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Chromatic by Paul Munden
UWA Publishing, 2017.
ISBN 9781742589534
Anne Buchanan-Stuart reviews


by Paul Munden

Recently on a plane flight I sat next to a young FIFO worker who asked what I was reading. 'A book of poetry, Chromatic by Paul Munden,' I replied. What came next was not unexpected. 'I don’t understand poetry!' he emphatically declared. 'Try this,' I said as I thrust Munden’s work into his hand. 'There’s no food service, so what’s to lose?' I pointed to the poem, ‘Spiders.’ He read and again declared he didn’t understand it. 'Sure you do!' I said looking at him with great expectation. Very slowly, he hesitantly whispered his understanding. It was the perfect response for a neophyte. 'See, of course you did!' I said, softening my triumph.

There was nothing left to do then, but to speak of poetry – as time flew by.

On reflection, I wondered if it was luck that I had just read ‘Spiders’ (34–35) and felt confident the poem would not intimidate him. I asked myself if any of the other poems would have been so easily accessible. ‘Spiders' is about a man with an 'unshaven chin' viewing his inner eye as 'a map / of veins like crazed pottery'. The poems’ tactile language makes visceral the experience of having an eye test. I concluded that I had lucked out in this instance. The rest of the collection was too mixed in tone, style and theme to just open at a page and find a piece that was readily understandable for a 'beginner'. I then looked at Munden’s work as a whole and the obvious became apparent. Chromatic is a series, in parts, each with its own topology. Topology comes from the Greek τόπος, place, and λόγος, study. Munden formulates groups of poems which have similar properties, all of which are sustained through their twistings and stretchings, but saved from tearing apart. The work opens up connections between different ways of living in different spaces and places, where the place of the poet’s life is the imagined quality of his existence.

Positioned between two epigraphs from English poet Sylvia Plath lies an epigraph from English poet Ted Hughes. With apologies to William Blake it comes across a bit too 'In England’s green and pleasant land(ish)' for this reviewer who struggles with how the Australian poems are reconciled in the topology.

Part 1 clearly orbits the cultural and human place-space of music. Beginning with ‘Toccata’ the first line, ‘It starts again, / the screeching / early morning practice’ (12), is a risky introduction but successful for its a-tonality of language. ‘Trench Cello’ mixes war and memory and music. The violin and the rifle. This poem is followed by a longer five-part prose poem ‘From The Encyclopaedia of Forgotten Things’ as again musical instruments, space, place and sound intermingle. Some might find the language a little sentimental, as in ‘every cloud a sweet nothing’ (18) but maybe fittingly so? ‘Fugue’ in three parts is the sensual memory of a place in England where pleasure and love take place ‘at seeing music take shape / from the simplest of ideas’ (27). ‘Chopinesque’ (29), and ‘A Night at the Opera’ (30) are followed by poems which seem out of kilter with the previous set, one ‘Kick / Recall’ (33) recounts the memory of a t-shirt worn on the way to hospital, and ‘Spiders’ (34–35), has some lovely moments: ‘to strike up / black forked lightning—map / of veins like crazed pottery’. The poems that follow which take us through to Part 2 are scattered with many a haunting ghostly presence ‘… howling at the moon’, ‘Why do skeletons grin?’ (45), and where ‘A Speckled Hen’ ‘still flitting among us / like a ghost, refusing to elucidate’ (55), and finally, in ‘Miss Willmott’s Ghost’ ‘The head gardener did his duty / and blew his brains’ (61). All these poems leave discordant reverberations on the body of the whole sequence. There are many masculine presences and macabre moments are not occasional. Hairless fox cubs stillborn turned into a human wrap, where ‘He wraps around his shoulders; / fastens the bakelite clasp beneath the jaw’ (‘Foxed’ 42–43) and ‘Rat Tales’ (47) where a woman seeks out the stench of a dead rat and the memory of a child who guards a baby from rats. I could smell the rat when I read this poem. I have to admit I found ‘Molehills’ (62–63) the most malevolent. To ‘smoke the little fuckers’ out, the moles are subjected to immense cruelty. Yes, the escape is a ‘temporary reprieve’ (63) and all the more repugnant for being so. ‘Ladybirds’ (64), a short prose piece, narrates the scene of a man clipping a hedge, where ‘bright drops of blood’ become evident as he then ‘set(s) about his task with greater care’ (64), leaving us with images of blood red, ‘darkening sky’ and ‘Fat pearls of water … like a swarm of little ghosts.’ In ‘Ladybirds' Munden crafts the most superb description of ‘a pigeon, with scissoring wings.’ I have long tried to describe the pigeons around my home whose wings make the noise and movement of … ? Now I know. They scissor. Except my bush pigeons scissor with the sounded twist of an unoiled hinge.

The penultimate poem ‘English Pastoral’ (65) chronicles the horrid image of fields in England strewn with ‘badgers—too many dead / for a coincidence’ (65) and the ‘gathering flies’ the 'sickly critique’ that is ‘England.  / Now’ (65). The final poem in Part 1 is ‘Christmas Diptych’ in the ‘December sun’ (67) away from the ‘drab’ (66) ‘and melted snow’ (66). In this, Munden strikes the balance of colour and light, sound and scent. Our lorikeets always defy my description but Munden makes ‘its green surprise / of leaf-like wings’ ‘with flashes of red’ come to conscious awareness, much like he who reaches for his camera, only to ‘miss the whole carolling rush / into inimitable sky’ (67). Delightful.

