‘A Thousand Characters’, the opening prose poem of Luke Beesley’s fourth collection of poetry, Jam Sticky Vision, invites by being uninviting. It’s an old-hand, off-hand comic technique of downplay and negative suggestion which subverts expectations:
This, too, is about a thousand characters. It’s much like the last one. I wouldn’t even read beyond the following sentence. The following sentence is a silky thing—purple in the late day, drizzled in smog. Inside a microwave oven is milk rising to warmth. Inside the dusk is an excuse for certain birds to frolic on the freshly-cut lawn too long, picking at insects. They’re eaten by sparrow-hawks. It’s pretty gruesome.
Rugby players then slip on these dead birds below an early evening sky of ‘salmon-pink’ clouds, at once impressionistic and surrealist. They pile up ‘like a scrum or naval exercise’ (bright green grass still in mind), and the ideas in the poem begin to pile up too, though less like a naval exercise and more freely associative: the salmon-pink clouds are compared to the colour of the grapefruit gelato at the local shops; navy becomes a colour on the fringes of the tree-lined horizon. Then the poem begins to eat itself, succumbing to its unconscious underpinnings:
Fish await. It’s beyond human understanding how someone might have reached this sentence. I could write about pork. The sparrow hawk eats well and feeds the parts of its name to its young, and its young feed parts of their name to their first flight.
Names, images and ideas are consumed by one another, literally and figuratively. The texture is silky then feathery then fleshy, and then spat out: ‘Nature as documentary, now, and it’s where we slip’. The arbitrary becomes as important an aesthetic category as the ekphrastic, the observational. There’s a deep sense of dreamwork about it, both in the sense that the writing sorts through various images and emotions the way one might in a dream interpretation (that doesn’t attempt to come up with a single unique dream meaning), and in the Freudian sense of the term, in which the ‘dream-work’ is the distorting process that takes place during a dream to disguise (or perhaps, to process) forbidden and repressed desires.
Minor wordplay occurs, often of the Freudian slip kind (‘gaffers’ leads to ‘Giraffes with appalling foot rot trot’), but there’s no overall structural musicality, save that which might augment the play of thought—the movement of a mind (conscious or unconscious) forever awake in the world. Beesley’s musicality is momentary, underplayed, subtle, phantasmic and, when it comes to the fore, it’s like thinking you’ve overheard a familiar song lyric but actually you haven’t. The song/wordplay then sticks in your head for a brief daydream until you become distracted by the next contemporary-world interruption—say, a ‘microphone’, ‘discoball concussions’, or ‘wild shining toffee’.
All this description of an early evening eventually zooms in on where the speaker/dreamer of the poem has come to be situated—a dance floor, possibly mucking about, attempting a foxtrot. I take it that he/she/they are happily dancing badly, despite the foot rot, to a band that’s jamming (I may be missing an allusion to a band or lyric, here) as the ‘the moon pierces in’ to finish the poem. Note: the possible misread of ‘pierces’ as ‘pieces’, which is what light does as it refracts through glass (it splits), and what a Luke Beesley poem emphasizes: its pieces, its finer details lit up/ split up by glancing blows from a latent sun—brought into vision in the sticky present.
‘A Thousand Characters’ is written ‘after Koch/Cohen, Malley/Breton, Roussel!’—a subtitle that forecasts a spectrum of influence for both the poem and the collection. Throughout Jam Sticky Vision there are pinches of New York School wit à la Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, their playful echoes of surrealist narratives inflected here with Aussie vernacular and vision. There are wafts of Leonard Cohen’s melancholy, yet folksy and whimsical, perhaps in the vein of the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (Beesley is a lo-fi singer-songwriter and his poems often allude to alternative and popular music, folk and jazz). There are tinges of Ern Malley-like collage and juxtaposition in the construction of poems. Collage is also featured on the cover (a detail from the back cover of rock band Pavement’s second studio album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain). There are surrealist palettes of colour (like André Breton, Beesley has a predilection for the colour green). Overall, and as these generalisations make manifest, there is a bleeding between artistic mediums, forms and communities. Beesley is an illustrator/artist, and clearly a film buff, and many of the poems allude to or are written after or through the visual arts (see ‘Nude Descending a Solo’ (after Duchamp) and films (those of Lynch, Malick and Wenders). Finally, throughout, there is formal absurdity or, rather, the echo of a certain formal absurdity such as that found in the work of Raymond Roussel.
