Lisa Gorton. Empirical. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2019. ISBN: 9781925818116.
This collection is most definitely a book of two parts. Empirical comprises poems written at the prospect of a motorway being built through Melbourne’s Royal Park. ‘Crystal Palace’ assembles itself and spins above that same park, incorporating visions vastly different from the grasses and council rubble that (almost) became a motorway. Not only the content but the sense of motion in the two parts work together.
We look at the landscape:
From the playing field, stone steps climb
into these acres of rubble where
between the train line and the gully tyre tracks
lead away in among head-high grass
Here where I vanish into my life again
the way a photographer walks off
into her photographs—a vault of light
in which every thing appears—the smell of fennel,
even, rising where I step over the railway line …
(‘Empirical I’ 5)
The first seven poems play across this landscape – grey-green, scented, and full of light – a field of sense impressions, described and redescribed as memory unfolds ‘… this / grey light before rain in which years I have forgotten / invent a landscape still in what I have named / landscape … ‘. (‘Empirical V’ 11)
The world is linear until the last poem in this section, ‘Royal Park’, where we make a ninety-degree turn downwards and begin to excavate the history of the park. Near the surface come the finding and naming of Moonee Ponds and the efforts of the various acclimatisation societies. Other uses are the Zoo, the Quarantine station, a model farm, the Centennial Exhibition, down and down to the fossil record, where even the past proves to have a past.
‘Royal Park’ ends as a ‘ … military infantry camp … / waiting for 6000 or 7000 men who are to enter into it this week / from every part of Australasia … ‘ (25) and a medley of two world wars:
Now bullet casings, bottle shards, steel mesh alike
turn to monument under my eye and by this trick
here I have felt the past around me like a landscape …
In ‘Royal Park’ Gorton uses a technique characteristic of all seven poems in the second part, ‘Crystal Palace’. Quotes and the poet’s own words carry the story along, not quite found poems but close to it. At first she uses notes from the Melbourne historical record; the second part lifts us off the flat park into a spinning landscape of fantasy and visions based on Coleridge (especially ‘Kubla Khan’), Rimbaud’s Villes poems from his ‘Illuminations’, and others. We are linked with the 19th century explorers of the human imagination, some with and some without drugs. (The general effect was rather like reading ‘The Waste Land’ for the first time – part recognising familiar voices and part feeling abject gratitude for the notes.)
Fragmentation and light figure large in both groups of poems, and they are approached in a fascinating variety of ways. ‘Aphrodite of Melos’ (31–35) – the Venus de Milo – was only broken as she came back into the light:
They broke her arms off when they dragged her out —
In her left hand she held a mirror—
They smashed her earlobes to get the earrings off — …
the statue looks into its other side in which there is
not one thing more real than another—rank
after rank of light between the mirror and its eyes
And later, channelling Rimbaud:
A place as elegant as a boulevard—its air is made of light—
A hundred gentle souls comprise its picture of the masses—
Here, too, the houses come to a stop—Its city opens directly into
a landscape—that idea of the natural, extending woodlands and
vast fields—a perpetual backdrop where pitiless aristocrats hunt
down their histories through its invented light—
(‘Cities I, Imperial Panoramas’ 37)
where ‘an empire’s names—its Lebanons, its Alleghenies—remake themselves in light’ (‘Cities II’ 38).
The Crystal Palace itself illustrates both themes: the physical building was made up of fragments of glass, and designed to display all the bits and pieces of Empire, ‘a hoard of wreckage closed in glass’. It is described in detail ranging from engineering considerations of awesome purpose to housekeeping details equally crucial: ‘Mr Paxton sets the floorboards a half-inch apart so the women’s skirts will sweep the floor clean—’ (42). (I really hope this is true.) And in between, coal from Newcastle, ostrich feathers, a revolving-turret rifle, and mechanical hummingbirds.
‘Kubla Khan’ is famously a work of interrupted imagination, a fragment itself, and is in this collection the context for ‘Mirror, Palace’ (46–48) and ‘Life Writing’ (49–71). Each deals with the poem’s composition, the first with the immediate story, the accepted legend about the writing of ‘Kubla Khan’ (complete with the lonely farmhouse and the person from Porlock).
The second, ‘Life Writing’, postulates a lifetime’s worth of experience, people, words, impressions, coming together into what you might think of as a first draft, perhaps of ‘Kubla Khan’, perhaps just of a life.
He said, ‘I wrote Kubla Khan at Brimstone Farm’—
Three hours the author rested in his chair—
Three nights the author suffered through the Pains of Sleep—
After three days’ journey, they came to a city— …
For three years, the Traveller journeyed north and east— …
Three days they rested, before they
ventured into that desert where at night a traveller, alone,
hears spirits talking …
Or is every experience spinning in a context of its own, subject to perpetual change as long as it is able to live in the imagination?
The collection ends with ‘Landscape with Magic Lantern Slides’ (72–74) – among other things, a reminder that even magic lanterns have their own way of dealing with fragments and light:
This stillness before rain—a field, its
broken statues overrun with grass— …
resembling and drawn into that flat
and through-shine plain at the back
of all description in which each word lives
in its own landscape— …
This book can be read from a variety of angles – not just about light or fragments, but also with respect to how we see the landscape(s) around us via our individual sense experiences as well as via those of our society and its history – experiences we are predisposed to have. It’s a pleasure on many levels and is a stimulating, rewarding read.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti Coast. She is a retired science editor and volunteers at a nature reserve and at a women’s centre. Her most recent book is Field Notes (a satirical miscellany) from Makaro Press, Wellington, 2017.