Sunday, August 11, 2013

John Allison

Born 1950 in Blenheim, John Allison moved around New Zealand a lot in childhood, learning to love the land with his surveying and tramping father. He climbed mountains and hunted and fished and day-dreamed, until at eighteen he stood still by a lake and realised there was something else to be drawn out of his experience of nature and death - a poetic self, shaping small utterances in lieu, perhaps, of an explanation.

Allison's poems have appeared in numerous journals worldwide. He's had four volumes of poetry published, three in Christchurch and the last - Balance - appeared in 2006 from Five Islands Press in Melbourne, Australia. 

Letting Others Have My Say

In selecting this group of poems, I've had an opportunity to place them in some sort of balance. Wallace Stevens once defined poetry as an unofficial view of being. Here I want to say something - through others having my say - or maybe something just wants to be said - about this twofold consciousness through which world and word are mirrors for each other. Here, at this place in the imagination, in the balance, there might be the kind of arrival where I can present this particular unofficial view of being. 

The notes on the cover of my first book Dividing the Light make some sort of definitive statement: In dividing the light, things are seen. And we notice ourselves. Many of the poems have to do with a particular experience: a responsibility to observe, both the outer phenomena, my relationship to them, and simultaneously my relationship to myself. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s book The Assignment has as its subtitle: On the Observing of the Observer of the Observed. I think that says it well.

Poetry for me is a result of lyrical meditation, pre-verbal in origin, and much of the craft has to do with finding a contemporary diction that embodies, at times subverts but never betrays that pre-verbal lyrical source: the presence of song before it is sung. I am concerned initially not with meaning but with a work of image-making, in which I might articulate the inner and outer pressures (sensations, experiences, memories, concepts) which are making themselves felt, through manifold associations, in my mind. Novalis has stated: The seat of the soul is where the inner world and the outer world meet. Where they overlap, it is in every part of the overlap. In such a place, a poem can be made.

In his poem The Excursion, Wordsworth makes an astute observation: How exquisitely the individual the external World is fitted and how exquisitely, too...the external World is fitted to the Mind. Wordsworth thus suggests a kind of mirroring, a complementary configuration of mind and world, of what the alchemists called correspondences; but I think Novalis goes even further in indicating an activity of presence, of indwelling the experience. This idea of correspondences between the objects of our senses and the content of our inner processes is characteristic of Romanticism, and also of what Hopkins has developed as ‘inscape’ and ‘instress’. I would suggest that the world is an extension of oneself: oneself is an in/tension of the world.

While I am concerned with observing the observer of the observed, I must also assert that I am interested in the thing-in-itself: the object of observation. There is a recognition that perception is to be exercised in two directions, across two distinct thresholds. Novalis indicates this in another aphorism: The first step is introspection exclusive contemplation of the self. But whoever stops there goes only half way. The second step must be genuine observation outward spontaneous, sober observation of the external world. That seems to be the process in which I find myself.   

If I write of an object in a poem, it is clear that the object remains something other than the word on the page. Yet in writing a poem something is made; more than that, it is made again. This recovery and remaking is the reverse of what happens when we perceive a thing: in our senses it is dismembered. It is a thing apart from us because of our objectification of it; and in our direct experience it is a thing apart even from itself. A re-membering occurs through our re-creation of the thing, in all of its imaginable associations, within our consciousness.

Ungaretti writes: This poetic is bred of a feeling that one can only grasp things in their profound reality when they no longer exist... Through words, objects may rediscover and confirm the sensual truth of reality. A poem, being a condensed, highly-wrought and highly-imagined object of this act of re-membering, is one kind of fulfilment of a thing’s existence, in the realm of language. In writing of an object, some essential object-ness is re-established. In this regard a poem may not mean, but be. But even so, the word on the page is only a cypher. Perhaps, also something of a palimpsest: the words have been written over something which was previously there. They are an indication of where something is.

In his prose writings Mallarmé develops the idea that poetic creation is the conception of an object in its absence and that poetry is not a representational art: Things already exist; we don’t have to create them, we simply have to see their relationships. In a lecture in Oxford he stated that the poet must describe not the object itself, but the effect it produces... We must prove to the satisfaction of our soul that a natural phenomenon corresponds to our imaginative understanding of it... And our hope, of course, is that we may ourselves be reflected in it.

Ruskin, referring to the series of changing forms, in clouds, plants and animals, all of which have reference in their action, or nature, to the human intelligence that perceives them, uses the word intelligence in such a way that I think of its Latin root: intelligere = understanding; from inter = amongst, between; legere = gather, pick out, read. This suggests to me that imaginative understanding is not just a passive assimilation of knowledge, but an active process of enquiry, which takes place at the meeting point and in the overlap of the inner world and the outer world.

In an editorial of A Brief History of the Whole World, Alan Loney employs a felicitous phrase: It is a location to be dwelt in. I do not agree with all of the things Alan says, but I am happy to appropriate this phrase. It is a location to be dwelt in. To be observed. And also, perhaps, a location in which to perceive ourselves everywhere inhabiting the available space.


