Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Instead of insults

[I'm submitting this piece to the Scoop Review of Books, but I thought I'd put it up here as well. You can find another response to Napoleon Swings over at the blog of Jack Ross.]

Jen Crawford, Napoleon Swings, Soapbox Press, Auckland, 2009.

Jen Crawford had intended to launch her Soapbox Press chapbook Napoleon Swings at Auckland’s Forde’s Bar, which has proved over the last year to be a fine venue for literary events. Along with its large fireplace, its shelves of books, its detuned piano, its chessboards, and its cheap beer, Forde’s boasts a relaxed and amiable publican, who would rather listen carefully to poetry than count his takings. Unfortunately, Mr Forde can sometimes be a little too relaxed, and when Jen and her supporters turned up on a rainy Sunday afternoon for the pre-arranged launch party they found that he had forgotten to meet them.

After some quick consultations Jen and Michael Steven, the proprietor of Soapbox Press, decided to move the launch to Galbraiths, a spacious but expensive alehouse which always opens on Sundays. Galbraiths is located at the city end of Mt Eden, close to the offices of TV 3 and the Sunday Star Times, and it seems to attract many of Auckland’s better-paid, higher-profile journos. It’s hard not to overhear arguments about editorial lines and advertising revenue as you queue to pay nine dollars for a skinny glass of Munich Lager in the pub’s main room.

After Steven and Crawford’s negotiating skills won us the use of one of Galbraith’s back rooms, we sat between the huge fermentation vats of the pub’s brewery and the flapping doors of its toilets and listened to Jen read a few poems from Napoleon Swings. She had to cope with a series of boozers elbowing their way past her to the bogs, but her voice found a nice pitch, midway the deep bass hum of the fermenter and the shrill flushing of the toilets.

After Jen had finished I headed for the bar, where I found myself standing beside a neckless bull-faced man with bloodshot, slow-moving eyes. I recognised him as one of the journalists that make Galbraiths their habitat, but I couldn’t recall his name. The man wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his pinstripe suit and stared at me for some time, trying to focus his vision. ‘I thought you guys were a cult or something, holding that meeting’, he slurred. ‘But you’re not a cult are you, you’re having a pub quizz, aren’t you?’

I pondered how to respond to this interpretation of our little gathering beside the bogs, before deciding that the pub quizz was probably a necessary illusion. If I told my friend that I was helping to launch a chapbook of poetry, he’d probably consider me a particularly dangerous cultist. There are few things more terrifying to a journalist than poetry. Literature and journalism might seem to have something in common, and perhaps they did, in the era of Orwell and Hemingway, but they seem ill-matched today, in the era of the twenty-four hour news cycle, the five second soundbite, and the relentless pursuit of sensation by even the most ‘serious’ newspapers.

Compared to the reporters who chase after ambulances and the editorialists who are able to pronounce confidently on every ‘burning issue’ after a five minute google search, poets must seem hopelessly recalcitrant. Poetry – good poetry, anyway – refuses cheap sensation and easy judgement, and seeks to explore the nuances of language and human experience. Good poetry is the opposite of contemporary journalism. It was probably best, then, to let my sozzled friend believe that Jen was conducting a pub quizz.

A few days after the strange ceremony at Galbraiths, I opened Crawford’s chapbook – I’d spilt four dollars’ worth of Munich Lager over the cover, but the text had survived – and noticed that the collection was dedicated to somebody called Debbie Gerbich. Sometimes the dedication at the beginning of a book has little extrinsic significance – it might be a thankyou note to a tirelessly tolerant partner, or an apology to a less successful writer – but at other times it can offer a way ‘in’ to the book by giving a clue about the author’s worldview and intentions.

The name Debbe Gerbich sounded oddly familiar, so I googled it, and discovered a string of news articles written in 2007. In March of that year, Gerbich had approached the Sunday Times to explain that she’d been involved in some creepy but ostensibly consensual group sex sessions that involved Brad Shipton, a former cop who had been accused of rape by several women. Even after being convicted, Shipton had denied being a rapist, insisting that he was a loyal husband, a good family man, and a pillar of his community; Gerbich remembered him differently. In the aftermath of Gerbich’s revelations Shipton’s wife left him.