Roussel (1877-1933) was a Surrealist French novelist and poet who composed his two most known books, Locus Solus and New Impressions of Africa, to a formal constraint of homonymic puns. He also embedded a message in the structure of the four long cantos (written in rhymed alexandrines) that make up New Impressions of Africa (1932). Each canto is one long sentence long, and within each sentence are a series of brackets. When the nest of brackets across the work was decoded by painter Jean-Max Albert, first into Morse code and then back into letters and words, Roussel’s covert message was revealed: RELIVE YOUR DREAMS AWAKE (Revis tes rêves en éveil). If there is a better way to describe Beesley’s approach/attitude to writing poems, I can’t think of it. His poems aren’t necessarily exercises in strict form, but they do seek out their own absurd forms, the way a dream might shift its shape into unexpected terrain, and with its own logic.
There is more adventurous play with form in Jam Sticky Vision than in Beesley’s previous collections. Approximately half the poems are prose poems, a form that dominated his previous book New Works on Paper to great effect: many variations of the prose poem—narrative, meditation, flight of fancy, obscure anecdote, travel sketch, memory, dream sequence, family snapshot—were assayed, though it’s difficult to say that any one of these modes of prose poem were fully evoked; nor are any of these prose-poem modes more prominent than the other. Rather, these modes are gestures/red herrings/starting points, so that he can arc around or away from them into a more liminal thought/thinking/imaginary play space, in which the words have as much power in shaping the movement as the ideas. In Jam Sticky Vision we get more of this variation within the prose poem (see my opening gambit on the book’s first poem), however there’s more experimentation with lineation, enjambment, and repetition in his non-prose poems, which make up the other half, so to speak, of the book.
An example of how Beesley uses enjambment to move laterally from idea to idea (thought to thought / phrase to phrase) can be found in ‘A Tusk’s Chalking Innocence Against Evening (Rossellini/Lynch, 1986)’, reproduced here in full:
I get up. I’m wearing your iris
blue lips, have eaten zebra intent
ly, deign to think I could
accomplish, the word fizzing,
again, the square task of art.
There are multiple readings to be made of this poem, and I won’t go into an expansive one here, but without its enjambments, which split various images and words in the poem, certain meanings wouldn’t appear. Firstly, the enjambment after ‘iris’ allows us to read ‘iris’ as a noun—both as a part of the eye (of the person being addressed) and as a flower—but also as an adjective: ‘iris-blue’. Is the speaker getting up from an afternoon of intimacy in bed with a lover/an other, wearing that other’s blue lipstick? Or is the speaker getting up from a dinner table, having now learnt to see the world through that other’s iris? Both (and other) interpretations (including the wearing of an iris behind the ear, perhaps) are available. Secondly, the enjambment that splits the word ‘intently’ into ‘intent’ and ‘ly’ allows us to read ‘ly’ as ‘lie’, which offsets/effaces the speaker’s possibly having ‘eaten zebra’ (the zebra could—more likely—be a metonym for the tendency toward seeing the world in black and white). The following phrase, ‘deign to think I could’, then becomes the epicentre of the poem; all surrounding phrases refract forward or backward through it. Does the speaker deign to think they could have eaten zebra? or deign to think they could lie? or deign to think they could ‘accomplish … the square task of art’? Again, each is possible due to the enjambments.
And then there’s the reference to ‘Rossellini/Lynch, 1986’ (and to the film they made together in that year, Blue Velvet). My take is that whatever sensorial irl (in real life) event instigated this poem—intimacy, a meal, a trip to the zoo, a kid’s party replete with fizzy drinks, animal toys and cakes, or simply standing up from the couch with memories of Blue Velvet in mind—it set off a loaded and rapid thought process in the poet as to the purpose and process of art, and then he baulked at whether his purpose and process could ever achieve its desired effects (a perfectly natural and quotidian anxiety, if you ask any writer). Rather than reducing the sensorial complexity of this fleeting moment into a minimal lyric that reaches for some kind of pat truth Beesley rather condenses multiple effects into a complex almost-riddle of a structure that allows for a more fittingly complex read, because it insists on protean thought. Splits in the semantics occur at all junctures. It’s as if each enjambment gives us a new 90-degree turn, should we choose to let our minds wander off while our bodies continue on (on their own Segway perhaps).
