R.G. Foster on Graham Fulton's One Day in the Life of Jimmy Denisovich and Paul Summers' primitive cartography (both Smokestack Books, 2014) Traffic Light Rock/ Rock the Coolibah

Summers
Fulton

The cover of Graham Fulton’s ‘double album’ of a poetry collection is adorned by what appears to be a model train, awash in red, blue, yellow and white, and speckled with worn-down discolouration around the bolts, and inside, a man in a moss-coloured suit, with his ginger head bent dejectedly forward. We must assume this is Jimmy Denisovich.

The collection’s opening piece ‘Traffic Lights Boy’ starts us off at a positive pace, with quickening rhythm that peaks at a point of ecstasy without ever spilling over into Beat-ish rapture. The poem introduces some of the main themes of the collection; the balance of motion and stillness, the thing’s aesthetic and substance, and the poet’s place in a scene.

this boy is obsessed
with traffic lights
the way they are the way they look
the way that red changes to amber
green
the way they wait
in particular places
on the surface of the planet

The notable absence of punctuation in these opening lines, and the use of blank spacing as a way of governing rhythm, seems like the poet’s way of allowing the reader to get as close to the moment as possible, or at least, the moment as felt by the poet. Also interesting is the line

the way they are the way they look

It is as if we have started from inside the thing, the way it is, and have made our way to the outside of it, the way it looks. In this way, it may be observed that aesthetics not only hold equal importance to substance, but that one must make an effort to see a thing, to experience the way it looks. This idea is further evident in the isolation of words such as ‘watch’ and ‘see’ elsewhere in the piece, the action is in the seeing, it is almost as if the poet is attempting to reconcile observation with feeling.

the darkness becoming lightness
lightness becoming darkness
the joy in his brain
the source of everything
at the centre of something,

‘The joy in his brain’, we assume, is that of the poet, and indeed, the fluidity and cluster of vowel-sounds (at least, in comparison with the sparer usage in previous lines) would certainly suggest that what we are reading is not simply a documentation of things the narrator has seen, but a rhythmic internal monologue, there’s no loitering in the moment long enough to allow for adjectives here.

The theme of the poet’s position in his own poem is reinforced further on in the volume, namely in ‘The Trees of Paisley Grammar School’. Had this poem been the only example of free verse in the collection, it would seem, to me at least, to have more than a touch of irony:

Something to say
about the way
they move in the wind,
the free verse,
sway, the leaves,
the complete greenness
of the leaves,
the dark of the branches,

The use of the term ‘free verse’ to describe the movement of the trees (not to mention the layout of the poem, which looks like the wind-blown motion of branches) seems almost adolescent, as if Fulton was having a dig at someone, the lack of maturity found amongst his contemporaries; possibly the main body of young establishment poets writing today. The fact that these trees are in the grounds of Paisley Grammar School i.e. an educational institution, and, I assume, a rather middle class educational institution at that, would seem to corroborate this.

a gap
in the traffic,
for whatever time,
it’s only the rain, wind,
me, the trees

Here, in the last line of the poem, the poet introduces himself. It seems that Fulton believes the poet is part of the scene, we see the observer as an active participant, a ball of energy, just like the rain, the wind, the trees.

For me, Fulton’s writing is at its weakest when it delves into sentimentality, in pieces like ‘We Were Punks Once...and Young’ Fulton heads down the well-trod path of the middle-ager yearning for youth.

everyone else has gone, but
the mad lights are still sparking
and the drums are still thumping
and Tommy,
Jim,
myself
are eighteen and bouncing
around the long dark dance floor

Fulton’s ability to convey subject in musical cadence is on offer here, with the stresses in ‘sparking’, ‘thumping’, and ‘bouncing’ providing the rhythmic backbone of the poem, indeed, we can almost hear the drum work of the likes of Topper Headon in the small auditorium. However, Fulton’s talent for acute observation is not wholly present in this poem, generalisations predominate:

............................crossing
and recrossing as if
our lives depend upon it as if
it’s the first night of Earth
with the lager and lime
churning inside

Some of Fulton’s most striking and precise imagery, however, can be found in the penultimate piece in the collection, ‘Closing Time’. Here the poet takes us for a walk around Lindisfarne Priory, alerting us to the

...sandstone world
of altar, chancel,
curves of shadows, angles of light.

We find ourselves here at a road’s end of sorts, a spherical landscape where the bile and blood that’s been brewing thus far may settle. An island symbolic of man’s relinquishing of his struggle –and hastily placing it in the care of the ‘Empty walls’, we feel, however, that the poet’s efforts to relinquish are not going quite as smoothly:

And behind me, I can hear,
without looking,
the lonely keening from far in the bay.

