, he worked at the Japanese embassy and you can see the life-long effects of that engagement in a recent sequence, Genji Monogatari, after the classic prose work of the 11th century, some of which is collected in Pelican Dreaming. (The sequence is completed at Gamma Ways Another sequence, also excerpted here, is Series Magritte, an ongoing succession of poems (currently 199) responding to, or placed ekphrastic beside, paintings by the great Belgian surrealist. In a better world we would have both paintings and poems in one volume; meanwhile you can view the whole gorgeous panoply at another of Young’s blogs:

Amplifying these influences, and also making them available to others, is Young’s participation in three previous moments of—to use Fink’s phrase in a wider context—Antipodean cultural history. The first is the Beatnik inspired explosion of jazz and poetry in the early 1960s in Wellington, from which emerged individuals as diverse as musician and actor Bruno Lawrence, filmmaker Geoff Murphy, and poets David Mitchell and Nigel Roberts. Then there was that alternative moment in Auckland in the late 1960s, whose traces remain in Marti Friedlander’s photographs. The third moment was in Balmain, Sydney, in the early 1970s, when another attempt was made to take poetry out of the academy and into a wider world. Young’s A Season in Hell, published as a broadsheet in 1974 (not collected here but in Big Smoke), is a startling evocation of that time and an hilarious, bitter-sweet, farewell to it.

Not all of Young’s influences are literary. When he let go the bulk of his library in the 1970s, the three books he could not do without were Allen’s anthology, a biography of 16th century mage Paracelsus, and Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man. Thomas Kuhn’s concept of the paradigm shift, elaborated in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, is another crucial reference. Such a shift is occurring now and the way it is coincident with Young’s re-emergence as a poet is both serendipitous and deeply pleasing: I mean the arrival of the internet as a theatre for writing and publication. Young has produced twelve books since 2004 (two are collaborations with the Finn, Jukka Pekka Kervinen), mostly made out of writing first published on the internet—much of it at his first site, Pelican Dreaming, which can still be accessed here:

Use of the internet elides many of the difficulties of publication that plagued writers for so long, especially those who were innovative or iconoclastic or just in a hurry. It has also seen the inception of communities of writers that exist, despite geographical or temporal restrictions, in more or less instantaneous touch with each other. The profusion of Young’s publications in this first decade of the new century is partly the result of such a community’s existence, and of its embrace of his work. He has amply repaid this embrace with his own imprint, Otoliths Books, which has published more than forty titles over the last few years as well as thirteen issues of an ezine, also called Otoliths. He has too, with poet Jean Vengua, edited two anthologies of poetry in a new form of verse stanza, the hay(na)ku, or American haiku, invented in 2002 by Eileen Tabios, Young’s Californian publisher here. And the blogroll on Gamma Ways is an inestimable cultural treasure.

So what can be said, in a general sense, of the writing in Pelican Dreaming? Fink delights in pointing out the way Young’s work will disorient those hanging on to a notion of consistent stylistic evolution as aesthetic merit. And further: Mark Young has the courage to be traditional, imagistically or narratively direct, discrete, serial, surreal, ‘experimental’ and ‘difficult’ … Yet there are consistent threads running through this selection. One takes us back to the photo of Young before the McCahon scrolls: the ‘I’ of these poems is always mutable and can never be taken simply to mean ‘me’. This scrupulous sense of what the ‘I’ might or might not signify in writing is present from the very beginning of Young’s work; he constantly challenges that first person pronoun as the privileged speaker, the one with (I)nsight. This is not to say that the tone of his work is ever neutral; rather, one of his innovations is to have taken neutrality as a habit of voice into every corner of subjectivity he has been able to penetrate and the results are manifold—frequently disturbing, often very funny, always an exercise for the reading (and writing) mind.