In Part 2 Munden writes within a topological space of memoried neighborhoods and a connection with a life of the past. ‘La Tempesta’ a painting by Giorgione in the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice, has been called the first landscape in the history of Western painting. Munden textually sketches both an interpretation of the painting overlaid with personal memory. The landscape of the painting is prominent, the centre piece of the portending storm with tip-painted clouded lightening … is little more / than a chalky tear / in the cloud, a razor blur—’ (73). ‘Venetia Lullaby’ (74) joins the locations together in the 'mathematics' of his calculations. The features of the elements then move, angled across setting and scene as the poet travels like a tourist 'Here and There' (81) to be ‘agog at the Opera House’ (a little pedestrian). Yet this poem would have been accessible to my travelling FIFO flight-friend. He certainly would have identified with the notion ‘… that travel is rarely more / than a provisional life’ (81). Several sketches of ‘Carnarvon Gorge’ (82) and ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ (83) take us to ‘Sightings’ (85–89), and onward into place description and reflections on experiences in Australia. Even Australian poets struggle to do justice to our bird life and landscape. This brings me back to the accessibility of Munden’s work. There is nothing to stand in the way of appreciating the imagine of the Australian Magpie ‘policing / the grassy precinct /’ (87) or the ‘Blue-winged Kookaburra’ whose call is in its original Aboriginal name, as being celebrated as ‘the ancient silver cackling’ (88). Colour, sound and movement texture this short series. In ‘Heron Island’ (92), the poet is still a human tourist in an Australian natural setting all of which takes place before a series of personal reflections and personal musings. Whatever shortcomings I may have found in Part 2, Part 3 is overwhelmingly the strongest.

Part 3 begins with ‘Tethered’ (112) and delivers in parallel structure a strong sequence of two lined impressions, culminating in the final line ‘And the muffled squeal that won’t let go’ (112). It is a compelling short poem of place and history. ‘Chromatic’ (132) the title poem begins with ‘A frisson’, the goose-bumped shiver on the skin’s surface as a physical manifestation of an experience on hearing, seeing or feeling. This poem is rich in allusions and if one wished, open to further questions and inquiry. As ‘thrilling as pornography’ it gives a poetic account of the barbarous story of the Prince of Venosa (1566–1613) who wrote intense pieces of a-tonal sacred music to assuage his murderous guilt. We find keyed into the language of the poem startlingly abrupt shifts, reflecting the type of chromatic musical score which does not appear again until the late 19th century. 'Chromatic’ becomes the archetypal landscape for the whole of Munden’s collection. The topology of ‘Chromatic’ takes us across continents in time and space, age and memory, recalling the scope of Giambattista Vico’s 1744 theorical work The New Science.  Vico’s work argues that human culture evolves through recurring cycles, unfolding sometimes, progressing (but not necessarily) as each period reflects is own order. The emergent pattern of the Vichian cyclical principle emphasises the creative imagination, marked by shifts in the topological nature of language. Vico refers to poets in the Greek sense of 'creators'. What has Munden created by his mixed tones and circular orbits across the topography of his language-scape? How has each literal and imagined period been unfolded through his 'created' reflections? To my mind, I think Munden is more at home in England than perhaps he would like to admit as the English locations, its objects, times, days and memories resonate most authentically. One of the central ideas in topology is that spatial objects can be treated as objects in their own right and knowledge of these objects is independent of how they are 'represented' or 'embedded' in space. Which brings me to ‘The Bulmer Murder’ (141).

‘The Bulmer Murder’ is a poetic account of an event recorded centuries ago, in ‘… the strange / swift tilt of time’ (141). Its intense storyline from past to present is suffused with obsession, ‘abominable, gross’ (144) and much human cruelty. Through transcripts of time-shrouded events – climaxing in the final moment of the poets own chanced-upon personal realisation – time and location morph helix-like as the poet questions what made him copy down the account of the trial which becomes ‘like a memory’ (153) heralding the unearthing of a shocking personal truth. ‘The Bulmer Murder’ is an extraordinary achievement and would make an excellent text from which to teach across several disciplines. The subsequent poems which end the collection, are not free of ‘ghostly sigh(s)’ (161) or lost souls ‘1768’ (157) nor the protest of time. ‘In a Country Churchyard’ (162) the poets’ ‘Thirty years here, I’m still a newcomer’ (162) finds solace in recognising names but his ‘… strong but frail / memory trembles’ (162) as he comprehends the unspeakable pain of one Lorna Lee who ‘suffered amputation / unanaesthetised’ (162). This final poem ends with the poet’s mower having cut out and a grace bestowed. The mowing poet reflects on his mechanical breakdown as ‘a feeble / thing, by comparison, at which to fail: / to mow the churchyard grass; or worse, to write’ (162).

The great poet Emerson wrote that 'The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which forms a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end.' Emerson concludes this meditation with, 'But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.'[i] Munden’s topology is an illusory colour and a textual music. It is tonal, not always harmonious, full of sharps and flats, exploring and experiencing, remembering and feeling, but always whole.

[i] Emerson, R W. 1950. The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. USA: Random House Inc. 280–81.

Paul Munden, Chromatic. Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2017. ISBN: 9781742589534

Published: June 2023
Anne Buchanan-Stuart

is a doctoral candidate at Queensland’s Griffith University. Her doctoral project reads philosophy and poetry together.

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