PAM BROWN Reviews
Indirect Objects by Louis Armand
(VagabondPress, Sydney, Australia, 2014)
Louis Armand is one of the most productive writers I know. He's seemingly irrepressible. He has, so far, published eleven collections of poetry, sixteen critical books and four novels. He is also the publisher of Litteraria Pragensia and founding editor of the extraordinary VLAK magazine, which is a big fat international omnibus of incisive articles on happening culture, wonderful post-punk graphics and terrific poetry. Louis, although born and growing up in Australia, has lived in Prague in the Czech Republic for twenty years. He works there at Charles University. He has also been a James Joyce scholar. Louis is also a visual artist, and this is reflected in many of the poems in Indirect Objects.
Louis' ekphrasis is not made from any critical distance - it's an immersion - he gets in to a painting like an all-night drug tripper gets in to the dawn. For instance, the bluesy punk impressionism of the opening poem 'Acid Comedown & John Olsen's Five Bells'
Call it topographic, eyeball to eyeball with invisible fidget wheels, the whole blueprint in acid-dissolve.
Intelligence reports arrive from remote space colonies dot-dash-dot on tree-branch telegraph wires,
meteorites and pool hall metaphysics.
This is John Olsen's painting 'Five Bells' - a tribute to Sydney Harbour and the famous Kenneth Slessor poem. The poem's associated with venues around the inner harbour - the Opera House and the NSW Art Gallery make their appearance. Jorn Utzon's Opera House is seen as 'cranes/stooping/over the quays' - where, for me anyway, the cranes can be both the birds as the so-called 'Opera House sails' and literal construction cranes about to alter another tiny bit of Harbour. And the party's over, coming down in the tickertape detritus, like a starry New Years Eve under the fig trees, Louis offers a televisual, possibly-empathetic, political gesture to what's happened to cities in this country -
Slow-motion videos of a city
in mid-construct - Wandjina Man drunk under a wall
dreaming of blonde missionary ancestor spirits
turned to coruscated glass and steel
then everything goes grey and rainy and a little grim as dawn arrives.
So from the start, this is an atmospheric, moody set of poems. And that's just the beginning.
This book is loaded with attempts to build something different out of a kind of destruction or destroyed world (this one) and it shares with the reader the proposition that some new thing can be made. But not without regard for the past.
Snake Bay is a bay in the Tiwi Islands, up north, past Darwin. Fifty-five years ago Russell Drysdale painted indigenous figures in his 'Snake Bay at Night.' In Louis' poem about this painting
...occasionally memory creeps in,
like an irrational return to a point we started from.
and the 'great montage' in the painting might have been made by
...some demon of history like a mind gone astray
in the night, mad with visions of sexual punishment.
There's a fabulous aggregate of extraordinary, iconic Australianisms in this book—a northern river meeting a night sea in a kind of dreamy humid methadone metaphor, the tropical erotic-exotica of Donald Friend's Balinese pen drawings, Richard Lowenstein's classic-80s rock film Dogs in Space alongside a junkie Darlinghurst Gauguin selling his drawings to get money to score in a poem for John Kinsella that proceeds by a seedy Sydney-urban philosophising and aspires to a better life, 'Patrick White as a Headland', Charles Blackman, Francis Webb, and in Melbourne - a monologue from an Aboriginal boxer in Fitzroy, freeze frames at St Kilda Beach, Swanston Street, Brunswick Street and so on.
A critic * speaking about Louis' novel 'Canicule' recently, said "Armand uses language to paint a picture just as vividly as if we were watching this unfold on screen...." which is a good way of putting it. Some of these paintings-in-poems are in the first section of the book called 'Realism', which, in my view, is an odd heading for a collection of poems definitely located in Australia. 'Realism' in some ways seems a sombre tag to the book's title 'Indirect Objects'.
Indirect objects can be rare. You can sometimes read for pages before you encounter one. Everyone can recognize a direct object when they see one, but
an 'indirect object' is an odd grammatical concept. I'm not an expert but the term seems stretched enough here to mingle with the melange of allusions, similes, descriptions and metaphors that contribute to these vivid, image-rich, hyper-real poems.
One poem here, 'Realism', had an especially powerful effect for me. It's the extraordinary title poem that ends the first section - a poem comprising four preludes three in couplets, and one in quintets (or five line stanzas). It begins with a quote from William Carlos Williams that says in part - 'The only realism in art is of the imagination'. I'd say, in Louis' case that it's also art's relationship to emancipation that registers strongly. This remarkable poem moves in its preludes through an initial anxious energy as an exhausted persona/the poet travels through harsh sheep country where alcohol and over the-counter-drugs smother the numbness and anomie a young jackeroo or farmhand, say, might feel in the face of slaughter yards and endless plains' horizons broken by occasional silos and surreal sunsets that eventually seem conventional, leading to a sense of desperation –
A hundred pages on
through plotless outcountry
There's a turn in this road trip in arriving at the east coast's 'flat edge of pacific breakers'. Then the collision of the ocean and urbanity reminds the jetlagged-yet still-thinking prodigal of lost political causes
We could've been the children
of Whitlam and Coca-Cola.