The yellow crocuses
break open the ochre clay.
It’s good to notice them,

you say. We sit together
on the green garden bench
beneath an oak. Quercus

robur. That reassuring
lyricism of the Latin names
displayed on little plaques…

I look across the pond.
Carp nuzzle their shadows
on the weeded rocks.

And leaning back, arms
stretched out and then back,
you open up, the body

and its light unsheathed.
The light given up to light,
petals on the water.

Death is similar to this:
your hands are flowering
in that space behind

your head, and listening.
It is almost as though
something else is breathing

quite close by, invisibly.
The mystery of the names…
Albizzia. Gleditsia.

Aucuba japonica. And
I am listening, seeing. Seeing,
like someone twice alive.

Flight from Bombay 

Jumbo jets and bumblebees are not
supposed to fly. It’s a defiance
of the ordinary. Knowing this, I think

lighter, discreetly try to levitate
against the seat-belt, to assist the pilot
get this thing up off the ground.

After all, this is India and such things
happen, though I never saw
a fakir lift off. I have seen the poor,

however. Over there, just 
off the end of the runway, buffeted
by the kerosene exhaust

the shacks lean against each other
and another world. Stick
figures scavenge through the rubbish.

A woman, child clutched
to her breast, crouches by the truck.
She watches us, or maybe not.

Still, miracles do happen. We are
about to rise above it all.
The engines roar. I feel the thrust of it.

Huddled on the roof of a hut,
a small boy or perhaps it is a man
flies a yellow kite.

White Noise, New Year

Outside, the white noise of gulls,
and surf bashing at the beach.
The curve of that horizon forms

the eye’s rim, and so everything
is in the offing: dolphins
(and attendant watchers / wardens

swimmers and the ones who
see the world through view-finders)
seals and kelp shape the urge

of water on the tilted slabs,
the buoys of cray-pots almost fix
that moment, and the ovoid

head of a scuba diver fetching
kina (or maybe paua) bobs
in broken badlands of the waves.

It all belongs, this is Oaro
where the ocean fits the sky and
land so perfectly, you want to say

YES to God, at least to some
maker or another: Papa-tu-a-nuku
Rangi-e-tu-nei or Tangaroa

(yes, they’ll do) and they’ve done.
And made, it goes on shape-
shifting, in the end, everything

is every thing (ah, the difference!)
the only certainty is change
if you see what’s in the offing.

Other Things 


The cranes giraffe the waterfront
grazing on the m.v. Savannah.


In Stockholm they have painted
one of them. It is tawny
yellow with brown markings.
It stands disconsolately
by the harbour, in a park.
Ah, se där! Det är en giraff.


At Orana Park the Land Rover
comes and goes. Giraffes
gaze out across the African Plains.
In the dark pools of their eyes
a savannah they’ve never known
turns away from the sun.


I think of other things. I look
towards the vanishing-point
on the horizon. It is dusk.
Shapes move in those distances.
I squint towards them
but they are no longer there.


I have stood and stared.
I have a stiff neck.
I stand still and stare.
I still have a stiff neck.
I think of giraffes.
I think of my osteopath.


Herds move across the plains.
Their earth is animal:
they dip into its belly, nuzzle
up against its flank.
Sometimes they feel it shudder:
it may mean death, or life.


The Serengeti trembles with it.
Breathing. The giraffes
are choreographed so well
against the setting sun.
But survival is not particularly
a matter of aesthetics.


One morning I open my eyes
and look at you. I think
of Africa. Gazelles. Giraffes.
You dip into my belly, nuzzle
against my flank. I become
savannah, open to it all again.


The ship’s foghorn roars.
The tugboats grumble,
pull us back into this world.
Along the waterfront
three cranes, motionless,
stare at the horizon.

Lime Kiln, Easter

Beside the broken doorway
pause, recall another childhood
hieroglyphed on walls
dividing time, before and after:
images, glazed by years of
firings. Or those other
signs: lovers / looters / leavers
of their mark, the existential
I was here their familiar
riposte to the Egyptian
Death is in my eyes today.
Graffiti are these dislocations
then and now. My hand
brushes over the brick surface
like a renaissance painter
testing the fresco’s texture
before applying the first colour.
In this quickened air—
burnt lime, Easter. Something
in the soul which always
thirsts. History here is too
slender, buildings such as this
must register our need
for temple / church / basilica:
some inward space for this
anhydrous culture. Something.
But it simply is a lime kiln.
Outside, the valley watches.
As though the runes of trees
along a dark horizon
might just give the word.
As though the rain might come.
As though this lime
might suddenly draw breath.

Rostropovich plays
the Brahms Sonata No. 2
for Cello and Piano,
the second movement:

Adagio affetuoso

The way he folds around it
at that moment, so like
a lover reaching from behind
his woman, urgent mouth

at her ear, whispering
endearments while his hands
unfasten her. We are keen
voyeurs within the shadows.