Gerbich had insisted that the Sunday Times use her as an anonymous source, but the rival Herald on Sunday newspaper discovered and printed her name, and the rest of the media quickly made her biography into a news story. When Gerbich contacted the Herald on Sunday’s assistant editor Stephen Cook to complain about the destruction of her privacy, he fired back e mails which demanded that she cooperate with his investigations into her sexual history. One of them has been quoted on the internet:

We have made enquiries today into your background and have turned up several interesting leads. I suggest it's in your interest to discuss those with me. We also have photographs of you both, I am in town for the next hour and can be contacted on … if you think you can continue to hide in the shows you are sadly mistaken. We will be running a story which names you this weekend and I would obviously like to talk to you about some of the information we have in our possession about you. This includes details of your conviction, your financial problems, your suicide attempt and your interest in bondage and discipline.

Gerbich had psychiatric problems, some of which seemed to stem from sexual abuse she had suffered as a teenager, and she found it hard to cope with the criticism she received from the media and the public in the weeks and months after the Herald on Sunday revealed her identity. She was called a slut, and ridiculed for claiming that her encounters with Shipton were consensual and yet still abusive. In June 2007 Debbie Gerbich committed suicide. The Herald pronounced her passing a ‘tragedy’, but did not reflect upon its own connection to the event.

The story of Debbie Gerbich’s last months tells us a great deal about our media, but it also tells us about a type of thinking which is widespread in our society. We like to think about concepts like guilt and innocence, consent and non-consent, in individualistic and absolutist terms – we like to think that people accused of crimes are either wholly guilty or wholly innocent, that sex is either consenting or non-consenting, and that people must be judged as individuals, without reference to the social structures and belief systems in which they are enmeshed. It is as though the behaviour of an individual human being can be isolated and minutely examined, in the way that a chemical or a microbe can be isolated and examined in a laboratory.

Debbe Gerbich was ridiculed because she refused to accept the sort of black and white, absolutist thinking we like to use when we judge human behaviour. She acknowledged that she consented to her encounters with Shipton, but said that she nonetheless found them abusive and traumatic. She questioned whether her consent could be adequately judged in isolation from the sexual abuse she suffered as a teenager, from the chauvinist ideology that legitimated Shipton’s behaviour, and from the unequal power relationship between the wealthy ex-cop and the vulnerable young woman.

As I reconstructed the last months of Debbie Gerbich’s life, the name Stephen Cook nagged at me. I’ve never spent much time following the fortunes of the Herald’s senior writing staff, but the man’s name seemed familiar. I fished the previous day’s paper out of the rubbish bin, flipped to page four, and discovered an article about a complaint brought to the Employment Relations Authority by a former assistant editor of the Herald on Sunday:

A sacked newspaper journalist has claimed his editor believed rumours he was selling illicit drugs from office toilets and was linked to criminal gangs. Stephen Cook was before the Employment Relations Authority yesterday, appealing his dismissal in December from the APN-owned Herald on Sunday.

ERA member Rosemary Monaghan conducted a hearing in which editor Shayne Currie justified his actions against Cook. Cook, an associate editor, was at home sick on September 5 when drug squad detectives went to the newsroom wanting to speak with him. Currie was told by the officers that Cook had been picked up in their surveillance of an address. He had been to the house five or six times...

Ms Monaghan asked Cook why he believed he was suspended. He replied: "Most of the talk centred around far-fetched assertions I was a major Auckland drug dealer. There were also claims I was involved in a $5-million P ring allegedly being run out of Paremoremo Prison." He was rumoured to be involved with the Head Hunters gang. "And I was selling P out of the toilets of the
Herald on Sunday."

I might sound like a libertarian, but I must admit that I don’t particularly care whether Stephen Cook was hanging out with the Headhunters, or even making the Herald’s toilets into a retail outlet. Hunter S Thompson’s dubious example has inspired more than a few journalists to try to establish their street cred by hanging out with bikies or other accredited ‘toughs’, and Cook wouldn’t be the first worker to bolster his income by running an illicit small business in his downtime at the office.

What I find far more remarkable, and far more damning, is the sheer chutzpah implicit in Cook’s complaints about the invasion of his privacy by the police and his employers. Is the man not able to appreciate how he violated Debbie Gerbich’s privacy back in 2007, with such disastrous consequences? If he doesn’t feel sorry for the part he played in destroying the woman’s life, can he at least appreciate the irony of the situation he now finds himself in? How can he feel victimised, without remembering his own victim?