which is an Aussie remark on Jean Luc Godard's intertitle between chapters in his 1960s film 'Masculin-Feminin' - "The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola"
One of the challenges of minimalism is finding a way to gouge relatable connotation from simplicity and Louis is really good at doing that. The poem traverses grinding hard yakka and the tedium of distance - hauling along through the dead of night between outback mining towns and salt flats pushing past 'a punchline without a joke' until daybreak reveals 'barbiturate cloud patterns' and 'unfamiliar / regions of cross-sectional debris'. Attempting to get a grip on this place, he asks the question - is 'the scene ironic or insincere?' The reply -
An ambiguous terrain, its objectivity
is a thing of the mind, una cosa mentale.
In the second prelude the prodigal poet returns to, in a way, the foci of his journey. In a kind of monumental segment of five stanzas of five lines each, he is in Sydney, addressing the Road Builders’ Obelisk and colonial history, or mis-history. It's the oldest true obelisk in Sydney, built in 1818. It's located in tiny Macquarie Place on Bridge Street and was designed by Francis Greenaway. This elongated sandstone pyramid's purpose was as the geographical milestone for the measurement of road lengths in New South Wales. Especially apposite to this circuitous road poem.
As you might expect, soon enough, yet cautiously, the poem heads out again and the third prelude recounts 'The Effect of Travelling in Distant Places' where some experiential resolution or 'answer' is sought and
the sick man groans,
dragging his sack of instruments
on into the immeasurable -
beckoned by its fool's glimmer
the problems of religion, greed, capital, false gods are all encountered in eight couplets then 'the eye too, is a product/of history'. Or you could say 'seeing isn't believing' as the poems' slightly abstracted ecological predicaments, like brackish bore water contaminated by alkaline salinity, are reduced -- 'Being/ so much dreck and signage'. The body suffers in parallel with the land and, finally, there's a 'Reprise' –
we reached the next turning point
and came to a standstill:
from centre dead up against periphery
(no things but in relations).
The reprise is of the times - briefly. It's a sleaze reprise, back in Sydney, a place once nicknamed 'Tinsel Town', - at the harbour –
A bridge to the
promised land in perpetual
strip-tease slung above the 100,000
expiring light bulbs of LUNA P RK.
undressing the blacked out scar of
decommissioned navy yards, dry
docks ... Our hungers for elsewhere
were free to enlarge, conscripted
to the Big Idea - not by ballot but by
In the final twenty-or-so couplets the poem briefly laments American influence in Australia, revisits the outback journey, remembers earlier times - 'the halo formed/around the analogue dial/ wandjina like, and electric as/spirit medium shot at high speed.' There is no actual conclusion to 'Realism' but 'Escape was a sad parody of a film/ that's been running for a century' and the prodigal, back on the western highway, checks out the rearview mirror - 'testing the stringency/of what it means to be invisible - /though drawing no conclusion from it.'
There's a big complicated mind driving the imaginary in these poems. Louis' analytical and motile thinking upsets conventional expectations. He arranges a kind of sur-or hyper-reality and fashions something new as images and metaphors tumble over each other and extensive transcultural classical and popular cultures combine to make poems that are often reminiscent of large colourful, layered, goopy oil paintings or stacked banks of video screens simultaneously playing different images.
I've only talked about a small part of this book and it might seem a bit exiguous after the time I spent on the great poem 'Realism'. So I'll end by offering a couple of sets of lists to give clues to what extraordinary congeries of ideas and things are to be found here: the poems embrace innumerable literary, philosophical, mythological and artistic figures like Arcimboldo, Rachmaninov, Aristotle, De Kooning, Blaise Cendrars, Charles Mingus and many others and they roam through many places, considering them as both actual and imagined -- a sample includes Las Vegas, Cittavecchia, Manhattan, Paris, Bolzano, Rapallo, Ravenna and, of course, Prague.
The dedicatees in this collection are as various as the poems' influences, themes and associations comprising a transnational ars poeisis - some of them are Gwendolyn Albert, Anselm Berrigan, Ali Alizadeh, the late Amiri Baraka, Karen Mac Cormack, David Vichnar, Kenneth Koch, Howard Barker, the late Mahmoud Darwish, David Malouf, John Kinsella, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, the late Cy Twombly and many others. This book pays its dues to a veritable pantheon of cultural figures -- poetically, it's totally in the black.
* Kristen Valentin
Pam Brown, poet and editor, has published many books, chapbooks and an e-book. Most recently, Home by Dark was published by Shearsman Books in 2013 and Alibis, a bilingual selection of her poems translated into French by Jane Zemiro, was published by Société Jamais Jamais in early 2014. Pam lives in Alexandria, Sydney and blogs intermittently at thedeletions.blogspot.com