Mary Cresswell reviews ‘apparently’ by joanne burns

apparently. joanne burns. Giramondo Publishing Company: 2019. ISBN: 978-1925818-09-3

This exhilarating collection of word play begins offstage. Words mutter and chatter to each other, sometimes getting meaning across to us, sometimes keeping it to themselves. Here is (in full) the poem ‘planchette’, in the first section of the book, ‘planchettes’:

the anarchy of sober

noodles     does the buck

stop here     crazy logic

of lava citadels     the swanky

ambiguity of matador pants

a breach in the futurosity of

time     blini addicts duck

and cover in their ancestral

glug boots down the blackholes

of juvenilia     cosy as irish moss    (p 10)

We wander through various moods in ‘international séancery’ (p 17), happily reminded that in some forms of fortune telling, wheeled wooden planchettes are used to take us from thought to thought, like little skateboards for our unconscious. 

In the next section, ‘apparently’, burns takes us on a tour of places, living and remembered, which act as sources: reminiscences, dream landscape, youthful inspiration, fantasy. ‘evaluation sheet’ starts out with ‘I didn’t pop over to epidaurus to visit the theatre’ (p 16). A page or two later we move on from ‘a shady house: perhaps californian bungalow’ (p 18), through ‘a vaulted hall. an assembly, a reunion. visitation.’ (p 19) ‘purchase’ (p 23) begins with ‘a long dark table with rounded bevelled corners’ and then says exactly where we stand:

you stand at the edge of the dream. close enough to

touch the table but you don’t. there is both an intimacy

and a remoteness about its presence.

The poem ends:

two months of dreams later someone offers you a thick

booklet of $100 notes in exchange for a small poem.

but which poem. the currency is too bright. the

colour of cheap lime cordial. ‘but I don’t do sweet’ you

say. ‘sorry’.  (p 24)

The first two sections of the collection feel like an experiment in creating language:  In ‘prop’ (p 21), we start out ‘macbeth was coming up the stairs, for us to study. who were we? where was i?’ We look at different versions of the play and then settle down:

a copy of the play landed on the carpet next to the

armchair I had appropriated, reminding me to stay in

the present, tuned. ah, that’s the one I last taught from:

the hardback arden edition. durable and tough and still

functioning after decades of mis-use.

Once we have found our place, though, we can travel light (‘prima vera’ p 20):

whoever booked me on the flight forgot my luggage.

i texted it to meet me at the whitsunday terminal. ‘how

will i recognise you’ it replied. ‘by the ampersand in my

hair’ i said.

What are we going to do with language, now that we have created it? This is answered in the third and largest section, ‘dial’. The poems here are in political language; my first impression is that we are hearing about ‘flat-pack civilisation’ assembled from megastores, in poems that are grounded in one psychological centre, in one personality.

One source of consistency is in the various mentions of ‘the harbour’ throughout this section, as though the landscape were the physical site for everything else that’s going on. In ‘dispatch box’ (p 40) we are asked:

is this a cartoon or a toyworld fest:

sealed unsinkable for export delivery […]

along our sovereign coast, waterways, and harbour

shores sleek white watercraft gleam and purr with

plutocratic pride

Later, in ‘stent’ (p 53):

a golden morning   the harbour gleaming

all the way to manly   margaret adores the

stillness in the air    time to settle back with

‘dracula’

as if on cue it starts   the stentorian leaf

blower down below in the concrete car

park  

The poem ‘canary’ (p 60) links the visible harbour with a long-ago pit stop on a Greek cruise:

today the harbour like lake placid no

no citizen whines in its suv stroller a

woman on a ferry waves with

some vigour to a boy in the frame

of a miniature window one of a million

on a mammoth cruise ship

But there’s not much hope out there, on or off the water. The last section, ‘the random couch’, presents decline and decay, an elegy entirely, without hope of renewal. (And this is pre-2020, keep in mind.)  ‘entrée’ (p 71) ends, ‘where did lucy in the sky with diamonds go –`

We are left with no place to stand, not even a harbour to triangulate—though at this moment we have a wonderfully written book to console ourselves with for a bit. Here in full is the last poem in the book, ‘crunch’ (p 72). It gets us back to the planchettes, John Donne and the poet’s unquenchable joy in words:

fulfilling those dreams

with cornflakes wasn’t as easy

as it smelt     faux crunch of

the necromancer     ankle

wrinkles don’t disappear with

a spray and wipe     can you

bear a curse of no­_winged

sandals     the sun shines too

much     you’re the busy old

foole    hatless in the lethargic

plaza     the grounds shift

bitter beneath your eyes

such an indifferent barista

you grab at the walls of

next week’s hallways    it

all seems so familiar

This is a collection to puzzle over, to cackle over and to enjoy—it’s a deep pleasure to see a poet and the language meeting as equals and enjoying the encounter so thoroughly.

Mary Cresswell spent 12 years editing the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Journal before becoming a freelance technology writer and environmental science editor. Post-retirement she has switched to poetry and book reviews. Originally from Los Angeles, she lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast.

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