Then his head and arms
draw back: it is as though
the cello has been opened up
for us, and glorious this

body that’s exposed to
autumn sunlight streaming
through the clerestory
windows on to the platform:

the chiaroscuro of the flesh,
curved air and light and
a warmth in every phrase
swelling from the quick

vibrato flicker of the heart
across the breast, and
suddenly inside the intimate
darkness we are gasping.

Towards the Horizon

The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon

In Swedish it is synkrets
sight-circle. And the evidence of eyes
is that space is curved
and that the membrane of the sky
arches over us
and arcs around the blue silence at the edge
of vision.
There we find some sense of equilibrium,
poised between the lyric
lift and epic weight
of our existence and the world’s.
Birds migrating in their lines and skeins
find it perfectly.
The line of equality and that of the horizon
are the same, said Leonardo
marking out the shape of it on paper.

We talk like this, turning
every thought into the filaments
which thread the space between our words
until that silence
fills the lattice-work of light,
until that blue of distance comes up close
and pours itself into
the apertures that suddenly appear,
these openings from the world into a world
your eyes are the horizon
and this side of them
nothing ever will be quite the same again.

The Way Down

There’s a noise not the usual din
still you know that sound so like a
tractor but its tract is air

you run outside look up and there
a yellow Tiger Moth is beating
up the sky and suddenly

it’s 1954 again the lollies
carpet-bombed across Omaka
aerodrome and all the little kiddies

scrambling for them scraping
knees on the hard Marlborough clay.
And then it was the Captain Cook

Look ma no motors shearing
wings wheels pride across the creek
ambition flying way too high

towards the sun and all those best-laid
plans of men so swiftly come undone
and so much for a young

Queen. You didn’t see her
but that broken Bristol Freighter was
a real treat a downed bumblebee

bellied on the riverbank a gasping
silver trout gape-jawed and drowned
in air. Yet just a few years

later you would fly in it
across Cook Strait your father’s Austin
A40 just up front of the flapping

canvas and the webbing seat too flimsy
to support your fear. You remember
all this now as the Tiger Moth

stalls stunts turns falls recovers
equilibrium above the harbour. Icarus
never had it so good

just put on those wings again
it seemed so easy then. But O dear
Wellington the bucking runway

heaving up your breakfast
falling through the frayed air
pocket then you’re down that sound

the pock-pock-pock of motors
backfiring as you’re taxiing towards
the Straits Air Freight Express

terminal. Then in the next photo
you are standing by the gaping maw
of the plane and everything

is great. Just beyond the field
of vision there’s a yellow Tiger Moth
crawling on the tractate sky.

The Cyclical Return

And still those hawks, gulls
the play of light: it just can’t
be helped, such ubiquitous

images are in your senses
constantly. You add to these
the sea, waves on beaches

or against the insculpt basalt
cliffs and promontories of
Banks Peninsula, the curve

of the horizon out beyond
the curve of brown hillsides
dry grasses, and look, those

little butterflies, sprung
from your footsteps, and that
scratching of cicadas on

the glaze of light (en masse
the kihikihi wawa ‘roaring
like heavy rain’). And again

the sea (after all, you know
its salt has been recorded 
at the summit of Mt Cook)

moving in you: sometimes
in the night you’ll hear it
when your body has become

a hollow shell on the littorals
of sleep. Listen, there it is
again, calling you homeward.

Will you go? Not the journey
of despair, but this leap into
the bright interior of the air…


Jedes Dasein scheint in sich rund
                              (Karl Jaspers)

it is the song
they keep on singing

in the rain
and in the sun

it is the song
that stars receive

and endlessly

every being seems
in itself round

are good neighbours

they keep to themselves

you can
even push them

round a bit
and they can take it

but you
should be careful

it comes to the crunch


sinks into them

like shadows
into water

like thoughts
resting in a word

like song
into the ear

like love
like pain

that unbearable

of being
round in itself

evoke their chatter

they hum
in a nor’wester

they keep their silence

their silence rises

like a prayer


white is much more than just 
a combination
                            of all colours
more than the birch’s bark
the limestone
this apple blossom     drifting
                bones and seawrack
bleaching on these boulders
                     cumulus     arriving
out of the blue
                                 the lace
unravelling at the ocean’s hem

it is blank     pages in an album

out on the horizon     a royal
from the waves into the open    
            while at the other pole
a shift
            from thing to what it is
we can think
upon the albedo of the brain

tonight there is a white silence

the moon
                                 in the sky
the moon      
                                 in the water
the moon
                                 in the mind

waking up in the lattice-work
I am here and there
          to be living     only
on these insides of unlettered
             so let it be as literal as
and let me walk
                                these littorals
between the tides
                                   and let me
see with wide
                            single gaze
that white advent of the world


 Envoi: l’être-là

(after Bachelard, Beckett, Thoreau et al)

no longer anywhere but there

there no other where than here

the lake an eye and I

reflected in its black depths

no longer any/where but there

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