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Graveyard confetti

PR Anderson

PR Anderson lectures at UCT. He was a winner of the Sanlam Literary Award in 2003, and his Litany Bird (2000) was published by Carapace/Snailpress.

A review of Killing Time, poems by Arthur Attwell
(UCT Writers series No 4 with Snailpress, 2005)

"Life was quiet enough, too quiet. I killed time by writing a bitter poem …"

- Guy Butler, Bursting World

Arthur Attwell's first book of poems begins with the noun Confetti and ends with verb dives, and between those words is sketched the exquisite and lethal parabola of his concerns and his artistry. In a South Africa now spoiled for new voices and enjoying a woozy enthusiasm for literature and literary gossip, natter, awards and functions and every other kind of party, it is excellent to read a poetry prepared to see poetry as confetti, struggling with the secondary condition of all art, a papery thing, not flowers, but standing for them, blown upward for a little while, then falling among the graves. It is excellent because it is a poetry reminded by itself of the limits of its ambit and thus freed to the business of poetry, which is poetry itself, and never tempted to mistake the page for the shrink's couch, the microphone, the barman or the drumming circle. A poetry that is poetry, that is the thing - a poetry that is not about the written page but about the writing of it, as the word itself should school us to understand it.

Killing Time is about the way all real art strives to the condition of prayer or magic, strives to fly away from our mortal gravity, but never can. Indeed, that trajectory of flight, the passage from confetti to headstones in the universal churchyard, is also the trajectory of life and of the human condition. What is left to the poet, or the life, is not the quest for an impossible escape, but rather the quest for a good poem or a good life. That has been the central preoccupation of thoughtful art and thoughtful lives throughout history, and Attwell keeps faith with it. That verb dives, concluding the final poem of the book, concerns the plummeting of a shearwater after its prey. It is a lethal dive, but it is not the downward drift of confetti, and it is modified by the adverb perfectly. The last stanza of the poem is worth quoting in full, for it draws again the book's whole upward-and-downward arc: we see the blackfish jumping (up) (and falling back down), we look (up) and see the shearwater coming down (on the blackfish); it is not nice, this stoop, but it is perfectly done:

Around us blackfish jump, or silently
a woman fetches water from the pier.
These vigils hold us to the river. See
how perfectly the dark shearwater dives.
How many writers or readers of poetry nowadays actually care for the perfection of poetry? When Attwell constructs his last lines so that our eyes must plummet from the imperative to "See" and so enact the dive of the bird, he is doing something really very simple and basic to older models of poetry, but he has also commented upon it, and implicitly upon the point of poetry in a life that is always hunted by time. He asks us to see not the shearwater diving, but how perfectly it does so. Of his poetry he asks the same scrutiny - we need not be concerned with the fact of it or its occasions, but we should notice its perfection and its now almost moral effort to be good. He is right to ask us to look for that, and we will find in it that perfection, or progress to perfection, again and again.

I've twice used the word lethal already, and find I must say why. There is nothing gloomy about Attwell's poems; in fact, they are just as vivacious and bright at times as they are unflinching in recording suffering at others. But, as the title of the book suggests, they are haunted by their own candour about the operations of time and time's conspiracy with death. Killing Time is a triangulated title; there is the idiomatic sense of the phrase (occupying empty time, waiting usefully); there is a literal sense which applies to the annihilation of time, perhaps as we all wish we could; and there is a sense in which killing might be adjectival, describing time as that which kills, as it does. Passing time, murdering time, murderous time. The first two of these senses describe also different visions of the use of poetry; Attwell, as I've suggested, goes for the first, limited and reasonable, vision, but there are always those who will hope from poetry for a spell against death. Not to look away from the fact of the third sense, of murderous time, is the moral injunction that Camus makes in asking for a more conscious death. It is in this that Attwell writes a poetry that seeks competence in the lethal dimension of all life, and it is in this that his book is unusually mature and compelling. In "My father's churchyard", the poem with which he introduces and anchors the volume, we are made to note

the way the chapel steals into the sky
above the cemetery
and the verb steals suggests straightaway Attwell's anxiety at whatever might be fraudulent in our access to (or desire for) heaven or God, or whatever we may hope (or filch) from chapel or poetry to drag us "above the cemetery" of this world. Notice again how the chapel is founded upon the cemetery in the visual logic of the lines, and how the eye falls from the sky to the graveyard, as Attwell reminds us that it must. But "My father's churchyard" is a joyous poem also, full of linguistic "botany", as the poet and his (imagined) father use the language of flowers and flowers of language to talk about other things.

Perhaps it is this ability of Attwell's to move across the full range of human experience that makes his book so fulfilling. And he has the technical range to match these varied occasions. Killing Time can be elegiac and outraged at the viciousness of humans towards one another, but it can also be funny about root-canal dentistry, epigrammatic about evolution, unflinching about the clot of a lover's hair in the plug-hole of the shower. There are poems of local history (the construction of dams on Table Mountain, consumptives in the Karoo, bandits in the old Eastern Transvaal), poems of family, love poems, poems whose interest in nature is scientific rather than Romantic. For evidence of the technical accompaniments to this range, consider the clanging music of the third stanza of "The ghost lakes" or the deceptive Blakean simplicity of "Ecstasy or torment".

The range of content and of form is complemented by a facility for the perfect word. Here is an example: in "Finding crabs", as the poet recollects his childhood expeditions, he tells us that the stream ran between "waterberry" trees. It is a perfect lexical detail in a poem about the horror of discovering "a crab giving birth, an open crab … sowing crabs", a poem that is about the secrets of water and of things in berry.

If Attwell is a poet who has found his voice precociously, that is a mixed blessing. It confirms him as the real thing and as someone to read immediately and to look forward to in the future. But it also challenges him with the task even harder than finding a voice: now he has to resist sounding old before he sounds young. He has to keep finding a voice, and that will mean letting go. With a talent and a wisdom like this at hand, it is almost consoling to find the few flaws there are, for these will keep Attwell occupied and drive his poetry forward as he discovers them and writes his way out of and around them. There is just one that seems to me too nagging to ignore, and I mention it here not because it is an infelicity (which it is), but because it may be symptomatic of the more serious temptation to "cross over to poetry", by which I mean to relish the perfectability of language as a kind of substitute heaven, rather than striving for it as another good thing to do in a good life. There is a fondness for coupling words, for little coupled epithets, which is epicurean rather than effective; these instances are moments where Attwell is writing for his own delectation rather than his reader's access. I shan't list the poems, but here's a sample: "manic leap and dodge", "the grace and poise of the marine", "the rub and slouch of denim", "the pulse and wonder", "the rifts and creases", "the pulse and tremble", "your wetsuit's lost and shrunken store", "the boil and nurture of the sand", "the wind and grit", "the shiver and the chill" … These are the fallout of being praised for excellence in descriptive composition once upon a time, they are not poetry. Some of them just might be necessary, but one word will do.

I am as glad, then, of these faults as I am of this astonishing book. It would not do to have a young poet too fully formed too soon, for he might easily be lost to us in manners, in gestures that are neither blows nor caresses. Instead we have here a mighty good read and an impeccable display of the capacity of poetry. What we have in Killing Time is the real thing: hardworking poetry, feeling and thinking, and coming among people.

  • Click here to read new poetry on LitNet by Arthur Atwell

    LitNet: 03 October 2005

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