Thinking spatially, enjambments can set a poem off into a construction of squares, an opening of grids. This is not to mention the recurring motif of squares throughout Jam Sticky Vision (windows, frames, fields, floors, tables, boxes, pages and prose poems themselves—the squares we arrange things in, the windows and pages we travel through). To use a transport metaphor for how the concept of enjambment can open up the grid of a poem: if you want to drive home the same way every time, you can, but there are other ways, and even if you do take the same route, you’ll still be subject to changeable traffic conditions at each junction, and on each differing journey. There’s a great degree of juggling involved in this kind of ‘open’ writing, in terms of making a poem balance, in terms of allowing more than one route through the poem, routes that don’t seem too boring or too blocked. Enjambment is an important technique that can render a poem kaleidoscopic, and is often the key to tracking the movements of a poet’s mind. Though it’s rarely implemented to its full extent in most contemporary free verse, in Beesley’s lineated poems, enjambment is used to satisfying effect.
Speaking of balance, there’s a poem in Jam Sticky Vision called ‘On Balance’, which turns out to be a commentary on, or auto-review of, one of Beesley’s previous collections of poems, Balance (which was based on his travels to India): ‘India isn’t pure anecdote it crumbles in my telling like a poor motor.’ Once the notion of intertextuality is grasped, the poem can be read conceptually as not just a meta-commentary but as a poem about the seeking of balance more generally in the writing of a poem, of balance in a sequence of poems, and of balance across an oeuvre, or as the poem puts it, of ‘articulat(ing) texture.’
At almost every turn in Jam Sticky Vision there is meta-commentary on the writing of poems, although it’s mostly understated and wrapped up in Beesley’s own descriptions, observations and anecdotes of the surrounding world. Take these, for instance:
Every morning I write for 15 minutes in a cafe on the edge of the inarticulate museum.
I hope to return to the game but it has trivialised to the point of real importance.
It is hard to create through new pain. Old pain buffers.
… the tail of his shirt spilling with flame if you put flame into a poem it will help. Help.
I turn away and search the room for a precise flower arrangement.
Moving from the metapoetic to the meta-ekphrastic, in ‘After Norwegian Wood’—a provisional, sketchy, impressionistic take on watching Tran Ahn Hung’s film in the cinema—there is an inspired conclusion that turns the poem, in a surprisingly offhand way, from lineated verse into a visual poem:
swimming trunks capsicum they simultaneously lift back out of the pool in slo mo
As the book progresses, more and more poems seem to literally and/or conceptually split in two. There are four diptychs: ‘Scene’, ‘Sitcoms’, ‘Two Shorts’ (previously published in Balance), and ‘Unwelcome Lycra / Portrait of a Patron with a Straw, Loafer’. And, like the last title, there are multiple single poems whose titles alone suggest two perspectives to their madness: ‘Your Margin, My Mahjong’, ‘The Australian Double’, ‘She Came in Through or The Bathroom Window’, ‘Op Shop’, ‘Peacock Peacock’, ‘Double Portrait, Cornflake Sunset’, ‘Split in the Table’, ‘Black and Brown Blues’, ‘Ears Scrunched/Up Paper’, ‘Words such as Ordinary or Ordinate (Constraint)’, and ‘Tamarisk/Astor’. This suggests, to me, an overarching poetics of the pun. Beesley is particularly interested in words that split in two (and more) directions, and in how form and content, no matter how close they can be brought together, will always resist synergy—as language inherently resists synergy due to its being a system of representation, of signs.
Beesley’s doubling thematics are further evidence of his penchant for ekphrasis. As with diptychs in the visual arts—paintings on two hinged panels offering differing perspectives on whatever scene is at hand—so too with the diptych poems of Jam Sticky Vision: see ‘Unwelcome Lycra / Portrait of a Patron with a Straw, Loafer’ for two uncomfortable experiences of ordering food. Other diptychs, ‘Sitcoms’ and ‘Scene’, operate like split screens. In ‘Sitcoms’, the first part revolves around a woman—‘divorce. an argument out of wife’—while the second part revolves around a man on a highway, ‘tangling himself / in the glovebox’. In ‘Scene’, we’re presented with two scenes, each with similarly bizarre imagery. The first is indoors: ‘the hourglass on the hour / and the owl stepped like a slow horse / into the kitchen’; the second outdoors: ‘over-inflating jumping castles / wheeze into clowns’ / fanta-coloured hair’. Each offers a ‘detail’ of some larger picture hinted at in the two strange subtitles of the poem: ‘Shone in the Middle of Norway’, and ‘An Ear Out of the Wheat and Right Into T/his Moment’.
