Matthew Hall, False Fruits. Carlton South, VIC: Cordite Books, 2017. ISBN 9780994259677
I have been drawn to Matthew Hall’s poetry by the critical rigour of his approach: he is also a first-rate theorist, and his study of violence in the work of J. H. Prynne is an exemplary account of what is at stake in the kind of experimental poetics of procedures which both he and Prynne employ. As Roman Jakobson says, all poetry can be considered ‘an act of organised violence committed on ordinary speech’, and the indeterminacies that arise from ‘cutting up’ received texts can be confronting in their violations of the reader’s expectations of conventional syntax and semantics. Yet the poems in this beautiful book do not seem a violation at all, but offer instead an act of extraordinary tenderness toward their source-texts – short stories of Canadian settler literature – and the vivid and often almost primal worlds they reveal. There are various critical frameworks which can be brought to bear on this, and the poem is supplemented with helpful prefatory materials: John Kinsella suggests the book’s ‘post-lyrical’ approach; that ambiguous term ‘pastoral’ is invoked; and Matthew aligns his work with Susan Howe’s manipulation of archival materials to re-evaluate historical sources. But this work seems to transcend the kind of poetics that those terms imply: in fact it is extraordinarily ‘lyrical’ if we take that word in its broader meaning; it engages with and invokes all kinds of traditional tropes about the natural world; and at the level of prosody it is doing things with language that are completely different from the approach one encounters in the poetry of Susan Howe (or of Olson before her). My own response to this book is really quite uncritical, and involves that completely instinctive sensation of the encounter with genuine poetry – similar to, for example, reading Bonnefoy for the first time, or Briggflats. And I say ‘genuine’ without any qualifications around the fact that this book is the result of careful collation from secondary sources – a method Matthew describes as being akin to ‘rope-braiding’ – because it seems obvious that all poetry is a process of the sculptural arrangement of given materials, and whether those are derived from personal experience or secondary accounts is irrelevant: in fact my feeling is that there is a great deal of ‘personal’ or lived emotional experience running through this apparently objective, ‘post-lyrical’ writing.
I was pleased to open the paper a few weeks ago to find Louis Nowra, that acknowledged expert on Australian poetry, complaining about how boring ‘nature poetry’ is. We can instinctively sympathise with what he means – one thinks of a kind of naïve poetry of straightforwardly mimetic description, perhaps evoking gum trees and cows in a misty early morning setting, or bathed in the ‘purple noon’s transparent might’. And this description is typically directed by a Cartesian subject bringing their privileged consciousness to bear on passive objects, perhaps occasionally achieving transcendent moments in which they glimpse some intimation of the ‘thing-in-itself’ through the snares of Nature’s shifty realm of phenomenal appearances. But of course it is never as simple as that. If one were to take as an exemplary poet in this regard, for instance, Douglas Stewart’s attempt to seemingly enumerate every aspect of Australian flora and fauna (quite a service to our literature from someone born in New Zealand): these poems are by no means as artlessly imitative as they appear, and in fact all kinds of metaphoric and even metaphysical overtones (to do with Nietzschean will, or alchemical versions of Lindsayan vitalism) are being superimposed on the marsupials and varieties of orchid he describes. Beyond this, poetry is also and inevitably an entirely conventional art-form, so that writing poems about the natural world carries the weight of a history of tropes: when Virgil sits down to write his Eclogues in 40BCE, he is already working within an established conventionalised form (which will then lead him toward the equally established conventions of the didactic poem and the epic); the ‘pastoral’ follows this conventional trajectory from Daphnis and Chloe to Sidney’s Arcadia to Astrea and Celadon – and it should be noted that Matthew’s book can also be read as a ‘pastoral romance’ with its central male and female figures corresponding to those of the shepherd and his nymph. So that poems written about nature should be regarded as being no more naively expressive than, for example, those written within the conventions of love poetry – it would be like reading Ovid’s Art of Love as if that work were the simple expression of the poet’s personal feelings, and not someone brilliantly playing on rather worn-out themes. So the self-awareness of Matthew’s approach to the natural world, which consistently and conscientiously draws attention to the materials of its formal conventions, should be regarded as entirely typical. And indeed the politics of this kind of Brechtian self-awareness seems especially important in a world in which our approach to Nature is hedged by the fact that our governments are apparently being run by oil oligarchs. We also acknowledge that the technique of ‘cutting up’ literary conventions is a means of cutting through and exposing the subtextual or viral ruling assumptions of their language – though, as mentioned, this task is handled with the gentlest care and attention here.
Useful books such as Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature explain how we have inherited a Cartesian attitude that views Nature mechanistically as the instrument of our own supreme subjectivity – and we can regard certain approaches to poetry in this light. This builds on Platonistic or Christian views of the natural world as a fake realm of reflections, through which we can only ever see through a glass darkly. There is of course a counter-tradition to this perspective – to be found, for example, in Leibnitz’s idea of the monad as containing an intrinsic vitalising life-force; or in Spinozan materialism; or indeed in Schelling’s post-Kantian philosophy of nature (which Coleridge freely plundered for English Romanticism) – all of which seem to offer the possibility of a vital agency and equivalency to the natural world, which is no longer simply the instrument of human subjectivity. This is where the ecology of Matthew’s approach really comes into play, and is the point on which an ‘ecopoetics’ might be located. There is no monolithic organising subjectivity ruling over this poem. Instead there are three equivalent forces – the natural world, a male figure, and a female figure – each of which is granted equivalent vital agency, and each of which is equally mediated through the language which has been selected for their presentation.