I’ve always had a weakness for coincidences, so it’s perhaps no surprise that I began to wonder whether the drunken bull-headed man I had met at Galbraiths might have been Stephen Cook. If he had been Cook, and I had known about his role in the life and death of Debbie Gerbich, and about Jen’s concern with the subject, would I have invited him to come and join us at the back of the pub, beside the fermentation vats, to read the poems that Jen dedicates to his victim? What, if anything, might Cook be able to learn from these poems?

Jen Crawford’s poetry questions, even if only implicitly, the black and white categories and yes/no questions that hacks like Stephen Cook deal in every day of their working lives. Crawford’s refusal of the faux-certainties of the hack journalist is found in the texture of her poems - in their lurches from first to third person, from past to present tense, from a tone of joy to a tone of alarm. Crawford’s poems are complex and difficult, because life is complex and difficult.

The first stanza of the poem ‘viaduct’ is typical of Crawford’s style:

a reward, a hand on the back on the small of the back.
walking out to a car. a night, a tiredness, a whisper.
your tiredness and that you did well.
building a wall around it. like a harbour with boats clinking.
like a sky, placed light and orange clouds.
the clubs and their liquid shout clinking.
your tiredness, your reward at the small of your back.

‘viaduct’ is at once vividly detailed and disturbingly ambiguous. Consider, for instance, the mysteries of the first two lines in the poem. Is the hand ‘on the small of the back’ supporting, pushing, or even punching the woman at the centre of the poem? Is the ‘reward’ the woman receives a token of endearment, like a bunch or roses or a ring, or a piece of abuse? Crawford shows us that the language and gestures which express affection can be creepily close to those that express anger and affirm control. Is it always possible, the poet might be asking, to separate these things completely?

The sound and shape of Crawford’s lines reinforce their eerie ambiguity. Crawford’s first line, for instance, contains fourteen syllables, but only five beats. Because of their relative rarity and their spacing, the stressed syllables may remind us of an aggressive voice breaking into the speech of a softer voice. The repetition in ‘the hand on the back on the small of the back’ makes the line stagger, in the way that a body staggers when it is suddenly pushed from behind.

If ‘viaduct’ is one of the more accessible pieces in Napoleon Swings, then ‘essay’ is one of the most difficult. The poem consists of a series of prose paragraphs which are internally consistently, but which make no obvious sense together:

Kneeling at the end of the bed, holding his cock in so it didn't slip out of her, I felt furious, sick, hot and patient.

The toreadors in the corridor with the dirt floor conducted their interviews of their selves speaking all at once. We had such long teeth...

And after the lake wake waited. Water and light occurred together. On the near shore whenever a wave ended a car on the far shore. This I claimed to have invented. Her brother and sister wouldn't shut up and so we got asked, nicely, to leave...

The whole incredibly hot day at the beach. Didn't feel very good. Under my hand a tiny plastic soldier. I put it in my pocket for the paratrooper but one of his legs snapped off then the other.

The startling details of Crawford’s first paragraph remind us of the theme and atmosphere of ‘viaduct’, but the paragraphs that follow it soon become a puzzle. Neither a narrative nor a linear argument can be teased from them, and their images do not seem related in any easily-discernable way. Some critics would affix the dreaded ‘postmodernist’ label to ‘essay’, and proclaim that the poem is some sort of complicated game in which words and images are moved about like decontextualised counters, but there are alternatives to this sort of valourisation of triviality.

We might ask, for instance, whether Crawford’s poem is really so different to some of the stranger sequences of thoughts we have every day, in the interstices of time when our minds are not detained by work or hack journalism or Harry Potter novels. The Marxist philosopher Bertell Ollman, who has made a career out of thinking about thinking, uses the concept of ‘abstraction’ to capture the way in which our minds isolate one aspect of a complex subject as a sort of ‘sample’ to investigate. The world, Ollman argues, is far too complex for us to ‘think’ whole, in the same way that an ox is too large for us to swallow whole. We have to consume reality piece by piece:

We "see" only some of what lies in front of us, "hear" only part of the noises in our vicinity, "feel" only a small part of what our body is in contact with, and so on through the rest of our senses. In each case, a focus is established and a kind of boundary set within our perceptions...

