Essay: Ali Jane Smithon joanne burns

And so say all of us: joanne burns and you

Ali Jane Smith is a recipient of a 2016 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the second of three essays by Smith that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, James Halford and Ben Brooker. Read all the essays here

We’re sophisticated, aren’t we, readers. We know that when the poet says ‘I’, she doesn’t mean ‘I’. But who is she addressing when she says ‘you’? Does she mean me? Or some other person, embodied, but unknowable? Is she thinking of an ideal reader: an imaginary friend with a haunting resemblance to a rival, a parent, a lover? Maybe ‘you’ stands in for ‘I’, when the poem gets too close to home?

‘pitch’ is the first poem in joanne burns’ book amphora (2011). It’s a poem about angels. This section of amphora is called ‘angles not angels’, so the ‘pitch’ of the title makes reference to both sound and an incline. It’s also a pitch to us, the reader, a request or assertion that we relax our scepticism a bit, let our tight hold on reality loosen. burns needs us to be more than normally receptive because amphora includes poems in which various gods and mystical figures appear, plus a series of poems that revisit her childhood interest in the lives of saints. We’re entering a world where miracles don’t just happen, they are required.

The poem includes the story of an everyday near-death experience. What happens? The narrator is standing at the lights in the inner city suburb of Darlinghurst, Sydney when she is almost hit by a car. This event is described in bald first person. In fact the word ‘i’ appears eighteen times in a narrow, page-long paragraph, unusual frequency for a burns poem. Perhaps she is insisting on her presence to that oblivious dangerous driver. As she waits for her green light, the narrator is wondering whether she harbours a vertigo virus. She escapes being run down by moving slowly out of the car’s path, while the hurtling car goes on to slam into a sandstone verandah. ‘in that slow step to the right the prod of an instant angel surely reached across to save my life,’ writes burns.

In ‘pitch’ Saint Isidore the Labourer makes an appearance. Isidore had angels to help him plough the fields so he could devote himself to prayer. burns thinks she needs a labouring angel, ‘… someone quiet who likes to dust and shop and vacuum while I recline and dream up poems and skim through dictionaries and roget’s …’. Turns out her angel is no feather duster,

my kind of angel comes like a flash of light a silver wink in the dark a stroke of thought behind the brow down the nape of the neck so slow its really fast. it could remind you that you’re about to die if you don’t shift your arse.

First person seamlessly becomes second, but joanne burns isn’t distancing, she’s universalising. This poet, so interested in particulars, in details, specificity, circumstances, makes bold to suggest a brief memento mori that she’s thinks we’ll share. The near rhyme of ‘fast’ and ‘arse’ is a lot of fun, and for those fans who have heard burns give readings, it’s easy to imagine how her own particular way of speaking and her relish for the broad ‘a’ would make these words even rhymier than they are on the page, but the pairing of these two words is also emphatic. Here, burns uses the second person to address a ‘you’ that is me, the reader – to warn me that there will be times when I must postpone reflection and take action.

This is not the first leap from first to second person in ‘pitch’. In the opening stanza, shaped like an angel’s wing, the narrator gives examples of things she finds panic-inducing:

… like when you see a professional weightlifter walking down the street well oiled, too much of a manifested power, too much like the sound of a punkawallah or the sighting of an ugg boot in a tropical land.

Like when you see? Perhaps burns really has seen a well-oiled professional weightlifter walking down the street – anything can happen in Darlinghurst – but is this an experience sufficiently familiar that she can get away with that second person? Of course not. This is an ironic ‘you’. She is making a joke, even while her weightlifter works as a pre-emptive reference to the car, a well-oiled machine similarly panic-inducing because its power manifests in the wrong place – the place where the narrator was standing just before she moved.

Meanwhile, that gear change from first to second person is one of the strategies that ensures we experience a sense of things out of place. She lures us into the list with the relatable tropical ugg boot, but what does she mean when she compares the sight of a weightlifter to the sound of a punkahwallah? A punkahwallah is the person whose job it is to operate a manual fan. I searched online to check this definition, and noted Wikipedia’s claim that the best punkawallahs were deaf, so there was no risk of them overhearing the private conversations of the great ones they were keeping cool. So perhaps this reference to the punkahwallah is partly about not being able to hear, as well as to the sound made by the movement of the fan, or even to the white noise of an electric fan. The narrator in the poem has an appointment with an ear specialist arranged for the day after she is not hit by a car. Ear problems are associated with problems of balance, with vertigo, with angles, not angels. The slip into the second person makes the joke, but it’s also a means of disorienting the reader, preparing us for the arrival of the angel.

In the final stanza of ‘pitch’, another brush with mortal fear is related, this time after the fact: ‘the coach tyre has blown on a mountain side and the front light has failed again’. Then the narrator hears a voice that comes ‘from a dark cornice down to your pillow’. Earlier in the poem, the immediacy of ‘I’ was used to describe the escape from the speeding car. Here, ‘you’ is the narrator herself, thinking back on her ordeal. The voice of her angel urges her to ‘enjoy’ and, sinking at last into the comfort and safety of a pillow, the poet writes, reflectively ‘you did’.