As with John Ashbery, Beesley’s titles can be non sequiturs—so far removed from the contents of the poems it’s hard to see the connection. But we do make connections, however tenuous, because we’re drilled to seek out meaning in language: ‘One thing follows another awning on the event horizon’, as poem ‘Broken Onset Circles’ begins, moving on to ideas about perception, and how one’s perception is often shifting and being shifted. Trying to fathom the horizon (‘itself is a distant fact is an awning is an open window’), the speaker has the carpet grass pulled ‘from under me like a wrung-out bed sheet’.
The horizon as circle is a startling though nonetheless correct observation. A poetry book is a kind of event horizon, in which poem after poem (event after event) line up ‘horizontally’. The book then (hopefully, perhaps, in the imagination of the writer, and sometimes the reader) comes full circle, or creates many circles within—broken offset circles, if you will. An example of this circular-horizon-as-structuring-principle in Jam Sticky Vision is how, in most cases, each poem links cannily to the next through an image, phrase or word. It’s a strange and fraught process, finding an order for a pile of poems written over an extended period of time—there are endless permutations, threads to tie up or leave hanging. Perhaps it’s a kind of string theory.
Stick with me on this … In ‘Your Margin, My Mahjong’, there are ‘exquisite sounds provided by night insects and traffic on the highway four kms away’ that the ‘I’ of the poem refuses to sit and listen to. These insects are remembered by the speaker of the following poem, ‘The Australian Double’, a poem somewhat about emigrating to Australia at a young age: ‘The back of my mind with the first memories of this country—the air at night alive with insects.’ At the end of ‘The Australian Double’, the speaker, referring to his father, says: ‘I took his signature to mean originality in the first light of his undreamt future.’ This image of a written signature is taken up in the next poem, ‘She Came In Through or The Bathroom Window’: ‘His signature tied her to / the oven and went drinking, / calmly.’ The window of the title (a title alluding to The Beatles’ song ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’) is then carried through into the next poem, ‘Broken Onset Windows’. The horizon becomes ‘an open window’, and by extension, and in my reckoning, the book becomes an open window too, as with each poem inside. Seemingly disparate words, sounds, images, ideas, themes, and events connect across the poems and become like the one-dimensional particles of string theory—they begin to vibrate. Poems merge and resonate with each other—we can see and travel through one to any other.
Remember Beesley’s opening lines, which are about the overlapping of poem, thought, dream— ‘It’s much like the last one’. These interconnections deepen further into the book, and suitably with oceanic imagery. The poem ‘Carriages’ ends:
and the sun follows in their profession, unquestioning like a dream within a dream, the grandfather’s complexion rising and falling in him through his life, lived in this shop, by the relentless fact of the sea.
and then the poem ‘The Master’, which is ‘(after the 2012 film)’, takes up this imagery, but with relentless rhythmic waves of repetition and variation, in a kind of absurd sound poem best evoked live, but also worth experiencing on the page for its anaphora and layout. The line ‘cabbages & the sea’ begins as a refrain but is immediately queered into ‘the colour of cabbages & the sea in PT’ (PT being Paul Thomas Anderson, the director). This phrase is further separated, added to, twisted and estranged, alluding to the process of watching the film (‘The blue green sea & sixteen minutes later…’) and to its after-effects on the watcher (‘In the cab / In the cab / In the cab’), to eventually become:
The colour of aftershave & the majority of blue skies on cloudless
Cabbage coloured days & the seas infused beaches &
Cabbage coloured uniforms & the sea
Announcements & cocktails
before the poem finally concludes with the simple repetition of ‘New Zealand / New Zealand / New Zealand / New Zealand / New Zealand / New Zealand / New Zealand / New Zealand’, a knowing punch-line that mocks the overload of imagery (used not only in films but in tourism ads) of the land of the long white cloud.
