The physics of light: Michelle Cahill reviews Paul Kane’s poetics
A Slant of Light
by Paul Kane
Reviewed by Michelle Cahill
Paul Kane’s collection of Australian poems, A Slant of Light concerns itself with motion and matter, the visible spectrums. In this slim, modest volume, poems from Work Life, and the earlier Drowned Lands, as well as new poems are luminously arranged by dialectic turns. There are so many influences and traditions underpinning this work, yet it speaks to a reader with simplicity and clarity, so that one comes not merely to enjoy, but to value its irony and its philosophical refinement.
The physical and metaphysical properties of light and its objects thematically link these verses. At least two themes familiar to readers of Emily Dickinson are inferred by the book’s title: the circularity of truth and the disquiet of death, of loss and mourning. It is the “internal difference/Where the meanings are” which forms disturbing tensions that lie beneath the surface of poems about landscape, travel, friendship, family and loss.
“South Yarra,” the book’s opening poem, distinguishes light from shadow, reality from dream, as it describes the passing of time in the speaker’s study. Like doubt, the light takes no form of its own, other than objects it falls upon. The speaker’s book is illuminated, “the cyclamen luxuriates,” a blank wall is “blinding.” Materiality is evident in the careful choice of diction; the optic process of “accommodation” renders possible the gaze, but also there is a syllogistic inference being made about the waking experience and the dream, both of which in their shared similarity lay claim to reality. The apparent simplicity of the poem belies its lyric ability to unravel complexity.
Kane’s choice of “Plastic explosive on Toorak Road’ to follow the opening poem reinforces to the reader that his concerns are with quantities that can be measured. Here the charge that alters matter is scandalous but the object is simulacra: the scene, depicting a mannequin being dismantled in a Toorak shop and voyeuristically watched by a young man, evokes an unexpected emotion in the saleswoman:
She begins dismembering:
first an arm, then another, lies on the ground.
With a tenderness that perplexes her, she holds
a head in her lap. She could almost cry.
Intimacy, vulnerability and cruelty are eclipsed by an intentional ambiguity in the scene. The poem is subtle yet deeply disturbing, giving force to feelings beyond the armoury of appearance, hinting too, at dissatisfaction with the simulated world. That the speaker is somehow complicit in this, yet twice distanced, watching the watcher, deepens this fissure.
Kane’s poetics test the tensions between abstract and real matter, between external and eternal, and what that word might mean. His interest in landscape, place, in the physical nature of appearance situates a modernist aporia, “an alien shore,” an impasse in which truth and knowledge may be questioned rationally, or empirically, or with transcendental idealism rather than through deconstruction or mystic leaps. A poem like “In the Penal Colony” outlines the constructions of normative ethics, which oversimplify our existential restrictions
We are everywhere in chains, long before
this bondage confirms it
An unsentimental taking of terms, which extend beyond colonial or philosophical demarcations, is used to define entrapments “ beyond mere justice or injustice.” There is hardness and tenderness entwined, as “we tend to these machines lovingly.” Here, as elsewhere, salient use is made of the third person plural pronoun to imply a shared consciousness, in which nations and stories might converse. Kane’s unadorned style is beautifully wrought as a masculine music relying on assonance, puns, repetitions and a matter-of-fact tone:
The writs, by all rights, are the very terms
we endure with our bodies, upon our bodies.
We will be free one day, when we are as nothing.
If a Platonic or pre-Platonic ideal is imaginatively tested in this poem, other poems are more skeptical of knowledge. “Black Window” adopts the more Kantian perspective that only through appearances can we know ourselves:
we half-believe and half ignore.
Turn again says the room, but this time
vanish into what you are doing
that you may be seen for what you do
So the disparate elements of reality remain unreconciled, hope appearing like a sign, “a narrow band of light” in the existential darkness. Kane executes his prose poems very beautifully; one can observe traces of Romantic introspection in the movement as description leads to meditation and colloquy. But he makes this unique, tempering it with a critique of the light to which he alludes:
Were it not for all our cruelty,
we might live in grace, as hatred is darkness,
and darkness the absence of light.