Another thread, one that seems silvery if not golden, is that of chance as a factor in human activity. Young has, especially recently, used stochastics as a method of composition but I mean something more: at the heart of the body of his work is the intimation that contingencies we don’t and can’t control are a determinant in our affairs—a not unreasonable position to take when we are all at the mercy of the giant casino called the Stock Market—and that we must learn to act accordingly. This conviction is difficult to honour in work as it is in life. There’s always the temptation to surrender to ideology as a way of assuaging doubt, and it is rare to find the degree of commitment to freedom that Young’s work, as a matter of principle, espouses. This commitment can be found at the micro as well as the macro level. You never quite know where a line of Young’s will lead; you know only that it will not lead where you expect it to go. You also know that he will oppose tyranny wherever it is found, as much in the paucity of the selection of books in his local shop in Rockhampton, where he lives, as to the risible yet deeply disturbing geopolitical statements of a George W Bush.

He is also one of those rare poets who can make you laugh out loud, for instance in Day Fifty:
Today the
postman brought
me “Ventriloquism
for Dummies”.

An anarchic humour is basic to many of these poems and its source is the presumption that, although the world is as it is, it need not necessarily be so and could quite easily be other than we think. Young’s alternative histories, sometimes called, after Borges, ficciones, are meditations that warp time so that, for example, those on the Long March are entertained with films by Eisenstein, Cocteau and John Ford while the bicycle-driven transformer that powers the projector is pedalled by Zhou Enlai (The Mao ficcione). These ficciones both parody and explode causality as it is usually understood and thereby make available to us, not just an alternate past to our provisional present but a future literally beyond our understanding: as a real future must be. Each ficcione anticipates a paradigm shift and, idiosyncratically, this is what all Young’s writing does. It is thus revolutionary in manner and intent, the world considered at once as it is and as it could be. A lot of those could be’s are dark indeed, twisted and uncertain and mad, as if there is no catastrophe he has not imagined; yet imagination of catastrophe, as much as of felicity or grace or delight, is intrinsic to how we make the future we are making. Otherwise, and this would be the true catastrophe, we will not make it at all, it will make, or more likely unmake, us.

Furthermore there are poems here that I read and re-read simply because they are so beautifully made. Among them is The Cicerone, an account by a nameless paysan of the murder of their priests by a pre-Columbian, probably Peruvian people: ineluctably strange yet utterly convincing. And two linked poems, one on the relationship between a man and his baggage (The Baggage Card) and another concerning the connection (or not) between a poet and his biography (Chameleon). Add the charming account of Karl Marx and Arthur Rimbaud having lunch and playing virtual tennis at Wimbledon ((Rimbaud is in town)). And the inscrutabilities of Betabet, a poem in 26 parts, thirteen of which are reproduced here: The gods in the Kalevala / are gas & dust spread / thinly through the solar / system. Sickle-shaped, the / gas floats outwards from / the Sun as either analog / video disc or solar wind. (I). These, like so much of the work here, have an intoxicating and estranging effect, as of an exploded world put back together according to the logic, not of aesthetics, politics, religion, or science, but a poetry that somehow trumps all four.

Those three moments in cultural history are decades ago now and with our uncanny Antipodean knack for neglecting if not actually destroying our recent past, may be almost forgotten now: like Young’s image interposed between Friedlander’s camera and McCahon’s scrolls, they cast a shadow that some would perhaps rather photoshop away. Of the three poets reading that night at Lett’s, Baxter has been deified, Mitchell almost completely forgotten (he is alive, but not well, in Sydney) while Young has achieved an improbable metamorphosis into the complex, witty and profoundly moving poet of Pelican Dreaming. Yet who in New Zealand reads him now? How many even know who he is? These are not rhetorical questions—I’d like answers. Probably his New Zealand readers are mostly those who follow his blogs on the internet. For them, and for others who want to find out where poetry is happening these days, Pelican Dreaming is an indispensable guide—though not one that won’t answer back. Here are the last lines of "Leftovers," the final poem in the book:
                  This does not indicate a
relationship. Merely an obscure awareness
of the quiet, dark shades, the stone under
foot, the master of unfinished business.


Martin Edmond lives and writes in Sydney. Latest book is The Supply Party (East Street Publications), an account of Ludwig Becker, the artist and naturalist on the famously doomed Burke & Wills Expedition of 1860-61

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