In this poem we also have some of Fulton’s most musical language:

And beyond the Priory,
a statue of Aidan,
the gable of our whitewashed hotel.
Double glazed haven, lounge bar, roof,
a dark rectangle of bedroom glass, and you
within, reading, or snoozing,
or trying to work the Sky TV, or
boiling an agnostic kettle
to make me an atheist cup of tea –

The assonance of ‘a’ and ‘oo’ sounds are hard to ignore, as is the nice hidden rhyme of ‘TV’ and ‘tea’. In aesthetic terms also, this poem, for me, is the highpoint of the volume, in large part due to the use of capital letters after full stops, and also because of a scattering of line indentations to convey the uneasiness experienced, the changing line-lengths, and the use of two melodic refrain-like stanzas that give a sense of stability to the layout, and allow for the possibility that everything may indeed be ‘quite all right’.

One Day in the Life of Jimmy Denisovich is a collection of refined lyricism, its consistent use of everyday phrasing will not send the reader to the dictionary, but does allow for a reverence of the commonplace. Fulton is a poet who seems to speak from inside the moment, and some of these poems are endowed with the aim of picking apart time itself, to analyze, escape from, or overcome it. The characters presented in this volume are atrophied, listless, and hesitant – bodies of inactive energy trying to, or not to, navigate the ruthless flux. If the main thrust of One Day goes into detailing this war, then the final poem, ‘Helen Doing the Crossword in Bed’ is the call for ceasefire, with lines such as ‘her thoughts, gracefully, stretching through time’ the poet observes lovingly, and, we suspect, gratefully, the gentle motions of the woman beside him in bed. The poem is a reconciliation, or an attempted reconciliation, reminiscent of Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, here the poet does seem to, however, take the ‘leap’ that Camus so thoroughly warned against:

everything, every thing
is being perfectly filled.

There is a sense of permanence in these final two lines, as if the poet has forgotten the war depicted hitherto, and has rejected any notion of the ‘absurd’ in favour of the apparent completeness of this particular moment, a feeling of completeness that we know is temporary:

beside me, this second,
the one
just gone

This latest offering from acclaimed poet Paul Summers is far removed, like the man himself, from the working class environs of his North Eastern homeland. This volume is an impressionistic patchwork of the poet’s experiences of Australia; with an aim of depicting the indomitably varied and volatile terrain of a foreign land. And indeed, the volume’s title would suggest as much; this critic began reading expecting the following work to reflect the diversity of this ‘primitive’ landscape.

anaximander of miletus
is gazing at his navel

So go the first lines of the opening poem, ‘dasein’ (which apparently is a German term, meaning ‘being there’ or more generally, ‘existence’). These two lines assert the direction of the volume; Anaximander, one of the first to attempt to explain astronomical origins, is observing his bellybutton. Umbilical associations aside, this is a starkly introverted opening seemingly at odds with the expansiveness suggested by the volume’s title. We feel Anaximander’s earnestness through the assonance of the second line, and assonant phrasing is used throughout this short poem:

................a genesis
from the nib of a crow-

feather quill. the things
we own or think we own

Summers’ musical capabilities are very much evident in this piece, with a series of strong syllables progressing the rhythm, but never without a sense of uneasiness:

three continents adrift:

just rapture and despair,
between them longing.

In ‘gossamer’ we are met with a degree of iciness:

a boy in wisconsin
has murdered his father

Suitably journalistic in tone, the find out that the father was killed with ‘a single round to the back of his head’; monosyllables do their work here, until relief is granted with the rather refreshing:

the lizard is spared,
the kookaburra retreats.

The drawn-out vowel sounds at the end of these two lines offer a sense of mercy, and here, of course, it is mother nature’s mercy, juxtaposed with the coldness of mankind; the latter being the kind of story we glance through in a tabloid rag, accepting it simply as ‘the way it is’, it is moments like the one depicted here, though, that one must ‘be there’ to comprehend, and, perhaps rather agonizingly, in the face of nature’s indifference, an indifference easily grasped through the reading of callous actions printed in papers; a psychopath (or at least, as the media would have us categorize) is indifferent to our pleas, and this, of course, is something we simply accept. Here, though, Summers is seemingly less willing to accept such a thing from nature:

.........her spastic leaves

fit in the drip of flesh-warm
rain. a fly-wing fragility;

The feminine personification of what is here an hibiscus, a rather striking pink-red flowering plant, coupled with ‘flesh-warm’, indicate that this man-poet is longing for respite from an uber-masculine world where sons kill fathers, and the acts are reported without the batting of an eye. This ‘moment contented in its own sparse company’ seems to be not quite that contented, for despite the presence of mother nature’s gentleness at the moment, we sense that this moment has incurred a longing for the company, or at least the touch, of a woman, or wo-man.