In listening to a concert, for example, we often concentrate on a single instrument or recurring theme and then redirect our attention elsewhere. Each time this occurs, the whole music alters, new patterns emerge, each sound takes on a different value, etc. How we understand the music is largely determined by how we abstract it. The same applies to what we focus on when watching a play, whether on a person, or a combination of persons, or a section of the stage. The meaning of the play and what more is required to explore or test that meaning alters, often dramatically, with each new abstraction...

Ollman argues that, most of the time, we use ‘abstractions’ which express ‘bourgeois’, ‘commonsense’ views of the world – the sort of clichés and stereotypes that lazy journalists like Stephen Cook happily recycle. Sometimes, though, we happen upon ‘dialectical abstractions’ which bring together aspects of reality that are normally kept separate in our thinking. ‘War on Terror’ is a bourgeois abstraction, created by George Bush’s speechmakers and recycled endlessly in the media and on talkback radio; ‘War of Terror’, on the other hand, is a is a subversive, dialectical abstraction, because it implicitly asserts that the people pursuing Osama bin Laden have more than a little in common with him. When a graphic designer sticks a tattooed Maori face beside a geyser and a snow-capped mountain on a poster advertising New Zealand to tourists, he is recycling a bourgeois abstraction; when Shane Cotton paints a severed tattooed head floating alongside a fighter plane and a flock of exotic birds, he is creating a dialectical abstraction.

‘essay’ can be read as an attempt to create a series of dialectical abstractions, by bringing together things that are normally kept apart in our minds. Through all its changes in tense and context, the piece proceeds in the first person. As we read paragraph after puzzling paragraph, we cling to this fact, and struggle to treat the poem as the expression of a single individual. Because of its sexual subject matter, adult slang, and self-consciousness, we are inclined to treat the first paragraph as the report of an adult, but the naive tone and simple, sometimes defective syntax of some of the later sections of the poem suggest that a child, or children, may have spoken or written them. The last paragraph of the poem purports to step outside of human consciousness altogether:

Very shortly we were these ants, and we moved back and forth for a long time. Between our nest. We knew where to go. Then we had to go there too, but this was really difficult. Many got confused and forgot what they were doing. Many of us vanished completely.

How are we supposed to interpret these sentences? Are they the attempts – the attempts of an intelligent child, perhaps – to imagine the ‘thoughts’ of an ant, or are the ‘ants’ actually people? By ‘abstracting’ very different experiences and reporting them in the first person, Crawford seems to want to make us think about the limits of the self, and of individual experience. ‘essay’ is mysterious, but then so are some of Shane Cotton’s finest paintings.

The last pieces in Napoleon Swings are excerpted from a poem called ‘epithalamium’. Before she read these excerpts at the launch of her chapbook, Jen said that ‘epithalamium’ is a poem that she hopes to continue writing for the rest of her life. An epithalamium is normally understood as a poem or song made to celebrate a marriage, and Jen was recently married; it would be futile, though, to expect this difficult, equivocal poet to indulge in anything as simple as a celebration. The excerpts from 'epithalamium' in Napoleon Swings are not concerned with the clichéd images of matrimony – the ill-fitting rings, the awkward kiss at the altar, the picket fence, the joint mortgage – but with private, mysterious moments of intimacy:

I needed to be tender in those
pre-revolutionary moments,
tender with that crackling, as
with the lonely thigh over
distortional stocking, as with the
hurt car bending on through hot
water, whispering to the
I hope people wake
up. I so hope people wake up.

If Crawford commits herself to anything in ‘epithalamium’, it is to remaining aware of the complexity of human experience, and of the challenges of presenting that experience adequately in words. If Stephen Cook insults language and experience with his pursuit of stereotype and sensation, then Crawford honours our words and our lives with her dedication to what is difficult and true.


Blogger Richard said...

This is a great report / review Scott. Jen has written some intense poetry possibly the most intense I have ever read by a NZ writer. Or perhaps any other in the world.

The Gerbich story is a tragedy.

You tie that story into the account of the reading brilliantly.

Poetry has a power as art and also as subversion.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

are all journalists so bad?

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Blogger Richard said...

No - of course not. There are very many good journalists.

7:21 pm  
Blogger Dr Jack Ross said...

This is a brilliant post, Scott. I guess I assumed that the reading and attempts at understanding Jen's book would take a long time, and so it was better just to get an encouraging word out there - but your example has heartened me to go deeper next time. I think you weave together the strands of analysis beautifully.

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