Parts of Speech

Shape-shifting exiles

Poetry Review - Jena Woodhouse

Parts of Speech

Angela Gardner
UQP Poetry Series 2007
91pp. RRP $24.95

Angela Gardner's poetry collection, Parts of Speech, winner of the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for an unpublished manuscript (2006), marks the debut of a polymorphic talent in a collection of poetic texts. The fact that the poet already has an impressive track record as a printmaker and visual artist has recently been acknowledged by the conferring of a Churchill Fellowship to enable her to pursue a project in New York and the UK in 2008, 'to investigate the establishment of a collaborative print/poetry small press for emerging practitioners'.

While the artefacts in Parts of Speech are constructed in language, they may also be inflected by the acuity and quality of vision, the awareness of structure and composition, that a visual artist can bring to bear on her subjects, working across art forms, and the possibilities of both internalised and articulated dialogue between complementary modes of perception that a binary creative background implies.

The implicit collaboration between Angela Gardner the visual artist and printmaker and Angela Gardner the poet crafts these poems with planes, perspectives and angles that highlight unexpected spatial, structural and linguistic relationships, so that

        Every edge casts a light
        so unobservably small
        so impossibly without dimensions
        Highly notated in micro tones
        though uncoupled
        from literal verisimilitude
                        (Time of flight)

The cross-referencing of energy fields and modes of perception produces textual synergies and creative syzygies that are perhaps differently mediated and nuanced from those to be found in the work of a creative practitioner whose sole medium is text. The titles of some individual poems point towards visual art forms as well as quantum physics, astronomy and other theoretical and applied fields: 'Celadon'; 'Notes for a day at The National Gallery'; 'Onlookers (Caravaggio in Fortitude Valley)'; '360 degrees'; 'Three positions acting on space'; 'The vision thing'; 'Lens and mirror'; 'Altazimuth'.

Parts of Speech is arranged in four sections: 'Notes for a day'; 'Twelve labours'; 'Post Industrial', and 'Three positions'.

Notes for a day

The first section, 'Notes for a day', opens with the poem 'Three hours out from Heathrow', and motifs of flight and gravity recur throughout the collection in poems such as 'The unobserved life', and, in relation to the skies, constellations and nebulae, in poems as diverse as 'Embedded' (about the invasion of Iraq in 2003) and 'A man of the clouds', which references a letter written by the English landscape painter, Constable. 

The extended poem, 'Notes for a day at The National Gallery', is a focused but whirlwind tour of sixty-six rooms of London's premier abode of art, in which the reader is made privy to the poet's observations, asides, musings and quirky comments on the exhibits. The details of discoveries and surprises reveal aspects of the observer as well as the observed. In room 65

           I admire all the reds

           and a fly mosca mosca

           landed on a hat

In noting the presence of the fly, are that small insect's compound eyes and three hundred and sixty degree vision also implied? This detail seems almost to hint at the titles and imagery of '360 Degrees' and other poems of the final section: 'The vision thing'; 'Lens and mirror'; 'Altazimuth'.

The freshness of the lengthy, aleatoric 'Notes' and their positioning near the beginning of the collection suggest that they may be read as an orientating device, a series of preliminary sketches for some of the themes and works to follow. After reading this piece, I found myself momentarily switching modes from time to time, experimenting with the notion of reading the poems in the collection as artefacts on exhibit in an imaginary gallery.

The first section closes with the poem, 'Twelve postcards', which conveys similarly vivid, fragmentary impressions from the streets outside the gallery, 'dispatches from the borders between chance and order', as the aleatoric element in art has been defined.

Twelve labours

Continuing the numerical keynote, the second section, 'Twelve labours', presents a fresh take on the labours of Hercules, who is characterised by the 'skaz' tone and style of his first-person account of events as a thug with attitude, shrugging off his reprise of the mythological Herculean labours as 'Simple really'. 'The twelve labours' is a magisterial work, a suite of twelve poems in which the audacity of the deeds is subverted by the nonchalance of the narrator.



   Anyway the trick is not entering the Underworld

   but getting away again

   I had to steal a dog

   or persuade him to come with me

   which he did with my hands around his throat

   Believe me I'm a good persuader.

   Not pretty but effective

   The best bit is while I was down there

   I met this good bloke

   and nearly married his sister

   Not his fault he was dead


   Okay now we get to the charge of cattle rustling


                       (The twelve labours)

Post Industrial

The poems in the third section 'Post Industrial', are   concerned with quotidian life and events in the contemporary world. In the opening poem in this section, 'Embedded', the energy of creative 'attack', in the sense pertaining to solo performance, and the destructive energy of military attack, collide and combust in a searing indictment of the airborne invasion of Iraq in 2003.

         Again they come to the ancient place

         without understanding

         such that another's misery may not touch them


         The Oil Ministry guarded as the library burns

         and the museum looted of seven thousand years

         Who will hear?


         Clearly we are not machines

         but inescapably a form of speech

         consigned now to indebtedness

'Embedded' is an excerpt from a longer work, 'Paradise and inferno'.

Other poems in this section include 'Physical Memory', written at Luna Park (Melbourne) on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz; 'Clean clothes', set in a laundromat, and 'Washington Avenue Bridge' (i.m. John Berryman).

Three positions

The fourth and final section of the collection takes its title from the poem 'Three positions acting on space' in which 'The domesticity/ of unanswered houses bleeds into the road'. The poems in this section perform elegant textual biopsies of space, vision, language, light, gravity, sometimes in moments of reflexivity, sometimes acting upon each other. Language passes through the prism of consciousness, the inquiring mind, in the extended poem, 'Parts of speech' the collection's title poem, and is refracted into its particles in the manner of light. Shape-shifting and the substitution of energy fields and elements prompts me to consider clouds as the ultimate aleatoric vehicle, and the intellectual structures, patterns and rhythms of observation at work and in play as, tentatively speaking, a sort of aleatoric paradigm (although this is probably a contradiction in terms) that may (or may not) be present in such poems as 'Notes for a day at The National Gallery'; 'Parts of speech' and 'Possible worlds'; not to mention 'Response' and a number of other poems in the collection.  

            His observatory drifts

            Cloud-rack marks his custom

            a study of clouds

            that rearrange themselves

            into fishbones

            and hooks in asymmetrical inscription

            the notation of the skies


            shape-shifting exiles

            their uncertain hold on rain

            windmill driving

            a cloud of sails

            those soft spoken voices

            upon a ground

            weighted with shadows


                    (A man of the clouds)

Gravitational shifts

As previously mentioned, the collection is interspersed with poems that allude to departures, arrivals, flight; gravitational shifts and an exponential displacement of consciousness and points of reference. But, warns the poet in the concluding lines of the penultimate poem:                       

             Be aware

             this is just imagination

             an emptiness

             equivalent to air travel                       

                          (Time of flight)   

This collection offers the reader glimpses into possible worlds that coexist with/ exist within the quotidian, 'the apparent world', leaving their fleeting impressions on the recording lens of the mind's eye in a perpetual process of dispersion and reconfiguration, epitomised by those 'shape-shifting exiles', the clouds, and echoed and paralleled on many planes of perception/ reception, where sound and sense are deconstructed, as are light and physical, visual form.

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