Sometimes joanne burns uses ‘you’ to turn the reader into a spectator. The action in the poem ‘the stranger’, from an illustrated history of dairies (2007) is another street scene, another road crossing.

it waits on the street in front of the building. you feel its presence mostly when you arrive home rather than where you leave, where, as you step out onto the street a firm mechanism propels you forwards across the intersection

I don’t know quite what ‘it’ is in this poem, but I notice as I read that the use of the second person has me visualising the scene as though I’m watching a movie, or experiencing a dream. I am the narrator in this poem, I stand in front of the building and feel a presence, the presence of that uneasy ‘it’. The filmic, dreamlike quality that ‘you’ can take on is explicit in another poem from an illustrated history of dairies, ‘appetite’.

the long window of the train carriage. you glided on the leather seat past the scenery being offered. this oneiric visitation. velvet as the erotics of a victorian viewfinder. close to the window a deep sea dark as tea.

‘Oneiric’ means to do with dreams, and it’s also a term used in film theory to describe the sometimes dream-like experience of watching a film. In these few sentences we also see windows, scenery and a viewfinder. The poem turns the reader into dreamer, offers the oneiric filmic experience, controls our point of view. In other books, by other poets, I want to wriggle out from under the pressure of being told what I’m doing. The second person can be an annoying form of narration. But here, it’s not jarring, because that gliding sensation, that oneiric looking she describes is dreamily familiar, and in dreams we might do anything, we might be anyone.

joanne burns is also capable of using ‘you’ as a skewer to pin her subject down. Sometimes this happens when she is making reference to the language of texts that use ‘you’ to firmly position the reader, like signage and advertising. Here’s some lines from the opening poem in a series about money culture that appears in brush (2014),

does your share portfolio ache
unlock your teeth in the adrenal winds

you were born with collateralised genes
zenned up couch pod tycoon

invest in your personal equator
it’s neptune or never

I’m confident that the ‘you’ in this poem is not joanne burns nor any poetic persona. I’ve read ahead and know that she’s familiar with the courtesy drinks fridge at the Teachers Credit Union, making her an unlikely tycoon. Neither is the ‘you’ in this poem intended to be the reader. I think in this poem she’s got someone or ones in mind. We’ve met before, in a less subtle guise, in ‘genetics’ from blowing bubbles in the seventh lane (1988),

men in suits during heatwaves
men in suits being cologne cool in heatwaves
… allowing nothing to
get in their way: undeterred by any kind of weather

The ‘you’ with an aching share portfolio and collateralised genes from the poem ‘factoidal’ is not a sympathetic sufferer, but he is not quite as impermeable as the 1988 version. This Gordon Gecko-type has been buffeted by the global financial crisis, after all. Some of the poems in the suite are written in the first person, burns monologuing in character, sometimes she uses the second person, persuasively, like someone trying to sell you something. Adopting the ‘you’ in the manner of advertisment gives burns an opportunity to disrupt the attempted authority of instruction, the insidiousness of persuasion.

Sometimes the ‘you’ in a joanne burns poem is the poet’s imperative address to herself. In another poem from brush, ‘verb’, quoted here in full, she gives herself a dressing down,

your book of dreams: it always fails
the exam, why not think of yourself
as an ambulance, then there will be
no need to dial triple O, telephones
become more difficult to find these days,
such little things obscured in domestic
mess; so follow that beam of light in the tunnel
any sort of breath will pay the toll, just what part
of the verb are you seeking, the journey is
shorter than you

joanne burns favours little things and has her favourite places, but she tends to be out and about, in a cafe, on a walk, at the opticians, expansive in her views. ‘verb’ is almost claustrophobic. Verbs are ‘doing words’, but there’s not much doing here. The verb that comes to mind is ‘be’. The ‘you’ in this poem is impatient with dreaminess, a dream ambulance being of little use in an emergency. The hard to find telephone suggests the world is very small, the domestic mess closing in, and then there is that tunnel, that beam of light, the cliché of the near death experience, that becomes, for this Sydney poet, one of the network of roads and tunnels that can only be accessed by paying a toll, and with that toll we get the reminder, death again, the river Styx. ‘just what part/ of the verb are you seeking’ the speaker demands of themselves – get doing! Wake up, because the journey is short. This poem appears in a section of brush called ‘a series of day poems’. ‘verb’ is an account of a bad day. Don’t worry, turn the page for ‘choir’, that’s a bad day that gets better, though all in first person.

burns is thoughtful, associative, playful; a reader, a thinker, a talker and a writer. In ‘verb’, she is called upon to be a do-er. It’s no good simply dreaming of an ambulance. An ambulance must be called. joanne burns keeps language moving, and her shifts between first and second person are part of that ceaseless motion. She makes that second person work for her, effortlessly ploughing, turning up the unexpected. She writes in third person too, but there’s something special about the slippage between ‘I’ and ‘you’ in her poetry. Sometimes she’s talking to me, or to you, sometimes she’s talking to herself. I keep thinking of that angel, the angel that belongs to joanne burns, “like a flash of light a silver wink in the dark a stroke of thought behind the brow down the nape of the neck”. Her angel is a thought, but not necessarily a conscious thought. A thought that prompts her into action before she’s even had time to notice it’s arrived. Perhaps, sometimes, the second person, the ‘you’ in a joanne burns poem is her angel, flashing and winking.

The SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowships are supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.