photosynthesis, by Iain Britton (Kilmog Press, Dunedin, 2014). Limited edition, out of print, 92 pp., $35
Although ‘photosynthesis’ is the title poem of his collection, Iain Britton has placed another poem before it in the book: ‘infinite editions’. (All his poem titles, as well as the poems, are in lower case.) And perhaps rightly so, for in this poem he tells us something of his method:
i’m the ventriloquist
with my mouth in your ear
the ventriloquist alive in your body
and his double-spaced half-lines, or phrases, do urge us as readers to become:
and legs and split personas floating above fields
In other words, these poems enter, dismember, and dislocate themselves in us: in a way they ‘use’ us as his ‘masked impersonations’, as we read them. And re-read them. For, as a friend of mine suggested, they lack narrative coherence and consequence. And this in itself is impressive. We are left with poignant islands of sense. And we then wonder, have we got it? What did he mean? Did he want to mean anything, or it is just his art of poetry?
In Britton’s initial poem, we cannot read the phrase ‘the hollow men’ without Eliot’s poem subliminally being there, though Britton’s next epithet, ‘the wooden men guarding this isthmus’, suggests Māori carved figures in a pou (but these figures are not generally hollow), which are later referred to as ‘holy wooden men’ in the same poem. These, plus references to ‘ancestors’ and, in other poems, lines such as ‘an aboriginal legacy’ which ‘confuses his going forward’, point to an important concern of Britton’s. Māori cultural concepts, place names and words, as well as Pacific Island ones, enter the poems quite naturally (Britton teaches Māori at a private school in Auckland, itself situated on an isthmus); and yet as a European Pākehā New Zealander, his concerns and references also extend to world culture, as much as to his contemporary, light-filled, socially and physically apprehended domicile.
Britton spent much of his adult life teaching in England and mentions ‘a prodigal’s rehabilitation’,3 a necessary re-education/coming to terms with self and the world in the land of his birth, perhaps?
Supposedly too, his poem title ‘infinite editions’ … refers to daily life, an edition of days, ‘my life’ as it were, which, in the moments of living it, seems infinite. Certainly in these poems Britton presents the quotidian and, through statement and narrative (in this initial poem), gives us a round of events, a pattern of telling that comes up in other poems too. As does his method of writing through a series of seemingly disconnected images. In this sense perhaps, his writing is seen as being post-modern par excellence. He is his own man throughout the volume, and as he says, with his own ‘alchemistic behaviour’.4 I take that to mean his making of these always interesting, sometimes arresting poems, which do come through to us strongly in a voice that is both new and distinctive.
I remember how I loved learning about both osmosis and photosynthesis at secondary school, and I would suggest a potential Britton reader might let these poems seep, as it were, through the semi-permeable membrane of their mind’s skin, so that what is on the page is gradually balanced by what is in their mind; then they’ll have absorbed the poem by a kind of intellectual and emotional osmosis.
Britton uses language as a sort of chlorophyll to fix the light of his vision and give life to his words, so that we may breathe them in. If we remember that plants absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, we can see his poems as plants for us to breathe of or lift off from. A real secret of life, for it takes your breath to keep you being here: especially for a poet. This then is his work: his photosynthesis, the making of his poems.
And Britton knows the fact of the appeal of the immediate physical world:
immortality is a bible-backed
… the importance of the moment of being alive, to record through a multitude of unexpected images impacting on each other, like Allen Curnow’s:
A man stepping it out in the near distance
With a dog and a bag
on a spit of shell
On a wire in the mist
a gannet impacting
Explode a dozen diverse dullnesses
Like a burst of accurate fire.6
Britton’s images sometimes do take your breath away, though Curnow’s are closer to ‘where we pick up the traces’,7 and Britton’s slightly more cryptic, moving from a concept to the world, from intellectualisation to a concrete image.
Why ‘a ventriloquist’? Why the need for masking? So that when the reader’s breath is taken by a truth, stated by the poet, the poet doesn’t have to take complete responsibility for it? It just came out in the run of the poem that takes the blame for itself? At any rate, by contrast, Britton then speaks up for himself, and we feel he isn’t playing the ventriloquist when he uses his statement method, as in:
history has a habit
of going rotten
the closer i stick my nose
the further i chase the perfume of angels
the harder any resolution seems8
This kind of seriousness gets across. It’s not all a sunny day. Struggle is reported upon as in ‘the list’,9 a dark poem about a controlling figure and people subordinate to him. Such awareness shows up too in the poem ‘tusitala of white lies’, which uses the Pacific Island word for storyteller in its title. Psychological darkness (the ‘white lies’ of human concourse and discourse) runs throughout the book, in contrast to the bright images from the natural world, as in: ‘this summer’s photosynthesis in the sun’. In ‘tusitala of white lies’ it seems that Britton himself is the:
contemplating a dreamtime jaunt
an astral flight
with no strings dangling10
He might be speaking about his philosophy of life, possibly about bridging ‘the centreless gulf between individuals’11 in a love affair between a man and a woman or about using language and writing poems. Who knows for sure?
For, despite such seeming analysis, this kind of slippage makes these poems puzzling ones. Who are ‘these people’,12 for example? Are they Māori? Are they real personae filtered by and presented as figments of Britton’s imagination? Is this ‘swirling white anatomy’ snow? The main feeling we get from this poem is of threat to the one who is vigilant. The observer. The one standing back. The looker-on behind the poem. The writer. Certainly he is there, in all these poems, the lower-case ‘i’ figure. Is this figure Britton?
