TEXT review


Fidelity lost

review by Ben Kunkler

 

Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:1444370278424.jpg
Paul Munden
Analogue / Digital
Smith / Doorstop Books, Sheffield UK 2015
ISBN 9781910367377
Pb 104pp AUD32.99

 

Fans of vinyl records and audio recording purists will well-recognise the anxiety to which the title of Paul Munden’s Analogue / Digital points. In making recording technology more efficient and cheaper, what fidelity, all puns intended, has been lost? Aesthetically, this may stake out a conservative position toward (post)modernity. And there are indeed a few looks of dismay, in these poems, cast at a present that is permanently collapsible to a future. But Munden’s title also serves a – more ambivalent – architectural purpose: the ‘collected’ (1986-2011) and the ‘new’ (2013-2014) of this new and collected might be columned under this (metaphorical) technological shift. ‘Analogue / Digital’ may at first strike the reader as something of a petty commonplace. But Munden loads the vehicle of ‘fidelity’ with so many resonances as to resuscitate a ‘dying’ metaphor.

‘Fidelity’ is apt for the book’s central theme: loss. To ‘lose fidelity’ is both a failure of the medium to fully carry the message, but it is also a loss of that past itself and hence our faithfulness to it. Of course, that a representation is the full presence of what it represents is a tricky ruse. Reviewing faulty media, whether analogue, digital or human (as memory) becomes a way for Munden to ‘give loss a contour or form that makes the actual experience of loss bearable’, as Mark Strand put it (Strand 2005-2014). It is obviously a heavy burden of loss that is to be borne – the death of the poet’s father, who appears throughout the 1984 to 2014 collection.

Typical is ‘Home Movies’ (from the ‘Analogue’ section), one of the more personal poems. An original ekphrasis of old home movies – ekphrasis, another layer to the ‘fidelity’ trope – becomes a pretext for a brief and poignant lyric on the event of the death of the poet’s father. Munden is faithful to the movie’s frames: ‘A slice of oak announces where we lived’ (25). But the joyfully preserved ‘disconnected, wobbly moments / when a camera was at hand’ quickly become vehicles for sadness.

The vicar was called.
We gathered round
while he said a prayer
and I went rigid

as Dad’s eyes opened
in panic, believing
this was it. He hung on
for days after that.
I was holding his hand
when suddenly I knew
he wasn’t there (26, italics original)

The loss becomes a touch embittered in a finely wrought (if also poetically convenient) ekphrastic conclusion.

I’m on my bike, concentrating hard
on the curve around the lawn.
I swerve, with the briefest of smiles,
and here’s Dad, waiting to step in
to deal with my gravel-rashed knees.
The reel’s used up on a weekend visitor  
backing her car down the drive.
White dots perforate the last few frames.
Then there’s the slap of film spinning
freely on the take-up spool. (26)

The medium fails fidelity; the loss remains. Indeed, in the poem ‘This and That’ (in the ‘Digital’ section) the narrator is in the backyard shed ‘sorting things out’, and the reader wonders if this filial loss is not something the poet would like to rid himself of, along with useless clutter. (This is also where we glean something, comically, of the poet as Luddite, modernist curmudgeon).

I’m clearing out the shed, as more of this
and that is still making its way in: hard drives
with no memory, clad in see-through plastic
curves that say look I’m still pretty;
so much cobwebbed state of the art.
An intercom is strung along the landing
To my parents, who don’t answer. (26)

Fetching paradoxes on this theme reappear, this time in more hopeful poems. Indeed, it is the motif of filial loss inverted – a parent poet’s loss of their child, growing, grown into an adult – that carries the burden of hope in grief. We are left in no doubt as to the poet’s being deliberate here. The mirrored kinds of loss are mirrored by two poems (‘Analogue’ and ‘Digital’, respectively). These follow one another in the collection, so mirror each other by the layout. And the two poems, brief and short-breathed, allude to birth and death, respectively:

My daughter’s heartbeat
peaks as a beam of light
onscreen, transcribed

by a jiggling pen –

My father’s hand shaking
like a teleprinter
ready for the final score. (‘Analogue’ 52)

*

The sat-nav takes us
to the cemetery gate, beyond which
I’m hard-wired to identify

The headstone: the deleted
Dates and names my daughter
Retrieves, cleaning them
With her bare finders. (‘Digital’ 53)

To invert TS Eliot’s quote on Swinburne, does this suggest the poet’s ‘orderliness of mind’? [1] This is the old humbling mirror of literature – ‘They give birth astride the grave’ (Beckett 2006: 82) – but shown through the jarringly new – and improved? – vanities of technology. In any case, in this fastidious paralleling, there is a risk of sentimentality that Munden does not quite avoid.

Perhaps the poet’s ambivalence toward technology is better understood as the collection draws to a close. Here a particularly strong suite of poems emerges, on the Australian natural world. Reading these, it would not be inaccurate (nor be meant pejoratively) to call Munden a Nature Poet, comfortable in the mode of Wordsworthian awe, transported to the Antipodes. The Great Barrier Reef, for example, is gorgeously figured as a ‘submerged cathedral’.

Sunlight
filters down through the drift
of grainy bubbles as I glide
into a silent realm of stained glass. (‘Submerged Cathedral’ 98)

Diving down into this holy place, the poet discovers a shoal of fish ‘like a choir / conducted by the sea’ (98). The strong poem ‘Fire’ recycles the symbol of a gutted cathedral as apocalypse, however here contextualised by extreme Australian bushfires, here consuming the Blue Mountains. Sublimely, the scorched Mountains are compared to the burning cathedral, thereby sanctifying the bush.

A shock of flame breaks
from the Cathedral roof. Lead
melts and pieces of coloured glass
fall …
And now it’s about fighting fire
with fire, blocking its rampage
from one transept of the mountains
into the length of the nave.
(‘Fire’ 93-4)

Of course, we have not departed from the ‘fidelity’ theme totally, if one meaning of nature poetry is the great loss of human fidelity to its original, ‘natural’ world. Part of the holy awe of bushfire is that the burning of the landscape is somehow primordial, purifying even. The ‘fluted bark’ of gum trees are ‘flammable skin / shed by self-preserving trees’ (94). But what is absent, just as the poetry is at its most ‘natural’, is precisely the human – for example, character, which, except for archetypal family types, is not often in Munden’s poetic vocabulary. There are some pleasing standout exceptions, for example in the ‘Practice Room’, where an alcoholic piano teacher with ‘yellow ivory’ fingers teaches the boy poet to play. Here, metonym and sharply alliterative language makes the character sharper – the fingers are ‘exacting hammers / that taught me Hindemith’ (24).

In Analogue / Digital a poetics confronts a world whose aesthetics – the Sat-Navs, USBs, etc. – are powerfully indifferent to it. But of course, despite the dooming, poetry survives. Indeed, from the millennial flames a nature poetics is renewed. But with their gadgets, perhaps metonymic of foibles, now purged, where are the human characters?

 

Notes

 

Works cited

 

 

Ben Kunkler is completing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne.

 

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TEXT
Vol 20 No 1 April 2016
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste
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