We cannot get behind this world, only
deeper into it, until at last inside out its strangeness
is revealed and every prospect, every certainty
we thought we knew, turns foreign to us,
and fresh, like that band of light and those
This, from “Hard Light in the Goldfields,” seems to convey recognition that self, object and phenomenon are entwined. Despite the poem’s intellectual discipline one is aware of intuition, the poetic ego being subordinate to that incident between inner and outer worlds, which drives the poem towards passion.
Correspondences are drawn between aesthetics and ethics, that “grace” which eludes us. I read this as a secular slant, traces of which are found in many other poems. One delightful verse, “An Invitation,” evokes a hierarchy in terms of situation and conduct, from the low lying lands of Talbot to Mt Glasgow where the future “presides,” and where the reader is invited to join for coffee and lemon cake. The harshness of rural life, of drought, solitude, and desperation provides metaphysical reflections, which are eloquently voiced, rather than being maverick in language or compacted in craft. The wilderness is stark in “Kakadu Memory,” where ekphrasis establishes an anti-pastoral space from an abstract landscape:
The bleakness has yielded up desert colours
and the emptiness fills with bird song.
Nostalgia is replaced with despair; even the grasses “desperate…/ for moisture and forgiveness.” Menace is frequently hinted at; and in a poem like “On the Volcano” the biological order is metonymic of social hierarchies, and their implications of power:
I wouldn’t want to be a rodent on this
mountain, or anything low on the food chain.
We live among elements, any one of which
could take us in a moment.
Here, as in Emily Dickinson’s poems, ambivalence, the distinct angle between verbal style and subject creates strong psychological realities. A resisted threat is suggested. Such tonal manipulations are the hallmark of Kane’s poetics. A metaphysician who entertains ethics, and who at times employs theological tropes, his wit is a sign of his attachment to the world.
Transition, the relativity of time, the diurnal cycle, the Augustinian circle, the wave properties of light, are the physical principles on which Kane bases his eulogies. There’s a distillation informed by Emerson’s understanding that
The light is always identical in its composition, but it falls on a great variety of objects, and by so falling is first revealed to us, not in its own form, for it is formless, but in theirs; in like manner, thought only appears in the object it classifies.
The eulogies leave vivid and unassuming images of a person’s life. Some, like “Third Parent” and “Dear Margie” praise close relatives and friends, while others like “Dawn At Timor” are addressed to poet friends. Jahan Ramazani has described the transhistorical and transcultural sources of elegy, a genre steeped in formality, ritual and convention, pastoral and Puritan. Ardent yet plainly poised in their contemplation, Kane’s elegies insert a cross-cultural episteme into a national context. Movement bids the poet to “alien shores,” to “foreign seas,” where the perspectives he encounters are both a “common ground,’ and then, in mourning, “all the circumference/ of a life without the centre.” These perspectives, which intersect the local with the timeless, are relevant not merely for Australian readers but for a ‘transnationalist’ poetics, dare I mention that dangerously porous term.
And yet, the diasporic identity seems essential for the particular, inventive space of a poet who probes the disparities between reality and abstractions. For the diasporic or expatriate writer the absence of home or place may exert equal if not greater force on the imagination than home or place itself. Such liberal perspectives in Australian literature are valuable for their alterity and their cultural difference. They shed light on the way in which we see ourselves, re-classifying our literary identity.
Not strictly a modernist, not merely a Romantic, nor a transcendentalist, Kane’s work eludes easy classification. His poetics remind me of the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, grounded as they are in historical and philosophical awareness, ironic and polished in their forms, yet without the scaffolding of craft or the density of thought. Pleasing for their clarity, eloquence, and fine modulations of tone these poems are gentle in their ethical suggestions. They bring to our Australian landscapes new and vital physical and metaphysical reflections.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Portable Emerson, “The Transcendentalist.” Bode, Carl & Cowley, Malcolm, Eds. NY: Penguin, 1979. 92-93
Kane, Paul. Drowned Lands University of South Carolina, 2000
Kane, Paul. Work Life. NY: Turtle Point Press, 2007
Ramazani, Jahan. “Nationalism, Transnationalism, and the Poetry Of Mourning.” The Oxford Handbook Of The Elegy Ed Karen
Weisman. NY: OUP 2010. 601-619
MICHELLE CAHILL writes poetry and fiction, which has appeared in Blast, World Literature Today and Transnational Literature. She graduated in Medicine and in the Humanities, and she is an editor for Mascara Literary Review.