Let’s now look at that language, those carefully selected and braided words, in a little more detail, to see how customary hierarchizing distinctions between subject and object are dissolved in Matthew’s poem. We can begin with sound as it is structured through the resonances of longer passages offset by shorter sections; here are the four longer sections from pages 20-21 with my own tentative caesura breaks:
The salve of rain on desiccated fields. | The weather clawing at his mouth, | nests in the deeper stones of her body.
Lit upon stone piles, the wreck of wild grasses; | fescue, sedge, | roots clutched in soft restraint.
Den in the morning, | her lingering trace over the slope of his back, | fleet, day mouthing on the sill.
Her shadow mantled over the swollen planks of the floor, | shoulders caped | with the laboured song of his breathing.
The cadences of those sentences are very carefully balanced and directly recall the regularity of rhythms in Beckett’s later prose – they measure our reception, imposing an equanimity that subsumes both the human and the natural within an evenly sustained prosodic frame. This is supported by an exactly precise attention to image: as Kinsella sensibly notes, ‘linguistically, there is slippage, but the image is concrete’. In fact the approach is thoroughly Poundian: take this establishing line from the opening section, ‘His fledgling lamplight, leaves in each scavenging direction’ – this is Imagism in the manner of ‘In a Station of the Metro’, a two-image relational haiku encapsulating the concept of pioneering settlement. The natural object is always the adequate symbol: the precision of the image is its own proof, requiring no ‘statement’ or authorial intrusion; everything is therefore equivalently impersonalised. With the usual indicators subsumed in this manner at the level of both sound and image, the reader is forced to examine the materials of language in themselves for thematic guidance – so in pages 20-21 we find patterns of establishing recurrence: ‘the salve of rain’ matched by ‘the compress of rain’; ‘weather clawing at his mouth’ – ‘hands folded in weather’; ‘the deeper stones of her body’ – ‘lit upon stone piles’; ‘troops branching caul’, ‘her shadow mantled’, ‘shoulders caped’ (my italics). And note how these recurrences fluidly map coincidences between human experience and natural forces – as if everything is in vitalistic correspondence. Listen to the precision with which words are chosen: ‘inexorable day / harrowed leaves / rusting in purgation / tannins consonant in rivulets / descant in the tethered shade’ (p.33). ‘Descant’ is of course Basil Bunting’s word, and there is a similar attention to the sounded syllable in evidence here. Observe the following description of a wildfire, as revealed in two remarkable sentences: ‘It caught like a windrift, incendiary over the cleft and fieldbreak, thrown metal in dry swords, broke away and burnished in uneven wreaths’ – then the aftermath: ‘Wishbones drying on the windowsill, smoked distance’ (pp.48-49).
The key word from the passage quoted above is ‘consonant’, a repeated term often framed against the word ‘estrangement’ – the settlers seek ‘consonance’, both in marriage and in their compact with a natural world from which they are always inevitable estranged. This leads us to the poem’s title, with its obvious associations of a postlapsarian separation from Nature and divine origin: this is explicitly stated on p.47, ‘the thankless / tasks / of false fruits’, reminding us that rural labour and the cultivation of nature are a direct punishment for the sinful consumption of ‘false fruits’. This is announced in the poem’s opening line – ‘Swollen fruits primed with tender flood, perfume stoked with decay’ – in which every word is loaded with religious overtones, ‘primed’-‘flood’-‘decay’. Later we hear, ‘Beyond the ravine, a dark world pulses through lapsed cathedrals’ (p.33). As I read the book this search for consonance seems mainly the task of the female figure who is usually framed against an interior or private space: ‘Porch doors announce you, letting drop the laboured clothes, riveted hands under terminal water’ (p.3). We hear of: ‘Her pledge to each bough, each swarming animal. Jarred fruits above the pressed earth of the cellar’ (p.15); she is ‘The wife of fallowed wing, the husband she is by consonant feather’ (p.17). Later we find her engaged in a musicalising labour for redemption that might also reflect the harmonising task of the poet: ‘Perched in a garment of rain, her limbs foraging for music. // penitential / hymns / the long road to service’ (p.42). This culminates in her conception of a child, after ‘The marsh of breath turns regal, her song is the wide bright field of his splinted joy’. We encounter ‘a crib of expectations’ against which she appears ‘beautiful in a warm camisole, bone buttons hobbled with thread’ (p.60). And what follows from this is some of the most touchingly precise imagery of early parenthood that you could read. I note that Matthew has dedicated this book to his own young child – and I apologise for having imposed such a narrative, and indeed possibly autobiographical, interpretation on what is purportedly a ‘post-lyrical’ book. But that is a result of the emotional force that the book delivers; and also of the fact that genuine poems always exceed the critical frameworks imposed on them.
John Hawke teaches literary studies at Monash University.
The above is the text of John Hawke’s launch speech for Matthew Hall’s False Fruits, launched on Friday 7 April 2017, at Collected Works Bookshop, Melbourne.