In the end, I think it really doesn’t matter which of these you choose as a locator for the poem, to hold it down to the earth by its tent pegs. Enjoy the flight. Sometimes we have inklings and are grounded: ah! he’s making metaphor out of the feeling of being a drudge commuter in rush hour, but because that would be so mundane to write plainly about, and because it’s already been done (again we call on Eliot’s ‘at four and five and six o’clock’), Britton gives full rein to his fantasy to play with any eclectic, suitable, passing image that befalls his mind and runs with it – a kind of fly-casting angler’s trick, to see what he might hook up with, that in actual fact has been carefully observed:
I hold onto all I can of this naked exposure
but then his image moves on:
and further on:
until it stops and we are dumbfounded by:
a still life preserved in a prism13
which is what is caught and held by light; but we feel we have to go back and start re-reading the poem to make sure we have got it. And have we? Like Britton, trying to understand the girl in the end lines of this poem:
I try repeatedly
to fit into the crystal skull
of her elliptical world.
By the very nature of things, we know this is an impossibility. Understanding another completely. Or, everything, and naming and fitting into everything and holding it for very long – all of this escapes us. Britton himself gives us these potent, patent clues, declarations of his existential and poetic stance. Life is enigmatic, elusive, compelling, mysterious. We can’t understand it. What we grasp after further eludes us with our grasping after it, as in:
i’ve been accused of writing my name in water
a see-thru worship
difficult to hold
to cup in my hands14
At least Britton’s arrangement of the poems on the page is consistently clear: he likes setting out his lines, the fragments of his narrative or statements in sets or segments, sometimes divided by a space before the next set or segment, as in stanza form; sometimes delineated by number as in 1, 2 and so on; sometimes with signage as in >>> or ### or * * * form.
It would be fun to make a concordance of Britton’s diction, and see how often certain parts of speech are used: e.g. how many abstract nouns; how often do plant and vegetation and natural images come up; how many references are there to the sea and to light; to work out how many unnamed people populate the book and collate how they are referred to and in what way – through pronouns mostly, not nouns or fictive names, as that of the delightful woman in the poem ‘gretel’s neon factory’,15 which captures the feeling of a successful love affair. Who too is the woman in ‘landscaping’?16 An ex-wife? A friend? Someone observed? The poem ‘pop culture’17 features a girl/woman who is so contemporary she contrasts utterly, generationally, with ‘my father’ who:
observes the world in the wing-tip
of a cicada
plasters up draught holes in the shed
wears a blue hat
and a muddle
of old army clothes18
I like this father very much. He is so human, such an iconic New Zealander. Britton’s poems then are full of people who, except for his immediate family/whānau as also in his ‘grandmother’s /gallery of remembrance’, are referred to almost anonymously or rather representatively as ‘a black girl’, ‘a white girl’, ‘this man’, ‘this girl’, and many ‘children’ – no wonder the latter, he is a teacher.
In sum, his method of writing is: compression of vivid images, the use of elliptical transverses and traverses that gallop or slide slowly along some linguistic trajectory that has its own impulse and rhythm; that uses rises and falls like vocal phrases. I think it is likely Britton also hears his poems when he writes them.
Like the keruru who enters quite a few times on these pages, and now, suitably at sunset, in the last tercet of the last poem, we might sum up Britton’s vision as that of the kererū which ‘sky-dives through fractures in clouds’.19
He is a kind of cubist of the imagination or, as Britton himself says in a new poem recently posted online, he has ‘a cubist’s perception’.20 And perhaps too, a surrealist’s concreteness, for we can visualise ‘fractures in clouds’, can’t we?
Britton likes references to clocks, therefore is terribly aware of time ticking away. It is ‘the quickness of life’, and also its quirkiness, Britton is attempting to get down on the page, and he succeeds so well in this beautifully made yellow and black (the light and the dark?) linen-covered book from Kilmog Press. Already the first print run has sold out. My hope is that immediately another run and then another and another will be printed and enjoyed. For Britton’s poems are full of verve and ambition, pushing all sorts of limits to stay immediate and fresh and contemporary to us, to widen our own perhaps plainer visions of what can make language breathe and give ourselves back to ourselves as in one of his mirror images:
people are making people
out of mirrors21
Jan Kemp is a New Zealand-born poet, writer and anthologist who lives with her husband outside Frankfurt and Main, Germany. Her books include the poetry collection Voicetracks (Puriri Press).
1. ‘scream particle’, p. 41
2. ‘infinite editions’, p. 7
3. ‘silent epiphany’, p. 65
4. ‘landscaping’, p. 48
5. ‘infinite editions’, p. 7
6. ‘A Small Room with Large Windows IV’, Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, Allen Curnow (ed.), Penguin, 1960, p. 213
7. photosynthesis, ‘Reality must be local and special at the point where we pick up the traces: as manifold as the signs we follow and the routes we take’, p. 17
8. ‘gladieightor’, p. 30
9. ‘the list’, p. 34
10. ‘tusitala of white lies’, p. 38
11. ‘the appointment’, p. 20
12. ‘vigilante’, p. 15
13. ‘scream particle’, p. 41
14. ‘gladieightor’, p. 32
15. ‘gretel’s neon factory’, p. 82
16. ‘landscaping’, p. 45
17. ‘pop culture’, p. 50
18. ‘burnt obsidian spring’, p. 55
19. ‘trickery’, p. 87
20. THESTRAWBERRYALARMCLOCK: http://positjournal.com/2014/08/11/iain-britton/
21. photosynthesis, ‘infinite editions’, p. 7