Derek Motion, The Only White Landscape. Melbourne: Cordite Books, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9752492-4-6
One of Cordite Books’ 2017 crop, The Only White Landscape by Derek Motion is a worthy addition to the list of this relatively new press. Motion, who drafts his poems publicly at his blog, has published one previous collection. The Only White Landscape is a dreamlike work of false beginnings, hidden emotions, daily habits and stray thoughts. The sentences are clipped, thoughts interrupted, subjects changed with dizzying frequency. The appearance of randomness is unsettling and yet if you stay with the poems, stories and experiences emerge: breakups, holidays, conversations, functionary work, the experience of ageing. In the poems, the landscape of the title appears to be more emotional and philosophical rather than physical or environmental. A ‘derek’ appears intermittently but the skeleton of autobiography is present throughout, as in ‘flat sunrise’ (all the titles are lower-case):
this the midday cone of your water grin
a translucent fizzle underneath, prepped &
captured, neutrinos complicit in a perky array
of circumstances. nice.
was this the first year without resolve?
The poems are relatively unstructured, with little in the way of rhyme scheme or traditional rhythm. The stanzas range from one line to unbroken blocks of text. The variety of arrangements give the poems an unstudied effect. They feel quickly written, unposed. Fragments from a fragmented consciousness, narrated by a daydreamer on mild sedatives. Poems end with words like ‘anyway’, ‘hello’, ‘need’, and ‘anywhere’.
Motion alludes constantly to unknowns, new areas of thought, unmapped territory. Motion’s work is an expression of the searching postmodern consciousness, but not necessarily a disembodied one. Action and purpose abound, as in ‘avoiding soup’:
my private catalogue of gestures,
entry noted: the way your eyes
flickered closed, accompanied by
an almost imperceptible brow
furrowing & head shake, …
In her introduction to the collection poet Astrid Lorange writes of two possible interpretations of the title. ‘The title can be read in two ways, grammatically speaking: there is only one landscape that is white; there is a landscape and it is only white’ (xi). Yet, there is a third, more exclusive possibility. The book itself is named as the singular white landscape, the only one in existence. This is also an ambitious claim for an author to make. The only white landscape, a blizzard, the arctic, a sandy beach. White is the colour of the absence of colour, yet it is of course never neutral. It seems natural to look towards an ironic racialised reading of the title, yet if there are racial overtones to the title they aren’t obvious. In his preface Motion himself calls the book ‘an assembly point’ (ix), for what or whom we are not told.
Grammatical ambiguity is a hallmark of Motion as it is for most language when we de-centre ourselves and start to think about it carefully. Anything can become nonsense if repeated too often, but all language can be looked at again and differently to reveal deeper, though perhaps not always more profound, meaning. In ‘infinity-plus-one’ Motion writes,
handcuffed imagine your own routines as if there’s scope
to move cicadas answer the torture ad i mean
There are several rich ways to read this and these sorts of stop-short phrases are Motion at his most engrossing. Where to end the thought? His line breaks are often suggestive in this way but thoughts spill over and many nouns could do double duty as subject and object. Why not try both?
Technology, and its effects on humanity, is a common thread in Motion’s work. A certain weary skepticism we are all familiar with is present. Consumption and production of poetry, like so much else, has rapidly changed. This is a printed book drafted online in public view. As unusual as this composition method is for a poet, it’s effects are not obvious. Like any technological change, human choice still plays the deciding role in how things are used, and humans don’t change all that much. From ‘narrandera’
… & almost unthinkingly i saved
a facebook headshot & thought of tiny polaroids
in wallets, chaotic creases pre-internet but the same
truth value: is that your girl?
Relationships and their rhythms are sensitively and honestly explored. Motion’s moods feel stonewashed and worn, familiarly dreamlike. The deceptive dirge ‘much else so’ ends in a beautiful moment of comfortable love:
the petrol light threatens, the radio
stresses locality & you’re so sensible
a one-track thematic here: i thought
the sensation might fade with time
like much else so wrong
There are striking images (‘infinity-plus-one’):
lamplight pinned to the setting day’s pantone code
just for me …
There are moments of almost classical rhythmic beauty. From ‘carry-on limit’
so you collect all the best lines written
& place them across the sky’s fade:
the best & truest of all things thereby magnified
the intensity upped, all the feels laid bare
and beautiful images written in plainer style (‘mouth words’)
tailgating numbers into view for you all
pollen & rounded vowels / a cotton field
trembling to the buzz of clavier preludes
and humour (‘finity plus one’)
myopic cunts stream past the shopfront hip to the funding
In ‘simple explanatory love poem’ Motion closes the poem and the collection with a settled note at the end of a long day’s drive with a loved one:
& the scratches a prop
insulated by the car this universe is
at last bounded
no references to interpret, no need
Taken in aggregate and read over a single day these poems induce a dreamy state in the reader. Half-narratives, daily moods, ordinary tasks, overheard speech are reviewed as if in a photographer’s dark room. There is a certain jarring sense of ‘you had to be there’ about this work. The poems teach you how to read them and reward second and third looks. Motion’s work lacks the baggy verbal self-reference of poets like Michael Farrell and others who write in similar styles. At times his work feels indistinct and unmemorable from poem to poem. Yet by the end of the book a strong personality has shone through. The Only White Landscape is an oddly comforting book. It says to the reader: that dizzying feeling of life between liquid modernity and sublimated postmodernity, ‘the feeling of inhabiting an untenable version of the world’ (Lorange, xi), you are not alone in feeling that, ‘like much else so wrong’ (16).
Lucas Smith is a PhD candidate at the National Centre for Australian Studies. His writing has appeared in Australian Poetry Journal, The Lifted Brow, Australian Book Review, Cordite, Gargouille, Santa Clara Review and several others.