‘The Master’ is also a poem that ekes every sensory possibility from the words ‘cabbages’ and ‘sea’. There is often a complicating of sensory experience in the poems of Jam Sticky Vision because it’s not like we only use one sense at a time. Most evocations of the senses in literature, for reasons of clarity of expression and concept, concentrate on one or two senses at a time, but Beesley juxtaposes them all together: ‘diluted through the streets confettied with the smell of coriander and muffler fume.’ Here—and often—sight, sound, smell, touch and taste commingle. Some would call it synaesthesia; I’d say hyperrealism.
Observations of the quotidian are at the heart of Beesley’s poetry, and his observations have an equal sense of wonder and the absurd: ‘I notice a spoon in her hair’. These unusual moments revel in a knowing awkwardness (‘you’re hosing felled banana / cake off Maxine’s lap’), yet they also create fleeting instances of clarity for the reader. We see the mind of the poet in motion (‘blood dripping from his ears—no … tomato-red headphones’) and it reaffirms our sense of our own consciousness, our own awkwardness, that noticing-yourself-being-in-the-moment-ness of existence, which is also a kind of meta-detachment, seeing yourself thinking about someone else who is thinking about how they are seeing the world.
Vision is important to Beesley’s poems, not least to their methods of ekphrasis and observation, but also to their odd prescience. When I was reading Jam Sticky Vision, I found multiple uncanny moments that coincided with my actual life experiences, two of which are simple enough to explain here: 1) When reading the poem ‘Drive’ and its lines that contain the title of the book (‘Is it an expression of moodlift or / takeoff fortified with Russian silver cornerstone we / arrive at and decide to keep inside a jamsticky vision?’), I was in a plane that was literally taking off; and, 2) When I came to read ‘Black and Brown Blues’ and its mention of an American cult band—‘listening to Royal Trux on rotation at the rink’—I was taken aback because I had only that morning learnt about the band, having read a retrospective article about them while scrolling through Facebook. I know it’s purely coincidental, but I like the idea that a poet like Beesley, who dabbles in chance, error, puns, and the ephemeral, is able to strike prescient notes. One could also explain this away by saying that these kinks in time, these ‘coinkidinks’—to use a childish term that I think suits Beesley’s poems—occur because of the making strange and thus the awareness that language is at once multiple and arbitrary, that it can create further coinkidinks when jammed into the seams of a reader’s space-time fabric.
To end the book, Jam Sticky Vision culminates in the ten-part sequence of prose poems, ‘How Will I Know When I’m Home?’ Written during Beesley’s residency at the Wheeler Centre, each prose poem documents the morning journey to his writing desk—waking, remembered dreams, breakfast with family or on the run, coffee, and the train trip into the city with all its observations of people coupled with the literature he takes on the train. In Beesley’s style—anecdotal, imagistic, impressionistic, filmic cut-up, liminal, half-awake, surreal, hyperreal, with the blurring of senses and sentences—the prose poems literally become trains of thought and, presuming that Beesley then spent the time at his desk writing/recounting these quotidian morning journeys, a demonstration of memory recreating itself:
A double knot in my dream. I had a double. Absolutely on the train I could see the morning’s poem in a series of scissor images and was sure it would use the scenes as remembered on the free early spacious train but, here, mid-morning, they don’t play that way at all. There are no seams. It has adhered to a memory …
Across the ten poems, memory becomes ‘no memory’—’I don’t even recall’—the experience of days slipping into and away from each other cleverly evoked through repetition and variation. The morning train trips become the ideal fodder for Beesley to discover and rediscover wonder in the mundane. The poems are more clearly autobiographical than any of the previous poems in the book, as they mention his partner ‘Z’ and their son Ari. Also, as a newish parent myself, I found that the descriptions of interrupted early morning sleep—of settling and re-settling a toddler, and of the subsequent difficulty but absolute necessity of waking up first thing to tend to breakfast and all manner of morning rituals—ooze with that irl feeling. But the poems of ‘How Will I Know When I’m Home?’ are more than simply autobiographical. Their ‘convex prose’—their overt writing-about-writing-but-in-an-oddly-everyday-accessible-way—ties the trickier strings of the book together, and brings these blocks, these squares of prose, around full circle.
Luke Beesley, Balance (Whitmore Press, 2012)
Luke Beesley, Jam Sticky Vision (Giramondo, 2015)
Luke Beesley, New Works on Paper (Giramondo, 2013)
Raymond Roussel, New Impressions of Africa (translated by Mark Ford, Princeton University Press, 2012)