As refined as Summers’ sense of musicality is, the melodic qualities he has carefully honed since his last collection begin to get a little repetitive as the reader gets deeper into the volume, which left this critic to wonder how and when the disparate landscapes under observation would provoke a significant change in rhythm, or tenor (the overriding feeling throughout much of the work is one of melancholy, and often, of pining); there is considerable difficulty in comprehending how a country, particularly one as volatile and contradistinctive as Australia, can prompt such an unwavering approach to poetics (as well as the similar rhythmic and tonal structure across the majority of the book, each poem is presented in all-lower case and centralised text, which, in this writer’s opinion, distracts from the poetry itself).

Rather understandably, this volume is quite a departure from Summers’ previous release. The poet has bravely moved away from depicting the class struggle, against which his nose had been pressed since his early youth, and indeed, in the beginning of primitive cartography, despite the jaded underbelly of many of the poems, we feel there is a freshness, a bounce, even, in the poet’s analyses of the minutiae of his adopted country:

un-noted in my pocket-
book of Australian birds,

the magpie’s capacity
for demonstrative care.

In ‘cupboard love’, and in ‘ingot’, the third part of ‘fitzroy triptych’:

the wharf alive;
a brackish fug
of sweat & curse,
of lanolin and amber
rum. A barra leaps;

each lustred scale
a flake of light.

The common man is never far away, as in ‘tab’:

marty’s dad has the skin
of a corpse, lumps the last

of his pension on another
stable whisper.

These are some of the most pared-down lines in the whole volume, and the poem quite accurately depicts the forlornness of the part-time (or full-time) gambler, whether money is won or lost:

he comes home like a train
but they exit defeated.

Close to the concerns described in Summers’ previous volume, certainly, though, in comparison with the grittiness we’ve seen from his work, the faintly quixotic opening lines of this piece may well make us smile:

all heads are bowed
in the church of the fallen.

What may also make us smile, and, some of us; quite broadly, is the piece ‘neuropathway 61 revisited’ and the undisguised connotations to Bob Dylan’s seminal album Highway 61 Revisted. Recorded by Dylan at the height of his electric furore, during which he was almost unanimously condemned by those in the folk music community for ‘selling out’, it bade a vitriolic and bittersweet farewell to ‘protest music’, or, as the purists regarded it, his ‘roots’. This is a poem of which the lower case lettering, this reviewer feels, actually enhances the content:

.......................we are nothing but energy &
calls to action, a fleet of memories adrift in the humours.
they swerve the chicanes of a glowing web of dendrites;
despite all efforts some collisions are inevitable.

Not quite anthemic, but reminiscent of Dylan’s Tarantula (a book, almost a map of his creativity, written at the same time as the aforementioned album).

What started as only a repetitious rhythm, soon becomes a rather incessant technique, the characteristics of which are an overuse of semi-colons and ‘of’s, for example, in ‘mirage’:

today, the heat haze
makes islands weightless;
a convoy of basalt
defying gravity,
their footings breached
by a trick of light.

In ‘creek’:

pierces the dullness of muted silt;

like arrows of fortune awaiting flight,
their heads immersed in acts of survival.

cicada drone, the wing-beat leatherette
of auburn bats, the slow hiss of drying

stones, the finger-snap of startled crabs,

And in ‘siren’:

the islands advance;
drawn by the pull
of your open mouth.
their crop of doubts
ripening like blisters.

a spine of brittle cloud,
each straining vertebrae
stretched to dislocation:
the yank of time, the surge
of wind,

Here we also see a couple of other heavily-used attributes of Summers’ technique, those of metaphor and simile, examples of which seem to grow denser as the collection progresses, for example, in ‘for judith fellows’:

i finger these photos
like morphine phials

both welcome & not
like midnight’s ghosts

And in ‘interregnum’:

& awkward in their transience
the shadows bristle

shrinking like philosophy
to the root of their existence
........................
as blank & immoveable
as our fear of departure

Paul Summers seems, to this critic, to have reached an expanse of ‘poetic comfort’; that is, an area in which the poet has found he can survive well, and thus shies away from the possibility of breaking new ground. That he has fallen into this ‘trap’ while in the process of acclimatizing himself to a foreign landscape is rather curious; it may be that Summers’ aim for this collection was to distil the turbulence and history of his new home into one coherent form; an admirable goal, of course, but one which this writer believes can only fail. The effect, ultimately, is one of a rather ‘decorative’ poetic; offering little in the way of active engagement (from the reader’s point of view, in relation to the world depicted in the book). Summers is quite clearly a talented and experienced poet, with an authoritative voice, and with the vision, I believe, to write something of considerable profundity in the near future.

R.G. Foster © 2014